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STEWARDSHIP: CARICATURE OR STANDARD? A Sermon Preached by Rev. Dr. William M. Youngblood October 14, 2007 Text: Isaiah 53:1-9; Acts 8:26-39

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ecause asking for money within the realm of the Church has always been an unpopular task for those who do the asking and for those who are asked, all of us approach the annual experience with predictable degrees of loathing. This is a lamentable state of affairs which I, along with my sisters and brothers in ministry, usually moan and groan about every year. Believe me when I tell you that it is an even more disliked task by us than it is by you. Its very unpopularity has made this time and the annual stewardship campaign the focus of a multitude of jokes and satirical caricatures, all playing on the stereotype of the person in the pew as the stingiest, the most monetarily recalcitrant, Scrooge-like creature in the world, and of the preacher, or Stewardship Campaign chair, or the Stewardship Committee members, or anyone else doing the asking, as the snake oil salespersons par excellence. Neither caricature is true, of course, only based on a shade of the truth, and on the oxymoron of the Church, literally, having to ask itself for money, for that is truly what happens, is it not? It is not me versus you, or us versus them, it is us engaging ourselves with both the needs and the resources of this community of believers. An unidentified caller phoned a church office and addressed the secretary with the following words: "I'd like to speak to the Head Hog at the trough!" Uncertain of what she had just heard, the secretary asked the man to repeat himself. "I said I'd like to speak to the Head Hog at the trough!" Sure now of what the man had said and thoroughly scandalized by it, the secretary launched into a lengthy reprimand about respect for the office of the clergy, about the difficulties the minister faced in trying to make ends meet with the stingy givings of the parish, and about how beloved the current Pastor was in the eyes of his flock. "Is that a fact?" the caller responded. "Well, I have ten thousand dollars I was thinking of donating to the Operating Budget." "I see," replied the secretary, after a pause. "Hold on, the Big Pig just walked in the door." "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last..." (John 15:12-16) Here we have a caricature of Christian giving (the Head Hog), and a biblical testimony to the pure standard (love) by which faith giving is measured. Jesus mentions money only a few times

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in the gospels, and then not very positively, and to my knowledge he never talks about budgets or pledges. Rather, he holds forth a gift of his own: the gift of love, manifested in friendship and trust in those who follow him, and the assertion that the authentic disciple will bear fruit from this gift in the world that will last. Now, it is too bad that we have to use such things as money and budgets and pledges in the church, but I have not yet seen a way to avoid them that would be any more palatable to the average giver. They are all, basically, the same, all the creative ideas, all the clever appeals, all the new strategies. All stewardship appeals do, all they must do, is to ask the Christian giver to first consider the standard by which all giving, large and small, is measured in the Church: and that is to recognize the enormity of the gift of love we have all received from the One we call Lord, and let that gift bring forth its fruits through us in abundance. At a church meeting a very wealthy man rose to tell a story. AI am rich today because I trusted in God," he began, "It happened when I made my first dollar. Now I could have done many things with that dollar. I could have spent it any number of ways. But I decided to give it to the Lord's work which I did at a church meeting just like this one many years ago. The whole dollar. My entire fortune. The Lord blessed my gift and now I stand before you a wealthy man who became wealthy because he gave everything he had to God." The man finished his testimony and sat down, and a lady sitting next to him in the pew leaned over and said, "I dare you to do it again." "(Jesus) sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on." (Mark 12:41-44) Again, the caricature is put down when placed next to a biblical standard of giving. I cannot stand before you with a straight face and say that amount is not an important consideration as you make your pledge for next year. Amount is very important, and our vision for what is possible here at Northminster Presbyterian Church next year and the years following are in absolute service to the amount each of us gives. But I can say this with some integrity: amount is important but it is not the first thing to consider when you give. The Parable of the Widow's Mite illustrates how it is the condition of the heart which governs the value of the gift. If we do not give from love, knowing what our gifts can do to help and heal the world in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, if we do not give from a full heart which knows how much it owes and could never repay the Giver of life, then even a large amount will not bless the giver. The biblical standard is love and the biblical standard is God, and all of us should give measuring against that standard, which for all time is summarized thus: "For God so loved the world that (God) gave (an) only Son... " (John 3:16) On Miami, Florida's Flagler Street, vandals cut down six beautiful royal palm trees. The trees were very expensive to replace and the Dade County authorities were uncertain about whether there were sufficient funds to pay for replacements. Then they received an unexpected gift of six new palm trees from a donor who even paid for the planting. It seems the vandalized palm trees had been intentionally planted to nicely frame a sign advertising Delta Air Lines. The new palm

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trees were thirty-five feet tall and after they were planted they completely obscured the sign. The donor? Eastern Airlines. "He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all." (Isaiah 53:1-9) The caricature and the standard. In our cynicism we may assume that some giving is more to benefit the giver than the receiver of the gift, and all too often that is sadly a correct assessment. But the Suffering Servant passage from Isaiah 53 shows a gift which not only brings no benefit to the giver but causes his death as well. In the story read from the Book of Acts earlier, the disciple Phillip, encountering the Ethiopian eunuch who is reading the Suffering Servant passage, interprets it from a Christian perspective as referring to Jesus of Nazareth, who, on our behalf, went to his death, giving us the full measure of his love; Jesus, the very One whose Church now reaches out, to itself, for support. Are we conducting this campaign based on selfish motives? Do we want our palm trees to rise higher in this community in order to obscure the "competition"? If so, we had better keep our gifts and force ourselves to reexamine our motives. But I don't think our motives are selfish. This Congregation, now well into its 87th year of service, has certainly seen its share of ups and downs, mountains and valleys over those nearly nine decades. We now find ourselves on something of a mountain top, I think, certainly not in the sense of "our church is better than their church", or "our church is doing all it can do in the community and world", but from the perspective that God has presented us with a wonderful confluence of good health, realistic optimism, creative leadership, and the potential resources of substance to continue to make a real difference of good and healing and compassion within this community and well beyond. We are poised to bear good and lasting fruit for the Lord from out of our faith right now. Consider: today we receive ten new members. We have a creative and hard-working Staff. We are beginning the search for a new Associate Pastor whose gifts will only enrich our mission and ministry. We have begun two sterling mission initiatives with local, national, and international impact: the Kenya Ember Project, and the Change Hunger program. We gave $1435 last week, on one Sunday, to the Peacemaking Offering. We sent four van loads of senior highs to Appalachia last summer on a mission trip. We maintain a vibrant relationship with the 22nd of April community in El Salvador. We have participated in a number of initiatives to make our church more ecologically responsible, including the replacement of all our light fixtures with new energy efficient ones. The list could go on and on, but I trust that what I've shared so far demonstrates that we do not bear self-servicing objectives alone at Northminster. Rather, we try to act out of faithfulness and obedience to our Lord with the gifts we are given, which is an accurate reflection of the standard for Christian giving which deserves our continued

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support and participation, financially and otherwise. Once there was a circus which featured a strong man who would take an orange and squeeze what appeared to be every drop of juice from it. He would then challenge the audience by offering one thousand dollars to anyone who could squeeze just one more drop from the fruit. The strong man traveled from town to town making the offer, and many people, thinking they could coax just one more drop from the orange, tried and failed. Until one day when a man volunteered to attempt the feat. The strong man gave the volunteer the orange, or what was left of it, and to the amazement of all present, this man squeezed not one but six more drops of juice from the pulp. The strong man could not believe what he had seen. "How did you do that?" he asked. "Oh," replied the man, "I'm one of the local pastors. I do this all the time." "Then (Jesus) ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14:19-21) No one is trying to squeeze more juice from a depleted orange, blood from a turnip, or water from a stone. What we need to achieve everything we want next year amounts to a surprisingly small sum per member. Based on the level of giving for this year, what is needed in the budget for next year is but a $382.00 annual average increase for each member, or, viewed another way, just $32.00 per month per member, or $7.35 per week. I can easily spend that for one lunch. No, what is at stake here isn't the squeeze; it's rather the embrace. To be a community of faith is to be bound together by love, by mutual support, and by the giving and receiving of gifts. Such gifts, given in love, are multiplied far beyond themselves into fruits of the Reign of God, just as is described in the story of Jesus' feeding the five thousand with five barley loaves and two fish. I do not squeeze you, I will not squeeze you to give one penny more than you feel you can or should; what I will do, and what I hope you will do for me and for each other, is to embrace you with love and regard, trusting that that dynamic will bring forth what we need as members of the Body of Christ to do the Lord's work which we have been called to do. A man brought a basket of money to church on Stewardship Commitment Sunday. He stood in front of the Congregation and said, "I am prepared to give all this to God." There were several gasps from an awed and inspired community. "What I'll do," continued the man, "is throw all the money in this basket into the air. God can keep whatever he wants. Whatever falls back to the floor is mine." "Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

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Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess to the glory of God: Jesus Christ is Lord!" (Philippians 2:5-11) Again, the caricature, and the biblical standard for giving in faith that names the caricature for what it is. As we consider our gifts for next year, as we look upon our faith commitment on a daily basis and what that may require of us, let us think of the standard, not the caricature. God loved and so God gave; Jesus loved and so Jesus gave; wherever the spirit of love is the fruits of faith will blossom and flourish and will be sufficient to achieve the works of love in the world. Let us, therefore, not bring our baskets of money, large or small, before the Lord to see what the Lord will do with them. Let us rather first bring ourselves to see what God will do with us; after we have an understanding of that, giving, whether money or time or talent or wisdom, will no longer be hard, will not need caricatures to satirize it. It will become as natural as breath, as powerful as life. Giving in this sense is, in the words of Erich Fromm, the "highest expression of potency." Writes St. Paul: "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" "For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?" "Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?" For from him and through him and to him are all things. (Romans 11:33-36) I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God..." (Romans 12:1) AMEN.

© 2007 M. Youngblood

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