Sunday, September 30, 2007

Stewardship Sermon

The Rev. Ernestein Flemister, September 30, 2007

Today, we present the dreaded stewardship sermon, told through the familiar story of Lazarus and the rich man.

Jesus begins by describing a rich man. He is given no name; he is your run of the mill, average, generic, rich guy. Jesus then describes a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores and lying at the gate of the rich man.

We see the contrast. Lazarus longs to satisfy his hunger with what falls from the rich man’s table. Lazarus has nothing, he is helpless and dependant. Even the dogs feel sorry for him and lick his sores.

Fast forward: Lazarus dies and the angels carry him away to be with Abraham. The rich man also dies and is buried, but he is not in the company of Abraham or angels. He is tormented in Hades. He looks up and sees Abraham and with him is Lazarus.

The rich man calls to him and says, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”

But Abraham says, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”

“Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”

The rich man did not recognize Lazarus and his need for food and shelter. He was concerned only with satisfying his own needs, he shared nothing with Lazarus. He paid no attention to Moses the lawgiver or the words of the prophets while he was enjoying his earthly possessions. In Hades, he is still only concerned with himself, he wants water to cool his tongue and relieve his suffering.

Ironies of ironies, there is a chasm that divides them and Lazarus cannot cross the chasm. In life, there was also a chasm between them; one that could have been crossed if the rich man had paid a little attention to the needs of others.

God had blessed him with great wealth. He had everything the world could offer. Notice the detail with which Jesus describes his attire; he is dressed in purple, the color of royalty and fine linen which can only be purchased by the wealthy. Jesus tells us that he feasted sumptuously every day--not often and not sometimes, but every day. He made the choice to consume it all for his own desires and needs. The barrier that existed between the rich man and Lazarus could have been breached by love, kindness and compassion but it was not. He was rich in material possessions, but poor in spirit.

You and I have been blessed by God with much. We may take some things for granted, like clean water, electricity, medical facilities, public transportation, a free education and relative security. We at Grace Church have also been blessed. The doors are still open; we are keeping our heads above water and we are doing ministry. We are reaching outside our walls and beyond our borders to help others; we are bridging the chasm and I thank you all for contributing your time, talents and treasury. We want to continue to do all these things and more but we need your continued support.

As I mentioned last week, money is a very touchy topic in religious circles and I don’t understand why. The word money/possessions or some related topic is mentioned more than 200 times in the Bible. Jesus mentions it specifically 24 times in the four Gospels. Some examples are Matthew 19:21, 21:12, Mark 6.8, 14.11, Luke 3.14, 19.23 and John 2.14-16. From Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (security, power and possessions) to his anointing at the Last Supper (found in Matt. 26.6-13) money/possessions pervades his teachings.

Everything that we are, all that we have belongs to God. The notion that we own anything is a myth. The rich man’s theology of money did not attribute his wealth as a blessing and gift from God.

Money is one of the factors that enable the Church to do God’s work in the world; but it cannot be only about money and possessions. Stewardship encompasses all that we do with what God has blessed us with. The rich man’s heart in our Gospel lacked love and care for his neighbor Lazarus; he did not share the blessings that he received from God. Stewardship is above all about love and caring; the condition of our hearts more than anything else.

Should we talk about money? Absolutely! The issue of finance and other resources can sometimes be a major source of conflict and difficulty within church families and should be discussed.

How do we view money/possessions? What is yours, mine, our theology of money? It is important to say that there is not a single all in-compassing theology of money. We need to engage each other in a discussion and exchange ideas on the theology of money and the culture and thinking on stewardship and money matters. Society’s influence is strong and obvious. Many members feel that decisions about finances are individual and not appropriate to talk or discuss within the Church. They feel that it is a question that should be decided between them and God and the Church should stay out of the matter.

One of the keys to adjusting this outlook is teaching and understanding how we view possessions.

Psalm 24.1-2 says that

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.

Today’s psalm, Psalm 146.4-8, says,

Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in the LORD their God; Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps his promise for ever; Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; The LORD loves the righteous; the LORD cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked…

Are possessions a gift and blessing from God or are they something that is earned and acquired through singular efforts and hard work? In other words, am I entitled to them because of what I do or is God the giver of all good things that I receive during my time on the earth?

Giving and money matters are issues and questions of faith and rightly belong within the understanding of our faith. All of our relationships should be informed by our faith, beliefs and values. We have effectively separated money matters from our core values. Money cannot be used as effectively and given as freely without those three things. We need to re-connect them if we have any hope of changing the thinking and culture around stewardship and giving.

Jeff Deitch, in a newsletter of Congregation Beth Israel, Media, Pennsylvania, says,

Money flows through your life and touches every aspect. Although you have only so much control of how it flows into your life, how money flows out from your life, just like how you spend your time, reflects your values and what you hold precious. We should not be embarrassed that it takes money to run a synagogue/church—we should be happy to see that our financial support has created an extraordinary community that we value dearly.

I believe we should create a safe space where the community can discuss money and possessions free from the pressure and stress surrounding stewardship campaigns. It should not be left only to Stewardship Campaigns, which tend to be one-dimensional and do not explore deeper issues behind money and giving. I think that this is a major shortcoming and needs to be rectified. We need to discuss money matters openly and honestly on a regular basis. It needs to be part of a crucial and focused teaching ministry in the Church.

Money is not only important for what it will buy, but for how it affects relationships between people, and their relationships between people and their God.

Money and our relationships within the faith community are important but should not only be contained within that community. It is hoped that we will begin to develop a knowledge and perception of giving from this orientation and look at it from a perspective of God’s abundance rather than our scarcity. Discussions of money, teaching, belief and the church should happen all year round; an open and sustained dialogue should be sought and maintained.

Members should be encouraged and asked to participate in this dialogue. The idea is to tease out shared values and develop new ones within the community that will create an atmosphere of mutual caring, accountability and responsibility on money matters.

In our Epistle from 1 Timothy 6.6-8 we are told,

There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.

Be content, for we came into this world without material possessions and we will leave it without them.

In our Gospel reading from last week, Luke 16.13, Jesus warns us by saying

No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and (mammon) wealth.”

Jesus names only two spiritual forces that work against the kingdom of God: Satan and mammon/wealth/possessions. Satan is the evil that grasps us in its clutches and keeps us from loving and sharing. Mammon is what I would define as the love of material and worldly possessions. It is greed and avarice that possesses us and makes idols of material and earthly possessions. The two work hand in hand to control and keep humankind from becoming what God created us to be and do—To love God and the neighbor.

Turning again to 1 Timothy 6.9-12,

But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

It is important to note here that money/wealth/possessions in and of itself is not bad or evil. This passage is misquoted so often, but it says “for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…” When money becomes a god for us so that we rely on it instead of the real God we fall into sin. We become like the rich man, we forget the source of all that we have and think that our possessions define who we are is and how we behave in relationship to one another. What would our lives, our church, our society be like if we truly believed and lived as it the earth’s is the Lord’s and that God is the source of all things?

The Bible tells us many things about possessions and their use. Deuteronomy 26.11-12 tells us that God wants us to share what has been given to us.

Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house. When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns…

We are to share with aliens, orphans, widows and the Church so that we may all be fed and eat to our fill. In other words, don’t withhold anything from the most vulnerable persons in the society. Give out of the abundance that God has given to us and our household. This is a variation on the theme of loving your neighbor as yourself. The best that you give to yourself and family, give also to aliens, orphans, widows and the church.

It would certainly be a challenge to reintroduce an idea that has become increasingly distant to us in today’s world. It is an important piece of this discourse and deserves to be discussed as God intended. We at grace have an opportunity to cross that divide and bridge the chasm that exists in this world. Please help us to do that by prayerful consideration and generous giving.


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