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November 14, 2010
Isaiah 65:17-25 and Philippians 2:1-11
I am honored to be invited to be your preacher this Sunday as we celebrate the culmination of the annual stewardship campaign. There are many preachers who preach stewardship sermons, but there are few preachers who are more grateful than I for the extraordinary generosity I have known in my ministry. It is the kind of generosity that is transformative: it changes not only those it seeks to help, but also the lives of those who give. This morning is a moment in which we have an opportunity to say thank you, and I feel that gratitude deeply.
Before we moved to Austin, I was a new church development pastor. On thirteen lovely acres of former pastureland, at a crossroads that promises great growth, this new church was born. Construction trailers served as our worship and educational space, and amazingly, curious, bright, gifted people had the courage to open those doors and come in. We grew, bit by bit, but it was clear that this new start would fall to the same statistic that continues to dominate the success rate of new churches: 7 out of 10 die on a national basis. We needed a building, but we could not afford one. The presbytery was too strapped to help us. Most new starts die because a congregation cannot sustain a mortgage while only beginning to learn about what it means to be a Christian, and in our case, a Presbyterian and Reformed Christian, a generous Christian, a biblically literate and a theologically inquiring Christian, a mission-oriented Christian. They came from every socio-economic background, different denominations, no church affiliation, farmers and businesspeople, addicts and young families, some wanting a new start, some believing that life must surely have more to offer than they had found. We needed a building to house our incredible new beginning, and we could not provide it for ourselves.
But there were people who could help, and they did. Day after day, night after night, I called Presbyterians I had known for years and others I did not know very well. I spoke in churches and met with committees. I dragged around my architectural drawing of the proposed building like a child drags around an old favorite blanket. I told stories about the amazing and gifted people in my new congregation. I invited our donors to visit with us in the trailers. The lead gift came, and then more significant gifts came. One couple who loved music gave us enough to buy a lovely new piano; others bought the pulpit and table and font; others helped us put down wooden floors; others helped us with a lovely memorial garden and landscaping for the church. I am certain that when people saw me coming or saw my name on the telephone, it gave them pause. But by the grace of God, they did answer, and somehow, they understood that God was doing a new thing. Leo told me that he would have given me even more, if I had just had the sense to ask for it.
The generosity of those good people was beyond what I could have imagined. It is with such joy that I reflect on what has happened to that congregation. Hospitable, solvent, committed to good liturgy and good music, numbering some of the brightest and most theologically astute people I have known—I feel such joy, the kind of joy that makes me want to dance. I feel like little four-year-old Genevieve must have felt, as I watched her rise on her toes in her pink, sparkly shoes and take hold of her dress, holding it out from her sides with both hands as she gracefully pirouetted down the aisle.
And my joy extends to the present. Now they have called a young pastor and his wife from Princeton. Her father, Dan Terry, was killed by the Taliban as he worked with poor villagers in northern Afghanistan. You may have read about him and his co-workers, struck while they were fitting people with eyeglasses who had never had access to them before. In the providence of God, this young couple, shaped by parents who had spent their lives serving and loving the people of Afghanistan, are pastoring this little congregation in Middle Tennessee.
Overnight, there is a new question before this young congregation. Recipients of the generosity of others, will they dance out of that Tennessee pasture and into the world as generous stewards of God’s grace?
Theologian Douglas John Hall suggests that an image we desperately need for the 21st century is: the stewardship of all believers. Martin Luther helped us to understand the “priesthood of all believers.” Hall calls for the stewardship of all believers. He believes that the idea of stewardship calls us to a deeper understanding of our baptism. We are baptized into God’s self-giving love for the world. To be a Christian, to be baptized into Christ means that we take on the stewardship of the world. And we do that because we are profoundly grateful. We do something because we are something. We do deeds of stewardship because we are, at the deepest level of our being, claimed by God in baptism as stewards.
And here is the kicker. Hall says that:
The world is crying out for keepers and tenders of its wonderful,
frail beauty, and God desires to send us out as stewards into this
astonishing, unique creation. Until we have been grasped by that
Word and deed of our God; until we have begun to be who we are,
no amount of exhortation or works will alter greatly the image of
church or the course of the world (244).
Oh, my. I hope that does not sound like a lot of church talk to you. I find the implications to be so challenging, and yet so profoundly true and in an odd sort of way, comforting. The church will always be asking for money and hardly making a dent in the world until we are stewards rather than participants in stewardship campaigns. Until stewardship isn’t something we dread but something that makes us want to dance.
It is the practice of this congregation to invite an “outsider” to preach this sermon on “Stewardship Sunday.” It is true, I am an outsider. I am still new to this community of faith and I look with new eyes and watch you being the church. Newcomer that I am, already there are things about this congregation that fill me with such joy that I want to dance: friends who are quickly becoming a part of my heart; your caring and openness and hospitality, not only to your own, but to visitors who come among us. The table that Christ has set for us here at UPC is open to all who trust him, open to people of other traditions, of varying sexual orientations, open even when we have varying views on a variety of topics. Your children are welcome at Christ’s table. You are all about feeding the hungry and befriending the friendless; you have a passion for justice and peace. You are a congregation that wants to uphold people in their quest for authenticity. You are loved and nurtured by wonderful pastors. You are a thoughtful people who you expect a challenging Word. Your worship is filled with the varied sounds of wonderful voices and instruments and styles of music, inviting us all into a more profound experience of God. You have gifted and articulate and committed seminarians on the staff, guiding and nurturing growing disciples among our young. Why would we not give to support a church which cherishes the search for intellectual and spiritual truth? How could we not support a staff of such love and grace and commitment? Who could refrain from wanting to help sustain the incredible outreach to the poor and downtrodden by this congregation? Who can fail to assist this church in its efforts to listen to God’s Word and to hear what new Word may be there for us today? Who? Who in this room could possibly not feel like dancing your pledge down the aisle in joy that you are a part of this congregation, past this font of our baptism into the stewardship of Christ our Lord?
I saw a dancing man on the side of the road a few months ago. He was a slender, dark-haired, middle-aged man dressed in white running shorts and a t-shirt. Cars were snarled in rush hour, but he did not seem to notice. With earbuds firmly in place, he turned and dipped, punched the air and swiveled with the grace of a fine dancer. He seemed to be dancing to a Big Band piece or maybe some Swing. As I watched, I no longer saw or heard the traffic. I was transfixed by this lone figure, dancing, not with abandon, but with a measured grace and buoyancy that transcended his surroundings. He was grasped by a music I could not hear, but its effects transformed his whole orientation to life at that moment. It was a rare moment. I wish I could dance like him. I wish little Genevieve could see him dance.
And when that little congregation in a hayfield in TN grows up, I hope it will look like you, grasped by the grace of God, stewards of God’s generosity.