Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sermon: "The Prosperity Gospel"

Artist's conception of the pre-1835 Amherst meetinghouse before 
it was moved off the village green and remodeled. Drawing by Philip S. Avery.

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Faith Promise Sunday
Matthew 22:15-22

“The Prosperity Gospel”

The year was 1739.
37 years before our nation was born.
In the wilds of the provincial New Hampshire territory, a group of men and women gathered at what is now the corner of Mack Hill and Jones Road and raised the first timbers of a new meetinghouse.
The idea to build a meeting space and church had been hatched four years earlier, but it took that long to get the forest cleared, the soil tilled, the crops raised, and the settlement semi-established, ensuring that men, women, and materials would be available for the build. 
The simple post and beam framing went up, and two years later, on September 22, 1741, what would become the Congregational Church of Amherst came into being.

With money and manpower scarce it would take 11 years for the meetinghouse to be completed. But long before the building had solid walls, a roof, or a pulpit, the church’s first minister was called.
Daniel Wilkins, a new arrival in the settlement, agreed to shepherd the new congregation.  A special committee was formed to plan the ordination and installation, and they were given the explicit instruction that the cost “should not exceed” 40 British pounds, or as much LESS as possible.[i]

Thus 273 years ago, in this very church, the phrase “Don’t dream bigger than your budget” was born.

In reality, most churches have their dreams limited by their budgets.
Especially churches with histories similar to ours.
Churches like ours were built on bare bones funding, by people who were accustomed to enduring the hardships of frontier living and long cold New England winters.
Those who spent wildly when the weather was warm and resources were abundant were doomed to starve when the wind grew cold and the fields were bare.

It was better to be frugal and survive, then extravagant and facing certain death.

In December, 1818, some 44 years after our forbearers scrimped and saved to build this new second meeting house, and set it on the village green, a town meeting was called to discuss possible building improvements.
A small group of church members proposed that warming stoves be purchased to heat the meetinghouse during Sunday services in the winter. Because, as cold as we think it gets in here now during the winter months, this building at that time was completely unheated.
But to the dismay of the vocal minority, a majority of the members voted the proposal down. It would cost too much.

That same month, this editorial appeared in the local newspaper:
It will be seen by the article on our first page that even the Indians have stoves in their meetinghouses, and is it not astonishing then, that civilized and enlightened people have none, but that they nearly freeze themselves and their children every Sabbath in the winter, when the trifling expense of ONE DOLLAR EACH would make them comfortable? [ii]

The letter ended with these words of wisdom:
“A word to the frozen, we hope will be sufficient, to make them weather-wise.”

It wasn’t until 1823 – five years later - that the people finally voted to install warming stoves in the meetinghouse, and then only by individual subscriptions. People would pay for the stoves in the same way they paid for their pews.
If you wanted a good seat, and you wanted to be warm, it was going to cost you.  

Jesus didn’t have much to say about what it might cost to build and maintain the Body of Christ.
When he sent his disciples out to spread the good news of the gospel he instructed them to travel light and to count on the hospitality of strangers.
He didn’t talk about the stresses of balancing a church budget, the cost of pastors and programs, or the depressing futility of heating a 240-year-old building during a long New England winter.

Jesus looked at the coin that his challengers produced and said,
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus knew full well, that all that we have belongs to God.

But we’re always looking for ways to make that not be true.
We’re like the little boy who was given two quarters -- one for the Sunday School offering plate and one for an ice cream cone.
While he was walking to church. one of the coins slipped out of his hand, landed in the street, rolled towards a sewer grating, and plopped down into the water below.
The little boy raised his face toward heaven and said with genuine sorrow, "Well, God, there goes your quarter."

Perhaps there is a reason why Jesus seems to give what some would say is an unclear response to the challenge of who is the rightful owner of the Roman coin - God or the Emperor.
There are some unavoidable costs to being a citizen in this world – taxes, housing, food, education, health care, security – all of these things cost money, and a good portion of the money we earn goes to support them.
What’s left over goes towards the things that make life enjoyable when we’re not working to earn money to pay for the necessities – entertainment, sports, recreation, the creative arts, travel, gifts for family and friends.
And then there are the ways we give directly back to God – charitable giving, volunteering, and being an active and supportive member of a religious community.

How we choose to slice up that pie says a lot about our values, our fears, and the individual challenges that we face.
Depending on our socio-economic bracket the first two slices of the pie get the bulk of our attention - with the poor leaning heavily towards the necessities slice, the rich having more to devote to the enjoyment slice, and the middle class falling somewhere in between.
The sad truth is, few of us are devoting more than a token amount to the God slice.

In 2012, the latest year for which the numbers are available, church giving across all denominations dropped to less than 2.2 percent of member’s incomes, the lowest percentage in almost 50 years.
Church attendance and participation is also down across the board, which means our time and talent is being spent elsewhere as well.

Perhaps it’s because we no longer find much in the church experience that is valuable to us.
Maybe we’re bored with the same old worship, not excited by the programs that are offered, or have no time to get more involved even if we want to.
Maybe we think the church is too liberal, or too conservative, too judgmental, or too lenient, too traditional, or too watered down to be meaningful. 
Maybe we’ve been hurt by an insensitive comment, an overlooked contribution, or the fact that no one seemed to notice when we drifted away.

Maybe we’re so focused on what the church is giving to us, that we have a hard time seeing it as a vehicle for us to give to others, and to God.

In the Protestant tradition, the church is not an entity unto itself - an amorphous force that exists to serve or deny us.    The church is us.
Each of us is called by God to make the church what it is.
We are creating it and recreating it as we go along.
We are the body of Christ in the world.

And because we’re human, the church is human.
With all it’s brokenness, all its hypocrisies, and all it’s blunders.
The truth is that we’re going to let each other down on occasion, and we’re going to fail to live up everyone’s expectations all of the time, 100% of the time. That is guaranteed.

What we often lose sight of is the many ways that the church does live up to God’s call.
We – the church – provide a sanctuary for the weary, the wounded, and the overwhelmed.
We – the church – create music that inspires, liturgy that comforts, and words that challenge.
We – the church – feed the hungry, teach children about God’s unconditional love, and raise our voices in the name of justice, peace, and forgiveness – because who else will, if not us?

And we – the church - are here for people during all the pivotal moments of life – birth, marriage, loss, sickness, and death – all the moments that have us craving ritual and connection and community.

The reality is that looking over a church budget that is heavily skewed towards maintenance costs, staff salaries, and just keeping our head above water does not often inspire us to delve into our pockets and give to God out of our generosity and gratitude.
But all those the things that I just mentioned – we – the church - would not be able to do any of them without this sanctuary, these meeting spaces, the furnace that keeps us warm in the winter, these pastors and gifted musicians, these dedicated members and volunteers who support and sustain our programs and our community outreach.

And we’re doing all of this on less than 2.2% of our collective incomes.
Think of what we could do if each of us gave just 1% more...or 2%...or 5%?
Think of what we could do if we gave more of ourselves to God?

In the past this congregation has dared to dream bigger than its budget.
It hired its first pastor when there was no roof to keep the congregation dry.
It built a brand new meetinghouse when the old one no longer met its needs. 
And when conflicts tore the congregation two, it sustained itself, survived, and prospered, again, and again.

In 1874, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the dedication of this meetinghouse, the Rev. Josiah Gardner Davis spoke about the group of men and woman who gathered at the corner of Mack Hill and Jones Rd in 1739 and planted the seeds of this church. He said:

We have no question of the genuineness of their faith and the sincerity of their love. A people moving in the forests, to clear for themselves homesteads in the solitudes of the wilderness, do not take on themselves the burden of building meetinghouses and sustaining ministers without deep convictions of the value of the gospel.[iii]

275 years later, the gospel is still our motivating force.
The gospel is what sustains us in times of abundance and prosperity, and in times of scarcity and loss.
The gospel is why so many everyday sinners and saints have chosen to sit in these pews and then go out into the world in service.
The gospel is why Jesus had no issue flipping over the coin of his challengers and challenging them to give back to God what God has given them.

For some, the challenge is greater than others.
There’s the story of the very wealthy man who stood up in the middle of the Sunday service in a tiny rural church to talk about his Christian faith.
“I'm a multimillionaire,” he said, “and I attribute it all to the blessings of God.”
He continued,  “I remember the day my life changed. I had just earned my first dollar and I stopped into this very church to offer my gratitude to God. The preacher challenged us to give back to God what God has given to us. I only had a dollar but I knew I had to either give it all to God’s work or nothing at all. So at that moment I decided to put all the money I had to my name in the collection plate. I believe that God blessed that decision, and that is why I am a rich man today.” 

The man finished his testimony and there was an awed silence as he sat down.
Then a little old lady sitting in the pew behind him leaned over and said:
“I dare you to do it again.”

Perhaps we should dare each other to believe in the gospel of prosperity.
To believe that giving leads to receiving, even if we’re not always the one directly on the receiving end. Because more often than not, we are.

God has given us life and unconditional love and grace. 

What might WE give to God in return?


The Congregational Church of Amherst, NH, circa 1870.


[i] Historical discourse delivered at Amherst, N.H., on the hundredth anniversary of the dedication of the Congregational meeting-house, 1874, pg. 9.
[ii] Walking Tours of Amherst Village, Historical Society of Amherst, New Hampshire, pg. 9.
[iii] Historical discourse delivered at Amherst, N.H., on the hundredth anniversary of the dedication of the Congregational meeting-house, 1874, pg. 21.