THE FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH OF CHRIST AND THE STEWARDSHIP OF MONEY
by Rick Wilson with Miriam and James Trammell
Guiding Scripture Theme: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21).
Old Testament Lesson: Deuteronomy 12:1, 5-14
New Testament Lesson: Luke 10:25-37
Mention stewardship and most people immediately think about money. Mention stewardship and a lot of people moan inwardly and brace themselves for another fund raising campaign, maybe even breathing a prayer of gratitude, “Thank God we only do stewardship once a year.” Is stewardship only about money? Is a stewardship emphasis really a fund raising campaign that comes once a year? No and no.
Stewardship is at least about money, but it is about much more than handing over dollars and cents to support the budget of the church. Over the next few weeks the concept of stewardship is going to be challenged and expanded through a series of lessons in our Sunday School. In addition to money, healthy stewardship also is about the way we spend our time and talents. Stewardship also is the choices we make to be present at services and to be present in the lives of others with whom we make up the Body of Christ at the top of Poplar. And, of course, stewardship is about the way we understand the needs of the budget of our church.
Thinking clearly about stewardship and then acting with integrity is about finding ways to balance all of these different aspects of healthy stewardship. Over the next few weeks the concept of stewardship is going to be challenged and expanded through a series of lessons in our Sunday School. Through the challenges we might gain some insights into ways we might find balance as we strive to become good stewards. We could even say that the ideas of stewardship are going to be redeemed from stale misconceptions. Perhaps the one misconception that needs to be chased away from the beginning is the idea that stewardship merely is a religious synonym for fund raising, or a religious synonym for financing the work of the church.
James Hudnut-Beumler has an excellent definition of stewardship: “Properly understood,” he writes, “stewardship is the responsive practice of human beings tending to what has been placed in their care by God.” There is more. He continues, stewardship “is something people do because God has first done something to and for them.” Then he adds, “Stewardship is the peculiar 1response that human beings can make to the Creator who has . . . blessed them.”
Stewardship is about more than money, but it is at least about money. More precisely,
stewardship is at least about what we do with our resources. Taking cues from some advice
Moses gave to the Israelites as the prepared to enter Canaan, and some insight Jesus offered through the parable of the Good Samaritan, this week’s lesson focuses on the stewardship of
resources, including money.
Our Resources Are Gifts from God (Deuteronomy 12:1, 5-7)
The Book of Deuteronomy is designed as a series of three speeches delivered by Moses near the end of the forty years in the wilderness and immediately before the Israelites entered the land of Canaan. The setting is especially dramatic when the reader recalls that virtually all of the Israelites Moses addressed entered adulthood or were born in the wilderness. The audience was made up of second-generation Israelites who had little or no memory of life in Egypt. By ancient standards they were a young crowd. Certainly they had heard the old stories of God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah from their parents and grandparents, but those old stories had not yet become their stories.
Moses was determined to tell the new generation of Israelites the basic story of who they were, where they came from, and where they were headed. What a story it is! “You are a chosen
people,” he declared. Furthermore, Moses reminded them that the land they were about to enter was a gift from God. “The God of your ancestors,” Moses declared, “has given you [the land] to occupy all the days that you live on the earth” (Deut 12:1). In that one sentence Moses built a
bridge between the past and the future. The God who promised Abraham and Sarah the land of Canaan is the same God who is about to lead this second generation of Israel into the promised land. Canaan will be their land and their lives will become the blessing that had been promised of old. What a story!
The story continues. Moses underscores the timeless lesson that all of life is a gift from God. The land of Canaan is a gift, but so is all that the land will provide to the people. Indeed, the community of Israelites is itself a gift from God. They are a chosen people about to enter a promised land that will fill them with blessings day-by-day.
Healthy stewardship begins and ends with the recognition that all of life is a gift. If life itself reminds us that God has blessed us, then it is a short step to say that all that we have–all of our
resources–also are gifts from God. A final step is not hard to make, either: the community of faith that surrounds us also is a gift from God. We at First Baptist Church of Christ are surrounded by reminders of God’s blessings every day, not only on Sundays and Wednesdays, and certainly not only during our annual stewardship emphasis.
Stewardship Is a Continuing Act of Worship (Deuteronomy 12:8-14)
In the midst of the story Moses tells the Israelites, the story about their past and soon-to-be-realized future, he frames the daily life of the people as a continuing act of worship. The continuing act of worship includes gathering, giving, and rejoicing.
Gathering as an Act of Worship. Healthy stewardship is about gathering as the people of God
(we will have that lesson soon). When God’s people gather in God’s name worship begins in the presence of God and in the presence of others with whom we share God’s blessings. Worship is
rooted in gratitude for what God has done for us. Worship also is rooted in gratitude for what God will do through us. Moses tells the people that when they enter the land of Canaan they will find rest and security (v. 10).
Giving as Acts of Worship. If gathering as the people of God is the beginning of healthy
stewardship, then giving is the center. Moses challenges the Israelites to come to the place of
worship with offerings, tithes, and gifts (v. 11). In the life of ancient Israel these terms,
“offerings, tithes, and gifts,” were not different ways to talk about one thing. Each term had a specific purpose that addressed a specific aspect of worship. As the verse suggests, offerings
usually took the form of a sacrifice. To commemorate a particular event, such as the birth of a child, a family would make a sacrifice. Likewise, to underscore one’s need for forgiveness, a sacrifice would be made at a certain place and time. Worship in Israel included more than sacrifices, however.
The tithe was, perhaps, the most frequent example of worshipful giving in Israel. The basic meaning of “tithe” is “a tenth,” as in a tenth of what was harvested. Soon in development of the worship of Israel, and later in the development of Christianity, the tithe was expanded to include one tenth of all that was earned. The idea of the tithe, too, included the commitment to become a participant in the life and work of the gathered community. Early in Israel’s life and continuing today in the life of the Christian Church the tithe was a way that members of the community could support the continuing service of the whole community. In our day the tithe is at least about the money we earn.
The tithe was an opportunity to participate in the work of the priests in ancient Israel and also in Judaism at it matured. If the priest was designated as the one who brought the people near to God and brought God near to the people through rituals or worship, then the tithe was an opportunity to participate in the priests’ work through tangible support. Giving the tithe was an opportunity that presented itself throughout the year. In an agricultural society crops and flocks produced their bounty in cycles and, so, in cycles the people would gather and bring their tithes to the place of worship. As societies developed and moved further and further away from an agricultural foundation the practice of tithing, too, changed. The basket of grain or skin of wine was gradually replaced by coins of silver and gold. Whether wheat or silver, giving from one’s
resources have long been a renewable opportunity for worship.
The New Testament is not as specific about the details of the practice of tithing as is the Old Testament. In fact the words of Jesus about tithing seem harsh. In a confrontation with certain religious leaders of the day Jesus chides them for they way they tithe: “Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs . . . and neglect justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42)
Does that mean that Jesus was opposed to the practice of tithing? Not in the least! The tithe is not what Jesus is opposed to. He opposes an imbalanced and unhealthy way of turning the tithe into an obligation rather than seeing it as an opportunity. Jesus’ challenge of some Pharisees suggests
that he demanded a thoughtful practice of one’s religious commitments. Healthy stewardship strives to find balance among the different ways to participate in the life of the community of faith. The tithe–giving from one’s resources–is one key to healthy stewardship.
In addition to giving offerings (sacrifices) and tithes, Moses encouraged the people to worship though the giving of gifts. If the offering of a sacrifice was a way to commemorate an event in one’s continuing relationship with God and the community, and if giving the tithe was a way
actively to participate in the continuing life of the community, both at worship and in service, then what about the “gifts”? “Icing on the cake” is one way to describe the place of gifts in a worshiping community. Unlike the offering of a sacrifice with its solemness or the giving of the tithe as a repeated routine of worshipful living, the giving of gifts is a more spontaneous
response to circumstances. Sometimes we give gifts of appreciation for the chance to be part of a community like First Baptist Church of Christ .Examples include providing flowers for the sanctuary, making gifts recorded in the Book of Memory, contributing to the renovation fund, and more.
Rejoicing in the Context of Worship. A corollary to gathering for worship is rejoicing in the
context of worship. Worship without rejoicing is no worship at all. Worship without rejoicing is merely acting out of a wooden sense of obligation, and so becomes a burden to carry. Worship that includes rejoicing transforms us and gives us a place and time to have our burdens lifted.
Let us summarize the lessons we might learn from hearing a portion of Moses’ speech to the Israelites on the eve of their return to Canaan, the land that God had promised them four hundred or more years earlier when he made a covenant with Abraham and Sarah. Life itself is a gift from God. The places we live and work and worship, too, are gifts from God. We never can and never should attempt to repay God for the blessings that come our way, but we can gather for worship and rejoice together as we are surrounded by blessings. In the midst of our worship we also can find ways to share in God’s desire to bestow gifts upon us. By understanding giving as acts of worship we, too, can become givers. We can give from the bounty of our blessings to commemorate what God has done and is doing with us. We can become regular givers, tithers, as we seize the opportunity to undergird the day-to-day life of our community. And we can become exuberant–even extravagant–givers of gifts that allow us to acknowledge that God is the true giver of all good gifts.
Think of it this way: The ancient Israelites, the Jews after them, and Christians in our own day have a chance to learn the joy that comes through healthy stewardship. As active and joyful givers we turn loose of that which we cannot keep and take hold of that which we cannot lose. What is it that we cannot lose? The joy that comes from knowing that God has blessed us and continues to bless us day by day. When our hearts are tuned toward the blessings that God has bestowed upon us we cannot pass on the chance to share those blessings with others. In our day and time our giving is at least about our money, the most tangible resource we have.
Stewardship Is a Way to Empower our Church to Meet Needs (Luke 10:25-37)
Only Luke includes the Parable of the Good Samaritan as he tells the Jesus story. The setting of the parable is important: a specialist in understanding and teaching the importance of what Scripture demands (that is what “lawyer” meant for first-century Jews) pressed Jesus on the issue
of what “neighbor” meant. For most first-century Jews, and for most twenty-first century
Christians, a neighbor is someone who looks and acts just like me. Jesus challenged the lawyer and turned his world upside down. Through the well-known parable Jesus suggested that the more important question is “to whom can I be a neighbor.”
The parable also can turn our world upside down, if we read it and listen for a lesson of stewardship. Think about the parable. What can you say about the Samaritan? He is a man of means. He has transportation, a donkey. He has luxuries, wine and oil. He has disposable resources, coins in his purse. If we could transfer him to our world and our time he would look
and act a lot like most of us, at least in terms of economics. We would call him a middle-class or upper-middle class citizen.
At least we must say of the Samaritan that he is a good steward. He has done well with his resources. He apparently does not see his money, his oil and wine, and his donkey as personal possessions. Instead his resources are opportunities for him to meet the needs of a man in need. He is a good steward. The blessings of his successful life are now disposable resources to be shared with someone in need.
Although the parable does not say so explicitly, the context of the Gospel of Luke allows us to see that the Samaritan has been motivated by the Holy Spirit to share what he has once he sees a genuine need. Throughout the Gospel of Luke and Book of Acts (which Luke also wrote) the Holy Spirit is the primary motivation for those who act in response to God’s presence. The father of John the Baptist, Jesus, the Apostle Paul, all of these are described as responding to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Even in the context of the parable we can ascribe to the Samaritan the moving of the Holy Spirit. At very least the Samaritan in the parable does not “neglect justice and the love of God” (see Luke 11:42, again, and recall the chiding words of
Jesus directed toward some Pharisees).
The Samaritan is a good model for contemporary Christians eager to broaden their understanding of healthy stewardship. He considers his resources as a trust fund waiting to be tapped when needs arise. Everything he has, his donkey, his wine and oil, and his money he quickly gives in the service of mercy. Few of us at the First Baptist Church of Christ at Macon have such dramatic opportunities to meet the needs of others. All of us at the First Baptist Church of Christ at Macon, however, have regular opportunities to help meet the needs of others in more subtle ways. Most of us have used our resources of donkeys, wine and oil (use your imagination!) to meet needs in our community, including our church, our city, and our world. In the end healthy stewardship also includes opening up our purse and giving of our money as a way to empower our church to meet more needs than any one of us can imagine.
How Shall We Respond?
Like so many things in our lives, healthy stewardship is hard to grasp. Our broad understanding of stewardship often obscures the heart of the opportunity before us. We think about how we spend our time and how we invest our talents, perhaps to the neglect of what we do with our money. One thing, however, is inescapable: healthy stewardship is at least about money. In our day money is very important to us and to our society. Money is our most obvious “treasure.” What we do with our money reveals where our heart leads us. Our series theme is hard to avoid: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Near the end of the first letter to the Corinthians that we have in our New Testament Paul gives some good advice to some friends who were struggling with issues of stewardship. The Corinthians asked Paul what he thought about “the collection for the saints” (see 1 Corinthians 16:1-4), a reference to a relief offering for the Church in Jerusalem. Paul’s advice is simple and to the point: (1) Set aside a time to give; Sunday is a good day! (2) Establish a plan of savings that will allow you to give from what you have. (3) Focus on the purpose of your giving,
remembering the needs of the Jerusalem church. And we can easily add a fourth: The best place to give your offerings, tithes, and gifts is where the church gathers for worship.
How shall we respond? Recognizing that stewardship is a form of worship reminds us of the blessings we have received from God. Recognizing that stewardship is a form of worship reminds us that our willingness to be givers extends the blessings of God to others. Confessing that healthy stewardship is at least about money prepares us to see our giving as an act of worship, too.
How shall we respond? With gratitude from what God has done for us. With hope for what God can do through us. And with generosity as we open our purses to take the opportunity to share with others what we have received from God.
1. James Hudnut-Beumler, Generous Saints: Congregations Rethinking Ethics and Money
(Herndon, Virginia: The Alban Institute, 1999), 54.