Rev. Mona Denton, Westworth United Church, October 19, 2014
1 Timothy 6:17-19, Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:41-44
Today marks the first of four Sundays when we will be exploring different aspects of Christian stewardship. As you can see from my sermon title, I have been asked by the Stewardship Committee to focus on some of the basics. Whether we are long-time stewards, or beginners on the path of Christian Stewardship, it is good to pause and reflect on how and why we give or time, talents and resources to God through the church.
What exactly is a steward? How we answer this question, affects how we carry out our stewardship in the church. A steward is responsible for the care and well-being of something that is not their own. A steward may be someone who is in charge of a household, who works hard to ensure everything runs smoothly. Think Downton Abbey. Stewards are held accountable for how they invest their resources, time and talent. Christian stewards are responsible for the care and well-being of the places and people where God dwells. Everything that belongs to God falls within the circle of care that a Christian steward must embrace.
Christian stewardship is therefore hard to pin down and put in a box. It includes caring for every person, place or part of creation where God’s presence may be felt and seen. This seems like a pretty tall order. How can we possibly be faithful stewards when the places our care is needed are so vast and varied? Learning to be a steward is a lifelong spiritual quest. Luckily for us, we ground our stewardship in the life of this congregation. It gives us a starting place from which to grow in spirit and understanding.
Together, we can learn and show others how to be good stewards of all the gifts and blessings God has given to us individually, and as a community. Rather than sharing an abstract description with you of what a faithful steward might need to consider, I decided to interview members of our congregation. I spoke with people of all ages – a young mother, a child, a youth, a professional family and a retired person. I also reflected on my own understanding of what it means to be a Christian steward. Some patterns clearly emerged as people shared their stories with me.
All of the people I spoke with, from the youngest to the eldest, believed that it was important to offer their gifts to God. They were all thankful for the blessings they had received in their life and wished to return their thanks by blessing others through their offering. It was important to them to have a place to give good things to others because of their faith in God. People wanted to offer energy and gifts to the work of justice-seeking or helping others. They all felt that there was something different about the gifts they gave to the church. They felt that the values of a church were unique. There was an enthusiasm for working together to build a better world. Everyone described an attitude of being spiritually blessed through the offerings they could give through this community.
One thing that became increasingly clear as I spoke with others was the realization that stewardship is more taught than caught. We can intuit some things about what makes a good steward by observing those whose faith we admire, but we also need to be intentional about modelling and talking about the gifts we give in response to God’s love and goodness.
If we start with the youngest among us, we need to teach them why we give and explain that our giving reflects the value we place on our faith in God. In my twenty-six years in ministry I have seen a decline in the use of envelopes in the Church School.
The wonders of PAR have helped to bring stability to our regular offerings, but if we include our children in our PAR contributions, do they realize that they are giving too? I spoke with a young mother who consistently sends offering envelopes to Church School with her children and asked her why she was so faithful in this pattern. She replied that it was a model she grew up with in her own home and she continued to value her children physically putting an offering in the basket, sometimes even putting in some of their own money. She believes that this shows her children the importance of this gift. In addition, this mother also wanted her children to complement this gift by offering time to the church to learn that being part of a faith community includes serving others.
Looking back, the elders I spoke with had awareness from a very young age that part of their family’s money and time went to the church – for their local community and for mission and outreach. They remembered conversations about why what the church was about mattered and was worthy of their time and giving. I was reminded of my own childhood and the Saturday night ritual of filling in my Sunday school envelope and having to put a coin in each side – one for my local church and one for the wider mission of the church. That sense of dual need and commitment has stayed with me to today.
Christian stewardship implies an intentional way of being. Our young people learn to be stewards from us. What are we modelling today for our children and youth? Will they have conversations about stewardship and giving gifts to carry with them into adulthood?
From my interviews, I learned that our young families value the opportunities for stewardship within the church community because they are able to be a part of a community that is bigger than their immediate family circle. Church stewardship helps them not to be selfish.
One family told me that stewardship widened their view, allowing them to see needs beyond their own and to learn to hold them in balance. They trusted the church to direct them to activities, acts of charity and justice-seeking as well as meaningful projects that were worthy of their energies.
Perhaps the most interesting observation that someone in their professional years made to me was that Christian stewardship called them to account for their gifts and to see the world through a different lens. While other ways of giving gave them a sense of doing a good thing for others, the church’s call to be a good steward asked them to look deep within their souls and to find ways to express spiritual values in real life. Stewardship in the context of the church was, for them, a reminder that just as the emperor’s imprint was on the denarius they brought to Jesus, God’s imprint was to be found on all the good things they knew and received – all their giftedness and their resources – and it demanded a faithful response.
Some people I spoke with struggled with the fact that so much of our stewardship in the church is hard to envision because we never see it. So much of what we offer to bless others is delivered by someone other than ourselves. We all have glimpses of what it is to offer a gift and see the one who receives it find in it God’s blessing, but we are asked to give in the church without any expectation of proof or reward.
As ministers, Loraine and I often see the blessings that the church brings to others. Just the other day, we both dropped in on our prayer shawl knitters and exclaimed to them how moving it was to see the response to the gifts they offer through their knitting. We see first-hand the delivery of the gifts they only offer at a distance. We see the difference the love they have knit into each stitch makes to the one who receives their shawls.
Being a faithful steward is all about trust. Trusting God and trusting one another to meet our deepest needs and to offer of unconditional love to others in Christ’s name. Some of those people we may never meet face-to-face, but they will meet God through our gifts.
Through every age and stage of life, we need to be intentional about our gifts and how we offer them.
We will have times when we can offer more time than resources; times when we will have to choose the places of greatest need; times when saving and generosity will have to be held in careful balance; times when our sense of being blessed will ask us to trust that our life is ultimately in God’s hands.
Stewardship is habit-forming, in a good way – once a steward, always a steward. Throughout my ministry I have been often been asked these questions about stewardship: How do I know how much offering I should give to the church? How do I know what to give to the mission and service work of the church? Why do I need to pledge? If I give my time, do I still need to give a monetary offering? What about people whose incomes and abilities are very limited, can they still be stewards? What about our children and youth, are they supposed to be stewards too?
Stewardship is about being able to see the mark of God in our life and returning thanks to God in the form of a blessing to others. It asks us to remember that we are rich in blessing and much is required of us in return. Our values are reflected in how we give. Biblical stewardship calls us to a kind of intentionality in our giving that is a faith statement first, and a part of our bank statement, second.
This is not easy to hold in balance as we give away our gifts with love.
The widow Jesus praised for her offering gave away all that she had, although it was only two coins, worth a penny. Jesus reminds us that it is not how much we give but the faith and attitude that lies behind it.
The widow’s mite is the model for Christian stewards. This poor widow gave away all that she had, placing her trust in the community. She gave out of her poverty with an attitude of being abundantly blessed. Imagine how much faith it took for her to place her final two coins in that treasury box. She trusted that the call to care for widows would be honoured by those around her.
May we all care for one another and the world, as God has cared for us, so that we can learn to trust one another to be faithful stewards and give our most precious gifts to God in thanksgiving. Amen.