“From Head to Heart to ….”
William L. Hathaway
The Presbyterian Church of Chestertown, Maryland
November 10, 2019
From head to heart. William Sloane Coffin once noted that this is the longest trip a person makes. I am wondering if the longer trip is actually from head to heart to wallet.
Today is stewardship Sunday and I am the hired hit man. My job is to encourage you, motivate you, inspire you, move you, pull you, psych you up (hopefully not cajole or hassle) to the end that you will make a generous pledge to the ministry and mission of this fine congregation. And, if you have already filled out a pledge card, you can do another – I am quite confident that your Session would take the higher of the two. Today is all about making the connection from what we believe to how we love to what we do with our time, our passions, our money. So make a strong pledge…………. just do it! Have a done my job?
OK, maybe not enough; you did ask for a full sermon. Onward in stewardship Sunday. I like the line, “The church has all the money that it will ever need; it just happens to be in your pockets.” I’ve also thought about pledge appeals that have not gone so well. There is a favorite classic tag line, “I’ve upped my pledge, up yours.” And then there is that fine story from the book of Acts about Ananias and Sapphira; always a motivator. If that doesn’t immediately come to mind it is an account from the very early church, following the community’s agreement to share all possessions, property and money. It turns out that Ananias pocketed a bit of the income from a real estate transaction. When confronted with his deceit and lies to cover it up he dropped dead. Three hours later his wife, Sapphira, appeared and she too keeled over. Yikes, the early church had some tough stewardship drives. Yet, fortunately for all of us, the lectionary reading for today is not about Ananias and Sapphira but is from the Hebrew scriptures and the very promising and hopeful prophet Haggai. No threats but strong encouragement; words that connect head to heart to wallet. Let’s spend a few minutes with the Bible story – always a good place for people of faith to begin a conversation. (Yes, note, I said begin, not end. The end of the story is for you to write.)
Haggai suffers under the contemporary title of being a minor prophet. My sense is that minor simply means fewer words as compared to Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The book is only two chapters long; so short that even regular Bible readers need to check the table of contents to find it. Like every other book of the Bible, the setting is essential to understanding the text. Here it is: Haggai is writing in Jerusalem in the year 520 b.c.e. just some years after the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians and, Cyrus, the Persian king, being rather tolerant, let the exiled Jews return to Jerusalem and pick up their lives. Haggai, whose name literally means “to make a pilgrimage” or “hold a festival,” is writing the Jewish community to put more effort into the task of rebuilding the temple. The temple re-construction was under way but the work was not up to snuff. It was second rate and showed a lack of support and respect for the task at hand and their love of God. Haggai understood that the general economic malaise was due to their skewed values. He noted that the people were putting a lot of effort into their own homes but were neglecting the temple, what they believed is God’s home. Haggai sarcastically asked, “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (Reading this I was reminded of visiting a congregation outside of New York City of very wealthy people who gathered in a rather shabby building. Let’s just say that the paneling from home to church did not match and it did not speak well for the spirit of that congregation.)
Back to Haggai. Inspired by what we call the Holy Spirit and the Hebrews call the inspiration of “the word of the Lord,” Haggai announced that the power of God would surround them and carry them. In response, the people needed to build a home for God worthy of God’s majesty. The line that most catches my imagination today is the simple declaration of the order of things. Haggai announces that “The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts.” It is mine, says the Lord, you are caretakers, not owners. Wonderful perspective when it comes to faith, the land and life itself.
My list the most important books of the 20th Century includes the classic, “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Cost of Discipleship” and the great one by Erich Fromm, entitled “To Have or To Be.” Fromm claims that there are two basic perspectives in life: having or being. Quoting Fromm,
In the having mode of existence my relationship to the world is one of possessing and owning, one in which I want to make everybody and everything, including myself, my property.
… the being mode of existence …. In contrast to having …. Means aliveness and authentic relatedness to the world. (“To Have or To Be?” P. 24)
The difference is owning verses living within a dynamic relationship. A man who speaks of having a wife in terms of control is in stark contrast to a man who is in a marriage relationship. Having versus being is the difference between abusing the land and working the land. In terms of faith, it is the difference between having a faith that is a set of answers to control life to being in relation with mystery, beauty and wonder.
Faith frees us from control, owning, having to live in the wonder of relationship with other people, the earth and our Creator. Faith provides a lightness to welcome our finitude and not fight against the inherent transitory nature of our existence. Faith allows us to be with God, be with loved ones, and enjoy the gifts of creation without the fear that comes from needing to control. Faith allows us to live from the pure joy of knowing that it is all gift. All of it – silver and gold, mountains and ocean, flesh and blood. All pure gift.
One of the great gifts given to us by the pastor who led our marriage ceremony way back in 1977 was his challenge to us to make a financial goal of giving away 10% of our income. It was an easy commitment to make when we had no money then when we had our fist pastor jobs at a whopping $16,000 per year. But, dear Bill Felmeth introduced us to the commitment, passion and joy of giving, something that has carried us for these 42 years. For the silver and gold, the mountains and ocean, the flesh and blood are all God’s. It is all gift.
The bottom line of faith filled and joy filled living is gratitude. Joy emerges from the perspective of being in relationship with creation, not clawing out a meager or wealthy existence. That is why some who are materially poor are rich in spirit and some who are materially wealthy are so miserable. It is the answer to that question of a Haitian visitor to the States who said, “I can’t figure you out. You have so much but so many of you are so anxious and unhappy.”
It is all gift. I welcome that daily in our walk along the Brandywine Creek in the City Park. Water, rocks, birds, fish, towering trees. The gifts of creation. Alison speaks regularly of getting off of Rt. 1 and 301 to drive through the farmland on her trek into Chestertown from Wilmington. From time to time she stops to take a picture. It is all so grand and wonderful – fields and sunshine, birds and crops. When we walk the shoreline of Assateague National Park, our place of retreat and refuge, we soak up the wind, the waves, the birds, the sand. All so wild and beyond our control; all so marvelous. And, when I pick up our giggling, squirming four year old granddaughter or make faces in front of the eight month old, I am reminded of the gift of life. Not mine to own but mine to embrace, savor and share.
It is all gift; thanks be to God. May you embrace a joy filled life in response to the gift of it all.