“I know there are problems with the roof. But we can’t spend any more of the endowment income. We have to save it for a rainy day,” declared the church treasurer, as water from the melting ice dam above the pastor’s office continued to drip on the spot where the pastor’s now-ruined computer and notebooks had been.
“We can’t let you transport client families to select used clothing. What if one of you had an accident and someone were injured? They’d take one look at this big church and sue us for a million dollars. They’ll just have to find their own way here,” said the chair of the planning committee as the Board of Deacons’ proposal was voted down.
“I’m sorry, but we can only provide food to families that have been approved by one of the social agencies we work with. You’ll have to get a recommendation from one of those agencies. You might try the Good Neighbors Pantry downtown; they might not screen recipients,” suggested the volunteer sitting in the doorway of a large room full of canned goods and kitchen staples.
“No, I’m afraid the church can’t give you money for gas so you can get to your parents’ home tonight. It’s too bad your husband cancelled your debit card as soon as you left after he hit you. We used to have vouchers from a gas station up the road, but they closed, and now we don’t have anything,” said the volunteer at the reception desk, reaching into her own purse for a couple of twenty-dollar bills.
Why are we as churches so fearful? We’re afraid of using all of our resources, of being criticized or sued, of giving to those who might not be worthy or who might be operating a scam. We don’t want to be taken, to be vulnerable, to be made fools of, to risk making a mistake. But behind these everyday, ordinary fears lies a deeper and more damaging fear. We’re afraid of trusting, of not being in control, of turning over the consequences of our actions to God. And because of this fear, we operate out of a theology of scarcity rather than a theology of abundance.
Consider the example we claim to follow. The one time Jesus seems to have acted cautiously and prudently was the day he refused his mother’s request to provide more wine for the wedding guests at Cana because he felt that it wasn’t yet time to reveal himself. He refused, but then changed his mind and did as Mary requested. It seems to me that Jesus was tempted by a desire to control his self-revelation – a temptation he resisted in the cause of generosity and grace. Over and over again, Jesus takes risks in order to serve, in order to follow the call that begot the Incarnation. He heals the unclean, eats with sinners, reaches out to the oppressed and despised. He challenges doctrine and received wisdom, points out deceit, hypocrisy, and foolishness, and does nothing to protect himself from harm.
Jesus knows something we don’t seem to be able to take in. Jesus knows that God’s abundance is great enough for any need. When the disciples don’t see any way to feed the hungry multitude and are afraid that the crowd may become hostile, Jesus simply asks for whatever is available and starts passing it out. And there is enough to feed everyone, with plenty left over. What we see as a miracle, an exception to the normal laws of reality, is in fact the normal law of reality. There is enough. God’s world can provide for us all, if we allow it.
Our fear that there will not be enough, and our belief that we have to control our circumstances so that there will always be enough for us, lead us into grasping and greedy lives, as individuals and as churches. When we live out of a theology of scarcity that tells us to be careful, to make certain we are helping only those who are truly in need, to protect the church, to be good stewards (yes, even that), we are living lives of judgmental hoarding. In the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus is teaching us how to love our enemies, he points out that God makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends the rain (in desert Judea, a very great blessing) to fall on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). Who are we, to judge more rigorously than God who is worthy to receive our very limited gifts?
Part of the problem is that we want to define our giving in terms of the worthiness of the recipients. If there is a risk that we will be giving to the undeserving, then we prefer not to give at all. But real stewardship isn’t about those who receive our gifts. Real stewardship is about us, and our willingness to share God’s gifts with others. My friends chide me for giving money to people begging on the streets. Yes, I know that some of them may have more than I do, but it’s not about them. It’s about God’s urging me toward generosity that is simply giving, without asking how the gift will be used or whether the recipient deserves it. I’m the one receiving the message to share what I have. It’s all about my choice to hear that message. If God were to think of blessings the way we think of money, who would ever be worthy of a blessing? Not me!
The same message needs to be heard in our churches. When we as a church focus too much on saving for a rainy day, we may not recognize the waterfall coming through the roof. When we spend our time and effort making sure those who receive our generosity deserve it, we may be ignoring the starving or desperate people all around us. When we refuse to do what God is calling us to do because we might possibly be sued, we are being disobedient to that call.
A pastor I know has asked his church a question the congregation had never considered. For years, they have worried about the big old church building that is really larger than they need, but which they love dearly. They have a nice endowment, but hesitate to draw too heavily on the income for repairs, because they really believe there isn’t enough. Their pastor posed this question: “If the church building were to burn to the ground, would the church still exist? Could it continue?”
We need to ask ourselves more questions like that. If our church were to be sued for a million dollars, would the church still exist? If a tornado came down our street, could we still be church together? If we gave away half our income in mission, could we still operate as a church? If we gave away five or fifty thousand dollars a year to all the people who came in the door asking for money for food or gas or medicine, would we be worse off as a church?
One of the problems with fear is that it magnifies the consequences of risk. We become convinced that we will be destroyed if we make a mistake in taking a risk. And in that conviction, there is no room for trust in God. Not only do we let fear magnify the potential bad consequences of our actions, we forget that God will be with us in those consequences. Yes, there can be bad consequences, but God’s abundant love and grace will see us through them. Furthermore, we forget about the potential for the consequences to be good. When God calls us as churches to do certain things, we can trust God to ensure that the good will outweigh the bad in whatever happens.
God calls us to live abundantly, not to protect ourselves. That applies to us as individuals, and to us as churches. We are to share whatever we have, to give what is asked and more, to trust that God will be with us in whatever happens for good or ill. Our God is a prodigal, profligate God, flinging love and grace across the universe, forgiving without end. Can’t we trust that generosity and love? Aren’t we called to be just a little bit like that?