Spiritual Practices: Giving
March 4, 2018
Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, CA
Some of you know that before coming to Epworth, I led an organization in New York, but our family never moved there. I commuted to New York about every 5 weeks and spent anywhere from 3-6 days there, and since this was a national branch of an international organization with chapters around the country and other branches around the world, I spent a fair amount of time on planes.
There are a number of us who travel for work here and many of us have family spread across the nation and world, so regular air travel is often just a part of life these days. Before there was wifi on planes, I loved being able to just sit with my laptop for several hours and get uninterrupted work done, and before laptops were ubiquitous, air travel for me was one of the best ways to dive into a good book.
But now, with wifi and lots of movie options and many free downloadable movies, I’ve had to employ the same discipline to focus and get done what I need to get done when flying as I do at any other time. When I was flying back and forth to New York, I’d set a goal of finishing a certain project or set of tasks, then I could watch a movie or read.
This last week as I was coming home from Kansas City after officiating at the funeral of a dear friend and being with extended family, my reward on the plane after finishing my work was a Ken Burns documentary on the Shakers.
The Shakers were a sect of Christians, founded in England in the 18th century and shortly thereafter moving to the colonies in search of religious freedom. They institutionalized equality between genders as early as 1780, the believed in a kind of attainment of perfection on earth which was often seen expressed through the fine detail, simplicity and craftsmanship of the furniture they made, the cloth they spun and the architecture of their buildings.
Formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, the Shakers were celibate, so I guess it’s not surprising that there are very few Shakers around today. Still, their numbers swelled to somewhere around 6000 by the mid 1800s, in part because they adopted many children without families into their community where they were loved and cared for and taught the commitments and beliefs of the Shakers.
But what was most fascinating to me about this documentary was the deeply intentional and committed way that the Shakers lived their Christianity. They were never idle, and were entrepreneurial and inventive in the way they went about their pursuits, which in addition to furniture making and weaving, included farming, art, building, selling seeds and buttons and buckles and wines and medicines and jellies and nails and many other things. As a community, they are known for multiple inventions across manufacturing, farming, and housekeeping that increased efficiency and productivity. They were workers and they worked hard. As one Shaker woman said, “You see the Shakers were inventors in their own right. They wanted to introduce into the family anything that would make the work lighter or add pleasure. Being a Shaker was not just about having a home it was about joy, because religion should be a joyous experience for people.”
The Shakers prospered. When they discovered that their crops were being stolen by night, they planted more—some for the Shakers, some for the thieves and some for the crows. They took in without judgment those who they called “Winter Shakers”—persons who professed Shaker belief in the cold and barren winter months when work was light, but who typically left in the spring, and they used their funds to buy the freedom of enslaved persons.
What the Shakers knew was that money, like all resources, was, in itself, morally neutral. What mattered was what they did with those resources, and in that choice of use, there was ultimate moral significance. In the stewardship of all resources, they sought to be faithful, to work and spend in ways that would help to bring about the new heaven and new earth promised through Christ, when all suffering would cease. They sought this with intense focus and fervor. They believed that Christ was coming again soon, and that their efforts were a part of that.
Money and its faithful use confronts us every day here in the Bay Area where the cost of living is one of the highest in the country. The wealth disparity among persons who have so much and persons who have so little has significantly widened since the 80s. When I learn more about groups like the Shakers, I feel convicted. Though our family seeks to give as much as we can, when I hear about the practices of the Shakers, I know we could do more.
In our scripture today from John’s gospel, Jesus is giving us a teaching on money and commerce through his actions as he approaches the temple. In one of the opening scenes of his public ministry according to John, we find Jesus outside the temple walls in Jerusalem. He becomes angry as he encounters sellers and money changers. Jesus makes clear that getting and spending without consciousness is not faithful action, and that the acts of money-changing and sacrifice-purchasing fail to understand the call of God to human beings, to always be about responding to the grace that surrounds us.
More than any other single topic, Jesus talked about money. Sixteen of the thirty-nine parables are about finances and possession. In the Gospels, one of every ten verses talk about money. There are 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 on faith and more than 2000 verses on money and possessions.
John Wesley, too, the founder of Methodism preached a wealth of words on money. In his sermon, “The Use of Money” he was famous for saying, “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Wesley saw this as a “way of meeting the people of the world on their own ground.” It’s an interesting twist to what some assume is a Christian position against money, maybe confused with the vow of poverty that some Catholic priests and nuns make. But Wesley was clear that it was the use of money that made the difference, and more money had the potential to do more good.
This week, Epworth’s youth experienced the tremendous potential for good that money has. At their last retreat, the youth group, led by Epworth’s youth director Angel Rivero, fasted to raise bail funds for undocumented persons at the West County Detention Center in Richmond. Though many of them were new to fasting, they raised almost $1000 through asking others to be with them in their fast by pledging funds for each hour fasted.
Then, through our partner the Interfaith Center for Human Integrity, they learned that their funds were the critical difference in being able to free a man from Mongolia who was being imprisoned solely because he had come to the United States without the right papers. It’s shocking and angering to know, as we do know, that hundreds of God’s children are being incarcerated solely because they are undocumented. And as they await for their case to be heard, which can take months or even years, the only thing standing in the way of their freedom is money.
On Tuesday night after many weeks in the detention center, using the funds the Epworth youth collected and polling another amount of money, Erkembat, who had to leave Mongolia to escape gang violence, was freed. He wept when he learned his bond had been cancelled, not believing someone had paid his debt. Yesterday some of the youth who participated in raising the funds were able to meet him at the monthly vigil at the detention center to which all are encouraged to come. It’s the first Saturday of every month at 11am, and Jerry can give you more details.
Like the Shakers who used proceeds from their prodigious labor to purchase the freedom of enslaved persons, the Epworth youth and those who supported them have employed the power of money for good. Freedom, of movement, of body, of mind should be inherent rights. But sadly, in our world today, in the days of the Shakers and in the days of Jesus, they were and are not. And so in the meantime, our faithfulness calls us to address this injustice, and one of the primary tools we have to do this with is money.
But what Jesus knew, and what the Shakers knew and what our youth now know is that to be able to give extravagantly IS freedom. In our scripture today from John, Jesus is angrier than we have ever seen him. He has taken a whip of cords, driving all the people and animals from the temple courtyards, overturning tables and dumping out money boxes. In the recorded history of his life, we will never see him this angry again. We have to ask, then, why this intensity? Jesus came to set at liberty all those who are oppressed, to deliver us from slavery to sin and death. And here he finds, in a place where he would expect to encounter persons and activity that would assist in his mission, a misunderstanding of it, a focus not on the freedom that money can buy but the transactional nature of money, and the accumulation of money without purpose.
Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it in three days.” Of course, he was not talking about building a new temple, he was talking about the resurrection, the raising of his own body that confirmed to us all the ultimate freedom. Jesus, in being willing to die so that we would know to give is to live, paid a debt for us. He gave all he had to truly be with people, to demonstrate with his body and his life that whatever we suffer, he, as God, has suffered. He showed us that to give is to live.
As resurrection people, we are free to practice that same extravagant generosity ourselves. That’s why giving is a spiritual practice. Spiritual practices are those things that we do that draw us closer to God and to each other. They remind us who we are, and what our ultimate calling is, which is to be people who follow the way of Jesus, doing all we can to set at liberty those who are oppressed or enslaved, and to make sure we ourselves are free. This is the interesting thing about freedom. Our common culture wants us to believe that the meaning of freedom is to be without any commitments, but in fact freedom is the opposite. True freedom is to be committed to live in the joy of extravagant generosity, because of a belief and faith in the abundance of life.
May we hear in John Wesley’s words, “Earn all you can, save all you can and give all you can,” a call to practice extravagant generosity, and in that extravagant generosity, may we know the freedom and life that is available to all of us, through the sacrificial example of Jesus, through the commitment of the community, and through the love of God. Amen.