A sermon preached by the Rector
St Luke the Evangelist 2020
This Sunday, the Church observes the heavenly birthday of St Luke. Luke is mentioned three times in Paul’s letters, once as the “beloved physician.” As a doctor, he would have been educated and Greek-speaking, and indeed his Gospel is written to a non-Jewish audience. He, of course, also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, which is the history book of the primitive Church. The October 18th date for his feast probably dates from the transfer, on this day, of his relics to a church in Constantinople in the mid-fourth century.
That trivia aside, we celebrate Luke because of God’s grace at work in him, his healing arts, his literary skill, and how he told the “old, old story of Jesus”: our Lord’s preaching, his mighty works, his love for us, and the salvation he comes to bring. And we can honor St Luke no more highly than by joining in telling the story of Jesus, which this parish has done for now more than 175 years!
Apropos of telling the story of Jesus in this place, this Sunday and next I am going to speak on the theology of stewardship, of money, of financial resources, of giving. There are lots of churches who don’t ever talk about money, and then there are those churches who are always talking about money, but we’ll aim for a balanced approach.
There is a well-known New Yorker cartoon that makes the rounds of bulletins and newsletters during stewardship time. It shows a man and a woman with a newborn baby greeting the pastor at the church door. The woman says, “Sorry about all the sobbing in church; the baby is teething.” The pastor asks, “What about your husband; why is he crying?” “Oh,” comes the woman’s reply, “he’s tithing.” Some of you don’t know what tithing is. You will.
Our aim this Sunday and next is to open up the Scriptures, and see what plan God has for us when it comes to money. Then, at the end of the month, each household is asked to make an estimate of giving for the coming year, so that we can plan a budget. And the truth is that God does have a lot to say about the way we deal with our resources, our money, our wealth.
This first principle of Christian stewardship is this: The earth, and everything on it, belongs to God; we are his stewards. God has more wealth that we can possibly imagine. Scripture metaphorically says, “The cattle of a thousand hills are his.” Or, as the song puts it, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” Everything to do with this earth is his; and not only the earth, the whole universe is his. And over this God appoints us his managers, his tenants, his stewards.
I wonder if you’ve ever considered the vastness of the universe, that huge expanse of space. What kind of God created that universe, and even now holds it in existence? What kind of God indeed. Do you remember when you were in grade school and you made a scale model of the universe? Do you remember the teacher trying to put it in perspective for you? No? Let me try. If the sun were the size of a VW bug, the Earth would be the size of a marble a football field away. If the sun were the size of a VW bug, Pluto would be the size of a peppercorn 3 miles away from the VW. The nearest other sun to us, Alpha Centauri, would be the size of a house, the length of the diameter of the Earth away from the VW. Consider the vastness of the universe! Consider the God who created it and sustains it! It’s all his. Everything we call ours is really his. God is the owner; we are his stewards. That’s the first principle.
So how are we to respond to our generous God? The answer is the second principle of stewardship: We give back. We give back joyfully, generously and repeatedly. We don’t give God our time, talent and treasure. We give back to him of his time, his talent and his treasure. What is the verse from Chronicles? – “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”
I want us all to be quite sure why it is that we give back to God. (And notice that I didn’t say, “Give to the Church.” No, we give back to God through his Church.) We give back to acknowledge God’s lordship over our lives. The Creed of the first Christians was quite short: “Jesus is Lord.” That’s it. Not the Empire, not Caesar Augustus, not Jupiter or Hermes, not the sun or the moon or the stars, but Jesus. At some point each of us must settle the question of who or what is to be lord of our lives.
Jesus realizes the temptation for you and me to make “things” our lord, to put our trust in them, to direct our energy to obtaining them, and to spend our time worrying about keeping them. You see, there is a great danger that you and I will believe that we can achieve a spiritual state (happiness) through a material event (money). Only when I have enough money, we think, I will be happy, or I will be free or I will be secure. A psychologist will tell you that in fact it is not the things themselves we want, but the feelings those things bring: happiness or freedom or security.
Deep down, however, we know that trying to achieve the spiritual state through a material event is futile. It simply won’t work. Those who try are always searching, always grasping, always dissatisfied. Someone once asked William Randolph Hearst how much money was “enough,” and he replied, “Just a little more than I have now.”
The Apostle Paul is in prison. One day he receives a care package from one of the churches he has founded. It probably contained some parchments, some personal letters, odds and ends. Paul, like the good Jewish son that he was, sat down and wrote a thank-you note. The Letter to the Philippians in the Bible is that thank-you. Basically, Paul writes, “I appreciate your gift, but I don’t really need it. You see, I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I find myself: in good times and in bad, when I’m well-fed, when I’m starving, when I’m abounding and when I’m abased, when I’m successful, and when I’m a failure. I’ve taken all the guess-work out of my life and put my confidence in Jesus.” So says St Paul.
We might say, All the little lords I used to put my trust in: like my job, and my money, and my possessions, I now put in the one true Lord, Jesus. Whether I drive a brand-new BMW or a 20- year-old Chevy, or take the T, whether I eat out at the fanciest restaurant or at McDonalds, whether my house is small or big, I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content. I’ve learned the secret to being content – Jesus – and because of that I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Do you see how that works? We look for a material event to produce spiritual reality. With Paul it’s just the opposite. The spiritual reality produces contentment, joy and peace. When Jesus warns us about money, it is because there is a very real danger that people will become possessed by their possessions. Instead of focusing on the one Lord, they focus on the little lords of this life, put their trust in them, direct most of their energy to obtaining them, and to spend their time worrying about keeping them.
If you think back to your history classes, you may remember that in the Dark Ages when the missionaries did baptisms of whole pagan tribes (usually in the closest river), the pagan warriors would hold their swords above their heads so that the sword would not be part of the baptism and they could go on to use it to wage war. Let us not delude ourselves into thinking that as Christians our checkbooks are held above our heads, and what we do with our money is not part of our faith. The register in your checkbook is a moral document.
So we give back. “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” What we give back to God is the first. What we give back to God is the best. What we give back to God is the highest. The best always goes back to the source—God. Not our leftovers, but something meaningful—a sacrifice. That’s the definition of a sacrifice, “something that makes a Difference.”
Do you know where the expression “small potatoes” comes from? Many years ago, Chinese farmers operated under the theory that they should eat the large potatoes, and keep the small ones for seed to go back into the ground. They did this for many generations, and over time the laws of heredity reduced all their potatoes to the size of marbles. They’d kept eating the best ones and returned the leftovers to the ground. They learned that you can’t keep the best for yourself. They learned that the harvest would reflect the planting.
The law of small potatoes is this: if you return to the source the first and the best, the source will return to you the best first. Jesus puts it this way: The measure you give will be the measure you get back. Not some measly portion but good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. If you return to the source the first and the best, the source (God) will return to you the best first.
The first principle of Christian stewardship is that God is the owner, we are his stewards. The second is that we give back to God to acknowledge his ownership and to proclaim his lordship, his rule, his kingdom, his will into every part of our lives.
I want to leave you with a little rhyming story to drive my point home, and to give you something to think about throughout the week.
A woman was waiting at an airport one night,
With several hours to go before her flight.
She hunted for a book in the airport shop,
Bought a bag of cookies and found a place to drop.
She was engrossed in her book, but happened to see
That the man beside her, as bold as he could be,
Grabbed a cookie or two form the bag between–
Which she tried to ignore, lest there be a scene.
She read, munched cookies and watched the clock,
As the gutsy cookie thief diminished all her stock.
She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by,
Thinking, “If I weren’t so nice, why, I’d blacken his eye!”
With each cookie she took, he took one too.
When only one was left, she wondered what he’d do.
With a smile on his face and a nervous laugh,
He took the last cookie and broke it in half.
He offered her half, as he ate the other.
She snatched it from him and thought “Oh brother –
this guy has some nerve, and he’s also very rude
why, he didn’t show the least gratitude!”
She had never known when she was so galled,
And sighed with relief when the flight was called.
She gathered her belongings and headed for the gate,
Refusing to look back at that annoying ingrate.
She boarded the plane and sank in her seat,
Then sought her book, by this time almost complete.
As she reached in her baggage, she gasped with surprise –
there was her bag of cookies, in front of her eyes!
“If mine are here,” she moaned with despair,
“then the others were his, and he tried to share.’
Too late to apologize, she realized with grief
That she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief.
(The Cookie Thief, Valerie Cox, edited)
Remember, dear friends, the next time you take a cookie, to whom the bag belongs.