You may remember the Garrison Keillor story of why shopping at Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery in Lake Wobegon is preferable to shopping in St. Cloud at the new Higgledy-Piggledy. Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery has just gotten in a case of fresh cod. “Frozen, but it’s fresher than what’s been in his freezer for months. In the grocery business, you have to throw out stuff sometimes, but Ralph is Norwegian and it goes against his principles.” On the other hand, more and more people have been “sneaking off to the Higgledy-Piggledy in St. Cloud, where you find two acres of food, a meat counter a block long with huge walloping roasts and steaks big enough to choke a cow, and exotic fish lying on crushed ice.”
Keillor goes on to explain that Lake Wobegon does not run on free enterprise, which is based upon self-interest. It is run on loyalty. He goes on to say you can shop at the St. Cloud Mall instead of Lake Wobegon but the St. Cloud Mall isn’t going to come with the Rescue Squad and they aren’t going to teach your children redemption by grace.
For Keillor there is more going on here than simply Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery is small and the Higgledy-Piggledy in St. Cloud is large or that Ralph’s is simple and small-town and Higgledy-Piggledy is glitzy and cutting edge. For Keillor, Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery is about living a shared life, commitment to one another, being there for one another when we’re needed, raising one another’s children, and growing a community together. The Higgledy-Piggledy in St. Cloud is about each person being on his or her own and making choices based upon self-interest instead of what’s good for the community.
Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery is a wonderful analogy with Austin Heights. Our whole perception of what we’re up to around here is a contrast to what usually passes for church life in this country. More and more we find ourselves eating together and working together. Here we are building a shared life in ways surpassing standard and conventional American understandings of church.
Living a shared life has to do with how we share money in our congregation too. In some churches giving financially to the church is sort of like paying your dues for your club membership. In other churches financial stewardship is related to giving your offering to the church down there on Main Street. It is giving money, and giving generously, but giving it to the religious institution. And for many churches, it is like shopping at the Higgledy-Piggledy. You give out of self-interest; what the church does for you in meeting your needs.
Austin Heights is different, and if we’re not different then we want to be different. Instead of giving a tithe down there to that institution, we are sharing our tithes with one another. We are much more like Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery where people shop because they care for Ralph and they know Ralph is a member of the Rescue Squad and teaches their children. We share our money – not with an institution removed from us – but with one another in Christ.
Our budget and our tithing certainly goes to paying the bills around here, supporting mission, and underwriting our expenses. But this is not its primary purpose. The primary purpose of our budget and our tithing is to form us into one body. It is to make us the community of Christ. The budget translates our common faith and common vision into a common life and common purse.
Did you ever think that our biggest witness of being Christian is how we spend our money? When we share our tithes with God and with one another we are saying that we put our money where our mouths and hearts are in trusting and loving one another and growing a community based upon Jesus as Lord.
We do believe in paying taxes partly because taxes help to provide basic necessities and security for needy people beyond us in the whole country. We do believe in giving to charities partly because charities pay for things for which a majority in our democracy would not vote. And we do believe in giving in ways that help others have dignity and a chance at a decent life. But we give to one another in this particular common-life called Austin Heights Baptist Church because we believe that this, the church, is the principal way in which God chooses to make God’s self known in the world. Our shared life, shared work, shared meals, shared money is how God is known.
Acts 4 is a wonderful summary of the life of the early church: They were of one heart and soul and they had a common purse. Luke makes the explicit connection between the life those Christians shared with their testimony of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. People had a sense that Jesus was resurrected and living among them by sharing with one another.
These are worrisome times. And when we worry, like most people, we tend to hold more tightly to what we have or we spend what we have out of some sort of self-interest. But Austin Heights is called to practice something completely different. We share because Jesus Christ is among us.
Let’s be careful out there.