First Congregational Church
May 21, 2017
6th Sunday after Easter
Deuteronomy 24:19-22, John 12:18, Acts 4:32-37
“Stewardship of Abundance”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A few years back Ole, Sven and Maynard decided to go fishing together one day after church. They’d been on the lake for a bit when Maynard said, “Gentlemen, would you please excuse me to answer the call of nature.” He then laid down his fishing pole, stepped over the side of the boat, and walked across the water to the shore. After he finished, he then walked back across the water to the boat.
Then Sven decided that it was his turn, so he stood up, stepped over the side of the boat, and walked right on top of the water to the shore. Like Maynard, Sven returned on the water - right back to the boat.
Ole was awestruck. Imagine — WALKING on water! He thought to himself, “well, if they can do this, so can I!” He excused himself to the Sven and Maynard, put his pole down, stepped over the side of the boat … and sunk like a rock. Sven turned to Maynard and said, “You think we should have told him where the rocks were?”
The three scripture passages for this morning come from three very different times, reflecting various periods of our spiritual heritage. The Deuteronomy passage is from the time after the Hebrew enslavement in Egypt and after the Israelites 40 year hike through the desert. It is a Moses-written record containing historical, socio–cultural and theological elements that were to prepare the people for entering into the Promised Land. It was basically a list of what to do and what not to do in order to live life well.
The second passage, from the gospel of John, seems almost too short to have been included, except that hopefully it will make some sense in the end. It is near the end of John’s version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem; that first Palm Sunday in which people were willing to lay down what was available to them - coats, clothing, palms - in demonstration of their support of Jesus.
The passage from Acts was written roughly 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection and covers the history of the early followers of Jesus, before they were even identified as Christians. Peter is the featured character in the first 12 chapters, while Paul and his three mission trips are the main event in the last 16 chapters. This morning’s passage will begin, “All the believers.” That number - of men - was in the 5,000 range. It seems that the general rule of thumb in estimating the women and children is to at least double that figure. So Luke, the writer of Acts, is talking about 10,000-15,000, perhaps up to 20,000 people.
19 When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. 21 When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. 22 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.
Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him.
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
Thank you, Shar. In this series of abundance, we’ve looked at the Abundance of God in Creation and the Abundance of Grace. In the creator of this series idea, Presbyterian pastor, Erica Shemper suggested that this week’s focus be on the Stewardship of Abundance. What I’ve appreciated about Ms. Shemper’s work is that there is no condemnation of abundance, especially in the abundance of our treasure. Instead, she’s focused on the abundance of that which is more valuable than mere money and treasure: creation, grace and how to treat such abundance.
A Sunday School teacher decided to have her second grade class memorize Psalm 23, one of the most quoted passages in the Bible. She gave the children a month to learn the chapter. One little boy was excited about the task, but he just couldn't memorize the Psalm. Although he practiced and practiced, he could hardly get past the first line. The day came for the children to recite Psalm 23 before the congregation. The little boy was nervous. When his turn came, he stepped up to the microphone and proudly said, "The Lord is my Shepherd and that's all I need to know!”
The Stewardship of Abundance is an interesting topic. In fact, if I didn’t need to be at the Baccalaureate service at 1:00, I’d contemplated bringing back the “post-worship” “sermon” discussion - to find out some of your thoughts on the dichotomy of abundance: use it or lose it.
I’m hoping that all of you have the chance sometime in the future - if it’s not happened already - to go into a great cathedral church, especially an older one with lots of stained glass windows and ceilings that go on up forever. It’s moving to stand in such a hallowed space, and contemplate not only all the individuals that had walked those aisles, but the blood, sweat, tears and money that it took to build such an edifice. It’s satisfying to think about those same things in regard to such places as this church home, too.
Regardless of the time in which such a building was constructed, there was a decision - to build or channel the money into missions: feeding the hungry, clothing and housing the poor. I remember standing in such an old church in St. Paul, MN, before I came here, reading one of their pamphlets, which stated that they had a $5 million endowment fund or some such astronomical figure. And I remember thinking, if they just cashed in that money, they could do amazing things with it.
To be honest, I struggled with the gift that was given to us by Joe and Ruth Deacon a few years back. We could have spent all the money in mission giving, fixing the things that needed fixing around here, and even making some incredible gifts to this or that entity. I’m glad I kept my thoughts to myself on it, because through careful management of those funds, we’ve been able to do some amazing things using just 5% of the interest earned - which has thus far added up to nearly double the initial gift.
To make sure I give great monuments their due, I remember, somewhere in the dark areas of the grey matter, that Robert Schuller built the Crystal Cathedral, a seemingly impossible and wholy extravagant human endeavor, to make an example of the power of God to do great things when God’s people prayed and supported their prayers with God’s treasure.
Although we aren’t building a crystal cathedral and we don’t have other great projects going on at the moment, we still have the need to be mindful stewards of the abundance with which God blesses us. There are times in our lives when we have to pay more attention to such stewardship, but regardless of our times, there is an underlying point of which the passages from Deuteronomy and Acts reminds us: an assumption of abundance - even excess of abundance.
You can leave some grain at the edges of the fields, and you need not scrounge for every last olive, because there will be enough—and then some. The earliest Christians in Acts were able to live in community precisely because they were confident that there would be enough to go around.
Erica Shemper said it well, “Sometimes our messages about stewardship come from a place of anxiety. We feel that we need to take good care of our resources because we don’t have enough. Now, this is not to minimize very real concerns about the limits of a stressed environment or economy, nor is it a suggestion that we go out into the world with a naive optimism. But the correct Christian response to economic, environmental, or judicial disparity is not anxiety or even hoarding. Being good stewards does not mean that we put away more money than we can ever use, or amass … stuff* … in order to maintain the privileges that we have. The Christian response to injustice is to move forward with faith in God’s providence. There will be enough for everyone: God will find a way.
At the risk of being misunderstood, I appreciate the passage from Deuteronomy because it doesn’t promote a simple handout, although I’m not saying that simple handouts are bad. Sometimes they are needful. But leaving sheaves of grain, olives on branches and grapes in the vineyard requires an individual to go out and harvest them. It maintains an attitude of simplicity, honor and honesty in doing our own jobs to provide for our families.
I appreciate the passage from Acts that gives us a glimpse into a way of life that worked when they people prayed not for protection or safety or a comfortable life, but for boldness. And yet, while prayer was supremely important and the witness of words was supremely important, the culmination was love of the brotherhood.
Commentator William Barclay pointed out that “We must note one thing above all--this sharing was not the result of legislation; it was utterly spontaneous. It is not when the law compels us to share but when the heart moves us to share that society is really Christian.” Please understand, I’m not trying to make any political statement here. I am, however, suggesting that we examine our motivations.
Bob Deffinbaugh of Community Bible Chapel in Richardson, Texas reminds us of Jesus’ parable from the book of Luke, “Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or, if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he?” (Luke 11:11-12).
“The response of this man to the request made of him is not the response of a generous man; it is the response of a father. Being a part of the family is what makes the difference. The early church looked upon themselves as a family, and they lived like a family. Thus, if one member of the “family” had more than enough possessions and other members had less than enough, it was natural to share these possessions within the family. “Private property” is viewed differently within the family than without.
“Ownership of property still remained, but the claim to ownership was relinquished. That is, one owned his possessions, but he gave up that ownership the moment it became evident another member of the family required them.
So we are all reminded that our own, individual stewardship of abundance needs attention from time to time. Even though, through the stewardship of Mr. and Mrs. Deacon, we have been able to remodel a great number of items around the church, send several kids to camp and help the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow (in Deuteronomy’s language), God’s ministry through this little church needs our stewardship of abundance. While the Deacon’s gift has allowed us to do some great things, we all have the unglamorous, yet incredibly honorable task of contributing to the family so that we can keep the doors open, the lights and heat on and the steeple pointing to heaven. It’s what we do in our personal lives, in our corporate lives and even in our spiritual lives. For such a holy mission, we are wise to pray.
Gracious God of Abundance and then some, we thank you for all with which you gift our lives: from the honor of good work, to the ability to help the family when we can, we are grateful. We confess that sometimes we forget that all that we have is really yours, so forgive us when we are greedy when we don’t need to be. Guide each of us this week to be aware of our jobs as stewards of your abundance, that we do our work wisely and well. Help us, to be humble in such endeavors, that our work not point to us, but to you and what we, as your people, are able to do because of and through you. For all the blessings with which you bless us, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.