SJF • Proper 18c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.+
Some years ago, a mother sought to teach her daughter about stewardship. Before the worship began, she gave her daughter a dollar bill and a quarter, and told her, “It is up to you which of these you put into the offering plate.” All through the sermon, the mother watched her child considering the possibilities seriously; holding the dollar in one hand and the quarter in the other, looking back and forth between the bill and the coin and furrowing her tiny brow in concentration. Finally, when the collection began and the ushers passed the plate into the aisle, the child nodded to herself vigorously. Then with great deliberation she placed the quarter in the offering plate, and sat back with a contented smile. After the worship ended, the mother asked, “Why did you decide to put in the quarter instead of the dollar?” Her daughter responded, “Well, I was going to put in the dollar; but then the priest said, ‘God loves a cheerful giver,’ and I thought I’d be more cheerful if I kept the dollar.”
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Much Christian stewardship, and many Christian stewards, take this subjective view about giving to the church: how does giving make me feel? This is the “If it feels good, do it” school of Christian giving. Problem is that while some people may feel a glow of discipleship when they give generously to the church, too many others — like the child in the story — feel instead a glow of satisfaction at having held on to as much as they possibly can.
Our gospel this morning presents us with another view of stewardship, a view based not on feelings but practicalities: the examples of considering how much it costs to build a tower or to wage a war. This is the “Balance the Budget” school of Christian giving. It does have one particular advantages over the “Feel Good” theory. It is more engaged with the reality of what it costs to maintain a church. But it has a down-side too, in that giving to the church can be commercialized. Just as with the feel-good giver, this view is focused not on God or the church, but back on the giver, as it appears to say, “Yes, I support the church, for what I get out of it.”
In the nineteenth century when this church was built congregations often raised their funds through a true “Balance the Budget” technique. The annual cost of running the church was figured out, divided up, and if you wanted to be a member of this church, you paid a fee based on your share of that divided total cost. And this fee was in a very practical form of pew rental — you couldn’t just sit anywhere you wanted in the church, as we do today. If you came to Saint James Church in the nineteenth century, you sat in the pew you had bought with your annual pew fee, the pew your family rented — that’s why they have those little brass tags at the end of each pew, with a number, and a few of them still with the names of the families. And in those days the church-wardens were the ushers and “warden” carried as strong a sense it does in a prison. If you hadn’t paid your pew rent the wardens would know it; and you would be shown to the back of the church to stand until after the sermon, at which point you would be ushered up here to the seats on the side, where pews used to be before our remodeling; that was the “Peanut Gallery.”
Eventually people realized that this commercial approach wasn’t really Christian stewardship. It was more like the behavior of the Pharisees, who took the best seats in the synagogue. And there was also a growing sense that if people began to think of giving to the church simply as exchange for what they got, a kind of “give and get,” they would come to see the church as if it were just another shop on the street where you paid your money and took your choice, as if the church were a kind of vending machine that dispensed spiritual satisfaction to those who put their money in the slot. Such an attitude transformed believers into customers.
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Ultimately both of these views of stewardship run aground on the astounding statement with which today’s gospel passage ended: Jesus said, “None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.” How shallow both “feel good” and the “balance the budget” look in contrast to that astounding claim that Jesus makes upon us! While some of us here in this church devote a significant portion of our income to the church — the ten percent of the biblical tithe, yet how shallow even the most generous giver must feel in light of that astounding charge from Jesus: “None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.” What is five or ten percent compared to all! Even after we do our part with what we give, most of us are left with ninety or ninety-five percent — or more! So what could Jesus mean by this astounding, ultimate demand?
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We will find our answer to this hard question in the second reading we heard today — one of the longest Scripture readings we have in our worship — almost an entire book of the Bible in a single reading: all but the last four verses of Paul’s letter to Philemon.
This letter tells a deeply personal story of how important this young man Onesimus had become to the elderly Paul as he suffered in prison. And it also shows Paul trusts that when this runaway slave returns to his master with this letter in hand, he will not suffer the penalty imposed on runaways. No, Paul trusts that Philemon will welcome Onesimus back no longer as a slave, but as a brother in Christ; for the slave has become a Christian while with Paul, perhaps even a deacon — as Paul’s words suggest when he describes how Onesimus has served him. Now it is also clear from this letter that Onesimus had not been a very good slave — in addition to having run away, he had been, as Paul says, “useless” — making a bit of a joke out Onesimus’ name, which in Greek means Useful. Upon his return, he will live up to his name and be “useful” indeed as a brother in Christ; he will be more than a slave, not less. Paul assures Philemon that he is not demanding this: he wants Philemon to do a voluntary good deed, not something forced — even though Paul reminds him that he owes him more than he can possibly account for, in that wonderful flourish at the end, “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self” — echoing the teaching of Jesus.
You see, what Paul is saying is that Philemon can have his cake and eat it too! He can have the free service of a good and useful brother in place of the half-hearted work of a useless slave, by giving up the control of being a slave-master over him, in exchange for the cooperation of working with him as a brother in Christ.
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And it is that “giving up” that connects us back with that hard saying of Jesus: “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all of your possessions.” We don’t just owe God our possessions, after all, but, as Philemon owed Paul, our very selves! Yet Jesus does not say, I’mtaking your life — he wants us to live our lives in service to him, not throw our lives away. So too he doesn’t ask us to “give away” all of our possessions, but to “give them up.” And the difference is suggestive: this is about surrender, not commerce. He wants us to “give up” to him, to “surrender all” to him! It is about our learning how to loosen our grip on what we have, treating it not as something controlled by us, but as ultimately coming to us as a gift from God — as indeed our very lives come as a gift from God’s endless generosity, and he wants us to give them up to him as well. We are called to treat what we have been given, what we have been blessed to possess, with the same kind of liberty with which Paul counseled Philemon to treat his former slave Onesimus, and to do so voluntarily, not under compulsion or solely as doing our duty, but as going truly beyond the call of duty into the realm of the freedom of the children of God — where there are no more slaves, but we are free — free because we have given up, we have surrendered all to God.
We are not called simply to balance the books and pay our share so that we get what we pay for and what we think we deserve. Friends, I can assure you that if we all got what we deserved we would be neither cheerful nor proud!
But when we treat all we have been given — including our very selves — not as “ours” to control any more but as the free gift of a generous God, then we too can find ourselves going beyond the mere call of duty to maintain the church, to the mission of spreading God’s kingdom, the kingdom of freedom, in which all are God’s children.
Yes, it is our duty to maintain our little corner of the God’s kingdom here on Jerome and 190th Street, to do what it takes to financially support this building But we are called to do so much more; we are called to be God’s servants, not slaves working only because they have to, but children of God who work so hard because they love their Father in heaven, and love their brothers and sisters so very much, knowing that everything comes from him as well.
If this spirit of generosity and freedom can fill us all who knows what might happen? Let me tell you one thing. Onesimus the runaway slave remained a Christian. He became so useful in the church that decades later he shows up again in Christian history — as the bishop of the church of Ephesus! Who would have thought that a useless runaway slave could become such a useful servant of God?
When we give up and surrender all to God, who knows what he might make of us? When we go beyond our own contentment and merely feeling good about ourselves; when we go beyond just the call of duty to balance the budget; God will surprise us with his amazing grace, doing infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. To God be the glory, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.+