Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Stewardship

Isaiah 65:17-25
               Luke 21:5-19

               The pastor was preoccupied with thoughts of how she was going to, after worship, ask the congregation to come up with the money they needed to repair the church roof.  He was annoyed therefore to remember that the church was not using a substitute organist who wouldn’t know what to play after this announcement.  “Here’s a copy of the service,” she said impatiently.  “But you’ll have to think of something to play after I make the announcement about the finances.”  That point in the service came and the minister paused before saying, “Brothers and Sisters, we are in great difficulty.  The roof repairs are going to cost twice as much as we had expected and we need $20,000 more to meet the new budget.  Any of you who can therefore pledge at least a $1000 a month to the church, please stand up.”  At that point the substitute organist played, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  And that is how the substitute became the regular organist!
               Today is Stewardship Sunday, the favorite day of both pastors and parishioners when we are supposed to be guilting our parishioners into a strong sense of obligation to give more than they currently are, to give until they feel it.  It would probably be more effective perhaps than other things I could say, to try to guilt you into giving more.  I could remind you that we are supposed to tithe, according to scripture, and that tithing means giving 10 percent of all the money we bring in BEFORE taxes.  I could remind you that we are doing wonderful things at church but that these things all require money.  I could restate what I told you last year about the fact that study after study show that people are NOT in fact happier who have more and that everyone feels they don’t have enough, regardless of how much they actually bring in.  I could remind you that studies show that in fact the people who have less do give a greater percentage of their incomes than those who have more.  But I don’t want to do any of that.  Because I believe very strongly that we should be giving not out of guilt, but out of gratitude.  Because God isn’t good to us because of what we do for the church.  God loves us first, and therefore we are called to do what we do for the church as well as for others out of gratitude to God for all that blesses our lives.  We show our faith by being grateful, and we tell people who we are and what we believe by how we behave. You show what matters to you by what you do with your time, your energy, your money, your talents, and your gifts.  All people do.  You want to know what really matters to people, look at where their money goes.  You want to know who people really are, look at where and how they spend their time.  Actually, this congregation is amazing in that almost everyone in here is involved in some way beyond Sunday morning.  And that says a lot about where you are, who you are, what your priorities are.  Stewardship then is following through on that as well…giving back to God and God’s people through our actions, our talents, our time, and yes, our resources. 
That doesn’t mean that giving is easy for any of us.  What we perceive to be our needs grows to fit our incomes or often to even exceed them.  We can see it happening in our lives and in the lives of those around us, but it is hard to stop it.  As a result as I said before, the most generous people are usually the poorest, those least able to share are often those with the most money.  I shared this with you before, but a person I know whom I call “Sally” has an income that exceeds mine by over five times.  Sally spends a great deal of time and energy worrying about her money, and is right now in a place where she absolutely finds it impossible to be generous with time, talents or money.  She is often found lamenting on how trapped she feels, how tight things are financially, and saying that she doesn’t know how the bills will be paid next month.  And the truth is that she isn’t making this up.  She really does struggle to keep up her expected standard of living.  Her investment properties, her motorbikes, the time she spends with friends of like economic status at vacation spots, expensive restaurants, her home remodel – all of these things do take every bit of the income that she brings in as well as every extra minute of her time.  Of course, for those of us who don’t live like that, it is easy to see the other side.  How much of that is necessary spending?  How much is luxury?  And how much good could actually be done with that money if she were to spend it on caring for others?  But this is what Sally is used to, what she knows, what she believes is necessary.  She has forgotten the bigger picture…the picture that says that none of her resources are actually her own.  They are all God’s and therefore should be used for the good of all rather than the good of just Sally.  She has lost touch with the fact that one of the meals she eats out in a month could feed a family overseas for six months and that this is a better use for God’s resources.  Sally has become owned by her possessions and lost in her material wealth.  And she is poorer because of it.
               In contrast, Rebecca makes half of what I make.  Yet she bakes cookies for her co-workers and friends on a regular basis, she invites people into her tiny home, not worrying about whether it is big enough or pretty enough or prestigious enough, she feeds them, invite them to stay.  She always has little gifts for the children she knows and gives back to the community in a myriad of ways, teaching music lessons, cooking for church potlucks, being around and available and generous with her smiles, her materials, her talents and her gifts.  Rebecca is far wealthier than Sally.  And yet Rebecca makes so much less.
               We see this.  We know that wealth is not just a matter of possessions, but of living in our faith, living secure in God rather than our things.  But it is still hard to live in our faith, to exercise our gratitude, to remember that we are stewards of the resources God has given us, not owners of it.
               I have a family member who was a psychology professor.  Every semester he used to do an experiment with his psychology class.  He would tell the class that everyone would have a choice about how many points they would get for attending class that day.  They could choose to get 5 points or 25 points.  However, if more than 15% of the class were to ask for 25 points, everyone in the class would get zero.  What do you think the results were?  Always the class got no points.  Every single time it was almost exactly 70% of the people in the class who would ask for the 25 points for themselves.  Even when they knew the results of other classes in which Gene had offered the test, the percentage was the same.  There was, however, one thing that could change that percentage.  If he told the class that those students who asked for the 25 points for themselves would have their names read aloud, the effect went away.  The fear of loss of social status was the only thing he found that was greater than the fear of not getting ahead in points.  Because of this knowledge, more and more churches are starting to publish what people give for the congregation.  We are not going to do that here.  But it does make one think… 
               One of my house-mates from college lives as a Catholic worker volunteer.  This means that she lives in a community of other volunteers who open their house to the poor in their community.  They feed them, house them, living in community together.  She is married with children and still lives in this community.  While I struggle to find the money to send my children to lessons so that they might have a full education, her children have the fullest education possible, living with and serving God’s people in community.  She has found God’s wealth to be far greater than that of material wealth and security.   She lives in God’s kingdom and she does it every day.
               Stewardship, choosing to give of our resources and to give with generosity, is a statement of trust in God, a statement that we know that our real wealth comes from our connections with God and God’s people rather than from money or resources.
A little girl stood near a small church from which she had been turned away because it was, supposedly, 'too crowded.' 'I can't go to Sunday School,' she sobbed to the pastor as he walked by. Seeing her shabby, unkempt appearance, the pastor guessed the reason and, taking her by the hand, took her inside and found a place for her in the Sunday school class. The child was so happy that they found room for her, and she went to bed that night thinking of the children who have no place to worship.  Some two years later, this child died in one of the poor tenement buildings. Her parents called for the kindhearted pastor who had befriended their daughter to handle the final arrangements. As her poor little body was being moved, a worn and crumpled red purse was found which seemed to have been rummaged from some trash dump. Inside was found 57 cents and a note, scribbled in childish handwriting, which read: 'This is to help build the little church bigger so more children can go to Sunday School.' For two years she had saved for this offering of love. When the pastor tearfully read that note, he knew instantly what he would do. Carrying this note and the cracked, red pocketbook to the pulpit, he told the story of her unselfish love and devotion. He challenged his church officers to get busy and raise enough money for the larger building. A newspaper learned of the story and published it. It was read by a wealthy realtor who offered them a parcel of land worth many thousands. When told that the church could not pay so much, he offered to sell it to the little church for 57 cents.  Church members made large donations. Checks came from far and wide.. Within five years the little girl's gift had increased to $250,000.00--a huge sum for that time (near the turn of the century). Her unselfish love had paid large dividends. Supposedly, this is the true story of Temple Baptist Church in Philadelphia, with a seating capacity of 3,300 and along with it, Temple University.
One day, a poor boy who was selling goods from door to door to pay his way through school, found he had only one thin dime left, and he was hungry. He decided he would ask for a meal at the next house. However, he lost his nerve when a lovely young woman opened the door.  Instead of a meal he asked for a drink of water!  She thought he looked hungry so brought him a large glass of milk. He drank it so slowly, and then asked, “How much do I owe you?"  “You don't owe me anything," she replied. "Mother has taught us never to accept pay for a kindness.." He said ... "Then I thank you from my heart." As Howard Kelly left that house, he not only felt stronger physically, but his faith in God and humanity was strong also. He had been ready to give up and quit. Many years later that same woman became critically ill. The local doctors were baffled. They finally sent her to the big city, where they called in specialists to study her rare disease. Dr. Howard Kelly was called in for the consultation. When he heard the name of the town she came from, a strange light filled his eyes. Immediately he rose and went down the hall of the hospital to her room.  Dressed in his doctor's gown he went in to see her. He recognized her at once.  He went back to the consultation room determined to do his best to save her life. From that day he gave special attention to her case. After a long struggle, the battle was won.  Dr. Kelly requested the business office to pass the final bill to him for approval. He looked at it, then wrote something on the edge, and the bill was sent to her room. She feared to open it, for she was sure it would take the rest of her life to pay for it all. Finally she looked, and something caught her attention on the side of the bill. She read these words ...
"Paid in full with one glass of milk."
(Signed) Dr. Howard Kelly.

               The words of the hymn we will be singing later, “we give thee but thine own” is one of the truest statements of our faith.  The money, the talents, the gifts and resources we have are not ours.  They are on loan to us from God…but as scripture tells us, “from those who have much, much will be expected.”  So let us return to God out of our gratitude, knowing everything we give can be used for good.