Stewardship – The Greatest Hits
November 15, 2015
Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, California
Four weeks ago this very minute, I was sitting up there in the bass section when Linda forced us to say the word “again” — again and again. And I thought to myself, “Boy, she’s got that right. Every Fall it’s the same old thing: preaching a stewardship sermon — again and again.” And not only that, she’s doing four of them, in addition to bringing me out of retirement to add a fifth.
And that’s only the preacher’s point of view. Surely there are more than a few of you out there who said to yourself, “Here we go again.”
But then I thought, “Well why not? We sing the same hymns again and again. We hear the same scripture readings again and again. The choir sings the same anthems again and again. We celebrate communion again and again. Why not the same sermons?”
Of course anyone who’s been paying attention knows that we’ve been doing that all along.
A friend of mine says that he thinks most preachers only have about five sermons and that they just change the titles and the illustrations when they repeat them.
I think that’s about right for me: one on death, one on community, and three on stewardship.
But … if stewardship is what we do with what we’ve been given, then we ought to think and talk about it more than half the time.
Did you get that definition?
Stewardship is what we do with what we’ve been given.
Oh, but I must have said that before. It’s one of the greatest hits.
By the way, I am not unmindful of the fact that “Greatest Hits” has two meanings here. Put crassly, it’s all about being “hit up” in the same old ways.
Forty-three years ago, in 1972, I received my first pastoral appointment – to two small churches in Lake County: Middletown and Lower Lake. You’ve been hearing about Middletown in the news as a terrible fire swept through it destroying more than a third of the homes. The Methodist Church and the parsonage that sits behind it, where we lived, were spared. Many others were left homeless.
A lot of things have changed in the years since we lived in Middletown. I couldn’t find anyone that I knew then who still lives there. Most of the congregation was retired when I was there more than forty years ago. But one thing has not changed: Lake County still has one of the lowest median incomes of any county in the nation. By most standards, a lot of the people were, and still are, poor. It was among those people with meager resources that I learned some of my most important lessons about faithful stewardship of what you have been given. (Research shows that poor people give a larger percentage of their incomes than rich people. )
Gladys Apsley lived in Middletown. She was an 86-year-old widow and a member of the Methodist Church. A few of you have heard her story before. Here it is again. It’s one of the greatest hits.
In the spring of my first year in Middletown, Gladys called me up and asked if I could come over. She wanted to ask my advice about something. I went by that same afternoon; and after I was settled in her tiny living room with the requisite cookie and cup of tea, I asked her what she wanted to talk to me about.
She had a problem, she said. It was about her pledge to the church. When her husband was alive, he had always handled the finances in the household. After he had died eight years ago, she had to learn how to manage the money and allocate her social security check, which was substantially less than they had received when her husband was alive.
One of the first decisions she made was that she would tithe – give ten per cent of her income to the church. It turned out to be substantially more than they had been giving when her husband was alive. This frightened her at first, but after a few months she felt like she had everything she needed and found this tithe to be a great joy.
Now to her current problem: the previous year she had mistakenly paid income tax on her social security income and had just now received a refund of the money she had paid. She wanted to ask me what she should do with the tithe of this check, since it was over and above what she had pledged to the church.
I quickly tried to explain to here that she had already tithed on that money and to give a tithe on her refund check would be to give it twice. She listened patiently and then said, “I suppose you’re right. But you see, tithing has been such a joy to me that I see this as the gift of another chance to give.”
What was I thinking? I thought of Gladys as a person on a limited income trying to make ends meet. She saw herself as growing and deepening in her commitment and was not in the least constrained by her meager income. She was excited that she had another opportunity to give to what she felt was important, and she was enjoying the process of spending her money on what she cared about.
For me, Gladys’s story is one of the greatest hits. It reminds me of the joy that comes from being generous with what we have been given, no matter how meager it is.
Stewardship is what we do with what we’ve been given and giving is the greatest source of joy. (Remember last week, singing “Love is something, if you give it away, you end up having more?”)
Again: Stewardship is what we do with what we’ve been given and Gladys Apsley taught me that giving is the greatest source of joy.
That joy is deepened when we consciously recognize that what we have to give was a gift to us in the first place.
There are some people who hold on to the idea that they have earned all the good things in their lives. The think they deserve whatever they have and they resent it when someone suggests otherwise. In fact, people who think this way are likely to be of the opinion that they have actually gotten less than they deserved and some others have gotten more than they deserve.
If you are one of those people, I’m sorry if I have offended you, but you would really be happier if you realized that most of what you have, including your life itself, is a gift. Thankfulness is a way better way to live than resentment.
Wouldn’t you rather say “wheee” than “Ohhh?”
That’s the point of the passage Beverly read from Deuteronomy:
“Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God who gives you power to get wealth.” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18)
How would our lives be different if we could keep that in our minds all the time:
“Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God who gives you power to get wealth.”
We’d have to remind ourselves … again, and again. The best response to a gift is gratitude. Gratitude makes you happy.
I’ve been talking about giving as a kind of lighthearted thing, and I think it can be. I think it is something to be cultivated. Giving to the church, or anything else, can be fun. But giving can also come out of a heaviness of heart.
When we are feeling sad, perhaps a sense of loss or loneliness, we tend to draw into ourselves, to hold on to what we have. That response simply amplifies our sadness and alienation. Those in the helping professions know that one of the best cures for depression is volunteer work. Giving, itself, is a source of happiness.
Stewardship is what we do with what we have been given (which is everything, of course), and giving makes us happy.
Why is that so hard to remember? A big part of the reason that it is so hard to remember is that we humans rely on constant reminders, even for what is important to us. We are constantly influenced by what we see and hear and feel.
When we come to church, we remind ourselves of what is important by singing the same hymns, reading the same scriptures, saying the same prayers, celebrating the same sacraments, and, yes, hearing the same sermons.
Let me put it another way. Coming to church and gathering with people who affirm your values is an essential part of cultivating good stewardship. This is Linda’s “again.”
We need to sing the same old hymns, say the same old prayers, celebrate the same old sacraments, and yes, hear the same old sermons, in order to compete with the barrage of messages that we encounter every day that would draw us off the track of what we value.
Consumer research concludes that the average person is exposed to more than 5000 “ad or brand exposures” in a day. That means that in various direct and indirect ways someone is trying to influence how you spend your time and attention and money more than 5000 times each day. How can an hour of singing the same old hymns and hearing the same old sermons compete with that. I’m sure that there is no scripture passage that I have read or heard more times than I have seen a smiling person drinking a Coke. Two different doctors have told me that Diet Coke is poison, but it’s so hard to remember.
That’s why coming to church is so important. For every advertisement we hear or see, we need to say a prayer. For every catalog that arrives in the mail, we need to sing a hymn. Every time we see an ad for McDonalds, we need to celebrate communion. And for every political debate we watch, we need to listen to about five of Linda’s sermons.
I call this stewardship of our consciousness. We need to pay at least as much attention to how we invest our mind as to how we invest our money. In fact, if we pay enough attention to cultivating our consciousness, how we invest our money will take care of itself.
In the membership vows in the United Methodist Book of Worship, new members are asked to promise to support the church by their prayers, their presence, their gifts and their service. There is an important flip side to this: These are, indeed, ways we support the church; but just as important, these are practices that support us in becoming the people we want to be.
We pray and come to church and give our gifts and offer our service as necessary reinforcements to our becoming the kind of persons we want to be. They are spiritual practices. They are stewardship of our consciousness.
Right about now, one of those experienced church members, one who might have just a tiny problem with resentment, and feels like he has heard way to many of the same sermons over and over, is thinking to himself that “stewardship” is a just pious name for fundraising, and is wondering when this sermon is going to get to the point.
The point is, of course, that everything is about fundraising. One of my all-time favorite cartoons pictures Moses standing on the mountaintop holding the Ten Commandments, looking up into the sky and saying, “But what about funding?” There is almost no question of values that I can think of that is not also about funding. The way we allocate our wealth is the one of clearest measures of what we value. It is usually more reliable than our words.
But our funding is always backed by our attention. What would it mean if we were to tithe our attention? As with money, I always want to ask for more. A tithe is just a starting point. But suppose we were to give just ten percent of our attention to the cultivation of our spirit, to the practices that support what we value most.
My guess is that the money would take care of itself.