The annual offerings at one of my two congregations amount to about $20,000. Yes, that’s less than the cost of many new cars, less than half the average household income in the United States, and almost less than half the total cost of hiring a newly ordained pastor. Our congregation shares many of the basic costs of ministry (such as the pastor, secretary, and worship supplies) fifty-fifty with a neighboring congregation, but costs related to the building and ensuing heating and electricity are shouldered by the congregation alone.
In a very rural congregation with an average worship attendance of about forty, $20,000 is not as low as it could be, but needless to say, the budget conversations are laborious and the finances can feel a bit tight at times. We always seem to be stretching the dollars to cover everything they need to, and there is an underlying anxiety concerning the finances and long-term survival of the congregation.
But these modest offerings are not the whole story of the financial state of my congregation. Here is the humor of it all: my scrimping, saving, budgeting, worrying, complaining congregation is, in the midst of all this, sitting on buried treasure. My first clue came in January 2007 during the Annual Meeting, my first while serving said congregation. We went through the usual reports: Pastor, Secretary, Treasurer, Sunday School, Ladies’ Aid, and then came upon the Cemetery Fund. This appeared to be actually two funds, the basic cemetery maintenance fund, and a second fund, lumped in with the Cemetery Fund, referred to as the Jacobson Fund.
I had not seen or heard of this fund before, so I scanned the report and my eyes fell upon the total balance at the bottom of the sheet: $234,642.73. What? What kind of cemetery fund was this? Our cemetery is a typical rural plot of land sitting next to the parking lot, flush against soybean fields on two sides. It is littered with gravestones from the early twentieth century through today, and the entire thing is walkable in less than five minutes.
I listened through the rest of the Annual Meeting and then caught one of the women of the church and started asking questions. Is this for real? Who are the Jacobsons? What is this money used for?
The basic answers I got were as follows: Yes; four sisters (three never married) are buried side by side out there, have no living relatives, and left all their money to the church; a bit of the interest is used for this and that, but we would never touch the principal; there’s a document written up about the fund; I think it’s in the church safe.
My mind began to spin: So what you’re telling me is that our congregation, our financially struggling, tiny congregation has well over $200,000 to its name? And what’s more, this $200,000 we mysteriously have is tied to four people out there in the cemetery, to be considered useable only by their wishes, and we have only a four-page arcane document from which to ascertain what these wishes might be?
We’re rich! Sort of.
I asked around about this odd fund and discovered that instead of ever considering this relatively grand and certainly generous fund useable, my congregation had more or less buried it alongside those from whom it came. Along with the people who bequeathed it, the fund was raised upon a pedestal, to be looked at, marveled over, revered, and protected, but certainly not handled or used, for fear that this treasure would be destroyed.
My congregation had been given this amazing gift, not just for the cemetery, but also for the life of the entire congregation. But this gift of over ten times the average annual offerings was considered so grand by the congregation that over time it had slowly turned into an idol that the congregation worshipped, rather than something to be used. This gift had become treasure to be clung to and hidden away, lest it be squandered.
Jesus declares in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19–21). Clearly he knew what he was talking about. Storing things up is exactly what we are inclined to do. What happens when one’s church receives a rather large monetary gift? It is stored up on earth, buried away like treasure, considered more a part of the cemetery than the actual church. And what happens then to one’s heart, one’s emotions, one’s trust and faith? They are buried away as well, hidden deep in the earth like pirate’s loot rather than in heaven where such treasures belong.
This hoarding we are practicing at my church brings to mind another word from Jesus, this one the parable of the rich fool from Luke 12. In this lesson, Jesus warns us to be on our guard “against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (verse 15). He goes on to tell the parable of a rich man who owned land that was producing abundantly. The man wondered what he would possibly do with all these crops, and his solution was to build a bigger barn so he could store up all his land had produced and then bask in its glory, relaxing and eating all he wished. All to which God says, “You fool!”
In my congregation, we’re holding on tightly to that money, hiding it away, burying it like pirates might bury treasure, leaving only a confusing map that might lead us back to it. And should anyone want to touch that money, well, don’t even think about it.
Don’t get me wrong; I have the privilege of being the pastor to a generous bunch of folks. Despite their tight congregational and personal budgets, they contribute to their synodical offices, the local food shelf, Lutheran World Relief, and all the local benefits. But when it comes to a major need inside or outside the church, one that cannot be met with a hundred dollars or so, this special fund we’ve got often comes up in conversation—and we never seem to crack into it.
From what I can ascertain, two things have happened in this congregation since this particular fund was created. First, individual giving has dried up, because when someone is feeling the pinch of tight economic times and just doesn’t have much left in the wallet, it is easy to think of this stockpile of money buried out there in the cemetery and think, “The church doesn’t need my ten dollars; it’s got thousands in the bank.” Really, why give anything if it is just going to be buried away?
What’s more, even though the congregation is relatively financially secure, the advent of this fund has caused anxiety to grow. It seems that there is a feeling among people that we must protect the Jacobson Fund, as if it were in constant danger from villains and thieves who have been plotting to rob it. That attitude is much like that of my two year old. He doesn’t worry about what he doesn’t have, but if I give him something enjoyable to play with, the moment I even look like I might take it away, the tantrums begin and he whines, “but I need it.”
The Jacobson Fund was a surprise gift to my congregation upon the deaths of some rather quiet and humble members. The parishioners did not know they needed over $200,000 to feel good about their church. When they had just a couple hundred dollars in the bank at any given time, they had no idea what they were missing, and the years went by with prayers for provisions and a trust in God. Now, upon the reception of this gift, should anyone consider some of the money going to use, the whining begins, “but we need it to stay in the bank.”
The truth is, as much as I am laboring on about their experience, the people in my congregation are not particularly evil people just because they do not want to spend their beloved Jacobson Fund. Rather they are all of us. Jesus knew the truth about humanity when he warned about the consuming power of moth and rust; he knew that where we placed our treasure, whatever it may be, our hearts would be quick to follow. When we treasure the things of this world, our heart is wrapped around fleeting things, instead of around our Lord and Savior. When we are so concerned with that which will die or fade away with this world, then we might as well be hunting for some sort of buried treasure among the dead.
In Mark 5, Jesus and his disciples stumble across a man in the country of the Gerasenes who is living among the tombs. Demonic possession had so overcome him that he was unfit for society, so he took up residence where he and his brokenness could hide, among the ultimate brokenness of death.
Our greedy hearts, attached to the things of this world, lead us to live among the dead as well. My congregation has so attached itself to a seemingly untouchable pot of money, connected to four long-dead bodies in our cemetery, that the members are finding themselves fit for that same cemetery.
But the Gerasene demoniac is set free. Jesus declares, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” and he sends the legion of unclean spirits out of this man and into a herd of swine that promptly drown themselves in the sea. The next thing we know, to the amazement of all who know him, the man is now clothed and in his right mind, freed from his place among the dead.
To our need to cling to all that would lead us to death, Jesus Christ speaks freedom, just as he did to the demon-possessed man. Christ has set us free so that we would not live among the dead, but rather among the living; free from striving with all our might for fleeting treasures. In his harsh warning against storing up treasures on earth, we hear the good news of Jesus Christ; he is enough; he is all we need; he is the treasure of everlasting value. God’s word brings us out of the cemetery and into the land of ever lasting life.
Katie Koch is pastor of United and Our Savior’s Lutheran Churches in rural northwestern Minnesota.