Welcome to Stewardship Sunday! I know some pastors like to announce their stewardship drives in advance, to allow time to solicit funds, set goals, and so forth. Me, on the other hand- I like it when you come to church on Sunday rather than finding some convenient reason to stay home, so I like to make it a surprise and then ask the ushers to lock the meeting room doors.
Because here’s the thing: every single one of us is guilted, at every turn, by a well-meaning person or organization looking to take a little bit more:
We need a little more money from you- it’d be a shame if you couldn’t give…
We know you’re already overextended, but we’re afraid that we need you to volunteer for just one more position…
We hear that you’re especially gifted in the following areas, and here’s a list of how we’d like to benefit from those talents…
The author of First John puts it like this: we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. See, it’s in the Bible! If you’re not going to lay down your actual life, then we need you at least to lay down your wallet and your calendar. Just leave them front by the pulpit. We’ll get them back to you when we’re done.
I worry about the ought, to be honest. As in: we ought to lay down our lives for our friends. We ought to be giving more. We ought to be doing more. Because there’s always one more need, always one more honest request, always one more empty hand. That’s a race that’s never over. It’s exhausting.
I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t lay down our lives for our friends, really. It just that if all we have are the oughts – if all we have are the rules – then the oughts are going to slowly strangle us.
Generosity isn’t a rule. It’s a response. Specifically, it’s a response to a gift.
See, if we start trying to think about the testimony of stewardship in terms of the rules, in terms of the oughts, then we end up operating out of a sense of scarcity. We end up trying to evade the rules to keep what we have. Think about this in terms of personal stewardship, for a minute. Say, for instance, we make a rule that you have to give the church 10% of your income. What are some of the next questions that you’d ask?
Could we afford to give that much?
Well, now wait, do you mean gross or net?
Do other charitable donations count against the 10% requirement?
What about time- can I give time in place of income?
We could spin those sorts of questions out forever. They’re not terrible questions. I think every one of them would ultimately miss the point, though, because they’re all about curling inward, protecting what we already have.
Generosity, though, isn’t about what we have to give, and it also isn’t about money. It’s about what we’ve been given, and it’s about love.
Look. If you started right now to unwrap all the gifts you’ve been given, you’d never finish. That’s how generous the universe has been to you.
Think about the next blast of oxygen that fills your lungs. Savor it. Savor another. Each breath is a gift.
Think about the flowers you saw on your way over here. If you didn’t notice any, think about how they’ll still be there waiting for your eyes when you head home. If you don’t like flowers, then think about squirrels or sunsets or whatever it is in creation that makes you attend. Let your heart unwrap those gifts.
Think about the people who love you- that love is a gift. Think about the people who have loved you, who have gone on- those loves are still yours. Think about the people who will love you in the future- that love is wrapped and ribboned and waiting.
Think just for a second about the mistakes you’ve made, the ones that aren’t being held against you because someone chose to forgive instead. Think about the times when someone who could have judged you helped you understand instead. Think about the people who have held you in your times of grieving. Think about the moments that were made sweeter because they were shared with a friend.
Think about the love of God that envelops you, that guides and teaches you, from which nothing can separate you.
I can’t make this personal for each of you, so just take a moment to consider the abundance of love with which you are surrounded.
[I know you’re reading this sermon, rather than listening in person. Take a moment, though. Consider your abundance.]
These are all gifts, every one of them. Don’t ever think you have empty pockets.
Now think of yourself as a tunnel, one that can let all of this love flow on to the person who needs it next.
When you think about generosity, when you think about stewardship, don’t think first about your wallet or your calendar. Think first about the ways in which your heart can overflow.
This shift in thinking is what the author of today’s passage is getting at. Listen to the first verse again: This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.
Do you hear how the gift comes first? We don’t know what love is because we laid down our own lives. We know what love is because of Jesus, because life was laid down for us. We choose to give because we’ve been given more than our hearts can hold.
It’s not a rule – we have to lay down our lives, and that’s that – but rather an echo in a grand chorus of love. The thank-you note that you write for the gifts you’ve been given is the love that you pass along.
So yes, Jesus’ example of love should dramatically transform the way that we love one another. Yes, that includes transforming how we spend our money. Yes, that includes transforming how we spend our time. Yes, that means that we who have material possessions must have pity on our siblings in need. And yes: not every transformation is fun in the moment.
The story of Jesus shouldn’t inspire us to give through fear or shame, though. Fear and shame are not part of the Gospel, full stop. Stewardship discussions shouldn’t leave people feeling guilty and harassed, wrung-out and half-dead.
The goal here isn’t giving until we have nothing left. It’s giving until we’ve learned how to truly live.
Ok. We’ve been talking this summer about how we are faithful to our testimonies as a meeting, so let’s look at this on a corporate level.
Budgets are moral documents. That’s true for a household, true for a church, true for a school, true for a charity, true for a nation. We can make mission statements and vision statements that express the best of who we think we ought to want to be, but the budget is where you find out what we really think is important.
So for a church, as for a household, there are certain budget items that are inviolate. The requirements for worship are fairly small – where two or three are gathered, Christ is present among them – but two or three can’t gather for long if the steps are covered in snow and ice, so we budget to have those steps cleared off. Some things are difficult to cut.
Much of it, though, is up for grabs- and so it’s easy to start operating from a sense of scarcity. The costs of running this church seem huge, and the income of the church is somewhat less than huge, and so you’d better argue fast that whatever matters most to you be fully funded. We, frankly, start to ask some pretty difficult questions about ourselves:
Can we really afford to continue to operate a food pantry?
Do we have the resources to maintain this building?
How can we justify funding schools overseas when our schools at home need help?
Those questions and more are worth considering. I don’t want to suggest otherwise. I just want to be sure that while considering those questions, we take a moment to ponder what a wonderful world we are in. To quote Louis Armstrong: I see friends shaking hands, sayin’, “How do you do?” / They’re really sayin’, “I love you.”
So just think, for a minute, about the gifts this meeting has to offer. Think about the love that is evident, every time we gather together in worship. Think about the work that Friends have invested and continue to invest in making this a place of welcome.
Imagine yourselves unwrapping all those gifts, just because you chose to sit on a bench this morning.
Think about the music that you’ve heard- unwrap that gift. Think about the tender things that people have shared: unwrap that gift.
Think about the people in this room who love you. Think about the people who have sat on the bench where you’re sitting, praying for this meeting. Think about the forgiveness and the learning and the grieving and the joy that have been held by these walls. Think about the love of God that has been so present here to challenge and comfort.
These are all gifts, and they’re all for us. No one else can tell you which of these gifts matter most to you, so let’s just take a moment to consider quietly the abundance of love with which we are surrounded.
Don’t ever think that we don’t have enough, Friends. We have been given more than we can even comprehend.
Now, think of this building as a tunnel, because love is not a stagnant resource. Love is always in motion. If love is flowing in, then love must also be flowing out. So, open the doors. Let love pour down the steps and into the streets and along to whomever needs it most.
Look, the question here isn’t how do we best conserve our time, our talents, and our treasure. It’s how do we best share all that we have with a world that needs it.
Listen again to 1 John 3:16. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.
The gift comes first. Jesus Christ laid his life down for us. It is only out of this – out of God planting Godself in the tomb like a seed and rising again like wheat or like corn – it is only out of that promise of life ongoing that we are asked to give ourselves as well.
We give our time, our talent, and our treasure, not because we ought to, but because our hands and our hearts have too many gifts to hold. So when you think about what it means to be a generous church, when you think about how we should steward our resources wisely, don’t think first about what we may be lacking.
Think first about the gifts we’ve been given.
Think first about the ways that we can overflow.