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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 once was a strongman at a circus sideshow who demonstrated his power before large audiences every night. Toward the end of one performance, he squeezed the juice from a lemon between his hands. He said to the onlookers, “I will offer $200 to anyone here who can squeeze another drop from this lemon. A thin older lady hobbled up the stage. She picked up the lemon and clamped it between her two frail, boney hands. She squeezed. And out came a teaspoon of lemon juice. The strongman was amazed. He paid the woman $200 but privately asked her, “What is the secret of your strength?” “Practice,” the woman answered. “I have been treasurer of my church for forty-two years!”
And so it is with many churches today. Discussion of money and stewardship is to be avoided at all costs. A pastor may only preach on giving once a year, but there will still be those in the congregation who are convinced that that is all the pastor ever talks about. A sermon on stewardship gives credence to the saying, “There’s a fine line between a long, drawn-out sermon and a hostage situation.”
Mind you, this morning’s gospel reading certainly wouldn’t be my first choice for a stewardship sermon. There are more familiar passages, for example 1st Peter 4:10, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace,” or 2nd Corinthians 9:6-7 “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, for God loves a cheerful giver,” or the old stand-by, Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Jesus’ words hardly seem like an invitation to give generously to your local congregation. And yet the theme of testifying before the world may be closer to them work of stewardship than one might think.
Jesus was speaking to his disciples against the backdrop of Jerusalem’s Temple. Even though the Temple had been destroyed once 600 years earlier, no one in Jesus’ day could have imagined that that mighty structure built by Herod the Great would ever fall. They trusted in its permanence and its longevity. According to legend it had taken only 3 years to build, though in the gospels, it seems to have taken over 40 years to complete. The Temple compound was large enough to accompany over 300,000 pilgrims. But less than 40 years later, the Temple would be gone. In the year 70, AD, the Roman Army destroyed the Temple leaving no stone atop another.
Across the Mediterranean world, Christians too were experiencing persecution at the hands of the Roman authorities. They were first targeted by Emperor Nero in 64 AD. A colossal fire broke out in Rome, and destroyed much of the city. To divert attention from the rumors that he himself had started the fire. Nero ordered that Christians should be rounded up and killed. Over time Christians became an easy scape goat, most often because they refused to make sacrifices to the emperor. It smacked of both sacrilege and treason. The classic test of a Christian’s faith was simply to force him or her, on pain of death, to swear by the emperor and to offer incense to his image. Jesus’ words offered hope and encouragement to a troubled people who struggled to be faithful. It is actually what is at stake in stewardship and testifying to God before the world.
Christian discipleship and testifying, you see, hasn’t changed much in the past 2000 years. Following Jesus as Lord and Savior is still confessing one’s trust in God. And for many, it is still a challenge. In the midst of circumstances that test our confidence, people turn away from God to organizations that appear bigger, and to leaders that appear more charismatic. And like the crowds who once turned to the impressive walls of the Temple in Jerusalem and to the Emperor in Rome, the world today longs to be spell bound.
The challenge for the church is how to keep on witnessing to the marvelous things that the Lord has done in the face of the world that seems to be focused on only present joys and pleasures. Yes, who will teach and guide the world to focus its gaze on the permanence of God when people prefer to be spellbound? Who can warn them that today’s powerful and glittering images will one day fail them? That is what you are committing to in your giving to the church. God’s ultimate strength and comfort may not be needed today, and it may not be for yourself. But let me assure, tragedies and sorrows will come. The temples of life will come falling down. And when they do, many people will not know where to turn. That is the importance of your stewardship. Your financial gifts are being used now as a witness to help friends and family and even strangers to stay focused on what is ultimately important, and how to stand proud and confident in the face if life’s persecution and hardship.
My friends, in your most reflective moments, you should ask yourself, and what do you need from the church personally? Perhaps you need to hear the sweet sound of the gospel of Jesus Christ, his word of forgiveness and the promise of new life. Perhaps, you need a quiet place where you can speak intimately with God. Perhaps, you need to be surrounded by a company of fellow believers. Or perhaps, you are hungering and thirsting for the gifts God offers at his holy table. Or perhaps, your need is less defined. You know that what the world sees as great and glamorous is ultimately lacking. You are still searching, but you know that it is here where it may be found. There many in this world, your own neighbors, who have no idea what they want, and deny themselves the strength and hope that only God can offer. Of course, there are countless excuses.
Mrs. Smartt was fumbling in her purse for her church offering when a large television remote fell out and clattered into the aisle. The curious usher bent over to retrieve it for her and whispered, “Do you always carry your TV remote to church?” “No,” she replied, “but my husband refused to come with me this morning, and I figured this was the most evil thing I could do to him legally.”
So what is your financial support all about? What does your gift to Lake of the Isles do? Let me be clear on this. Your stewardship of the gifts God has entrusted to your care is helping the world to keep its gaze on that which is permanent and lasting. Your testifying through your gifts is a way of helping the church in its mission to teach the world to keep its eyes fixed on Jesus. The warning Jesus speaks and the hope he offers is no trivial denial of the struggles, the pain and agony of human life, or the catastrophic forces of nature. Faith is not some Pollyannish optimism. God recognizes sorrows and trials people face every day are great. But my friends, Jesus also promises that God’s strength is greater still. Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls. It is the hope and trust that allows us to push on.
David Livingstone, the legendary missionary to Africa, prayed, “Lord, send me anywhere, only go with me. Lay any burden on me, only sustain me.” And he confess, “What has sustained me is the promise, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.’” My friends, it is that assurance and presence that continues to offer us hope and strength. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.