THE EXPERIMENTAL CHURCH: Powered by the Spirit
“An Experiment in Attitude” Click here for audio
Pastor Donna Buell
Luke 18:9-14, 21:1-4
Throughout the fall we have been working our way through The Acts of the Apostles in a series of sermons we’ve been calling “The Experimental Church: Powered by the Spirit.” And throughout this series we have been reminded of the different ways in which followers of Christ have experimented, so to speak, with what it means to be church, in those earliest days of the church’s formation, throughout the history of the Church, and even to this day. And with the help of particular passages from Acts, we have explored some of the things that have been required of those of us who are seeking to be church: things like sharing leadership, witnessing to the gospel, practicing forbearance, discerning vocation, and yielding to the Spirit. And last week, as we celebrated All Saints Day, Marty reminded us that the church has always depended upon the willingness of its members to give of themselves in all kinds of ways in support of its ministry and mission. Indeed, it is that saintliness (with a small s) that allows the church as a whole to be faithful to the call of Christ.
It seems to me that in many ways this entire sermon series has been about stewardship in the broadest sense of that word. If stewardship is our response to the love and the grace of God made known to us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, then stewardship is about what we do with all that has been given to us by God, not only our financial resources, but the resources of our time and our talent, our energy and our creativity, and even our attitude. Ultimately, stewardship is about loving God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength and loving our neighbors near and far.
As we do each year at this time, today we turn in a more intentional way to our stewardship of our financial resources. And for the next few weeks we shift our attention from the Acts of the Apostles to its companion volume, its prequel, so-to-speak, the Gospel of Luke, so that we might gain insights from Jesus’ teachings about this important topic.
Several years ago, when we were serving the Northfield congregation, a group of members put on a skit that illustrated that moment in the church’s weekly worship when the offering plates are passed among us. As they passed the offering plate from one to the next, each of the four characters allowed us to listen in on their inner monologue. The people depicted in that skit were over-the-top caricatures, and so there was lots of laughter, but they also invited us to think about what crosses our minds and what resides in our hearts when we think about our own giving to the church.
One character saw herself as having so little to give that she talked herself out of giving anything at all. Another character was humbly grateful for all the blessings in his life and the ways his life had been transformed by Christ through his relationship with the church, but then realized he had left his wallet at home. A third seemed motivated almost completely by guilt. By the time her monologue ended, she had put all her cash and credit cards, earrings and watch, even her shoes in the offering plate. And another, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the Pharisee in our scripture today, was completely full of his own righteousness and importance. He even thought of dropping his rather substantial check on the floor so that someone would have to pick it up and see the amount.
Though only one of the characters in the skit showed the Pharisee’s self-righteousness, each of the characters was overly self-conscious. It was all about what they were thinking and feeling, it was about their fear and worry and anxiety and guilt, it was about what God had provided them and how their lives had been transformed, it was about what they had and what they perceived that they didn’t have. Like the Pharisee in the parable, all of these characters had themselves at the center of their giving, not God. But if stewardship is about what we do with what we have received by God’s grace, then it isn’t we who are at its’ center at all. It is God who is at the center – God who is the giver of all that we have and all that we are. In the parable Jesus made very clear that it was the tax collector’s humble prayer for mercy that revealed a heart with God at the center.
Another way to think about it is that the characters in the skit got the direction reversed. In their minds it went from their gift to God’s grace, rather than from God’s grace to their gift as response. We all know how easy that is to do. And when we do it, it isn’t long before we descend into self-deprecation or self-aggrandizement; into a feeling that our gift doesn’t really matter or that our gift matters way more than it really does; into a sense that our gift can’t make any real difference or that it will make all the difference in the world. Either extreme is problematic: for we forget who is at the center – we forget the source of all our gifts – we forget the reason for our giving. And we can also very quickly descend into making comparisons between ourselves and those around us, saying, “Why do those people look down on me and judge me because I’m not able to give as much as they can give?” or “Why don’t those people understand that it takes money to make the church and all its ministries happen?”
It’s easy for us to go to these places in our minds and hearts when we think about our giving to the church, especially in times of financial uncertainty. Even if we may not be particularly worried about our own ability to pay this month’s bills, many of us are anxious about the future, about putting our kids through college, about saving for our retirement, about handling those unexpected emergencies that could come, and we worry for our adult children and the stresses they face, and for the world our grandchildren will inherit. These are anxious times and, with the kind of political atmosphere we’ve dug ourselves into as a country, we’re all feeling anxious and uncertain.
But this is another trap that we find ourselves falling into when we consider our giving to the church. We approach it with a mindset of scarcity rather than with a mindset of abundance. We focus more on what isn’t than on what is. More on what we don’t have than on what we do have. And our consumer culture feeds this, telling us that we should never be satisfied with what we do have, and that we should always be seeking after something more: something newer, something better…as if somehow spending our precious resources on all these “things we need” is going to improve the situation or ease our anxiety.
And when we focus on scarcity, which comes from a place of fear and uncertainty, it becomes very easy to fall into some unhealthy attitudes and practices around stewardship. We decide that we can’t afford to give to the church, we decide that any small gift we could give won’t make much of a difference, we decide that those other people who have so much are the ones who should pay, we decide to wait and see what’s left over after we’ve paid our bills, or maybe what’s left over at the very end of the year, or we make no decision at all and just leave it up to whatever happens to be in our hearts or minds or wallets as the plate comes past us on those Sundays when we are in worship.
Healthy stewardship focuses on abundance, not scarcity. As followers of Christ we are not asked to give what we don’t have. So we don’t have to focus on that. We are asked to give from what we do have. And even if it is just a small amount, our giving of it matters. It matters to God who is the source of it all, it matters to the vitality of the church and its ministries, and it matters to our own spiritual health that we would be willing to give of ourselves in response to what we have received. It isn’t the amount of the gift, but the very act of giving that matters. And Jesus was clear that the amount of the widow’s gift, though very small in comparison to the gifts of the rich, was a generous and faithful response.
Now those of us in the church who are charged with the responsibility of being good stewards of the church’s resources, as pastors, staff and committee leadership, can also fall into these same traps. We can look at the monthly financial statement, and focus on the bottom line of how much came in and how much went out. We can read about and experience the demographic and generational shifts that are happening in church and society, and the changing patterns of participation and of giving that are being seen not only here but across the country, and we can worry about the future. So as stewards of the church’s resources, we, too, have to pull ourselves back from that scarcity mentality of worrying about what we don’t have and turn toward that trusting place of focusing on the abundance of our blessings, the vitality of our life and ministry together as a congregation, the people who give and give of their time, their talent, their energy, their love, their prayers, and their financial gifts to support the ministry and mission of the church. And when it comes to this, we have much to celebrate as a congregation, even in terms of our finances. In fact, over the past several years congregation has increased its giving by over 15%, which allows us to think in more expansive ways about our ministry.
Changing our attitudes toward stewardship makes a huge difference in our lives and in the life and ministry of our church. As individuals and as a congregation, we need to put God at the center of our practice of stewardship, and we need to approach our giving from a place that trusts in the abundance of God’s grace. But we also need to stop thinking of ourselves as consumers of the goods and services of the church and its ministry. Rather, we need to see ourselves as partners in the creation of this ministry that is making a real difference. And yes, we benefit from that ministry; it makes a difference in our lives and in the lives of our own family members. But it also makes a difference in the lives of all the other people in this room, in the lives of all who are a part of this church family, and in the lives of all who come to us as visitors, who find a gracious welcome, spirit-filled worship, opportunities to be nourished in body, mind and spirit, and to cultivate and use their gifts in service to others and in service to God’s kingdom. It makes a difference to folks in our neighborhood, our community and our region who benefit from our Wednesday night meals and our Little Free Libraries, our partnerships with Sunny Hill Preschool and Lily Lake Elementary School, and in the ministries we help to support, both with our financial gifts and our gifts of time – like Valley Outreach, Hope for the Journey Home, Roadside Clean-Up, and Emma Norton Services. It makes a difference to people across our country and around our world who are touched by the ministry of the people of the United Methodist Church.
We aren’t mere consumers of this ministry we are partners in its creation, each one of us, through our prayers, through our presence, through our gifts, through our service, and through the witness of our lives. It isn’t short term work. It isn’t easily measured. But day by day, week by week, year after year, generation after generation, followers of Christ have been doing this kingdom work which has the power to transform our lives and our world.
This week you received a letter from Ray Marshall, the chair of our finance committee, inviting you to prayerfully consider your financial gifts to the church for the coming year. And next week you will receive a second letter, from your pastors, that will include a commitment form inviting you to do what the followers of Christ have been called to do since the church first began. Put God at the center of your life and at the center of your practice of stewardship. Approach your giving from a mindset of abundance, not scarcity – trust, not fear; remembering that the very act of giving matters. And give, not as a consumer who is paying for goods and services, but as one who is participating in the creation of a ministry and mission that is indeed making a real difference in our own lives, and in the lives of our neighbors here at the corner of Greeley and Myrtle, and across our world, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God. Amen.