Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sermon: The Inevitable, Necessary Stewardship Sermon

Grace Presbyterian Church
October 18, 2015; Ordinary 29B
2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Mark 12:38-44

The Inevitable, Necessary Stewardship Sermon

It is one of those things for a new pastor. You know it’s coming. It’s inevitable. It doesn’t quite fall into the category of “things they didn’t teach you in seminary,” but it’s close.
It’s stewardship time! Woohoo!
In all seriousness, this is nobody’s idea of fun. Nobody, except possibly certain folks who gravitate to public radio or television, likes to ask for money. I certainly don’t. I’m quite sure Lois would rather not have to go through this. We’d really rather be able to go on about things and not have to go through the whole business of pledge cards and all that.
I’d certainly rather not have to conjure up a “stewardship sermon” out of scripture that really doesn’t want to be used that way. While in the Old Testament, or at least much of it, the people of Israel did have an established Temple that certainly required financial maintenance, in the New Testament there wasn’t really a “church” out there that was in need of a financial plan. By the time Paul and his contemporaries are helping the body of Christ spread across Asia Minor and into southeastern Europe, there are a handful of “house churches,” meeting primarily in the homes of some of its members, without the overhead of a modern church building. When money was required, for care for the poor or sometimes for taking care of a visiting teacher like Paul or others, it was collected.
That’s the kind of collection going on as Paul writes to the Christ-following community in Corinth in today’s epistle reading. Paul is trying to gather up funds for the believers at Jerusalem (who had fallen on hard times), and he begins the chapter by telling the Corinthians about the generosity of the Christians in Macedonia, who despite their own hardships had given with great generosity towards this collection. We do that kind of collection on occasion; we have, you might have noticed, been seeking contributions for the purchase of new hymnals for the sanctuary, and on occasion we collect goods for individuals served by the various ministries in which we participate.
But as far as regular budgets go, that’s obviously not how this church, and most modern churches in the US, work. We have a building. It’s a good building. There are some repairs needed, as most of us can see. There are regular expenses for things like electricity and water, keeping the grass from getting too long, having materials for study, and so forth. The choir needs music. Committees need funds to varying degrees to carry out their work. Staff people need to be paid, even me. And to be certain that we can meet those obligations, we ask that our members commit to giving as we are able to do.
Paul’s verses sound quite uplifiting; “God loves a cheerful giver” … “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance” …  You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity” … really, some great stuff there. And Jesus’s comments about the widow also are pretty effective at encouraging us, those of us who are not blessed with great material wealth, that our generosity matters, and that our generosity will be rewarded.
It all sounds so good, doesn’t it?
But there’s also a very disturbing and dismaying aspect to verses and stories like these, of which we are reminded in the verses before Jesus points out the widow to us. Teaching in the Temple, during the last week of his life, Jesus calls his disciples’ attentions to the scribes. It’s pretty unlikely that Jesus means to sweep every single scribe into this condemnation, as only a few verses before he has had a much more encouraging encounter with one of their number, but he’s had enough bad experiences with the scribes that he’s drawn some sharp and critical observations about them.
One of the behaviors Jesus calls out involves the very kind of people he observes in the later verses of our reading today. First of all Jesus disdains their propensity for seeking attention and flattery, for claiming the best seats at the table and generally being quite impressed with their own authority and power. But amidst this is an accusation that might catch us off guard: “They devour widows’ houses…”.  We don’t have an absolute fix on just what kind of action Jesus is condemning here; it might be the practice of “Corban” that was mentioned earlier in this gospel (declaring resources that might support such a person as “dedicated to God”), or it might be the exploitation of widows by traveling teachers who make themselves guests in those widows’ homes and consume their limited resources. Whatever it is, Jesus calls it out, and puts forward the declaration that for their excesses “Whatever it is, Jesus calls it out, and puts forward the declaration that for their excesses “They will receive the greater condemnation.”
It’s not hard to find modern descendents of those scribes – in fact, if you’re of my generation it’s hard not to. It’s pretty easy to draw a line between these scribes and their modern descendents, if you’ve grown up in and lived in the age of the televangelist. I know some of you, maybe a lot of you, remember the likes of the Bakkers, the Swaggarts, and so many more who became infamous for extracting sums of money from the widows of our own day, persons on fixed incomes giving large chunks of those fixed incomes to those televised preachers. Frankly, any preacher of my generation trembles at preaching from these verses just because of that ugly abuse for which they’ve been used before.
So to some degree a stewardship drive, in which we ask you at least in part for your money, needs to be accompanied by a pledge by those charged to lead the church – from me and other staff members through the session and committee chairs – that we will not be exploiters of what you pledge and give. We must commit to you that what you give will be used wisely, prayerfully, and with no other goal than the support of this church in its ongoing call to do Christ’s work in God’s world.
Even with this past hanging over today’s scripture, we can’t just dismiss the widow in the Temple as some kind of dupe. We don’t know her individual story; were it not for Jesus’s description we wouldn’t necessarily even know that she was giving everything she had. We’ve never heard of her before, and we never hear of her again.
But for all of the mystery about this woman, one thing we can know is that she is the opposite of the protagonist of last week’s sermon. Remember him? The so-called “rich young ruler,” who came asking Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life only to go away sorrowing because Jesus told him to sell it all and follow? He was too attached to his possessions to follow. He was plenty willing to give his actions – remember how he declared he had kept the law since his youth? His wealth, though…another matter entirely. He had to hold on, to keep control of his stuff.
Our widow, though? No such fear. To borrow a slang term from modern poker, the widow has chosen to go “all in.” A player whose chips are limited might choose to push them “all in” when a hand demands it. The widow has little else to fall back on; she chooses to commit it all in the Temple.
We do not ask for all your money. We do, however, ask for all of you. We need not just your money – though we do need that – but we do need your time. We need your gifts of talent, your ability to teach or sing or give or lead or anything you can do. We need you, and we need all that you have to offer.
Yes, fill out those pledge cards and turn them in. But that’s only a first step.
For commitments large and small, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “God of the Fertile Fields” (GtG 714); “As Those of Old Their Firstfruits Brought” (PH 414), “We Give Thee But Thine Own” (PH 428), “God, Whose Giving Knows No Ending” (PH 422)

Again, from the indispensible

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