THE BIBLE ON STEWARDSHIP: Some key passages for use in Bible study, sermon preparation, stewardship training and theme selection. These ten passages are from a broader selection that appears in Inspiring Generosity, a stewardship resource from the United Church of Christ.
2 Samuel 24:24
Knowing the quality of life made possible by the power of God, David is not about to give less than his best–something possible for all of us, and irrepressible when we know our own blessing. He is not about to make an offering to God that, in effect, costs him nothing.
I Chronicles 29:1-19
About the giving required to build the temple, the house of God. “For all things come from you, [O Lord,] and of your own have we given you.” (v. 14b) Leaders must “walk the talk,” letting their own generosity be an example and inspiration to others.
God’s house–in those days, the temple– was the place from which the produce, the abundance, of the land was redistributed. Dereliction in fulfilling one’s rightful “tithe” upset the harmony that alone could assure prosperity in the land. Restoration of this commitment will issue in “overflowing blessing” for all. (v. 10) Don’t let argument about “tithing”–giving a tenth of annual giving–upstage the main point about giving, its motivation and outcome: generosity comes from an experience of “abundance,” the blessing of which is literally lost unless shared with others, and impossible to gain alone.
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (v. 21) Faith and money are two sides of the same coin. Where the one is, the other is also. We easily pretend otherwise, making faith immaterial or money unspiritual.
Matthew 14:13-21 (see also Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-14)
Jesus feeding the five thousand with “nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” (v. 17) Often thinking we don’t have enough, we fail to see and take seriously what we already have. It is from what we have, not what we don’t, that we find what we need...and then some!
Luke 12:13-21, 48
The parable of the rich fool is clear: life’s abundance does not consist in possessions. Those who “store up treasures for themselves” (v. 21) become victims of anxiety, always wondering if they have enough. Real security is found–and the true richness of life experienced--not in guarding what we have but in giving what we can. “Abundance” is not a private possession but a shared experience.
Easily confusing, this parable of the shrewd steward is also provocative. It emphasizes the importance of being astute in using possessions so as to gain rather than lose one’s future. There is no way to acquire money that is pure and perfect, unsullied by questionable means and motives. That should not become a pious excuse to avoid responsibility for its wise use.
I Corinthians 4:1-2
The word rendered “servants” means, literally, “under-rowers.” The figure is that of a ship impelled by oars under the command of a captain. “Stewards” as “servants [or ministers] of Christ” labor under the inspiration of the truth about life–“God’s mysteries”–disclosed in Jesus. Their most important quality, given the challenge involved, is fidelity, faithfulness–staying true to the cost and joy of an understanding of life at odds with prevailing sensibility. (See Isaiah 40:29-31 and Matthew 11:29-30).
Galatians 5:22-23a (NRSV)
“Abundance” is the truth about life made known in the spirit or disposition of Jesus, the driving force of the church. So Paul says in these verses that “generosity” is part of the “fruit” of the Spirit. It is impossible to turn on the lights of greater giving when the power is off...or low. Morale, or what the church calls Spirit, is “the power that turns on the lights”–and the number one stewardship challenge!
Contrary to what God’s people often believed, outsiders (“Gentiles”) not just insiders (“Jews”) have always been part of the divine plan wherein all are meant to know the good news of abundant life. Paul sees himself as making this “mystery” plain. He prays that the power of God at the heart of life–part of “the boundless riches of Christ” (v. 8)– make us “bold and confident” (v.12) so that we may be “filled with all the fullness of God” (v. 19), which is the fullness of life (John 10:10).
Near the end of May, into early June, the lupine will be out up north. I wish it grew around here, but I’ve not noticed it. I associate it with the more rural places where I have seen it—Maine and Nova Scotia. I love those places—and the lupine brings it all back.
I got the idea that I would like to be the first guy in Milton to have lupine growing in his yard. I was psyched. I gathered oodles of the little seed packets off of the plants, waited for them to dry out, harvested the seeds and brought them home. Last winter I went out and bought one of those indoor planters with lots of tiny little indentations to start things from seed—so I planted about 100 of them, watered them faithfully, kept them inside and in the sun, and I waited. Some were duds, but others began to sprout. Some of them actually began to grow and take shape. I transferred them to larger pots—but something went wrong. I never could get them to grow tall and full like they do in the wild. All of my hopes, all my work—with nothing to show for it.
The weird thing is—if I had left the seed pods just where they were, they would have dropped in the summer, germinated in the fall, been covered by snow and ice, and within a few weeks after the winter thaw, they would have been blossoming—with no help from any human being. Yes, there is more going on in the world of growing things than meets the eye…right? Some seeds are delicate and need to be carefully understood before they take root. Others will grow almost anywhere.
Jesus’ parables and messages were laced with examples from the natural world. He used images that the people would readily grasp—like sheep, goats, shepherds, storms, clouds, wind—and even a diminutive mustard seed. It’s an image that sticks in our minds. From this small seed comes a large shrub with branches so large that birds found them suitable for nesting. If you only had faith as small as a mustard seed, it would grow and grow and grow. We’ve heard it all before. It’s a clear, straightforward message, easy to understand, right? A little faith goes a long way. But why?
Jesus is saying that real faith has a certain transforming quality about it that doesn’t depend upon size. The tiniest seed has an extraordinarily intricate genetic code. A fertilized human egg can’t be seen with the naked eye—and yet all of the programming that makes you and me the unique persons we are is contained therein. And left to fulfill its programmed destiny, that fertilized egg will become trillions and trillions of differentiated cells—an adult human being. The people in Jesus’ day didn’t understand genetics and biology at this level. But they didn’t have to. The issue here is faith--if you have the real thing, just a smidge, it will grow!
But there’s more. Have you ever seen a wild mustard plant? I haven’t. I don’t have a clue what it looks like. But the people in Jesus’ day did because they raised crops and grazed herds. According to John Dominic Crossan, New Testament scholar, he reports that it wasn’t a popular plant in those days. It was encouraged for its medicinal and culinary qualities, but it was very difficult to control. A little was fine, but left unchecked, it would become a nuisance. It would choke out the good grain, and the grazing animals didn’t eat it. Crossan: “It tends to get out of control, and then it attracts birds within cultivated areas, where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the kingdom was like. Like a pungent shrub with dangerous take-over properties. Something you would want only in small and carefully controlled doses—if you could control it. It is a startling metaphor, but it would be interpreted quite differently by those …concerned about their fields, their crops, and their harvests.”
What would you think if Jesus said to us today, “Seek to have faith like a dandelion seed, so small, so mobile on the wind, and yet look how it grows into a beautiful yellow flower….” What would any suburban American think of right away? “Oh, no, those pesky dandelions! I work so hard to make my lawn look nice, and those darned seeds float in from my neighbor’s yard, and I’m out there again with the weed killer.” We know their power to completely take over a grassy area, if left to their own devices. And while they do have a pretty color, are they really valued for that? Only to little children who don’t know any better. We’ll pick a butter cup and hold it under our chin, but dandelions?!—yuk! Would a field full of them cause a tourist like me to pull his car over to the road and get out and take it all in? NO—they are a nuisance, relegated to the weed category, and are to be exterminated from any self respecting upscale lawn. This is the kind of example that Jesus was using with the people of his day to describe the Kingdom of God! And you can be sure that they didn’t miss it.
So, where does this leave us? Yes, if our faith was as true, as real, as alive as just a small dandelion seed, look what it could do. Germinate almost anywhere, travel almost everywhere, and just try to get rid of it. So very tenacious. But there’s still more. If you let this seed of faith actually take root in your heart, and you let God nurture it, care for it, help it to grow, you might as well forget the life with which you have become comfortable. That seed going to grow—and multiply. It will take over your life. If it doesn’t take root where you planted it, it will somewhere else.
Some of you may remember how, about 12 years ago, we re-did the whole front lawn. We put in a sprinkler system, we had the dirt treated, and we had it all hydro-seeded. It was going to look great! And then a torrential October rainstorm struck, and all the seed was washed away. We re-seeded, and another storm came and it happened again! Finally, the third time, it took. We looked forward to the spring and a nice green lawn.
A few weeks later I was cleaning out the storm drain on the street near the parsonage because it was clogged with leaves. And what did I find there? All of our grass, sprouting up out of the mushy leaves! It got swept away, but it found another place to grow and thrive. That’s the way that it is with the Kingdom of God.
It will impact how you relate to others—because it will challenge you to put God first, not yourself. It will impact how you deal with your own inner negativity—like the Complaint-free world bracelets remind us. By the way, has anybody made it to 21 consecutive days without any complaining, any gossip, any negativity expressed? Yup, lots of folks looking at their shoes—me too!
Be wary of the power of the seeds of the Holy Spirit. Look at what happened to the Centurion—to Zaccheus the Tax Collector—and to Nicodemus, the Pharisee. They were programmed not to respond—their circle of friends, and their entire culture, made following Jesus a matter of paddling upstream—against white water. But something happened to them. Somehow those sneaky little seeds penetrated, took root, and grew. And lo and behold, they took over. There’s no other way of putting it.
Now, that sounds like a relatively painless happy ending. But much of the story is conveniently left out. I wonder what it was like when the Centurion had to lead other followers of Jesus to their crucifixion. He was under orders. And yet he had experienced Jesus. We don’t know what he did with that conflict.
Zaccheus was a part of the elite. He was a wealthy tax collector, and he traveled in affluent circles. He had to be willing to cheat and gouge in order to get there and in order to stay there. But then he met Jesus, had him over for dinner, and the rest is history. He gave up his ruthless and heartless ways. I wonder what it was like in his circle of friends? I suspect that he had to make new friends, and perhaps leave tax collecting altogether for his own safety.
And then there’s Nicodemus, the Pharisee. He knew the danger of taking Jesus seriously—that’s why he came to speak to Jesus under cover of darkness. Saying yes to Jesus would have meant almost certain ostracism from his role as one of the top religious authorities in the Jewish community. He had worked so very hard to get there—it was a lot to give up.
All of these people would have been subject not just to loss of friends, but to violence, maybe even death. But they did it anyway. These little seeds can look so harmless and innocent, but then….they take root, and they have a mind of their own, and if we give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.
We are entering the season of stewardship—so be careful what you listen to, what you laugh at, what you pay attention to. You know those “Make a Joyful Noise” messages with our children as they collect our coins for OGHS? Very seductive, don’t you think? Soften you up with the kids, then let you have it with them rattling those “offering pots and pans.” And how about Andy and Stephanie’s skit this morning!! Very entertaining, wasn’t it? And it connected with so many touchy issues about giving our money(that’s enough to make a good Yankee cringe right there…) But you see, the skit is designed to get your attention, draw you in, and then, WHAM, when you least expect it, when you are filling out your pledge card in a few short weeks, you just won’t be able to help yourself. And you thought this was an innocent worship service? HA!
Seriously—good worship isn’t a hammer—it involves the planting of seeds, and it takes time for us to notice that they are sprouting, and growing, and multiplying—and before we know it, our lives are different. Once you start to come here regularly and begin to get immersed in the energy, the inspiration, the fellowship and the opportunities to serve that take place here, it’s going to continue to grow, and you are going to want to support it. And it just might take over your life. So, you might want to install filters before it’s too late. You know what happens when those dandelions get a foothold. Much better to nip them in the bud.
The Kingdom of God is insidious—meaning that it just doesn’t quit. It will challenge your values, your lifestyle, your spending habits, your parenting, your marriage, your friendships—the Kingdom will respect no boundaries, no fences, no barbed wire. Its seeds travel on the wind, they land everywhere, and they are ready to sprout in the most remarkable places. So I thought it was only fair to warn you. As you let the seeds of this faith start to put their roots down into you, you know that we’re going to ask you to complete that relationship by giving some of your time, and your money. You know it’s coming!! And we do it because those same seeds have their roots in us. It’s too late for us—we can’t help ourselves. So leave while you can. But we would be happier if you would join with us—because this weed, this aggressive plant, brings blessings all of its own. But start watching for the symptoms—you’ll start to come to worship more regularly, you’ll want to find ways to help out, you’ll want more programs to help you to understand Scripture, you’ll be asking more questions about prayer, and wanting more time to reflect, you’ll want to volunteer to serve at Fr. Bill’s, you’ll give financial support to send folks to New Orleans, or you will donate the new baby changing table that just arrived and will be installed in our new bathroom($165 if you are interested…). And some of your friends will wonder why it has become so difficult to schedule fun or relaxing time with you on Sunday mornings, and at other times.
So be very very careful. You can hang around here—but you would be wise to know that it could be dangerous. You could lose your life. But Jesus has promised that that’s the best way to really find it. And he always keeps his promises. AMEN
In biblical Hebrew, the word for “salvation” comes from a root that connotes “space and freedom and security which is gained by the removal of constriction.”1 The good news of salvation is deliverance from what “constricts” us, release from whatever prevents any of us from experiencing life as it truly is in the freedom and security of God’s love. It is God’s love that makes room for life in the first place, gives us our first breath, and enables us to breathe again amid all that would stifle or smother us.
Sin and evil, oppression and injustice, are the lies perpetrated by the burden or the boredom of feeling constricted. They thrive on the fear or resentment of supposing we do not have enough of something we need to be happy or to feel secure--or they express the apprehension of losing it and the need to guard it. But life and its fullness is not something we gain or lose, it is something God gives, the prodigality or “abundance” of which makes room for a love stronger than death.
We know this love in the realization that so much exists for us, around and within all of us. We can live and die in the freedom and securityreal love inspires. “Resurrection” is not an escape from death but a fulfillment of life–life in which, as Paul puts it, nothing can separate us from the expansive love at the heart of life. (Romans 8:37-39) We learn to discern this quality of life and love in the spirit of Jesus. His attitude and disposition draw out and shape our own. The fruit of this spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22)
Your can discern this abundance by looking again and paying closer attention to your congregation, its history and experience. How well do you know the “story” of your own congregation? How well you understand your own personal “story”?
Consider first another story of a different sort. Perhaps it can evoke a fresh look at your own. This is an old tale as told by the Jesuit spiritual director, Anthony de Mello.2
SO WHAT’S OBVIOUS?
A man took his new hunting dog out on a trial hunt. Presently he shot a duck that fell into the lake. The dog walked over the water, picked up the duck, and brought it back to his master. The man was flabbergasted! He shot another duck. Once again, while he rubbed his eyes in disbelief, the dog walked over the water and retrieved the duck. Hardly daring to believe what he had seen, he called his neighbor to go hunting the next day. Once again, each time he or his neighbor hit a bird, the dog would walk over the water and bring the bird in. The man said nothing. Neither did his neighbor. Finally, unable to contain himself any longer, he blurted out, “Did you notice anything strange about that dog?” The neighbor rubbed his chin pensively. “Yes,” he finally said. “Come to think of it, I did! The son of a gun can’t swim!”
Comments de Mello, “It isn’t that life is not full of miracles. It’s more than that: it is miraculous, and anyone who stops taking it for granted will see it at once.” And so it is with the “miracle” of abundance, as in the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, told in all four Gospels. Are these stories just fiction? Or, as with any good story, do they tell the truth? Many are the stories in the Bible that can evoke the personal realization that we don’t always “get” what we see the first time. We are provoked to stop and look again at something we had not really seen before, or, having seen, have not considered very closely.
With this in mind, consider now the following questions as ways into a greater personal understanding of abundance. Becoming a generous people depends on the way we look at life. We give as we live, out of a sense of who we are and what we believe to be true. As Moses did when he stopped to look at a bush that many had passed by without noticing, “turn aside” and look again at your own experience. After giving thought to these questions, you may come up with others of your own. The concern is to provoke fresh thinking about the actualities of lived experience. So try not to “import” faith or pre-conceived idealism. Let that arise as it may from the facts.
1. Have you ever known joy when you had reason to be unhappy? Were you just sugar-coating or rationalizing something unpleasant? Think of times when, against the odds, or contrary to what you feared, something good happened.
2. Think of a particularly bad thing that happened, recently or some time ago. Recall how this set you back, knocked the wind out of your sails, made you doubt yourself, or at least gave you more to worry about. Look again. Without denying this is bad, can you see now how that problem is not just a stumbling block but also, in some sense, a stepping stone? What has this bad thing made possible that might not have been possible otherwise? (Some may recall the story of Joseph, in which something decidedly bad was used for good. See Genesis 50:19-21)
3. What has disillusioned you more than anything else? What need(s) had been met by your illusion in the first place? Are there ways that disillusionment can strengthen rather than diminish what you had cared so much about? If so–or if not–what new hope and direction might be obscured by anger and resentment? Can you see through that anger and resentment, however “legitimate,” to the fear behind it? What could help you face that fear more directly, and keep it from interfering with next steps you can take?
4. Can you recall times when someone you did not like, or something you could not abide, issued in deeper understanding? Times when matters of conflict and difference felt divisive, and yet amid which new insight came about?
5. Can you recall times when fear of not having enough of something, while understandable, proved unfounded? Think of anxiety about not having enough money, enough patience, enough support, enough understanding, enough faith–times when, although you thought it would, the roof never fell in? Or times when the roof did fall in, but this was not the end after all–times when serious trouble proved not to have the last word?
6. When have you felt caught up very positively in something other than just yourself? Can you recall experiences when you felt lifted out of preoccupation with your own wants and needs, drawn into a feeling of participating in something broader and deeper than what could be experienced on your own? What does this say about how a sense of “abundance” happens and develops, and the openness it requires? What opportunities are at hand to experience more of this sense of being “caught up” in something good beyond what you alone could otherwise know?
7. When have you been surprised by something good you had not anticipated? Are you still open to being surprised? Do you associate surprise with misfortune and something bad happening? How much of your attitude is determined by the actual facts of life, how much by a prior disposition? If these are leading questions, which kind of question is not? How do the questions we ask, and the tone and spirit in which we ask them, influence our openness to anything other than what we already expect? Consider the remark of the writer, G.K. Chesterton: “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.”3 Faith is astonishing–or diminishing, if it limits us to what we already believe.
Questions and thoughts such as these can initiate reflection and discussion that disclose much beyond what is usually seen in the personal experience of both the church and its members. Growth in discerning the abundance at the heart of our own lives and the life of the congregation equips us to look again at the community, our country, indeed the whole world. As the old adage has it, “we see the world not as it is, but as we are.”
Unless our vision and self-awareness are enhanced by greater perception of what we know in terms of our own experience, we are likely to remain fixated on our own needs. And with that limited vision, mission remains at best a benign paternalism, directed increasingly toward those who will most appreciate our help, and underfunded anyway because of the fear of scarcity that plagues the affluent and preoccupies congregations afraid of “not having enough.”
The job, and joy, of mission is not “meeting needs,” our own or anyone else’s. It is unmasking the lies of scarcity in the grip of which so many live, including the church–enabling ourselves and others to know and share the abundance that is both ours and theirs.
Abundance is a fact of life, not just an article of faith. But it must be discerned to be learned, seen to be believed, experienced to be credible. Conditioned as most of us are by some sense of scarcity and not having enough, it is not immediately natural to shift our point of view. But generosity cannot take root and grow in any soil. The ground of generosity–its inspiration–is abundance.
1 John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Macmillan, 1965), page 760.
2 Taking Flight (New York: Doubleday/Image Books, 1988), pages 46-47.
3 Tremendous Trifles (Folcroft, Pa: Folcroft Library Editions, 1927), page 93.
William C. Green is Minister and Team Leader of the Stewardship and Church Finances Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. This article is adapted from the resource, Inspiring Generosity.
I am often asked what giving to the Massachusetts Conference and the United Church of Christ accomplishes. To give an idea, let us look at a Sunday in the Life of a local MACUCC (Massachusetts Conference United Church of Christ) congregation.
Mary, a mother, comes to church with her child, Amy. She settles Amy into the Sunday School, secure in her safety – the church has implemented safe church policies with the assistance of Susan Dickerman at the Conference. In Sunday school the child learns of God’s love for everyone using UCC curriculum. The teachers have attended “Learning to Teach” seminars led by Elsa Marshall, belong to a Christian Educator’s Community of Practice and receive the Christian Educator’s E-Connections newsletter. They call Martha Cook at the Conference when they are looking for resources. The Christian Education Director is looking forward to attending “Faith and Families” sponsored by the Conference to learn how to bring church into the home.
Mary settles into a pew and opens the colorful Sunday Bulletin, printed on the UCC Sunday Bulletin series. There are a lot of announcements this morning. There is a fundraiser for youth in the church who will be attending the UCC National Youth Event in Knoxville, Tennessee this summer. Kris LoFrumento at the Conference is organizing the delegation from Massachusetts and the Conference is coving 1/3 of the cost. Several church members are going to help with the recovery in New Orleans on a mission trip organized by the Worcester Area Mission Society, UCC. There will be confirmation in two weeks for the confirmands who attended a confirmation retreat sponsored by the Conference. Mary has her own announcement, encouraging members to join her in a letter writing campaign to fix the “No Child Left Behind” Act. She points them to the MACUCC web site for more information.
Mary loves the pastor, who was called just two years earlier after a search with help from Peter Wells, one of the Conference’s regional Associate Conference Ministers. The pastor was trained at Andover-Newton Theological School, a UCC seminary. He received financial aid from the Conference’s Bennie Whitten Seminary Debt Reduction Fund, which has allowed him to accept the salary offered by this small church. The pastor is a member of a Clergy Community of Practice, which helped support him through some difficult issues.
The congregation rises to sing a hymn out of the UCC New Century Hymnal. Worship this morning incorporates ideas gained at a Pastoral Excellence workshop sponsored by the Conference. Mary follows along with the scripture reading in the pew Bible from United Church Press. A lay person does the call to offering, testifying to the love the congregation showed her when her husband died suddenly. Having a lay person testify as the call to the offering was an idea picked up by the Stewardship Committee at a Conference stewardship event led by Andy Gustafson. Today a special offering – One Great Hour of Sharing - is also collected. Mary is delighted to be able to give to support this special UCC offering that provides disaster relief, refugee resettlement and development assistance to those in need around the world.
After the service Mary goes to coffee hour, where she has a cup of delicious Equal Exchange Free Trade coffee the church switched to as part of the UCC Coffee Project. Mary confirms her next Bible Study meeting. They are currently using “The Gifting God” small group stewardship study guide from the UCC.
Mary is so happy to be part of this loving, faithful congregation. She was invited to attend by a friend. Her friend learned how to invite others at an evangelism training event led by Paul Nickerson of the Conference. Mary also checked out the church web site. It had been updated and improved after the webmaster attended a “WebFest” event led by Tiffany Vail at the Conference. Her friend is looking forward to learning more about sharing her faith with others at the Martha Grace Reese event sponsored by the Conference.
A member of the church grumbled to Mary, “What do we get for all this money we give in Fellowship Dues and Our Church’s Wider Mission support anyways?” Mary hardly knew where to begin.