If you just got here, we’re in the middle of a sermon series on stewardship. This is the third installment. We’ve got two more to go.
In the first sermon, we talked about how stewardship is something we learn over time. It begins in early childhood as we’re taught to take care of our toys and be responsible for the things we have. And in the second sermon, we looked at how values affect stewardship; i.e., how what we’re willing to give for something is related to how important it is to us and how much we perceive it’s worth.
This morning I’d like to explore the underlying theology of stewardship. My sense is, the more we know what we’re doing and why, the more we can do it with conviction and purpose, and the more we can do it with conviction and purpose, the greater joy and satisfaction we’ll get out of being good stewards.
But, before we begin, I want to commend you. When I first agreed to offer this series in conjunction with our Capital Stewardship Campaign, I thought I’d catch a lot of flack. Most congregations I’ve served didn’t like to talk about stewardship. Never mind the fact that it has to do with everything we have – our time and talent – as well as our money. Just saying the word would cause people to hunker down. They’d think you were going to pass the plate or pick their pocket. Most Presbyterians would rather have a root canal than hear a sermon on stewardship.
For some reason, you’re not like that. You sit up and listen. You don’t flinch when I talk about tithing and putting God first. You take it seriously. I honestly believe you want to be the best stewards you can possibly be. And I appreciate that. It certainly makes my job a lot easier. Now, for the sermon.
A good theology of stewardship begins with the premise that everything belongs to God – all that we are, all that we have, all that there is. A good steward is one who wears an invisible lapel button that says, “It’s God’s!”
And, while this sounds obvious, it’s exactly the opposite of what the world would have us believe. According to the world, what I have has nothing to do with God, it’s mine. I earned it, I bought it, I paid for it, I own it. Even if it was given to me or I inherited it, it’s still mine to do with as I see fit.
As far as the world is concerned, I can do anything I want with what belongs to me, as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else. I can hoard it or share it, save it or spend it, invest it or give it away – it doesn’t matter. It’s entirely up to me.
Can you see how contrary this is to what the Bible teaches? According to the Bible,
“The earth is Yahweh’s, with its fullness;
the world, and those who dwell therein.” (Psalms 24:1)
“The silver is mine,
and the gold is mine,’ says Yahweh of Armies.” (Haggai 2:8)
“For every animal of the forest…
and the livestock on a thousand hills.” (Psalms 50:10)
Have you ever taken inventory of all your possessions? Years ago we took a video camera and walked through the house and videotaped all of our furnishings and appliances and various odds and ends. It was amazing, all the stuff we’d accumulated over the years, not to mention the more abstract things such as stocks and bonds and bank account balances. You ought to try it sometime. Take stock of all your belongings. Just don’t forget, when you finish, to make a little note to remind yourself: “It’s God’s, not mine.”
That’s the first premise in a good theology of stewardship, and the second is, although there are many motivations for us to be good stewards, the best and most lasting motivation is gratitude – giving to others because you’re thankful for what God has given to you.
“We love him,
because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
Well, the same holds true for our giving: “We give because God first gave us so much.”
God has given us comfortable homes, fulfilling jobs, endless opportunities for self-enrichment, freedom, family, faith and friends. The list goes on, not to mention the fact that God gave us the gift of his only begotten son, Jesus Christ. We have so much to be thankful for, and in a spirit of thanksgiving for all the many ways God has blessed our lives, we seek to be a blessing to others to the honor and glory of his name.
But gratitude is not the only motivation for stewardship, and that’s where a lot of the problem lies. Many are motivated by a sense of obligation and obedience. I’ll never forget the day when one of the elders in my church stood before the congregation and said, “Now there are some of you sitting out there today who aren’t paying your fair share, and you know perfectly well who you are!”
I suppose there’s a time and place for obligation and obedience – for example, I doubt that we’d be as diligent in paying our taxes on time if we didn’t have to – but, when it comes to good stewardship, I don’t know many people who appreciate being pressured or coerced.
The same holds true for giving out of a sense of guilt. In the old days, preachers used to shame their congregations into supporting the church and giving to missions. They’d point out how much they spent on this and that and how little they gave to the Lord.
This was the Sally Struthers approach for raising money for starving children in Africa. Remember the ads on TV? She’d visit a tribal village and gather children around her and make an impassioned plea looking into the camera. It was obvious what she was doing – she was playing on our sympathy. She wanted us to feel guilty for being affluent. And while, yes, we ought to be doing more to provide food and medical supplies to less developed countries, giving out of a sense of guilt is usually short-lived and can even lead to resentment down the road.
So can giving out of a sense of fear. To put it plainly: If you give to the church because you’re afraid you’ll go to hell if you don’t, you’re never going to be a good steward. Fear is a negative motivation and, though it may produce immediate results, it doesn’t last long, and it doesn’t lead to a positive attitude toward giving.
And so, let me say it once more: The best and most lasting motivation for being a good steward is gratitude – giving to others because you’re thankful for what God has given to you. Paul made this perfectly clear when he asked the Christians in Corinth to contribute to the relief of the Christians in Jerusalem who were suffering the effects of a long drought. He said,
“Let each man give according as he has determined in his heart;
not grudgingly, or under compulsion;
for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)
So, let’s see, what have we got so far? One, everything belongs to God and two, the only proper motivation for good stewardship is gratitude. The other important element in a theology of stewardship is this: If you don’t feel it, it doesn’t count.
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Good stewardship requires more than pitching loose coins into a beggar’s cup on your way to nice restaurant. Good stewardship requires commitment and devotion and sacrifice.
In the Bible, we see this early on. Just look at the story of Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis, chapter four. Dr. W. J. A. Power, a world-renown Bible scholar, tells us that this story is set in the context of a primitive harvest festival, where everyone would come together to offer the first fruits of his labor to God.
Cain, being a farmer, brought produce from the field. Dr. Power imagines it this way: It’d been a good year for Cain. He’d had a bumper crop. But he was greedy, and he didn’t see the point of wasting good food in some foolish religious sacrifice. So, instead of bringing a bushel of wheat or a basket of fruit, he took an old feed sack and threw in a few buckets of shriveled up peanuts.
Abel, on the other hand, was a shepherd, and he had lots of newborn lambs. One, in particular, had been orphaned, and he’d taken that lamb and treated it as a pet. He’d hold it in his arms and nurse it with a bottle. As it grew, he’d feed it from the table and let it sleep at the foot of his bed. It became like a daughter to him. So, when the harvest festival rolled around, and Abel thought about what he could offer to God for all his good fortune, he chose the very thing that was nearest and dearest to his heart, his little pet lamb.
Well, you know the story. According to Genesis, “Yahweh respected Abel and his offering, but he didn’t respect Cain and his offering” (Genesis 4:4-5) The meaning is clear: It wasn’t that God preferred lamb chops over peanuts, but that, in his giving, Abel gave from a glad and generous heart while Cain just went through the motions. If you don’t feel it, it doesn’t count.
This is what got the prophet Malachi all riled up. In his day, there were people who were bringing blind and crippled animals for sacrifice instead of those that were healthy and without blemish. Well, why not? God would never know the difference. Or so they thought.
By contrast, Jesus went to the temple and watched the people putting their money into the temple treasury. According to Mark,
“Many who were rich cast in much.
A poor widow came, and she cast in two small brass coins,
which equal a quadrans coin.
He called his disciples to himself, and said to them, ‘Most certainly I tell you,
this poor widow gave more than all those who are giving into the treasury,
for they all gave out of their abundance,
but she, out of her poverty,
gave all that she had to live on.'” (Mark 12:41-44)
Good stewardship comes from the heart and represents a genuine expression of love and devotion and sacrifice.
The story is told of a missionary who celebrated her birthday in a small tribal village in central Africa. She was a teacher, and her students went all out to throw a party in her honor.
They brought food and drink and gifts of every kind. One gift was a little drawstring bag full of colorful stones collected from a creek bed several miles from the village. She looked at the little boy who gave them to her said, “How on earth did you get these? That’s a long way from here.” The little boy smiled and said, “Long walk part of gift.”
Here’s the sum of it all: A theology of stewardship includes at least three components:
First, everything belongs to God. Second, the only proper motivation for good stewardship is gratitude. And third, if you don’t feel it, it doesn’t count.
One of the best examples of good stewardship I’ve ever seen happened in 1973. I was serving as student pastor of a small church in Prosper, Texas, just north of Dallas. We had a Board of Trustees that looked after the property. They wanted to buy a vacant lot across from the church for parking and future development. The price was $8,000, which was a lot of money in those days, particularly for a small congregation. To raise the money, the chairman of the board asked the others to make a pledge. That, hopefully, would serve as a catalyst for the rest of the congregation to follow suit.
We met in the basement of the church around folding tables. There were eight men and one woman. Her name was Mary James. She and her husband, Larry, had two young children.
Larry worked in McKinney for Fisher Controls. Mary had a small beauty shop next to their house. They were doing all right, but they didn’t have a lot of discretionary income. So, it sort of put Mary in a bind to be asked to make a pledge right there on the spot. But she was a faithful member of the church and she was proud to be member of the Board of Trustees, and she wanted to do her part.
The chairman passed out little slips of paper, and, like the others, Mary jotted down her pledge. Then one of the men went around the table and collected them in his hat and took them to the chairman, who tallied them up and read the results.
Most were for a hundred dollars a year. When he got to Mary’s pledge, it read, “One haircut per week.” He paused for a moment with a puzzled look on his face, then he asked Mary, “How much do you get for a haircut.” She said, “$5.00. He did the math and put down the amount of Mary’s pledge. $260. More than two and half times the others. Yet, not all at once. One haircut per week. It was her pledge of support and a symbol of her devotion to God, but, for me, it was more than that; it was a living theology of good stewardship.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2004, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.