Lectionary Reflection for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21, Year A
September 28, 2014
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Philippians 2:4
When visiting congregations one question I almost always ask is, “Do you have a stewardship program?” Sadly a large percentage do not. Sadder still is that folks don’t have a clue how critical an understanding of biblical stewardship is to faithful discipleship. On one hand, it’s not really a shocking revelation because very few pastors are really comfortable talking about, much less asking for, money. It’s been called “filthy lucre” and a “necessary evil,” and it is laden with emotional baggage, with shame, and with expectation. It’s something that virtually all people come into contact with and use as a medium of exchange, but it is also misunderstood and often abused, mismanaged, and misused. Frankly, discussions about money make a lot of perfectly good church people squirm and do the jitterbug of avoidance. On the other hand, by not dealing with issues of money and its management, we do our sisters and brothers in Christ a great and crippling disfavor.
Our epistle and gospel lessons this week do not speak overtly about money, but they do deal with stewardship. Money is a part of stewardship–a very important part. How we deal with our financial resources speaks volumes about how we look at the stewardship of all life, including our time, our talents, this earth, and our relationships. Unfortunately, our convoluted ideas about and relationships with money too often cause us to look inward, to “navel gaze,” or to use the Latin phrase Augustine is said to have coined: Incurvatus in se.
In his Lectures on Romans, Martin Luther took Augustine’s concept and ran with it, saying “Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, is so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake.” Ouch! Luther has no qualms about pointing out the selfish (and timeless) nature of humankind.
It is our very nature to turn inward toward self-preservation and personal gain, to seek to maintain the status quo. Homeostasis at all costs! The biblical concept of stewardship runs in direct opposition by teaching that we look outward, that we open our hearts, minds, hands, and pocketbooks to our neighbor, to the world, and most importantly, to God. Nonetheless, too many of our churches continue to circle the wagons in an effort to preserve edifices and identities that do not serve the gospel or faithfully point to the servant-leadership and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. They look for budget line-items such as judicatory mission support, social ministries, global mission support, and personnel cuts to shave dollars off of the bottom line without counting the cost and the loss of participation in the wider church. They cut these things without regard to whether they are being true to their mission, often at the same time that trust funds and endowments sit untapped for the proverbial rainy day.
Dear partner in ministry, don’t wait another week to begin changing the culture of your congregation. Take a cue from the “Meatless Monday” campaign and have a “Self-less Sunday” with no mention of money this week. Open the conversation about stewardship without asking for a dime. Begin by planting the seed of opening oneself to God’s work in this world and in each person. Use Paul’s example of Jesus to inspire individuals to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Start the conversation. Minds, hearts, souls, and the mission of the church are terrible things to waste, especially to something as inane as a fear of stewardship and timidity around issues of money management and fiscal responsibility. Make your joy complete and just do it. With God’s help all things are possible.
Invite worshipers to consider one thing they can do this week to be little less self-ish and more self-less. Begin by having worshipers either converse or write on cards three things that are vitally important to them. They may name relationships, God, children, family, and other big-picture things. They may also name ministries and programs with which they are involved on a local level ,or they may paint with a broad brush and lift up world peace. Once they have three things listed or articulated, invite them to discern one way they can be more self-less this week to make an impact on what they consider to be truly important. Consider writing the offering prayer to reflect the lifting up of these “self-less” gifts to God, including the strength, the wisdom, and the courage to die to self and rise to newness of life in Christ.
Who has the power and authority? This is a good question and one worthy of consideration with your youth. You might also ask “what” has the power–is it money, status, or connections? Who has the least power in our world? What does that look like? Students may name youth, children, refugees, the poor, the hungry, those dependent upon public assistance, or those in political minority. Now take a close look at this week’s gospel lesson. How does Jesus turn the question about power and authority on its head? What does the short story have to say about honesty and assumptions? Who are the honest and prophetic voices of our generation? They are often found in some pretty unlikely places.
Jesus tells a story about two brothers who give two different answers to their father’s request. The father asks them to go work. The first one says “No, I don’t want to go.” But he later goes. The second one says, “Yes, I’ll go.” However, he never does go. Which son gave the right answer? Of course it’s the one who, despite his initial bad attitude, does the work and obeys his father. This is what God expects of us. We may not always get it right on the first attempt, and we may even say things we regret, or act badly. But if we try to follow God and keep working at it, and have a change of mind and heart, then we are giving the right answer. It’s not a good idea to make a promise and either have no intention of keeping it, whether we make that promise to God, to our parents, or to others. Remind the children that God loves them–even when they mess up.