This morning Saint John’s begins what we Episcopalians call ‘Stewardship Season.’ It is the time of year when we begin thinking about and planning the vision and budgets for the coming year…and seeing if we can expand our offerings and ministries…or if we must make cuts in our operations and ministries.
Many are the times this idea of a ‘stewardship season’ causes confusion and a lack of understanding in what it is all about.
If you grew up in an evangelical type church, you were probably trained and educated in the act of tithing. Or that your obligation and duty to God was to give the first 10% of your income to God.
In fact, not many months ago one of my fellow clergymen here in Jones county famously preached a sermon with a very blunt and now much talked about point…
He angrily told his congregation that if they did not give the first ten percent of their income to the church that they were ‘Stealing from God’ and would face His all consuming wrath.
And if you grew up in a more Catholic tradition you might not have ever given much thought to tithing or how you spend your time and your money…for it is not usually on the top of the list of sermon topics.
And still other times, this idea of stewardship is linked to secular groups and functions…we might equate church stewardship with NPR’s drive time…or the yearly assessment of the country club…or with requests for support from conservation or special interest groups.
The puts us in the mindset of supporting something because we like it, or use the service or group…and the Church becomes just one more among many groups asking for our money.
As a priest and dedicated Christian, I find this heartbreaking. This notion of Stewardship is lifegiving…it is more than fearfully fulfilling an obligation and duty to avoid the wrath of God.
Stewardship is much more than deciding which charities and special interests we will support in the coming year.
Stewardship, at its heart, is the prayerful contemplation of our faith in action…of our faith in works…it is how we live our lives.
Stewardship itself comes from a realization that God Almighty through Jesus Christ has given us everything we have, even our very lives…and responding to God in thanksgiving through the actions of our lives.
In the Old Testament the idea of Stewardship was multifaceted and encompassed every area of life.
Stewardship is founded in the idea that God created everything…the entire cosmos.
In the very beginning of the Biblical record we see this notion of Stewardship rise up…
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (Gen 1.26)
Have dominion over…to rule…to care for…from the very beginning humankind was given a very special responsibility. Out of thanksgiving for our very lives and out of thanksgiving for God’s love and creation…we became stewards of the earth.
That is to say, as a response to the love of God who created us…we were to rule and care for creation itself.
So, as an act of faith and love, we were asked to spend our time caring for and nurturing the earth and all of its inhabitants…both flora and fauna.
Another very telling action of stewardship comes to us from the pages of Leviticus:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God. (Lev 19.9-10)
This is the idea of almsgiving…or caring for the poor, the stranger and the traveler. It comes from the truth that all people are created in the image and likeness of God…and when we provide for the least among us we provide for God Himself.
This truth of Stewardship is made crystal clear in the 25 chapter of Saint Matthew…in these pages Jesus gives us the conditions of our judgment in that when we serve the poor and the naked and the sick we serve Jesus…and when we deny the poor and the naked and the sick we deny Jesus Himself.
So then, a very large part of Stewardship is a caring for the poor and the sojourner. Stewardship is realizing our blessings and abundance come as a gift and a grace of God to be shared with the less fortunate…that these gifts and the graces are to be used to glorify God in the care of His poor and needy.
Stewardship, our thankful response to God is an all encompassing action. Through the faithful recognition that God created everything good and that God has granted us, through His grace and mercy everything we have…
We respond and interact with all of creation out of a sense of our love for God and our love of all the He made.
We respond and care for all of creation…or business dealings, our environment, the people and things around us…the poor, the orphan and widow…
A faithful response of stewardship is a generous and loving response God’s creation.
It is a bit close to the mid term elections to talk about socialism in the great state of Mississippi…but to show how all encompassing the idea of stewardship was in the early Church I give you a passage from the Book of Acts:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. (Acts 2.42-45)
And they held all things in common…and cared for every need. So, then, this is the example par excellance of what Stewardship really means. No one had any needs…and the entirety of a person’s life became a thank offering to God with nothing held back.
As we prayerfully consider our own lives as stewards of God’s creation…as stewards of God’s gifts and graces…as we think about how we will respond in actions with thanksgiving we should hold up this passage in Acts as a pinnacle and signpost of the direction we should be moving in our lives of faith.
We’ve talked about stewardship that addresses all the wide world…from plants and animals to the poor and the stranger…but have said nothing about giving to the Church…so what then does stewardship have to do with the Church of God on earth?
For that answer we go back to the Book of Genesis and the story of Jacob…one of the Patriarchs and founders of the nation of Israel…a father of the people of God.
This particular passage comes right after the story of Jacob’s ladder when Jacob is fleeing from his brother Esau. Jacob lays down to sleep with his head on a stone in the desert, has a dream of Angels descending and ascending a ladder from earth to heaven and is assured of the blessing and presence of God. In response to that dream we get this passage:
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that thou givest me I will give the tenth to thee.” (Gen 28.20-23)
Jacob sets up the stone as a pillar, builds a structure and vows to God that he will return a tenth of all that God has given him as a thank offering.
Even within the Christian tradition, there are many similarities between Jacob’s notion of the House of God and ours.
The Church is a place set apart for prayer and worship. The Church is a place that is consecrated and given to God- it is literally offered to God as His house. It is also the house that the Christians gather in to worship and pray…to learn and love…it is our true home.
In our prayers and in our liturgies…this is the place where Heaven and earth touch…come together…are joined…where is the ladder descends…it is here we meet Jesus Christ, living and true.
And so it is here, in the House of God…in the presence of Jesus Christ…we bring the thank offerings of our lives…our first fruits…our tithes…it is here we give back to God those things he has given us…it is a pattern and guide for the stewardship of our lives in the world.
And we, as stewards of the House of God, use those thank offerings in ways that become the House of God…in ways that honor and glorify God.
The thank offerings of our lives are used to upkeep the House of God in a fitting manner. The thank offerings are used to purchase those things necessary for the worship of God in His House.
The thank offerings keep a priest to administer the Sacraments, to guide the parish family…to offer spiritual council…to teach and to evangelize…to love and to care for the parish family.
The thank offerings are used to support the ministries of the House of God…ministries such as education, care for the poor in our community…and formation as followers of Jesus Christ.
In real and tangible ways…the thank offerings that are brought to the altar of God in His house are manifested into a physical and active testimony to God’s love and mercy.
This house of God…Saint John’s Parish…is in many ways the collective manifestation of our faith in God…of our love for God…it is a manifestation of the thanksgivings of our lives.
So it is fitting and proper to offer our thanksgivings here…in this House of God…for it is a living and active testimony to Stewardship…to God’s love and mercy.
As we begin our Stewardship season…I commend these things to you…Stewardship is not one choice among many…it is a way of life and a way of being…it is the acknowledgement of all God has given and done through the works of our lives.
Stewardship poses questions for us to answer:
Is our life a thanksgiving to God?
Does our life and the things we do glorify God and glorify His creation?
Can the world look at us and see Jesus Christ active and living in all that we are and all that we do?
The goal of Stewardship is to make our lives reflections of God’s mercy and love…and to make his House a living and vibrant thank offering and a powerful beacon to the community of the love and mercy found in Jesus Christ.
So, this day, let us give ourselves fully the joys of being God’s stewards.