It is stewardship season once again. This means that the council members are making out budgets to fund next year’s ministries. The budget covers things like church maintenance, staff salaries, and funding for the ministries and mission we engage in.
Budget-making requires both realism and faith. We can’t spend more than we take in through pledges, offerings, and endowment earnings, which means that if you’re not up-to-date on your pledge – Wynn Miller would like to see you! After all, we can’t pay our bills with promises of future income. At the same time the budget needs to be a document of faith. It needs to tell a story about our vision as a congregation. While we’ve not yet developed what is called a Narrative Budget that focuses more on the mission than numbers, our budget should express a vision for mission and ministry. So, when we write a budget we need to leave some room to grow in our generosity and vision for mission.
During “stewardship season” I usually preach at least two stewardship sermons. In the first sermon I usually introduce the topic of stewardship and then at the end preach about thanksgiving. This year, I’m going to double that number and preach four stewardship sermons, which will be centered around the theme “From Bread and Wine to Faith and Giving.” These passages of Scripture selected by our friend Ron Allen of Christian Theological Seminary focus our attention on the Table and on the continuing presence of Jesus as we join God in making present the realm of God on earth as in heaven.
Since this is the first sermon in the series, I thought it might be good to think about why people give to the church. I expect that some of you give out of a sense of duty. This is what religious people do! It’s like paying your taxes. Speaking of taxes, maybe some of you give to the church because you’ll get a tax deduction. It’s better to give to the church than the government – right? Maybe you do it because you want to support a certain ministry of the church – like the children’s ministry or the pastor’s salary! Of course, some might give hoping that by making a contribution to the church you can assuage feelings of guilt and perhaps buy a little grace from God. Hey, it helped to build St. Peter’s! Or, perhaps you see it as buying a ticket to a show – and what a show it is!
I know that the Treasurer and the Stewardship Chair are happy to receive your offerings in whatever form they come – whether with clean or guilty consciences. But, there has to be something more than these reasons that leads us to give?
The Scripture for today is a familiar one. It is one of several accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. We hear some form of these words every Sunday as we gather at the Table.
Remember how Jesus gathered his disciples together for a final meal – which probably coincided with the Passover meal. As the meal came to a close, Jesus took bread and he gave it to his disciples and said to them – “Take eat, this is my body.” Then he took the cup, and again he gave thanks to God. When Jesus finished his prayer of thanksgiving, he gave the cup to the disciples and he said to them: “This is my blood of the Covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.”
Did you catch the words “gave” and “give” in this passage? Yes, Jesus gave thanks to God and he gave bread and cup to the disciples. As he did this, he connected his actions with the covenant he wanted to make with them. He told them that as they received these elements representing his own body and blood given on the cross that they would also receive forgiveness of sins.
The Table highlights Jesus’ own gift of himself to further the mission of God. That mission, according to Richard Rohr was forgiveness and inclusion. He writes:
Forgiveness and inclusion are Jesus’ “great themes.” They are the practical name of love, and without forgiveness and inclusivity love is largely a sentimental valentine. They are also the two practices that most undercut human violence. [Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality. [Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, p. 151]
On the cross, Jesus faces down the powers-that-be who continually seek to exclude and dominate. He overcomes them by giving of himself freely. In his willingness to go to the cross, Jesus turns the Tables and brings into existence a new realm where old debts are forgiven and the world is invited in to share the fruit of the vine and the bread of life.
In coming to the Table we are connected to the power of Jesus’ gift. We are nourished by it so we can continue our journey with the God who has covenanted with us, the God who stands with us and goes with us on this journey.
At the end of the passage Jesus tells the disciples that “I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.” That sounds like it is off in the distance, but if we understand Jesus to be present with us at the Table, then perhaps he is already sharing the fruit of the vine with us as a sign that the kingdom is already present. It may not be here in its fulness, but as the gathered body of Christ we have the opportunity to share the healing presence of Jesus with the world, so that it might know forgiveness and inclusion.
So what does this have to do with stewardship?
In my mind, when we give our offerings through the church, we commit ourselves – our talents, our time, and yes our finances -- to the work of the kingdom. We invest in that which we believe in. If we believe in Jesus’ work and in the realm he seeks to inaugurate, then we will invest ourselves in that work. In our society nothing better symbolizes investment than money.
I must confess that I’m still growing in my sense of stewardship. It is not easy to set aside money to give to the church. Like everyone we have bills to pay, and we would like to enjoy the fruit of our labor as well. But giving is a discipline that incorporates us into the life of Jesus.
One of the criticisms of the “institutional church” is that it is always asking for money. After all, don’t we pass the plate every Sunday? Why not find other ways of supporting the work? Maybe we could turn to a fee for services basis. If you want a particular hymn sung, that will cost you $50. If you want a pastoral visit that will be $250. Maybe passing the plate isn’t that bad an idea!
It is good to note that in our own context the taking of the offering is an act of worship that is connected to the Lord’s Supper. We gather together at the Table by singing a Communion hymn. Then an Elder issues the invitation to give. We bring those gifts back the Table by singing some form of a doxology, giving glory to God for the blessings of this life, and then that same Elder blesses the offering. After we share in this act of giving, we move on to another act of giving. As we share the Communion, by receiving bread and cup, we receive the benefits of Jesus’ own gift of his body and his blood – offered up that we might receive forgiveness along with an invitation to enter the blessings of God’s realm.
The theme of this stewardship season is “From Bread and Wine to Faith and Giving: A Journey Into the Spiritual Discipline of Generosity Around the Table of Jesus.” So, let us begin our journey of growing into the generosity that begins at the Table of Jesus.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
October 26, 2014