Knowing the jealousy and resentment of a starving artist, Anne Lamotte jokingly writes, “If you want to know what God thinks about money, look at who she gives it to.” Today is Commitment Sunday, which is the culmination of our annual Stewardship Campaign here at St. James. And so, as you might expect, this is a sermon about money. There aren’t many topics that will make people squirm in their pew (or on their sofa) quite like a sermon about money. So, let’s take a moment and collectively get our squirming out of the way, and then I’ll proceed.
Most years, Commitment Sunday feels like a celebration in which get to visually see our fellow parishioners bring their pledge card up to the front, as a sign of commitment and hope for the year to come. It’s a sign that “we’re in this together” and we want the coming year to be another year in which St. James seeks to live into its mission in this world. And our Stewardship focus during these weeks is always about much more than another pledge drive in which we seek donations, and it’s not a collection of membership dues; it’s a time in which we explore together what it means to live faithfully with what we have, and to even ask difficult questions like “What does God think about money? And does that matter for how we get it and what we do with it?”
In 1 Peter 4:10 we hear these words: “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” “Like good stewards.” Many churches, like our own, have adopted this word “steward” to guide and articulate our understanding of what we have and what we do with it, not just our money, of course, but all we have including our time, our talents, and all the treasures we possess. The word in 1 Peter that often gets translated “steward” is the Greek word “oikonomos,” which, etymologically, is where we get our word “economy,” and broken down literally means the “rules” or “laws of the household.” The “oikonomos” or “steward,” then, was one who oversaw the possessions of the house and made sure they were used according to the rules of the household.
What does it mean to be “a good steward,” one who faithfully manages all one has according to the rules of the house? And what does being “a good steward” look like for a community of faith, like St. James Episcopal Church in Hendersonville, NC?
We get a glimpse of it, I think, in the story of the early church recorded in Acts, where it is said that “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” This early church community, overwhelmed with the power of the Spirit of Jesus given to them, lived in such unity and commonality—such togetherness—that “There was not a needy person among them, for as many owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold,” laying them “at the apostle’s feet.” Our ritual celebration each year on Commitment [Sunday] echoes this moment in the life of the early church, when the followers of Jesus brought their possessions and laid them at the Apostles feet for the sake of the community of faith.
As we’ve seen in our Gospel lessons in recent weeks, Jesus rarely answers questions in ways we might expect, and in today’s Gospel lesson we hear a question posed to Jesus: “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?” Jesus responds not with one commandment but two: You shall love God with everything and love others as yourself. Jesus makes two commandments one in our gospel lesson—binding them together—because they are, in fact, inseparable: our love of God cannot be separated from our love for others, because God desires for us to be together, to live with the same kind of commonality and unity we see blowing into the early church in Acts through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Everything else—all of our giving, all of our serving— follows from the gift of the Spirit that binds us together.
And it is in these moments in the life of the early church in Acts where we see what theologian Willie James Jennings describes as a “holy wind blowing through structured and settled ways of living and possessing and pulling things apart.” A new orientation, a new direction, a new order of things is coming to be in these moments in the life of the church. As Jennings says, “A new kind of giving is exposed in this moment.”
This new kind of giving begins with the gift of the Holy Spirit which draws people into God’s desire that we be together, and so the people give themselves to each other in such a way that their possessions also get pulled into this giving. That is to say, the economics of the church, the “rules of the house” are being redefined, and the community of God is being pulled together into this new way of being in the world. To be a “good steward,” then, of the rules of this new household is to be given to each other through the gift of the Spirit, and our possessions get pulled into this new kind of giving.
When I was a sophomore in college I had very little money in my personal bank account, usually just enough to pay my monthly car payment, keep a little bit of gas in it, and hopefully have a little extra to go on a date with my girlfriend, Julie (whom some of you may know). I had the perfect job that kept enough money in my account to meet these necessities: I was a youth soccer and basketball referee. It was the perfect job because I only had to work on Saturdays and I got to work alongside many of my friends. Some Saturdays, after a long day of ref’ing, we’d all go out for a quick bite to eat. One Saturday, the plan was to go to good ‘ole Red Lobster. On this particular Saturday, I dodged committing because I knew my bank account was near empty and so I’d have to pass. After noticing my hesitancy, one of my friends, David, pulled my aside and said, “Hey, I’ll pay for you tonight, just come along; we want you there.” I hesitated but finally said “Okay, but I’ll pay you back, I promise.” Well, throughout that evening I kept telling my friend David, “Thanks, man. I’ll pay you back, I promise.” Again and again and again. “I’ll pay you back, I promise.” Again and again.
After our meal of cheese biscuits and stuffed flounder, as we were walking to our cars, I launched back into my expressions of gratitude and my promises to pay David back. I don’t know if he was annoyed by my constant need to express that I would pay him back or if he noticed something amiss with my thinking, but in that moment David said something I’ll never forget. He pulled me aside, turning slightly away from all of our other friends. He stepped in, getting closer to me, then he slowly put his hand up on my shoulder, and he said: “Kevin, you have to learn to receive the gift.”
I believe that all that we do in our stewardship endeavors really boils down to that: we have to learn to receive the gift. The question is not so much “what do we give?” or “how do we give?” but “How do we rightly, faithfully receive God’s gift?”
God’s gift to us is the Holy Spirit among us that longs for us to be together. May we receive this gift fully and rightly, and give ourselves to each other in such a way that our possessions will naturally follow.