And They Call Themselves Christians

First United Presbyterian Church
“And They Call Themselves Christian”
Rev. Amy Morgan
September 10, 2017
Listen to sermon audio

Ezekiel 33:7-11
7 So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. 8If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die’, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. 9But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.

10 Now you, mortal, say to the house of Israel, Thus you have said: ‘Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?’ 11Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?

Matthew 18:15-20
15 ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

Roger had seen him do it once.

His fellow usher, George, slipped a $20 bill from the offering plate into his pocket. Roger was shocked, of course. He’d known George a long time. For years. How many, he couldn’t be sure, but a long time, anyway. George seemed like an upstanding guy, a good Christian. Roger didn’t know of any financial hardships George was facing.

Roger told his wife, Jean, about it over lunch after church. “I could hardly believe my eyes,” Roger said. “I mean, why would he do it?”

“That’s just awful,” replied Jean. “Really, I can’t imagine George, of all people, stealing from the offering plate.”

Later that week, in the Knitting Circle, Jean confided in a few of her friends. “Roger saw George stealing from the offering plate last Sunday. Can you believe it?”
“And he calls himself a Christian!” her friend Pat exclaimed. “How could he do such a thing?”

The next Sunday, Roger kept a close eye on George. Several people declined to put cash in the offering plate. Word of George’s theft had gotten around somehow. At coffee hour, people were unusually cold toward George. When he spoke to them directly, they didn’t make eye contact and quickly found a way out of the conversation.

Over the next few weeks, things only got worse. George was “accidentally” left off the email list announcing the location of the monthly men’s fellowship. A new usher was added to the crew, and he seemed to eagerly jump up and grab the offering plates before George could get to them. George’s good friends in the congregation had stopped calling to invite him out for a round of golf or a cup of coffee.

Finally, George went to the pastor. “I don’t know what’s going on around here,” George said. “Everybody seems to have changed. It’s like I’m being pushed out for some reason. I don’t get it. What did I do?”

The pastor, who had also heard about George’s theft, looked uncomfortable. “Well, George,” she started. Then stopped. Then sighed heavily. Then collected herself. “George, everybody knows you’ve been skimming off the offering plate. People are very upset. They wanted me to remove you from the ushering crew, but, because I care about you, I just added Joseph to take up the offering and help people feel comfortable giving again. This has really been hurtful to the whole congregation.”
George was dumbstruck. After a moment of shocked silence, George said, “Pastor, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Several weeks ago, Roger saw you pocket a $20 bill from the offering plate,” the pastor said.

George thought back. Oh, yes. He remembered. He’d put a $100 bill in the plate that morning. It was all he had on him. And then he’d remembered he had promised to take Pat out for coffee after church. It would have been so embarrassing to not have the money to pay for the coffee. He’d pulled $20 out of the plate, considering it “making change” from the $100 he’d put in.

As he explained the situation to the pastor, he began to get angry. He started to realized that, for weeks now, the whole congregation had been talking about him behind his back, thinking he was stealing from the church, slowly but intentionally excluding him. After he had given faithfully to this church for years, served as an usher, an elder, a deacon, they all thought he was a thief. And not a single one of them had had the courage to say it to his face.

A tirade along this theme began to flood out of him in the pastor’s office. She sat there, wide-eyed and ashamed until he finished with, “And you call yourselves Christians!”

George stormed from the pastor’s office and never returned to church.

Now, let’s try that again.

Roger saw his fellow usher, George, slip a $20 bill from the offering plate into his pocket. Roger was shocked, of course. He’d known George a long time. George seemed like an upstanding guy, a good Christian. Roger didn’t know of any financial hardships George was facing.

But, Roger knew George was recently widowed. He was on a fixed income. Who knew? Maybe George really did need the money. Roger looked the other way and decided to keep this to himself.

The next week, Tony was counting with George. They each counted the offering, and George’s count came up short. “No worries, buddy,” said Tony. “I’m sure it’ll all come out in the wash.”

Later that year, George was elected to be the church treasurer. George insisted that he should be the only one with access to the ledger. Too many hands on it, and who knew what could happen. Better to have all the information go through one person. He kept the ledger at home instead of at church. Safer there, he said. In each of his reports, George announced that the church was doing just fine. Offerings were coming in. Everything was on budget. Things looked good. Nothing to worry about.

Six months later, the pastor noticed an odd piece of mail. It looked like some kind of legal notice. She opened it to find that the loan the church had taken out for a new roof several years ago hadn’t been paid in months. She called George.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he said. “It’s all cyclical. You pay those things when giving is higher at the end of the year. You want to pay some things off faster than others. They won’t really take any legal action against a church. Bad press, you know. We’ll get all caught up, don’t you worry.”

The pastor did worry, but she didn’t say anything.

Several months later, one of the trustees of the Presbytery called. The loan still hadn’t been paid. They would need to see the church financials.

George fought it tooth and nail, did everything he could to talk his way around it. Finally, however, he had to hand over the ledger.

The trustees recommended a full financial audit. They even paid for it. What they found was that George had stolen thousands of dollars from the church coffers.

The pastor called George into her office to break the news. “We’re pursuing legal action against you, George. I don’t know how you could have done such a thing. It’s just shameful. We’re so hurt, and now we’re in deep financial trouble.”

George was indignant. “You’re pressing charges against me? I’m a church member! I’ve served this church for years! What about forgiveness? Isn’t that what you preach? And you call yourselves Christians!”

George paid for his crimes and never returned to church, any church, again.

All right. One more time.

Roger saw his fellow usher, George, slip a $20 bill from the offering plate into his pocket. Roger was shocked, of course. He’d known George a long time. George seemed like an upstanding guy, a good Christian. Roger didn’t know of any financial hardships George was facing.

Later that week, Roger asked George if he could take him out for coffee. “Sure, thanks!” George replied.

They drank their coffee and chatted about the Broncos until Roger cleared his throat and, with great discomfort said, “Hey, George? I saw you lift that $20 from the offering plate this morning. What’s going on?”

George stopped, mid-sip, and slowly set his cup back down. He sighed. “I’d wondered if you saw that. Listen, it was just this once. I’ve never done it before. I’ve given and given to this church for years. You know I’ve served on practically every committee. And now I’m on a fixed income. Sometimes I run a little low on cash. I was just going to use it to take Pat out to coffee after church. That’s all.”

“But you do know it was wrong, don’t you?” Roger questioned. George continued to defend himself.

“Listen,” Roger said, “I’ll give you the $20 if you need it. Just let me put the money back in the offering.”

George became adamant. “No. I’m not a charity case. I’ve earned this money, with all the work I’ve put into this church, all the time I’ve given, heck, all the money I used to give, when I was making more. There’s no reason one $20 bill should be such a big deal.” And Roger couldn’t change his mind.

So later that week he met with the pastor and explained what had happened. The pastor called Bill, one of George’s good friends in the congregation, and asked if he could meet with her and George and Roger.

They all sat together in the pastor’s office. Roger explained what he’d seen and how he’d talked to George. George continued to defend his actions.

The pastor explained, “George, nobody’s mad at you. We all love and care about you. We are happy to forgive you, just like God is always happy to forgive us. But you have to see that what you did was wrong. It was a little thing. I get that. Not a lot of money, and maybe just a one-time thing. But it was still stealing, and it’s not okay. If you can just admit that, we can move past this together.”

But George was adamant that he hadn’t done anything wrong, that it was completely within his rights to take the money.

The pastor and Roger and Bill prayed with George. They prayed for him over the next several weeks. And then they met together again to decide what to do next.

They met with George one more time. George came into the office looking sullen and anxious. “So you all still think I’m a thief, huh?”

“We wouldn’t put that label on you, George,” the pastor assured him. “You’re our brother in Christ. But you have sinned. You’ve stolen money. And you haven’t been able to repent and experience forgiveness. We care about you, and your relationship with God and with the other people in this church. What if they all knew? How would Pat feel, knowing the money you used to pay for her coffee had been stolen from the offering plate? How would all the other church members on a fixed income like you feel? Would your reasoning seem justified to all of them?”

“So you’re going to bring this up in front of the whole congregation?” asked George, horrified.

“We don’t want to, George. But that is what Jesus told us the next step in this process should be. Not to publicly shame you, but so that all of us together can help reconcile you with this community and with God. You’ve broken your relationship with all of us in stealing this money, no matter how insignificant an action it might seem. You’ve broken our trust. And the only way we can repair that trust and that relationship is if you can admit it was wrong and accept forgiveness.”

George was silent for a long time. He thought about looking out at all those faces in the congregation, all his friends who struggled to pay electric bills or pay for prescriptions. All the young families working hard to provide for their kids and save for college. He saw each of them putting that $20 in the offering plate. And he saw the expressions on their faces when they heard he had taken it.

George pushed back tears as he said, “I’m so sorry. I really didn’t think about it. I was just thinking about myself. I know it wasn’t much, but that money wasn’t mine to take. I’ll never do it again, I promise. Just please don’t tell anyone else. I’m so ashamed.”

Bill and Roger and the pastor put their hands on George and prayed for him, reminding him of God’s forgiveness and their own, reminding him that he was loved, by God and by his church family, assuring him that he could start again.
When they were finished, George looked relieved. He took out his wallet and pulled out a $10 bill, handing it over to the pastor. “It’s all I’ve got right now, but I promise I’ll pay back the rest.”

The pastor smiled. “Thank you, George. That would be good. But you remember, too, that if you ever need anything, all you have to do is ask. We are here for you. There are a lot of folks struggling financially, but we take care of each other in this church. Members of God’s family are responsible to – and for – each other. That’s what it means to be a Christian.”

And they all said, “Amen.”


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