Sometimes, we just have to do the best we can do
with the things we’ve got: and leave the rest to God.
Once upon a time,
there was this pastor who lived near Seattle, Washington.[i]
This one bright, spring day,
the pastor stepped out his back door,
only to notice a tiny stray kitten,
howling pathetically, stuck up in a tree in his back yard.
Now this wasn’t an old, majestic tree:
it was young and small, but not so young and not so small
that the kitten could be easily reached.
Even with a ladder, the kitten was beyond his grasp.
He spent a half an hour trying to get that kitten to come down that tree.
The tree itself was too fragile to be climbed, at least by a person
and he was getting nowhere.
The poor kitten was too frightened to move,
no matter what stinky, savory thing he tried as a lure.
It clung to its tiny branch, helplessly meowing…
So everything seemed stuck.
Until the pastor got what can only be called an INSPIRED idea.
See: if he tied one end of a rope to the tree,
and the other end of the rope…to the front of his car,
well, he could back his car up, you see.
And as he backed up, he would pull the tree over and down
until the kitten was low enough for it to be reached.
It just might work!
So….the guy ran to his garage and got the rope.
And he tied one end as high in the tree as he could reach.
He tied the other to his front bumper,
and he began, slowly, to back his car.
Sure enough, IT WORKED!
With every foot the pastor backed up, the tree was pulled lower and lower.
All the minister had to do was back up ONE MORE FOOT,
and the kitten would be his.
The pastor backed it up.
The rope: it broke.
The tree sprung upright with a snap and the kitten,
it flew through the air….
The kitten DISAPPEARED!
The pastor, scared and guilty and concerned,
looked all over the place for that poor kitten.
But he couldn’t find it.
He asked all the neighbors.
He put signs up everywhere.
No one had seen a thing.
All the pastor could do was pray to God for the kitten’s safety…
A few weeks later, the pastor was at his local grocery store,
and he noticed a church member in the pet aisle buying cat food.
This was odd.
The minister knew the member to be a dedicated cat hater.
The woman despised cats with a passion!
So he went up to her to ask her what she was doing…
“Well,” she said, “it’s the strangest thing.
My daughter’s been bugging me for ages to get a cat.
I finally got tired of being nagged,
so I told her that if she prayed to God for a cat,
and if God gave her a cat, THEN she could have a cat.
So she went out in the back yard
and got down on her hands and knees,
and began praying for a cat.
Wouldn’t you know it, pastor,
at that very moment,
a tiny little kitten came flying through the air and landed at her feet!
So now we have a cat!
Sometimes we do the best we can, and we leave the rest to God.
And sometimes it works out just that way,
in wild ways we couldn’t possibly expect.
Would we all be so lucky
for our prayers to be answered quite so well.
But we know that life isn’t so simple.
Often what we pray for doesn’t come to be,
sometimes what we think we want isn’t what we want at all
and other times we’re too sad, too hurt, too weary to pray…
And then there are times when we marvel
at how much grace we find in situations we thought were hopeless
or how much forgiveness we receive when we feel guilt
or just how much hope we find when we weren’t really expecting it…
when all the hemming and hawing
and stressing and consternation gives way
to something remarkable,
maybe something better than we thought possible.
There are times when we think
that we are in seasons of exile
very much like what we read here today from Jeremiah
where nothing we’re used to is the same
where what used to be so solid and so sure
seems to have withered away into nothing
and yet….even there
there is a word of promise: a future with hope.
The truth of the matter is that God is the Giver that keeps on Giving.
And whether it is in piecing together an incredible, audacious, mess…
or in the simple, mundane, earthy everyday blessing of our
lives: up at 6,
go to work, go to school, go play golf
read, talk, play, laugh, worry, cook
home, dinner, study, bed….
God is there: creating, renewing, loving, healing.
The Kirk, like many Presbyterian churches,
takes a few weeks every fall to pause and reflect on
That’s a rather clunky term, perhaps. Stewardship.
It means, essentially: responsible planning and caring of resources.
Financial planners among us delight in the thought, I’m sure.
But for most of us, lets be honest
its not what gets us out of bed in the morning.
It’s a biblical term,
harkening back to the creation story in Genesis,
where God encourages the first human couple
to not just till the earth but to KEEP it
to care for it and to protect it.
In the Presbyterian tradition, however,
stewardship is a much broader concept
than good resource management, though it certainly is that.
Stewardship means SEEING that all of THIS…
all of life
all of existence
our friends, our abilities
our time, our interests
our passions, our annoyances
the things that anger us to action
in the search for justice
our jobs, our education,
our moments of rest and renewal
our amazing incredible bodies
our deeply creative minds
our soaring, connecting spirits
all of THIS …is a gift.
Gifts that WE didn’t create any ourselves:
these are good things from God.
Gifts that ARE GIFTS
even when none of them are working quite right
when we are stressed or ill
or struggling with relationships
or not making good choices about them.
The truth of the matter is that God is the Giver that keeps on Giving.
Stewardship, therefore, is talking about how
we can respond fittingly to that observation:
respond with thanksgiving and a COMMITMENT
to USE all of these things
for God’s ends
for the realm of God on earth
for the common good.
Now that can last point certainly can be described
as good resource management
but stewardship is far far greater than that.
So one thing should be obvious:
even though we pause these next three weeks
to talk about stewardship,
to talk about the particular gifts God gives us at the Kirk
and how we might celebrate and MANAGE
those gifts well
these are themes we talk and think about all year long.
Stewardship isn’t only a NOVEMBER topic of conversation.
This is not the only time that these topics matter:
Because: this gets to the heart of our faith–
WHO we are, and WHO God is,
and what life is all about, anyway….
This passage from Jeremiah is, quite honestly,
one of the words from Scripture that I turn to when I think
about who God is, and who we are,
when I think about the Future of the Kirk
and the future of the larger church.
For many years now, we’ve known that faith in our culture is changing
that it is not just a given any longer
that people will get up on Sunday morning
and drag themselves to worship—
even with the benefit of an extra hour of sleep.
Many of you remember how, earlier this year,
the Pew Religious Landscape study shows decreasing affiliation
with all sorts of churches—Catholic, Protestant
Evangelical and Progressive.
And there are no shortage of responses about why.
Some, like Maggie Nancarrow, argue in a piece that I read this week,[ii]
that its not so much that the church is dying
its that the church is failing
in part, Maggie says, because too many of us keep assuming
that 21st century people want to experience the church
the way it was done in the 1950s. Or the 1980s.
We remember the people in our lives who built the church
the saints who taught Sunday School
or brought us a meal when we were
caring for our first child
or who wept with us when our parent died
and we want to keep things just that way
or we don’t know any other way.
Others simply note that the numbers
we were accustomed to seeing in the pews were artificially inflated
since church participation was expected and many went
to go through the motions
maybe to meet people, or get ahead at work
but less because they believed any of this stuff.
And there are other views.
But either way, suffice it to say that today’s church ain’t what it used to be.
But that’s ok.
Seriously. That’s ok.
Jeremiah reminds us that God is the Giver that keeps on Giving.
Jeremiah’s people were in exile,
far more devastating than anything the American Church has experienced
taken from their homes, their livelihoods, their communities
and placed in a foreign land.
And while many other voices
were trying to calm people with assurances
that they could just keep doing what they were doing
because the time of exile would be short
and soon they’d be back home, with everything
put back the way it was before
Jeremiah knew that that wasn’t what God had in store for them.
Jeremiah knew that God wasn’t intending to lead them backwards
but God intended to lead them forward.
And so Jeremiah told the people to settle in:
to build houses
to plant gardens
to grow families and communities
to seek the welfare of the place
where God has rooted them
because it is in its welfare
that they will find their own welfare.
And Jeremiah is clear about this:
if the people can trust that God is with them,
if the people can put their trust in Hopeful Serving in their community
EVEN in this foreign land,
EVEN in this unsteady time,
then they will have a future.
But not just any future: a future with hope!
A future with possibility!
A future where when we search for God, we will find God.
A future where we can be a blessing to the people around us
and in that, we will be blessed beyond measure by our God.
A future with hope.
That’s our Stewardship theme for the year.
An opportunity to reflect
upon God’s wild and abundant gifts
and how we might trust God to guide us,
and shape us, and love us,
and how, if we can do that, we’ll be just fine.
I don’t know about you, but I have found that
There is a joy to be found in giving to something you believe in.
Participating in something that you think matters.
Offering time and skill and energy to
something that is compelling and moving
and meaningful and hopeful.
I get phone calls all the time,
from the fraternal order of police, they called me twice last week
from Grinnell College and the University of Chicago Divinity School
sometimes from political leaders and boy scout troops
all of who want something from me.
It makes a HUGE difference in how I respond
if those calls matter to me.
In all honesty: Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.
But part of what Jeremiah is doing here, I think,
is inviting us into a deeper, healthier understanding
of the life of faith:
where we GET to participate in something amazing:
the sharing of love and life we call the realm of God,
a way of life that doesn’t depend on our strength
but on God’s strength
What could be more amazing than that?
What could be more meaningful than that?
Stewardship, at its heart
is finding the fit between our gifts, our talents, our resources
and the community God calls us to participate in
so that we can be stretched and challenged and can grow
and so that we may share abundantly in every good work
and can make life that much better for those we encounter.
How is it that you find yourself drawn
to what God is doing through the Kirk
that it inspires you?
that it captivates you?
that it helps you see that God loves you and gifts you
and wants to delight in how you can be a gift to others?
Stewardship is all about God, the God who never quits giving.
As I pause today, and think about all that we as a Kirk are about
the saints of the past that are our rock and our foundation
the saints of our present who are dreaming anew how to be a Kirk
that is mindful of our community,
loving and serving our neighborhood,
rooted in faith and trust in God,
as I see the saints of the future asking wonderful questions
learning how to live into God’s time
and trusting God to be with them
through thick and through thin
I am just overwhelmed with gratitude.
This church, our Kirk, is a church with a lot of hope.
And rightly so: because we know God is faithful
and because we experience so many gifts
from this hopeful, loving, grace-filled life
of serving others in Christ’s name.
We are so abundantly blessed. There is life all around us!
And so, as we gather around the communion table this morning
As we think about God’s amazing love and care for us
May we respond with fitting gratitude and with a thankful heart.
Our future is bright, because it is a future with hope.
Now may we tend to it, by giving of ourselves to see it thrive.
May it be so,
[i] Story originally found in the “Sermonshop” forum on Ecunet, Lent III, 2001. This story is found in various forms online, and an original source is elusive.
Image by John Burnett/NPR, from the article “To Stave Off Decline, Churches Attract New Members With Beer” (http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/11/03/242301642/to-stave-off-decline-churches-attract-new-members-with-beer)