By Dr. Jeffrey K. London
A few weeks ago I came across a prophetic passage in the 23rd chapter of the Book of Revelation that made me think we might not need a stewardship campaign this year. The passage read, “When the small furry animals from the city of wind winneth the golden crown, then ye shall know the end is nigh.” (For those of you without a sense of humor, the Book of Revelation only has 22 chapters.) Well, in case you haven’t been following baseball, the Cubs didn’t win. So the end is not near. Therefore, we DO need to focus on stewardship.
Stewardship is a joyful thing. So why is it often received with such congregational dread and foreboding? We should be able to laugh and celebrate as we dream holy dreams and vision new ways of giving and serving. Why? Because we’re not giving and serving in a vacuum. We’re giving and serving as a response, in an environment of unconditional love; we’re giving and serving because God has given unto us in sacrificial ways; and we’re giving and serving because God in Jesus Christ has said “Yes!” to all that we are and all that we could be.
There’s not a single person among us who has not, and is not now, experiencing God’s “Yes!” Material blessings are not the only way God says “Yes!,” but they are an important one and we who are gathered here today, I wager to guess, all have food in our cupboards, roofs over our heads, clothes in our closets and some money in the bank. But material blessings can also limit our vision so God has said “Yes!” to us in other ways as well. We’ve also received God’s “Yes!” in the form of gifts and talents that have permitted us to make a difference in the world through our vocations, our service, and our mission. And perhaps one of the greatest gifts God has given to us is the gift of imagination, the ability to dream holy dreams and to ask “What if? What if we served in this way or that way? What if we led the call for justice in this area? What if we cared for hurting people in ways not yet thought of?” The imagination is a tool of God’s calling that allows us to focus not on what we would necessarily like to see happen, but on what God is calling us to see, what God is calling us to envision that isn’t yet a part of our reality.
The truth of the matter is, as individuals, we’re extremely gifted people, we are all walking treasure chests. And when God puts us together and the holy imagination really starts to flow, we’re not just John Knox, we’re Fort Knox!
Our “Say Yes!” theme comes from the treasure chest that is the Apostle Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthian church in which Paul reminds the people that like God, his word to them has never been “maybe” but it’s always been a resounding “Yes!.” And for proof of this Paul reminds the people that Jesus Christ is God’s greatest “Yes!” For in Jesus Christ, God has said “Yes!” to all the things
that make for a meaningfully faithful life. God has said “Yes!” to unconditional love, forgiveness, faith, eternal life, and a strong sense of purpose among disciples.
We would not be who we are today without God’s “Yes!” and we will not be the people God intends us to be apart from God’s “Yes!” In fact, we would not even be/exist without God’s “Yes!” And of course the most beautiful thing about God’s “Yes!” is that it is a gift of grace, it is a free gift given out of love.
In plain language, this means God’s “Yes!” cannot be earned, bought or bartered. God’s “Yes!” can only be received with thankfulness and with joy. Like a giant Christmas present wrapped in rainbow colored paper, God’s “Yes!” is given to us freely and without preconditions. But once received, what do we do with God’s “Yes!”? Do we ignore it? Do we lock it away in the closet? Or, do we unwrap it with the kind of uncontrollable intensity that a small child opens Christmas gifts with?
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “I use your service because I struggle to put my academically-inclined style forward in an understandable way. Your material seems to balance responsible exegesis and a user-friendly approach.”
Resources to inspire you — and your congregation!
When Alex was quite young, maybe 6 years old, he and his 5 year old friend Marshall set up a lemonade stand in our neighborhood. I think they’d seen this on TV and thought they could make some good money on a hot summer day. So they set up a table and made a sign and tried to sell cups of lemonade for fifty cents a pop.
Unfortunately, business was not brisk. So Alex and Marshall came to me, of all people, looking for advice. I suggested that they change their approach and make a new sign that would say, “FREE LEMONADE” in big letters and then below that in small letters, “donations accepted.” Well, Alex and Marshall thought this was a great idea and got to work right away.
An hour or so later I looked out the window and saw a couple of cars and several of our neighbors huddled around the lemonade stand. They all had cups of lemonade in their hands and they were all sharing in a big laugh. So I went out to congratulate Alex and Marshall, and as I did I made an interesting discovery. To my great surprise they had done everything as I had suggested with just one significant difference, their sign read, “FREE LEMONADE” followed by, “donations expected.”
There’s good theology in that sign of Alex and Marshall’s. The grace of God in God’s “Yes!” is free and unconditional. Yet, once we receive this great gift, once we embody and rejoice in God’s “Yes!,” there is something expected of us. Stewardship is the beginning of that response.
There are three kinds of giving: 1) Grudge giving; 2) Duty Giving; 3) And Thanksgiving. Grudge giving says, “I have to” and comes from constraint. Duty giving says, “I ought to” and comes from a sense of obligation. Thanksgiving says, “I want to” and comes from a full heart. Nothing much is conveyed in grudge giving since it is so reluctant. Something more happens in duty giving, but there is no song in it. Thanksgiving is an open gate into the love of God. (William R. Phillippe, A Stewardship Scrapbook (Louisville: Geneva Press), 116)
Now I could go on and on about why it is good and right to give, but I really think that is quite unnecessary. I consider all you to be good and faithful Christians who try hard to do what is right. My hope and prayer is that everyone here today will experience the joy of God’s “Yes!” by giving with thanksgiving.
The Session has told us the truth: that we need to increase the budget by 6% in order to live out the vision we believe God is now working among us. There is always a certain danger in telling the truth. There is also a certain danger in what I am about to say. The danger in what I am about to say is that I’m about to risk having someone declare me self-righteous. But I think it’s important that you know that your pastor is trying to practice what he’s preaching. So it is important that you know that your pastor tithes, that your pastor gives 10% of the money you pay him back to the church. And that I will increase that amount this year by 6%. I don’t say that to be self-righteous, I say that because I feel truly blessed to be among you, I feel you are a big part of God’s “Yes!” to me and my family and I want to respond in thanksgiving.
So what sort of risk are you being asked to take?
Well, there is a sense in which you and I are owned by whatever we cannot, or will not, give away, a sense in which who we are is defined very precisely by what we can or cannot give away. What we ultimately decide to give will say much about whether we are genuine disciples of Jesus Christ or mere consumers of services here at John Knox. I don’t say that to try and make anyone feel guilty, I say that because it is the risky truth. If I wanted to make us feel guilty I’d remind us that we tend to tip waiters and waitresses a greater percentage than what we give to God.
But this isn’t about guilt, it isn’t about grudge giving or duty giving either. It is about thanksgiving and taking risks.
And the greatest risk we are being asked to take today has nothing to do with what we can afford to give; nothing to do with what we should give; and everything to do with what we truly want to give.
The greatest risk we are being asked to take today is to say “Yes!” to the ministries of this church; we are being asked to risk giving more because we believe God has given to us the greatest gift of all— the gift of a life-saving, life-creating “Yes!” in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.