In the name of God, Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. AMEN
First, a disclaimer: while it’s the usual practice to preach on the Scriptures of the day, I’m not doing so. There will be several Scripture references, but not those you heard today. So, if you were wondering how I was going to approach all the blood and animal parts in the Exodus reading, rest easy, because I’m not going there.
That said, I want to reflect on a verse from our opening hymn:
To give, and give, and give again what God hath given thee,
To spend thyself, nor count the cost, to serve right gloriously,
The God who made all worlds that are, and all that are to be.
I’m going to preach on stewardship. There was a time when, if I had heard those words, I might well have thought, “Ah, yes, autumn is stewardship season, so I’d better get out my checkbook.” But that thought would have been wrong in two ways.
First, true stewardship does not have a “season,” but is a sacred practice for all the seasons of our lives. And, second, true stewardship is not nearly as concerned with our checkbooks, as it is with our very souls, our whole and holy selves. So, yes, there will be a pledge campaign coming in October, but that’s not today’s subject.
Each of us defines stewardship in our own way, and here’s my definition: “Stewardship is the care and proper use of all with which God has entrusted us.”
Here‘s another definition from the Episcopal Network For Stewardship: “Stewardship is ALL that we do, with ALL that we have, ALL of the time.”
Interesting that the word “all“ appears in both those definitions. It would suggest that stewardship is all-encompassing.
The Episcopal Network names several practices that stewardship is and isn’t. According to them, stewardship isn’t:
– Meeting the budget
– Paying our fair share of the dues
Again, according to the Network, stewardship is:
– Sharing in God’s mission with a glad, generous, and grateful heart
– Transforming lives in our community
– Prayerfully responding to God’s call
I want to focus on that last statement, our response to God’s call, and in doing so I want to introduce a Hebrew word: Hineni. It appears again and again in the Hebrew scriptures.
God said to Abraham, “Abraham!” and Abraham replied, “Hineni,” (which means) “Here I am.”
God called to Moses out of the bush, “Moses, Moses! “ And Moses said, “Hineni. Here I am.”
And God said to Isaiah, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us. And [Isaiah] said, “Here am I. Send me.”
Our Hebrew ancestors were surely brave and sturdy people. And so was our ancestor Mary, the mother of Jesus, who spoke words that are the spark of our Christian tradition: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Many times in my life, I have found myself shying away from those stories, thinking, “Those are big, heroic people, and I am NOT a big heroic person, I’m just …..well ….. me.” But God seems to have an answer for anyone who resists God’s call. Consider this exchange between the voice of God and the prophet Jeremiah. In his answer to God’s call, Jeremiah says, “Ah, Lord God! Truly, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” God’s reply is quick: “Do not say ‘I am only a boy,’ for you shall speak whatever I command you.”
In fact, nearly all of those folks we think of as mighty heroes had feet made of the same kind of clay as ours. Consider Moses’ first response when God gives him a long list of tasks. What’s the first thing Moses says? “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Their conversation goes on through another six objections from Moses, countered by six more promises of guidance from God. Finally Moses says ….. “Oh, Lord, please send somebody else,” at which point God angrily tells him to put on his big boy pants and get to work. (That’s not an accurate translation from the Hebrew, by the way).
As for Mary, before we see her as a sweet, acquiescent teenager, as she is usually portrayed (and yes, I do realize the term “acquiescent teenager” is an oxymoron), let’s look at her first response to the angel’s annunciation, which is “How can this be?”
I don’t know Aramaic, the language Mary probably spoke, but I’d bet money that a more accurate translation might be: “Huh? You want me to do WHAT?? And I’d bet even more money that her “Here am I” that happens in 13 verses in Luke probably took about a month before she got to “Yes.”
So even our hallowed ancestors did not seem to leap immediately to God’s call. The late naturalist Stephen Jay Gould said something in an environmental context that speaks to our being called to stewardship. He wrote, “We have become, by the power of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence, the stewards of life’s continuity on earth. We did not ask for this role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited to it, but here we are.”
Here we are. Here I am. There’s not a lot of distance between those two phrases. His words make clear that we all are called to be stewards, whether or not we feel up to the call.
Let me put this in much simpler terms by sharing a personal encounter. Some years ago, I had a friend, a Lutheran pastor named Paul Monson. Paul is no longer living, but something he said one day will always stay with me. I asked him, “Paul, what’s the most important thing you do as a pastor?” Without a second’s hesitation, he replied, “I show up.” I asked him what that meant. He thought for a few seconds, and then said, “Well, this morning I was walking through the church and I saw some people setting up chairs for a meeting. It wasn’t a meeting that involved me, but I went in and helped them set up the room. It took about five minutes, and then I went on.” He paused, and then said, “I guess I show up in some bigger ways, too.” Indeed, he showed up in ways large and small in his long and faithful ministry. Paul taught me that saying “I show up” might be just a more colloquial way of saying, “Hineni. Here I am.” Sometimes showing up means setting up a few chairs, and
sometimes it means giving birth to the Prince of Peace. It all depends on time and circumstance.
Members of St. John’s have said “Hineni. Here I am” and have shown up for 100 years, and that fact has kept us alive and thriving. Our recent capital campaign to restore a wounded building is a testament to our habit of showing up. You may think we showed up here this morning out of habit or duty, but I tell you without hesitation that we showed up because we are stewards of this place and — more important — stewards of our own spiritual selves. BUT…. I need to offer a word of caution, and please know that I am preaching first to myself. As I was writing this sermon, I found myself thinking, “Hey, I show up. A couple of weeks ago I helped with prep work for the shelter meal, and the next day I helped with yard cleanup a the Circle of the Beloved house, and the next day I was a greeter at the bandshell service AND I read the lesson at the service, and the next night I came to church for a pledge committee meeting, and the night after that I came to church for a Vestry meeting. You bet I show up!” Just at that moment, my better angel, who lives somewhere just over my left shoulder, said, “Yeah? So?” And I was reminded that it was not time for me to stand in line waiting for someone to pin a medal on my chest, it was time for me to just keep showing up, to keep saying “Here I am.”
There’s a phrase in our opening hymn that has always intrigued me — the words “To spend thyself.” I want to give those words some definition, and in doing so I’ll use a fictional character who has become, in our culture, as much a part of the Christmas story as the shepherds and the angels. I am referring, of course, to Charles Dickens’ marvelous creation — Ebenezer Scrooge, whom Dickens describes as “secret, self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”
We mostly identify Scrooge as a skinflint, greedy and grasping with money, but I don‘t believe that is his greatest sin. His greater failing, I believe, is his refusal to spend himself, his choice instead to hoard himself. Of course, he is transformed through the intervention of the ghosts and by his recognition that he has harmed others and harmed himself, and upon awaking from his nightmare on Christmas morning, he cries out joyfully, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year!” That is nothing more nor less than his own moment of showing up, of saying to God and the whole world, “Here I Am!” He learned the lesson of a lifetime: to stop hoarding himself, and begin spending himself. It’s a wonderful lesson in the power and possibility of transformation.
At its very core, stewardship is about choosing to spend ourselves rather than hoarding ourselves. I need to remind myself of that fact constantly, for there are still moments in my life when I, like Scrooge, am “secret, self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” Fortunately, God has placed people in my life who will remind me, lovingly, that spending myself, not hoarding myself, is what I am called to do.
Generosity is a learned behavior, not one with which we are born. My wife Gayle has said that the third word a child learns, after “Mama” and “Dada,” is usually “MINE!” We learn generosity —
or do not learn it — from those who were our stewards, and we teach it to those whom God has placed into our care. We must ask ourselves this question: “Was I taught to be a good steward, and am I teaching good stewardship to others by the love and care I offer?”
I close today with a reminder of that ancient and most important promise: Hineni. These words are borrowed from a sermon preached by Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodeph Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia, and used by permission. This is what she spoke::
“Let us not delay in speaking a sacred ‘Hineni’ to those who need to hear it from us. Let us not hesitate to say it to our God. Let us open our ears to the world outside and respond to the needs that have no voice but call out to us nonetheless. God is asking us: ‘Where are you?’ Many people we know, and those we don’t, are asking us that very same question. There is only one answer:
‘Hineni — Here I am.’”