For those preaching stewardship this month, I came across a reading in Exodus that I've never heard spoken in church, and I have to wonder why.
Because this story explains so well what stewardship is about.
Following the gross infidelity with the golden calf, God decides that if this God/human relationship is going to work, we have to solve a big problem. God cannot be with us when we act like God doesn't exist or doesn't matter. So what are we going to do to make it possible for God to be in the center of our lives, where God wants to be?
As usual, God provides the answer, which is to spend time and treasure creating space in their lives for God to be with them.
In Exodus 35, Moses says, "Here is the thing that the LORD has commanded. Take from among you an offering to the Lord; let whoever is generous of heart bring the Lord's offering: gold, silver, and bronze, etc."
Then, "All who are skillful among you shall come and make all that the LORD has commanded: a tabernacle."
The two elements of any stewardship emphasis are right there:
1. They passed the offering plate.
2. Then they passed out the time and talent sheets.
How did the Israelites respond? They came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the Lord's offering to be used.
Then Moses called together everyone with a skill, and "everyone whose heart was stirred to come to do the work."
God didn't stand back and wait for them to create a space. Everyone whose heart was stirred contributed to the offering. Everyone whose heart was stirred," filled out that time and talent sheet and reported for work.
God provided the resources and the skills to do the work of creating this space for God. Then God's spirit provided the nudge for them to want to do it. That's exactly how God works today.
Often I think we miss the point of giving. The point of this Exodus story was not that God thought it would be cool to have a tabernacle. This was something the people needed to do to put their relationship in order, to experience God's presence, to enjoy the blessings of God being fully present in their lives.
In the Christian community, giving comes when your heart is stirred, when you recognize that God is working in you to do something dynamic.
But wait until you hear the end of this story in Exodus 36!
The workers observe:
"The people bring much more than enough for doing the work which the LORD has commanded us to do." So Moses gave command, and word was proclaimed throughout the camp, "Let neither man nor woman do anything more for the offering." So the people were restrained from bringing; for what they brought was sufficient to do all the work and more."
Imagine your council president announcing to the congregation, "You gave us way more than we need this year. We're going to give some of it back, or better yet give it away to someone else."
Would that be the coolest stewardship campaign ever?!
There are two things we can take from this story of the stirring of hearts and the Great Stewardship Refund.
First, we church folks commonly monitor closely how we're doing in keeping up with the bills, and then give according to that. Mainline churches have operated this way for decades. Reading Exodus makes me wonder if that isn't part of the reason why they struggle today. The Israelites did not determine the cost of the tabernacle, then watch to see how the money trickled in, point out how far behind they were in their bills, and start a stewardship drive to boost giving to the needed level.
When we look at stewardship as paying bills, we forget what the point of stewardship is. Stewardship is not doing God a favor; bailing out the church.
It's not that God gets a kick out of buildings or organizations. The point is that we need to build them. Giving puts our relationship in order, so we can enjoy the blessings of God being fully present with us in everything we do.
The idea of giving so much to God's work that it leads to there has a stewardship refund is a fantastic vision. Maybe it's an impossible dream. But great accomplishments always start with a dream. A dream that God stirs up in some heart.
Exodus invites us to dream big.
To continue to make space for God in our lives.
To continue to expand our ministries to the community.
To be with our neighbors in the world who are hurting.
To grow in our ability to pass on the pass so that others may experience God.
We want to create space for as many people as possible to take an active part in worship, in service, in education so that God may be an active part of lives and bring all people into the joy of his reign on earth.