This is a sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost. In our parish today it is “Stewardship Sunday,” the day that people return their giving pledges and there is a focus on the needs of the Church; and as such the sermon is focussed on that, with reference to Philippians 1.
I read a story this week about a wealthy young man who had donated one and a half million dollars to a local youth centre. The youth centre was fantastic; giving young people without many opportunities, skills and tools and – most importantly – hope, that transformed their lives.
Now, the young man who gave this gift was also a very committed and active Christian. In church every Sunday, involved in various activities, and so forth. But when he was asked whether he would consider giving a gift the size of the one a half million he had just given to a secular cause, to the church, his answer was “Lord, no, they wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
An extraordinarily generous gift to the youth centre changed lives. The same gift given to his church – he was afraid – would be met with incompetence and a lack of vision. So he didn’t give anything like that to his church.
And – to the extent that his assessment of his church was correct – I’d say he was right in his decision. Money given to the church is supposed to be about fulfilling our mission – about changing lives by bringing people into encounter with God – and if we don’t have a vision for doing that, or if we’re not good at doing it, why on earth would anyone want to give us money? Or how could I justify standing here and telling you that it’s good and God wants you to give? Giving has to be matched with results.
Here’s the thing. It’s not that God wants you to give, as if the church existed so that the vicar could have a comfortable house and we could turn the heaters on. (Although the vicar is glad to have a comfortable house and that we can turn the heaters on).
It’s much more than that. It’s that God wants us all to participate in the church as a community which makes a difference. A church which changes lives. A church which proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ, which teaches and nurtures people in living relationships with God, a church which responds to human needs with loving service. And that takes our time and our skills, and yes, also our money.
We don’t give to keep the doors open. We give so that, by keeping the doors open, we can change lives.
This is what Paul means when he writes to the Philippians and praises their “sharing in the gospel,” and implores them to strive side-by-side with him. He doesn’t just mean that they had come to a point of personal conviction, or even that they came along to worship once a week, but that they had decided that they were going to dedicate their lives to achieving God’s purposes in the world.
That’s what it means to be a Christian. To strive side by side with one another in God’s mission of transforming the world.
It’s good to give money to that end. My pledge to you, on receiving these financial pledges, is that that will be our priority in what we do. That our planning is going to prioritise projects and activities which make a difference. That if something doesn’t contribute to the mission of God, we’re not going to waste your time and energy and money on it.
More than that, I also pledge to you that we’re going to seek to be as effective as possible in doing so. There are a number of areas where, frankly, we need to improve how we do things, so that what we invest of ourselves can have maximum impact. This is why, by the way, in my email message from the vicar last week, I asked for a volunteer who might be willing to create and maintain a parish Facebook page. In this day and age, if you’re not on Facebook, you don’t exist; and if even the like-minded people who live within easy walking distance of us don’t know that we exist, how can we build relationships with them which will further the mission of God?
That’s something of an aside but it illustrates an important principle; we need to be very intentional in how we do things, to maximise the difference we can make. We have to put the days of just doing what we’ve always done behind us, and instead commit ourselves to doing the best we can in a constantly changing environment. That may well involve drawing on expertise we don’t currently have, and developing skills we haven’t needed before. And seeing that as an invigorating challenge rather than a heavy burden.
We are positioned to make a unique contribution to our local community. There are other people who teach, nurture, care, and strive to establish justice. Those secular endeavours are good and I’m not knocking them. There are other churches who each offer the particular strengths of their own tradition. Their efforts, too, are good, and I’m not knocking them either. But as each of us have benefitted from a Christian tradition which is open, liberal and progressive in its outlook, as well as deeply rooted in Scripture and the prayers and insights of millennia of the saints, we too should offer that to our community as a treasury of resources. Our society is crying out for real relationship with its creator, and we are poised to make the introductions… if we’ll only step out and do it.
In my letter which went out with the stewardship materials, I described stewardship as “the inspired and hopeful use of God’s gifts” to us. I chose those words very deliberately. I talked about our giving as inspired because it ought to be the result of our catching a glimpse of what is possible. And I talked about it as hopeful because it ought to be done with the intention of making real and concrete what is, right now, only in the realm of possibility.
I also said that our giving was a response of love, not obligation. I know that talking about giving and money in church can often be uncomfortable; that some people are under significant financial strain, and that money in general is a focus for enormous stress and worry. Please don’t hear anything I’ve said this morning as aimed at contributing to that strain or stress, or as intended to manipulate you into giving more than you would freely choose. I believe – and Scripture teaches and the church throughout the ages has insisted – that giving financially is a non-negotiable part of the Christian life. But the level of that needs to be your free choice, chosen because you believe that what we’re going to do together with that money is actually worthwhile and something you want to be part of.
So thank you, all of you, for what you have pledged. It matters, and what we’re going to do with it matters. Thank you for taking up the challenge of striving side by side together to make a difference. I look forward to seeing what we can achieve together over the coming year and beyond.