October 20, 2014 Leave a comment
We’re going through this series right now that started last week on the Generosity of God, and our response to it, and we’ll be continuing in it for the next month or two. If you missed this past Sunday, then please try to find time to listen to the audio of TJ’s sermon on the website, because each message is going to build on the previous one somewhat. We know where this is ultimately pointing – to a generous God, and a merciful God, who we know through Jesus and who through Jesus demonstrates radical generosity, as TJ talked about last Sunday. And the appropriate response to God’s generosity was illustrated by the tax collector, who humbled himself before God, in contrast to the Pharisee, who exalted himself. But today, we’re going to begin at the beginning, with Creation itself, what we learn about God’s generosity in & through Creation, and what that tells us about our role as stewards of Creation, and what that means we’re supposed to live for.
Psalm 8:3-4 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
So first, that God is Creator: we live in a universe — not just a world — 99 percent of which is nothing but empty space, stretching across billions of light-years and including billions of galaxies and stars. The universe was around for a long time without the earth, and the earth was around for a long time without human beings, and human beings have been around for a long time without us. Our smallness, compared to the universe’s bigness, is humbling. And God made the whole thing! We see that God is the reason for existence, and we’re not at the center of the universe — not even close. And humility is the appropriate response! Just as it was for the tax collector.
Secondly though, and just as important, we learn in this Psalm that human beings have a very special place in created order. Here’s Psalm 8 again, picking up in v. 5:
You have made them[d] a little lower than the angels[e]
and crowned them[f] with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
So despite our smallness, our apparent insignificance, human beings are set apart and given a unique role. God gives us dominion over the earth and we’re to be stewards of it. It’s been entrusted to us. We’re to be a stewards, meaning we’re to be managers or overseers — caretakers — which means our responsibility is to do exactly what the owner wants us to do with the things that are not ours but Owner’s. The things that are God’s. So as it turns out, in spite of some obvious limitations, we nonetheless possess a certain degree of great power and freedom — and — responsibility, as stewards. Because Human beings have the capacity to do things that no other creatures can’t do.
Here’s what happens though. And you all know the story. We take this privileged place that God has put us in and given us, for granted, and we abuse it. We go from having stewardship to entitlement, from dominion, to domination and even exploitation.
Look at the quote in your bulletin from Tim Keller:
If you have money, power, and status today, it is due to the century and place in which you were born, to your talents and capacities and health, none of which you earned. In short, all your resources are in the end the gift of God.
We had no say, and no control over what century we were born in, what country, or what family. Just taking an example that’s close to home for some of us at St Peter’s: What if you were born in Honduras, in Flor del Campo, where our team is going next month, where our missionary partner and fellow church member, Suzy McCall lives? Suzy’s actually here with us this morning, so come give her a hug after the service. We obviously have a lot of successful business men and women in our community. Think about just starting a business in Honduras, if you’re a citizen there instead of here. If you’re trying doing business in Flor del Campo — you may be paying taxes to drug cartels, they might kill you and your family. I know that kind of intense and not very fun to think about it, but we need think about it. It should humble us. It should make us grateful. And remind us even more of our role as stewards.
But that’s not our nature, and that’s not what a lot of our culture says. We want to celebrate the independent, self-made individual, as if we have enough power, and enough control, to deserve all the credit when success comes our way. Or, maybe we know better than to be too direct with our boasting about success and achievements, so instead we master the art of the humble brag. I think if you took away the humble brag, Facebook stock would completely crash.
Or, how about even our health — something else we like to boast in, or something else we think we control. You can exercise, you can be super fit, eat all organic food — and still get cancer. I just watched this great movie the other night, “The Fault in our Stars,” about two teenagers dying of cancer. We just do not have as much control as we think we do. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said this: “Nobody’s getting out of life alive.” And then he asks, “So what are we living for?”
In this movie, The Fault in Our Stars, the main character, Hazel Grace is her name, she’s upset, because her parents have had to make their whole existence all about taking care of her, and she’s afraid that when she dies, they’re not going to have anything else to live for. And so there’s moment when she tells them that this is her biggest fear. She’s come to terms with the fact that she’s going to die. She’s been terminal for a long time. She’s not afraid of death. When she tells her parents this, her mom says, honey, losing you will hurt more than anything we’ve ever experienced, and it will be the hardest thing we ever go through. But we’re gonna keep going. We’re going to live with our pain. You of all people have taught us that we can do that. And then, her mom says, I’ve been social work classes, and I want to start an organization that helps parents whose children are dying. I didn’t want to tell you this though, her mom says, because I was afraid that you’d think we’d given up on you, or that we had decided to move on without you. Hazel Grace bursts into tears, because she’s so happy. See Hazel had lived with pain and suffering long enough, even at age seventeen, that she figured out the only way to overcome that pain, was to fear it, avoid it, or numb it, but to live for something more than herself, and actually grow in her concern for the lives of others. And then, her parents learn the same lesson, about stewarding their lives, and living for something more than themselves. “Nobody’s getting out of life alive. So as Christians, as stewards of Creation, what is God calling us to live for?”
Let’s look at David’s prayer from 1 Chronicles 29, and see if it might answer this question. Keep in mind that David has just taken up an offering for the Temple that God has said Solomon will build, and David’s giving out of his own treasure before asking other leaders to do the same:
11 Yours, LORD, is the greatness and the power
and the glory and the majesty and the splendor,
for everything in heaven and earth is yours.
Yours, LORD, is the kingdom;
This may sound familiar, because some of this is the basis for Lord’s prayer! Jesus knew the Jewish Scriptures of course, and he draws on this prayer! as a Son of David. So it shows up again: “Yours is the Kingdom, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” According to David, and according to Jesus, this something that we’re supposed to be living for is God’s Kingdom. A more contemporary word in place of Kingdom could also just be God’s economy. Living as stewards, living generously, means that we live in God’s economy.
Jesus gives some instructions about life in this kingdom, life in this economy, beginning in Matthew 6:31. Jesus says,”do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom (God’s economy) and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Don’t worry about tomorrow.”
So here we see how close a relationship there is for Jesus, as there was for David, between generosity, and life in the Kingdom of God – life in God’s economy. What joins these two things together, is trust. Trust in God. He says don’t worry, don’t be anxious. You don’t really control any of that stuff anyway, so stop chasing after it. Stop living for the world’s economy. It’s not reliable. You’d think we would have learned that by now. A life without anxiety, with open hands, without clinging to our wealth, our status, our security — that’s what enables a generous life, and that’s what enables life in the Kingdom of God, life in God’s economy.
But let’s pause and try to put life in our own economy into perspective for a minute, at the global level. The 12 percent of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe accounts for 60 percent of private consumption spending, while the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent. It’s been estimated now that it would take something like three more planets to sustain us, over our lifetimes, if everyone on the planet consumed at the rate we do over the course of their lifetimes. And that’s of course assuming that the population of the world stays the same, which it clearly is not.
Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “there’s enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” That pretty much describes our situation. Obviously, this is not good economics. This is not good stewardship. Let’s look at the rest of First Chronicles 29:
12 Wealth and honor come from you;
you are the ruler of all things.
In your hands are strength and power
to exalt and give strength to all.
13 Now, our God, we give you thanks,
and praise your glorious name.
This prayer, is a model for stewardship and generosity. It contains the the clue to the cure for the human disease I’ve just been trying to describe — this independent thinking that gives credit to ourselves, like we’re the ones most responsible for our own success or prosperity. It’s a disease of individualism. It’s a disease of consumerism. But this prayer is the counter-story. It’s tells the truth that we ignore, and it exposes the entitlement and domination in our thinking, and calls us back to stewardship. David is simply proclaiming that, because God is Creator, because of God’s generosity, everything we are, everything we have, everything we benefit from, and even everything we give away, is God’s.
This is what Jesus was teaching. It’s what Paul was saying, especially in Philippians, which we just finished studying earlier this month. And here’s what it boils down to: despite what we naturally think, we are actually more fulfilled, more content, more grateful and therefore more generous, when life is not their own — when we’re willing to give up ownership. And, conversely we are more miserable, more frustrated, more fearful, more discontent, when life is all about us, and we’re unwilling to give up ownership.
So, here are three final things about stewardship and generosity in God’s Kingdom, in God’s economy. First, when we imitate God’s generosity, Jesus’ generosity, it makes God’s grace visible to the rest world. When people see the people of God living with an open-handed understanding of all they have and all they are. The church is doing its job, when we see ourselves not as the owner of anything but as stewards all that God has given us.
Secondly, God is not threatening to punish you if you’re not generous. The absence of generosity in your life is its own punishment. Greed and sin are their own punishment! This is what Jesus is trying to tell us. It feels like you’re more in control at first, like you’re answering to yourself, and getting what you want — like you’re free. But you’re not. You become a slave to it, and it will rob you of peace and joy in your life. So this kind of Generosity is always an invitation.
And here’s the last thing: you can’t do it by yourself. You can’t do it by yourself. Some of us want to be more generous, but we feel constrained by our jobs, our commitments, and our schedules with family, social obligations, or whatever. Eventually, we discover that the patterns of our culture, a culture of entitlement, of domination, of individualism, of consumerism — it’s simply too much to resist by yourself. And the only way for us to resist these things is to have a community around us that’s helping us resist these things. In other words, just like the early Christians did, who we read about in the book of Acts which we studied this past summer, we have to move toward interdependence and a shared life together. This is what life in God’s kingdom and God’s economy looks like. You want a picture of it? Go back to Acts 2 and 4.
The well-known author and professor Huston Smith said this:
“I don’t have any fear of death. I do, however, have an inordinate fear of becoming dependent on other people. To me, that’s the severest test, not death.”
This is what we have to learn though. We have to face this fear. We have to grow into interdependence. We have to help each other ask, “what crowds our lives and keeps us from flourishing?” In the Connect Group that I’m a part of, we’re reading a book by a guy named Mark Scandrette about taking steps toward simplicity and generous living, and he describes generous living as:
“choosing to leverage our time, money, talents and possessions toward what matters most… toward [God's economy].”
Generosity is going to look a little bit different for everyone, but one of the best environments that we as a church can offer you where this can happen is through Connect Groups. We started several new groups just in the last month, and already I think we’re beginning to see some fruit, even in these very early stages. Several leaders of the groups gathered yesterday for a training session and a time of sharing and learning together, and I think we were all encouraged by it.
One of my main responsibilities as a pastor on staff is to champion these Groups in our community. And I wasn’t asked to do this because I’m an expert, or because I have all the experience, but because I believe in them, and because I’m committed to seeing these Groups become avenues for God’s work of transforming our lives, taking our church deeper, and even transforming the culture around us.
So if you haven’t been to a Connect Group gathering yet, go check one out. You can visit as many as you want. We have 8 groups meeting on four different nights of the week, at least once a month, in a number of different neighborhoods. You can find the contact information of the leaders on the website, and there’s also a brochure with more information on the wall outside in the greeting area of the sanctuary.
As we move to communion, in light of the call on our lives to be stewards and to live with generosity in response to God’s generosity, I want us to close with a responsive acknowledgement and prayer together — A prayer for generosity and stewardship (adapted from Free: How to Spend Your Time and Money on What Matters Most:
I am dependent on and cared for by an abundant Creator.
I choose to be grateful and trusting.
I believe I have enough and that what I need will always be provided.
I choose to be content and generous.
I know that my choices matter for myself, for others and for future generations.
Help me to live consciously and creatively, celebrating signs of your new creation that is present and coming.
God, who made me to seek your kingdom and your righteousness,
Guide me to use my time, talents and resources to pursue your Kingdom.
Teach me to be free,
to live without worry, fear or greed in the freedom of your abundance.
Give me my daily bread, as I share with those in need.
Thank you for the gift of forgiveness through your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.