2018-07-08/Community Lutheran/Rev. Michael Ward/Stewardship Sermon
It is a joy to be with you today. I have appreciated the opportunity to work with your leaders on stewardship for the last year and to get to know so many of you. As I thought about what has brought us together, the first answer is probably that I sat next to Pastor Joe during a campaign meeting for the Metropolitan Washington DC synod. But then, I thought about it on a bigger scale. As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year, I remembered it is for that reason that we are together. The Reformation started largely because Martin Luther took issue with the fundraising practice of the time—the selling of indulgences. And, though I agree that he was theologically correct, he eliminated a very effective fundraising tactic! Therefore, since we don’t sell indulgences any longer, we have to engage stewardship differently in order to expand our ministries today. Today, I would like to talk about our prayer life. Also, I would like to address the way in which we live our lives in fear. Oh yeah, and I’m going to tie all of this to the way in which we live as stewards of what God has given to us.
Earlier this year, I was in Colorado Springs leading four different talks for the church leaders of the Rocky Mountain Synod. My topic of course was stewardship. One session was predominately a question and answer session. The most frequent theme question among these leaders was “what do we do when people tell us that giving is “between me and God.” I have pastors who told me that during an interview to be called to a church that they were told they could not talk about money from the pulpit or even know the giving history of people in their congregation. My response to the pastors in Colorado was, “well I think the people’s giving is between them and God. However, as church leaders, our role is to help make certain that people are giving God a voice at the table.
We live in a world that has forgotten how to listen. In our prayer lives, we often don’t give the space for God to answer. We do all the talking. We only approach the world from our own perspective. We let our fears and failings and scarcity thinking impact the way in which we understand God and therefore, we forget to give God space to answer and share in our relationship, and this is especially true as we make decisions with money.
The scripture texts appointed for today aren’t my favorite for talking about stewardship. Therefore, since I am a visiting preacher, I will take latitude and bring in some that I do prefer. However, I do always chuckle when I read today’s Gospel lesson when I am preaching away from home. You see, in 17 years at my home congregation I have only been invited to preach one time. You know, that whole prophet in their hometown idea. “What could Luke’s dad possibly have to say to us!” And, for the cynics among you, Pastor Sara who was one of our pastors at the time said “not bad” in reference to my preaching!
Have you ever paid attention to the words of the 23rd Psalm? “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall lack for nothing” at least that is my interpretation is one of the best-known scriptures that we have. Why is it that in America today, we feel like we lack for much? We always want just one more toy. A few hundred square feet more on the house. A nicer model car. A few more dollars in our savings account. People all the time tell me that they will give much more generously if they just win the lottery. Why not now?
I would also like for us to take a look at Matthew, 6:19-21. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; 21 for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Then, later in Matthew: “So, do not worry about tomorrow: tomorrow will take care of itself.—Matthew 6:34. These scriptures will be our theme, with Luther from the first article of the creed.
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. And Luther’s explanation: Q. What does this mean?
- I believe that God created me, along with all creatures. God gave to me: body and soul, eyes, ears and all the other parts of my body, my mind and all my senses and preserves them as well. God gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and land, spouse and children, fields, animals, and all I own. Every day God abundantly provides everything I need to nourish this body and life. God protects me against all danger, shields and defends me from all evil. God does all this because of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, not because I’ve earned it or deserved it. For all of this, I must thank, praise, serve, and obey God. Yes, this is true!
Ok, I need to tell you some stories so that we can move from worry about tomorrow to recognizing that God provides and so that we can ultimately end up with a joyful response. And, I have to remind you that this all happens when we invite God on the journey with us, not just when we remember to talk at God, but when we take time to listen to where God is speaking back to us. One of the people who has taught me significantly about living in a relationship with God that allows God some space to talk in the relationship is Virginia. Her husband Bob was a pastor. They were in their first call and they were not figuring out how to be as generous as they possibly could be. So, they prayed about it. What they heard back from God was that they could let generosity be a journey and it didn’t have to be a sudden significant burden that caused them more worry in their lives. So, what they heard God saying was that they should grow their giving by 1% per year and never stop. Before Bob died and she lost his social security payments, they reached a giving level of 38%. From what I am told, she continues to give more than 20% now and she is 99 years old. Virginia will tell you that she has rejoiced in all that she has been blessed to be part of in her life and has not had to fear the future. It seems to me that Bob and Virginia did a good job of listening for God’s voice as they discerned their generosity journey.
I think one reason we don’t want to listen to what God says back to us is because of what God answers in one story in the Bible. You remember the rich guy that is told to sell everything. We don’t want that answer. I can’t guarantee God’s response, but we do need to listen even if we get an answer that we don’t like. Other reasons why we don’t listen for God’s response in our giving is because when it comes to our stuff, we think it is ours. If you listen in America, we believe we have possessions. We believe we earned it and therefore, it is ours.
Here is another place we should jump back and take a look at what Luther said. The First Article of the Creed is “I believe in God the Father Almighty Creator of heaven and earth”. Most of us believe this. In the Small Catechism, Luther’s explanation for this is “I believe that God has created me and all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul with all their powers. God provides me with food and clothing, home and family, daily work and all I need from day to day. God also protects me in time of danger and guards me from every evil.” So, according to this, everything we have is a gift of God. Our ability to earn our living, whether with our mind or with our hands is God’s gift. If everything is God’s, I would argue that we should allow God to have some say in how we use God’s stuff. I also recognize that this is counter-cultural and is a hard transition for us. I was recently at a campaign kickoff event and during the children’s sermon, the minister asked “where does the stuff you have come from” and the first answer was “either the store or Santa”. It got a great laugh, but it is our understanding and we forget that everything comes as a gift from God.
When we recognize that everything we have comes from God, our prayer changes. Our prayer looks more outward than inward. Our prayer seeks to move us from worrying about tomorrow to trusting that God has provided this far in our lives, therefore, there is no reason to feel that God will stop that provision in the future. If God is creator today, that also means God is creator tomorrow.
I have to say that my biggest fear for our culture today is the way in which we don’t listen to one another anymore. We don’t provide space in our lives to be changed. TV news shows, facebook, and just general discourse in America has created an entrenchment mentality and doesn’t give room to see another viewpoint. We don’t listen to others, and this effects our prayer life so we don’t listen for God’s voice either, unless it sounds exactly like our own. I think this has translated into our prayer life, especially when it is about influencing our giving. It is fine for us to tell God what we think we should do. However, it isn’t really prayer until we listen to God’s response. If we don’t listen to God’s response, we should call it a monologue instead of prayer. Again, Luther can be helpful. His explanation to the Introduction to the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father who art in heaven” Luther says this means “God encourages us to believe that he is truly our father and we are his children. We therefore are to pray to him with complete confidence just as children speak to their loving father.” I know that when my children speak to me, they usually get an answer and sometimes they even listen to it!
If we believe the words of the 23rd Psalm that the Lord is our shepherd and we shall lack for nothing. We can lie down in the green pastures that the Psalmist describes. We can be led beside the still waters. Our souls can be restored and we can fear no evil. Instead, we can embrace the fact that mercy and goodness will follow us all of our days while we dwell in the house of the Lord forever. When we live a life rejoicing in the Lord, what does that look like? I think it looks like the young Lakota Indian boy who my partner encountered in South Dakota. The young boy watched the men’s group the entire week. They had traveled for many miles to build a shelter to provide the women and children respite from the hot summer sun as they waited for their food and other assistance. The boy watched from a distance until Friday, the group’s last day on the reservation. The boy determined who the group leader was and approached him, reached out his hand and proceeded to hand the leader a penny. The leader looked at the penny and then at the young boy and said, no, I can’t take this form you. We are here to take care of you and your families. The boy looked back at him with a smile and said, “It’s okay, I have another”.
When we rejoice in the Lord, we don’t worry about tomorrow. We recognize that God has provided us enough. And, we can give joyfully. It is when we rejoice in the Lord that we take the burden of being God off of our shoulders and give that responsibility back to the one who first created us. This life has enough pressures of its own, we don’t have to worry about being God as well.
If we don’t recognize that the tomb is empty, we are tempted to fear the future. If we fail to remember that Jesus overcame death and the grave, we forget and begin to fear death and the grave and slowly we begin to forget all that God does and God provides and this life becomes too much work and too much of a burden. If we forget who God is in this world, we pray to ourselves and this prayer then gets interpreted without a full understanding of who God is. But, the tomb is empty. God did overcome death and the grave. God did re-build the temple. God is our shepherd. God’s peace that surpasses all understanding is available to us. It is available as we put God at the center of our prayers and listen for and await God’s response and participation in the conversation. You know, the way in which a loving father will respond. Amen.