October 21, 2012; Commitment Sunday
Let me begin with a confession. I usually preach the sermon I most need to hear, and I need to hear this one more than most of them. So if you feel like I’m coming down pretty hard on you in some places today, please know that I am not talking to you—I am talking to me.
Do any of you remember that quirky 1970s British sitcom, Monty Python’s Flying Circus? For years I considered one of their comedic songs my theme song. It was called “I’m So Worried.” In it, the songwriter lists his worries, ranging from the political situation in the Middle East, to the pollution of the air and water, to the degeneration of quality in TV shows, to finally worrying about whether his song was going on too long and should have ended after the previous verse. The refrain that follows every verse concludes: “And I’m so worried about the baggage retrieval system they’ve got at Heathrow.”
I worry. Maybe not about the baggage claim at Heathrow airport, but I worry. I know it doesn’t do any good, and it can do harm. But I do. And then to hear Jesus asking us—commanding us, really, “Don’t worry about anything—not what you will eat or drink or wear, not about what will happen tomorrow”… well, that makes me worry about the fact that I’m worrying. That is all magnified today, as we conclude our stewardship campaign, this year entitled “Make It Simple,” because, more than anything else I worry about, I worry about money. For me, it is never simple.
It’s not like today was a surprise. We all knew it was coming, this is that time of year when churches remind us that our contributions keep the lights on and the copy machine full of paper. We endure these campaigns like we do NPR pledge drives, anxious for them to be over, and wondering if we can really skate by without raising our contribution much this year, in the hopes that someone else will. And that the boiler will hold out another year. (But don’t get me started. I worry.) And then if I don’t up my pledge, I start worrying that that others won’t. And then worrying that my resistance to upping my giving is a sign of falling victim to the rampant materialism that is so dominant in our culture.
Because we do live in a world that thrives on worry. Think about those commercials for home security systems or the signs in airports that warn, “If you see something suspicious, please call 1-800-whatever.” And apparently more benignly, there are advertisements for creams that make wrinkles disappear, or that show happy parents buying new telephones for your kids, inviting us to wonder, “Do I have wrinkles? Do my kids need a new phone?” You know what I mean. I want to think I’m above those sneaky marketing ploys that try to tell me I don’t have enough, that I am not enough. But voices everywhere are repeating that we don’t have enough—enough beauty, enough education, enough love, enough stuff (never enough stuff!), and we certainly don’t have enough to spare any. We’ve got to hang on to what little we have. And if we throw $20 in the offering plate every once in awhile, we do so feeling noble about our sacrifice.
So a stewardship campaign, an invitation to estimate giving in a systematic way, is a counter-cultural, radical idea. It calls us to face the reality that we are planning to give away some of what we have, and that we plan to do so on a regular basis. And, not only that, but it invites us to give our time and our money and our talents away not because we have to pay our dues, but because we are celebrating that we have enough. That we will always have enough. I’m worried that I won’t be generous enough. Or that I’ll be so generous with Trinity that I’ll end up bouncing checks across America. And you think I’m kidding, but I’m not.
So how on earth to combat all this worry? How to approach estimating my giving for this year? What I found helpful this week was to do a little word study. I love words, so this kind of activity is a blessing to me. What I did was explore the origin of the word steward. It comes from Old English, and is a variation of sty-warden—in other words, a person who cares for someone else’s pigs. That’s a humbling thought, isn’t it?
In England’s old feudal system, the Lord of the manor owned the livestock, but those who worked for him, tending to his messy, stinky animals, bore a great responsibility. Their work benefitted not only the Lord of the manor, but also all the people in the community who depended on the landowner for their well-being. A sty-warden’s attentiveness to the health and well-being of his charges affected all—for good of for ill.
You may not like being called a pig-keeper. It sounds like a common, dirty job. We don’t usually embrace jobs we equate with being poor. You must have noticed that during the presidential debate this week, neither candidate ever mentioned the poor. Both President Obama and Governor Romney spoke a great deal about the middle class, and a little bit about the wealthiest people in our country, but neither of them ever mentioned the poor. Not once. We don’t like to think about the poor. We certainly don’t want to BE the poor. We think our responsibility toward money is to hold on to what we have accumulated. But nothing is really ours. It is only entrusted to us, with the understanding that we will give it away for the sake of our neighbors.
And maybe there is some reassurance in the idea that we are not the lord of the manor, but merely servants. Maybe our roles as sty-wardens is meant to alleviate some worry. For starters, it puts us all on an equal level with everyone else. And more than that, it means someone else is in charge of the big picture, and of looking out for our well-being. We only have to keep our little corner of the kingdom running smoothly. And the Someone who is looking out for us is not just Anyone; it is God, the maker of heaven and earth. If we are in the care of the fashioner of the lilac and the peacock, the lily-of-the-valley and the robin, we are in good hands. No need for to worry. (And, for me, that’s not a small thing to say.)
But if I am a sty-warden, secure in the care of a Lord who will not let me starve or disappear or get buried in the sludge of the stys where I spend my time, then my giving to others springs from a peer-to-peer, brother-sister or sister-sister relationship, not from my bending down to bestow charity on the minions who come across my path. I am not the owner of anything. I am simply called to oversee what belongs to God. And how would God want me to handle the things which have been entrusted to me? I am sure of very few things, but I am sure of this: Jesus wants me to have enough. Jesus wants you to have enough. Jesus wants everyone to have enough. Maybe it is, after all, really simple.
Shane Claiborne, a radical Christian who lives among the poor in inner-city Philadelphia, made this comment recently about Christian giving: “If we really, really loved our neighbors as ourselves, capitalism wouldn’t be possible, and Marxism wouldn’t be necessary.” In other words, if we honestly understood that all we have is not ours, but God’s, and if we really grasped that our job here is to ensure that all of God’s beloved world has enough, we just wouldn’t be able to keep too much if our neighbor had too little. We simply wouldn’t be able to do it. There would be no Needy Fund because there would be no needy. Imagine!
The trouble arises when we forget that we are the sty-wardens, and begin to think that we are Lords of the Manor, and that what we are tending to is our own. When we remember, however, that all we touch is simply given to us to care for, it really is much more simple. It may even be possible to consider the idea of a Biblical tithe—the Scriptural mandate that we offer 10% of what God has given us to steward. Not everyone can manage that level of giving, but it can be a goal to work toward. It is a way to remember that God provides for all that we need, and that all we have is God’s anyway.
And before any of my fellow worriers start to fret about, “Does she mean ten percent before taxes or after? Does that ten percent include our giving to other non-profits or just the church?” let me tell you plainly. It doesn’t matter. Pick a number, and work toward 10% of that. And maybe you will benefit from this perspective I heard from Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber of Denver’s House of All Saints and Sinners: “I get to keep 90% of what’s not mine to begin with? Sweet deal!”
So we end up where Jesus started. Don’t worry about anything. Everything you need God will provide. Trust. Everything you have in your care is meant to be shared for the good of the world. God loves you. God will strengthen you and care for you in all things, including your growing edge—which for me, is the desire to be generous. Maybe it really is that simple. So what else can we say but, “Thanks be to God”?