October is upon us and with it comes the unrecognized, not-so-sacred season of stewardship campaigns. Every year the Stewardship Team endeavors to come up with a new and different way to ask people to increase their giving. In progressive circles we often shy away from the ugly truth that if everyone tithed (as in days gone by), most budget crises would be avoided. Instead we look at our budgets, figure out what we can afford to cut – everything from Christian education to liturgical arts and outreach makes its way to the chopping block. And sometimes even the ruthless cutting of funding that leaves some programs hanging by less than the proverbial thread is not enough to balance the budget. Then what?
Then we begin the conversation once more. Do we go on faith and trust that God will fill in the deficit? Do we plan to “borrow” money from ever-dwindling reserves if necessary? Do we take a more radical step and move to a less-than-fulltime pastor? The arguments on all sides have all been made before. It’s just a question of which side will prevail this year. What if we skip over this endless cycle of focusing on what’s lacking, (you know, the scarcity model of stewardship) and turn our attention instead to what we have and who we are – the kind of stewardship that focuses on abundance? What if we stop thinking about stewardship as a once-a-year pledge drive and reclaim it as a function of Christian living? Is it possible in this increasingly selfish, gratification-focused society to take a step back and remember whose we are?
I’ve been pursued all week by a phrase from Ezekiel: “Know that all lives are mine” says God through the prophet. Black lives plagued by the injustice of racism and then belittled by politicians and others. Puerto Rican lives at risk after hurricanes have decimated the island and politics have interfered with aid rightfully due. Muslim lives banned from the U.S. because xenophobia rules the day. Trans lives deemed unworthy to serve in the military to appease those who cloak bigotry with religion. Flint, MI lives poisoned by lead and still thirsty but forgotten because they are yesterday’s news. So many lives out on the edge, forced there by our sin.
Ezekiel warned the Israelites so long ago that human ways lead to sin and death. Was not this at the heart of Jesus’ message also? God’s way is a way of love that brings life, abundant life. Yet, we still have such a hard time hearing and believing God’s claim on us, on all people. We do not yet know that all lives are God’s. This is the crux of our stewardship problems. We forget that who we are and all that we have are on loan from God. We think our lives are our own. So, too, with our stuff; we earned it and it belongs to us to do with as we choose. The people of God have a remarkable tendency to hoard our gifts as if they weren’t freely poured out for the good of all people. We fool ourselves into believing that our gifts are for us alone and that we do not need to share them with others, especially those who are different from us.
We comfort ourselves by telling ourselves that we are working in God’s vineyard, we are doing God’s work in the world. We make this claim because we are Christians who go to church a couple times a month and throw a few dollars in the collection plate. We’re good people doing good things. Yet, are we really? Are we doing the work that God would have us do? How often do we remember those lives out on the edges? How often do we reach outside our comfortable pews and offer a life-saving hand in the name of Love? However often, it isn’t enough. The Body of Christ is rather stingy in the grand scheme of things. We might be hanging out in the vineyard, but I’m not sure how much work we are doing.
The good news is that it is not too late. “All lives are mine” is what God said thousands of years ago. Human ways of focusing on material gains and superficial differences give way to the sins of greed, hatred, and fear that will only result in death, and likely violent death at that. Holy ways of love, hospitality, generosity, and kindness will lead to life, and abundant life at that.
Perhaps if we all examine our lives as individuals, as congregations, and as the Body of Christ from the perspective Ezekiel proclaimed, we will be able to recognize that we are caretakers, stewards, not owners of anything. God claims all lives as God’s very own and continuously invites us into God’s abundance where there is more than enough Love and justice for everyone. When will we recognize God’s claim on us (and all that is) and respond accordingly?
Maybe this year’s stewardship campaigns can be an invitation to live our lives as faithful stewards of God’s Creation. Wouldn’t it be nice to stop worrying about budgets and focus on the work of building communities of love and grace that reach well beyond the limits of our human ways. Imagine! What beauty this life of abundance would hold! God dreams of a future when God’s claim on every life is recognized by all of us. What can we do to make this dream real?
For further sermon help, try here.
RCL – Year A – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 1, 2017
Exodus 17:1-7 with Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 or
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 with Psalm 25:1-9