A Methodist preacher[i] once opened his stewardship sermon
with a story about a vivacious elderly woman
who got stopped by the police one day for speeding.
She was going 70 in a 40 mile-an-hour zone, you see.
And the policeman, after stopping her,
approached her car and asked
“Why were you going so fast, ma’am?”
She said to him: “Sir, the sign back there said 70.”
“No ma’am.” He replied.
“That wasn’t the speed limit, that was the highway number.
This is highway 70.”
“Oh my goodness,” she said.
“I’m sure glad you didn’t see me back there
on highway 129…”
* * *
Numbers matter, the preacher said.
But the preacher’s point was not just that numbers matter,
but there’s something about the way we SEE the numbers
As we think about stewardship,
our gifts of money and time and love and faith
we are talking as much about how we SEE
as about what we DO or how we ACT.
Our perceptions, our attitudes, our approach to things
makes all the difference between a healthy gift
and one that is harmful.
Maybe its worth pausing and reflecting on how we SEE
and WHAT we see this final Sunday of our stewardship season…
* * *
Sometimes I can read the same scripture passage twice,
and hear two rather different messages.
Not contradictory messages, but a different emphasis, a different word
something I hadn’t seen the other time
or that wasn’t particularly important to me then.
Both messages, both points have been there the whole time, likely,
and many more besides,
because each time we read something
WE are a bit different:
we’ve got different questions on our lips
different concerns racing around our heads
different prayers in our hearts
depending on who or what in our lives
is particularly active in there.
Scripture is in some sense a medium to ENCOUNTER God.
It not only instructs but it opens up an experience with the holy.
And every EXPERIENCE is a bit different.
So every encounter will bring out a NEW word, a NEW theme
something fresh and alive and exciting.
If its just the same theme, the same word,
well, I sometimes wonder
if I’ve been engaging the text fully in the first place
if I’m being honest and faithful and true to myself and to God
as I read and study and ponder how God
is trying to engage me through the holy word.
We’ve been sitting with this one passage
from Second Corinthians for THREE whole weeks now
as we angle our way through our Stewardship season.
Today is Pledge Dedication Sunday,
a day of celebration for our Kirk, our church community,
where we bless our plans for the coming year.
We’ve explored what it means to affirm that all of life is a GIFT,
given to us out of God’s steadfast, wildly abundant love.
We’ve looked at what it takes to make the Kirk run,
the tangible energy of scores of volunteers
the maintenance of this building
so it can be a tool of ministry and mission
and a place of worship and hope
the staff and the stuff
the prayers and the casseroles and the hugs
and we’ve affirmed that all of us
have something to contribute,
probably many different ways of offering something to the larger whole.
And Today we respond to all of this.
We give God thanks for calling us to be the Kirk for the community.
We ask how we can participate. We offer our best to God.
and we ask for God’s blessing.
* * *
So we turn to scripture for some help, and
Paul offers some guidance for us here.
Paul asks us to respond to God in ways that are sincere, that are true.
Now, that implies that there are some wrong ways to respond:
In the first place,
responding out of a sense of being FORCED to give isn’t right,
because nothing in faith should be about a forced response to God.
If we respond out of a sense of guilt
or out of worry that we’re not doing enough
or out of a fear that we won’t be in God’s good graces
if we don’t do more, give more, BE more…
That’s got things completely upside down.
To be honest, leaders in the church have been exploiting these feelings
for millennia when they ask their congregations to give,
and shame on us for doing so.
There is NOTHING in the gospel that suggests
that God wants any of that.
There’s a recognition that where our heart is,
there our treasure is also. True.
There’s the message that the more engaged we are
the more we will SEE God’s gifts sprouting up everywhere.
But Paul wants us to UNDERSTAND that
a sincere response to God is completely free from
worry about how God will relate to us.
No, Paul says. God gives God’s crazy wild love to us ANYWAY
before we can recognize it
as we grow and develop our gifts
and when we are asked to use those gifts for the common good.
We shouldn’t give second thought to WHETHER God will bless us.
God already does.
* * *
This is how the Common English Bible
translates the text I read just a moment ago from a different version:
God has the power to provide you with more than enough
of every kind of grace.
That way, you will have everything you need always
and in everything
to provide more than enough for every kind of good work.
As it is written,
He scattered everywhere;
he gave to the needy;
his righteousness remains forever.
God Scatters. God Gives. God’s Righteousness endures.
We are INVITED to come along for the ride
and to enjoy the blessings that come with being God’s people.
* * *
Ok, fair enough.
But there’s something in there that caught my attention
as I was pondering this text anew this week.
The first time we looked at this text,
I centered on God’s crazy wild abundance
the way God’s sowing is constant and sure
how God provides in ways that amaze us.
And that’s all true, it’s a good foundation for thinking about Stewardship.
It protects us against thinking that WE are the ones who earned it,
merited it, created it.
It encourages us to put GOD at the center,
where our natural impulse is to put ourselves there.
the text has me thinking about the point of it all:
what is up with God’s crazy wild abundance?
What is God’s plan? What is God about?
Well, here’s what Paul says:
you will have everything you need always
and in everything
to provide more than enough for every kind of good work.
The emphasis, the reason for the whole divine economics
of crazy wild gift giving is to EQUIP us to DO GOOD work.
Is the abundance God gives us for OUR benefit?
Is it so that I myself can revel in more things, more love,
more safety, more security?
Has God blessed us, the Kirk,
with such talent and resources and imagination and love
so that we can treat ourselves to good company
and pat ourselves on the back
and continue on our merry way?
Or is it for something else, something different, something MORE?
* * *
Sometimes we might be tempted,
particularly as the landscape of trying to be a church changes
in a 21st century culture that doesn’t seem to get what church is about
sometimes there is a temptation to circle the wagons
and to make sure that we at least get our needs met first.
There is a voice that says that we have our own issues,
so why worry about those outside problems that just complicate things.
But, here’s the rub of the gospel:
our gifts are ALWAYS meant to help those who need it
we are ALWAYS called to serve others in love,
even if it means doing so at the risk of our own security.
In other words, we are meant to Love as Jesus Loved
to the very end….
* * *
Presbyterian Pastor Tim Hart-Anderson tells a story[ii]
of a night almost 24 years ago
when he moderated his first ever meeting of a church board:
the session of Old First Church in San Francisco.
He wasn’t sure what to expect that first session meeting.
Honestly, he explained, he didn’t want to rock the boat too much.
But on the docket that night was an urgent request
from the mayor of San Francisco: Art Agnos.
Winter was coming.
The city did not have sufficient shelter space
for the homeless women and children living on the cold, wet streets.
Could Old First help by setting up an emergency shelter
for families in their church?
Could Old First house up to 40 women and children for two weeks?
Perhaps you can imagine the discussion that night at the session meeting:
“We just painted the walls of the Fellowship Hall!
They’d make a mess of it!” someone said.
“We don’t have proper toilets and showers for them.
Where would they bathe?”
Some elders tried to make the case for the shelters,
but the nay-sayers were carrying the day.
“It would take too much effort,” they argued.
“We couldn’t get the required number of volunteers.”
Here are Hart-Anderson’s words about what transpired:
I was about to call for the vote on the motion to
open our doors as a shelter,
expecting that the proposal would lose,
when Henry Carter raised his hand to speak.
Henry, who has since died, was the oldest,
most conservative member on that session.
In his eighties, always impeccably attired,
[I think] Henry was one of three Republicans
in the city of San Francisco.
The other two were on the session as well.
Henry was a man of considerable means
and had been, in large part, personally responsible
for keeping the building looking as good as it did.
He stood, stared at us in silence for a moment, and then began:
‘Remember when Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food.
I was thirsty and you gave me drink.
I was naked and you clothed me,
sick and in prison and you visited me,
a stranger and you welcomed me.
For as often as you do this to the least to these, my brothers and sisters,
you do it to me.”
How is this any different? Henry asked us. And then he sat down.
Hart-Anderson continues: There was silence. I called for the vote.
The motion passed. We opened the shelter two weeks later.
* * *
If one faulty way to respond to God’s gifts
is to respond out of guilt or compulsion,
maybe another unfortunate way to respond
is to miss the point of what we are CALLED to BE,
to think that these gifts we are offering
are meant for our own benefit.
We are meant to be a BLESSING to others, Paul tells us.
God has blessed us richly, and in return, God tells us
that we GET to do the same for the world.
The Kirk, I am so very pleased,
seems to understand this in its DNA.
So much of what I am hearing these days
is a hope to find ways
to do this BETTER
to LOVE better
to SERVE better
to GROW better
to become God’s hands and feet BETTER.
So as we finish this stewardship campaign,
let us ask: how can we use such blessing in abundance
to serve the world BETTER?
How can we grow in faith more
so that we can serve our neighbor BETTER?
How can we worship deeper
so that we carry God with us everyday
and are inspired
to find daily acts of selfless love?
What are the ways in which our energies and our resources
are being used to serve the world with gladness,
to experience and to share God’s wildly abundant love
in South Kansas City and Beyond?
Today is pledge dedication Sunday.
Today we pledge ourselves to God’s good work.
And God, who gives us all we need,
will empower us with the stuff and the energy and the joy
to SEE the world as God’s world
and to ACT in the world as God’s People.
May we CELEBRATE God’s incredible gift in our lives
through our discipleship and our hope and our love.
May it be so.
[i] Story accredited to Bill Boukright in the sermon of Rev Chris Perkins entitled “The Sermon on the aMount” at http://enslowparkpresbyterianchurch.org/files/4955/_documents/1028201073818AM-Sermon102410.pdf