The (Re)Birth of the Church, XI: Stewardship

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November 21, 2021

The (Re)Birth of the Church, XI: Stewardship

Passage: Acts 4:32–37

At Kenilworth Union we have been looking at the Book of Acts. This is the eleventh and final sermon in a series called “The (Re)Birth of the Church, Acts of the Apostles”.

The 80/80 Congregation
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

I just read a book called The 80/80 Marriage,[1] and you don’t have to read it because the title is the whole point: the best marriages are 80/80 marriages.

The authors suggest that there are essentially three kinds of marriages. In 80/20 marriages, one of the partners contributes 80% of the passion and emotional energy, and often handles

most of the common chores of domestic responsibility too. 80/20 marriages have been common in the United States since World War II.  Guess which partner is the 80% partner?

50/50 marriages are better: passion, energy, and domestic responsibility are shared equally and fairly. Both partners might have demanding jobs, so they think carefully about how to share laundry, feeding the kids, and paying the bills.

50/50 marriages are better, but not always the best, because sometimes they become transactional. The wife might be watching the husband, or vice versa, to make sure that he’s keeping up his end of the bargain, and might be quick to point it out if he’s not.

She might say, “Well, if he’s not going to empty the garbage, hell if I’m going to empty the dishwasher.” He might say, “If she’s not going to have sex with me, I’m not going to be quick to make that grocery run.” 50/50 marriages can be good at equality, but not always good at grace.

In 80/80 marriages, nobody’s watching anything. If something needs to get done, both partners rush to do it. If it’s generally his job to prepare dinner, she nevertheless will not hesitate for an instant to step in and take over if he’s had an exhausting day.

In 80/80 marriages, both partners think the other one is contributing 80% of the passion, energy, and work. In this kind of marriage, both partners think they hit the lottery when they conned this magical other person to share life with them.

They’re both wrong. It’s bad math. You can’t have 160% of anything.  “Love is blind,” they say. In 80/80 marriages, that’s true; neither partner is seeing things clearly. But it’s a happy delusion.  Love is blind. At my house, I say, “Love is blond.”

The 80/80 marriage. A happy delusion. The math is bad, but that’s just the thing about love. Love practices a strange arithmetic. Shakespeare has Juliet say to Romeo: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep. The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.”

Now, think about that. That’s bad math. The more I give, the more I have. Subtraction cannot equal addition. Or can it? It’s love’s strange arithmetic. In God’s immoderate math, five loaves and two fishes equal a lavish banquet for 5,000. In God’s reckless arithmetic, six stone water jars of common well water equal 600 bottles of a rich, red cabernet that Wine Spectator would rate at 97. Love’s strange arithmetic.

Well, enough about 80/80 marriages. It’s Stewardship Sunday, so I want to talk about The 80/80 Congregation. In an 80/80 congregation, no contribution of time, talent, or treasure is ever transactional. I don’t make my contribution because you already made your contribution; I don’t even know whether you contributed at all. I make my contribution because I love God and I love my church.

In an 80/80 congregation, nobody is watching what everybody else is doing. Everybody is too busy doing to waste time watching. In 80/80 congregations, every member thinks some other member is doing 80% of the work and giving 80% of the funds. They’re all wrong; it’s bad math; but it’s a happy delusion.

Now, the 80/80 calculation doesn’t work when you start counting the dollars. When it comes to the dollars, every congregation in America is an 80/20 congregation. That is to say, in every congregation, 20% of the members are contributing 80% of the funds.

That’s as it should be. Some people make vast piles of money are others are teachers. And the guys who come up with spectacular ideas like Microsoft or Apple or Berkshire Hathaway expect to provide a disproportionate amount of the funding, and they don’t know, and they don’t care if your pledge is $1,000 or $100.

The 80/80 congregation isn’t about counting the dollars; it’s an attitude it’s an attitude which says, if something needs to get done, I’ll do it. 80/80 congregations are like that baby Christian Church in Jerusalem I read about a moment ago from Acts. Luke tells us that there was not a needy person among them because those that had shared and those that lacked received.

And then Luke pauses for a second to mention just a single name. Luke tells us about a Cypriot named Joseph but nobody called him Joseph because he was legendary for one thing and one thing alone. Joseph sold some real estate and gave the proceeds to the Church, and apparently he was doing this kind of thing all the time because nobody even knew his name was Joseph.

He’d earned the nickname ‘Barnabas’, which means ‘Son of Encouragement.’ Is that the greatest name in the New Testament or what? If you know anybody named Barnabas or Barnaby, go right over there and tell him he’s got the greatest name in the English language, because nothing good can happen in any community or institution without a few inconspicuous, unheralded Encouragers quietly, almost secretly, pretty much clandestinely, doing almost hidden kindnesses behind the scenes so that the celebrated big shot leaders can get their very spectacular, very public accomplishments pushed through to their conclusions.

Someone from Morgan Stanley called John Sharp the other day and said, “My client wants me to send you 500 shares of such-and-such stock.” John looks it up and finds out that this is worth $25,000. That gift will be—I don’t know—maybe the 10th or 12th largest gift we’ll receive this year.

John says to the Morgan Stanley guy, “Great! Who’s it from? Whom do I thank?” The Morgan Stanley guy says, “I can’t tell you that; he wants to stay anonymous.” Now, I just know that when George Wishart finds out about this, he’s going to be totally flummoxed; it’s going to drive him crazy because George wants to thank EVERYBODY multiple times. He won’t know what to do with himself if there’s nobody to thank.

That guy does not know and does not care that your pledge is a small fraction of that large number. This is an 80/80 congregation. Nothing is transactional. You just do what you can do and do what needs to get done.

A member of this congregation makes a generous pledge to the operating budget every Stewardship Sunday, and then he pays it off. But then maybe once a week, or maybe twice a month throughout the rest of the year, John Sharp will get a separate check for about $100, non-designated.

After getting about 20 of these checks, John calls up this member and asks why he’s always sending us random $100 checks when his pledge is already fulfilled. And this guy says, “Whenever we go out to a nice restaurant, we send the equivalent amount to the Church.” He thinks an expensive meal is a pleasant diversion but also a bit of an extravagance, so God gets an equivalent amount.

This guy and his wife have been good friends to Kathy and me for seven years, and I never knew about this till last week. I said, “Barnabas, don’t you think you ought to share this information with your spiritual leader?” He said “No, you don’t need to know about things like that.”

Meg Revord works fulltime for Kenilworth Union Church. How is this possible? You’d never know it, but Meg has a real job, a job where they pay her. I don’t know how she fits her lawyer job into her life. The same thing was true of Ken Harris before her and Bruce Linger before him and Tom Lillard before him and Linda Kingman before him. They all have real jobs.

And none of them ever says, “You know, we pay the Senior Minister a pile of money; why doesn’t HE do some of the work?” Well they might say that privately to themselves but never publicly, so far as I know.

All these people are members of an 80/80 congregation. Meg Revord is doing 80% of the work, but she thinks somebody else is doing it. It’s a happy delusion. 80/80 is bad math. You can’t have 160% of anything. But it’s love’s strange arithmetic. So thank for your bad math.

Your bounty is as boundless as the sea, your love as deep. The more you give, the more you have, for both are infinite. So thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks, even to that anonymous guy who won’t tell us who gave the gift. Thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks for making this an 80/80 congregation.


[1]Kaley & Nate Kemp, The 80/80 Marriage (Penguin Life, 2021).