Saturday, April 16, 2011

Downward Mobility

Sunday of the Passion/Installation of Pr. Karen Young Trenne
April 17, 2011
Bygland and Fisher Lutheran Churches, Fisher, MN
Philippians 2:5-11

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

This past Tuesday Civil War buffs converged on Charleston, SC to re-enact the attack on Ft. Sumter that marked the start of the War Between the States, 150 years ago on April 12, 1861. No doubt we’ll be learning more during this sesquicentennial year about this tragic chapter in our nation’s history—a civil war that claimed over 1 million lives, including over 600,000 soldiers on both sides.

From our perspective a century-and-a-half later, it all seems like such a terrible waste of life and resources…but in 1861, the brave soldiers who enlisted thought they were making a noble sacrifice—offering up their very lives for a cause they believed in.


You and I enjoy the life that is ours because countless others have made sacrifices on our behalf….in wars, in the hard work that built this nation, in the costly investments that others have made, in the multitude of ways our forebears denied themselves so that we might enjoy a life that is full, free, and rich.

Indeed, you and I live every day off the sacrifices of others.

So, it’s interesting—is it not?--that as beneficiaries of such sacrifices, we find it so hard to make sacrifices of our own.

Right now, in our state capital and in Washington, DC, there’s a political donnybrook going on over what sorts of sacrifices folks will need to make in order for us to continue to enjoy the lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to. All of us in America agree that sacrifices need to be made….but our strong preference is that someone else should make these sacrifices.

I like benefiting from the sacrifices of others. I don’t like making sacrifices for the sake of others…..which is just another way of saying that I’m a sinner. I am sinner—and you are too! We are curved in upon ourselves, utterly preoccupied with ourselves—our wants, our needs, our comfort, our security. We may admire the language of “shared sacrifice,” but we’d just as soon see others do the sharing and the sacrificing.

When we’re asked: “Who will step forward to share their wealth, to put themselves at risk?” we stare at our feet, in the hope that someone else will pipe up and say: “I will. I will sacrifice for the sake of my neighbors.”

On this Sunday of the Passion, we embark upon the holiest week of the year. We focus our eyes on Jesus--betrayed, handed over to thugs, convicted in a crooked trial, executed like a common criminal, his lifeless body tossed into a borrowed grave.

This is the week when we recall how Jesus stepped up to say: “I will. I’ll go. I’ll make a sacrifice—indeed, I will BE a sacrifice for the sake of my beloved ones. I will go where no one else wants to go—where no one really CAN go.”

Matthew’s passion story which we just heard is summarized masterfully in our Second Lesson from Philippians chapter 2. Here St Paul quotes a hymn that was already well known by the time he wrote his epistle to the Philippians just after the middle of the first century. Paul starkly, strikingly puts the spotlight on Jesus and his uncanny willingness to do what comes so hard for us: to sacrifice himself, to let go of everything that was rightfully his, so that we might have a second chance at a life we would never deserve.

This astonishing passage depicts, as it were, a scene in the heavenly courts in which God the Father asks the whole company of heaven: “Who will go for us? Who will travel down there and rescue these creatures made in our image? Who will descend from heaven to clean up the mess they’ve made of things?”

In the silence of that celestial gathering, a lone voice speaks up: “I will go,” replies the only beloved Son of the Father. “I will relinquish all that I have, set aside what is by rights mine, empty myself out into the womb of a human mother. I will be born in the usual way, occupy the lowest rung on their social ladder, and hand myself over to death—even death on a cross. Whatever it takes to win their trust, I will do it. I will sacrifice myself for them, because I can’t stop loving them, and I can’t rest until they love me just as freely and just as passionately.”

This amazing descent from heaven, undertaken by the only Son of the Father, for us and our salvation—this is what Holy Week is all about.

And come to think of it, it’s what our whole life of faith is about, as well.

We’re born into a world that simply assumes life is about getting ahead, pulling our own strings, pursuing upward mobility—whatever it takes.

But our Lord Jesus comes along and cuts against the grain, embracing his own wild brand of “downward mobility,” willingly going down for us, down from heaven, down to earth, down to “get” us and make us his own forever.

And when we come under Jesus’ spell, when we find ourselves in Jesus’ power, we start to “reverse course,” and we begin to realize that Jesus’ downward mobility is really what it’s all about.

Jesus invites us to join him in letting go of all the things we thought we had to have.

Jesus draws us into emptying ourselves, divesting ourselves of what we thought we couldn’t live without.

Jesus even woos us into seeing his accursed cross as the royal way, the sovereign means, whereby God has communicated to us, compellingly and convincingly: “I love you with an everlasting, undefeatable love. I love you—and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Jesus calls us to be people who go down, down to this good earth, down to our neighbors—especially the lowliest and the least, down to our daily vocations—the callings we embrace in service to others, not because we have to, but because we get to.

Jesus calls us, even as he invites our congregations also, to live like that—a life of total abandon and bracing trust. Here, we thought we needed to hang on for dear life, to cling to what we’ve been given, to secure our lives as best we can.

But Jesus has another idea—Jesus has a better future for us, one in which we live by letting go, we survive by emptying ourselves out for this good world. We come out ahead—by giving it all up, for the sake of our neighbors.

God sees the world, still in terrible shape, and God asks: “Who will go for us?” And before we even know it’s happening, we find ourselves saying—with our Lord Jesus: “We’ll go. We’ll sacrifice ourselves as Jesus did for us. We’ll empty ourselves, giving away what we’ve been given, trusting that just as God raised up the crucified Jesus, he will raise us up as well. So really, now, there is nothing to fear.

In the words of the great church historian, the late Jaroslav Pelikan: If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. If Christ is not risen—nothing else matters.

And that, my dear friends, is what we believe to be true. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. End of story!

That’s what forms our lives of faith, gives our congregations compelling purpose, and transforms how we conceive of the all the work God has called us to do.

Downward mobility—that’s the Jesus-way, the way of the cross, the only way to the only life worth living.

Downward mobility—may that also define the faithful, fruitful partnership in God’s service that formally begins for you, Pastor Karen, and the people of this congregation today. Live in the embrace of Jesus’ way, the downward path of humble service to one another and to all whom God places in your paths.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What a Way to Die...and to Live!

Midweek Lenten Worship/Installation of Pr. Christopher Eldredge
PioneerCare Center, Fergus Falls, MN
April 13, 2011

“It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.” Luke 23:44-46.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

For some time now I have had a fascination with “famous last words”—you know: the words, the phrases, the statements that famous people utter just before they die.

For example, some famous last words are profound:

“All my possessions for a moment of time.” …the last words of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603.

“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” ….uttered by the American spy, Nathan Hale just before he was hanged by the British in 1776

Other famous last words are more perfunctory, almost matter-of-fact:

“Gas is running low.” Amelia Earhart’s last radio transmission in 1937, before her plane was lost forever in the Pacific.

“I have a terrific headache.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945, just before he succumbed to a massive cerebral hemorrhage.

“Don’t you go making a fuss over me now; I’m just fine.” According to Garrison Keillor, the famous last words of just about every Norwegian Lutheran who has ever lived in Lake Wobegon, MN.

Some famous last words are profound, others are perfunctory, and a few famous last words simply take us by surprise.

For example, do you know whose famous last words went something like this:

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…”??

Who said those words, just before dying? The answer will surprise you, because it’s Jesus.

Well, OK, that’s not exactly what he said….

Jesus didn’t really pray, “Now I lay me, down to sleep”…..but he did take on his lips the words of a favorite Jewish bed-time prayer of his day, drawn from Psalm 31: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Jim Limburg, who taught Old Testament at Luther Seminary for many years has even wondered whether Jesus might have spent much of his time on the Cross, reciting (to himself) whole psalms, taking these venerable prayers from the Bible and making them his own, including this favorite Jewish bed-time prayer from Psalm 31: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

That is not how most crucified men in first-century Judea met their deaths. Many of those executed in this most barbaric of ways, died with curses for their executioners dripping from their lips: maledictions for, condemnations of those who inflicted such unspeakable pain and shame upon them. That’s how most crucified men died.

But not Jesus. Jesus died precisely as he lived. Jesus died as you and I can only hope to die—freely, willingly, completely, handing his whole life back to God the Father, the source and goal of all things.

Father….in the Greek, pater….a term of intimate address….

Father, into your hands….which is to say: into your power and your protection, for that is what “hands” represent….

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit: I freely, fully return to you the entire life that you first gave to me.

What a way to die! If it is true that most of us face our deaths in stages…that we more or less go through steps such as denial, anger, bargaining and other reactions before finally arriving at acceptance….well then here is acceptance in its deepest and most faithful form. This is no grim resigning of oneself to one’s fate. It is, rather, acknowledging, in the most heartfelt of ways, that our times—all our times—belong to the only One who made us from nothing and to whom we shall all one day return.

What a way to die!

….and come to think of it: what a way to live! What a way to live every day we have on earth, up to and including our final day.

Since becoming bishop, over three years ago, I have come to treasure a similar night-time prayer supposedly coined by Pope John XXIII who ended each day with these words: “Dear Lord. Another long day is about to end, and I am very weary. This is your church. I’m going to bed now. Amen.”

If we don’t see Jesus’ famous last words as words for every day of our lives, chances are we’ll live as if it’s all about us…as if our times, our decisions, our actions, our lives were all in our own hands--accountable to no one else.

If we don’t see Jesus’ famous last words as words for every day of our lives, chance are we’ll take ourselves way too seriously. All of us, every last one of us, needs to cultivate the gentle art of confronting our dispensability. We are wise to recall the simple truth that on the morning of the day that we leave this earth, there will be things on our “to do” list that simply will not get done.

So Jesus’ famous last words aren’t just good for dying. They’re indispensable for living—each and every day, always and forever praying: “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit. Whatever good I am privileged to do this day, whatever grace I am allowed to receive, it all comes from You. So at the start of this new day I pray: Father, in your hands I commend my spirit. Let me live, and truly live, before I die.”

These are particularly good words for us to ponder this evening, not only as we conclude the season of Lent, but also as we gather here for worship—for the first time in this lovely new facility, the PioneerCare Center--and as we formally welcome and install Pastor Christopher Eldredge as a valued member of the ministry staff.

PioneerCare has been around since 1928 and this organization still exists to help persons—whether they be residents, staff, visitors or members of sponsoring congregations—PioneerCare is about helping us all pray (and live!) as Jesus did: “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.”

As a treasured partner in social ministry and a fine representative of Lutheran Services in America here in Fergus Falls, I am struck by how PioneerCare views its mission in such a faithful, well-rounded way--to “promote quality of life in a Christ-like way for those we serve by providing diverse and holistic care focusing always on individual dignity and worth.”

PioneerCare and all of its services and programs, is here to help persons of all ages and circumstances say, with their Lord Jesus: “Father—you who have fashioned my life, you who are my source and my goal—in your hands, into your power and into your protection—I commend my spirit, I turn over my whole life, now and forever.”

That my dear friends is the business we are in together—whether we’re talking nursing care, social services, housekeeping, food services, chaplaincy or administration—everything we think, say and do through ministries of caring like this—is aimed at making that ancient Jewish bedtime prayer, Jesus’ famous last words, …making them our own words to live by and words to die by: “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.”

What a way to die!

And, better yet: what a way to live!

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Picking a Fight With Death

St Peter’s Lutheran Church, Audubon, MN
Lent 5/April 10, 2011/John 11:1-45

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

In this gospel lesson we hear two of the gems from the Bible.

One of these gems is verse 25, where Jesus declares: “I am the resurrection and the life…”

The other comes ten verses later: “Jesus began to weep” or in an older translation, simply: “Jesus wept”—the shortest verse in the Bible.

The first of these verses cheers us when we mourn: “I am the resurrection and the life.” And the second is prized by squirrelly confirmation students, searching for a quick and easy Bible verse to memorize: “Jesus wept.”

At the risk of over-simplifying things, these two verses encapsulate this entire 11th chapter of St John’s Gospel. In fact, they summarize the whole Good News—they encompass our entire life of faith.

Because one of the things everyone needs to know about Jesus is that he wept. Jesus cried, he was overcome with grief. Which is to say: Jesus is really human, one of us.

“Jesus wept.” Jesus was not protected from or aloof from the hard edges of his humanity. Jesus didn’t get a “free pass” from all of that—the dregs, the deep heartache of grief.

“Jesus wept.” John’s Gospel doesn’t pinpoint precisely why Jesus wept. Maybe he regretted not being there when Lazarus died. Maybe Jesus wept because Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha were folks he loved—their house in Bethany, a shelter for Jesus and his followers. Maybe Jesus wept because everyone else was weeping. Maybe Jesus wept in anticipation of his own impending death….perhaps he envisioned another tomb, in another garden, with another stone rolled up against it.

“Jesus wept.” We need to “get that.” Our Savior’s tear ducts were fully functional. Our Lord empathized with, responded to others. Our Master walked where we all walk.

“Jesus wept” even as we have wept and we shall weep again. And I’m not talking about crocodile tears, or crying over a sad movie, or blubbering over a silly soap opera. We shall weep as Jesus wept, because death is the pits, because it’s awful losing a friend.

“Jesus wept,” John 11:35, sums up one key thread of this story. God’s Word in human flesh, was moved to tears. Jesus gets it. He is one with us.

But these tears of Jesus are not tears of despair. Verse 33 of our gospel lesson tells us that “when Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”

There is a distinct “flavor” to these words in the original Greek. “Greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” –the phrase depicts Jesus shuddering, being shaken to the core. There is even a hint of anger here. Jesus groans as he approaches Lazarus’s grave, because Jesus knows in his bones that this just isn’t right. This state of affairs—in which death brazenly calls the shots and claims the last word—this cannot go on.

So in Jesus weeping there is an undercurrent of righteous anger—indeed a defiance of death stirring deep within Jesus. And we need to notice that, too, because Jesus doesn’t travel to Bethany just to commiserate with his friends, to mutter his “ain’t it awfuls” with all the other mourners.

Rather, Jesus travels to Bethany to pick a fight with death—to announce that death is about to be up-ended.

Which leads us to the other key verse in our gospel lesson: “I am the resurrection and the life.”

When Jesus shows up to wail with Lazarus’s survivors, he is chided by Martha. “What took you so long?” she asks. “If you hadn’t dilly-dallied you could have prevented this from happening!”

But even as she chides Jesus, Martha is still hoping that Jesus might yet “do something” about this sorry situation. And even as Martha confesses that Lazarus will rise again on the day of resurrection—Jesus interrupts her with an astonishing claim: “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Jesus moves resurrection out of the realm of speculation about a longed-for future. Jesus redefines life as so much more than a natural force in the world. In Jesus, resurrection is walking around on two feet. Life is pushing its way through the crowds that surrounded Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t just hold out a promise of resurrection and life—Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

Which may explain why Jesus tarried for two extra days before coming to Bethany. As a preacher friend of mine once put it, Jesus wanted Lazarus to get “good and dead,” four days in the grave, with all traces of his spirit having vanished from the scene….

Jesus needed Lazarus to be “good and dead,” so that everyone would know that Jesus didn’t just have a knack for preventing disease and death….but that he was about to undo death, even after it had invaded the home of friends he loved.

“Jesus wept,” because death is real and nasty and it makes claims on us that Jesus will not allow to stand. Jesus marches to Bethany in his own good time, because he is going to undo death. Jesus is vetoing death’s premature verdict over Lazarus’s life.

Jesus who actually is resurrection…Jesus who truly is the only life worth living…..Jesus insists on going to Bethany, heading out to the tomb, having the stone rolled away (despite the stench of decay in the air)….Jesus takes charge here, because the Resurrection and the Life has come to pick a fight with Death—and that’s a fight that Death will never win.

And as if that were not enough, Jesus catches up those around him in the miracle of this sign. Instead of crawling into the tomb and single-handedly dragging Lazarus out—Jesus calls to Lazarus, Jesus issues an executive order in the full confidence that Lazarus will hear it and obey.

And when Lazarus appears at the door of the tomb, Jesus hustles the whole community into action: “Unbind him, and let him go.” Peel back the burial shroud, untangle the bands of grave-cloth, turn Lazarus loose!

Jesus returns to Judea—where an attempt had just been made on his life (at the end of John chapter 10)….Jesus marches resolutely to Bethany, to the tomb of Lazarus, in order to pick a fight with Death.

But this is only “Round One” of a greater battle our Lord waged with Death. Virtually every detail is an early echo of a drama yet to be played out. As noted preacher Fred Craddock has observed, “The passion of Jesus bleeds through the surface of [this] story….[When he comes to Lazarus’s tomb] Jesus is experiencing something like a Gethsemane, for he knows that calling Lazarus out of the tomb means that he must enter it.” (Fred Craddock, “A Twofold Death and Resurrection,” The Christian Century, March 21-28, 1999.)

When Jesus was arrested, tried, executed and buried he dealt Death a knockout punch. Call it “Round Two” in his fight-to-the finish with Death. The Resurrection and the Life won that round—for you and for me and for all people everywhere.

But there is more: the story of Lazarus, the passion of our Lord Jesus….these core narratives of faith “bleed through” into our own lives of following Jesus.

We weep—as Jesus wept—because death is the pits, because like Jesus we aren’t just sad, but we’re also mad that death robs us so brazenly.

This state of affairs will not stand, though. Our Lord Jesus Christ has seen to that. Whatever sort of tomb we’re stuck in, wrapped in stinking grave-cloths—Jesus calls us out of that. Jesus issues an executive order to us to leave death behind—the death we bring upon ourselves (our sin), the death that is foisted on us (which we call evil), the death that brazenly pretends to have the last word.

Call this Jesus’ “Round Three,” which continues to play itself out in our lives, here and now. Jesus is still catching us up in this fight to the finish with death. Jesus “calls us out”—out of whatever tomb we’re stuck in.

And—lo and behold—Jesus even enlists us, to be part of the action, calling out others….turning loose anyone whom Jesus places in our paths, just as Jesus enlisted Lazarus’s neighbors to unwrap the bands of grave-cloths, and turn him loose.

What a wide, deep, rich story this is.

From Jesus’ weeping to Jesus picking a fight with death….this story tells the only story worth knowing, Jesus’ story, which has become our story.

Jesus wept—as we shall weep. But Jesus wept as the One who would deprive death of the last word. Jesus claims that Word for himself: “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Breaking the Silence About Money in Our Churches

Breaking the Silence about Money in Our Churches
NW MN Synod Spring Stewardship Event
Trinity Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes, MN
April 7, 2011

It’s always a good idea to listen closely to things we say around the church…especially things that get said and—simply because they’ve been said—are taken as gospel truth even though they may be anything but that.

Here’s one: “All this church ever talks about is money.” Someone says that—passionately, maybe even with a trace of disgust or anger in his tone (in my experience it usually is a HIM who says this)….and there is silence or perhaps even a murmur of agreement.

Here’s another one: “We never talk about money at this church.”

In my experience, all too often, such things are said loudly, forcefully by one person or perhaps a small group of church members—and everyone else (including the pastor, including the elected lay leaders) simply bows their heads, backs off, and agrees….tacitly (by not challenging it) if not overtly through nodded heads and words of agreement. “Yup, people don’t want to hear about money. We don’t want any money-grubbing around here. We talk stewardship—not money,” etc. etc.

Where does such talk come from? Is it based in fact? Do we Lutherans really talk too much about money—do we really? I don’t think so. There’s not too much talk about money in our churches.

There is, rather, a deafening silence about money among us….and it’s one of the things that’s killing us.

But where does such talk come from? It comes, I think, straight from the Old Adam—the collective “old man/old woman” in us all whose motto is: “Protect yourself at all costs.”

Why does such talk “rule the day” in our churches? It’s because of the Old Adam/Old Eve in all of us, that naturally resonates to ANY talk about self-protection. It’s also because we’ve swallowed a whole bunch of ideas, assimilated them so thoroughly that they now live in our bones:

• Talking about money is personal—it’s a privacy issue (and in America, we’ve gone over the top on “privacy concerns.”)

• How I spend my money is between me and my God (watch the pronouns!).

• Money-talk is somehow ‘beneath’ us; money is “dirty” (filthy lucre!) and we aspire to loftier things.

• Money-talk will drive away people from our churches, including the people we actually hope will give money to our churches, though we pledge ourselves to be ever so cautious in even HINTING at asking for their money (a vicious circle!)

And then there’s this one: “We believe that money follows mission….so we talk mainly about mission (do we, really?) and we trust the money will follow.” Even I used to believe this one—but no longer. Jesus, after all, didn’t say: “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be.” He said: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Friends, I believe it is high time—it is past time for us to question such statements, and also to ponder our own acquiescence in allowing such statements to pass in our churches. It is time for us to break the silence about money in our churches, and we hope that this synod stewardship event will help you go home and be a catalyst for making that happen.

Four thoughts about “Breaking the Silence.”

1. We need to break the silence about money because how we think, believe, talk and act about money provides a window into our souls.

What we make of money, as followers of Jesus Christ, speaks volumes about our spiritual vitality, the quality of our discipleship.

How a church thinks, believes, speaks and acts about money is like the proverbial “canary in the mineshaft…”

How people of God think, believe, speak and act about money is a key (I’m tempted to say it is THE key) “vital sign” of life within the Body of Christ.

One way we know that is that money-talk frequently makes us say ouch—if only to ourselves. If money-talk makes you cringe or shy away…pay attention to that.

When I visit my dentist, he takes this little probe-thing and goes up and down, along my gum line. My dentist digs around, pokes below the gum line, and sometimes the way he probes makes me grab the armrests of the dentist chair.

I want my dentist to “move on”…to spend more time in the parts of my mouth that feel fine. But my dentist is a sadist—he goes for the bottom corner of that one tooth where there’s this little sticky area—and he pokes around there, and I wish he would stop.

Or my general physician, at my annual physical, gets my shirt off, has me lie down on the examining table….and he kneads my gut, presses on my abdomen….and I tense up (because I’m ticklish)….and my doctor never asks me if anything feels GOOD when he does that. No, he asks me: “Does this hurt?” And if I say yes, he goes back to that area and kneads it some more, watching for my reaction.

Is my dentist a specialist in torture? Is my medical doctor a sadist? No. They focus on the things that make me say “ouch”—the parts that hurt, because the things that hurt in us are the things that could kill us.

And that, I believe, is why we have this code of silence about money in the church. It’s essentially a self-protective move on the part of the Old Adam, the Old Eve, in all of us. “Don’t touch me there—it hurts too much to talk about that…so I’d rather avoid it.” And being the nice people we are…we nice Minnesota Lutherans….we let such statements stand….we tippy-toe around them and end up giving them the status of gospel truth. “We don’t talk about money at this church.”

That kind of statement is like say: “We don’t talk about sin…..we don’t talk about salvation….we don’t talk about anything that really matters at this church.”

Because money matters—it’s a window into our souls.

Mark Allan Powell likes to say: “You think I talk a lot about money—wait until you meet JESUS!” It’s commonly observed that—if you just count up Bible verses—Jesus talks a lot more about money than he talks about prayer.

Because money matters so much—because it is so near and dear to us—we must talk about it. Mark Allan Powell uses a helpful acronym: ARMS—we need to talk about how we acquire money, how we regard money, how we manage money and how we spend money—because the Bible speaks volumes about all four of these topics (Mark Allan Powell, “Stewardship for the Missional Church,” in Rethinking Stewardship: Our Culture, Our Theology, Our Practices [Word and World Supplement Series 6], pp. 77-86).

And leaders, especially pastors, need to get over their reluctance to talk about money….their acquiescence with the big lie that “we don’t talk about money in this church.” For myself, over the course of 30 years as a pastor I have moved from thinking I should never know anything about how the members of a church give to thinking that I would be irresponsible if I didn’t know about giving patterns in a congregation I am called to serve. A pastor not knowing about church members’ giving patterns is like a doctor refusing to read a patient’s medical chart!

2. Breaking the silence about money will allow us to face truths we’d rather avoid, truths we need to face especially if we’ve been called to leadership in Christ’s church.

Such as the following seven facts about U.S. Christian giving (Emerson, Smith and Snell; “U.S. Christians and the Riddle of Stingy Giving” in Rethinking Stewardship, pp. 9-12):

A. 20% of Christians give nothing to church, parachurch or nonreligious charities in this country.

B. Most U.S. Christians give little to church, parachurch or nonreligious charities. The average is 2.9% of income (which climbs to 6.2% of income for those who attend worship at least 2x/month.) Because these figures are averages—averaging out generous givers and stingy givers….a more telling statistic is the median giving of American Christians (the numerically middle position) which is more like 0.6% of their income (2% for attending Christians).

C. A small minority of American Christians give generously—and their giving accounts for most of the money given by Christians. The most generous 5% of Christians supply 60% of all the money donated to churches and charities.

D. Income is unrelated to charitable giving.

E. The past century witnessed more than a quadrupling of real per capita personal income….but this increase in income has not translated into more generous giving.

F. In 2005 U.S. Christians earned a total collective income of more than two trillion dollars—more than the total collective GDP of all nations of the world other than the six wealthiest nations.

G. If U.S. Christians gave on average something approaching a tithe, they could quite literally change the world. Using the 2005 income figure, we’d be talking $133 billion for churches, parachurch organizations and charities.

3. Breaking the silence about money in the church frees us to realize and discuss together how, in the realm of financial stewardship, everything has changed. And we need to do that if we want to be faithful, effective leaders of Christ’s church in the 21st century.

In a nutshell: the Greatest Generation is passing from our midst. Read the obituaries. The Greatest Generation built and maintained institutions, contributed to institutions, because they trusted institutions. The Greatest Generation was the most “churched” generation in the history of denominations in North America. And they gave birth to one of the least “churched” generation, my generation, the Baby Boomers….and we in turn have spawned our even less-churched successor generations.

We might “wish back” the Greatest Generation…but they are passing from the scene. We need to understand and work with the generations who have succeeded them—and we need to get handles on the coming generations (the generations younger than most of us in this room).

We’re talking a sea-change here, with implications for every area of church life including how the church thinks, believes, talks and acts about money….including the money we need to do God’s work in the world.

David Lose encapsulates this sea-change in three ways as he discusses today’s world of “digital pluralism” (David Lose, “Stewardship in the Age of Digital Pluralism,” in Rethinking Stewardship, pp. 111-121):

A. We are moving from an age of obligation to an age of discretion.

B. We are moving from a time when identity was largely received to a time when identity is actively constructed.

C. We have moved from a culture that values tradition to one that values experience.

We might wish that we lived in another time or place—that our period of stewarding Christ’s church on earth were NOT happening here and now.

4. Breaking our silence about money in the churches will help us see that money is so integral to the life of faith that we (in the church) need to talk about it even when we’re not asking for any of it.

Again I am indebted to David Lose, from an article on Working Preacher (

“Time to come clean. How many of you have preached a sermon about money without asking for any? I raise this question for three reasons.

First, and as I've alluded to before, I believe our traditions are declining in part because we too rarely address our faith to the concrete and daily issues that concern our hearers. All too often, what our people hear on Sunday has precious little to do with what concerns them on Monday through Saturday.

Second, I know of few people who do not struggle to think faithfully about issues of money – how much to spend, to save, to share; what to spend it on, where to share it, and so forth. Our use of money is intimately connected with our priorities, values, and faith, and most people I know would crave some help from their church in thinking about all this.

Third, I honestly believe that if we can help people connect their faith to their everyday, pressing, real life concerns, then most of them will give generously and faithfully because of the difference their congregation makes to them.”

Here’s my take on what Dr. Lose is saying: We need to break the silence about money in our churches so that we talk about money so regularly, so effortlessly that folks come to see how integral their money-talk, money-think, money-act is to their whole life of faith and discipleship…..and as we do that we will also overcome some of our hang-ups, our nervousness about talking about giving some of our money to the church. Talking MORE about money—even, perhaps especially when it’s not during the stewardship campaign!!—may in the long run make it less necessary to talk about money every autumn(as in “time to give some of it to church”) because money-talk will simply be woven into the entire fabric of our lives of faith.