Stewardship Sunday #1: Built on a Rock

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Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, Arizona (opened in 1956). 

Matthew 21:23-32

[Play re-gifting video over microphone:]

The connotation, of course, is that the re-gifter is the lazy giver. The low-effort, low-enthusiasm giver. The one who doesn’t really love you or the person that gave them the gift in the first place.

Well, it’s stewardship season. We’re embarking today on a four-week journey, and I feel like I should own up to one thing:

Stewardship season, especially when I sat where you’re sitting (that is, in the pew), used to make me grumpy. Not because I resent the fact that the church needs my time or my money — that just makes practical sense. I’ve just hardly felt that people who promoted stewardship were really talking to me.

You see, in some ways, I’m a stereotype: I’m the millennial in her 30s who went and got two degrees in the liberal arts and then stubbornly chose to use my career for the public good, which usually means that you don’t get paid too much. Which means, of course, that I don’t have as much disposable income as the average American. I’ve always had everything I need, but I’ve never had a lot.

So I used to feel little grumpy, especially when I was a student sitting in a pew, during stewardship season.

Don’t get me wrong — it was a big moment for me when I realized that I could give, even a small amount, out of pure stubbornness. However, I still felt that my presence in church would be worth more if it were, well, worth more. I never felt like part of the foundation. I never felt like I was part of what kept the church going.

I’ve always felt like I was the re-gifter, the lazy giver. The one who can’t give as much as everyone else. I thought it was just me.

Then I started talking about it. First, it was just me and my pastor friends, then it expanded to other friends and church members and others. I found that lots of people felt the same way: that our struggle with money was embarrassing. We didn’t want to talk about what we could or could not give to the church or to a charitable cause, and we all thought we were alone — but we weren’t.

It took me awhile to realize how normal I was financially, which then, in turn, alarmed me about the way we often talk about stewardship.

It’s similar to the way we’re prone to talk about a lot of other things in church, really. At least when I was growing up, we were supposed to be only happy in church.

You’re supposed to be a cheerful giver because you’re supposed to have plenty. Not having plenty, after all, makes you feel bad. And talking about it definitely does.
It was as if our mood was somehow tied to whether God’s grace was working in our lives.

Cheerful giver and all that, when it came to stewardship, but it went beyond that.

If you had just lost someone, you were supposed to be cheerful because Christ had defeated death. If you were enduring financial hardship, you were supposed to be cheerful because God has saved us. If you were in a bad mood because your kid was sick and your boss was a jerk, you were supposed to be cheerful because at least God woke you up this morning.

It’s not that those things about God aren’t true. But in each of those statements, both things are true. And by not acknowledging them both and skipping straight to the good news, we lose the whole message because we render ourselves unable to actually feel the Good News because we haven’t acknowledged our own realities.

We think we have to make God’s grace evident by feeling good and really, really believing it. We forget that it’s God who starts this whole thing in the first place.

And there’s also this morning’s Gospel reading.

God’s grace is not dependent on your mood. It’s dependent on God. And that’s Good News.

So this morning’s Gospel. First, there’s this little debate between Jesus and the chief priests and the elders. They interrupt Jesus while he’s teaching in the temple. They demand that he tell them by what authority he’s doing these things.

It wasn’t an unreasonable request. When someone comes to preach here, we’re not all that different. We, too, want to know about someone’s credentials. We have standards. We want someone who knows what they’re talking about, who loves Jesus, believes the creeds, believes in our liturgy, and whose general theology is at least sort of compatible with Lutheranism. But Jesus isn’t having this little credential test from these guys, who he’s accused more than once by this point of oppressing the people. He throws them a riddle wrapped in a parable.

The parable is of a man who owned a vineyard and had two sons. He tells the first son, “Go, work in the vineyard today.”

The son is defiant. He tells his father no.

Then, later, he’s sitting around thinking about it, and you can almost hear him huff, “FINE, DAD,” as he gets up and slugs himself into the vineyard. His love for his dad, and his dad’s love for him, outweighs his mood.

You know that feeling. You’ve decided to skip something you don’t really want to do. You’ve resolved to be lazy. You’ve even said no. Then you’re sitting at home and you start thinking about it and think, “Ugh. I’ve got to go. I should go,” and then you drag yourself to whatever you’d intended to skip, and whether it’s the gym or to help out a friend, by the end you know you’ve made the right decision.

Then there’s the other son. The father comes up to him and asks him to go into the vineyard. He enthusiastically replies, “Sure, Dad!” but he doesn’t go.

And Jesus tells us that it’s the one who said no first, the grumpy one, the one who hemmed and hawed but finally went, that did right. The one who cheerfully paid lip service is useless.

From various sources, I have compiled three practical golden rules of pastoring that I believe are also golden rules for church and for life. The first and most important is to love the people you serve. The second is to do what you say you’re going to do.

(The third is “don’t take the stupid pill,” but that’s another sermon for another time.)

Do what you say you’re going to do.

Love your people, and do what you say you’ll do. That sort of thing, for me, isn’t dependent on my mood. I can be totally grumpy and follow these rules.

It is, rather, dependent on recognizing a much deeper truth: that Christ is risen.

As John Chrysostom wrote in a line that I read to you every Easter,

“Christ is risen, and life is set free!”

This is most certainly true.

And don’t get it twisted: it is not how we feel or how many people are here or anything else that this church’s future is built on. I think we get that confused often, not just here, but in the wider Church in America. We see our shrinking numbers and it sinks our mood and we say “no” to God and we don’t go to work, all because we’ve lost hope because we misunderstand something deep about where the church’s foundation actually lies.

Christ is risen, and life is set free!
“Built on a rock, the church shall stand, even when steeples are falling.”

As a football coach once told his storied college team: “This place was great way before you got here.”

The coach wasn’t saying that the players were insignificant. He was telling them that they’ve got an opportunity. That they’re blessed to be part of this.

As are we. We get to be part of hope in a world that increasingly is losing hope. We get to remember how to love one another and be part of a community in a society that’s longing for community and torn by division.

As most of you know by now, I love podcasts. The Ezra Klein Show is one of my favorites. A few weeks ago, Angela Nagle, author and journalist, was a guest. She recently wrote a book entitled Kill All Normies, an exploration of extremist young white supremacists in the United States.

On her way to explaining the appeal of extremism of all kinds to the world’s young people, she says that in previous generations, we have had strong ties to where we came from: to a family, a nationality, an ancient story. Increasingly, those stories have begun to blend together, which has led to a lot of good: we’ve grown to understand people who are different from us and thus, we’ve at least started to become less violent and more compassionate towards them. We now have the easy ability — it’s literally in most of our pockets via our smart phones — to learn about and even communicate with different types of people.

And yet, she says, “We’re reaching the end of something” — that is, of our families and nationalities and religions defining whom we can associate with — and we can’t imagine what comes next.

Society is in the midst of a search for meaning. It turns out, having information didn’t solve all of our problems.

There’s a gap in the human experience, and if you don’t fill that gap with love, it will be filled with hate.

And here we are, in South Hadley, Massachusetts, with an ancient story to which we are deeply connected, which doesn’t call us to hate those who are different, but to embrace them. To face hate with love. To embrace science and research and practical reality because God loves people and comes not that they be slaves to religious laws, but that they may have life abundant. Who taught us that love wins, and that you can kill love, but it’ll be back. It’ll always be back.

Christ is risen, and life is set free.

That is our foundation. Numbers will rise and fall. We will take wins and losses in programming and in our finances.

And we’ll be grumpy sometimes.

Sometimes we might even look God in the face like the son of the vineyard owner and say it: “I will not.

But God still owns the vineyard, and the vineyard will continue to grow.
And because it’s our history, we’ll change our minds and go to work. Because it’s what we do here. Because there’s a world out there full of work and people who need serving and people who need loving. Because Christ is risen, and life is set free. Because we’re a work in progress.

That’s why you live generously.

That’s why we gave generously to hurricane relief. That’s why I ran with my colleagues all the way across New Hampshire to send kids to camp, and that’s why you donated to put me over my fundraising goal. That’s one way we’re making sure that our young people hear messages of love and an ancient story that they are a part of.

Built on a rock, the church shall stand.

We’re just lucky enough to be a part of it, here, together. This is the gift that God has given us.

And so when we give back, we’re all re-gifting. So whether you’re grumpy or you’re cheerful or you’re feeling the abundance or whether you’re feeling the pinch, whether you’re able to give more or whether you can’t give at all, you’re part of this.

And you’re here. And that’s the best way you can possibly re-gift.

Christ is risen, and life is set free.

So as we embark on this four-week journey as we talk about not mere survival, but about building our future together, let’s remember that the foundation for this church wasn’t laid in South Hadley, and it isn’t crumbling with numbers. It was laid 2,000 years ago in the Middle East, and it isn’t going anywhere. We’re just blessed to be part of it.

When a friend got a book signed by faith leader Shane Claiborne, Shane wrote, “May we become the church we dream of.”

Here’s our chance.

So let us build our future, together, all of us. None of us is better than another; we are all a work in progress, built on the rock of Christ.

And all God’s people said: Amen.

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