Stewardship - A Personal Parable

Mark 12:38-442 Corinthians 9:6-15

There is an awkward irony to what we do here today. So let’s begin by pointing out the elephant in the sanctuary. It has become a Presbyterian tradition to spend part of the Fall discussing Stewardship. And by Stewardship, we mean the care for all things that God has placed into our hands. Let’s be upfront, though. The focus of our conversations around Stewardship is about money. As much as we want to say and do say that Stewardship is about our giving of time, talents, and treasure, we spend much of that time focused on the treasure. This week, many of you got the church’s projected budget for 2007 in the mail. And that budget looks at our financial needs; there wasn’t any supplementary material examining our needs of time or gifts.

But that’s not really why Stewardship season is an awkward time. It is awkward, most of all, because your pastor ends up preaching about it while drawing his salary from the fruits of those same pledges and offerings we are discussing. In response to this, many churches adopt wildly different approaches. In some, the pastor has nothing to do with Stewardship: never talks about it, never meets with the Finance Committee, never even looks at the numbers. In others, the pastor knows everything: how many people pledge, how many people fulfill their pledge, down to the detail of how much each family pledges.

Our approach here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church is somewhere in the middle. I do not know what any one person or family pledges in the congregation. I do not even know whether or not somebody pledges or contributes. But at the same time, I do consider Stewardship an important spiritual discipline, and so I do take seriously my role to speak about it from a Biblical and a theological perspective.

Even so, I confess my own discomfort. Our Stewardship here at OPC allows me and my family to eat, to have a roof over our heads, to save money for future needs. In short, I benefit from a successful Stewardship campaign. There are moments, I am sure, when this process may feel manipulative to you, like the televangelism scandals of decades past and present where the most vulnerable members of society are berated into sending in contributions to buy the preacher’s shiny new Cadillac. And as I told the Finance and Stewardship committees, there are many things that I have done in pastoral ministry; being head of staff during a Stewardship campaign is not one of them.

So rather than begin with that Biblical and theological analysis of money, how we treat it in our culture, and how generosity plays a role in our walk with God, I want the Scripture lessons this morning to rest as echoes, a backdrop and a sounding board for our time together this morning. Instead, I prefer to start in another place by telling you my own story of how I have come to understand the role that Stewardship, that giving, plays in my own life. As the sermon title this morning suggests, I offer this story as a parable.

We know of Christ’s fondness for parables throughout the Scriptures. Our text this morning is, in a sense, a living parable of Scribes and widows. Through it all, Christ seeks to teach us something about the ways of humanity and the ways of God.

And so, I intend this story as my own personal parable. I do not offer it as advice. Nor do I tell you this story to try and passively tell you how or how much to give. What works for me in my situation might not work for you in your situation. Your journey is different than mine, with different stops along the path and different lessons to be learned. Instead, I try to bring my story as a parable. And if it truly is a parable, then it doesn’t point to me; it doesn’t point to you; it doesn’t offer a tidy little moral lesson on the nature of money in 21st century America. Instead, if it truly is a parable, then it points to God and the wisdom of God’s reign.

Our parable today is in three acts.

We begin with act one: a young child who never gave Stewardship much consideration. I considered that the money I put in the plate was going straight to God, maybe through one of those Star Trek portals. I didn’t worry about the logistics of it; I just knew that it felt good to do so. But let me also point out that it wasn’t my own money. I didn’t set aside part of my allowance to bring to church and drop into the plate as it was passed. The money I did give, usually a dollar, was slipped to me by my grandfather right as the usher got up to our pew. When my sister came along, he had to fish out a dollar for each of us. There was no adjustment for inflation or increase in the cost of living. It was a dollar when I was little, and it remained a dollar all the way through high school. And it was never my own dollar.

fast-forward to act two: a young man, a recent seminary graduate and a newlywed. Elizabeth and I had been married for just over a year and a half, living in Chicago, scraping by on two part-time salaries. Elizabeth can confirm that, while I may have gotten more generous in my giving, my approach to money was marked mostly by an intense anxiety. And then, our world was changed in an instant. It was the middle of a cold December night when Elizabeth suddenly came down with a gruesome headache. We rushed to the emergency room, where they did a cat-scan. She had had an aneurysm. The bleeding stopped, but she was hustled off to the ICU. Our families flew into town. The MRI the next day showed a brain tumor. She was scheduled for surgery the next day. I cried myself to sleep that night, with these words of wisdom ringing in my ears: if my faith in God was truly faith, then not even this could shake it. If it was faith, it was beyond my control. It would be there no matter what came my way.

We were deeply fortunate, of course. The tumor was benign. The surgery was a success. We returned home, knowing the blessings of life in a more tangible way than we ever had before. It was only a matter of a few weeks, though, before the reality of our financial situation came into focus.

Our sad little insurance had a $10,000 major medical cap. We were well beyond that. We now owed the University of Chicago hospitals and doctors close to $70,000. We were paralyzed. They assigned a social worker to us, who informed us we were ineligible for any state or federal assistance. We were terrified. We had no assets to speak of, certainly not to the tune of $70,000. And then, nothing short of a miracle happened. The hospital called us and said that, if we paid $200 a month for two years, they’d forgive the rest. A debt of $70,000 reduced to less than $5000. Part of what made this a miracle was the fact that half of this money was owed not to the hospital, but to the individual doctors. The hospital would not erase these debts; that was up to them. And all but one doctor, from the surgeon to the anesthetist to the many radiologists all signed off. We were in the clear. We had come to know the miracle of new life twice in a matter of months: both physically and financially.

Fast-forward, finally, to act three: a young missionary couple with a call to minister in the Holy Land. We were in the position of having to raise everything to support this ministry: our salaries, travel, visas, supplies, program costs, everything. Before we left, we continually said to one another: “If this call is really from God, then the support will come.” You have heard me tell many stories of our three and a half years in the West Bank, and you probably have gotten a sense of the tentative nature of daily life there, the hardships and the fears. The one thing we never had to worry about was funding. It’s not that we didn’t do anything; we worked very hard at fundraising. But when we talked with colleagues in similar ministries, we realized how little of our time comparably was spent on cajoling donations. We had plenty to worry about during that time; but anxiety over money was simply taken off of our hands.

What I learned in all of this was something quite simple, and it centers on that second act: God’s love and care extends to all that I need; in time, in talents, in treasure. Now, I’m not naïve. I know that, when the University of Chicago forgave our debt, they took one look at our finances, and the fact that we were living as the working poor, and that we owned a car that was almost old enough to have its own driver’s license, and they knew that it would be better to get something out of us rather than nothing. Even so, in those cold months in the Chicago winter of 1996, I came to know God’s mercy and forgiveness more fully than through anything I could have learned in three years of seminary. I knew God’s grace in a tangible way, through a relationship that was afforded more time, through an inconceivable debt that vanished before my eyes. I knew the meaning of new life, of resurrection, in all areas of my life. What could I possibly hold back from God at that moment?

It was in act two that I learned to trust God most profoundly. And it was a lesson that I had to learn again as a missionary wondering where the next avenue support would come from. And had I been open to listening, though, I would have known this as a child, sitting between my grandparents, because nothing of what I put into the plate was mine to begin with. The lesson was clear, had I wanted to learn it: God provides, even for my ability to feel generous.

These were all lessons that I should have gotten from Scripture and from growing up in the Church. They were also there, in fact, in those seminary classes. But perhaps I was too closed to the Spirit to hear it echoing through the words. And maybe the only way God could get it through my thick skull was for me to live it, again and again.

As I began by saying, I bring this story to you as my own personal parable. And by sharing this story with you, I offer an invitation to each one of you to spend some time in intentional reflection on your own journey, recognizing that our experience shapes us in profound and important ways. And so, I end today not with answers or advice, but with a series of questions. What are the twists and turns of that journey? Where is it that you have seen God at work in your life? In the moments of pain and celebration, how have you known God’s presence? In your moments of scarcity or abundance, how have you known God’s provision? When is it that you have experienced God’s mercy, forgiveness, hope, promise of new life? And where does money fit into that story, or does it at all?

In other words, what is your personal parable, what has it taught you, and what can it teach us?


sermonsMarthame Sanders