Stewardship is a Spiritual Discipline
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, October 20, 2013
Have you heard the saying, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease?” That proverb is often used dismissively. It suggests that the only reason the “grease” get applied is to remove the nagging annoyance of the squeaking sound, whether it be a perpetual high pitched chirping or a recurring low-pitched creaking. Used in that sense, the proverb can reveal our feelings and responses about chronic complainers – be they customers, co-workers, children, or fellow church folks. Squeaky wheels are those who have learned that if they complain loudly and long enough, they can eventually get their way. Their tactics are effective, but unpleasant.
But is that really the point of the illustration Jesus uses in today’s gospel reading? Is the widow the squeaky wheel who gets the grease, because the judge finally got worn down by listening to her complaining and gave her what she wanted to be done with her? There is something uncomfortable about this. It seems to reward nagging! Even more troubling is the implication that God is like the unjust judge. Does this parable portray God as one who is unresponsive and uncaring until, finally, the wheel has squeaked enough? If so, that sounds even more troubling. It suggests that God is like an unjust judge, or that God is like the parent who finally caves to a child’s clamoring at the grocery store checkout aisle for the candy bar. Does this mean the purpose of prayer is to nag God until we get what we want? And that we are more likely to succeed if we ask others to pray, too?
Obviously not. First the widow is not nagging – she is only asking for what is her due under the law. As a widow, she has been grievously wronged. This is not a complaining woman but a widow who has been unfairly made destitute. It is the judge who is unjust – who neither fears God nor respects people. Secondly, the parable clearly contrasts the unjust judge with God. Unlike the unjust judge who only responds so that she’ll go away (and perhaps not continue to impugn his reputation), God responds to our needs because responding in love with justice is intrinsic to God’s character. It is in God’s very nature. But if even humans, with all our faults and self-concern, can be reluctantly, begrudgingly, slowly moved beyond the inertia of our love for ourselves, to love for others, imagine how much more that is true for God, who is already moving toward us in love. Or as Jesus puts it, if this unjust judge will listen to the persistent pleas of the widow, much more will God listen “to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night.” The judge refused to do justice for a while. In contrast, God will not “delay long,” but “will quickly grant justice” to them.
In this parable, persistence is not about the other, but is a story that valorizes the poor who refuse to be cowed or ignored into silence. It is a story that says, even when the system is against you, don’t give up. Keep hammering away. For God, unlike the judge, is on the side of the poor and the vulnerable. The defining characteristic of the God who liberates is that this God “hears the cry of the poor and responds.” The parable doesn’t tell us how God responds but it links the urgent, persistent clamor of the widow with God’s immediate “yes.”
According to Luke’s gospel, when Jesus tells his disciples this story about the widow’s persistence, he notes that the story is “about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Now the interesting thing is that this is not considered to be something that Jesus actually said. Rather it’s something that Luke or editors after Luke put in Jesus’ mouth. They saw a relation between the widow’s actions and prayer. Honestly I think what they must have seen and known is that prayer is hard work but such prayer renews our strength in seeking justice, knowing that the world’s powerful don’t dispense it easily. Now many people don’t look at prayer as hard work – they look at prayer as precisely the opposite: the magic button that relieves us of all the hard work. For some, it’s a quick fix to solve a trivial daily problem “O Lord, let me find a parking space.” For others it’s a pathway to miracles – a divine quick solution to earthly problems.
But prayer in the Bible is neither trivial magic or an on-demand miracle. It’s work. Prayer is work and it’s ongoing. Hannah prayed for years that she would conceive – years and years and years. Jesus sweat blood he was praying so hard “take this cup away from me” meanwhile his disciples didn’t have the strength to stay awake and pray with him. Prayer is hard work over time. But in the practice of prayer which leads us beyond ourselves, through God, and out to other people, comes our unburdening, comes our strengthening for the fight ahead, comes our healing as sick or well we find community and love among God’s people.
When Luke’s Jesus offers this parable about prayer, he implies that prayer is a way of life, and takes a lifetime. It is a spiritual discipline, a disciplining of our spirit, that we practice in order to improve our spiritual health.
In the real world we recognize that persistence is the key to an effective life. Whether we are learning to play the piano, entering school as an adult, overcoming an addiction, or digging out of a financial quagmire, persistence is the key. We make plans and pursue them. We get better as we go. We accomplish that which can only be accomplished over time.
It is no different in the spiritual world. Persistent prayer turns us slowly from ourselves and toward others. Prayer, when we do it the way Jesus taught us to, turns us from our own needs to the needs of others, it turns us from our own desires to God’s great desire for the world, it turns us from the passing thought or random reflection to intentional, regular, and generous attention to the things of heaven and earth that break God’s heart and evoke God’s love.
The point of the parable is not that persistent prayer promises a petitioner his or her desire. Health is not always restored. Justice is too long delayed. Peace is an arduous process. Rather, Jesus’ parable teaches that prayer offsets resignation, the temptation to quit, and our inevitable impatience. Jesus message is for us not to become discouraged even as we hurl our prayers into seeming silence.
Such prayer is hard work. But such intentional, regular, and generous prayer, persistently practiced, changes us into the people God’s needs us to be.
I said last week that stewardship is the giving of ourselves, our whole selves, to God and using all that God has given us in grateful and appropriate ways. As such, stewardship is also a spiritual discipline. Persistence is a requisite faith trait for stewards. It is easy to give emotionally, even impulsively, to causes that tug at our heartstrings. Sustained, systematic giving can be hard to maintain. But like prayer, intentional, regular and generous giving can change us into the people God needs us to be.
OK. I want you to think about the three adjectives I just used to describe both prayer and financial stewardship: intentional, regular and generous.
Stewardship is a spiritual discipline when it is intentional. Being intentional in your giving means to develop a plan for your giving and then follow through with the plan. If you find yourself looking into your wallet or purse as you get out of the car on Sunday morning to discover what may be available for the morning offering, then you probably have some work to do on being intentional in your giving. If your giving to the church changes from week to week depending on how your checkbook balance is doing, you likely have some work to do on being intentional in your giving. In our congregation we supply annual financial commitment cards to help each member or family make a plan they can turn into action.
Stewardship is a spiritual discipline when it is regular. Now I know that as members of this congregation we all receive our income in different ways. Some of us get paid weekly, twice a month, or only once month. Others receive a Social Security check at the beginning of the month, and a pension check at some other time. Some of us get unemployment at one point and SNAP benefits at another point in the month. Still others may receive income from investments at various points in the year.
And so there are different ways to give regularly. Some older members of this congregation are used to having a weekly envelope to put in the plate. At least as many others make a monthly contribution. To be intentional means that you develop a plan for your giving. To be regular, means that you follow that plan according to your own specific way of receiving and disbursing income.
Stewardship is a spiritual discipline when it is both generous and proportional. The Bible always calls us to percentage giving. Nowhere is scripture will you find anything like “give fifty dollars.” The language is always “give in proportion to what you have received.” Those who have much, and those who have little, are expected to give in proportion what they have. The tithe is perhaps the best known example, giving ten percent of one’s wealth or income to the faith community. I have practiced this for as long as I have been in ministry – my current ration being 7% to this church and 3% to the broader church. I know there are several in this congregation who tithe. Your percentage split between this congregation and the wider church may be different than my 7/3 split. The point is to know your income, and give an intentional, regular, and generous proportion to promote and enhance God’s work among us.
In the parable of the persistent widow, Jesus reminds us that our world can be unjust – that it doesn’t always function in the ways that God intended. What is needed is for us to dare to be as persistent as the widow in demanding what is right and in doing so until the powerful in our world relent and ensure justice as they should. Through our practice of stewardship, we support this congregation and our wider church, not simply as institutions but as vehicles that respond as God does, to the cry for justice swiftly and lovingly. Through our intentional, regular and generous giving, we help undo the systems that promote and protect the unjust judges of our world and respond to the urgent and fair entreaties of people who have been made vulnerable and poor in our midst.
This week, I invite you to reflect on your giving to the church, that it your financial offering might be intentional, regular and generous. For as St. Teresa of Avila famously said,
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless people now.” Amen.
Note: Huge appreciation for the preaching resources on which I leaned heavily this week: The title of the sermon was taken from Mark Allan Powell, Giving to God: The Bible’s Good News about Living a Generous Life (2006); The Squeaky Wheel was borrowed from The Minster’s Annual Manual For Preaching and Worship Planning 2013-2014, and the three adjectives come from a list of Six Characteristics of Biblical Giving outlined by Charles Lane in Ask, Thank, Tell: Improving Stewardship Ministry in Your Congregation (2006).