A stewardship sermon preached at John Knox Kirk of Kansas City, Missouri on November 10, 2013.
A pastor from Virginia tells the story of a mission trip
he took to Ghana many years ago.
Ben Sparks and his wife Annette
went to Ghana to visit Christian communities there
…but they weren’t prepared to see signs of faith,
well, LITERALLY, as signs.
Apparently it’s the practice in much of Ghana
to give businesses religious names:
the Exodus 13:14 Beauty and Fashion Shop, or,
Our Blessed Lady Savings & Loan Association.
A bit catchier than The Daily Limit Bar
or CENTRAL Bank of Kansas City, don’t you think??
But its not just the businesses.
Ghana’s entire transportation system, as Ben experienced it, is simply
a fleet of passenger vans adorned with religious slogans,
both Muslim and Christian, though mainly Christian.
I love Ben’s description of it:
“Cutting you off in traffic is AMAZING GRACE.
Passing you on the right is BRIGHT and MORNING STAR.
Gaining on you from behind is GOD LOVES YOU.
The crash barely avoided at the intersection two blocks ahead
was when JESUS IS MY FRIEND
barely missed being broadsided by JAHOVAH LIVES.
“The car in which Annette and I road all over Accra merely said:
Presbyterian Church of Ghana, Central Accra District—
not exactly a name to set your heart on fire.”
Ben admits that, at first, the religious nomenclature OFFENDED him:
he found it at best quaint and at worst: crass and sacrilegious.
What changed his mind was this:
his encountering a people who have absolutely NOTHING,
yet who rely on God for EVERYTHING.
People who, if they are fortunate, live on a wage of less than a buck a day;
who, rich or poor, work VERY hard;
people for whom their livelihood is in God’s hands EVERY day.
In America, those slogans might simply be a marketing tool.
We’d rightly be suspicious.
But for the people of Ghana, they are a sincere expression of faith…
a sign, Ben says, that they
“cling to the living God for everything”[i]
* * *
What would it mean for US to live our lives affirming that
EVERYTHING we have comes from God?
To act as if we LIVED by CLINGING to the living God?
We are in the heart of Stewardship season.
Today we distribute packets,
and next Sunday we will dedicate our pledges.
Last week we lifted up a few important observations about stewardship:
Stewardship is not something we talk about only once a year;
Its an awareness, every day, all the time,
that we are flooded with good gifts from God.
Each day itself is a gift.
Our bodies, Gift.
Our friends, Gift.
A chance to go to school
and explore the wonders of our world: Gift
The ability to put our time to gainful use
to earn an income to provide
for our families and plan for our future: Gift.
And not just Gifts. These are gifts from God.
It’s who God is. It’s what God does.
And the life of faith, in large part, is lived responding
to this AWARENESS about God.
If this is true, then the Christian life IS a life of stewardship.
Its learning to SEE this and then to USE God’s gifts for God’s ends,
for the realm of God.
That’s the theological point.
We live our very lives clinging to the living God who gifts us
with gifts in abundance.
But the practical point is that there is also, at the same time,
pledge envelopes and discussion about budgets
and the practical matters about what it means
for us to run a church,
things like aren’t very sexy to talk about:
insurance and staff salaries and building maintenance.
These practical things that are either essential or very helpful
to nurture a community and to enable us to serve our neighbors
have a cost to them.
A building as a tool for ministry and mission,
space to meet that is heated in the winter
and cooled in the summer
and dry when it rains 4 inches in 24 hours
Space that inspires us when we gather for worship
that provides room for educating
scores of Montessori kids
and a launching point for Christmas in October
there’s a cost for that.
A staff to help us sing glory to God
or to connect people for pastoral care
or to inspire us to acts of service
or keep our space clean and safe.
there’s a cost for that too.
There’s curriculum and music
and stamps for mailings and a website
and all those little things that make an office work well.
There are mission partners
that serve people-on-the-margins in Kansas City
and gifts to a denomination that sends
doctors and teachers overseas
and disaster relief to victims all over the world
and efforts to build new churches
and effective programs
to lift people out of hunger and poverty
around the country.
All of these things that are important for how we do Church
have a cost, and this year it is projected
to be about $381,000.
And each year we go through the process of looking at that
and asking those who call the Kirk home
to pray about our community and to consider a pledge
so we can plan for the coming year,
so we can be about the work
of experiencing and sharing God’s wildly abundant love
in South Kansas City and Beyond…
We know that stewardship is so much MORE than just this.
We also know that this is important for our ability to keep on keeping on.
A shared responsibility, just like the good management
of all of our gifts, our time and our talents
for the common good.
* * *
In Matthew, Jesus is gathered on a hillside
talking to people who have heard about his ministry
who want to hear him teach about the Realm of God.
God knows where our heart is, Jesus says,
and where our heart is makes all the difference.
This is how Jesus talks about all of our GIFTS,
and our money is no different.
So we hear in today’s reading:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,
where moth and rust consume and
where thieves break in and steal
but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
where neither moth nor rust consumes
and where thieves do not break in and steal.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
* * *
What do we make of all of this talk about
treasure in heaven verses treasure on earth?
We know that Jesus, when he talks about HEAVEN,
is talking about where God fully is.
And since Jesus’ whole life is about working
to bring the Realm of God to us, to our lives, to our world,
we know that storing up treasures in heaven
isn’t about just focusing on something out there,
some other existence or realm.
No: Jesus is talking about THIS world, about
what we are doing to make God’s realm REAL here, today, now.
Jesus is talking about priorities, about where our focus lies.
The choices we make, they matter:
what we do with our time,
the people we hang around with
the causes we champion
the things we spend our money on…
they reveal something about our priorities,
what we think is important.
And God wants us to spend our time, our energy, our focus,
on things that matter, on spreading God’s love and light in the world.
Rather than on pithy things, things of no consequence.
Now, I don’t know about you,
but if this is a test, I wouldn’t get an A. Or maybe even a B.
I know that rarely succeed in EVERY choice I make,
in EVERY application of my time
in EVERY thing I buy or cause I give my money to.
That’s ok. While Jesus’ standards are pretty high,
we know that we rely on God’s grace
to help us live faithfully.
I make some bad choices.
I spend my money on frivolous things sometimes.
I saw some BAD movies this year
and walked out regretting the choice to drop
a Hamilton to go see Man of Steel.
I didn’t NEED that extra shirt from Banana Republic.
I didn’t shop around to make absolutely sure that the deal I got
on shampoo and shaving cream was the best possible price.
And I’m sure I bought more Americanos from Starbucks
than I needed to this week.
But I don’t think this is the level of scrutiny that Jesus is fretting about.
More important, I think, is our general attitude,
our general disposition, rather than a litmus test of
every little thing we choose to do.
Where is our heart?
When we think about it, do we take a portion of our energy, our time,
our talents and our financial resources and dedicate them
to things that matter?
Are we working to improve our choices
so that more of them matter, more of them make a difference?
* * *
When we pause and we think about our money,
itself a good GIFT from God,
Jesus asks us: do we TRY to leverage it for the common good?
It is like any good GIFT from God,
and some of us are blessed with enough money
that this is a vital question for us. How am I doing?
Can I do better?
Others are on a fixed income,
and barely have enough to cover rent and food and medicine.
If that describes you, know that Jesus is not suggesting
that you forgo basic needs here.
As Paul suggests in his letter to the Corinthians,
you may well have OTHER gifts that can be used
to strengthen the community:
gifts of prayer, gifts of service
gifts of baking casseroles for those down on their luck.
Actually, we all do.
All of us have gifts to be used for the common good.
And for those of us with ample resources,
Jesus asks us how we are using them to build up God’s realm.
How might you answer that question?
* * *
What I’ve found is that when our heart is in the right place,
when our heart is focused on God’s realm
incredible things can happen that we didn’t think were possible,
things that probably wouldn’t be possible through our efforts alone..
This is true of our financial gifts, how when we pool our resources
we are able to be the church, to keep our building strong and secure
a place where good ministry can happen.
This is also true of our non-tangible gifts,
our energy, and our imagination, and our love.
I saw a video this week that struck me,
the way in which a few kids USED the PARTICULAR gifts God gave them
to make a real and lasting difference…
* * *
Did you see the grace of God come alive there,
among those kids?
Did you see how those kids, who tried to do something nice for that boy
FELT, in their heart, that they were given so much back in return?
The kingdom of God is like that!
A little bit of grace. A little bit of love.
A little consideration and compassion and watch out!
Amazing things can happen.
Those kids, I think I know where their heart is. And I think they know too…
* * *
If we were a business in Ghana,
if we were a van driving the streets there
what would be emblazoned on us for the world to see?
I would hope it would say that we want to be a “blessing in abundance.”
Our goal, as the Kirk, is for this community
to be a place where our heart can burst with joy,
where we live in ways where we acknowledge that we depend on God
and in so doing, we are ALIVE
with love for the loveless
with hope for the downcast
with grace for the hurting.
What better endeavor could there be?
The Kirk couldn’t be the Kirk without a community of people
who seek to store up treasure in heaven,
who try to dedicate part of what we have
to God’s realm on earth.
Thank you, all of you, for your faithful gifts to the Kirk.
May we, as we look towards the future,
may we give God thanks for the opportunity to be a part
of this amazing life of discipleship
and may we look for opportunities to use ALL of our gifts
to make God’s love come ALIVE in the world.
May it be so.
[i] O. Benjamin Sparks III, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond Virginia, 10/28/98
Image: Oil and Canvas Painting “Field Puddles” by Toni Grote, by express permission of the artist. All rights reserved. http://artisttonigrote.blogspot.com/2012/01/jan-12-original-textured-farm-painting.html