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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
There was a time, in the not so distant past, when Lutheran churches in America had a naïve, but loyal sense of belonging. Our earliest memories of Sunday School were spent learning to sing the songs of our parents and grandparents, “Silent Night” in German, “I am so Glad Each Christmas Eve” in Norwegian, and “Children of the Heavenly Father” in Swedish. By First Grade, we knew the first verse of all these hymns, even though we couldn’t speak a word of any of these languages. We were serious about our faith. Somehow, we were convinced that the Bible forbid Lutherans from crossing the aisle while “sharing the peace.” It was simply too decadent. And we knew intuitively from our upbringing that applauding for the children’s choirs might make them proud and conceited.
For most Lutheran congregations, however, including Lake of the Isles, such quaint memories are merely history. And for the majority of those who are new to the Christian faith and new to the Lutheran Church, it is a history they have never known. My friends, we live today in a different age. And as many church historians have noted, “The church is only one generation away from extinction.”
Certainly, this is not a new fear within the Christian community. It seems to have been present even in the first century after Jesus’ death and resurrection. When St. Matthew penned his gospel, the church that the Rabbi from Nazareth had established was struggling for survival. The Holy City of Jerusalem had been destroyed. Men and women were suffering great persecution. Others were abandoning the faith. There was not even a playful heritage to keep them strong and loyal. The elders feared that many of their children and their children’s children would never experience the joy of Christ’s return. In Jesus’ parable, St. Matthew writes that five bridesmaids were wise and five were foolish. He does not say that five were good and five were bad. The maidens were all the same. They carried the same lamps; they wore the same dresses, and they all drifted off to sleep. But there was one difference. The wise maidens had a reserve. They had a reserve of oil for that time or occasion when a crisis arose. They were prepared with lamps trimmed and burning for the arrival of the bridegroom.
Now you may be wondering: so what does the parable of the wise and foolish maidens have to do with stewardship? After all, the wise bridesmaids were those who held on to their oil and didn’t part with it. In the parable, they appear almost stingy. That doesn’t seem to be the model of stewardship we would want here at Lake of the Isles. But I don’t think that’s the meaning of the parable, nor is it the meaning of the reserve of oil. The reserve, you see, is not about oil, money or income, nor is the reserve about a percentage of giving or even a tithe. No, my friends, the reserve of oil is about the depth of the relationship you have developed with God. Jesus’ parable encourages you, indeed, each one of us, to ask the fundamental question: In the midnight hours of life, what is your reserve? Now that may not seem like a stewardship question, but it is. Why? Because stewardship is ultimately about your relationship with God.
Christians who are new to the church often ask, “What is stewardship? Why should I give to my church?” After all some people consider stewardship to be nothing more than a form of fund-raising- a weekly invitation to “Give to the Max.” For some Christians, stewardship is their least favorite topic in the church- secondly only to evangelism. For others, stewardship is simply the way congregations turn to their members year after year to ask for the funds necessary to run the programs that the congregation has decided are important. Still others believe that stewardship is nothing more than managing dues and user fees.
For me, however, stewardship is more. For me, stewardship is a disciplined response of faith. For ultimately stewardship is about faithful relationships. As the story of wise and foolish maidens reminds us, stewardship is about the growth in your personal relationship with God through the use of the gifts he has entrusted to you.
Nearly every Sunday, we confess in the words of the Apostles’ Creed that “we believe in God, the Father Almighty, who has created heaven and earth.” And yet, in spite of our devout confession that God has created all things, we assume that we, and not God, are the owner of all things. We cannot imagine that God has merely entrusted these gifts to us. No, we believe that God has given them to us-forever.
It’s one of my wife’s favorite stories. A man was late for his daughter’s school concert, and he was driving endlessly through the parking lot searching for a parking spot. Finally, out of desperation, he prayed to God, “O God, please let me be in time for my daughter’s performance. Help me find a spot so I can park.” Moments later, he saw a car pull away opening a spot for him. Instantly, he prayed, “God, never mind. I found one on my own.” That is how we feel about God’s gifts. Stewardship, however, is a reminder that God has created all things, and that you and I are merely entrusted to take care of these gifts. So what portion of the creation will you keep for yourself, and what will you return to God? Remember, what you keep is not the five wise maidens’ reserve. No, what you offer to God is what you truly set aside as your reserve.
Of course, offering a portion of your gifts is more than simply giving money to the church. In many congregations, we define gift as time, talents and treasure. They are all important. As Christians, we build up a reserve for the midnight hours when we allow God’s gifts to be used. The kingdom of God needs your time. God desires your worship and praise. He knows that your presence in worship is important for your spiritual growth. It is where you come into contact with his word. But your talents are needed as well to touch the lives of other believers struggling in their journey. There are people in emotional, physical and personal need all around you. When you give to your church, you are participating in God’s mission in this world. If the church is truly one generation away from extinction, then your gifts support the Sunday School, Confirmation and Adult Education programs right now here at Lake of the Isles. And through this congregation’s gifts, you may also be assured that you are participating in the global mission of this church. Your financial gifts are providing the resources for proclaiming the good news through word and deed around the world. Time and talent are important, to be sure, but so are your financial gifts. Of course, people are always trying to hold onto their treasure, and keep it for themselves. It’s no wonder that Jesus himself speaks about money more than any other topic in the Bible. Jesus teaches us again and again, that money can be doing so much more when we simply return it to God’s service. And in faithfully offering your gifts to God, you are building up your own spiritual reserve.
Throughout scripture men and women are called to return a tithe or a tenth of their wealth to the service of God and their neighbor. For Christians who have never learned to give a tithe, the challenge may seem too daunting. For you, I invite you to begin with the biblical call to offer the “first fruits.” Many people wait until they have covered all their desires and necessities, and then they may turn over a portion of what is left to God. I am reminded of the woman who called the Butterball Turkey Hotline. It was a week or so before Thanksgiving and she called to ask whether the 7-year-old frozen turkey in her freezer would still be safe to eat. The Hotline operator answered, “Yes. It will be safe enough, but it won’t have much taste,” to which the caller responded, “Oh. Then I’ll give it to the church.” Truthfully, my friends, we never grow in faith when we offer to God only what is left. We will never build up the spiritual reserve that will carry us through the midnight hours for Bridegroom’s arrival. Faith is nurtured and grows when you begin by offering a portion, the first fruits, from the very beginning. In this way, you learn to know God’s provision. You learn to trust that he will provide all that you will need. In this way your stewardship becomes a way of knowing God and growing in a relationship with God by leaning on him. And you become more daring as God’s servant.
My friends, a generation ago Lutheran congregations believed that the pastor would visit them in the hospital, even if they didn’t call the church. Congregations believed that miracles would happen- especially when they passed the offering plates. We live now in a different age, but the story of the Wise and Foolish Maidens is still true. Use your time and talents and treasure wisely, and be mindful that there are some things that cannot be obtained at the last hour. Your spiritual reserve for the midnight hour and your relationship with God begins now. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.