The story goes that there was a man who was the sole survivor of a shipwreck, and had been marooned on a desert island for years; in fact, he’d been on this island for so long he’d given up all hope of ever being rescued. Well, one day he hears a cry for help in the distance; and looking up is shocked to discover that there’s a man struggling to swim ashore: he’d also been caught in a bad storm at sea, and now here they were shipwrecked together on this “tropic island nest.”
So the first man says to the newcomer, “I’m glad you made it, but I have to tell you that we’re stuck here: I have been on this island for years and have never seen a single ship.” The second man says, “Oh, don’t worry… I’m going to be rescued any time now.” To this, the first man says, “Didn’t you hear what I said? We’re thousands of miles away from civilization; we’re far removed from any shipping lanes; face it – there’s no hope of us ever being rescued!” But the new castaway was resolute: “No, I’m telling you that we will be rescued, and soon.” The first man finally sighs and says, “Well, how can you be so sure?” To which the second man replies, “First, I’m a millionaire. Second, I pledge to my church. And third, this is Stewardship Sunday. They’ll find me; somehow, they’ll find me!”
Well, once again it’s Stewardship Sunday here at East Church, that time each year when we find you (wherever you are!) and bring to you an appeal to faith, manifest in your commitment and generosity to the work of this church in the coming year. Now, I’ve been in the ministry long enough to know that the mere mention of this is enough to raise hackles on the back of some necks (!); even as most of us also understand that it is our stewardship that enables the church to do its ministries of worship and fellowship, education and nurture, mission and outreach.
Actually, it’s been aptly suggested that there are two prevailing attitudes in the church toward stewardship: that of the realist, and that of the idealist. The realist is the one who says, “Look, you have to pay the bills, make sure there’s heat and light in the church and keep the minister fed. And the best way to make that happen over the course of a year is to send out letters to everybody, asking them to dig deep and give their fair share; and then, maybe, make phone calls to those who don’t respond right away.” The realist, you see, views stewardship as a necessary evil, something that has to happen to get the job of the church done. I’ve known a whole lot of folks in the church over the years who feel just that way.
But then there’s the idealist who sees stewardship as an unnecessary distraction. The idealist is the one who asks why we just can’t have faith and trust God to make ends meet: “I mean, instead of having all these letters and pledge cards and money sermons in worship, why can’t we all just pray about it? Remember, after all, what Jesus said about the lilies of the field!” I have to admit; on the face of it that does sound kind of appealing; certainly a lot easier; and very calm, relaxing: very spiritual, in fact. And I’ve known a lot of folks vehement about this approach as well; churches, too: I actually know of one congregation that made it a matter of policy not to ever have an annual stewardship campaign, preferring to leave whatever happens in the church solely to divine intervention! And I even understand that to a certain extent; though it puts me in mind of another old story, the one about the minister who complimented the farmer on his incredible harvest by saying, “You and the Lord have created a beautiful garden together;” to which the farmer replied, “Thanks, but you should have seen what a mess it was when the Lord was doing it alone!”
The point is that I do understand both the point of view of both the realist and the idealist; but I’m here to tell you this morning that neither the view of the realist nor that of the idealist express the truth about Christian stewardship. Because ours is a biblical faith; and as we come to understand scripture, we begin to recognize that what we’re doing right now through our stewardship effort (indeed, what we do every Sunday morning in receiving the offering) represents neither a necessary evil nor an unnecessary distraction. It is, in fact, a necessary good.
That’s because biblically, we understand that giving is at the heart of the Christian life! First of all, it’s an integral part of our worship, and always has been: from the days of the Levitical priests in ancient Israel, and continuing through the early days of the church when believers were instructed to “set aside a sum of money” on the first day of the week [1 Cor.16:2]). It represents an expression of simple gratitude to God as well as being a symbol of our participation in God’s work in the world. It’s no coincidence that in his lifetime Jesus spoke as much about money as almost anything else (did you know, for instance, that nearly one sixth of the gospels and one third of the parables address the subject of stewardship in one form or another?). That’s because giving is central to who we are; and how we give ends up saying a great deal about our faith in God!
An offering envelope or a pledge card might seem to us to be just so much paper, but in fact, it’s many things. Victor Pentz has said this very well: he writes that a pledge is “the gift of part of myself to Christ and his work, a contribution to our children’s Christian education, an investment to a better [community] …a service to those in sorrow, help for our youth, an expression of faith in the future, our way of walking in the footsteps of Jesus.”
So what we do here today, friends, is not only good and proper in the scheme of things, but also joyful, enriching and above all, faithful. That we are called by God to be good stewards of all we have is (no pun intended) a “given.” The issue is how we will answer that call, especially when one considers that we live in the midst of a culture that regularly competes not only for our dollars and cents, but also our time, our attention and ultimately, our loyalty! Well, beloved, I believe our best response can be found in those verses of scripture that were read a few moments ago, and which we’ve been hearing in various ways over the past few weeks; Paul’s prayer to the Church at Thessalonica, that having been “surprised” by God with “gifts of unending help and confidence,” they may have a “fresh heart” that will “strengthen them in every good work and word,” a life that’s lived out of “the bond of faith in the living truth.”
Now, what’s interesting to me about this particular prayer is that the Thessalonians were a group of Christians who’d become somewhat complacent as a church; complacent to the point of almost being, well, lazy about their faith! Apparently they’d come to anticipate the “second coming” of Christ at literally any moment; for them, the kingdom of God was immediately at hand, and because of this, many of the Thessalonians actually took on an attitude that all normal activity had not only become unnecessary, but also irrelevant. They’d begun to neglect the act and attitude of worship and they’d let their work of outreach and evangelism go by the wayside. In essence, their feeling – not entirely unlike that of the idealist, by the way – was that if Christ were coming soon, why bother… whether we do anything or not, eventually God will take care of it!
So here comes Paul, with a letter reminding them that while the Day of the Lord would be coming soon, it wasn’t here yet; and that they needed to be steadfast about the work of God’s kingdom to which they’d been called from the time they were first gathered together in faith. Don’t forget, he says, what it was that inspired you in the first place, that “God chose you as the first fruits for salvation;” nor should you forget all that you’ve received “through the proclamation of the good news.” Because there was a reason for that; there’s a purpose in God’s continuing movement in and through your life, and for the kind of “eternal comfort and good hope” you’ve garnered in every endeavor, every challenge and every struggle that’s come along. In short, Paul says, God has a purpose for you; “so then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught.” And may the Lord put a fresh heart in you, so you can do just that with renewed vigor and an enlivened Spirit.
This passage is a good reminder to us that our giving – be it time, talent or treasure – is ultimately not meant to be made unto a budget, or a building or a program. It is meant to be made as our own personal response to the overwhelming extravagance of God’s blessing in our lives, and as one way of fulfilling God’s purpose for each one of us for the sake of God’s kingdom in the world, and in this place.
Because there’s no question, beloved; by grace and through infinite love God has blessed us! With life, and health and food; with the love of family and the companionship of good friends; with the presence of those who have stood by us both in moments of joy and in the midst of tragedy; with that same “eternal comfort and good hope” Paul speaks of, that indescribable spiritual strength that has helped us to weather the storms of life that would threaten to undo us.
And lest we not proclaim this with equal joy and vigor, let me add that certainly God has blessed us here at East Congregational Church: with the kind of worship and education and fellowship that brings us close to God as it brings us closer to one another; with an atmosphere of care that not only encourages us to reach beyond ourselves to touch others in need, but also allows us to open ourselves to others who reach out in love to us; and with a rich heritage of faith that is even now leading us – and the “next generation” of believers – into a bright future of service in the name of Jesus Christ.
There are so many blessings, friends; so many surprises, so much to celebrate! The only question that remains is how we’ll respond; and I pray that as we move forward as a family of faith into the coming year that each one of us will take “a fresh approach” – or should I say, “a fresh heart approach” – to how we give; for that, I believe, is what will make all the difference for the sake of God’s kingdom in the world and in this particular family of God’s people as we move forward.
And to that end, in just a moment, as we sing our final hymn, we’ll be having the ingathering of our pledges and commitments for the work of East Congregational United Church of Christ in 2014. And whether you’ve got your pledge card all ready to put in the offering plate this morning, or if you’re still trying to figure out what and how it is you want to give this year, I’d just ask of you to treat this annual part of our church’s life as more than some “necessary evil” or “unnecessary distraction,” but rather as an opportunity to take a moment or two to prayerfully give thanks and praise for the surprising blessings in your own life this year. Having done that, then we’ll join in a prayer of dedication for our blessings and our offerings!
With that in “fresh” heart, thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry