Monday, November 29, 2010

The 'S' Word

Isaiah 58:6-14
1 Peter 4:8-11

The believers were a minority in their communities. To fully practice their faith they had to make difficult decisions about their priorities. The world didn’t stop because the followers of Jesus wanted to get up before dawn on Sunday, a regular workday, to celebrate the resurrection. Some of them met in secret out of fear of physical or social harm. Not too many people were making the kind of commitment they were making with their lives and their livelihood.

Taxes were due, there were bills that needed to be paid, hungry mouths to feed, yet still there was this expectation among the people of this faith at least some of their money would be pooled together to take care of people in need. It was probably viewed as downright foolish to turn over what you rightly owned to share it with others, even send it off to some other place for some other people. They were likely mocked, criticized by their neighbors for blindly giving what they earned to someone speaking some nonsense about new life, new birth, and grace. It was like they didn't even belong to the same world.

Earlier in his letter, the apostle Peter tries to encourage them in their difficult position saying, "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy." Yet the difficult truth comes out when he continues, "I urge you as aliens and exiles."

Some say there isn’t a huge difference between the communities that received Peter’s letters and our own. We, too, are resident aliens. We live in this geographic place and this historical time, but our spiritual citizenship is of another world. When we choose to live according to the rules of God's kngdom instead of the false rules set by the culture, there are plenty of people who will look at how we live and what we believe as complete foolishness. We are living in a world that in some ways isn't all that different from the era of the early church. And the instruction that Peter gave them for living as strangers in their own land is important instruction for us, too.

Peter uses a familiar institution, the household, to teach about this new and foreign life of discipleship. The minor problem is what we call a household and what Peter calls a household aren’t necessarily the same. To Peter a household is more than just a couple or a family and maybe some pets. To him a household is a family, even more extended than we would usually consider, with a clear head or authority (usually a man, but not always) and ALL of the people, relatives, servants, slaves, and contract workers who work for the single head of household. The workers are under the authority of the head in more than just business matters. In the Acts of the Apostles when entire households are baptized, converted to the Christian faith, this includes those workers in the house who may not be related to the master. The workers are more than just employees; they are part of the household. Their success and failure is wrapped up in the success and failure of the whole household.

Peter’s instructions for discipleship in a foreign culture reiterate that our household is not of this world. Our citizenship is in another world. Our household is the household of God, and in it we are called to be, in the Greek, oikonomos. In English it breaks down to mean house manager. Our Bible translation uses the word "steward" in this case. Be good stewards, good managers in God’s household. Not owners, but managers, looking over and caring for the property of the master.

Important to the understanding of our call as stewards is the understanding that while stewards have a VERY important job of management and in Jesus' parables even the job of investing and growing the property of the master, stewards are not the owners of that which they manage. We have a lot of responsibility for that what is in our care, but our job is not to care for it according to our own desires and wishes; our job as stewards is to carry out the mission and will of the true owner, our master.

As Christians we are called to be the stewards of God’s gifts of grace in the world, gifts that manifest themselves in many different ways. Traditionally, the church often talks about gifts of time, talent, and treasure. Although we talked about it with different language, much of last winter and spring our congregation was engaged in discerning how we would be good stewards of God's gifts of time and talent, both as individuals and as a congregation. Together we learned that God has placed particular gifts and graces in our midst and calls us to be stewards of them for divine purposes.

Now it is time for us to look individually and as a community at the gifts of "treasure" that have been placed in our hands. This is when we all start to squirm in our seats, right? The "S" word is about to be uttered. It's that stewardship season, that stewardship sermon and someone's going to get up there and start talking about money!

At some point in our cultural development it became taboo to talk about money in polite circles. And at some point in that same development the church became, at least in theory, a "polite circle." I have heard more than one congregation boast about the fact that "you will never hear anyone talk about money in our church." As a pastor trying to live out my call I have felt pressure to be one of those who keeps the financial talk to a minimum. I confess that I have fallen to that pressure, and I think it is at a disservice to God, my call, and the people I am called to serve.

Money is never off limits as a topic of spiritual concern in Scripture. Directions for offerings for a multitude of reasons are all over the Old Testament. There are offerings for when a child is born, when a disease is healed, when crops are brought in, when seeds are planted.

There are offerings to thank God for blessings that have come and curses that have stayed away, thank offerings for prayers answered and pleas that have been heard. Isaiah, probably the most familiar prophet, especially in this Advent season, talked about offering in a different way in this morning’s reading. He talked about giving for the good of the community, giving that brings pleasure to God, as a fast, a sacrifice, that is also good for the spiritual life of the giver.

And in the New Testament, Jesus probably talks about money more than any other single topic throughout the gospels. Paul and the other apostles in Acts and the various letters also talk about the blessing and responsibility of giving money to God's greater purposes. Yet at some point, our understanding of God's call on our finances was lost. The church and members of it, like the culture around us, started to see money as a private matter - - maybe a matter between each of us and God, if God was involved in the equation at all. The mainstream church became quiet on the subject, and almost all sense of each of us as stewards of God's grace was virtually lost.

In a forum for pastors that I was reading recently, I learned how one expert suggests that pastors of churches should work to end this silence and lead by example. He says pastors should tell their congregations exactly what they give. Now I don't think it's just the culturally-influenced silence that will keep me from doing that today. I simply don't know what our household's dollar amount will add to the conversation, but what I do want to share, and so you know, Phil has agreed to let me share this with you, is how we figure what we will give and why.

We are not yet biblical tithers, meaning we don't yet give a full 10% of our combined incomes to the church and other places where God is at work in the world. However, we do consciously and prayerfully discern our pledge and our giving as a percentage of our incomes, making steps to increase that percentage each year, whether or not we receive raises in our jobs. And although we give in other ways and to other organizations throughout the year when we feel led by the Spirit, we have decided, for a time, to eliminate any pledges to groups outside of the church in order that we can focus on increasing our stewardship in the place we feel God is calling us right now.

We do this not because it is our duty and not as a payment for services rendered. We do this because it is a spiritual discipline. It is something that brings us closer to God because it is a way to continually reestablish our dependence on God, reacknowledge God's sovereignty over our lives and all that is in them. Thinking about our pledges in terms of a percentage of the total gift we hold in trust for God makes stewardship of our money less intimidating and helps us make steps each year to grow in our giving and in our faith in significant and measurable ways.

You may have noticed on the pledge cards that have been prepared this year a chart to help you think about percentage giving. I encourage you, as a spiritual discipline, to figure out where you are on the chart as you are discerning your pledge this year. Where is God calling you to be in your pledge for the next year? Is it possible God might be challenging you to further dependence on God, calling you to give one percentage point more?

Yes, many mainline congregations have lost their voices when it comes to talking about the role of the faithful as God's stewards who manage the gifts of God for the purposes of God, the spiritual nature of seeking God's purposes with the money entrusted to us. But we can't let that continue to happen. And I don't say that because this or any congregation has a building to pay for and a budget to balance. Truly, I don't. I say it because it is a part of who we are as God's people, as a holy nation, living under the authority of the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. It is a part of what we do as God’s children, called to make sacrifices that God chooses, sacrifices that give shelter to the homeless, share food with the hungry, and clothe the naked.

I say it because we have been created by God to be a part of God's mission and work in the world. All that there is around us and within us is part of God's creation, is owned by God. All that we are and all that we have is not ours, but is God's. Our days, our abilities, our minds, and our lives, yes, even our money - - it isn't ours at all; it is God's. We have just been given it to manage for a time, to invest and spend on God's purposes for us and for the world.

This is why we give. All of it comes from God. All of it belongs to God. We give because it is a part of our full commitment to Christ who by being born on this earth displayed his full commitment to us. By his grace, we are called to be stewards in God’s household. We honor our master by returning a portion of what is hardly ours to keep, by committing it to God's work in the world.

This isn't the kind of giving that, as they say, wins friends and influences people. This isn't the kind of giving that helps us fit in with the mainstream culture. Our culture is one that values independent decision-making more than shared discernment, personal advancement more than compassionate communities, and ownership more than just about anything else. To treat God's graces of time, talent, and treasure as anything other than ours is going to raise a few eyebrows and point us out as what Peter already knows we are - - resident aliens, in this world, but not of this world. Yet it is what we are called to do as the people of God, those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on whom a light has now shined.

It is what we can do to maintain love for one another and all of God’s children. It is how we can show our gratitude to God who comes to walk among us, even to be born as helpless child, dependent on the gifts and hospitality of others. It is what we are called to do, and when we do it, when we live as good stewards of the grace of God, it is not because of our own strength, it is because of the strength God supplies through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen

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