The Rev. Harold E. Masback, III, November 14, 2004
1 In you, O LORD, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. 2 Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me. 3 You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, 4 take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge. 5 Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.
38 give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.
2 Corinthians 9:6-15
6 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.9 As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” 10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us;12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others,14 while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you.15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
I love Stewardship Sunday. This has got to be the most curious thing you and I do together all year. There is absolutely no surprise in a stewardship sermon. You and I both know what I’m going to do before we even come through the doors. I’m going to ask you to take some of the money God blessed to you, ask you to take some of the money you earned with talents and energies God created in you, and give it to the church God made for you so that God can bless you some more. It doesn’t seem like that should take 18 minutes does it?
In fact, a wise theologian once put it very succinctly. He said, “Stewardship is what a man does after he says: ‘I believe.’” The genius in that sentence is that the true essence of all stewardship is simply gratitude. Are you and I grateful for all the abundant blessings God has poured out for us? As we believe, so we are grateful, and as we are grateful so we give. “Stewardship is what a man does after he says: ‘I believe.’”
So what do we believe? What do I believe? This morning, I’m simply going to tell you three things Allen and I believe with all our hearts, three beliefs I think you share, three beliefs which ought to inform our gratitude and our stewardship as well.
Now, I want to be very clear about what I’m saying here. I’m not talking about received opinions. I’m not talking about logical conclusions. I’m talking about what my life experience has taught me right down to my core. I mean the kind of “in your bones” belief Luther meant when he said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
What do I believe? First, I believe there is a force in creation, a power we call God, a love we experience through Jesus that saves, heals and protects our souls, our families and our communities.
Second, I believe that God saves, heals, and protects us through our participation in activities that transform us into the people God intended us to be.
Third, I believe that God saves, heals, and protects us through our participation in communities where we learn to love one another, where we bring the magnificent, diverse array of talents and energies God has blessed to us and put them together for the good of our families, the good of our neighbors, and the good of our world.
First, I believe the Psalmist had it right when he proclaimed God a refuge, a rock, a strong fortress to save him. Why do I believe this? I believe this because that’s what happened to me.
The world is full of theories, opinions, and dogmas, and I suppose we’ll all find out which are true in the sweet bye and bye. But about the most real thing I know on this side of the veil is that I am alive and standing at this pulpit right now. And I know to a certainty that there isn’t any way this would be true if God had not spoken the words “fear not” to a sin-stained, depressed, young lawyer on the Washington Metro, if Jesus had not appeared to me saying, “Skip, do not be anxious, I will take care of everything.” Now, I don’t know for sure if I should call what happened on that subway a vision, a dream, or even a hallucination. But this much I know for sure: on one side of the experience I was losing a desperate, guilty battle with depression, and on the other side of the experience I was healed, redeemed, and protected, pretty much just the way the Psalmist described it three thousand years ago.
And now, twenty years later, I have a second foundation for my belief, for I have come to learn how many fellow travelers have experienced this same healing power of God. One of the great privileges of serving as a pastor is that so many of you have sidled up to me and shared stories you aren’t quite sure you can tell just anyone else.
After ten years, I could just about go pew, by pew, by pew – and in every pew there are folks who have been all but crushed by depression, illness, addiction, death, betrayal, or job loss – and in every pew there are these same folks who have found the God who is a rock, a refuge, a healing hand leading them out of the net that was hidden from them.
Stewardship is what a man does after he says, “I believe.” Well, if we believe God heals, and I think we do, then we should be pooling our God-given resources to hire the best pastoral care minister we can find – an experienced pastoral care minister who can bring God’s spiritual hope and healing to every corner of this congregation: to every senior in a nursing home, to every widow missing her husband, to every family struggling with conflict, to every son dealing with a mother’s Alzheimer’s, to every daughter dealing with a father’s depression, to every home burdened with addictions, to every child struggling with eating disorders. God is yearning to heal us, and as we so believe, so we should be grateful, and as we are grateful so should we give.
The second thing I believe is that Jesus had it right when he said “the measure you give will be the measure you get back” – that Paul had it right when he said, “the one who sows sparingly will reap sparingly and the one who sows bountifully will reap bountifully.” Now, I want to be really careful about the way I say this. I am not saying that God’s redemption, God’s love, God’s acceptance is contingent on anything we do. No matter how sparingly or how bountifully we give, no matter how complacently or how fervently we pray, we are all redeemed, loved, and accepted by God. That got worked out at Golgotha 2,000 years ago. That’s just the way of God’s unconditional grace.
What’s in play is not the redemption, the love, or the acceptance – what’s in play is whether you are transformed by that redemption, whether you experience that love, whether you can accept that acceptance. Here God seems to call for a response from us, a response of participation. I believe that God saves, heals, and protects us through our participation in activities that transform us into the people God intended for us to be.
Why do I believe this? I believe this because this is how I have experienced such transformation as God has blessed to me. Perhaps the world’s greatest scholar in transformative participation is George Lindbeck. His master work, The Nature of Doctrine, is suggested reading at virtually every seminary in the country. Professor Lindbeck was in his last years at Yale when I was there, so after I read his book I asked if he would meet with me. He was about 70 years old when I met him in his small seminary office, his disheveled white hair back-lit by the sun streaming through his window.
I wanted to talk about his book, but all Professor Lindbeck wanted to talk about was my motley story, he wanted to know what experiences led fallen people to faith, to seminary. I told him it was an absolute mystery. One moment I was an arrogant lawyer on a subway – one grace filled experience later I was on a path that led inexorably to seminary. Still arrogant, perhaps, but on a new path. He just looked at me silently for a while and said, “A mystery? Hmmmm. Tell me this, was religion important to your Mother?” “Oh, absolutely, she was a Baptist determined to pass her faith along to her kids.”
“Did she take you to church when you were young?” “Are you kidding, we never missed; we had perfect attendance medals that reached half-way down to our knees.”
“Was the Sunday School pretty serious about the Bible?” “Of course! Those Sunday School teachers had us memorizing Psalms, answering quizzes, competing to recite. I can still remember Mrs. Vestal’s ‘GE College Bible Bowl,’ Mr. Judy’s fifth grade class on the Bible and Life, and Mr. Hansen’s Baptism class.”
“Did you act in any dramas or sing in any choirs?” “Sure. I sang in the children’s choir and then Betsy Kirshner’s junior choir. I was Gabriel in the nativity pageant, the cobbler’s boy in the play about the kopeks, and then in the usual skits and plays put on by the Junior and Senior high fellowships.”
“But there came a time when you thought you outgrew religion? Got too smart and self-sufficient to believe the story?” “Well, I actually began to have my doubts around fourteen.” “You fell away from the church and began your self-reliant climb through college, law school, and the law?” “Well, I still went to church, but only to keep my wife company.”
“And then in mid-life things began to crumble for you spiritually? You fell into a strange darkness you couldn’t solve?” “Yes.” “And you turned back to the religion of your youth?” “Yes.” “And that’s where you found God waiting for you?” “Yes.”
And then another silence before the old professor spoke, . . .“And this is a mystery to you? A surprise to you? . . . You seem like a smarter fellow than that.”
My brothers and sisters, do you see what my mom had done for me? In all those Sunday morning outings to church, in all those years she taught Sunday school, in all those rides to choir practice, in all those nights sitting in the back of a darkened church while I rehearsed, in all those winter afternoons parked outside waiting for youth group to end, in all those thousands of hours my mom was packing me a parachute.
She couldn’t keep me from making grievous mistakes in life, but she could pack a parachute for when they caught up with me. I didn’t realize I had it on until I found myself in free fall, desperately grasping for a ripcord my mom had sewn in decades before. And there it was, and there God was, reaching out and loving me back to health. Participation is the key to transformation.
Stewardship is what a woman does after she says, “I believe.” And if we believe that participation is the key to transformation, and I think we do, then we should be pooling our God-given resources to attract the very best music director and pastoral care minister we can find, entrepreneurial leaders who can offer inspiring, alluring, transformative programs for all ages. Hire a manager to handle professionally the administrative tasks Allen and I handle amateurishly, and you free us up to offer the pastoral initiatives like Quest for the Spirit and Working in the Spirit we were trained to offer.
The point isn’t that every church member is supposed to exhaust themselves running to every program we offer. The point is that a rich, inspiring buffet of spiritual offerings has something for everyone and draws more people into transformative participation.
My friends, we’re in the business of packing parachutes around here, and we want to pack as many parachutes as we possibly can. Whenever any child, adult, or senior in our congregation reaches for the ripcord, God wants it to be there and we want it to be there. And who knows but that some of the parachutes we pack might someday drift into other schools, colleges, seminaries, youth groups and churches, spreading the good news of Christ as they land. As we believe, so we are grateful, and as we are grateful, so we give.
Finally, I believe that God saves, heals, and protects us through our participation in communities where we look after one another, where we bring all the different gifts and talents God has blessed to us and put them together for the good of our families, the good of our neighbors and the good of our world.
Why do I believe this? I believe this because you and I have inherited a 3,000-year tradition in which this pattern has been played out again and again. The people of Israel seemingly helpless and hopeless surrounded by the hostile tribes of Canaan; the tiny new churches of Paul, seemingly helpless and hopeless surrounded by the hostile culture of Rome; the huddled band of Puritans seemingly helpless and hopeless surrounded by the hostile wilderness of the New World. Yet, again and again God has gathered his people under his wing, sheltered them in the mighty fortress of his love, and equipped them with the talents and courage necessary not only to prevail but to flourish.
You and I now sit comfortably settled in a venerable meeting house, in a sheltered village, enjoying a prosperity that would have been unimaginable to our forebears, but we too face a newly hostile culture and there is again a whiff of helplessness and hopelessness in the air. How can we protect our children from the pornography on the internet; how can we protect them from the materialism and violence in the media; how can we protect them from addictive and promiscuous behaviors; how can we nurture marriages and families when we never have time to be together; how can we care for our parents or children living hundreds of miles away; how can we stay connected to church when we move into nursing homes or can no longer drive?
My friends, the oft-proved promise of God is that we are never helpless and never hopeless. You need only glance around at our assembled family of faith to see that our God has already assembled us under his wing, God has already blessed us with all the talents and resources we need to prevail over the challenges of our time on this hill. Can anyone seriously doubt we would succeed in any great effort undertaken by God’s grace and in God’s name? The only way we could fail is if we were to dissipate our energies in complacent or unfocused ventures.
Allen and I have not been preaching our sermon series on families to simply entertain or tickle your ears. Our goal wasn’t simply to attract new members or drive up worship numbers. We preached this series because we think the health and strength of our church family of families is the principal calling of our time together on this hill. Between now and the annual meeting we ask for a series of congregational conversations about focusing our shared vision. This vision doesn’t require a single new committee or a single new staff member beyond those already authorized by the trustees. But it does require coordination of all the committees we already have and filling the open positions listed in your bulletin with the best people we can find.
Stewardship is what we do after we say, “We believe.” My friends, I believe that with God’s help we can care for our church family and the 700 children in our care. By God’s grace, we can pack parachutes that will protect them for the rest of their lives. Together, we are the Mrs. Vestal’s, the Mr. Judy’s, the Betsy Kirshner’s, and the Mr. Hansen’s these kids will be talking about long after we’re gone and taking as the models for how they will care for their children and grandchildren. We must not let them down.
There’s an old battle cry Christian missionaries have carried into the field for two-hundred years. It goes like this: “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.” [William Carey, Northhampton, May 30, 1792.] My friends, God has already done great things for us. Now is the time for us to attempt great things for God. Amen.