A Tale of Two Churches

The First United Presbyterian Church
“A Tale of Two Churches”
Rev. Amy Morgan
November 11, 2018

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.
 2 It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.
 3 Sons are indeed a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward.
 4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one's youth.
 5 Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

Mark 12:38-44
38 As he taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,
 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!
 40 They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
 41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.
 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.
 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.
 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

First Church has a sprawling campus in an affluent suburb of a major metropolitan area. The sanctuary holds 800 people and is filled to capacity 4 times each weekend.

When you visit, a smiling team of parking attendants greets you and helps you find your way to the front door, where two amicable safety officers give you a nod and continue their patrol. Inside, you’re welcomed by a team of greeters who help you find your way to the coffee bar and the Christian Education wing. Scores of children happily scamper into rooms filled with bright colors and enthusiastic teachers. Youth share snacks and high fives with super cool leaders preparing to wow them with emotional rock ballads and deep Biblical truth.

As you make your way toward the sanctuary, flyers and brochures and announcements on high definition screens tell you about the many ministries this church offers outside of Sunday morning worship and education.

There are multiple international mission trips – to Guatemala, Kenya, and Lithuania. There are religious pilgrimages to Israel and Iona and following in the footsteps of Paul. 
But there is plenty of local mission going on, too. One screen encourages giving to the annual stewardship campaign because half of the church’s budget goes to mission, almost $4 million dollars a year. The church boasts that only 30% of pledged income goes to staffing and administrative costs.

Another screen invites congregants to get involved in small groups, in a new Bible study, in an after-school tutoring program, in installing playground equipment at a park in an urban area. A flyer requests donations of new school uniforms, socks and underwear for children in need, and you pass bins already overflowing with these donations.

You enter the sanctuary. Upbeat music is playing as a crowd of people greet one another and find seats. The service is filled with music and prayers. Prayers for the lost. Prayers for the poor. Lots of prayers praising God. The prayers and the music are heart-felt and emotional.
Finally, the preacher comes onstage. He tells stories. He tells jokes. He unpacks the scripture like he’s talking directly to you, telling you about something that happened the other day at lunch. It’s so casual. So real. So engaging. The pastor is like a rock star, his audience hanging on his every word.

He talks about all the great work the church does for Jesus, all the souls saved – the baptized, the converted. He talks about all the mission the church does. And he talks about how tight the church budget is, how the church needs everyone to give so the church can survive. There are so many challenges, the pastor says. So many people trying to take away what the church needs to do God’s work. The video equipment in the youth room is three years old – totally outdated. The parking lot needs to be resurfaced – it’s full of cracks. Because giving has been down in the last couple of months, they may not be able to afford new costumes for the Christmas pageant, one of the church’s biggest outreach events to the community. The community depends on the church to provide this pageant, and they may not even be able to afford the live animals this year.

The pastor challenges the congregation to think about what they really need to survive. “Go home,” he tells them, “and pray on this: What do you really need to survive? Make a pile of what you need to survive. Anything and everything else, bring it here next week. Let God take care of the rest.”

You go home. You pray. You look around your house. “What do I really need to survive?” Food. Clothing. Shelter. Water. Clean air. Right. Got all that. You look at your TV. Do I really need that to survive? You start to leave it out of the pile. Then you remember the giant HD screens all over the church. They don’t need your 5-year-old 42-inch TV. You put it in the pile. You need it more than the church. You go to your closet and consider donating some of your old clothes. But then you remember the piles of brand-new donations of school uniforms and you put all your clothes, whether you wear them or not, into the pile of what you need. Walking around your house, you see much you probably could live without, but not much that the church needs. In the end, pretty much everything you own is in the pile of what you need to survive. You pull $100 out of your wallet. You think better of it. What does $100 mean in the scope of a $8 million budget? What could you give that would make any difference at all? You write a check instead for $3000, all the money you had budgeted to give to charity this year. The church is doing good things. You’re sure it will go to a good cause.

Fourth Church is located in an older urban neighborhood, built in the time when cities were growing and churches were popping up on every corner. The neighborhood has changed over time. The young, white, wealthy folks who used to live and work in the city and whose names are on the founding documents of the church have moved to the suburbs, have grown older, and have died. Their homes have fallen into disrepair, and cheap apartment complexes have been constructed around them. Folks have moved into the area because housing is affordable. Families of 8 people share two-bedroom apartments. English is not the first language of many in the neighborhood.

As you make your way up the steps and into the church, you notice the gaps in the mortar and large chips in the stone. There is graffiti on the side of the building and a collection of someone’s worldly possessions stashed in a stairwell.

Inside, you are greeted warmly by an older woman who presses a bulletin into your hand and urges you to have a cookie from a tray nearby. You notice a table filled with fresh produce, with a sign that reads: table of bounty, for all to be fed. A few folks in well-worn clothes pick through the offerings. You make your way into the sanctuary, finding a seat on a scuffed and torn pew cushion. The congregation is filled with mostly older folks, and a variety of skin colors. A few grandchildren squirm on the laps of their grandmas.

During worship, hymns are plunked out by a volunteer on an out-of-tune piano. Prayers are offered – for the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed. The pastor comes to the pulpit and talks about the word “sacrifice.” Sacrifice, she says, is not about what it does to us or for us. It doesn’t make us more righteous or moral or good. The word sacrifice means “to make sacred.” When we sacrifice something, we make it sacred.

She points out how so many in the church have sacrificed so much. Their time in baking cookies, the fruits of their harvest for the table of bounty, their energy in cleaning and caring for the church. This doesn’t make the bakers, gardeners, or cleaners more holy. But it makes their time, their food, and their energy sacred. She knows they can no longer afford a full-time pastor, but that shouldn’t worry them. They will continue to sacrifice, to make things sacred, for the sake of the kingdom of God. They have received enough pledges to support a part-time pastor next year and allow the church to continue its mission.

She encourages the congregation to consider what more they can sacrifice, what more they can make sacred for the kingdom of God.

As the offering plate is passed around, you see lots of one-dollar bills and coins, but not much more. You put the $100 bill from your wallet into the plate.

When you return home, you look at the pile you made of all you need to survive. You take out the TV, and most of your clothes. You take out lots of canned goods, your old computer and artwork and extra furniture. You take out the piano you never really play and the expensive vase you’ve never really liked. You whittle down the pile until there is almost nothing left. A little food, some clothing, a table and chair. Everything fits into one room of your house.

God has given you so much more than you need to survive. And you realize that instead of piling it all up, you can make it all sacred. You take everything that isn’t in your little pile, and you sell it, donate it, and give it all to the little church.

As you’re leaving, the pile of belongings in the stairwell shifts and moves until you see a weary face emerge topped by a head of scraggly white hair. The form of an older woman emerges from the bundle and begins to organize the heap. You watch as she picks up all her belongings and walks into the church with them. A little while later, she emerges empty-handed.

Around Christmas time, you begin to see advertisements for First Church’s annual pageant, with all new costumes and live animals. You walk past Fourth Church and see that it is boarded up and the windows are dark and a For Sale sign on the door. You see the older woman in the stairwell, minus her bundle on this cold and windy day.

You go back home to your little pile an examine it. Really pray on it this time. What if you made this sacred, too? Would God provide what you need to survive? Would any church make good use of it?

You walk through the empty rooms of your house. You’ve made a lot of things sacred, you’ve sacrificed a lot. But these rooms are just sitting here, open and bare. There is nothing sacred about them.

You return to the woman in the stairwell and invite her into your home. She comes, and others follow. Folks from the table of bounty at Fourth Church. And the parking lot attendants from First Church. Both pastors show up. And the volunteer piano player. And the super cool youth leader. They call come. Filling the house with their sacrifices. Making every room sacred. Everyone has enough. Prayers are said. Praising God and praying for the oppressed. Food is served and souls are saved. There’s no furniture to speak of, so everyone sits together on the floor.

The older woman from the stairwell gets up slowly and pulls from within the folds of her shabby, oversized coat, a small, tattered Bible. She opens it, and gives it to you, pointing at a particular verse, urging you to read it to everyone.

You accept her sacrifice, the gift of her only remaining earthly possession. And you read:
Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.

Everyone is fed and warm and relaxed. And so the family of 8 lies down with the enthusiastic suburban Sunday school teachers, and they sleep. And the pastors sleep. and the homeless sleep. The cookie bakers and greeters, the security guards and the church cleaners, the coffee bar attendees and the gardeners all sleep.

And the house is sacred. Your sacrifice is complete.


  1. Cause and effect. Cause= my hearing and reading of this reflection. Effect on me: I think about all the clutter in my house and am bothered by it. Yes, my clutter may be another's treasure, but do I want to give it up? Yes, I do. This will take both prayer and work. Prayer: Sift through the clutter and meditate upon it. What do I want to keep and what do I want to sacrifice. To make something "sacred" by sacrificing it in some way sounds appealing. It motivates me. In spite of what Amy says, there is a note of self-interest in that. I want to do good for others; I also want to feel good about myself or to feel better about myself. In her message, Amy is being very charitable. Those who give out of their seeming abundance (First Church in the suburbs) and those who give out of their poverty (First Church in the left behind neighborhood) are both embraced, accepted, and brought together in communion. There is no fight here; there is no tension. There is common vision and purpose. It does not matter which side of the community you are on. Without sacrifice, nothing is sacred. Interesting!


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