Craft of Preaching

Dear Working Preacher

Insights, ideas and inspiration related to the coming week's lectionary texts.

Jesus, the Rich Man, and All of Us Lousy Stewards

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Dear Working Preacher,

Can we just admit that most of us kind of stink at doing stewardship? I know that sounds like an awful thing for me to say, but if you would, hear me out.

First, by "us" I mean both pastors and everyday Christians alike (I'm not a huge fan of the word "lay person," but that's another story ). With regard to pastors, most of us are not all that wild about preaching stewardship. It makes us uncomfortable, whether because it feels like a departure from simple proclamation, because we feel it puts our own giving under the spotlight, or because it feels self-serving in that we derive our salaries from the offerings of people we are encouraging to give. While I've written on becoming a better stewardship preacher elsewhere on WP, for now I just want to note that a lot of us are hesitant.

The situation is little better on the other side of the pulpit. Truth be told, too many of our folks give little to no thought about their giving to the church. They -- and, let's face it -- we, often give from what's left over, not from an intentional sense of abundant blessing. As a people, we are uncomfortable talking about money -- particularly when it's our money -- with others and, now that you come to it, we're not sure it's something we should be discussing in church to begin with.

The underlying cause of this discomfort with stewardship among both clergy and everyday Christians, I think, is the unfortunate -- and, frankly, unbiblical -- way we tend to compartmentalize our faith. We think about faith on Sundays but give it little thought the rest of the week. Similarly, we think about faith when it comes to making sure our kids get to confirmation or saying our prayers at meal time but not when it comes to balancing our checkbook, deciding how to prioritize and spend our time, what job to take, or what political stances and candidates we support.

We've all bought in, in other words, to the post-Enlightenment and quintessentially American division of our private and public selves, with church and faith falling squarely in the "private" column and just about everything else in the "public" arena. Just to be clear, I'm not using "public" in this sense of "everybody knows about it," but rather in terms of those things "shared in common." We all have to find work, pay the bills, participate in the democratic process, etc., and so in this sense these things are "public" and open to discussion. But we don't have to all believe and certainly not believe the same, and so these things are in this way "private" and something we've been taught should not be talked about in polite conversation.

But today's gospel reading calls this public/private dichotomy into question, asserting that our faith in God should influence all aspects of our life. God, in fact, cares about what we do with our money for at least two reasons. First, how we spend our money has a great impact on the welfare of our neighbor. Notice that Jesus doesn't just tell the man simply to give his wealth away, but rather tells him to give it to the poor. As we saw in last week's passage from Genesis, we were not made to be independent agents acting solely with our own interests in mind. Rather, we are created for relationship. Looked at this way, it seems odd that we limit God's divine assessment that "it is not good for the man to be alone" to marriage and not imagine it speaks to all of our other relationships. Indeed, the question we often hear during election-season -- "Are you better off than four years ago?" -- suddenly seems glaringly at odds with the biblical mandate to care for each other. I mean, should we rather be asking, "Is my neighbor better? Are we as a community and nation and world better? And, perhaps most importantly, what can I do about it?" Jesus invites not just the rich man but all of us to imagine that we are, indeed, stewards of our wealth, charged to use all we have to best care for all the people God has given us as companions along the way.

Second, how we spend our money has a great impact on our own welfare as well. Consider the degree to which wealth can mask our dependence on God and each other by creating a sense, not just of independence, but actually of not needing each other. (Hence the expression "self-made" man or woman.) Jesus calls the rich man back into relationship, and even solidarity, with his neighbor both for the sake of that neighbor but also for his own. Jesus knows that there are few things more important for us to do than to share our abundance. From volunteering at a food bank to giving money to make sure fewer people go to bed hungry, each time we share what we have with others we are blessed as much or more as the recipient of our care. Jesus doesn't command him to give away what he has in order to cause him grief or to test him, but rather out of love. And, whether you suddenly hear this as good news or bad, he loves us just as much.

Look, here's the thing: this man comes to Jesus for a reason. He knows there's something wrong. He's kept all the commandments and yet he still experiences a certain disease. Indeed, given that everyone else who kneels to Jesus in Mark is making a request for healing, it may be that he knows himself quite literally to be diseased and in need of restoration.

So also us, I would contend: we know that more money does not make us happy, yet we all to often act like it does. Why? Because we live in a culture that bombards us 24/7 with the seductive and false message that money is the answer to our problems and that there's not enough of it to go around. Further, most of us have gotten into the habit of buying to make ourselves feel better. It doesn't work, at least not for long, but we've been so conditioned that when the new shoes or laptop doesn't give us a lift for long we tend to look for something else to buy that will.

How in the world can we counter these powerful and oppressive forces? Three ideas:

1) We need to remind each other that we have enough, actually more than enough, and share stories of when giving to others brought a sense of satisfaction that money alone cannot. (Indeed, recent research shows that the only way money can make us happy is by giving it to others. ) So one possibility for the sermon this week would be to take time to share stories of when, in fact, we heeded Jesus' words and promise and experienced the blessing of giving to those in need.

2) We need to provide opportunities to practice our faith in everyday life. So maybe one way to get over how uncomfortable we are with talking about money and stewardship in the church is to reverse the common practice of asking for money in our stewardship sermons and instead give everyone money and talk with them about what it means to be stewards. Perhaps we could give everyone a dollar -- or if you can't afford that, ask them to take out a coin or bill -- and, after pointing out that all U.S. currency has "in God we trust" printed on it, ask what it would look like to trust God with this money. How would we spend our money this week if we trusted God? What would we buy? What would we refrain by buying? What would we save, and for what purpose? And what would we give - how much and to whom? Stewardship isn't primarily about giving money to the church; rather, it's about taking care of all of our resources in light of God's commands and promises. So why not put that into practice this week (and, if you're really feeling brave, have some people report back next week on what they experienced).

3) The rich man grieved because he could not part with his possessions. We also may struggle with an imagination dominated by a sense of scarcity and therefore have a hard time seeing the blessings of God all around us. While the move from a mentality of scarcity to one of abundance doesn't happen overnight, we can start on that journey this Sunday. In particular, we can invite people to call to mind one particular blessing they've experienced in the week past and give thanks for it in a time of silent prayer. And we can send people out, charging them to take time each day at work or at home to name a blessing and give thanks in prayer. The God for whom nothing is impossible has showered each of us with blessings, and noticing and giving thanks for them can be a powerful way to live into God's abundance.

You'll know what works best in your context, Working Preacher, so take these words for what they're worth. But as you're preparing your sermon, know that one of the things I give thanks for is your hard work, your fidelity, and your courage to announce the impossible possibility of God's abundant and unending love for each and all of us.

Yours in Christ,
David

PS: Renew 52 is now available in PDF format in addition to formats for the iPad, Nook, and Kindle. If you haven't downloaded your copy yet, why not do it now ? And if you haven't forwarded this link to your people -- remember, this book is for anyone who cares about the future of the church -- please consider doing so. (The web address that takes you to the information page is simply www.luthersem.edu/renew52. )

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