Sunday, October 11, 2015

20th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 23B

20th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 23 B October 11, 2015 I don’t really give my sermons titles, but I’m going to title this one. It is the top three things I have learned about stewardship or giving. Number 1: I was 22 years old and working at Stewpot in Jackson (back in the days that The Otts and Miss Lib were running around down there). I was working with the senior citizens and adults with mental disabilities, providing them enrichment activities before the noon meal. One day, one of the adults with mental disabilities, a woman named Cheryl, came in. I had often tried to have conversations with Cheryl, but she was so crazy, it was hard to talk to her—most of our conversations ended up going down the rabbit hole of her delusions. On this particular day, she came in wearing a shiny gold, butterfly necklace. I had never seen it before, and I complemented her on it, told her how beautiful it was and asked if it was new. She cocked her head and looked at me curiously for a moment, and then she pulled the necklace off over her head and held it out to me, not saying a word. Well, I was mortified! This woman, who only got a Social Security disability check, most of which was taken for her room and board and care at the group home where she lived, had probably used her measly $10 allowance for the month to buy this thing of beauty. I could not possibly accept it from her! So I said, ‘Oh no, it looks so beautiful on you! You really should keep it. But still, she stood there smiling, not saying a word, and holding the necklace out to me. And in that moment, I realized something. She needed to be able to give me that necklace. I needed to be able to receive it from her. Giving and receiving is an important part of every relationship; and people need to be both receivers and givers. She needed to be able to give. And so I walked over to her and let her place her necklace around my neck. (pull out necklace). I still have this beautiful gift from her, and it is something that will always bind me to her in relationship. 1. In relationship, we need to be able to both receive and to give. Number 2: Our relationship with God is included in this number one. We need to both give to God and receive from God. The former stewardship officer for the Episcopal Church, the late Terry Parsons, came and taught one single class at our seminary for our senior year. In this class, she shared with us her definition of stewardship: Stewardship is all that we do with all that we have, after we say we believe. As a part of a healthy relationship with God, we recognize that all that we have comes from God (that’s the receiving part). We make a grateful response to God for all that we are and all that we have by giving a portion of it back to God. It is said that Jesus talked about money more than he talked about anything else in the gospels except the Kingdom of God. Often when Jesus taught about money, he was teaching about the ways in which our money, our possessions are an impediment in our relationship with God. We see that in our gospel reading for the day. A rich young man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus, looking at him and loving him, tells him, Go and sell everything that you own and follow me. And the man leaves sadly. How hard it is for people of wealth to enter the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says. And what if that is more of an observation on his part rather than a judgment. Does it make it a little easier for us to hear? Maybe. When we look at this story in Mark of the encounter with Jesus and the rich young man as a healing story, which is how Mark actually sets it up to be read, mirroring many of the other Marcan healing stories, we see that our money, our stuff does not have to be an impediment in our relationship with God (and each other). But this story of the rich young man and Jesus’s encounter with him also shows us that money can cause “heart-sickness”. Therefore, God cares about what we do with our wealth, because when we don’t have a healthy relationship with money and stuff, it turns into heartsickness which is an impediment in our relationship with God and each other. Wealth can distort our sense of ourselves, our neighbor and God. 2. God cares about our relationship with money because God cares about us. Finally, number three. In that same visit to General Seminary, Terry Parsons answered a question posed to her by one of the cocky seminarians in our class (and let me just say, we were all cocky!). We had been through three years of breaking down the bible, learning how to read it. Most of us didn’t read the bible literally anymore, so someone asked her, “What about the biblical tithe? If we don’t read the bible literally on other things, why should we read the bible literally when it says that we should give 10% to God?” Terry answered, “Well, the Old Testament says to give 10% to God; Jesus tells us to give everything. I don’t know about y’all, but I’m going with the Old Testament!” I had found up to that point in my life that I would give to God whatever I had left-over (and usually, there wasn’t very much left over). Terry taught us that day about how the concept of the tithe or even a different percentage of giving, comes out of the “first fruits” ideology of the Bible, meaning that the children of Israel were encouraged to give the first fruits of the harvest to God, offering the first and the best and not the last and the left-over. When we were first married, my husband said to me, “it’s really important to me that we tithe,” and so we have made it a point in our married life to do that—he to his church and me to mine. But not everyone is going to be able to start our tithing. In fact, every time we move, I have to work on getting back up to 10% over several years. One year, I was giving up as much as I could “off the top.” Then I realized that if I gave up a daily cup of coffee from the coffee store that I drove past every day on my way to work, then I could give that $2.00 a week to add to my pledge. So, I did it. And you know, I thought about God and that gift every single day when I drove past there and didn’t stop for coffee. Number 3: Percentage giving matters. It is the way that we give to God off the top of what we have rather than out of the left-overs. Sometimes we have to make sacrifices to give to God, and that God will accept and use to help us deepen our relationships with God. We have been handing this chart out for the last two Sundays as a part of our fall commitment campaign, the New Consecration Sunday Program. It is a helpful tool, I think, as we look to see where we fall on this set of stairs in the giving in this parish. (Note that 278 people give nothing to this church. 89 of those are children, but you know, children can pledge too. Their relationship with God is just as important as ours is. If you want, parents, I can talk to you about some creative ways to teach children about giving. Just give me a call.) I wonder what would happen if each of us looked at ways that we might move up one step in our giving—wherever you find yourselves on the stair steps. I encourage you to take this home this week and spend some time in prayer with it. Take the time to do the math. Find where you fall on the front and on the back. And ask yourself do you feel good about what you are giving to God? Or is it something you would like to try to change? Next Sunday, we will gather together in worship and we will make our commitment to God for what we hope to give in the coming year as a part of worship. Following the 10:30 service, we will have a catered, celebratory luncheon where we will celebrate the grace of God, all the gifts that God has given us, and our common life here together. I want to leave you with a story to think about this week. I read a story several years ago about a team of researchers that did a study of monkeys. They placed the monkeys’ favorite kind of nuts down in the bottom of a long-skinny necked bottle, and they would leave it anchored there over night. In the morning, they would come back, and they would always find a monkey, with his hand caught in the bottle, gripped around the nut, and trapped there. Scientists were amazed that all the monkey had to do to be free was to let go of the nut. But they never did. When we give to God, that is one way that we are loosening our grip on the nut that keeps us trapped, acknowledging and asking for healing for the ways that money is an impediment in our relationship with God. What might God be calling you to give, to let go of just a little bit this year?