This week and next, we’re going to spend some time thinking about the meaning of stewardship in our lives as followers of Jesus and in our shared life as a community of faith. Before we dive in, though, I want to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Or maybe the herd of elephants in the room.
It’s no secret that our American culture is steeped in capitalism. And as consumers, we are trained to measure our success by comparing our stuff (clothes, car, electronics, jewelry… toys of all sorts) with others.
We may or may not measure up to some, but we can usually find at least one person to place ourselves above. And even as we make clear how much we have, we tend to want to keep how much we make and how much we give a secret. We go well beyond privacy about money and giving…We flat out don’t want to talk about it…
And that paradoxical thinking about money that most of us grow into means the mere mention of stewardship can cause even the most mature Christians to reflexively cover their wallets and hold their purses a little closer.
That reflex has led many churches to instruct their pastors NOT to speak about money and generosity and how those relate to a life of faith… except when the church needs to ask for money. And then, because we don’t like to talk about money, we need to cushion the blow by including an out. Usually in the form of giving of our time and talents.
It’s getting a little crowded in here, but let me add another elephant to the herd…
We pastors are not immune to the money paradox. And we get to add a layer of awkward to the whole thing, given that a good chunk of any church’s budget goes toward …yep… the pastor’s salary.
Oh, and then there’s the pressure not to preach about anything remotely controversial or uncomfortable for a few weeks before or after talking about the budget and giving… so that people don’t protest by withholding their tithe.
So, here we are, approaching the fall, the time of year when the session puts together the budget for next year, the time of year when my contract needs to be reviewed… the time of year when it would really help for us to know what folks anticipate giving.
Which means it is definitely the time of year when all of us would really just like to talk about something else.
Like the start of football season.
Or the Nelson’s new dog.
Or pretty much anything but money and what God wants us to do with it.
It really doesn’t have to be that way.
No really, it doesn’t.
In fact, I suspect Jesus would be mightily surprised at the church’s squeamishness over stewardship, given the number of references to money we have in the gospel accounts of his teachings and his conversations with the disciples. And the story of the early church, as well as the letters we read from Paul and other early church leaders indicate that finances were anything but a taboo topic.
So… why not just take a leap of faith and join them?
Let’s all breathe deeply and offer up a prayer before we read our scripture lessons for the day… We’re going to start with a portion of Paul’s letter to Timothy. 1 Timothy 6:6-19
And now we’ll turn to a brief snippet of Luke’s gospel. A scene with Jesus and his disciples that should sound familiar from earlier this year. Luke 20:45-21:4
If ever the word of God was a rejoinder against a pastor standing in her pulpit wearing a long robe asking her parishioners to give until it hurts… so that she might live all the more comfortably… there it is.
To be honest, this passage makes me think of my grandmother, who gave generously to her church, but then would set aside change in a jar that eventually went to at least one of the evangelists she watched on tv. All of whom had more than enough money for their ministries, for their homes and for their sometimes bizarre projects. In the meantime, my grandmother had no choice but to live quite frugally until she died.
To this day there are plenty of famous ministry leaders or pastors we can point to who fly around in jets and live in mansions. It’s not difficult to find stories – even right here in Central Florida – of ministers worth millions whose parishioners give above their means in the hopes that God will bless them with the same sort of prosperity they see their leaders enjoying.
Let’s just say that you will never see this pastor in a Lear jet. Or making promises that increasing your giving to the church will lead to an unexpected cash windfall for you. That’s not the way God works and it is certainly not what Jesus taught.
Now, Jesus did say at one point that we must be willing to give away all we possess if we want to truly follow. He told the rich young ruler to do just that… and the man couldn’t. Few of us could.
I do know of a few Christian monastic communities that have been founded in the last several years. One is called the Simple Way, and each of its members take a vow of poverty. They have a common purse, into which any earnings go, and from which all their needs are met. And then the rest is given away. While I admire that level of faith and community, it’s hard to imagine taking on that call myself. And I honestly don’t know that all believers are called to that kind of living.
So I have to believe that somewhere in between running after wealth in the name of a God of Prosperity and running toward poverty in the name of the God who had compassion on the poor… surely we can find a sweet spot… a faithful way of living in relation to money?
That, actually, is where our conversation around stewardship needs to start. As followers of Jesus, what is our relationship with money meant to look like?
There are a couple of commonalities between Paul’s words to Timothy and Jesus’ observation about the widow.
The first is that our relationship with money is rarely neutral. Money – wealth – can be used for good or evil. It has utility… particularly in a market-based economy.
As I mentioned before, our society teaches us from an early age that our level of success or failure is in large part judged on how rich and/or how powerful you can become. Just look at the most powerful people – in politics, in business… they are the ones with the money.
Yes – we can point to some exceptions…. But think about the influence of people who own billion-dollar corporations. And now think about the influence of people who work in the minimum wage jobs.
Still not sure this is true?
In July, Forbes Magazine estimated that the members of the President’s cabinet had a combined worth of at least 4.3 billion dollars…
Yes, I said billion. With a B.
Fewer than 20 people in that room, all sitting around a table, holding the power to change the nation’s laws and to shape the policy direction of every government agency.
For good or for evil.
And they got there because of their wealth.
In the United States in 2017, clearly, money is power.
And yet, we are here to worship a man who never had his own home. We have gathered to worship a man who never even took up a collection, unless it was food to feed the people around him.
So it makes sense that the Christian tradition would have us reframe this notion that money IS power.
Our tradition points to the truth that money HAS power.
And thus, that money can have power over us.
When we allow money to take a place higher than its proper order, it begins to define us, it begins to shape who and what we value, and we can begin to measure our own self worth based on our possessions in ways that are really unhealthy. Our relationships are affected, including our relationship to God.
Our possessions can come to possess us.
In the end, stewardship is less about managing our money… Less about being wise about spending and investing… And more about understanding our relationship with money.
Like any relationship, this one needs tending and awareness. I mean, if the love of money is, indeed the root of all kinds of evil, it makes sense that we need to pay attention.
Really close attention.
And not just personally… As a body of believers, we must tend to our relationship with our gathered money.
In what ways might spending or saving or tracking or investing our money distract us from our other relationships?
Does anxiety and conflict over finances come between couples?
I’ve seen it… in my own house.
Or between members of the church?
I’ve seen that too, in more than one house of God.
Can we have conversations about money without fear of fighting, and if conflict happens, without the threat of someone leaving?
These are important questions… And the answers help us to understand our unspoken priorities.
Priorities that need to be spoken aloud.
Honestly and openly.
See, we need to be honest about our priorities because… any relationship that takes priority over loving God has become an idol, breaking the very first and greatest commandment.
And any relationship that keeps us from loving our neighbors… Well, that would be the second half of the law of love broken.
Whether we’re talking about a relationship with food, a person, sex, sports, some other possession, or money, any relationship that takes priority over loving God has become an idol.
And because of its connection to power and influence, even within the sacred community of a church, our relationship with money is the one most likely to get out of alignment. The root of all kinds of evil, indeed.
Thankfully, Paul provided Timothy with some relationship advice for people who have money. Let’s look again at the end of that passage, starting at verse 17:
As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.
Make sure your trust is where it ought to be. Not in money, but in God.
God has and always will provide for us.
This idea runs against our culture, which tells us to place our trust in the goods and systems and financial reserves that we’ve created. But even as we trust them, we know in our hearts they can fail us. We don’t have to look back but a few years to see the widespread consequences of systems crashing.
So what do we do? We worry and work to amass even more, so that we might feel safe again. So that we might trust the numbers in our account statements and investment portfolios to cover our needs.
In a recent essay on trust in God as a key to stewardship Marcia Shetler wrote,
Trusting in God is part of our responsibility as followers of Jesus. It allows us to joyfully and generously let go of what we think is ours and release it for God’s use. Those acts of generosity are our witness to the world, sharing God’s abundance as channels of God’s love.
She went on to share a few examples from scripture….
Elijah asked the widow of Zarephath to be generous by sharing her last meal and trust that she and her son would not go hungry. …A small boy gave his lunch of five loaves and two fish, [trusting he would not be left hungry] and more than 5,000 people were fed. Moses’ mother trusted God with her son’s life. Twice.
The first time she placed his life in God’s hands when she put him in a basket in a river, Moses was returned to her and she was able to raise and love her son while he was young. Later, she gave him up again, and Moses ultimately fulfilled God’s call as leader of the Hebrews.
And then Ms. Shetler turns to the widow’s coin, saying
…there have been numerous interpretations of this incident. But perhaps what was most important was not only the widow’s ability to give to God totally, but to trust God completely.
Truly, the only explanation for the widow’s generosity is that complete trust. She had faith that the God who had faithfully provided for her in the past would continue to do so.
When we truly trust God to provide for us, we are free to give as lavishly and generously as God. Not because by giving we have earned a prize, but because God has promised to care for us, and we believe – we trust – that God is faithful.
In verses 18 and 19, Paul encourages Timothy to see all that God provides, not simply as the means by which we survive, but the means for us to do good in the world. Speaking of those who have money, Paul says
They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
This is the sort of giving that moves us beyond a transactional, quid pro quo understanding of stewardship into a life that is marked by generosity.
When God gives to us, when God provides for us, and when we acknowledge the gift, there is no transfer of ownership. No paperwork to be completed and filed and accounted for. Instead a link, a bond is established between us. Gifts connect the giver and the receiver.
This bond is what makes a really good gift, really special. And why a really bad gift can make you question a relationship. I mean, think for a second… I bet you’ve gotten a gift that made you scratch your head more than a little.
INSERT STORY ABOUT REALLY BAD GIFT….
It made me want to ask… Do you even KNOW me? Why would you think I would enjoy/want that??
But think about a time someone gave you the perfect gift.
You know… something that was exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time.
That kind of gift makes you feel known, loved, truly cared for by the one who gave it.
Theologian Miroslav Wolf reminds us that no object on its own is a gift. Not until the act of the object being chosen and given. Like this pen. It’s just a pen. Until I look at it and think, you know who could use this even more than me? R.
Here, R, I want you to have this…
Now the pen is a gift. I gave it to R and now he has something he needed because I saw that need and met it. The pen, now a gift, is also a social relation, an event between us.
This happens to us regularly, as God continues to offer the gifts of grace, of life, of air and all that we see around us. The more aware we are of these gifts, the more aware we are of the bond those gifts create between us and the God who loves us.
Wolf says it this way – “To live in sync with who we truly are means to recognize that we are dependent on God for our very breath and are graced with many good things; it means to be grateful to the giver and attentive to the purpose for which the gifts are given.”
In other words, God gives to us, not only so that WE might enjoy God’s gifts, but so that we might know the joy of giving as we pass them on to others. As people who have received from God, we need to give to others. It is vital to our identity as humans. It is at the core of our identity as image-bearers of a gift-giving God.
Living a generous life requires an awareness of all that God is doing in our lives, all that God is providing. Thus generosity begins with a heart of gratitude for a relationship that is not contingent upon us and our ability to reciprocate God’s perfect love.
Generosity begins with a heart filled with gratitude for grace. Gratitude which leads us to love and serve and give in return. It leads us to live the life worthy of the calling to which we have been called.
Generosity leads us to use the spiritual gifts, the skills and talents and passions within us – all to the glory of God wherever we go… at work, in the community and in our homes… and at church.
Living generously means sharing from our abundance and even from our scarcity with those who are in need. It means taking the time to care for our own bodies and minds, taking a Sabbath rest away from the busyness our society worships.
Living generously and boldly as a church requires taking time as a body to look around, to take a fresh inventory of all that God has given to us.
Living generously and boldly as a church requires being grateful for the past and trusting God for a future. And then following Jesus out into a world that needs the gifts we’ve been given to share.
Living generously requires us to receive new gifts with open hearts and open hands… courageously letting go of those things we’ve protected by holding them tightly… So that our hands are able to gather up today’s blessings with gratitude and joy, offering them in turn to whomever might need them.
Living generously and boldly means trusting God enough to hold today’s blessings loosely so that we might open our hands and hearts to receive and give away God’s gifts again tomorrow…. and the next day… and the next.
Until one day we realize that our receiving and giving are a single inseparable stream, a river of life and love and grace flowing into and through us.
Next week, we will talk in more detail about some of those other aspects of our lives that are gifts from God which allow us to live and to love generously. And in the coming weeks, we will be talking about budgets and our household contributions to our shared life as a church.
I ask that you would join me and our church officers in prayer for wisdom and clear guidance for our church as a whole and for each household… That we would discern together what God is calling us to do with the gifts God has already given and those we trust God will give in the years to come.
Let us pray.