A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on November 10, 2013 (Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time/Stewardship Sunday)
Now, friends, read these next words carefully. Slow down and don’t go jumping to conclusions regarding the day when our Master, Jesus Christ, will come back and we assemble to welcome him. Don’t let anyone shake you up or get you excited over some breathless report or rumored letter from me that the day of the Master’s arrival has come and gone. Don’t fall for any line like that.
Before that day comes a couple of things have to happen. First, the Apostasy. Second, the debut of the Anarchist, a real dog of Satan. He’ll defy and then take over every so-called god or altar. Having cleared away the opposition, he’ll then set himself up in God’s Temple as “God Almighty.” Don’t you remember me going over all this in detail when I was with you? Are your memories that short?
Meanwhile, we’ve got our hands full continually thanking God for you, our good friends – so loved by God! God picked you out as his from the very start. Think of it: included in God’s original plan of salvation by the bond of faith in the living truth. This is the life of the Spirit he invited you to through the Message we delivered, in which you get in on the glory of our Master, Jesus Christ.
So, friends, take a firm stand, feet on the ground and head high. Keep a tight grip on what you were taught, whether in personal conversation or by our letter. May Jesus himself and God our Father, who reached out in love and surprised you with gifts of unending help and confidence, put a fresh heart in you, invigorate your work, enliven your speech.
– 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17 (from The Message by Eugene Peterson)
This is the Sunday we have chosen to be our Stewardship Sunday. Stewardship is a word we use in the church to talk about the wise and responsible use of the countless gifts God has given to us. Unfortunately, it often gets reduced to just asking folks to give money to support the church. That is certainly a part of stewardship, but it is not the whole picture.
But let me start with that part. Most of you who have been around the church for a while know this, but for the sake of any folks who might be new to the church, let me give some background. In our church tradition, we as a congregation have the authority to determine our own finances – we decide how to raise money and how to spend it. We need money to pay staff salaries, for maintaining our building and property, for heat and electricity, for bulletins, and music, and church school curriculum, and stewardship letters. Some of the money comes from folks who use our building (like the Westminister OPC church), and some comes from fundraisers (like the turkey dinner and raffle). But most of it comes from us – from what we put in the offering plate on Sundays or otherwise give to the church.
The challenge we are facing as a church is that, for the past five years, we have been spending more than we have been taking in. Our church leadership hoped that was a temporary result of a slow economy, and that we would soon get back on track, but right now it looks like that isn’t happening. We have been getting by essentially by borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, as the expression goes. Kind of like a family borrowing from the children’s college savings in order to put food on the table. You can do it for a temporary crisis, but to keep doing it sacrifices the future. We can’t keep doing it. And, as you might imagine, our choices are either to bring in more income, or cut expenses. But there is almost nowhere we can cut expenses without dramatically reducing the ministry we are able to do.
And so, our church leadership decided to give the congregation an opportunity to respond – to see if we could increase our giving in order to balance our budget. That would mean increasing our giving by about 20%.
20%, We all know that is a lot. It is a big challenge. And if the church were just some purely human good cause among others; if it were just a matter of dollars; if we had to rely solely on our own ability to meet the need, that might indeed be more of a challenge than we could handle.
But that is where stewardship comes in. The church is more than just one good cause among many – it is the community that proclaims the good news of God in Jesus Christ – news that can transform lives and change the world. At least it should be! It already has. This church has changed people’s lives! As just one recent example — although I didn’t get there, a couple weeks ago pastors and church members from other UCC churches in Illinois gathered in Springfield to call for the right of same-sex couples to marry in this state – even in the face of many other Christians who oppose it. This past week, that law was passed and is awaiting Governor Quinn’s signature. The church – this church – changes lives. We are God’s people, and God is at work among us, changing lives.
Throughout the Bible are stories of times when God’s people have faced dire need – far greater than facing a budget deficit — and seen no way to meet the need, but then God has done amazing things! When the Hebrew people escaped bondage in Egypt, but then found themselves in the desert wilderness with no water and no food – that was a crisis! But God provided water from a rock, and miraculous bread from heaven! When the prophet Elijah went to stay with a poor widow and her son during a time of terrible drought, they had only enough food for one last meal, but somehow the food lasted until the drought ended! When Jesus and his disciples were out in the middle of nowhere with a crowd of thousands of people who had come to hear the message about the Realm of God, all they had to feed them was five loaves of bread and two fish. Talk about a deficit! But they blessed it and shared it, and it was more than enough! There were even leftovers to share.
When we are focused on doing God’s work, and when we ask God to provide — even when it looks hopeless, and even when we have trouble believing – God comes through!
And it happens here among us, as well. I have been amazed in reading our church history that in a time just 10 or 15 years after this church was founded, it went through a period when it was described as “destitute.” And yet, that is when they somehow managed to scrape together the money to build our historic original sanctuary. Impossible! And even recently, when we needed some money to repave our parking lot, repaint this sanctuary and the old building, and make some other improvements, we didn’t have the money on hand to do it, but it came from some unexpected sources: some long-time church members like Charlie Casper and Shirley Karas passed away, but they remembered the church in their will and left gifts we didn’t expect. When we face a real need, God provides!
So that 20% deficit we face? It is possible to meet that challenge if we trust in God to help us respond.
When we offer our gifts for God’s work, we get God’s help. Just as the word of the LORD came to the prophet Haggai in the days of rebuilding the temple when no one thought they had anything to give, so God speaks to us: “take courage… for I am with you… My spirit abides among you; do not fear.”
We are also reminded that all that we have is really God’s anyway. “The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the LORD…” It’s not ours, to decide whether we will give a little bit; it is God’s, given to us so that we might enjoy a portion, but then share the rest.
We can do this because loving and trusting God helps us to better evaluate our priorities in where our money goes. Next only to providing for our families needs, there is no more important way to use our gifts than in doing ministry through the church. So, perhaps if we look carefully at where we spend our money, we might discover a few places we could save a little and share it with the church instead.
When we are willing to give, and to take the bold step in faith of desiring to give more than we think we might be able to give, we will get a surprise – God will give us help! As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “May Jesus himself and God our Father, who reached out in love and surprised you with gifts of unending help and confidence, put a fresh heart in you, invigorate your work, enliven your speech.” If we are willing to invest in the mission work of the church, God will surprise us with gifts of help and confidence, and invigorate us.
I think that is the key – life; vigor. We must not be satisfied with just keeping the doors open and the lights on. We must desire, and pray for, and work for, and give for LIFE! For outreach that welcomes people into community, and changes lives and hearts. Those things are already happening. God wants to help us do even more.
So how can you do your part? If our question is, “How much more do I have to give in order to keep things the way they are?” Or even worse, if your question is, “What is the bare minimum I need to give to provide what I want from the church?” – that won’t do it. But if your question is, “What can I afford to give to truly honor God and invigorate the work of the church?” – then my suggestion is to challenge yourself, and see whether or not God will bless your life. You’ve heard a number this morning: 20%. If you have given in the past, can you try increasing that by 20%? But remember that some people, for one reason or another, can not give 20% more. So some of us may have to do even better than that.
Those of you who have been members of the church for many years – it is important to realize that what you gave 30 years ago may not do as much today as it did then. The folks going through our historical archives this week found a church newsletter from the 1970s with an ad for the turkey dinner. We were doing them back then! Tickets were $3! If your giving hasn’t gone up since then, and you can afford to do more without going hungry, maybe it’s time to increase your giving!
If you are new to this whole idea of giving, there is a little guide in the insert in your bulletin that can help you. There is an ancient concept in our biblical tradition of giving to God what is called a “tithe” – a portion or percentage of one’s income. That is sometimes interpreted as giving 10% of one’s income. Some people in our church give 10% of their income to the church. It is possible to do!
But not everyone is there, yet. In our United Church of Christ, the average giving by church members has been closer to 2% of their income. If that’s all you can do, start there. But then, make it a spiritual discipline to try to increase your percentage each year. There may be no better way to grow in faith and in love to God than by trying to give a little more than you think you can afford.
After church, you are invited to pick up a stewardship letter that sets forth the challenge we are facing, and a pledge card. You are invited to pray about what you can do, fill out the pledge card, and then bring it back for our worship service two weeks from now – November 24 – the Sunday before Thanksgiving. We will receive the cards and bless them and offer them to God. If you can’t be here on that Sunday, you can mail them to the church office or bring them on another Sunday. We would like to get some idea of what we are able to do before we have our postponed Congregational Meeting on December 8.
Remember that a pledge is not a binding contract. It does not put you in debt. If during the year you find that you just can’t manage what you had hoped to do, or if your financial situation changes, just let our Financial Secretary know you need to make a change. The only persons who will see what you pledge or what you give are our Financial Secretaries.
If you have questions about what you are being asked to do, you can talk to me. If you have any questions about the financial situation in the church, you can ask me or one of our church leaders. And please, plan to attend our congregational meeting on December 8.
If you are in a situation where you have absolutely no money you can give, then think about other ways you can offer gifts of time to help, or other gifts you might share. God gives all of us something.
We live in a world in which we are bombarded by messages that tell us that what we have is ours, and that we don’t have enough, so we have to hold tightly to it. It is easy to develop a heart of fear. Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians is for us as well: May Jesus himself and God our Father, who reached out in love and surprised you with gifts of unending help and confidence, put a fresh heart in you, invigorate your work, enliven your speech. That’s stewardship!
Robert J. von Trebra