Recognizing God’s Gifts – Lent 2014

This year’s Lenten Program at Saint Paul’s is on stewardship.  I had the honor of giving the first talk last night.  You can listen to a poor audio quality version of it on the Saint Paul’s website, or read on.

The Lord be with you.

And Also with you.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, whose loving hand hath given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honor thee with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of thy bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

When I was in high school, I was a very active contrarian – I worked hard to go against the grain of popular culture.  From 9th through 12th grades, I only wore a pair of jeans one time, because it was a required costume for our presentation of American Culture while in Germany with my high school German class.  I bought my clothes at the Salvation Army, and never wore the popular labels of my day: Abercrombie, American Eagle, or Peace Frogs.  To this day, I’ve never seen Titanic or any of the Jurassic Park movies.  I tried really hard to be an outsider, and there is a part of that still in me to this day.  So, for example, when I notice that something is going “viral” on Facebook, I will often refuse to click the link, just on principle.  It might actually be the most interesting article I’ve ever read or a video that will change my life, but based solely on the fact that it is cool, I won’t check it out.

This happened a few weeks ago when an article on the Huffington Post’s religion page entitled, “The One Thing Christians Should Stop Saying” started popping up again and again on my newsfeed.  In my mind, there is any number of things that Christians should never say again, Narthex being chief among them, so I scoffed at the very idea of the article and scrolled on by.  The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, however, when 24 hours later, after I had all but forgotten the article existed, Kathryn Ann Ford sent it my way, “I thought you might like to read this,” she wrote, “It seems to fit with our Lenten theme.”  So I clicked the link and read the article, and while I still think Narthex is the worst word in Christendom, I found some merit in Scott Dannemiller’s suggestion that we stop equating material wealth with God’s blessing.  Instead, he argues, that with great wealth comes great responsibility.

The truth is, I have no idea why I was born where I was or why I have the opportunity I have. It’s beyond comprehension. But I certainly don’t believe God has chosen me above others because of the veracity of my prayers or the depth of my faith. Still, if I take advantage of the opportunities set before me, a comfortable life may come my way. It’s not guaranteed. But if it does happen, I don’t believe Jesus will call me blessed.

He will call me “burdened.”

He will ask,

“What will you do with it?”

“Will you use it for yourself?”

“Will you use it to help?”

“Will you hold it close for comfort?”

“Will you share it?”[1]

This, then is the basic premise behind our five week Lenten series on Stewardship, a word, like Narthex, that if often thrown around in Church circles, but is rarely defined and almost never fully understood.  In fact, I’m guessing most of you came here expecting us to ask you for money.  I’d be willing to bet that as people made the choice between attending this year’s Lenten Series and staying home and watching the Top 11 perform on American Idol, the threat that we’d be begging for cash came to mind.  It’s not your fault for thinking that way.  The Church universal has for too long equated stewardship only with money in the plate, but the reality is that stewardship is much more than that.  So, for the next five weeks, Keith and I will attempt to challenge the common perception of stewardship and invite us to think more fully about how we are called to be stewards of all of God’s gifts.

Let’s begin with a definition.  The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms defines stewardship as “the responsibility given to humans in creation for managing the resources of the earth (Gen. 1:26).  In the church, Christian stewardship involves the whole of life since all life comes from God and is to be lived for God’s glory (1 Cor. 4:1-2; 9:17; 1 Peter 4:10).”[2]  Tonight’s topic then is “Recognizing God’s Gifts.”

As the WDTT definition suggests, the notion of God’s gifts to humankind go well beyond cash money and the things that it can buy.  This idea is repeated again and again in Scripture, beginning all the way back at Genesis 1, when after God had created the heavens and the earth, the seas and the skies, the sun and moon, vegetation and every creeping thing, he created humankind in his image and gave them dominion over everything.  Our primary, God-given identity from the very beginning is that of stewards of every aspect of God’s creation.

For the first several thousand years of recorded history, this idea of stewardship was easily understood.  Nomadic and agricultural in nature, humankind was utterly dependent on God’s creation for survival.  They took very seriously God’s call to stewardship; in fact many of the 613 laws of the Torah were created to ensure healthy harvests and fruitful cattle.  As the nomadic tribe of Israel becomes a kingdom with a capital city, the idea of stewardship began to shift.  By the time that King David was ready to hand things over to his son, Solomon, God was ready to settle down in a Temple of his very own.  1 Chronicles, chapter 29 includes David’s impassioned speech to the people of Israel.  After telling them of all the gold and silver, wood and iron, onyx, precious stones, and marble he had donated to the cause, he challenged the people to give as well, and boy did they respond, giving 188 tons of gold, 375 tons of silver, 675 tons of bronze, and 3,750 tons of iron!  Amazed by the generosity of the people, David “rejoiced greatly,” but rather than thanking the people or tooting his own horn as a leader, he turned his gratitude toward God.

“Blessed are you, O LORD, the God of our ancestor Israel, forever and ever.  Yours, O LORD, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name. But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to make this freewill offering? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope. O LORD our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own.”[3]

While the motivation for David’s speech was the material things of his age, it is telling that he doesn’t just thank God for gold and silver, but instead he affirms that “All things come from God.”  Every Sunday, the 7:30 service takes a page from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and affirms these words of David, “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”[4]  I often wonder if we really believe what we’re saying there.  Perhaps it is better stated this way, while we believe that everything comes from God’s provision, have we ever stopped to think about what “all things” includes?

I think that rooting our understanding of stewardship in the Creation Story of Genesis 1 helps us to begin to think about what “all things” means.  The very earth we stand on wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for God.  Nor would the air we breathe, the water we drink, or the food we consume.  When it comes right down to it, God’s gift is our very life.  As you live and move and have your being this week, I’d like to challenge you to recognize God’s gifts.  Pay attention to what is included in the “all things” that come from God.  Jot them down, if you can, and just be aware of the amazing and abundant provision of God.

Let us pray.

We give you thanks, most gracious God, for the beauty of earth and sky and sea; for the richness of mountains, plains, and rivers; for the songs of birds and the loveliness of flowers. We praise you for these good gifts, and pray that we may safeguard them for our posterity. Grant that we may continue to grow in our grateful enjoyment of your abundant creation, to the honor and glory of your Name, now and for ever. Amen.


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