This begs the question: What IS God’s expectation?
One of the more difficult questions I ever had from a parishioner was, “How can I be expected to love and worship a God who would treat the rich with contempt?” When I pursued this line of thought I found it was this line from the Magnificat that was the source of our struggle:
“He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.” Luke 1:53
Indeed, the entire Magnificat is as big a struggle for the Christian as The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). Are we expected to believe that material wealth can affect God’s reception to life eternal? Time and again, our attachment to material goods is challenged by God’s Word. There are numerous publications which address this question and our possible stewardship responses. I leave you to explore them.
Ultimately, a congregation must embrace multiple philosophies about stewardship in order to reach the differing spiritualities of its disciples. What does that mean? It means that faithful stewardship is:
- Thankfulness for God’s generosity, gifts and sacrifice;
- Obedience to the law to offering the first fruits of the harvest (tithe);
- A sign of our unity through mutual support for building God’s Kingdom;
- Response to God’s command to take care of all that God has entrusted to humankind;
- Genuine care for the greater common good, and a desire for all of creation to share equally in what God has done;
- Appreciation of the limitation of material goods, and our genuine transitional ownership made manifest in a limitless willingness to share and redistribute wealth;
- Attentive care of the things God has made and given including the totality of our time, talents and treasures;
- Proper planning for the final dispensation of those things God has given to us including our bodies, faith, family, friends and material goods.
For some, the simple command to give a tithe (10%) from a bank account is a sufficient faithful response. For some, it must be a proportionate response to God’s generosity and sacrifice. There is no one right answer to stewardship, rather they are all right, and depending upon a disciples’ spiritual maturity, one may embrace all of them.
How a congregation communicates these philosophies of stewardship is through the means of giving offered. Does your congregation encourage tithing? Offer yearly commitment Sundays? Encourage acts of generosity toward staff and one another? Share the good news of the shared labor of the larger church, such as Synodical feeding events, World Hunger or Lutheran Disaster Response? Does the pastor and congregation leadership speak openly of their own struggles with money and how they determine what to give charitably as well as to family? Are ministry partners invited to share their stories and thank the congregation for supporting God’s work?
When a congregation sets aside a Sunday for the recognition of stewardship rather than creating a philanthropic community through continuous communication, it makes stewardship appear as an optional expression of discipleship. Stewardship is not optional. Stewardship practices are the life-breath of all aspects of the work of the church. We pray about giving and receiving, offer in worship, learn about God’s expectations, are called to give, care for the gifts of God, invite others to share and encourage one another to go and do likewise. There is really no such thing as “Stewardship Sunday” when every day is an experience of stewardship.
My last word on Stewardship is to actually share a story from Dan Barber’s book, The Third Plate: Field Noes on the Future of Food. In it, he tells the story of visiting with farmers who were convened to discuss organic farming methods and land use. The question was asked why the flavor of organic produce was so superior to others. After some silence as the farmers considered the question, one responded, “When do you start raising a child?” Then, Barber recounts that the farmer (Klaas) continued,
Klaas said he’d come to the question through his interest in the Mennonite community, a group he had known over the years and greatly respected. He explained that Mennonites forbid the use of rubber tires on their farm tractors…He said one day he got up the nerve to ask a Mennonite bishop why rubber tires were forbidden. The bishop answered Klaas’ s question with a question: “When do you start raising a child?” According to the bishop, Klaas told us, children rearing begins not at birth, or even conception, but one hundred years before a child is born, “because that’s when you start building the environment they’re going to live in.” (Dan Barber. The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. (NYC: Penguin Random House, 2014) pp. 31-32.)
How do we help a congregation become good stewards? That work began one hundred years ago, and is passed intentionally from one generation to the next. There are no shortcuts or easy methods to growing a steward. Any attempts to industrialize the process may appear easier, but the loss of inmate touch ultimately “leads to ignorance, and eventually loss.” I suggest that “Stewardship Sunday” is today’s quick and easy industrialized way of approaching stewardship, but it is clearly not as effective as growing a steward.