“Rich Toward God” A Stewardship Sermon on Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” —Luke 12:13-21 NRSV Continue reading

“You Can’t Take It with You!” A Sermon on Luke 12:13-21

Prosperity is good, right? But it comes with challenges to both nations and individuals. American society is admired throughout the world as industrious and productive.  Americans work many more hours than most others in the industrial world and they take fewer vacations. Continue reading

“SHARE!” A Devotion on Acts 2:44-45

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”—Acts 2:44-45

My son and daughter were born 20 months apart and so played together as children. Before I was a parent I imagined that the solution to sibling competition over toys was to give them each the same one. So, for example, if you gave one of them a colorful ball, you would also give the other one an identical ball. As reasonable as this sounds it didn’t work. Apparently there is something highly acquisitive hardwired into the human condition. It turns out that both children wanted both balls. I’m tempted to reference a certain Christian doctrine here, but I’ll hold back. Continue reading

Paul on the Relationship of Christians to the Civil Authorities in Romans 13:1-7

Chapter 13.1-7 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans has been highly controversial and is a good subject for a lively conversation on just how Christians should view the government. The Christians that Paul is writing to lived in Rome, the capitol of the world’s biggest empire. Christians claimed that “Jesus is Lord,” the title that the Roman emperor, seen as a divinity, required. Could one say both “Caesar is Lord” and “Jesus is Lord?” Paul would say no, “there is one Lord, Jesus Christ.” So was simply being a Christian an act of sedition against the state?

If this new transformed community said that Jesus, rather than Caesar, is the true Lord how shall they live in the heart of the empire? This is what Paul was addressing in Chapter 13.1-7. Continue reading

“We Give Thee but Thine Own” A Stewardship Sermon

Wheat“The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1)

In late summer Brent (Damrow, our pastor) called me and ask me to preach today as “a witnessing steward.” He said the concept, which was used at Old South Church when he was there, was to have someone with an outsider’s view help the congregation think about stewardship.

I said I would glad to do it, but I didn’t know how much of an outsider’s view it would be since Martha and I had decided to join the church the next time new members were received. Brent assured me that it would be all right, but little did I know it would be on the very same day. Later in this service I will remove my robe and join the other new members. So in these last minutes of my outsider status let me share with you some thoughts about stewardship.

I have preached many stewardship sermons, but this is the first time I have ever preached one where I wasn’t the pastor, and I have to tell you it is very liberating. Since the pastor’s salary is typically one of the largest items in a congregation’s budget, as it should be, we ministers sometimes feel sheepish about preaching on stewardship, as if people might think we have an ulterior motive. So here I am; I don’t need a job or seek a raise. I come to you as one without guile.

But I do have an agenda, and since I come without guile, I’ll tell you what it is. I want to accomplish two things in this sermon. The first thing I want to do is give you a clear understanding of what Christian stewardship is. And the second thing I want to do is to share ideas that will help you be a Christian steward.

So, first things first. What is stewardship? Both Claire and Joanne, in their eloquent testimonies the past two Sundays about what this congregation means to them, expressed that their dictionaries weren’t much help in explaining stewardship. I figured out the problem: they needed a Bible dictionary, and I just happen to have one, two, actually.

Here’s what I found. The principal Greek word for steward is oikonomos. It has the same root from which we get our English words “economy” and “economics.”

The oikonomos was the servant, typically a slave in Jesus’ time, who took care of any household of note. He was entrusted to take care of what belonged to the master. In the Book of Genesis Joseph was steward to Potiphar’s household in Egypt. Everyone in Jesus’s day would have known the term, a house manager who takes care of what belongs to the master.

Now our English word steward is what we call a dynamic equivalent translation. There wasn’t a word in English that meant exactly what oikonomos meant in Greek. So when Tyndale and the other early translators of the Bible were casting about for an equivalent they came up with steward, which originally comes from the Old English “stie-weard.”  “Sty” is the pen where the pigs were kept, pigsty being one of my mother’s favorite metaphors for my room when I was a teenager. And we know “ward” from words like warden, the one in charge. So “a sty-ward,” a steward is literally “the keeper of the pigpen” Not very elegant, but there it is.

Are you still with me?  Good! So we’ve established that the steward is entrusted to look after the master’s possessions. A Christian steward is entrusted with the things that belong to God.

So what belongs to God? This is where we need a good refresher course in theology 101, and especially a good doctrine of creation. And here I turn to the beginning of Psalm 24. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” Or for you old timers who grew up on the King James Version, as I did, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” Either way, what belongs to God? (Someone shouts out “everything!”) That’s right, everything!

The great creeds of the church say the same thing, “We believe in God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things, visible and invisible.”

So you see the weight of these important words, steward and stewardship. They mean the taking care of everything of God’s, and I could preach a whole sermon on the environmental and ecological implications of Christian stewardship, but that’s a sidebar for you to muse on. I expect Brent will do that at some point.

I want to say one more thing about stewardship before I get practical with you and it is this. The steward is expected to make good use of the things with which he or she is entrusted. The keeper of the pigs doesn’t just sit there and watch them in the pigsty. No, the steward must feed them, protect them from predators, and see that they are healthy.

There is an active quality to stewardship. We see that in the reading you just heard, the Parable of the Talents. The servant who buried his money in a field was untrustworthy, not worthy of trust, because he passively protected the money and didn’t actively seek to make it prosper.

So stewardship is the active tending of everything God entrusts to us, which is everything.

And the steward is the one who does it.

You can see it’s a pretty big job! So Part Two of this sermon is to give you some guidance on how to be a trustworthy steward.

But you may be asking, “OK, Rick, I get it, but if stewardship is such a big category and means taking care of everything of God’s, the air, the water, the earth, our health, why in the church does it always lead to talking about money?”

And that’s a great question. And I have a great one-word answer for that: Jesus.

Did you know that Jesus talked about money more than any other topic except the kingdom of God. Why do we think that is? Because he knew the symbolic power of money, and its perils and risks for the disciple. “You can’t serve God and money,” he once said, and he meant not just the physical money, but mammon, who is the personification of wealth, the god of money.

Because Jesus knew money could be an idol. Remember the rich young ruler who went away sorrowful from Jesus because he was too attached to his money, and the rich fool who built bigger barns to store his wealth? These stories and parables Jesus tells are warnings about spiritual health. Because he knew that money can be a bar to discipleship.

Or it can be a bridge. Jesus also said, “Where you treasure is there will your heart be also.” So we have too often sold stewardship backwards when we say, “the church needs your money,” since the more important need is for you to give money to the church.

So the crucial stewardship question for each of us is not, “How much of what I possess shall I give to God?” The crucial stewardship question for each of us is, “How much of everything God has entrusted to me will I keep for myself?.”

And I promised you I would help you with some ideas on how to be a Christian steward, and now I will.  Let us think on what are the values or attributes of Christian stewardship that we find in the Bible. I can identify several:

  • Christian stewardship is intentional. You need a plan. If you wait to look into your purse or wallet in the parking lot to see what’s in there for God, you need to work on that. That is why we will provide you with a pledge card that is simply a written record of your intention for the year.
  • Christian stewardship is regular. Now you have a plan, you need to follow it. To give each week in worship will also remind you of what you are doing; you are being a trustworthy steward.
  • Christian stewardship is generous. In many mainline churches such as our UCC the average pledge is somewhere between 1 and 2 percent of income. It will be hard for a congregation to flourish with poor stewardship like that, and again, I’m not talking about the budget, but about the level of discipleship. Whatever your level of giving it needs to be generous.
  • Christian stewardship means giving God our best: the first fruits of what we have received. We don’t give to God the leftovers; we give off the top. In the agricultural world of the Bible the first fruits meant bringing the early crop to God as a thanksgiving, and a reminder where it had come from. The farmers consecrated the crop before God, and likewise we can consecrate our life and work before God. The great J. S. Bach wrote the Latin words soli Deo Gloria on every piece of music he ever wrote, sacred or secular, because to him his work was for the glory of God. He consecrated his work before God.
  • Christian stewardship is proportional. Remember the widow’s mite? Nowhere in the Bible does it say, “Give fifty-two bucks.” What it does say is “give in proportion to what you have received.” The Biblical tithe, or ten percent, is the most obvious example, but for some a tithe would be easily done and for others, impossible. Whatever we give it should be proportional to our ability to give and to that which God has entrusted to us.
  • I saved the best for last.  Christian stewardship is cheerful. “The Lord loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7) When we change the way we think about stewardship from a theology of scarcity to a theology of abundance, something mysterious happens. Giving becomes a personal act of faith for each of us, and a shared act of the compassionate community for all of us. God has provided us with plenty. And if we can enlarge the pie of our available resources by faithful stewardship we can then do more for the glory of God, more for our church, more for our communities, and more for the world. Because God wants more for us and for this congregation than mere survival. God wants us to flourish, and has provided us with more than enough to do so.

So, in conclusion, if I’ve done my job here, you know what a steward is, and you know how to be one. I invite you to enjoy the process of thinking and praying about how you will use all that the master has given.

And as you do so, recall those words that Jesus said the master spoke to the good stewards: ‘Well done, good and trustworthy servants. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ Amen.

I preached this sermon at First Congregational Church UCC, Stockbridge, Massachusetts on October 27, 2013.

(Photo: R.L. Floyd. Somewhere in NW Iowa)

Confused? Interpreting Your Congregation’s Numbers

One of the besetting sins of today’s American mainline church is a morbid preoccupation with the numbers; number of members (AKA “pledging units”) and number of dollars.

Such a preoccupation is understandable given the decline of these numbers over the past decades, but the result is the continuing demoralization of leaders and members, and a misreading of the real strengths and weaknesses of the congregation and its leaders.

I would not suggest that we do away with the bookkeeping, but I do suggest that we bring better interpretive tools to bear on the numbers.  Numbers without interpretation can be just as dangerous for the church’s well-being as scripture texts without interpretation.

Here in New England we have many historic (often downtown) churches that hit their numerical high water mark in both members and dollars somewhere between the late 1950’s and mid 1960’s.

Those numbers without interpretation might lead one to believe that those times of plenty were a golden age of the church, and in the minds of many older members they were.  But to use them as the template for what is normative makes everything that has followed appear to be failure.

A deeper look tells a more complicated story.  There was a boom in church life in the years after World War Two.  I call it a boom and not a revival, because it lacked many of the features of earlier religious awakenings, and that is part of the story of the subsequent decline.

It was a heady time of great optimism. America and its allies had won the war at great cost of people and treasure. There was an atmosphere of thanksgiving that the war was over.  The returning troops settled down, got married and created the great “Baby Boom” of the late forties into the fifties.

But it was not all optimism. The new Cold War with the Soviet Union and the specter of a nuclear exchange put fear into the mix.  And because the religiosity of America stood in stark contrast to the official atheism of the Soviets church-going seemed patriotic.

Many returning troops went to college on the GI bill and made their way into a rising middle class that fueled a housing boom.

These demographic and cultural factors grew churches.  Many new churches were built, new additions were added, and Sunday Schools were bursting at the seams with the young boomers.

Although there was some robust theology in the academy (the Niebuhrs, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich come to mind) that theology hadn’t made its way to the congregations.  The life of the church was largely a pretty generic Culture Protestantism which identified itself with the American way of life.  There were Catholic and Jewish versions of this identity as Will Herberg described in his important book of the time Protestant, Catholic, Jew.

This (necessarily) simplistic sketch sets the stage for what happened in the 1960’s.  The Boomers grew up and out of the church.  Their mostly inadequate Christian education had not prepared them for the profound cultural changes that took place during this time.  The Civil Rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and the rise of the Boomer counter-culture all called into question the moral legitimacy of established authority, including the church.

The rise of neo-fundamentalism gave those looking for a more robust Christian experience an alternative place to go.

The mainline churches retained an important place in American life (and still do) but their numerical glory days were past and the decline continued as the older generation died off and the younger generation (numerically smaller than the Boomers) didn’t take their place.  That accounts for the loss of members and partly for the loss of dollars.

When new members did come in they often had less money than the generation they were replacing and lacked the habits of good stewardship and commitment to institutions that their elders had had.

Regional demographics come into play as well.  Areas losing population, the “Rust Belt” states, saw more rapid declines than growing states in the South and West.

Changes in the economy, in employment and investment markets, also come into play.

All this is to say that there are macroeconomic factors at work over which church leaders have little or no control that impact the numbers that appear in their annual reports.  If they see declining pledge income during a recession with high unemployment (such as the one we are presently in) it doesn’t mean their leaders are incompetent (although they might be.)

Lay leaders faced with rising costs and diminishing income often panic, slashing vital programs, and blaming their ordained leadership for the bad numbers.

The preoccupation with the numbers often means other important features of congregational life are overlooked.  A pastor may preach excellent sermons, foster a vital congregational group life, encourage faithful mission, oversee life-changing Christian education and still find herself under the gun for the continuing bad numbers.  Good evangelism and church growth strategies are important for congregations, but the fact is that in many locations the demographic realities limit the number of prospective new members.

There can be no doubt that continued changes are in store.  Some congregations will have to abandon historic buildings to be more efficient in their mission.  Other congregations will join together in new configurations.  Some will have to find graceful ways to live out their mission before dying.  But most congregations will not be doing these things and will move along from year to year as best they can.

They will have to discover imaginative and creative approaches to their changing realities.  But this is nothing new.  The church has always had to adapt to the world in which it finds itself.  And the myth of the prosperous church of 1958 needs de-mythologizing if we are to deal faithfully with our own time.  Let us stop longing for the good old days that never were.

Because we don’t live in the past, we live now, and in the midst of all these challenges and obstacles it is easy to overlook how much faithful and energetic ministry still goes on every day in our congregations.

By all means keep an eye on the numbers.  But be aware that a preoccupation with the numbers may obscure what God is up to in our life together.  And that is hardly worthy of a faith that believes in resurrection.

Where I Ruminate on the Cross and Christian Stewardship

I recently received notice that the theme for my state Conference’s annual meeting this fall will be “Generosity as a way of life.” A cynic might wonder if this is just another attempt to shore up the sagging finances that plague all the mainline denominations.

But the cynic should note that the theme of generosity is thoroughly biblical. This week’s epistle, for example, is from Second Corinthians, Chapter 8, which is a sort of proto-stewardship letter from the Apostle Paul.

The particular project Paul is raising funds for is a collection for the benefit of the church in Jerusalem. He has been traveling around Greece and Asia Minor visiting churches, many of which he founded, inviting them to give to this project. In this letter to the church in Corinth he describes to them the generosity of the Macedonians so as to shame and inspire them. Apparently Paul’s sometime traveling companion Titus has already been there and begun the collection among them, but perhaps with less than satisfactory results, given the need for this letter.

But Paul doesn’t only shame them into giving. He also encourages them with some flattery: “Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” (2 Corinthians 8: 7) Paul knows what every wise parent or teacher knows, that encouragement often gets better results than shaming.

But neither shame nor flattery provides Paul’s best motivation for the Corinthians to be generous. What he wants to say that the Christian life by its very nature is a generous life and that generosity is rooted and grounded in gratitude for the gracious generosity of God in Jesus Christ. He writes them: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8 9)

Many years ago a member of my congregation came to me puzzled about this passage. “Is it true Jesus was rich?” Wasn’t he a humble carpenter?” I answered him that he was right that Jesus was not a rich man economically. But Paul is speaking metaphorically. When he says that Jesus was rich but became poor for us, he is referring to Jesus giving everything up on the cross. The language reminds us of Philippians 2: 5-11 where Jesus is depicted as emptying himself of his divine prerogatives and taking the form of a servant, humbling himself even to the point of death. That is “the generous act” Paul refers to. The word in Greek means “grace,” and earlier translations said, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I find it ironic that at the same time the mainline churches are admonishing generosity, a cottage industry debunking the cross is flourishing within their precincts. (see, for example, my The Cross and Violence: Is the Word of the Cross Good News, or is it Bad News?) I have read far too many ordination papers lately apologizing for the cross, and wonder if such a cross-less Gospel will make people feel generous?

Let me boldly suggest that a robust cross-centered Gospel may be the most efficient stewardship tool. Generosity doesn’t grow on its own, because it is a fruit, and not a root. The root is gratitude.

Isaac Watts’ hymn “When I survey the wondrous cross” captures this sense of gratitude and its fruits in the last verse: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

Can you imagine the nominating committee vetting stewardship callers by asking them about their doctrine of the atonement? I can’t either, but the thought amuses me.