Considering that today is Halloween, and because the sermon title has a Halloween flavor, I suggested to Pat that the choir might want to sing “The Monster Mash” as an anthem. And in keeping with the spirit of the day and the sermon’s emphasis, I even thought about dressing up as a “TV evangelist.” After all, what’s more spooky than a TV Evangelist with that slicked back hair and smiling face asking everyone in TV land to fork over the big bucks so that God might bless the giver, while TV Evangelist adds another luxury car to an already crowded garage.
Alas, Pat didn’t think this anthem choice was a great idea, so he sent me an email suggesting that we might want to reconsider the idea, since he still needs employment. And so, as you heard, the choir sang something other than “The Monster Mash!” And without the Halloween anthem, there didn’t seem to be any reason to dress up in a costume.
But, in all seriousness, perhaps it’s fitting that we’re launching our month-long stewardship emphasis on Halloween. After all, stewardship can seem like a rather spooky topic, especially during these difficult financial times. Despite our uneasiness with talking about this topic, stewardship is an important spiritual practice. How we view our money has spiritual implications, as is seen in this week’s lectionary text from the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells the story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus the Tax Collector. That encounter proved to be life-changing. On that day Zacchaeus essentially gave up everything he owned and either gave it to the poor or paid it back in restitution, and Jesus said of Zacchaeus: Today salvation has come to his house (Luke 19:1-10).
Our reading from 2 Corinthians 9 has a different emphasis, but it also speaks of giving from the heart. In this case, Paul gives the Corinthian church direction, so that they can take up an offering to provide relief to the believers in Judea. He couches this call to give in spiritual terms, terms that remain helpful to this very day. The message is simple. The act of setting aside a portion of our income to give to the church is an act of spiritual discipline and an act of thanksgiving. It may seem like a spooky topic but really it’s not!
1. A God of Abundant Blessings
Every stewardship emphasis seems to have a theme, and this year’s theme isn’t Halloween-related. Instead, the theme is “More Than Enough,” which responds to the question: “How much is enough?” Our culture suggests that whatever we have now, is not enough. In fact, because we have a consumer-based economy, our income depends on people not being satisfied with what they already have. Now, I’ll admit that even though I’m a pretty frugal person, I can’t say that I’m completely satisfied with what I have. If nothing else, my book list continues to grow, and I really want Santa to bring me a Kindle for Christmas. Maybe that’s why we fall victim to what Walter Brueggemann calls the “narrative of scarcity. He writes in his book Journey to the Common Good.
The narrative of scarcity leads us to conclude that if you have something, then it must have come to you at my expense. And if I have something, then I’m going to protect it at all costs. This attitude makes it difficult for us to commit ourselves to the common good, since we’ve been led to believe that there’s never enough to go around. Therefore, since I have mine, I have no interest in helping you get yours.
It is our propensity, in society and church, to trust the narrative of scarcity. That is what makes us greedy, and exclusive, and selfish, and coercive. Even the Eucharist can be made into an occasion of scarcity, as though there were not enough for all. Such scarcity leads to exclusion at the table, even as scarcity leads to exclusion from economic life (Walter Brueggemann, Journey to the Common Good
, WJK, 2010, p. 34).
There is, however, another narrative – the narrative of abundance. This narrative is deeply embedded in Scripture, including this passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church. As I suggested earlier, Paul is heading toward Judea, but has planned to stop in Corinth, because he would like the Corinthians to make an offering to the believers in Judea. In part this gift will provide relief to people in need, but it will also cement a relationship between two very different congregations.
To get an idea of what Paul is up to, think in terms of getting a letter from Amy Gopp, which informs us that she’ll be in the neighborhood in the next week or so and that she’s taking up a collection for the people of Indonesia, who’ve suffered again from the combined effects of an earthquake and a tsunami. Her word of advice is that she’d really like it if we would have the offering ready when she arrived so that she doesn’t have to cajole us into giving. She wouldn’t want to turn to extortion to get some money out of us.
One of the key points in this passage is Paul’s appeal to the abundant blessings that God has poured out on this church. It’s not that this was a wealthy congregation, but he writes to remind them that “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance” (v. 8) This statement is echoed in Ephesians 1, where the author of that letter says that the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” . . . “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3) In fact, we’ve not only been blessed with God’s abundance, but we are heirs of God in Christ (Eph. 1:11). Yes, our God is a God of abundance and not scarcity, and we are the inheritors of that abundance.
2. Therefore: Share the Abundance and Be Enriched
So, what should be done? It’s telling that Paul doesn’t say anything about how much the Corinthians should give. There are no formulas here, just words of encouragement that they should “give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” What you decide to give is between you and God, but it’s important to God that this gift is an expression of our love for God and God’s people. Although he doesn’t give a formula, he does suggest that if we sow sparingly, we’ll reap sparingly, but if we sow bountifully, then we’ll reap bountifully.
What does this mean for us? I think it’s an invitation to move from the narrative of scarcity to the narrative of abundance. It’s a reminder that there really is “more than enough” if God is involved with our lives. Therefore, if we’re willing to let go of the abundance that God has entrusted to our care, our lives will change for the better. For instance, we’ll probably become more aware of others around us. We’ll begin to see ourselves as part of a community and not as isolated individuals. When that happens, we’ll begin to let go of our fears and begin to live lives of faith and trust. Giving to the ministries of the church won’t make you rich financially, no matter what the TV evangelists tell you. But your lives will be enriched because you’ll begin to make connections with others and experience the blessings of working toward the common good. Yes, God has given us the seed and the bread to share, so that we might be a blessing, and as a result, as Paul makes very clear, we’ll be enriched by our generosity. As I said, it might not be financial riches that come our way, but we will be enriched.
3. Thanks Be to God!
Our text this morning ends with the words: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” This sentence serves as a reminder that whatever we give, whether in terms of time, talent, or finances, when done cheerfully, and not reluctantly or under compulsion, it is an act of thanksgiving. Therefore, it’s appropriate that when we end this Stewardship season a month from now, it will be on Thanksgiving Sunday. At that time, we’ll bring into the storehouse the commitments that we’ve made. Hopefully these commitments will be made in the context of prayer. Now, between this Sunday and Thanksgiving Sunday you’ll hear testimonies from members of the church about what stewardship means to them. You’ll receive a letter with an estimate of giving card from the Stewardship Ministry Group. You’ll likely read some articles about stewardship in the newsletter. And then, at the appropriate time we will bless these signs of our commitment to the common good with prayers and songs of Thanksgiving.
Stewardship is a spiritual discipline, but it is also a practical one. When we give of our finances to the church, we expect that these offerings of thanksgiving will be used wisely. These gifts may come out of God’s abundance, but that doesn’t mean the church should be wasteful. That’s why we have a budgeting process, and we have church leaders who are entrusted with keeping watch over their part of the budget. Let us then, commit ourselves to prayerfully considering the manner in which God is calling us to give to the ministry of the church. You may want to use as a goal the principle of the tithe. A tithe is traditionally understood to be the first 10% of one’s income. In ancient Israel, this tithe was brought to the Temple as an offering of thanksgiving. This is a good goal to pursue, but whatever you decide to give, remember that ours is a God of great abundance, and that we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavens (Eph. 1:3ff). Therefore, whatever we give comes out of God’s largesse