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Sermon | Ownership, Stewardship, Discipleship | September 11
Texts: Genesis 2:15-17; Genesis 14:17-24; Matthew 6:19-21
Speaker: Joel Miller
I recently came across a blurb about a church that uses the parking lot of a nearby business on Sunday mornings. That’s a pretty typical arrangement for churches in cities and older neighborhoods. Like ours. We benefit from the neighborliness of four such businesses between us and High Street - Clintonville Apartments, Central City Solutions, High Street Dental, and SMART Federal Credit Union. Some of you are parked in those spots this morning.
What made this other arrangement unique is that one Sunday a year folks from the church aren’t allowed to use the parking lot. Not because the business has a special event. But because the business owner wants to remind the church this isn’t actually their parking lot. So on a random Sunday every year, it’s off limits.
As inconvenient as this might be from the church’s perspective, I think this is a brilliant theological practice.
Take, for example, the story of the Garden of Eden. There, creation begins as ground and stream, with nothing yet alive. The Creator then forms out of the ground an earth-creature and breathes into their nostrils the breath of life. After which this is placed in a garden, Eden. Their purpose is to till and keep the garden. To take care of it on behalf of the Creator. In this garden there are many trees from which the human can eat. Except for one. That tree is forbidden.
Many commentaries have been written about this story, addressing the question any child might ask: Why would God create something and then make it off limits? I’m not saying this is the only answer or even the best answer.
But I am saying maybe the Creator and that business owner are on to something about the relationship these earth-creature humans tend to form with things, with possessions, including other people’s things. About how we make certain claims on things. The perils of ownership. Maybe one of the purposes of that seemingly-random off-limits tree was to remind the human that even the trees they had full access to weren’t actually theirs. Not in any absolute kind of way.
Throughout his ministry Jesus spends a surprising amount of time cautioning against possessions possessing the possessor. In one instance Jesus was approached by a wealthy young man wondering about how he could inherit eternal life and Jesus said, “All you have to do is believe in me, and you will have eternal life.” Just kidding. That’s not what Jesus said.
No. They talk about the commandments, and then, it says Jesus looked at him and loved him. And so, out of love, Jesus says this – and this is the First Nations Version: “Only one thing remains. Take all your possessions, invite the poor of your village to come, and have a giveaway. Then in the spirit-world above you will have many possessions waiting for you. Then leave everything behind and come, walk the road with me.” (Mark 10:21)
In another encounter the tax collector Zacchaeus pledges to give half his possessions away and repay four times back to anyone he has defrauded. Jesus’ response: “Today salvation has come to this house.”
In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19)
Mennonites and other Anabaptists speak often of having Jesus as our model for living - in regards to peace and nonviolence, but we do tend to de-emphasize his life as an itinerant without spouse or children with no home or significant possessions. A beautiful way of life, but not a model many folks go for.
A few years after my 33rd birthday I jokingly mentioned to a Mennonite pastor friend that now that I had outlived Jesus I didn’t know what I should do with my life. His deadpan response was that I should probably sit down with an Everence financial advisor and make sure I have a balanced investment portfolio. For those who don’t know Menno-speak, Everence is the financial stewardship agency of Mennonite Church USA.
We are indeed, as a whole, owners and possessors of things - things we track on paper and things we can touch. As a congregation we own a building with a not-quite-big-enough but still great-to-have parking lot. We have an annual budget and a first fruits pledging process and financial obligations. As individuals and households we own property and homes and cars and businesses. Whether or not we own all or any of those things, we own the things we fill them with like furniture and clothes – things we need, things we find useful or fun or beautiful. For ourselves and those for whom we are responsible. Very likely we could give away half our things, like Zacchaeus, and still have plenty to survive. Sometimes it feels like life would be a lot simpler if we did just sell it all and go walk the road with a master teacher.
Doing ownership and possessions well is no small task. It is a challenge, a practice inseparable from our spirituality. Which is to say it is inseparable from all other relationships seen and unseen.
One of the ancient practices in the biblical tradition related to ownership and possessions was the tithe, the 10%. Deuteronomy 14 instructs the Israelites to set aside 10% of their harvest each year and bring it to the temple. These were actual seeds that had been harvested, although if you didn’t want to haul it all to Jerusalem you could sell it locally and bring the money. The purpose wasn’t just to fill up the temple granaries and treasury. If you made the pilgrimage with that money in hand you were supposed to buy whatever you wish in Jerusalem – “oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire.” That’s word for word from Deuteronomy 14:26. The tithe, the 10th , was for eating with your extended family and rejoicing together in the holy city, with the caveat that if you encountered any landless folks along the way they got to join you in the feast. Every third year the 10th of the harvest did get set aside entirely and stored in the towns from which the landless and poor could have their fill – the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows. Kind of a massive food bank, social security, and recurring micro-grant program rolled into one.
These instructions occur right before those about the Sabbatical year when debts were forgiven. Like that practice, they were a built in mechanism for addressing economic imbalances, assuring that a health crisis or one bad harvest didn’t set in motion generational poverty.
The tithe was an annual practice of mandatory celebration, sharing and re-balancing. At its worst, I suppose it may have felt like a flat tax and required gratitude, which sort of loses its meaning. But at its best, the most important impact of the 10% would have been on how one lived with the 90% - holding it more as a gift to be stewarded than a possession to be hoarded. Like those trees in the garden – yours but not yours.
At different times the church has picked up this teaching of the tithe. At its worst, the tithe is a guilt-laden, heavy handed fundraising technique that asks the most of those least able to give.
I’m thankful to have been encouraged to tithe from a young age more in the spirit of gratitude, setting aside that 10% before you can even imagine it ever having been yours in the first place. More a matter of good accounting than charity. I have questioned lots of things I was taught and pretty much everything about the Christian faith, but never felt any need to question the value of tithing, although I have felt free to send it to more than just the church.
The life and mission of this congregation is one of the places we, together, give, whatever percentage that may be. And I’d like to focus in on one relatively new part of our church budget, one line item, that I think has a lot to say about our relationship to what we possess. Or at least, the relationship we aspire to have. Two years ago we voted – with surprisingly little friction – to include, within our church budget, money for reparations. Since then we’ve wondered whether that’s the terminology we want to be using, but the idea remains that we are committing funds each year, in the spirit of repairing harms. Something like that original idea of the tithe and Sabbatical year – to address economic imbalances - and not just bad harvests but stolen harvests. Harvests of wealth obtained through violence. The funds will be divided between local Black and Native-led organizations. We started at $5,000 with the intention adding another $5,000 each year until we reach $20,000 and then reassess. In 2023, the budget for the first fruits pledges we’re making now, we’ll be at $15,000. This is additional money on top of other regular budgeted items. We might be hitting the friction point.
We initially listed this under our Mission category of the budget. That’s the part of our budget we give away to other organizations. But in this past year several of us were on a call of other congregations thinking about this and we were encouraged by an Indigenous Christian minister named Jim Bear Jacobs to not put funds like this under Mission. Mission of Christians to Native folks has a bad history. It also sets up a scenario where we hang on to the mindset that this is our money that we are giving away. Rather than wondering if we could think of this money as never having been ours in the first place. Could we think about this as releasing or even returning these funds?
Our Leadership Team had some discussion around this and has decided that starting next year these funds will be listed as a Facilities expense. So if you’ve ever wondered if you can find theology in the facilities budget, here’s a shot at it. We are suggesting that returning funds to Native and Black folks from whom generational wealth has been stolen is part of the cost of ownership of this place, this property. And maybe we could think of this as part of the cost of owning any property. We could be owners with or without attention to history, even if inflicting harm isn’t what we consider our personal history. And we’re choosing, in the spirit of repair, the spirit of nonviolence, the spirit of Jesus, to factor it in.
It’s also in the spirit of the original, original tithe, at least the first one that shows up in the Bible, much closer to the Garden of Eden than the laws of Deuteronomy. In Genesis 14 Abraham is still new in the land of Canaan. So new he’s still just Abram rather than Abraham. He has received a Divine promise that he will be a blessing to all nations, and that his descendants will live in this land, a belief easily twisted to justify a violent conquest of those already living there. But in this chapter Abram encounters the priest and king of Salem Melchizedek. Salem is identified later in the tradition as Jeru-salem – Jerusalem. So here’s the political and spiritual leader of the city where Abram’s descendants will one day build their temple, and rather than seek to conquer him, Abram gives him a tithe of his wealth, a tenth of everything he owns. And Melchizedek, in his priestly role, calling on El Elyon, the High God of the native people of the land, the Canaanites, gives Abram a blessing.
It’s a little story that starts and ends so abruptly we likely wouldn’t even notice it if the New Testament book of Hebrews hadn’t picked it up and spoken of Melchizedek as a Christ figure. In its setting in Genesis, it’s an example of Abram living in the land in such a way that honors its previous inhabitants, their leaders, and their religious practices. It’s the story of the first tithe as a gesture of peacemaking and honor giving, an abrupt interjection into a wider story all too laden with violence.
So like other things we’ve attempted, we’re not quite sure what we’re doing or if we’re doing right, but we’re being led by our values and seeing where those take us. I did do a bit of math and figured the $15,000 amount would add between 3 and 4 % to our budget, meaning if we’re serious about this we each need to add that percent on to the amount we already give.
And like the ancient tithe and the different trees in the garden, and Jesus’ teachings, and even that strategic business owner’s parking lot, the point isn’t just to fulfill the obligation of setting aside the part that was never ours in the first place. The point is also to free us from the tyranny of possessions. The temptations of hoarding. The need to protect at all costs what we are fearful of losing. What is the point? Salvation may be a bit too lofty a word for such small acts. But maybe these brief interjections of peacefulness and blessing within a wider story so often lacking in both, is what provides the seedbed for whatever salvation El Elyon, the Great Spirit, the Creator, the Christ, might bring about.
May it be so.
At the Dawn of Your Creation - Voices Together #179. Text: Carolyn Winfrey Gillette (USA), © 2011; Music: attr. B. F. White (USA), Sacred Harp, 1844; harm. Joan Fyock Norris (USA), © 1989 Joan Fyock Norris (MennoMedia Inc.). All rights reserved. Podcast/Streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859. All rights reserved.
Ya Rab as-salami (God of Peace and Justice) - Voices Together #711. Text: Arabic; Palestinian and Lebanese traditional; trans. John L. Bell (Scotland); Music: Palestinian and Lebanese traditional; arr. John L. Bell; Trans. and music © 2007, 2008 WGRG, Iona Community (admin. GIA Publications, Inc.). All rights reserved. Podcast/Streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859. All rights reserved.
Blessed Are You - Voices Together #290. Text: based on Luke 6:20-26, Adam M. L. Tice (USA), 2013; Music: Benjamin Brody (USA); Text & Music © 2015 GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Podcast/Streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859. All rights reserved.
Take My Life, and Let It Be – Voices Together #759. Text: Francis R. Havergal (England), Songs of Grace and Glory, Appendix, 1874; Music: Henri Abraham César Malan (Switzerland),1827; harm. Lowell Mason (USA), Carmina Sacra, 1841. Public domain.
Heart with Loving Heart United - Voices Together #813. Text: Nicolaus L. von Zinzendorf (Germany, Herz und Herz vereint zusammen, 1723, Die letzien Reden unseres Herrn, 1725; trans. Walter Klaassen (Canada), 1965, alt. © 1969, 1983 Walter Klaassen. Used with permission. Music: Manuscript Chorale Book (USA), 1735; adapt. from “Sollen nun die grünen Jahre” (present-day Germany), ca. 1700. Public domain.