This is the time of the year when congregations begin to think about the annual stewardship Sunday, or, as one colleague calls it, "The Fall Begathon!" In most congregations, this season is dreaded by the leadership-but someone has to do it. If everything goes well, the budget is met by pledges and promises, and if it doesn't go well the Vestry spends the next several meetings trying to figure out what to do now!
The Epistle reading from Timothy and the Gospel lesson from Luke suggest some alternative ways of addressing stewardship in the congregation. First, we are urged by the writer of Timothy to pray. Why? Because when we pray we are giving voice to the relationship we have with our Maker and Redeemer. Relationships require communication, and prayer is the principal form we use to signify our relationship with God.
How we learn to pray is a concern to be addressed by the leadership of the congregation. Many people are delighted to discover the rich offering of prayers in the Book of Common Prayer when introduced to them. Others find a spontaneous prayer experience to be the most rewarding. Like any relationship, we grow in depth with God as we begin to explore and use the language of prayer. Prayer groups, having different people lead the prayers in worship, writing a congregation's prayer for stewardship, are just some ways we can provide models for everyone. One church had a year where different families wrote the prayers for each Sunday. People who were not in families were invited to join with others, and children were especially encouraged to participate. It was a year when everyone learned something more about praying, the connection of prayer to daily life and work.
Learning about prayer deepens our relationship with God and lays a foundation for our response to God in giving from what God has given to us.
Learning to pray also begins to order our life around the subject that is still difficult to talk about in most of our culture-money! Oh, we talk about how to spend it, save it, and invest it-but few talk about how to give it. That's a no-no.
But Jesus talks about money a lot. In the Gospel for today he talks about it in terms we understand, getting it any way you can. Of course the point of the parable is that the crafty steward uses his cleverness to assure himself a place when the bottom falls out of things. Jesus encourages that cleverness, though not the dishonest behavior, in us.
Jesus also says you cannot serve God and wealth (money). That is because he knows how we struggle with our limited resources, how we wish we could have more, and how we even say, "If I ever get rich I'm going to give a bundle to charity." Well, Jesus doesn't want to hear that. He wants us to feel freedom and joy to give from what we have, right now! He knows how bound we are by our feeling of scarcity. He wants us to claim abundance.
How do we get there? Deepening our relationship with God through getting to know Jesus is the primary route. We do that by participating in worship, by finding a way to pray more regularly, by asking God for help and expecting it, and by trusting God more. It's really like a relationship with anyone else. Remember the first time you called a friend because you needed something and you were hesitant? "I hate to ask you, but could you...?" And the friend said, "No problem, I would be glad to help." That was when you discovered a new level of friendship. That's the way it is with God.
Bringing this all together is what really matters. A couple in a small congregation in the Midwest struggled for years with their giving. They didn't usually pledge. They were only able to see to the next paycheck, and the idea of pledging for a whole year was something they just couldn't see.
They had struggles with their children, the marriage, job insecurity and all the things that are familiar to so many. However, they kept their church relationships and the congregation kept them in a relationship all that time. One summer they signed up as volunteers for a medical mission to South America. That event included daily prayer and worship, and providing for people with limited resources, doing the best they could. When they got back this couple saw how truly blessed they were. They signed a pledge card that year, and now they are leading givers in the congregation.
What happened? Their relationship with God became deeper and more vital. They trusted God more, money less. They were freer to give, and less fearful of loss.
This is a spiritual journey all of us make, and each of us is at a different place in that journey. Giving says something about where we are on our spiritual journey. When we give, it ought to be with the notion that we are providing a legacy for our future and for those who come after us. We are building a spiritual legacy that will nurture us and bring us to know God as our lover and friend, who one day will bring us home.