Sermon on Stewardship
21st Sunday of Pentecost
October 21, 2012
The Rev. William Eggers
I’m a fan of National Public Radio, enjoying All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Jonathan Schwartz and Frick and Frack, the Tappet Brothers on Car Talk.
This past week fund-raising interrupted these great programs. Announcers and management types tell us what wonderful programs NPR offers, and about the superb gifts you can get for a $50, $100 or $500 donation. Just call in now or go to wnyc.org.
Some people look at a congregation’s stewardship ministry in a similar way: an unpleasant fund-raising interruption of its regular programming. Usually in the fall (but like WNYC, some congregations are getting frisky and offer a stewardship response in spring), this is when THEY (those in charge - management) show US (the rest of the congregation - listeners) all the good things accomplished through our donations.
Sadly, I think this starts us off on the wrong path. In church there is no distinction - there is no THEY, no US. The church is all US - all us together.
These two attitudes - stewardship as interruption to the church’s regular activity and the THEY versus US attitude - need to be looked at. If someone feels resentful about being asked to give, let them know they’re free not to give. I’ll still be able to listen to NPR if I don’t give. Yet, with this same freedom we encourage everyone to consider what Jesus called each of us to be. Giving is integral to faith and action: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…”
And we can help those who think stewardship education is an interruption of regularly scheduled programming to see that stewardship is not a program – it’s the essence of faith. To be Christian is to be a steward - to be a steward is to responsibly use what I’ve been given. "We give thee but thine own,” we sing in the classic hymn, “what e'er the gift may be; all that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee."
Stewardship begins with a confession: I own nothing. I have been given everything – to manage, in trust – from God. This is where stewardship always begins. Not with giving - but seeing ourselves as receivers - that we have been blessed with abundant gifts, abilities, assets we can choose to use, as did J. S. Bach, “Soli dei Gloria,” for the glory of God. Stewardship begins with our receiving. Only then is it about our giving.
This morning I want to review some of the reasons why we give in order to more clearly see ourselves as receivers. To do this I’m going to use four familiar objects. (My gratitude to the Rev. Rip Hoffman, former Stewardship Consultant to the MNYS for this illustration.)
The first one is a remarkable tool almost everyone uses: a calculator. Amazing technology - small, portable. These are great if you want to add up every single line item in Our Saviour’s Atonement’s budget – better described as Spending Plan for Ministry. Treasurer Brent Ness uses a calculator built into computer software to do just that. You can then divide that total by the number of worshippers each week and see what each would give if they gave their fair share. But this is NOT stewardship. Stewardship is not about calculations - whether you do them with one of these or pencil and paper. A calculation does not provide the reason why I give.
A second item is a book from our adult study entitled “Feeding the Flock: Restaurants and Churches You’d Stand in Line For.” This book represents all the different activities and programs OSA provides. I can hear the WNYC announcer say: "Look at what you get for your $25 or $50 a week: Sunday worship; a grand building with choir and pastor; Sunday School and confirmation classes; opportunities for education." Hopefully, though, you see that this is not a reason for giving. It’s not giving when I get a program my child. That’s paying for services rendered. It begins to sound selfish - I give so church meets my need.
A third item is this can of soup. Let it represent all the soup kitchens, ELCA Disaster Relief, Lutheran Social Services and other undertakings we support beyond these walls and the many activities CornerStone undertakes within them. They’re a crucial part of our congregation’s ministry.
The fourth item is this floor mop which Jim uses to keep our building clean. It represents the maintenance needs we face: repairing/replacing broken equipment; re-pointing and sealing the exterior stone; painting the walls; trimming trees.
Mission and maintenance: a can of soup and a mop. In some congregations they’re set over against each other. That’s sad. They’re not mutually exclusive. You dare not ignore either. If you neglect maintenance and work on missions only, you’ll soon have great mission support, but you won't have a building in which to meet and from which to send your energy and resources for mission will dry up. If you focus on maintenance alone, keeping the building open and repaired, forgetting missions – you’ve lost the reason for a building. Without the mission our God-of-mission has in mind for the Church, we have no reason to exist. Without a sense of mission, congregations die, regardless how well the building is maintained.
But as important as both are, neither one nor both together are solid reasons to give. As reasons for giving they inevitably lead to frustration. Why? There is never enough soup to feed our hungry world: there is never enough in the maintenance budget to put an end to maintenance. No matter how much you do, there is something left undone. Over time this "undone-ness" wears us out physically and spiritually - unless we have something else: the calculator, programs, the mop, the can of soup are not enough!
The reason to give is where it’s always been - in our hearts, in our faith relationship, with our Lord. Author Stephen King wrote after his near fatal accident in 1999: Giving isn't about the receiver or the gift – but the giver. It's for the giver. One doesn't open one's wallet to improve the world, although it's nice when that happens; one does it to improve one's self. I give because it's the only concrete way I have of saying that I'm glad to be alive.”
The reason that I give is not because someone showed me a calculated figure of my share of the church's spending plan - or enticed me to support programs I want, but because I know that first and foremost I’m a steward - and therefore a receiver, I’ve been given everything, and unless I return a significant portion of those gifts to God’s work, my faith is insignificant to me. If I don't understand that first of all as a receiver I NEED to be a giver, regardless of the church’s needs, the charities I’m connected with or the community I live in: if I haven’t discovered that to be human is to be a receiver/giver, I don't fully understand what it means to call myself a child of God.
And this is written here – in my heart. All that makes us human, that is, living in the image of the divine, is found in the heart, in our loving relationships which define us.
Pres. Jimmy Carter tells the story of a Cuban pastor who had developed a vibrant ministry with poor immigrants. When Mr. Carter asked him to account for his success the pastor said: "Señor Jimmy, we only need to have two loves in our lives: for God and for the person who happens to be in front of us at any time."
As you consider your financial commitment in thanksgiving to the Lord through Our Saviour’s Atonement do not look to a calculator or a spending plan. Look at the person who happens to be in front of you at any moment and listen to the voice of your heart. Ask yourself: What would my Lord have me do? How can I be faith-FULL? Joy filled? Fully responsive?
It starts with being a receiver. Of all that God has given me, what am I going to keep for myself and what am I going to use to do God’s work with my hands?