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The End of Stewardship

Sermon - 9/17/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 8

Most of you have received a letter this week, at least our members, that should have come in the mailbox this week, from Jim Korth, our past President and Donna Rietz, our new President, to introduce you to our Fall stewardship campaign and the theme "Common Hope, Common Trust".  If you didn't receive that letter, be sure to let us know about that so we can make sure you're on that contact list.  

So here we are launching our annual stewardship campaign, and I have announced, via my sermon title, the end of stewardship!  The shortest campaign ever in the history of the church.  One person responded and said "Yes!".  I don't know why they would have that kind of a response J.  But that's not the end I had in mind.  Rather, by the 'end of stewardship', I mean the purpose, the goal of stewardship.  So I hope that doesn't disappoint you.

And to reflect on that end, I want to share with you two texts this morning.  The first one comes from Psalm 8, where we read:

1O Lord, our Sovereign,
   how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.
2   Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
   to silence the enemy and the avenger.

3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
   the moon and the stars that you have established;
4what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
   mortals that you care for them?

5Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
   and crowned them with glory and honour.
6You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
   you have put all things under their feet,
7all sheep and oxen,
   and also the beasts of the field,
8the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
   whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

9O Lord, our Sovereign,
   how majestic is your name in all the earth!

The second text comes from the 21st chapter of Revelation, also a very familiar text, where we read:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

Now why on earth would I select these two particular passages for our reflections on stewardship?  There's nothing about money.  Nothing about giving.  Nothing about tithing.  Nothing about using the resources God has entrusted to us.  None of that, that we usually hear about and expect this time of year.  And that's precisely the point.  Because stewardship is not just about those things, stewardship begins with awe and wonder.  To lie beneath the stars, and to contemplate your place in the universe.  The meaning of our existence.  What are we, that God is mindful of us?  Mere mortals -- God should care for us?

That question about our place in the cosmos as but one tiny part of creation is the beginning of stewardship.  To reflect on who and what we are called to be by God, just a little below the angels, given dominion, that is, given 'lordship' of this earth.  

Now I'm going to come back to that topic in a couple of weeks on October 1st, because I think we have grossly misunderstood that lordship and abused that dominion.  And I also will be talking about it -- if you just can't wait two weeks -- tomorrow morning on KOPT radio (1600 on your AM dial).  A little monthly segment I do with other pastors in town, usually Greg Flint at First Congregational, that we call "Spirit Matters".  And the good folks there at that station have given us 45 minutes once a month on a topic of our choosing.  So tomorrow morning, John Pitney at First United Methodist, and I, are going to talk about faith and global warming.  So if you're awake and around between 8:20 and 9:00, I invite you to tune into that.

So the beginning of stewardship is awe and wonder, as expressed here in the Psalm.  The end of stewardship is God's vision for the world, as expressed in Revelation, where as I have pointed out on countless times before, God comes to dwell with humanity on earth, not where we go to dwell with God in heaven.  That divine ideal, the perfect world where pain and suffering and death will be no more.  Or, as the prophet Isaiah expressed it, where swords are turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, and nations shall declare on nations no more, where the wolf will dwell with the lamb and the leper will lie down with the kid.  Or, as Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue, "The spirit of the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free".

This, God's vision for this world, is the goal of our stewardship.  As Jim and Donna put it in that letter, where they wrote:

"What is God's purpose?  Anything that seeks to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.  Just a small thing -- equity, justice, dignity, healing of the nations.  The end of suffering, famine, unjust imprisonment and death.  All things that will lead to a world of love and peace.  Just a small thing". 

I love that.  It reminds me of the musical Evita, where in that one climactic scene, Eva Peron's health is failing, and Che (played by Antonio Banderas in the movie), who is an antagonist, sings to her:  "How can you be so short-sighted to look never further than this week or next week, to have no impossible dream?"  And Eva responds (Madonna in the movie):  "Tell me, who'd be delighted if I said I'd take on the world's greatest problems, from war to pollution, no hope of solution, even if I lived 100 years?".

From the perspective of the realist, there may be no hope of solution for the world's greatest problems.  But from the divine perspective, there is always hope.  When you're down by 13 points in the 4th quarter, there is always hope!  Never give up on your team!  Especially if they're the Ducks!  Sorry Sooner fans J.  If I never had religion, I was getting it then, that last couple minutes of that game.  You can go a long ways with a little help from the officials and divine help from God!

A heavenly messenger, dressed as a Pac-10 official at Autzen stadium, 
brings His will to earth!

So if the topic is global warming, or nuclear war, or Duck football, failure is not an option.  And just about any great movement to create a world without war or poverty or injustice or prejudice or hate, you will find there, at the core, people of faith involved in the leadership.  Driven by this vision of God for a restored, peaceful world.

Stewardship, then, is what we do with all of the stuff that God has given us to move us closer to that vision.  And so we hold these stewardship campaigns each year not to support the church budget, we hold them to challenge the church people.  To put our finances in that larger context of God's mission, to lay it all on the line (as the text we read from Mark makes clear) -- we are called to give our whole lives to this.

Steven Covey taught us that one of the 7 habits of highly effective people is to begin with the end in mind.  And so we begin with that larger end in mind -- God's purpose for our world, and secondly the destination that we seek as a particular community of God's people here in this time and place.

It was just a year ago that I articulated the vision that I have for our congregation for our next 5 years, leading up to our centennial celebration of the building of this wonderful church home.  And I'm always struck when people ask:  "What did this church used to be?"  They think it's an orthodox church, I had one person thing that it was some other faith, that it obviously wasn't a Christian building, you know.  Look at the windows, for heaven's sake!

We built this in 1911, we have been in existence for 140 years, and in this building for 95.  So looking forward to that celebration, here are the 6 goals that I think we should adopt:

1.  First of all, spiritual vitality.  One of the resources for this particular theme -- Common Hope, Common Trust -- speaks of "spiritual obesity".  Well that's an interesting concept -- conjured up all kinds of images of spiritual couch potatoes, who have a lazy faith and avoid spiritual disciplines.  To be a spiritually vital congregation means a willingness to put more than a little effort into our faith.  To do the hard work.  To be a fit and vibrant congregation where faith comes alive in all that we do.  And one of my hopes is to help us deepen and strengthen that vitality by adding a 3rd worship service at a different time during the week, with a different emphasis, perhaps on contemplation.  Something more like the Interfaith service that is held here.  Those who were here Monday night know that we absolutely packed the house here -- I think it was probably a record.  They had a record at Autzen Stadium yesterday, and we had a record in this church Monday night.  Well over 500 people -- standing room only kind of thing.  But that kind of service, that helps us reflect in deep and meaningful ways, and to listen to God's voice in our world.

2.  Second, related to that, as part of our spiritual vitality, will be the expansion of our small-group ministry with more opportunities for study, prayer, and reflection throughout the week, so there is something for everyone.  And to deepen our spiritual lives.  And to that end we'll be starting another spiritual formation group in the morning, on a weekday morning (Tuesday or Wednesday morning) in just a couple of weeks, and I'm collecting names of people who are interested in that.  If that strikes your interest or you want to know more about it, let me know.

3.  Third, that we will practice the art of discernment on key issues that face us in our society, so that we, as a community of God's people, may seriously reflect on how our faith informs us on those issues.  Discernment is simply a practice of listening to one another as we also listen for God's voice speaking to us.

4.  Fourth, that our children, youth, and young-adult ministries will continue to be among our top priorities.  That here, in this church, our young people will not be short-changed as they so often are elsewhere in society.  Our Worship & Wonder is one such program, incredible program that we launched this last year for our children.  Our youth groups, fellowship groups, special events, are another part of that.  All of these take a tremendous amount of adult involvement and leadership to make it happen.  And I'm very appreciative of that effort among those who do just that.

5.  Fifth, the continued expansion of our public witness through community service and social action.  Last Sunday I set forth two challenges that we face:  first, the consideration of whether or not we want to take on one or more nights of the soup kitchen operated by Food for Lane County, only to do it here in our own building.  I had 3 or 4 people who have already expressed some interest in that -- probably not enough to do it, but perhaps a start.  And the second challenge, created by the death of Darey Burkhalter, that left such an enormous hole in our Good Samaritan ministry.  Our volunteers in that ministry organized a meeting this week and had an additional 3 people join them to talk about how to continue this incredible ministry and even to expand it as we reach out to people on the street and those who come to us seeking help.  And those are just 2 of the things that we are doing in that capacity.

6.  Sixth, and last, financial stability, with 3 full-time staff in ministry to better equip our members to do all of the above.  A building that is financially self-sustaining so that 100% of our offerings goes to mission and ministry, and a scholarship fund to cover up to 1/2 tuition of our youth who seek to go on to college.  As you all know, my daughter is a senior next year, so I'm hoping that program really steps up J.

That, in a nutshell, is the direction in which I hope to lead us over the next 5 years.  And complementing those 6 goals, our planning retreat this past June identified as our single #1 priority by a large margin (among the 50 or so who were in attendance) -- growing the church.  Everything we seek to do -- the Helping Hand ministry, our Good Samaritan ministry, feeding the hungry, our youth ministry, Christian education, music ministry -- requires people.  And obviously, the more we have the more we can do, the more impact we will have.

So there is no reason we should be shy about seeking to add to our numbers -- not because numbers are important, but because people are important.  And one of the most important things each of us can do, as a faithful steward, is to be a good host.

Now I want to see if people really understand the task that I'm talking about here, about being faithful stewards.  How many of you have ever ridden on a commercial airline?  Then you know the job of a steward.  When you get on that airplane and a steward greets you, do you reach for your wallet?  The moment on those airlines in mid-flight when the pilot says "Ladies and gentlemen, we do not have enough fuel to reach our destination, so our stewards will now move about the cabin to collect an offering. . . . ".  That's the time you know you need to pick another airline!  Maybe a little too late, but. . . . 

You see, our first task as stewards is to make people feel welcome.  To make this flight not just pleasant but enriching, rewarding.  So that people want to travel with us on this journey of faith.

One of our couples shared with me that they visited a different church over the summer, and that no one spoke to them, except for the pastor and he was paid to do that.  They did not have a feeling that they wanted to return.  That does not mean we should all gang up on visitors like a Sooner at Autzen Stadium, but to create a warm, hospitable environment each and every week is essential to our task.

Well, over the next four Sundays, culminating on our commitment Sunday, October 15th, I would invite you to reflect prayerfully on your role to this end of stewardship.  To ask yourself:  is this a vision for our church and our world which I share?  

And if it is, if that is something you can share, if you can see yourself being part of that team to make it happen, find your place, find your way, find your faith, to do it.


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