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An Answer to Prayer / Remarks on Stewardship

Dr. David Evans, President Ted Wardlaw

November 13, 2016
Luke 21:1-2


All fall we have been on a journey with Jesus. We have wandered through the whole area of Palestine. We have had many adventures along the way we have had many adventures along the way, and we have met many people. Some of them have been rich and some of them have been poor.   Now we have arrived at our destination. We are in Jerusalem. We are with Jesus and the disciples at the Temple.   Hear the Word of God as it is recorded in the 21st chapter of the gospel of Luke:

Luke 21:1-2

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two pennies. And he said, “I tell you that this poor woman has put in more than all the others. Everyone else gave what they didn’t need, but she is very poor, and gave everything she had.”

evans-davidIf you’ve got a beef with ministers who stand up and talk about money from the pulpit, then you better take it up with Jesus!  Because if you’ve been listening carefully to the gospel of Luke  throughout this entire fall, every single time that I have stood here to preach this fall, it has been about either a rich person or a poor person and their relationship with money. So don’t blame it on me, I’m hiding behind the Gospel this morning; it’s Jesus’ fault. The Jesus we meet in the gospel of Luke seems to be obsessed with possessions and our relationship to them.  All fall we have been listening to texts that tell us about riches and poverty.  About rich people and poor widows.    Now we have finally arrived in Jerusalem and you know what’s going to happen in a few days. Jesus is going to the cross. Jesus is going to pour out his love for us. Jesus is going to give everything he has.

Who would do such a thing? Jesus is at the Temple soon after arriving in Jerusalem and watches as a poor widow put everything she has into the Temple treasury.   Then as The Message translates Jesus’ words in the last verse he says:

“The plain truth is that this widow has given by far the largest offering today.  All these others made offerings that they’ll never miss.  She gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford—she gave her all.”

 “She gave her all…”   Who does that sound like?  Who else gave his all for us?

So this is my Generosity Sunday sermon. I will tell you from my own experience that Linda and I, in our very first call to our very first church were making $7,000 a year, and the prospect of tithing, of giving $700 a year to the church was absolutely daunting. And I remembered that my father and mother had been generous tithers for their entire life. And I made more money than my dad. And so I decided to give it a shot. In fact, what we decided to do was  to write our check to the church off the top. The very first check that we wrote was to the church, and then we would see  where the chips fell the rest of the way.

What I discovered was something absolutely extraordinary. I discovered that the more difficult part of being a good steward is not writing our tithe, but being a good steward of the remaining 90 percent that we were left to use for all the other things that came our way. What I learned is that stewardship is everything I say and everything I do after I confess that Jesus Christ is my Lord. Think about that. We will never know the joy of giving until we remember that God has given all of God’s self for us.

When I was the pastor at Parkway Presbyterian Church in Corpus Christi, a beautiful three year old girl was in a life and death struggle with a rare form of liver cancer.  Sarah was sent to the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston for one last hopeful treatment that might save her life. On the day I was preparing to drive from Corpus Christi to Houston to see her, one of the women in the church, a very generous woman named Kay, showed up with a bunch of helium filled balloons for me to deliver to Sarah. That afternoon, I arrived in Houston and walked into the ICU waiting room with a handful of helium balloons behind me, Sarah’s father looked at me incredulously. Rob said, “David, I just came from Sarah’s room, and she said, ‘Daddy, would you go get me some balloons?'” Rob told me that he was not sure that balloons were allowed in ICU and had just asked the charge nurse who assured him it was not a problem. And then, thirty minutes later, here  I walked in the door with Kay’s balloons, and I had the privilege of tying them to Sarah’s bed and watching a very weak smile come across Sarah’s lips, knowing that I had brought a little bit of joy into a very difficult life.

The next Sunday following worship, I tracked Kay down and told her the story of how Sarah had asked for balloons and thirty minutes later I showed up with her balloons in tow. A huge smile spread across Kay’s face as I told her the story.  Finally she exclaimed: “Wow!  I’ve never been an answer to prayer before.”

Really, that is all University Presbyterian Church is asking of you this morning. I am asking you to be an answer to prayer. I am asking you to be an answer to someone who is praying to hear good news in their life. I’m praying that you will be an answer to prayer for someone who has lost hope. I’m praying that you will be an answer to prayer for someone who does not know where their next meal is coming from, and can come to Micah 6 and know that they will have groceries for the week. I’m praying for you to be an answer to prayer for someone who has lost hope and needs to stay in their apartment and can come to UPLift on Tuesday morning and know that this church stands with them. This can be the most liberating and joy-filled moment of your life.  To be an answer to someone’s prayers. Jesus never invites us to do anything unless it leads to abundant life. Even when we give our all, we discover that it is there that our true joy is found. And it may just be that when you accept that invitation to belong fully to Jesus, you become an answer to someone’s prayer.  GLORY BE TO GOD.

Ted Wardlaw
University Presbyterian Church, Austin
November 13, 2016
(audio not available)

My friend Will Willimon, who just recently retired as a United Methodist bishop, has for years said something about stewardship that I think is very interesting.  “Stewardship,” he has said, “always means more than money; and it never means less than money.”

Now I think, just naturally, that we gravitate more toward the first part of that sentence than the second part of that sentence.  “Stewardship always means more than money!”  And one of the things that I love about this church is the way in which I can look around any gathering of this congregation and see so many beautiful parables of how people here are practicing that kind of stewardship.  The people who come here to take part in Micah 6 ministries, the people who are here every week giving their time and energy to UPLift, the people who say Yes when invited to be on the Session or the Diaconate, who volunteer for service on this or that committee, who assist with the Bridge to Worship, who cook for UKirk, who come here every Wednesday evening to practice with our amazing choir and then to offer the results of that practice in worship every Sunday morning, who work with the Youth, who organize and go on Mission Trips, who come to Church School classes, and various smaller gatherings that meet across the week.  I am particularly grateful, in this season of our church’s life, for those faithful people who have volunteered to serve on the Pastor Nominating Committee and who are—with such care and thoroughness—discerning who it is that God is calling to come and be amongst us in this next chapter of our lives.  We should pray for them every day.  This is such a faithful, hard-working, gentle, no-nonsense church which, through thick and thin, has managed by the grace of God to bloom and flourish here in the middle of this city, surrounded increasingly by sea of concrete, as a redemptive and hope-filled flower.

What is all of this, if not stewardship?  The stewardship of our time and energy and commitment and enthusiasm and hope!  People who are not phoning it in, but are throwing their lives into the life of this place.  So stewardship always means more than money.

But let me hasten now to say that stewardship never means less than money.  Not in our culture, where money is a foundational force.  Listen to our language and you will note our emphasis upon money: “Well, for my money, I think we ought to do this or that…”  Or, “I wouldn’t take a million dollars for this or that experience I had…”  Or, “I’d bet my last dime that blah, blah, blah.”  My favorite saying about money is this one: “Put your money where your mouth is.”  And we know what that means:  “Put all that you have behind all that you claim you are; put your sense of worth behind your sense of values.”  The truth is, of course, that in a thousand different ways we do just that.  But here’s an exercise: examine all of your expenses for last month, and that little exercise will show you what you value.

“Stewardship always means more than money, and it never means less than money.”  When I was a pastor in Atlanta, there was this guy who was writing a book on stewardship, and he made an appointment to come to Atlanta and take a tour of our church and to interview me and our Stewardship Committee Chair.  As far as he was concerned, our statistics regarding per capita contributions were impressive, so he wanted to come see for himself.  So he came, and we showed him the place—the Child Development Center, the Health Center, the Outreach Center, the music and arts ministries, the sanctuary, the chapel.  It was pretty impressive, for sure.  He asked me a lot of questions about how often I preached on stewardship, and I talked about that but went on to say, “We don’t just preach about it.”  I told him how, every month in worship, when new members joined the church, we had a four-point charge we gave and one of our points was that we challenged people to tithe.  He said, “You mean you challenge people to give ten percent of their income?” and proudly I said, “Yes!”  He looked at me for a moment, and then he said, “Well, given how blessed your people have been, have you ever challenged them to give away 90 percent of their income and live on 10 percent?”  That’s when we threw him out of the building.

But I’ve been thinking about that ever since.  It’s the widow’s mite again, that David talked about this morning.  We’re tempted to look at that story and marvel at how poor people are able to be so generous.  But he was challenging me and my people to reach beyond our comfort zones when it came to giving.  It’s the idea of looking at all that you are and all that you have, and asking the question, “Lord, if all of this is on loan—not just ten percent; how would you have me give it away?”

I believe we ought to struggle more in this church to demystify how we talk about money.  We are more able to talk about politics, about sex, about death, than we are able to talk about money.  Money is the last taboo, I think, in our culture and maybe even in this church, and in our conversations we feel so much anxiety about it—especially right now.  For instance, my understanding is that, at UPC, to be specific, we’ve been running deficits in this church for three years, and I’m thinking that, in our anxiety or embarrassment about this, we have avoided talking about it.  But we’ve got to start talking about it.  Money has so much power over us, and we fear talking honestly and openly about it.  But money, as Kay said to me this morning, is simply money.  It’s not our god, it’s our vicar, our surrogate.  It’s the means by which we signify what is important in our lives; and so we should demystify how it prevents us from speaking honestly about our commitment.

So, in an attempt to imagine how we could start talking honestly about our money, I want to testify now about how Kay and I are trying to let our money be our vicar, our surrogate.  We are grateful to God, at this stage of our lives, for the ways in which we have been blessed.  And in our charitable giving, we have several very high priorities and a number of smaller ones.  We’re not yet giving away 90 percent of our income, but we are giving away—annually—a little more than 10 percent.  Our largest financial commitments in these days are the Annual Fund and Comprehensive Campaign of Austin Seminary.  Our second largest financial commitment is to this church.  And then we give to some institutions that matter to us—my seminary in Virginia, the Montreat Conference Center, and various other non-profit organizations that are doing good in the world.  Altogether, it’s a little more than 10 percent.  And of that, not counting the money we have put toward the church’s capital campaign, and not counting other miscellaneous gifts to this church; we pledged for this year $8,400, and for the coming year we’ve increased our pledge here by 15 percent so that we intend to give to the Stewardship campaign a total of $9,600.  We know that this next year is going to be a hard one for this church; and we also know that we all need to give our next pastor every amount of wind at his or her back as we possibly can.  And a good, strong, realistic and hope-filled budget will be the best gift we can give him or her that I can think of.  It may not be the widow’s mite yet, but let’s move toward it and not from it.  If you have not made a pledge, please do so and please think boldly about what you can do.  If you have made a pledge, would you just think about examining it again to see if you can do more?

I have a pastor-friend whose church got involved with Presbyterian Christians in Ghana—people whose villages were impacted by a long-running drought, and a collapsing national economy, and all manner of hard times.  They sent money and then they went to visit.  And everywhere they went, they were treated with such over-the-top hospitality.  Songs were sung in their honor, prayers were spoken in gratitude for their being there.  My friend wrote later, “I was overwhelmed by the relative extravagance of their gifts.”  He told of how, at one village, before his group left to take the long trip back to the capital city, the people gave them for the journey significant portions of their produce and their chickens and even a goat.  My friend waved them off, and said, “No, you keep this.”  And a Ghanaian woman stopped short his protests.  She acknowledged the sacrifice, but then said: “If we cannot learn to give from what little we have now, how will we ever learn to give when, by the grace of God, we have more?”

May it be that we who already “have more,” can give gratefully a greater measure of our lives to the life of this place.

Ted Wardlaw is President of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He and his wife Dr. Kay Bryant, a Ruling Elder at UPC, are active participants in the life of this community of faith.