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57 Cents

Luke 12:32-40

The Rev. Jon Roberts

11 August


St. Pauls Episcopal Church

Naples, FL

32 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

“Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the marriage feast, so that they may open to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes; truly, I say to you, he will gird himself and have them sit at table, and he will come and serve them. If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them so, blessed are those servants! But know this, that if the householder had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. You also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an unexpected hour.”


Portrait of Hattie Mae Wiatt 1878-1886

Sell your possessions and give alms. Provide yourself with purses that do not grow old with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail; where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is there will your heart be, also. [1]

If you want to find a treasure these days, you need not go any further than your own backyard. The “X” that marks the spot, is to be found right here (signs over the heart and Church). What about the heart? What is its value? What about the Church? What is she worth? What if I told you both the Church and your heart were worth only fifty-seven cents?

The Philadelphia minister of Grace Baptist Church, Dr. Russell Conwell, told the most popular story about how he found a valuable treasure in his backyard worth fifty-seven cents. He told it over six thousand times in his preaching and teaching. He, in fact, is part of the story that occurred in the 1860-80s, and was a recipient of God's grace by crediting a little girl for the treasure found. Her name was Hattie Mae Wiatt. Years before receiving his honorary doctorate Russell Conwell had a vision. He came to little Grace Church in Philadelphia and got to the Lord's work of preaching the Gospel. He felt that God had great plans for this church. Listening to the people, and hearing how they all wanted to grow, he told them they needed to do something for the children. They needed to start a Sunday school. They would need willing volunteers to invest their time and energy in telling the stories of the bible to the children. “Where would they get the children,” they asked. They came from all the surrounding neighborhoods. Every Sunday, by way of a ticket sent out or delivered by volunteers, inviting them to Church, they reserved their spot. The classroom was so tight it couldn't fit any more. Those less fortunate would have to wait outside by the gate. Hattie Mae was one of those children. Seeing her, Russell asked her why she waited outside. She said there was no room in the Sunday school and hoped to get in later. Having compassion, he put her on his shoulder and carried her into the church, through the crowd and towards the class. He opened the door to the room filled over capacity and wedged her into one of the corners where she could participate. Later she told him she prayed that the church could find more room for children like her to learn about Jesus. Russell looked into her eyes and said, "You know what Hattie? We're going to have a larger Sunday school room soon.” "I hope you will. It is so crowded I'm afraid to go there alone," Hattie replied. "Well," Russell replied, "When we get the money with which to erect a school building we are going to construct one large enough for all the little children to fit into. We are going to begin very soon to raise the money for it." This was all a vision at this time. Nothing was put down on paper. Nothing planned beyond the dream they shared.

The next day, Mr. Conwell heard that little Hattie Mae was sick. She had diphtheria and all expected the worse. Not long afterwards, her life was taken quickly, like a thief that came in the night. Her mother asked Russell to administer the funeral to which he agreed and before she left his office she said there was some important business to attend. Taking out a small and dirty little purse she said, "Hattie wanted the church to have this. It is the money she wanted to give towards making a larger Sunday School room." He humbly took it from her, opened it and poured out a total of fifty-seven cents. Touched by this, he took the pennies and offered them to the church with Hattie Mae's intent. The church was made up of modest, hard-working folk. They were still recovering from the Civil War and many wanted to leave something for the next generation. Fifty-four people in the congregation came up to him afterwards offering to buy a penny. When the last one sold, he had a combined total for that day of two hundred and fifty dollars. They used this generosity to build on and formed a society that continues today in the form of what Baptists call "Mite boxes." People take the mite boxes home and fill them with loose change.

It's similar to our own United Thank Offering (UTO) boxes we plan to collect in December. Well, money from those mite boxes was used for a building fund and they found property on Broad St. to build a larger church with several Sunday school rooms. They contacted the realtor who owned the property and he said it was on the market for thirty thousand dollars, but hearing the story about Hattie, he said he would sell it to them for $25,000. They still didn't have enough for a down payment so the realtor said he would offer them a small interest loan if they only could give him fifty-seven cents. A man in the church heard of the realtor's generosity and gave them ten thousand dollars. The only stipulation was that the building could not be called a church until it was finalized. In the meantime, they decided to call it God's “Temple.” The name resonated through the town. The Church eventually began a school of higher learning and became a college. Most of the students were local, in need of training. Students who had at one time attended the Sunday school classes were now receiving college credit in what is now called Temple Baptist College, Philadelphia. The student's reputation of staying up late studying so they could work in the day gave them the name, "Night Owls" and later became their mascot, "The Temple Owls."

So much treasure. They didn't have to go far. They only had to go looking in their backyard, digging in familiar ground beginning with only fifty-seven cents. Our church will continue to grow and find its worth as people find the treasure found within their hearts. St. Paul’s Episcopal, like most Churches, is continually digging to find the “X” that marks the spot. Arriving nearly a year ago, I soon discovered you were concerned about your future and that you earnestly wanted to grow. Some of you said it would only happen if we could bring in more young people. Where are we investing our pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters? Do you foresee pews that are filled to capacity? A vibrant Sunday School program that brings in children from these neighborhoods that surround St. Paul’s? What will it take to get there?

For many, this seems both exciting and daunting of a task. Some may think or say we are not ready, or set up for this. Perhaps our expectations of what it means to be prepared are not the same as God’s, so He uses the child to bring us home. The Gospel today speaks on this: “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.”[2] We hear Jesus speak to our doubts, “Fear not little flock, for it is the Lord's pleasure to bring you the kingdom.” Fear not and be awakened to the fact that God can bring us younger families with children, one at a time, slowly and surely. Fear not when your priests and lay leaders ask for teachers to volunteer and help grow a Sunday school. Fear not when plans to enhance the beauty of holiness, for visitors to feel God’s presence in His Temple, are underway. We must put our hands on the tools that God has given us and look within to find out that the treasure has been lying here in our backyard. It is a treasure that neither a thief can approach nor moth destroys. There is no doubt that there are Hattie May’s squished somewhere in a corner all around the world dying to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Find them. Put your arm around them and bring them in.

Let us sacrifice what little we have to show others the kingdom of God is found in His sacred temple. Fear not little flock, for it is the Lord's good pleasure to bring you His kingdom. It took fifty-seven cents and the heart of a little girl to grow Grace Baptist Church and Temple University in Philadelphia. With each of you pitching in your time, talent and treasure what do you suppose we can do here at St. Paul’s in Naples? What is the Church worth these days? What is the value of your heart, to God? Have faith in the things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.[3]
For where your treasure is there will your heart be, also.

[1] Luke 12:32-34
[2] Luke 12:34
[3] Hebrews 11:1

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