Sermon: Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

October 6, 2013

Fulfilling God’s Purpose: Witnessing

Today’s stewardship emphasis is Fulfilling God’s Purpose in Witnessing. “Great,” you might be thinking. “Stewardship AND Witnessing—being public about my money and my faith—oh goodie! Why am I not sipping a latte and working on the NY Times crossword puzzle right now?” But the truth is neither needs to be as intimidating or threatening or boring as we sometimes expect.

For one thing, this stewardship campaign is not about guilting you into giving more money to the church. I will not scold you for not giving 10% of whatever you have received for God’s work on earth. In fact, I am much more interested in talking about the remaining 90% of your money that doesn’t go to the church. Because that’s where stewardship meets witness. Witnessing is how we spend the 90% of our money, our time, and our passion we DON’T give to the church.

For starters, let’s acknowledge that we don’t “give back to God” 10% (or whatever percentage we use to calculate our offerings) of our income. 100% of heaven and earth belongs to God. Whatever amount we put in the offering plate or spend on our groceries or gadgets, it all belongs to God. Whatever amount of time we spend at the church building—a hour a week for worship, several hours for Bible study or choir or working in the garden—every minute of every day is still God’s time. When we pray or actively focus on our spiritual lives as well as the time we spend in front of the TV or on the computer or with friends and family, all of our heart and soul are God’s. Each of us is given a portion of God’s good gifts to steward, to take care of, and no matter how we parse out that time and money and energy, all that we “have” is still God’s.

So maybe we can let go of a little of our anxiety about the word stewardship. I’m not going to ask you to give more than you can; I’m simply going to invite us to look at how we care for the gifts God has entrusted to each of us. You alone can determine whether or not those uses accurately reflect your intentions, your values, your desire to honor God. I invite you to talk to God about whether or not some changes need to be made. Ask God for help in discerning what those changes might be, and how to make them.

And that, in truth, that covers everything I know about stewardship. How we spend our money and our time and our passion outside of this building expresses to God (and to the world) everything we believe.

Today’s second lesson explores how our stewardship is a witness to our faith in daily living. The letter to Timothy reads a little bit like a deathbed scene in a good book–Tuesdays with Morrie springs to mind. That book and this letter are filled with wisdom and experiences from an older, experienced person to a younger one. Paul mentions that Timothy, this younger believer was brought to faith by his mother Lois and his grandmother Eunice. I am curious about that. How does one inherit faith? Surely faith is not like an heirloom quilt or desk, passed down from one generation to the next.

This letter to Timothy describes faith as a “gift of God that is within you” and “a good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” Faith, in this sense, is not an item or idea we have to “get.” It is a living, breathing, embodied reality. It’s not a list of things we believe or a catalogue of stuff we have to do. It is resting in God’s lap with the absolute certainty that that is where we belong.

So how did Timothy receive faith from his relatives? Maybe they were like my parents, who read devotions with us kids after supper every night, sang hymns on long trips in the car, and prayed with us before bed, and who still pray for each of us kids by name every night. Maybe it was like that. Or maybe Timothy received his faith in a less direct way. Maybe faith came from watching his mother make extra servings of food, so they’d have some to share with the neighbors who were going through a tough time. Or from hearing his grandmother speak up for a person everyone else was badmouthing. Or from observing his mom and grandma trying to be respectful of each other’s feelings in the midst of a fierce disagreement. There are many ways to communicate your faith to the people around us, and not all of them are particularly “church-y.”

Despite the fact that faith is not a package someone else can hand us, I get why Jesus’ disciples today demand, “Increase our faith!” Jesus has been telling them how difficult and demanding it will be to follow him (“Take up your cross,” for starters). He has said that the rich will need to share what they have and has told them that following all the rules exactly will not guarantee them a better place in God’s kingdom. It’s no wonder they feel ill-equipped to be his followers. It seems to me that what they are asking is, “Jesus, please help us to be more effective witnesses!” or “Give us the courage to be better stewards of our lives!” And how can we blame them? Don’t we all wish the same?

But Jesus explains that faith can’t be measured in terms of having more or less. Either we have it or we don’t. It’s like being unable to say you are “a little bit pregnant.” Either you are or you are not. Either you have faith or you don’t. And if all you have is a tiny little bit, that’s all you need. And those disciples did have a tiny little bit, because that’s what created the desire in them to have more. And all of you here today have a little tiny little bit. Otherwise you would not be sitting here.

Faith comes to us by what we call “the means of grace”—among them, the Sacraments. As Lutherans, we don’t believe that there is anything magic about the water we use for baptism or the bread and the wine we use for Holy Communion. It’s just bread. It’s just wine. The water comes out of the tap. These things don’t create a super-shield around us that protects us from bad things or makes us radiate goodness. But in some way, God uses these ordinary things to touch us, to claim us, to instill in us a little teeny tiny seed of faith, whether we are conscious of it or not.

One of the reasons we baptize infants in the Lutheran church is precisely to remind ourselves that baptism is God’s work, not ours. Similarly, something powerful and mystical occurs when we share simple bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus. In these ordinary substances, God comes to us, draws us closer to God’s own heart, to one another, and to our sisters and brothers around the globe. I don’t pretend to understand it, but I know that it is so.

The sacraments nurture the mustard seed of faith that was planted in us by the Holy Spirit. But God cultivates faith in other ways too, every day. Sometimes our faith blooms when we treat our co-workers and families well, or when we tell the truth though it would be easier not to, or when we refuse to participate in systems that would cause someone else pain. Each of those actions not only strengthens our faith, but also is a powerful witness to it. You may not think that just showing up at your job or your school and treating others with kindness is a big deal, but it is holy and powerful stewardship of your heart and soul. And it is a witness.

So, every day as we care for the people and places and circumstances God has placed right in front of us and on our hearts to care for, we grow in faith. The Holy Spirit works through our daily interactions to water and weed and fertilize our faith. Sometimes there are helpers –those who love us dearly and those who are simply sent our way by God for a season. Timothy was encouraged in his faith by his mother and his grandmother, so we are accompanied and helped along by others God provides for us on our journeys.

Who has done that for you? Who has tended to the mustard seed of your faith? What teachers and friends and role models have inspired you? Which authors or family members or public figures or artists have watered and fed your faith? Who prays for you? Take a moment now to think of that person or those people, and to thank God for them. [pause]

I invite you now to turn to someone sitting near you and share a way that someone else’s witness has helped you grow.

Let us pray. Trustworthy and amazing God, we give you thanks for creating us, and for entrusting us with the unexplainable and remarkable treasure that is faith. We bless and praise you for assuring us that even the littlest, tiniest kernel of faith is enough because you love us, and your Holy Spirit will keep on tending to our faith. Nurture in us a desire to be better stewards of your gifts. Inspire us to witness to your grace in our daily work and rest, in our budgets and our business. Let our lives be reflections of your kingdom values.

We give you thanks today for those people who have shown us your love and nurtured our faith. We thank you for the teachers and friends and family members who have walked beside us or ahead of us, leading us to embrace you and the world you have made. Help us to fulfill your purpose like Lois and Eunice, cultivating in one another the kind of trust that leads all people to find their home in you.

Amen.

~Pastor Susan Schneider

 

About Trinity Lutheran Church

A congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) located in Madison, Wisconsin.
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