Stewardship Sunday

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October 15, 2017

“Since I've been coming here, my whole life has changed.”  That’s a comment that I’ve heard from people new to this and other churches. That is what the Holy Spirit does in people through churches. If we are not dead in spirit, then we are, in spirit, changing. We are moving towards the prize, which is a new world that will finally explain, heal, and complete this present world that so delights, but also hurts and tests us. I like what T.S. Eliot said about this, that in Christ we see:

                        both a new world

                        and the old made explicit, understood

                        In the completion of its partial ecstasy,

                        the resolution of its partial horror.

Switching from Eliot to Frost, we have miles to go before we’ll see that fully.  The Bible describes the church as people on the way. Let’s strive to be a church where everyone is moving.

Ideally, a church is always attracting new people while also helping long-timers go deeper in the life of faith.

One of the most reliable paths into deeper life is stewardship.  Stewardship is the word we use to describe our relationship to our time, talent, and money. There are a lot of ways to think about these things.  Here we are taught not to see them as our own possession, but instead as God’s endowment. We are trustees with full authority and power of attorney: free, responsible and finally accountable for the use we make of our endowment.

In church, we are taught that we are stewards full time, not just in the parts of life that are church connected. Under this arrangement, you parents are trusted with responsibility for the care, feeding, and education of your children. Business ownership is stewardship, and so are gardening and teaching. Stewardship colors all of our activities.

Once a year, the church asks us to review our stewardship specifically with church support in mind. It asks us to pledge. Governments levy taxes and businesses sell services. Churches are funded by donations. Members give money so the church can give away its ministry for free.

I have done a lot of asking for money since I’ve been your dean and your response has been inspiring. I have to be a careful steward of what I ask for, because every time I ask you say yes.

The church asks us to give sacrificially, proportionately, and cheerfully for its work.  The time-honored standard for giving to the church is the tithe: ten percent of income. For most of us, that is a goal to work towards. For a few of us, it is a base to work from.

Since some of us are brand new to faith, and others far along, it is normal that our giving levels, and our commitment to the idea of stewardship itself, will cover a wide range. Giving takes some getting used to. We crawl, then walk, then run. “Suffer the beginning stewards,” as Jesus might have put it, “and prevent them not, for to such as these belong the kingdom of God.”

The Bible makes it very clear that crawlers, walkers, and runners may all be rich, poor, or middle class. The poor widow who puts the one remaining dollar in her purse into the collection box gets high praise from Jesus, while the rich fellow who sprang for the new roof on the temple doesn’t impress him. Even when I need money for the roof, I know that God doesn’t count like we do.

A person new to church, we’ll call her Smith, might think of it like this. Smith recognizes that she has obligations to others, including now the church, which she has added to her crowded life. She understands that the church, after all, has expenses, “like any business.”  She will pledge when asked, and pay when reminded. She has learned to give and she is generous. God bless her!

What gives Smith pause is not the giving but the concept. This idea that all that she is and has belongs to God for her to administer in trust is difficult to swallow. How is her job a “gift”? Her money didn’t fall on her from heaven or grow on trees: she worked for it, took chances for it, saved it when others frittered theirs away. So Smith says to herself: “I'll pledge to the church, cheerfully, and throw in something extra for the roof, but I've got my own feelings about this stewardship business. And as for the tithe, that's fantasy.”

So what change might lie ahead for Smith in years to come if she stays faithful? One change is that through time her giving may become a habit. With practice, it becomes intertwined with two of the seven kinds of prayer she learned about in confirmation class. The seven are confession, petition, intercession, thanksgiving, oblation, praise, and adoration. Thanksgiving and oblation are a dance between God’s action in our lives and ours in God’s. Giving thanks is how we learn to see the grace of God that before we hadn’t noticed. Oblation—which means volunteering for service—is how we become instruments of grace to others. Those two prayers start rearranging motivations. One year stewardship season rolls around and Smith finds herself not thinking so much about the church’s need for money as about her desire to give something back to God.

It is not just about the money. She begins to try this idea of stewardship on for size, to see her decisions as those of the servant of a master away on a journey, who has left his servants in charge.  She is motivated by a strong sense of duty to this master, for whom she more and more has high regard.

She notices Jones, three pews up and across the aisle, who has been at this longer. Jones acts his duty out in the way he treats his family. It shows in the way he works, in his willingness to put others first. He gives up nights coaching kids in an inner-city baseball league. It shows in the time he gives to church.

Last spring, when we had vigil services here before the executions, I was here once or twice until midnight. I was by myself the first time. The second time, as the night wore on I heard footsteps in the back. I looked up and there was George Morledge padding down the aisle. He didn’t want me here that late alone. He was on his master’s business, looking out for his friend the Dean. That is stewardship of something besides money.

In church one Sunday morning, Jones gives a stewardship talk. He describes how over time he and his family had come to pledge not on the basis of what was left over after taxes, expenses, and luxuries, but off the top. They are givers of the first fruits. That is stewardship of money pure and simple.

Influenced by Jones, Smith now is beginning to measure her giving in terms of a proportion of her income. The tithe is no longer a fantasy to her. She respects it as an honorable standard though for her still a very distant goal. For his part, Jones sees it as a solid standard and good challenge. It used to seem unreachable to him too, but after several years of increases in proportionate giving, he is getting close. What helped him was his friendship with Adams, for whom the tithe had long been a fact of life. Adams told Jones that it was easier to live with than he had once thought possible. He did have to cut back a bit during the recession, but when he found his feet he got back to ten percent. It helped him keep his bearings through the struggle.

Adams is neither poor nor rich. His name is on a plaque or two at church, but not listed at the top with the big donors. (After his tithe, there isn’t much left to give to special projects.) Five years ago, he lost his wife to cancer. He wears a Legacy Society pin, that shows that he left the church a little something in his will. Most of what he has will go to his kids of course because although they are now grown he still sees them as his first love and responsibility. He sees the whole of life, not just the church, as God’s.

Adams is not that good at record keeping, so he needs those quarterly reminders that it is time to get his payments up to date. (Spiritual growth and personal efficiency don’t necessarily go hand in hand.) Adams was on the vestry once. He stood for election from a sense of duty, but didn’t like it much and never ran again. He is grateful for those who volunteer for that responsibility. He is a chalice bearer. Giving the blood of Christ is a powerful experience for him.

In Adams’s life, that dance between thanksgiving and oblation has through years of habit turned into a prayer of adoration. Belief in God has turned to love of God and neighbor.

That night last spring, George and I listened to the creaky noises these timbers make when it is dark outside and the candles flicker in the silence. We prayed some and chatted some to pass the time. We prayed for men about to die, and for those who had died or suffered at their hands. Churches do such things because they make sense to us. We pray and care for all the other members of the household—whether they pray or care for us or not. We love our work.

We buried a young woman here Friday. Her siblings had gone to school here. That was the family’s only connection to this church, but in grief, they knew no better place to turn. Amber, Victoria, and the All Saints Guild bathed their grief in the holiness of love and hope. 

For some, the love of God comes suddenly in an overwhelming moment of grace.  For others, it builds gradually, almost imperceptibly over years of spiritual growth, fed by prayer, study, action, and giving. The result is the same. At the last, we give because we know and love God. We know in our heads and in our hearts that we have received from the master’s hand far beyond our capacity for service. We have nothing left to give but praise.