Sunday, November 22, 2009

This isn't your grandmother's stewardship sermon!

Genesis 1:26-31; Matthew 25:14-30

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This is not your grandmother’s stewardship sermon!
No offense intended to your grandmother . . .
or mine, God rest her soul.
No offense intended to any of you who are grandmothers.

But I say it somewhat playfully, to give you fair warning.
If you came this morning expecting a typical late-November,
Faith-Promise Sunday sermon on tithing—
Or if you came expecting a little talk
that your grandmother could have given you,
tenderly encouraging you
to be just a little more generous
in your tithes and offerings to the church,
but certainly won’t be asking for an arm and a leg,
or for your life-blood, or anything—
well, then . . .
this might be a good time for you to slip out discretely.

I really don’t favor teaching tithing, per se.
I practice tithing.
For all 29 years of our married life
Irene and I have faithfully given our 10 percent, or more,
of gross income to the church,
and that’s not likely to change.
But as a teaching principle,
“tithing” is a very flimsy foundation
on which to build a theology of stewardship.

Yes, the Bible repeatedly talks about the tithe
as an arrangement to support the worshiping community
and to care for the needy among them—
the Levites, widows, orphans, foreigners, and the like.
Giving back 10 percent was seen as both reasonable and practical,
and it was done as an act of joyful worship.
Nothing has changed, to make that practice
any less reasonable, valuable, and worshipful today.

But—and this is the single point of my sermon today—
Our Christian calling is not
to return one-tenth of our resources to God.
Our Christian calling is one of “whole-life stewardship.”
We owe it all . . . arm and a leg, and life-blood included.
If we don’t believe that,
we have a very small view of God, indeed.

Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, in his book,
God and Mammon in America,
says the relationship between our faith and our finances
is far more disconnected than we think.
We have engaged, he says, in compartmentalization.
Keeping our faith in one compartment,
and our finances in another,
is expedient.
It’s convenient for us.
We fall back on our usual economic habits—
even if those habits are ethically sound—
but we don’t have to do the hard work
of making our financial decisions
ones of real spiritual discernment,
especially discernment that involves
our faith community in any way.
For instance, he wrote, “prayer very seldom leads a person
to buy one brand of automobile rather than another.
It just makes us feel better about the purchase after the fact.”
Even teachings on stewardship in church
might remind us to be responsible in our handling of money,
but they rarely spell out what responsibility actually means.

Tom and Christine Sine were in our community a couple weeks ago,
spending time at EMU.
I had the privilege of sitting and visiting with them for a while.
Tom is best known for his book Mustard Seed Conspiracy
that came out almost 30 years ago now.
He and his wife continue to travel the world
on speaking tours.
Their core message is calling the church to practice
“whole-life faith” or “whole-life discipleship.”
The primary sin of our society, that has also infected the church,
is that of fragmentation.
Our social lives and relationships are fragmented.
Our spiritual lives are fragmented.
So naturally, our theology gets fragmented.
We need the healing, restoring, shalom-bringing kingdom of God
to break into this fragmented world,
and fragmented life we live,
and make things whole.

Emphasizing a rule like tithing makes a lot of sense
in a tightly-connected religious society
like the people of Israel who needed to have a mechanism
to ensure just and equal sharing.
So the rule of the tithe,
by ensuring that Levites, widows, and orphans were cared for,
helped strengthen community that already existed,
helped maintain shalom.

But in our fragmented world, and fragmented faith communities,
I wonder whether always pushing for the tithe
might have the opposite effect.
Instead of building community,
could it reinforce fragmentation?
Many already think “going to church” once a week
satisfies what God requires in the church compartment.
Haven’t we also been taught to think that if we can manage somehow
to meet the biblical standard of righteousness,
in this 10-percent compartment,
then we have succeeded in doing what God requires of us,
in terms of our finances.
How we spend the other 90 percent isn’t even on God’s radar,
and certainly shouldn’t be on the church’s radar,
if they’ve gotten their 10 percent.

How it is we’ve gotten so comfortable seeing our money,
and how we use it,
as being in a completely different category
than other moral and spiritual issues.

Most of us probably believe that in some way, and at some level,
the church, our faith community,
has good reason to care about
how we relate to our spouse,
how we treat our children,
how we behave ourselves sexually,
how we show love to our neighbors,
even how we do justice in our business.
But we don’t really believe the church has anything to say
about how we spend our money,
as long as we are being generous with our tithes and offerings.

I wonder on what biblical basis we ever came to the conclusion
that money is not like other moral and spiritual matters.
Does how we spend our money say any less about our faith,
than how we treat our bodies, and our relationships?

If we really believe that faith and finances are connected,
shouldn’t we find ways to love and care for each other in the body,
in terms of how helping each other be good stewards
of our material and financial resources?

We do have a God-given responsibility to be faithful stewards.
And this responsibility is all-encompassing.
It was given to us on the sixth day of creation,
as we heard in the scripture reading.
God said to humankind, “This is all very good.
The plants and trees, the beasts and birds.
Now I’m giving them to you to take care of.
Have dominion over them.
In other words, they are your domain of responsibility.
They’re under your umbrella of care.
I trust you with them.”
All good gifts of life, dear brothers and sisters,
all good gifts of life come from God,
and they are given to us not to own and manipulate,
but to care for with the same love and affection
that God their creator has for them.

Jesus reinforced this mandate in his parable of the talents,
in the other scripture reading, from Matthew 25.
One faithful servant is given five talents—a whole lot of money—
and he exercises good stewardship.
He invests it wisely.
He doubles on his investment.
He returns it to his master.
And of course, he receives a reward.
The second servant is given two talents—still a lot of money—
and he also is a good steward.
Doubles it, returns it, gets his reward.
The third servant gets one talent—still a heap of money.
But he is not a good steward.
He buries it in the ground.
When the master returns, the servant gives it back the way he got it.
And the servant is severely punished.

But why was he punished?
Because he failed as a financial planner?
No, because he insulted the master,
refusing to receive the master’s gift of trust.
The master offered his slave something unprecedented,
unheard of in master-slave relationships.
He offered a mutually beneficial partnership.
But the slave refused to recognize the gift,
refused to see how much the master trusted him.
So he buried the gift.
The problem was not that he didn’t double the investment
like the others.
If he had gone out with the same attitude as the other servants,
and made a good-faith effort,
but failed miserably, for whatever reason,
I believe the master would have been abundantly gracious.
But the slave slapped his master in the face.
He spurned this gift of love and trust.

We are living this parable today,
and there is just as much at stake.
What’s at stake is not whether we’re able
to invest and make a profit from what God gives us,
although it’s great if we can do that.
What’s at stake is whether we see the resources we have
as a trust from a generous and loving Creator,
and treat them all as God’s property, under our care.
God never transferred ownership to us.
God still owns the cattle on a thousand hills.
And God owns the hills on which the cattle graze.
But they are all in our hands as a sacred trust.

Faithful servants of God
will care about how they receive and manage this trust.
Faithful servants of God
will find ways to help each other be faithful.

Which brings us again to being church at the table.
This is the last of seven Sundays
where we look at different practices of the church—
worship, witness, mutual care, biblical interpretation, etc.—
and ask what difference it makes
if we see the church consisting primarily of
table-sized groups of people in deep covenant with each other.
This grows out of our emerging vision of Park View,
not as a church that tries to do it all as one big community,
but as a community made up of
smaller covenant communities of Christ,
each engaged in God’s mission in the world.

It’s fitting that we end this series with stewardship,
because there is no practice of the church
that is more tempting to keep private,
and . . . more difficult to practice in a large congregational setting.

And stewardship is so central to a life of faith.
It’s far more than money management.
It’s infinitely more than giving tithes and offerings.

All of life is a sacred trust from God.
So every decision we make is a stewardship decision—
how we treat our friends, our family,
how we spend our money,
how we conduct our business affairs,
how we treat the created environment,
how we behave in our bodies—physically, sexually,
Those are all stewardship decisions.
And they would all benefit
from being brought to the table for discernment.

The table is a place where we can be connected well enough—
like branches on the vine,
like the various parts of a human body—
connected enough to make a difference
and do the hard work of being church,
without copping out and
walking away from those who challenge us.

If, after seven Sundays,
some of you have started to worry about this table business,
you can relax.
Next Sunday this table goes back to the Fellowship Hall,
and the pulpit returns to its traditional spot.
Park View Mennonite Church as you know it,
will continue to thrive,
as it is thriving right now in so many wonderful ways.
We won’t be turning our church structure on its head,
and mandate that everyone joins a house church.
We won’t be putting padlocks on the doors
and boarding up the windows of this big church building.

But what I hope I’ve been able to do, however,
is spark some imagination in our body here.
To remind us that church is much more
than a large weekly gathering of individual believers,
facing the front,
where the real action is being carried out by a few experts.
We need each other.
We need to learn how to walk with each other in mutual covenant,
how to be members of each other,
and to take that seriously in our daily lives,
seven days a week.

We are all profoundly shaped by the culture we’re immersed in.
We are deeply and continually being formed by cultural values
that are self-oriented, pleasure-seeking, and materialistic.

So if we want to be formed into an alternative way of living,
if we want to be formed us as disciples of Jesus,
if we want to be shaped into citizens of God’s kingdom,
then the church has a huge job on its hands.
It’s pure nonsense to think we can accomplish that
in an hour and 15 minutes once a week.

I don’t anticipate turning our structure on its head,
but I do hope, and pray,
that each and every one of us who call ourselves Christian,
and call ourselves part of this body of Christ at Park View,
will ask ourselves how we function outside of Sunday morning.
I hope we honestly examine if there is any place where we
are regularly telling the story of our lives to each other.
I mean really telling.
Giving a full and open account.
That’s what accountability is, that we’ve been talking about.
Accountability is never wielded as an instrument of control.
Accountability is deep connectedness.
It is mutual conversation.
It is walking side-by-side,
in support, in compassion, and sometimes in tough love.

And if, upon examination, you realize you don’t have that,
and you desire it,
I hope you make your desires known.

Or if one of these smaller communities at Park View,
upon examination, realizes they are not really being
this kind of church to each other,
that they will begin to experiment with deeper church.
Including, I might add, helping its group members
wrestle more deeply with questions of whole-life stewardship,
including how we worship God with our finances.

Generous and creative and trusting God,
you have placed in our hands, for care-taking,
life itself, with all its beauty, its wonder,
its complexity, its abundance.
We receive this gift of trust, in amazement and gratitude,
and we ask for the strength we need to live our lives
with radical love, and radical generosity,
that we might experience the full life that you intended for us.
We come now, with our offerings of money, and ourselves.
Use them to further your kingdom in this world.
—Phil Kniss, November 22, 2009

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