Sunday, November 26, 2006

Giving as If God Trusted us

God’s Trustees: A generosity in worship
Deuteronomy 26:1-15

In the last couple days, no doubt, all of us
have been asked questions about our Thanksgiving celebration.
99.9% of the questions were something like,
“Did you have a happy Thanksgiving?”
That’s a good question—and safe question—to ask even of a stranger.

But maybe one or two of you—
if you had a spiritually deep conversation about Thanksgiving
with someone you knew very well and felt safe with,
might have been asked a question along the lines of,
“Did your Thanksgiving celebration this year
draw you closer to God? or to your family?
Did it reflect your values?”

But I’ll bet nobody here was asked—or ever has been asked—
the one question I think might be the most important one
to ponder after celebrating Thanksgiving.
“Was your celebration trustworthy?”
In fact, we hardly ever associate the word “trust” or “trustworthiness”
with Thanksgiving.
We think of things like bounty, harvest, abundance,
friendship, gratitude, celebration, generosity.
But we don’t think about trust.

We ought to.
In fact, I’ll go so far as to say,
if we don’t think about the role that “trust” plays
when we are being thankful for the gifts of God,
then we haven’t begun to understand what Thanksgiving is about.

This morning is the third and last in this short worship series
focusing on aspects of stewardship.
And so far we haven’t talked much about the title
we gave the series: “God’s Trustees.”
Let’s think about that now.

What do I mean when I say that we are God’s Trustees?
In the church, when we say “trustees,”
we often think of a few mature men,
handy with a hammer and paintbrush,
changing filters and light bulbs, doing minor maintenance.
They are entrusted with the responsibility
of looking after the building and grounds.
We call them trustees.

A few years back, I served for two terms on the EMU Board of Trustees.
That group was entrusted with some major responsibilities:
to carry out the mission and priorities of that huge institution,
and to be responsible for its financial well-being.
I was only an Associate Trustee,
which meant I wasn’t trusted with quite as much responsibility,
which worked out quite well for me, actually.
I didn’t have to give as much time.
I could get by with a little less effort, and still do my job.

A trustee is someone who is given trust.
The one giving the trust is the owner.
So a trustee receives the trust from the owner.
And it’s up to the trustee to be trustworthy.
In the case of the church building and grounds,
the owner is the whole body of Park View members.
In the case of EMU, the owner is Mennonite Church USA.
In both cases, the trustees carry out the wishes of the owners,
they serve the mission of the owners,
they take care of what the owners have entrusted to them.
Trustees don’t make up their own mission.
They don’t set the ultimate vision and direction.
A good trustee strives to be faithful
to the mission and vision of the owner.

That is the definition of Christian stewardship.
We are God’s Trustees.
God is the owner of all things.
But God has trusted us to take care of them. To steward them.
To manage them according to God’s own wishes.
Not to take charge in any ultimate way,
not to determine for ourselves how we want to manage them,
but to manage them in a way that’s faithful to God’s mission.
I think that’s remarkable,
that God would trust us in that way.

Typically, when we talk about stewardship in the church,
it can sound almost burdensome.
We talk about what we ought to give,
or ought to do, or ought to sacrifice, for the sake of the church.
And there is that aspect to it, of course.
Stewardship—being God’s trustee—requires a lot of us.
God doesn’t let us off the hook very easily.
God doesn’t appoint any Associate Trustees, sorry to say.
It is a demanding call indeed.
We are called to sacrifice all for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
We don’t just give up our agenda, we lay down our lives.

But this identity we have—as God’s Trustees—
is not just about how much work we have to do.
It’s not primarily about the burden of responsibility we have to bear.
It’s about the gift.
The gift is so great, so astoundingly generous,
that it should amaze us all,
and make us bow in joy and gratitude.
God trusts us.
God has given us the gift of trust.
God—who doesn’t only own the cattle on a thousand hills,
but owns the hills themselves,
and the trees above them, and the minerals below them,
the endless reaches of the universe,
and every living creature that inhabits it—
this God trusts us to take care of it all.

The first message of stewardship we need to grasp
is the joyful generosity of this gift of trust.

If the Christian message of stewardship has ever come across
as just a heavy burden to bear,
if announcing an upcoming Stewardship Sunday
has ever brought a groan out of the mouth of a Christian,
then we have misrepresented the message.
This is good news, sisters and brothers!
God trusted us with all things good.
God trusted us with the abundance of this fall harvest.
God trusted us with the ability to earn money and build capital.
God trusted us with houses and land and enterprises.
God trusted us with an amazing human capacity to achieve.
God trusted us with talent.
God trusted us with time.
God trusted us with our physical bodies,
these incredibly complex, beautiful, strong, and fragile bodies.
God trusted us with our relationships with others.
God trusted us with life itself.

It is hardly possible to grasp the enormity of this truth:
God trusted us, and continues to trust us.
That’s the kind of truth that should cause us all to bow in adoration,
in thanksgiving, in humble gratitude.
That’s the kind of truth that we would have been well
to reflect upon this past Thursday,
as we sat down to table, to celebrate this national U.S. holiday.

But we probably didn’t think to ask ourselves, or anyone else,
that question,
“Was our celebration of Thanksgiving trustworthy?”
It’s a question we should ask ourselves
not only on Thanksgiving, of course,
but every time we gather together to worship.
Every time we respond in some way,
to these various gifts God has given to us, in trust, we should say,
“God trusted us. Have we shown ourselves to be trustworthy?”
Is God pleased with how we are managing what God owns?
Is God gratified to see us using these gifts
to serve God’s mission, and God’s purposes?

The questions seem obvious enough,
but boy are they hard to ask, if we’re honest.
If we really believe this good news that God trusts us,
it will reorient our whole existence.
We cannot believe this, and take it lightly.
This is not a question about tithing, for pity’s sake.

You know, being diligent about giving ten percent of our income
to the work of God’s Kingdom,
is, in comparison, a piece of cake.
Limiting the topic of stewardship to tithing our income
is the easy way out.
Anyone can decide to give ten percent.
And of course, the wealthier we are,
the easier it is to tithe.
Tithing, unless we are truly poor, isn’t even much of a challenge.

But to grasp the reality that God owns it all,
and has trusted us to care for it,
and to use it all to serve God’s mission—
that is a challenge.
That is hard to do.
That takes a lifetime of diligence, of learning, of discipleship,
of being formed and reformed.

It seems to me, that this notion of being God’s trustees,
and responding to the gift of trust that God gave,
is at the core of this well-known scripture from Deuteronomy 26,
that we heard a few minutes ago.
I’ve preached on this text a number of times already at Park View,
and there’s always a lot in here to ponder.
But what I’ve been pondering this week,
is the relationship of trust between God and the people,
that’s reflected in this ritual.

Let’s review.
We have this order of worship set up for the Israelites,
which they were supposed to institute
after they arrived in the Promised Land.
Before they ever got there,
while they’re still in the wilderness,
God gives them this set of instructions, through Moses.
They are told how they’re supposed to worship God
once they settle down:
once they own property,
once they become tillers of the soil,
once they live in permanent houses instead of tents.
And it’s a whole lot different than the way they give thanks,
wandering in the wilderness.
See, in the wilderness they get reminded, every single day,
how completely dependent they are on God,
and how their very lives are a generous gift from God.
Every day they need God to make yet another
batch of manna and quail to fall from heaven.
Every day they are inspired to thank God for that.

But when they live in houses and till the soil for food,
they’ll soon start thinking life isn’t really a gift anymore,
that it’s something they make happen.
And they begin to be less grateful.
They begin to forget that God owns it all,
and they are simply God’s trustees.

So they are given this liturgy, this order of worship for harvest time.
They take the first portion of their harvest—the first—
and put it in a basket,
and bring it to the dwelling-place of God.
And they show it to the priest,
and make a personal declaration that reminds them who they are,
reminds them how dependent they are on God,
how all they have belongs to God,
and comes from God’s hands.
They basically retell their story, as children of Abraham,
the wandering Aramean, the nomad.
God doesn’t want them ever to forget their wandering days,
the days they depended completely on God.

So they set down the basket of produce,
and it is distributed to all the people of God,
who don’t have the privilege of owning property in this new land,
who cannot provide for themselves from the soil:
the Levites: who take care of God’s house,
the aliens, the orphans, the widows.
All people without property rights.
And they have a feast together with these Levites and aliens
and orphans and widows.

That basket of produce,
that gift of worship and thanksgiving,
that was a gift of a people who understood that God trusted them.
One would hope that it was also a spontaneous expression of thanks,
for all that God had done for them as a people.
But it did not depend on them being spontaneous.
This liturgy was taught.
It was an exercise. A discipline. A training.
It was an act of worship that formed them.
I don’t think it’s any different for us.

Left on our own, we will forget.
We will forget that it’s all God’s to begin with.
We will forget that we are only in the role of trustees.
And we will start acting like owners.
You don’t become a good trustee spontaneously.
You become a good trustee by being intentional and disciplined.
If we depended only on doing what comes spontaneously,
we would fall for that temptation that afflicts all of us
stained by the sins of greed and materialism—
to act like owners.
To make decisions about the use of our resources,
based on what pleases us,
what satisfies our desires and drives,
what brings us comfort and security.
We forget that the decisions we make about all that we have,
not just ten percent, but all of it,
are the decisions of trustees, not owners.
As good trustees, we decide how to use
our money, our houses and land,
our material possessions, our time and talents,
in a way that is true to the mission and vision of the owner.
It’s not our priorities and vision
that guide the use of what we have.
It’s the priorities and vision of God the owner.
God whose mission it is to reconcile the whole of creation.
To bring healing to the broken, release to the captives,
and freedom to the oppressed.
If we are using God’s stuff in any other way,
such as to feed our selfish desires,
such as to amass wealth, comfort, and security for ourselves,
such as to wield power over others unjustly,
then we will have to answer to the owner.

See what I mean about how much easier it would be, in comparison,
to just talk about tithing?
How easy it would be,
if we only had to relinquish ten percent to God,
and use the rest however we please.
But that’s not stewardship.
Stewardship is being God’s responsible and faithful trustee
for all of God’s stuff which God in his generosity
has trusted us with.

Then the giving we do in worship
will be giving as if God trusted us.
That’s the challenge that comes before all of us this time of year,
when we are asked to make a Faith Promise,
in regard to how we will worship this trusting God
with our gifts in the coming year.

My hope and prayer is that we never fall into
the lazy way of thinking about this.
Of doing some cold calculation of what percent to give,
and then assume we’ve done our stewardship for the year.
I hope this time of year has provided all of us
with an opportunity to reflect
in prayer, in deliberation, in a disciplined way.
And to ask what gifts will I bring this year that will be trustworthy?

Let me just say this as a word of challenge to us all.
If you came today ready to give your yellow Faith Promise card,
but you realize, upon further thought,
that you really have not given it the prayer and reflection
and disciplined intentionality,
that it deserves from a good trustee of God,
then hold onto it for now.
Keep it in your pocket or purse.
Next Sunday will be just as good.
Take some time this week to pray more, talk with others about it,
to seek guidance,
and to submit our wills to the will of the owner.
It would be better for you to give it when you’re ready,
than just give it by some artificial deadline.

But now, we are going to worship God with our gifts,
and we are going to give to the God who trusts us.
This offering will be brought forward to the baskets in the front,
and we will put all our offering in these baskets,
our regular weekly offering,
as well as—for those who believe they ready—
the Faith Promise cards
(whole, or in two parts, as indicated).
I like the symbolism of this more active way of giving.
It reminds me a little more of what Deuteronomy 26 is about.
It’s a time to come and set down the first-fruits of the harvest,
in God’s presence,
and to celebrate God’s generosity and faithfulness
and trust in us.

So the way we’re going to do it is this.
First of all, everyone gets in on the act. Every man, woman, and child.
I realize that not everyone came prepared with a gift in their hands,
and it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
It’s the responsibility of those of you who do have gifts to bring,
to check with your neighbors sitting around you.
If their hands are empty,
share what you have; pass the loose bills and change around,
until everyone has something to bring.
It’s not the amount that’s important, it’s the participation.

Let us give with joy, with generosity,
and give as if God trusted us.
Because God does.

—Phil Kniss, November 26, 2006

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