A few years ago I read an article about a woman who had died and left her entire estate to three charities. This woman lived in a small town in Nova Scotia where she had worked her whole life. A government employee, this woman never married, had no children and had accumulated all of her wealth from her own income. None of that would normally merit an article. Except the amount of the donation was millions of dollars. That’s hard to imagine. My first thought was that she must have inherited some of this fortune or perhaps won the lottery. Not true, the article included an interview with the Executor who shared that this woman had lived a very frugal life, had no commitments in her lifetime and had invested every cent of her income left over after basic services were paid.
The donations themselves were part of this story. One third of the estate went to the Salvation Army, one third was given to a local non-profit and one third was given to a national charity. Yet this woman had absolutely no connection to any of these organizations, she was never a member, never a volunteer, had never donated to any of them in the past. When the reporter had asked the Executor why this woman had chosen these three organizations as recipients for her entire estate he replied, “She believed in their cause. She thought they were making a difference.”
At that time I was serving a church that was engaged in an Advent Mission study and each week we were looking at a different reason people were inspired to be part of mission. That Tuesday night the theme was saints, namely specific faith-filled people who lived their lives in mission to others, sharing their time, talent and treasure for a cause larger than self. I clipped the story from the paper and brought it to share with the Advent study group. Their reaction surprised me. I had thought the others would share my enthusiasm for what this woman had done. Instead the reaction fell into two camps, one felt that this woman was modeling an unhealthy lifestyle. I remember one response. “It’s just not normal for someone with a middle-class income like me to deny themselves all the things in life that make life worth living. It’s just wrong.” The other camp took issue with the fact that no money at all went to a relative. Though the woman had no partner or children she did have siblings and nieces and nephews, “Why didn’t they see some of this wealth”, one study participant wanted to know.
I thought of all this when I looked at the lectionary Epistle lesson for Sunday, 1 Timothy 6:6-19. Listen to these words, “We brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” Paul is writing to Timothy about the temptations of riches, of wealth, and what money is for and what it is not for. Don’t get me wrong I am no monk and neither are you. All of us in this church like a little more than food and clothing. But hear the words of Paul, “we will be content with these”, meaning real happiness, deep joy, does not come from things that we can’t take “out of the world”. When our lives have ended, like this woman, what we take with us are not the things over and above the food and clothing, what we take with us is our soul, the essence that makes me who I am, the essence that makes you who you are. What this woman took with her was peace and contentment.
And what was this peace and contentment? Preacher and scholar Fred Craddock says of this letter “All the trappings of life fade before the double miracles of birth and death. We neither enter nor leave life with assets.” Craddock says that a believer trusts that God alone is the source of all that we need. And what is it that we need? Verses 18 and 19 of Paul’s letter to Timothy make this plain, “To be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for ourselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that we may take hold of the life that really is life.” Could this be any clearer or plain spoken?
Don MacKay, our Treasurer, gave me some homework over the past week. He loaned me a book Not Your Parents Offering Plate: A New Vision for
Financial Stewardship written by church financial guru J. Clif Christopher. I read the book. In this short text Christopher names the top three reasons Christians give time, talent and treasure to their church. They are: 1) A Belief in the Mission, 2) Regard for the Church Leadership and 3) Fiscal Stability of the Church. Let’s leave the Staff Leadership and Fiscal Stability aside for today and focus on the number one reason people give to a Church, they believe in its mission.
Long gone are the days people gave to Church because of guilt or “that’s what you’re supposed to do”. People today have a long list of worthy recipients for their donations. The Church needs to embody the teachings and love of Jesus. Christopher puts it this way, “There is embedded in us, it seems, a desire to finish out our work on this earth with a sense that we amounted to something. To sum it up, people want to be a part of something that changes lives.”
Which brings me to the project our new Revelations Committee is working on for this Saturday from 9:30 am to 1 pm “Sharing a Vision – Shaping a Community.” There is a deep sense given the talented, caring and inspired people in this church that we can and should do more to focus our mission work, to name something we can do in this community that “changes lives”. We are not talking about curing cancer, housing every homeless person or rescuing every youth who is at risk. We are a congregation of just under 300 households, we don’t have large endowment funds, and our volunteer base does not have an inexhaustible source of energy and time. But my friends most of us can be content with food and clothing. So there is something in all of us that we can share, something that we can share together and there is a mission to and with our community that is waiting to be dreamed anew.
I have no agenda, no secret plan, and no quick fix for this challenge. What I do have is you and the Spirit. And that is all any of us need. “To be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, storing up for ourselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that we may take hold of the life that really is life.” Please, please join us on Saturday from 9:30 am to 1 pm to see where God is leading us. What we can do together IS something we can take out of this world with us. It is our Bethany legacy. Amen.