The Measure of a Life

  It’s my privilege to serve with many forward-looking people who are working to ensure this congregation’s future vitality. There are, for example, the members of the Construction Readiness Committee, who have devoted time in recent months to a series of meetings and field trips aimed at more intelligent and efficient design that will lower the cost of our proposed facility. There are the members of the Capital Campaign Bridge Team, who, for nearly thirty months, have monitored the status of building funds and are helping us think about how to bring our capital campaign to a successful conclusion. As a congregation, we’ve worked harder than most to listen for God’s call regarding the way our ministries will be housed in years to come. If we continue to practice prayerful discernment of the Spirit’s leading, then eventually we will get to the place where we are supposed to travel.

 Discerning the Spirit’s leading requires a certain amount of focus and discretion. It requires an ability to listen intently enough to go deeper than the small details until we get to the big issues. In the journey of life, adjusting the size of a facility design and revising our capital campaign expectations are small details. As we walk together, a bigger issue is whether you and I are spending our lives and resources on things that really matter.

 The struggle to discern what really matters is at the heart of the story told in the film “A Civil Action.” The film is based upon the real life legal proceedings surrounding water pollution in a Massachusetts town. John Travolta plays an attorney whose goal is to get rich by winning large cash judgments for his clients. As the film progresses, the attorney gets to know his clients more fully, and through them hears more deeply the call to justice. A series of events take place in which he stands up for principle, and he loses his firm and his fortune. In a pivotal scene, he finds himself in bankruptcy court with less than $20 to his name. The judge, who simply cannot believe the reversal that has taken place in this formerly wealthy lawyer’s circumstances, poses the question: “Where are the things by which one measures one’s life?” The answer is that there are none, at least not in the sense that the judge intends. The attorney has learned that possessing a thing like a high-powered sports car is a small detail. The big issue is whether he has spent his life and resources pursuing justice for children and their families.

 Something that may be more impressive than this story itself is the way that I found it. I didn’t just happen to download it on Netflix, or get it from a fellow pastor, or read it in a professional journal. I discovered it buried deep in a book by a multi-millionaire. His name is John Bogle, the founder of Vanguard Mutual Funds. I read somewhere that he is an Episcopalian who attends Presbyterian worship services. I don’t doubt it, based on the way he weaves theology and ethics into his writing. Many of us already know about the way that Bogle pioneered the low-cost, no-load, indexed mutual fund as an investment vehicle. But what is surprisingly refreshing to hear in this age of financial scandal are the sound principles for life and work that undergird his investment philosophy. 

 At the beginning of his book “Enough,”[1] Bogle places a lengthy quotation from David Brooks that sounds like it could have come from the pen of a preacher: Brooks says our Puritan legacy inhibited self-indulgence, and led to affluence; he says that during the past 30 years, the social norms and institutions that encouraged this pattern have been undermined and replaced with financial decadence. From that starting point, Bogle shares nuggets of hard-earned wisdom, reminding us that in many places there is too much short-term speculation and not enough long-term investment, too much focus on the trappings of success and not enough on character. In his own way, Bogle argues that we need to recover enough focus and discretion to go deeper than the small details of finance to the big issues that lie under them.

 Where are the things by which one measures one’s life? With the perspective of one who is living on borrowed time through the miracle of an artificial heart, John Bogle answers that question by pointing to the people and institutions for which he has been appointed God’s steward. From his perspective, the extent of their vitality and health is the measure of his life.

 The average preacher faces many challenges in preaching about the measure of life. In the Church, it goes by the name “stewardship,” and includes conversations about time, talents, and money.  The preacher’s salary is paid from the voluntary contributions of the listeners, and no matter how much he or she loves and trusts the members of the congregation, the preacher still is likely to feel rather awkward preaching sermons that mention money.

 Jesus, however, did not feel inhibited about this topic. He understood that for most people, attitudes toward money affect our feelings of security or anxiety about our place in this world. Attitudes toward money affect the power dynamics in our relationships: money can be used to assert power over others, and control events in selfish ways. 

 One day, he observed a poor widow making an offering of small coins.[2] From this observation, he developed an object lesson for his disciples. It was a lesson about trust in God, and a lesson about proportional giving. It was a lesson that had antecedents in biblical history, and certainly the disciples heard echoes of stories like the one told in 1 Kings 17 about the Widow of Zarephath.[3]  She had resigned herself to go home, bake her last handful of meal, and die of starvation. Then, because God’s prophet told her not to be afraid, and probably because she didn’t have any better option, she followed the prophet’s instruction, and presented Elijah a gift of bread before making her own. And, as we know, the story concludes happily: “The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.”

 Some of you have seen and heard televangelists who told their virtual flock to pony up a pledge for which they would receive an abundance of material blessings. But the stories of the widow’s mite and the widow of Zarephath never should be used to justify financial exploitation of the poor. The moral lesson that they contain can be understood with reference to the old rabbinic principle of arguing from the lesser to the greater. In reference to that principle, the focus of these stories starts with the widows, but ends with us. The implicit lesson is this: If even a poor and defenseless widow, with no family or savings or social safety net, is able to trust in God’s provision, then how much more should we, who have these things, be willing to trust in God.

 At one time or another, all of us will live through days when we feel like one of these widows. We’ll hear a call to give to someone we love or some cause we know to be important. That call will come at a time when there’s not much left in the pantry, and the bank account feels emptier than we’d like it to be. And so we’ll struggle to discern whether the voice we hear really belongs to God. We will pray, and we will give to the best of our ability.

 Some of us may have the experience of the Widow of Zarephath, and see material blessings. Many of us will have the experience of the Widow giving her coins at the temple, without assurance of future security. We won’t always see a personal, material blessing for our faithful stewardship. 

 But I do believe that if our focus is clear, and our discretion correct, then there ARE rewards:

  • The satisfaction of pledges made becoming pledges completed,
  • The thrill of difficult tasks begun seen through to the end,
  • The joy of contributing to the vitality and health of people and institutions we love,
  • The reward of a life measured not by what we possess, but what we give away.

 If even a poor and defenseless widow, with no family or savings or social safety net, is able to trust in God’s provision, then how much more should we, who have these things, be willing to trust in God.

[1] John C. Bogle, Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009.

[2] Mark 12:41-44.

[3]1 Kings 17:8-16.


~ by JohnH1962 on November 11, 2012.

2 Responses to “The Measure of a Life”

  1. I heard the same subject Sunday that you had for your sermon.
    I understood yours but where I was I went away confused.
    Good work!

  2. Mollie, thanks for the feedback! I don’t know what you heard, of course. But it is a difficult topic, and sometimes preachers may be so intimidated that the result is vague.

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