Just about any pastor who’s been serving a church for very long can tell you their own stories of the particular challenges that come with this yearly tradition of congregational life – from the well-meaning saint who pulls him or her aside and gently, and with all Christian love, warns against ever talking about money from the pulpit because “people won’t like it,” to the irate parishioner who, like clockwork every November, angrily threatens to leave the church because of the constant “dunning letters” they’ve received. Trust me, friends; when you’re a minister, this just goes with the territory.
On the other hand, however, I can also say that most pastors, myself included, can tell you stewardship stories that are filled with joy, grace, and great reminders that God does indeed work in mysterious and wonderful ways.
I remember once many years ago in a former parish when the time had come for me to preach my annual stewardship sermon. It’d been a very difficult year for the church, financially speaking; this was a congregation where almost 80% of our members were somehow connected to or employed by state government, and that year there had already been massive layoffs of state employees, with more to come! So things were looking pretty grim in the community and in the church – to the point where the congregation was about to make major cuts in the church budget: including all of the mission and most of the Christian education line items, which would have truly been devastating to the life and mission of that church.
So you’ll understand why I poured my whole heart and soul into the sermon for that morning! Even now, I remember how determined I was to pull out all the stops, homiletically speaking – as far as I was concerned, it was now or never! I was going to be the pastoral bull in the church china shop (!), even as I privately wondered if what I was saying could make any difference at all.
And the beauty part is… it didn’t! Despite whatever eloquence I mustered, our budget issues continued. But, as it turned out, something else did make a big difference.
A few days later, I got this letter in the mail – and inside the envelope there’s only this hastily scrawled, handwritten note carefully wrapped up around… well, let’s just say a rather significant amount of money that was sacrificial in more ways than one. You see, this was money that had been set aside for a family vacation. But the family had decided that the vacation could wait – what was more important now was giving something to God, so that the church’s ministry could continue.
It was meant to be an anonymous gift, and we honored that request. But whereas the money itself was both generously given and gratefully received, it was the letter that made all the difference – I dare say it changed a vote of the congregation at the church budget meeting. In the end, I guess the members figured that if God’s word could inspire one family to take this much of a leap of faith… perhaps they could be inspired to do so as a church.
We’re told in the Epistle of James that “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights… in fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”(1:17-18) I’ve always loved those verses, as well as those that follow it (about being “doers of the word and not merely hearers” [1:22]), because they serve as reminders to us that our Christian faith is not merely concerned with matters of head and heart, but also in how that faith becomes a way of life for us; a life lived in holiness, purity and charity. To put it another way, so often it’s not whether we know that which is good and pure and holy that creates a problem for us; inevitably, the issue seems to be how we do it in real time!
It’s important to note that Jesus never asked any of his followers, do you agree with me? Nor did he ever inquire if what he was saying and teaching sounded reasonable to them – this was because Jesus was seeking discipleship, not mere philosophical agreement; not, “do you agree,” but “will you follow,” and just as importantly, what does this mean for the rest of life and living? On Stewardship Sunday (and ultimately on every day that follows), you and I are asked the same question.
Right about now in our church here in New Hampshire, we’re wrestling with the same concerns that countless other congregations are facing in these strange and uncertain times: What about next year’s budget? How will we pay the bills to keep the church running? And how will we maintain and – dare we hope and pray – grow the ministries that we share in Christ’s name? Thoughts and opinions will be shared, sermons will be preached (!), and most assuredly, prayers will be prayed – but at the end of the day, when all the words have been spoken and the annual appeal is done for another year, the answers to such questions will always come from those whose faith is forever linked with their lives; the ones for whom every act of generous giving represents an active response to God’s mysterious and wonderful movement in and through all our lives.
Indeed, as James proclaims it, they – and the whole church of Jesus Christ – “will be blessed in their doing.”
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry