Stewardship is an Act of Worship
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, October 13, 2013
Luke 17: 11-19 2 Timothy 2: 8-15
The Lord be with you,
and also with you.
Lift up your hearts,
we lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thank to the lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
Eternal God, holy and mighty,
it is truly right and our greatest joy to give you thanks and praise
and to worship you in every place where your glory abides.
Every time we come to the Lord’s Table, we utter these words, or words very like them. They are the beginning of what we call The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. Without these words, we are merely eating together. But when we give thanks in this way we participate in the very life of God, we are knit into body of Christ, and the Holy Spirit empowers us to serve the world.
This ritual reflects the very center of our Reformed theology, that all of life is a grateful response to God’s gracious act of creating us, loving us, and leading us. Not only is it “truly right,” but it is also “our greatest joy” to be able to give thanks and to praise God at all times and in all places. Through thanksgiving, we become what we are meant to be: a broken people transformed into the holy church.
There was a sign that hung in the church kitchen where my youth group would gather to eat. It displayed a quotation from the 14th century German mystic Meister Eckhart, “If the only prayer you ever learn to pray is thank you, it would be enough.”
It would be enough.
For the one leper in our gospel reading this morning, it was everything.
It is a simple enough story. Ten lepers come to Jesus. All ten are sent by him to show themselves to the priests of the temple. And on the way they were “made clean.” Only one returns, praising God, to say “thank you.”
There are nuances, of course: the encounter takes place in the region between two countries, on the border between Judea and Samaria. The one who returns is described as a Samaritan, a foreigner, one despised by the others. Surely that is significant. The one who is most marginal and excluded is also able to be most grateful to this Jesus who includes him.
But being the most grateful, and being the only one to express gratitude, is not the same thing. All ten lepers were healed, because all ten did what Jesus told them to do – to go and show themselves to a priest that they might be seen as clean and restored to community – but only one returned to say thanks, and he is told that his faith has made him WELL. The word “well” here means “made whole.” Notice, ten are healed; one is made whole. What is going on here is more than just the medical healing of a Samaritan, it is the holistic healing of a human being, the restoring of one to be the person God made him to be and to full participation in the community of faith.
All are healed; one is made whole. And the difference is, thanksgiving.
Today is the beginning of our Stewardship season, several weeks during which we are encouraged to think about our financial situation and consider our financial commitment to the church. It will end with Commitment Sunday on November 3rd, when we are all asked to bring our pledges for 2014 to worship with us and leave them on the Lord’s Table.
This is not the only commitment we are asked to make to the church. Every week we explore ways we can each use our time, our talent, our financial and non-financial resources as well as our influence for the Glory of God. Making a financial commitment to the church is just one important part of our total faith commitment, but for many it is the most difficult to talk about. Perhaps it’s because some of us here have more financial resources than others of us and it feels awkward to draw possible attention to that in a community where our equality in Christ and our kinship to each other is what makes us church. But let’s take a Pauline view, and understanding our equality in Christ, give what we are able so that all of us may be in ministry together and share these resources, so that we may each give and receive as we have need.
Or maybe you’re on a fixed income from social services or social security or working multiple low paying jobs and worry that if you can’t give enough financially that you won’t be welcome to the ministry. This church is not a fee for service operation. Nor is financial giving “dues” to some club. All are welcome: all are welcome regardless of whether they give and not, and no one will ever be denied ministry.
For others of us, stewardship talk turns us off. It can sound like a religious rationale for fund-raising. That’s understandable, but remember we are not only asking for financial donations, we are seeing financial donations as a part of the giving of our whole selves to God and employing and sharing all that God has given us in grateful and appropriate ways through support for the mission and ministry of this church for all people.
A few years ago I was given a book written by a well-known pastor about the congregation he was then serving in New Haven, CT. Most of the stories demonstrated a pastor reflecting with love on the people he served, and drawing out long standing patterns of behavior among the members. But what made the book really exciting, a page turner in fact, was the detective like work that he had done piecing hundreds of years of history together by carefully reading old session minutes.
Did I lose you there? I just used exciting, page turner, detective like, and old session minutes in the same sentence.
I always wondered what kind of pastor made time to read old minutes, until I found myself doing it myself last week on a hunt for little known heritage facts – the kind of stuff that everyone here used to know but has now forgotten.
So it is that I discovered that Stewardship Sunday, or, as it was known, Commitment Sunday, was first introduced in White Plains by the Rev. Harry Ulrich in 1942. Pastor Ulrich designed what he called the Chest of Joash, a reference to King Joash, a good king who served in Jerusalem for over forty years, starting at the age of seven. When Joash noticed that the Temple had fallen into disrepair, he placed a treasure chest outside of the Temple. The people gladly brought contributions to the chest. When full, the chest would be emptied and set back outside the Temple. This was done until there was enough money to repair the House of God. Pastor Ulrich and the good council of 1942 used a Chest of Joash placed here on the table to collect the annual pledges of support for the mission and ministry of the church.
Now I have no idea how pledges were made or collected before 1942, but ever since then the financial commitment of members was made during worship, with pledges being brought forward in some manner and dedicated to God.
Now all by itself, that’s a Heritage Fact of marginal interest. The reason I mention it this morning is that the church council heard from the members of the church in 1942 and again in 1943 how grateful they were for the opportunity to make their pledge part of worship. Several individuals wrote to the council to share what a difference is made to think about financial giving as part of their devotional life; another that it allowed her to experience the joy of giving.
Thanksgiving is the heart of worship. And generosity characterizes God’s people.
Recent research, by the way, shows that practicing daily gratitude is good for your health. Whether by keeping a journal of things you are thankful for, or sharing three good things that happen each day with a friend or partner, or going out of your way to say thank you when someone does something for you, thanksgiving leads to better moods and greater happiness. Or one pastor has put it, “So your mother was right when she made you call your grandmother and thank her for the birthday card.”
Our second hymn this morning involves new words to a familiar tune. Called “Great God of Every Blessing” it was written for the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. It is a summary of our theology of worship, which might best be described as grace and gratitude, and ends each stanza with Calvin’s personal motto: “Sincerely and completely I offer you my heart.” It is a hymn of thanksgiving.
I had a conversation earlier this week with David Gambrell, the author of this song, to let him know we would be learning it today. He shared with some of what he was thinking when he wrote it.
The image of the fountain (second line of first stanza) was one of Calvin’s favorite metaphors for God’s overflowing goodness. Of course, there’s the centrality of the salvation through the Word (first line of second stanza), and the theme of covenant relationship (second line of second stanza) in Reformed thought. And then the third stanza reflects Calvin’s emphasis on role of the Holy Spirit. The third stanza also seeks to reflect not only the reality of sin but the promise of redemption (transforming broken people into the holy church).
But as the note in our new hymnal suggests, the key to the hymn is the move from plural to singular in the last (repeated) line of each stanza: you see, we receive our faith through community, but we must claim it and live it in personal ways: “sincerely and completely, I offer you my heart.”
My friends, stewardship is primarily about giving ourselves, our whole selves, to God, and using all that God has given us in grateful and appropriate ways. Stewardship is about living thanksgiving in every aspect of our lives.
I want to close by saying something that may at first sound odd. The church does not need your money. That’s right: the church does not need your money. For the church is not sustained by money; it is sustained by God. I’m not trying to get cute here. Look, the heating system doesn’t run on love, it runs on oil and we need to pay our bills. What I am saying is that the ministry, mission, the very life of Christ’s church does not depend at all on our money. It depends on our willingness to give our whole selves our whole lives to loving as Jesus loved as individuals and as a community. Money can be, can be one part of how we demonstrate our thankfulness for this life together. But it is not a requirement and it is not a necessity. If we had to sell this building tomorrow, that still would not extinguish Christ’s church. For nothing can stop God’s love.
But you have a need to give and to share in order to experience and express the gratitude and generosity of God’s people. So as you consider your financial commitment for 2014, give not because you must, but because you may. Give because the act of giving itself renews your gratitude for the gift of life together in Christ. Give because you have financial resources that can amplify the witness of the gospel in concrete and meaningful ways here and now. And for those who cannot give financially but wished to give, do not be discouraged or worried. Remember that who you are, and your willingness to contribute your self, is gift enough.
And so in all things, including our financial giving, let us give thanks to the Lord.
For it is right to give our thanks and praise.
 Not that it solved all the churches financial problems. It was after all still 1942 and 43. The council also worried regularly about gas rationing keeping people from getting to worship. Though the next year they were able to take a first step toward hiring their first associate pastor.
 John Buchanan, in Feasting on the Word – Year C.
 (e.g., “If God contains in himself as an inexhaustible fountain all fullness of blessing, those who aspire to the supreme good and perfect happiness must not long for any thing beyond him,” Institutes, 3.25.10).