Sunday, November 1, 2015

Indescribable Gift

Indescribable Gift from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Isaiah 58:6-12
6Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
9Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
11The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

II Corinthians 9:6-15
6The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything you may share abundantly in every good work. 9As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.”

1He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obediences to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

The second class I took in seminary was a close reading of Paul's letters to the Corinthians. I knew I was headed for a pulpit somewhere, and that one day I would be preaching during Stewardship season. At the time, I knew nothing about leading a congregation through a pledge drive. I had that natural Southern hesitation to talk about money, because it's just a little bit rude to bring up that sort of thing. But I knew it was still important.

So naturally, when the time came to write the big research paper for my class, I focused on on New Testament passage for this morning. I dove into my work. Picture a training montage like in the movies, heroic music in the background, me running up the steps of the library, the screen flashes with stacks of commentaries, piles of scholarly articles, hours of analysis, and translations resources, all drawing together into a term paper that I knew prepared me for my future in the church.

Now, the moment has arrived, I'm in the exact situation for which that bout of academic rigor prepared me: preaching II Corinthians 9:6-15 on the last Sunday of our Stewardship series.

I don't know if y'all know this, but I firmly believe that God has a sense of humor. That paper and all the work that went into it was 4 e-mail addresses and 2 hard drive crashes ago. So unless the professor thought it was so good that he kept it after all these years, that paper is lost forever.

Spoiler alert: It was not so good that Dr. Rensberger would have kept it any longer than it took to grade it.

The upshot for y'all is that I'm not going to stand up here and read you a term paper.

The point is this: no amount of academic analysis is going to affect how we are stewards of what God has given us. Unless of course I read commentaries at you until you fell asleep, then the Finance/Stewardship committee could run through your pockets for loose change.

Stewardship is not a matter of convincing, it is a matter of conviction.

That’s because Stewardship is an act of faith. Whatever we do with the gifts God has given us says something to the world, and to ourselves, about what we think about God. That’s why Paul tells the ancient church in Corinth, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

At this point I’d like to point out that the New Revised Standard Version from which we are reading was not translated by Southerners. Every time this passage says “you,” go ahead in your mind and substitute “y’all.” Paul is writing to the whole community. “Each of [y’all] must give as [y’all] have made up [y’all’s] mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide [y’all] with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, [y’all] may share abundantly in every good work.”

For four weeks, we’ve watched our brothers and sisters express what the Presbyterian Church of Lowell means to them. We have lifted up dozens of programs during that time, and our November newsletter highlighted more, but the refrain we heard over and over again is how this is a place where people connect with one another. All of those programs are things the church does, but the Presbyterian Church of Lowell is more than a list of activities, we are a community where people grow closer to one another and to God.

All those things we do, all those ministries that reach out into the community, or reach into our own hearts, are the way we share abundantly in every good work. They are the harvest of the gifts of God, sown by generations of Christians. They came from generous and faithful hearts that reach back millennia, and we have inherited the fruits of all the saints who have gone before us, all beginning with Christ who gave himself for the whole world. Stewardship is about reminding ourselves to be grateful with every aspect of our lives, and a pledge card orients us towards giving and gratitude just as scripture orients us towards God.

Scripture shows us the necessity of giving, not just because there are those who have need, but because we who are created in the image of God, have a need to be generous. It’s not a matter of money, God created everything that exists, turning a profit is not as important as calling us to be prophetic. That’s why we remind ourselves that faithful living doesn’t end with signing a check, it pushes us to “remove the yoke from among [us], the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil.” Faithful living guides us to “offer [our] food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.” It doesn’t end with a check, but it can begin there.

So why pledge to the church? Why not just give to other non-profits, or to the poor directly? If Stewardship is about responding to God’s gift, why should I fill out a pledge card? After all, about 60% of the church’s budget goes to personnel, and and a big chunk of what’s left goes to the upkeep of the property. That doesn’t sound like the most efficient use of my charitable dollars…

Because God doesn’t require efficiency. Each Sunday we have asked ourselves as we left this building, “What does the LORD require of you,” and each Sunday we have reminded ourselves that God has shown us what is good: to seek justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

The church is a means, not an end. We do not give to the church because it’s an institution that needs to be propped up by human hands forever. Over the last two millennia, the church has changed forms many times, we celebrated one of the big ones last Sunday. We give to the church because we have seen throughout history that the church is the means we use “to we loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…” The institutional church is the means through which we “share [our] bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into [our house]…”

The church is a peculiar blend of group and institution. We are both an organism and an organization. This congregation has its own personality, and for all its imperfection, it’s a personality that I love. We are not just a social club, and we are not just a non-profit charity. We are a congregation, a thing wholly different from those other institutions.

And your pledge card helps us to plan for the future. The “us” here is not just the Session or the Finance and Stewardship committee. Turning in a pledge card helps this entire community of faith to plan for the future, because it teaches us to watch for God. Your pledge card is not a legally binding contract, it’s a promise to live with a grateful and faithful heart, trusting that “the LORD will guide [us] continually, and satisfy [our] needs in parched places, and make [our] bones strong.”

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