Pastor Rick Danielson
What were Sunday mornings like when you were a child? Was Sunday a day to sleep in, or did you have to get up early and go off to church? In my home, Sunday School and church were never an option. On those mornings, we got up extra early to eat breakfast prepared by my Dad. Every single Sunday of my childhood I woke to the smell of pancakes cooking in the kitchen. One compensation for rising early was getting to watch the adventures of Davey and Goliath on television… until my parents decided that it would be more suitable to watch the line-up of TV evangelists starting very early in the morning. So Sundays began with Oral Roberts followed by Robert Schuller followed by Jerry Falwell (followed by Sunday School, followed by church!)
Even as a child watching preachers on the TV screen, I became weary of the pleas for money. One day after listening to another opportunity to receive a cheesy religiously-themed knick-knack in exchange for a large monetary donation, I sat down and wrote a letter to Jerry Falwell telling him I disapproved of his fundraising tactics. I was twelve years old, and already I was a cynic. I got a very nice form letter in reply, thanking me for my interest and asking for a donation.
Now I’m a pastor, and among my many responsibilities is the important task of preaching and teaching about giving. When November rolls around every year and the church focuses on stewardship and the need to support the church’s ministry, I find myself having a love/hate relationship with stewardship. I hate that some prominent preachers have abused their position to manipulate people, including those who are financially vulnerable, to give money they probably shouldn’t give. But I love talking about what happens when the spirit of generosity is present within a community.
It’s not a secret that Jesus talked about money a lot. Much of his teaching in regard to giving is found in the parables. At least half of his stories are about stewardship, and about a third deal specifically with the use of money. We heard one of those parables today, and I want to confess to you freely that I did not choose the Gospel reading that was prescribed in the Revised Common Lectionary. That reading was about the ten bridesmaids who missed a wedding. Try as I might, I wasn’t able to squeeze a stewardship message out of that. I noticed, though, that the paragraph just prior in Matthew contains a little-known story that is one of Jesus’ parables on stewardship.
I suspect that one of the reasons the Parable of “The Faithful or Unfaithful Servant” isn’t well known is that it never appears the Lectionary. And I suspect it’s not in the Lectionary because it is the Gospel equivalent of the slasher film. When the master of the household realizes that his servant – or slave – has been partying and getting inebriated rather than feeding those in his care, the master cuts the slave into little pieces. Again, it’s important not to take the details of some of these stories too seriously. The words attributed to Jesus here are purposely exaggerated in order to get attention and make a big point.
The community of Matthew that produced this Gospel lived with a very clear expectation that time was coming to a close. Just prior to this story, Jesus is recorded as telling about calamitous events that will shake the earth and result in much hardship. He tells his followers to be watchful and to prepare themselves for the trials ahead. It’s not all bad news, though, as Jesus is described as one who is ultimately coming with great power to set everything right.
Stewardship matters when the stakes are high. If you believe the end of life as we know it is close at hand, then you are going to be very careful about how you live. So a story about a master evaluating the effectiveness of his servants is given to encourage early Christians in a time of both uncertainty and anticipation. The one servant who is commended and is described with the word “faithful” is one who took his job seriously and didn’t falter in providing food at the right time for the other servants. In other words, he was a good steward of the resources available to him as he served the master of the house.
So stewardship here is about taking life and its resources seriously while living each day with anticipation.
I was really nervous the first time I prepared a sermon for a fall stewardship campaign. I had all kinds of negative messages left over in my head from countless sermons about giving. I wanted to avoid appealing to guilt, which is a commonly-used motivator but notoriously ineffective in bringing long-term healthy change. I also wanted to steer clear of the horrific theology I had earlier absorbed from televangelists, specifically the belief that if you give your money to God, God is obligated to return that money to you many times over. That particular message has been used by preaching predators to fleece persons living in poverty of their very meager resources. All in the name of God.
It’s not like I didn’t believe there were good reasons to give, or that something very positive didn’t come to the giver who practices generosity. It’s just that I didn’t want to say something stupid or wrong. And I didn’t want to offend any of my listeners. So I prepared my sermon and delivered it with considerable trepidation. At the conclusion of the service, the wealthiest member of the congregation, the president of the local bank who was nearly famous for his stinginess both in giving out loans and in contributions to his local church, flashed a huge smile and extended his hand while saying “that was the best stewardship sermon I’ve ever heard.” And I knew right then that I had missed the mark!
Over the years since then, I’ve become more comfortable talking about stewardship, and most importantly, I’ve spent time figuring out my own response of gratitude to God in the form of financial giving. For a long time, I settled on the concept of the “tithe” – literally cutting a check to the church each week for ten percent of my salary before taxes. That worked fine, and I discovered that it actually helped me to be very careful about how I used the remainder. Over time, though, this started to feel like a rather wooden, legalistic approach to giving. I found that I was not being generous to anyone other than my local church since there didn’t seem to be much left. So I loosened up a bit on what tithing means. I began to find ways to give beyond my local church and stopped calculating and therefore limiting giving to that ten percent as though it were a tax or a legal obligation.
In my relationship to the church, I have always tried to do the following: First of all, I think it’s important for me to be direct and not talk around or avoid the importance of giving to support the ministry of the church. Closely related to that, though, is the necessity of leading by example. I cannot and I will not ask people to give financially in ways that I am not willing to practice myself.
To be very truthful, it’s a whole lot easier to give to a ministry that I have great confidence in. I consider myself to be somewhat of a “church connoisseur,” and this is the best church I have ever been part of. That’s a pretty subjective statement, but I consider it to be true, perhaps mostly because Community UCC closely matches what I value. As a result, I value the church highly and believe in its future. I’m happy, then, to give generously, even beyond what may seem to make sense when I consider my financial resources. Inevitably, when I have determined what I will give, I don’t miss it and I find giving to be a source of genuine satisfaction and even joy.
The Gospel reading today is rooted in the act of living in anticipation of great things. I look forward to all that the year 2015 will bring, and I want the church to have the freedom to act and to minister and to develop in ways that only are possible when enough resources are available. That doesn’t mean extravagance. One thing I appreciate about this church is the care given to being prudent about what really matters. People and justice and peace and the environment are among the highest priorities. Facilities and property are valued as tools, but are not an end in themselves. Our church is thriving without needing to being flashy or hip or whatever churches often feel they need to be today in order to survive. To me, those are signs of a healthy, faithful church. And that is the kind of ministry I want to invest my resources in.
Within Buddhism, generosity is the first step on the path to spiritual enlightenment. It is practicing both non-attachment and loving-kindness. When we grow in generosity, our mind becomes lighter and more available to insight. The act of generous giving is a means to that end. It is through giving with a kind, loving heart that we develop our capacity to let go. As we let go we become freer, lighter, and happier.
I don’t see much difference, really, between the practice of generosity as taught by Jesus or by the Buddha. Jesus spoke of the connection between our heart and the way we hold on to or release our treasure. There is a deep truth in the message that there is greater blessing in giving than in receiving.
The message of the Faithful Servant from Matthew today is about living with positive expectation and matching that forward-looking hope with acts of generous stewardship. So please ask yourself: What do you expect as you look into the future, and what is your role, according to your ability and resources, to make that happen? May we live together as a community of faithful stewards as we give thanks and practice generosity. Amen.