Given where our calendar stands right now, I want to say that according to William Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during the London Blitz, voting is the minimum requirement for Christian citizenship. Participation in community is a form of stewardship, and voting is participation in our national community. I would encourage you to vote with the Gospel in mind.
Today is Stewardship Sunday, when we start to focus in on our giving for the upcoming year. Because of the connection between the concept of stewardship and the concept of pledging, many people think that stewardship is synonymous with giving money to the church. But that’s not true. Giving money to the church is part of stewardship, but in order to understand giving we have to know what stewardship really is. So I want to start by talking about stewardship, and eventually I will get back to giving. Cross my heart.
A good place to start is the chorus of a song by Tracy Chapman. The song is about a woman’s disappointment in relationship, but the chorus has a broad application:
“So don’t be tempted by the shiny apple
Don’t you eat of a bitter fruit
Hunger only for a taste of justice
Hunger only for a world of truth
‘Cause all that you have is your soul”
Well, she said it all there. That’s the description of stewardship in a nutshell.
I’ll digress for a moment. I worked with a priest for a while, back when I drank a lot more coffee. When the coffeepot ran out, he used to put in more water and just run it over the used grounds. He called that good stewardship. I called it bad coffee. You can work out which is right, if either one is, but I won’t ask for a show of hands. I’ll check in again later about this.
I want to bring up St. Francis, whose feast day we celebrated with the blessing of the animals. He has been called the most admired and least imitated saint of the church; because Francis embraced extreme poverty. I mean extreme poverty; he gave up ownership of everything. This, he reasoned, was because poverty sets us free; it teaches us that we are all beggars on God. What we claim to possess actually possesses us. When we realize that all that we have is our soul, we are no longer distracted from our divine purpose.
Stewardship is named after an occupation. We had a reading about an unjust steward recently, remember? Canon Britt did a good job preaching on a hard scripture that day. He made free with the money and possessions over which he had authority; but in fact, he did not own those things. The authority he had was delegated from his master, who did own those things. A steward was someone who was given responsibility for things that did not belong to him; and I say “him” because in those days all of them were males.
So stewardship is not the practice of giving away a percentage of what we own; stewardship is the acknowledgement that we do not, and never did, own any of it. It all belongs to God in the first place and we have no rights to anything that are not granted by God. This is why we can talk about stewardship of land, of water and environment, of anything and everything that has come into our hands or is part of our lives.
That might sound simple, except for what is related by Tracy Chapman’s lyric, “Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple, don’t you eat of a bitter fruit.” It is also related to the reason that St. Francis felt freedom when he was relieved of possessions. That reason is an unpopular three-letter word, “sin.”
One way sin has power over us is when we are diverted into thinking that we do, in fact, own things. Sin has power over us when we think that they have been given to us by God to do with as we wish, rather than being allowed the use and oversight of things that are God’s. Another way sin has power over us is when we forget that God wants us to use them for good. We have been lulled by theologies that suggest that wealth is a sign of God’s favor and poverty is a sign of God’s displeasure. We have been lulled by theologies that say that this world will pass away so it doesn’t matter what we do to it. These kinds of theologies approve of radical individualism, of amassing wealth at the expense of others, of destroying God’s beloved creation because “it doesn’t really matter.”
We humans desire things violently. We have only to look at the world to see that. And I understand the wish to have more money, land and power than one can possibly use. It can insulate us from misfortune and from being controlled by others. It can make us think that we have control. That is why God urges us toward community, in the midst of prosperity as well as in want.
“Hunger only for a taste of justice, hunger only for a world of truth,” sings Tracy Chapman. St. Francis did not think that by disavowing possessions he had achieved God’s will; he believed his mission was to rebuild God’s Church, and he, along with his female counterpart, St. Clare, began doing that by forming communities of people who took vows of personal asceticism so that their focus might be on God and God’s people. Apart from a special calling from God, it is impossible to be Christians alone, by ourselves. Christianity is a community, not a solitary contract between God and an individual believer.
So stewardship means that we have everything and own nothing. This consciousness of community is related to a tribal consciousness, which says that if anyone has food, nobody goes hungry. Sharing is the will of God, expressed over and over in the Law and the Prophets, and affirmed over and over again in the New Testament. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus tells of a man who thought giving 10% of what he earned was good enough. It was not good enough.
This consciousness of community is supposed to extend to every aspect of our lives. Everything is offered to God and to one another. We offer our fullness; we offer our emptiness. That is stewardship. We offer the rejection and scorn we experience; we offer the love and approbation we experience. That is stewardship. We offer who we are and what we are. Forgiveness, mercy and compassion are stewardship too, sometimes the most difficult form.
That sense of having nothing that does not belong to God is behind the tithe and offering laws. We give what we value most because that is the most radical affirmation that it does not belong to us to begin with. Stewardship is also related to the sacrificial laws. We don’t sacrifice animals anymore, but we still make sacrifices. Second Timothy refers to being poured out as a libation. A libation was an offering of such things as wine and oil, which were poured out before the altar. Pouring out our whole self is the most radical sacrifice.
And that brings us to money. I told you I would get here! Money, too, belongs to the sacrificial laws. We give what we value, and in this society, money has great value. But how do we give it? And it is true that some, like St. Francis, are unable to offer money; but he offered himself, and so can we all.
A portion of our giving should be directed to our religious community. Apart from the fact that if we want something we need to pay for it, giving acknowledges who and what we are in God. We are an interdependent people, responsible for ourselves and for one another. We give so that the work of the Church – which, remember, is ourselves – may not die of neglect. We give so that we can remember that we are not giving what is ours, we are returning what is God’s. St. Luke’s has been on the verge of closing more than once, and it is giving that has allowed us to continue.
The Church is caught between trying to encourage people to give the biblical standard of a tithe, or 10%, and trying not to drive away people who are unable or unwilling to offer that much. But the tithe is only a part of the standard; the phrase we need to hear is “tithes and offerings.” Offerings may go to the church or somewhere else. I like to direct a monthly offering to Edible Hope, for instance, and I will give now and then to charities. Another thing I like is to give to Canon Britt’s Discretionary Fund, which allows her to give money to those in need. On a larger scale is Episcopal Relief and Development, or ERD, which is a great place to send money for global needs, especially in times of disaster. ERD is a highly rated charity, with only about 10% of the money going to administration. Think about it the next time you hear about a hurricane or other humanitarian emergency and want to contribute.
If the Church is going to continue to be here for us it needs to have people to do the work, and to pay its people and its bills. I read a joke the other day. A preacher says “I have good news and bad news. The good news is we have all the money we need to get the roof fixed. The bad news is that it’s still out there in your pockets.” The reason for pledging is that our church needs a budget to operate, and if we don’t tell our Vestry what we plan to give they can’t know what we can afford to do.
The book of Sirach proposes what I think of as a difficult premise, which is that God will repay us if we make offerings. I have heard that developed as a kind of magical thing, which is why I think it is difficult. But it is true that in our own lives, our giving and our receiving are linked, as our hearts and spirits are opened by our offerings. Sirach also offers us the warning that we cannot bribe God, or offer a dishonest sacrifice. A sacrifice was supposed to be the best of the animals or the first of the crops; a dishonest sacrifice cheated by offering what the person least desired. We are asked to give the first and the best, not the leftovers.
Finally, I want to focus on the joy of participation in stewardship rather than on burdensome duty; all participation in God’s activity is joyous.
So, you decide. Bad coffee or good stewardship?
“Hunger only for a taste of justice; hunger only for a world of truth. All that you have is your soul.”