Hi friends! This sermon should not have been a hard one to preach, but the timing of it falling the same week our stewardship packets were mailed made it much more challenging! I had one thing in mind, but ended up scrapping it and taking a different course, which I actually think started some good conversations.
I’m curious – how do your churches handle stewardship? Is it a quiet thing or are you encouraged to talk about it more? I love hearing about other church’s stewardship practices – I’m kind of a stewardship nerd!
Rehoboth Congregational Church
October 13, 2019
Are We God-Serving Or Self-Serving?
I ate, slept and breathed stewardship this week.
Like I mentioned during announcements, stewardship packets were mailed on Friday. And so I spent a majority of the week writing letters, creating forms, pouring over budgets, coordinating with different people and doing more math than I have done since I was a business major that one semester in college.
On Friday morning, I sat in the Sadie Perry Room with a couple of kind and willing volunteers and, together, we stuffed, sealed and stamped 275 stewardship packets. I said goodbye to everyone and walked into my office, finally able to switch gears and think about Sunday’s worship service.
And that was when I was struck with a very large dose of, what I like to call, ecclesial irony.
I walked into the office, holding my phone that had this week’s scripture pulled up on it. “Kathy,” I asked. “What is our theme for stewardship this year?” “Shout it from the Mountaintop!” she said with great enthusiasm, pride and joy, echoing the sentiments I have been using talk about stewardship this year as I seek to create a culture where we celebrate our giving and what we can collectively do with our gifts.
“And what is our scripture for this week?” I followed up with. She gave me a perplexed look as I started reading.
Beware of practicing your piety before others
in order to be seen by them;
for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you,
as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets,
so that they may be praised by others.
Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.
But when you give alms,
do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
so that your alms may be done in secret;
and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
I could not believe I had just put together 275 stewardship packets using the theme, “Shout it from the Mountaintop,” two days before I was scheduled to preach on the passage of scripture where Jesus says we are supposed to give quietly.
To quote one of Bruce’s favorite movies, Caddyshack, “So I got that going for me, which is nice.”
I kind of huffed and said to Kathy, “Well clearly Jesus wasn’t trying to balance an operating budget,” and then stormed out of the office.
We wrestled a lot with our stewardship theme this year, not because we realized this passage would fall the same weekend we mailed out our stewardship packets (truth be told, if I had put that together ahead of time I might have come up with an alternate plan), but because this idea of being proud of what we give and of what we are able to do here, at the church, with our offerings seems counterintuitive to some of the basic biblical teachings we have learned throughout our lives (including the one Jesus talks about in this morning’s passage).
And yet, I kept coming back to it; I kept coming back to this line from one of my favorite hymns:
I’ll shout it from the mountaintop – I want the world to know.
And I think there is a reason for that and there is also a reason for the fact that this passage fell on the same weekend that our packets got mailed out. Because I think what Jesus is doing here is teaching about how to hold this tension between sharing our faith outwardly and being in community, but also doing so with reverence and humility.
Jesus addresses two things back to back here – the giving of alms and then prayer. And what he is saying in both instances is that we should not do these things for credit or attention; we should do them for God and God alone.
The ironic part about Jesus’ teaching here is that after he says we should go into our room and shut the door and pray to God in secret, he teaches the disciples how to pray.
When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases … pray then in this way.
And then Jesus proceeds to teach the disciples the foundation of a prayer that will eventually become one of the most common prayers that is said in community.
And the thing about the Lord’s Prayer is that it is one of the greatest gifts Jesus gave to the church, because it has stood the test of time, it draws us together and it gives us words to speak when we are, sort of, humbled by the inadequacy of our own words and I could preach a whole other sermon on that.
BUT – I think as we read this passage today, one of the things we are called to do is to hold this tension between what Jesus is saying here, which is, don’t do these things for credit, and the reality of the world that we are living in today, which is sometimes showy and narcissistic and reward-seeking .
It’s funny, because when I complained to Kathy about Jesus not trying to balance an operating budget, I was obviously joking, but it got me thinking about the fact that what Jesus is saying here kind of goes against everything I was taught about nonprofit fundraising and evangelizing and marketing your church.
And so I have just kind of been stuck in this place of bewilderment for the past two days because I just cannot seem to reconcile it.
Part of me thinks I should have just preached the sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, itself, and ignored the part where Jesus says we are supposed to quiet about it, but I also think in these two sections Jesus is laying the foundation for a community of faith that is grounded in worship for God and not worship for people.
Almsgiving and prayer are two very different things, but what connects them here is the fact that Jesus says we are supposed to do both of these things NOT to achieve some sort of human privilege, but to be drawn closer to God. And so as Jesus begins his ministry with the disciples, he reminds them of just how important it is not to lose sight of what they are trying to accomplish in this faith and ministry while they are still living their day-to-day lives.
Our faith does not exist in a vacuum, right? It exists in the real world and sometimes the two things are hard to reconcile. I think this section in the Sermon on the Mount serves a bigger purpose than simply a conversation about almsgiving and prayer; I think it actually opens up a broader conversation about the motivation behind all the things that we do – in our lives and our faith. What I think what Jesus is saying here is that we always need to remember what our values are and what our shared mission is.
And can we celebrate our victories along the way? Absolutely! Remember, Jesus says that we are the light of the world and that we need to let that light shine for everyone to see. We do have to talk about our faith and our ministries and, yes, even our money. But we need to do so in order that we can give glory to God and not get the approval, attention or praise of other humans.
So I want you to do two things for me this week.
Actually, I want you to do three. The first is to keep your eye out for your stewardship packet in the mail; because a lot of time and love and brain power went into it last week and I do want it to be a useful resource for you as you think about your pledge for next year. The Executive Board is in a place of dreaming about what the next fiscal year could bring and you all are a part of that; and I am so grateful for your love of this church and your commitment and devotion to your stewardship.
The second thing I want you to do is think specifically about this passage. When it comes to how you give and how you pray, how do you do it? How do you talk about it? How do your own practices line up with what Jesus is saying to the disciples here?
And then the third thing I want you to do is to think more broadly about your life and the things you do on a regular basis. Do you do them for God or do you do them for other human beings? Do you keep things a secret or do you do things in order to be seen by others? Are your actions God-serving or self-serving?
Some of these questions might be hard to answer – but I think the process of thinking about them and then trying to realign our priorities will help us all dig to a new depth of our faith. And I think when we do this not only will our faith be strengthened, but our community of faith will grow stronger, as well.
So go, therefore, and give to God and pray to God, knowing that God sees you, knows you, is calling you blessed and is illuminating a light within you that will shine not so the world might be impressed, but so the world might be changed.
God will see you. And God will reward you.
Thanks be to God!