Today is Stewardship Sunday, the day we set aside to talk about giving to the church. It’s always a question about how forcefully we should advertise this occasion in advance. When the subject of money comes up, many of us set up the old invisible Gardol shield (you might remember from the toothpaste commercials) around ourselves. It is said that when warriors were converted to Christianity in the middle ages, they often held their sword arms out of the water so that that part of them would not be baptized and they could continue to slay their foes with abandon. I sometimes think that Episcopalians were baptized holding their wallets out of the water. We all approach this subject in what a preacher friend of mine calls “the spirit of pocketbook protection”.
In our Gospel this morning, Jesus says two provocative things. One is that if we had the faith the size of a mustard seed we could uproot a tree and throw it into the sea. The other is that when doing our duty we should not expect to be thanked but rather say, “We have done only what we ought to have done!” [Luke 17: 5-10] It is my hope that Jesus’s words to us in this Gospel might help us loosen the Gardol shield, pull our wallets down into the water, and open our hearts and minds to what God would have us do with our money.
Why do you come to church? Do you come here because your friends are here, because you think it’s a good thing to do, or because you believe that something bigger and deeper is going on? We live in a world where many people think they can get along perfectly fine without a place like this in their lives. Woody Allen has a new movie out, a film called "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger". It’s a movie about faith. Now Woody Allen is pretty much a skeptic. When asked about religion in a recent New York Times interview, Allen said, “To me, there’s no real difference between a fortune teller or a fortune cookie and any of the organized religions. They’re all equally valid or invalid, really. And equally helpful. “ He went on to say, “This sounds so bleak when I say it, but we need some delusions to keep us going. And the people who successfully delude themselves seem happier than the people who can’t.” [“Woody Allen: Director’s Cut” NY Times 9/15/10] As A. O. Scott said in his review of Woody Allen’s movie, the whole message of the film is that “believing in some kind of nonsense is a natural way of coping with the howling void that surrounds us.” [A.O Scott , NY Times 9/21/10]
Now I do come to church, I think, because it is a way of coping with the howling void that surrounds us. But I don’t believe it’s a delusion or on the same level as a fortune cookie. Why I come here has more to do with the mysterious comparison that Jesus makes in the Gospel today between faith and a mustard seed. The disciples demand, “Increase our faith!” And he answers, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.” The disciples, like all of us, feel the presence of the howling void, and their response to it is to ask Jesus to increase their faith, as if faith were some kind of quantifiable product or commodity to be sliced off like baloney. “I’d like half a pound of faith, please, and while you’re at it give me a pint of hope and two yards of charity.” It doesn’t work that way. Jesus hears them and responds with the image of the mustard seed, the tiniest particle then known in God’s creation. If you had even that much faith, he says, you could work wonders.
The point of this story is that what matters is not how much faith you have but what you do with it. Christians are called not so much to have faith as they are to act on their faith. What the disciples seem to want is some kind of cosmic insurance policy, some guarantee from Jesus that God is really in control of the world. Jesus says in response, “Look around you. If your eyes were really open, if you paid attention to the signs of God you see in the world, you would not ask for miracles and signs of assurance. “By choosing the smallest visible element of God’s creation—the mustard seed—Jesus is pointing us both to the abundance of God’s world and to the minimal nature of what we actually need. We all think we would be happy if we had just a little more than what we now have. But in pointing toward the mustard seed, Jesus reminds us of how little we really do need. Everything beyond that reflects the superabundance of God’s generosity.
So here is the first point to think about on Stewardship Sunday: God is the source of everything we are and everything we possess. Our lives, our gifts, our relationships, our sustenance—all of those come from God. God created us out of the sheer abundance of God’s love. Because life is stressful we can become preoccupied and take the graciousness of those gifts for granted. But all biblical religion—both Old and New Testaments—comes down finally to this understanding of God’s world and our life in it as gifts. If we had faith the size of a mustard seed we would see it. But we don’t always see it, and so we have places like this—churches--to remind us, to reorient us to the way things really are. I feel bad for those who believe their lives are complete without a living faith community, just as I feel bad for those who put their trust in fortune cookies and fortune tellers. Because they are living their lives out of alignment with the way the world is. And the way the world is can be summed up in the image of a mustard seed that, in its good time opens out into the abundant flowering plant that covers the hillsides and suggests the wonder and splendor of all creation.
So if God gave us everything, our best response to that is to be thankful. But what does thankfulness mean? If faith is less about thought than action, how do we live it out? That is where the second part of the Gospel comes in. As Jesus says,
“Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"
In this parable, Jesus makes an extended analogy between the master and God, between the servants and God’s people. When a servant does his job, he does not expect to get a standing ovation from the master. He was merely doing his job. And so it is with us. There are obligations that go along with living in relationship with God. So because we are doing our duty, we should not expect to be given an award. We are only doing what is expected of us—what is right and appropriate under the conditions of our relationship with God and the world.
To those of us who are used to hearing the open, inclusive, uncritical teachings of Jesus, this saying sounds harsh. But taken in context with the first teaching, it makes perfect sense. God is the author of all that we are and all that we have. And living in faithful response to that God involves more than just our mental assent. Living in faithful response to that One requires our action. That is why Judaism and Christianity have always put stress both on faith and works—we are saved by faith alone, as Paul says, but, as James reminds us, faith without works is dead. God loves and accepts us unconditionally. But living into that love and acceptance puts us under some obligation. We are obliged to love and care for each other and the world. We are obliged to take our part in the maintenance and ministry of the community of faith called the church which gathers and does ministry in God’s name.
So here is why Kathy and I give to the church. To be sure, we give to charitable causes and institutions outside the church, and we give to other church agencies and ministries beyond Christ Church Cranbrook. But our giving to the parish is by far our largest gift and is at the absolute center of our giving, and here is why. We do that first because we are continually striving to align our lives with the reality that God is the author of all we have, that our lives are shaped in grateful response to God’s creating, ongoing generosity. We do that second because—and there’s no other way to say this except to frame it in the language Jesus uses in his parable—because we are only doing what we ought to. Membership in a community involves both privileges and obligations. Following Jesus is both about receiving the benefits of Jesus’s resurrection and teaching and about taking up our rightful share in supporting the community that does ministry in Jesus’s name.
Over the course of this month, as our Stewardship process unfolds, we will make our case that the mission and ministry of Christ Church Cranbrook deserve your generous support. We seek to be a parish that lives out the Gospel in transformative ways, both for our parishioners and for our wider community. But before we make that case, the first case made concerns the importance of giving in and of itself. God made you and gave you everything you are and have. God has called you into a place where you are loved, accepted, nourished, and transformed more and more into the person God made in God’s own image and redeemed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Those great gifts entail some obligations. Meeting those obligations is as important to you spiritually as it is to this parish financially. Giving generously will help you become the person both you and God want you to be.
These are difficult times—more difficult financially for some than for others. Neither the Bible nor the church nor I ever have any fixed dollar amount in mind as a litmus test for giving. The test of generosity will always be a self-corrected one. So ask yourself: in light of the church’s needs and your resources, what is a reasonable pledge? What would be a generous pledge? Given the needs of the church and your resources, how can you respond to God’s generosity with some generosity of your own? It is possible to love a lot. It is possible to give a little. In my experience, it is not possible to do both at the same time.
If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could do miracles. We have done only what we ought to have done. May the truth and grace of those words open our hearts and our minds to the gifts and challenges before us, that we may learn to baptize our wallets and free ourselves from the spirit of pocketbook protection. If we can step up to this moment, God will use us and our parish to accomplish wonderful things for us, our community, and our world. Amen.