Opening Remarks and Prayers
Yes, friends, I’m back in the Day1 pulpit because of a scheduling challenge in this continuing pandemic. In a few moments I’ll share a sermon with you entitled “Answering the Big Question.”
But first, I’d like to talk with you about our nation. Maybe you heard we had a national election last week! Well, no doubt there are controversies and issues following in the wake of that vote, with emotions that run the gamut from devastation to euphoria. And as I record this, I have no idea what’s happening as a result.
You see, Day1 is recorded well ahead of time to enable us to distribute a professionally produced program to our more than 200 radio affiliates across America and around the world. So as I record this, we’re still weeks away from election day. And believe it or not, God has not made me a prophet.
Regardless of how you voted, regardless of who has won, remember—God is still God. God is still the sovereign of the universe and of our lives. And I hope and pray that we all can come together and fulfill our duty as citizens and as children of God. As the prophet Micah put it so profoundly: “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
So in that spirit, and not knowing what the world will look like when you hear this program, I would like to offer some prayers for our nation from the Book of Common Prayer. Because God knows, God hears us, and God cares. Will you join me in prayer?
Almighty God, we humbly beseech you that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of your favor and glad to do your will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought here out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in your Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to your law, we may show forth your praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, let not our trust in you fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to your merciful care, that, being guided by your Providence, we may dwell secure in your peace. Grant to all in authority in our nation the wisdom and strength to know and to do your will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in your fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
“Answering the Big Question”
In many of our churches, this time of year is Stewardship season—a time when we prayerfully, purposefully ponder our relationship with God, recognizing how much God has given us, now and eternally, and considering how we might generously return to God what is God’s, that is, our lives, our gifts and talents, our time, and our money.
Well, in these times of pandemic and online church, we find ourselves in a strange place. Many churches are handling their fall stewardship campaigns very differently. Even so, the big question remains, and more than ever we need to prayerfully consider it: That big question is this: How shall I respond to God’s love and care for me? With my life, my gifts and talents, my time, my finances—how do I thank God for all the blessings I enjoy, even now in these challenging times?
In our Old Testament lesson, Joshua preaches a barnburner of a stewardship sermon. He declares to the Israelites, “If you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve (in other words, which idols tickle your fancy?)... but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” And the people respond, Yes, we will serve the Lord!
But then Joshua tests them: “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God, a jealous God. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign idols, then God will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good!”
The people reply, “No, we will serve the Lord!” Thank goodness, because Joshua seems to be promising literal fire and brimstone to those who don’t follow God wholeheartedly, in every aspect of their lives!
Okay, but—we’re mainline Protestants. We avoid talking about giving in a judgmental or legalistic way. We certainly shun fire and brimstone in our sermons! Rather, we’re encouraged to think of financial stewardship as a spiritual rather than a merely monetary expression of our faith.
Lord knows there are plenty of huckster preachers on the radio and TV who lay on the guilt when it comes to giving. That’s not our way! So what is our way?
In our gospel lesson from Matthew 25 Jesus tells the strange parable of the 10 bridesmaids. Think of it as a stewardship story. Five bridesmaids were wise—good stewards of what they had—and five were foolish—they failed to take care of their responsibilities wisely and ended up locked outside the door of the kingdom. What do you know, it’s another fire & brimstone sermon about stewardship!
As Jesus tells it, the bridesmaids await a groom who is delayed. With their oil lamps burning while they wait, some of them run out of oil. The others don't share their oil, so those who have run out must leave the pre-party to go buy more. When the groom finally does arrive, they're still shopping at the hardware store. They return too late to be admitted.
Now, we think these maidens are “foolish” because they didn't plan for the groom's long delay, as if that's a spiritual issue. We assume they had no choice but to run off to buy more oil and, sadly, they miss the groom.
But is that really Jesus’s point? Were they really just handling the event lighting? Does it occur to them (or us) that maybe they could just run out of oil, and the groom would be glad to see them anyway in a banquet hall that’s maybe a little dimmer, because he'd rather have their company than their oil-filled lamps?
After all, the bridesmaids’ whole purpose was to meet the groom—and yet right when he needs them most, they're off handling their own worries. They aren't there for him.
Well, these five bridesmaids are not the only ones who fail in this story. Everybody fails to be there for each other. I mean, the “wise” maidens could have shared some oil if it was that important. But they made their sisters go shopping late at night—and are happy to party with the groom without them. Regardless of how properly they planned, they just aren’t there for their sisters in need.
And the groom—in what way is he not a jerk? He won't let his friends come to the party—because they're late? After he himself has made them wait all night? And on top of that he insults them by saying, “I don't know you!” He blows up his friendships over a little tardiness? Wow.
So what's Jesus up to in this story? United Methodist minister Steve Garnaas-Holmes, a favorite poet of mine, helped me wrestle with this story, and I’m borrowing a lot of what he has said here. Steve says he thinks Jesus is setting us up. We're so anxious to “get” the story, to believe something pious about it, to judge between wise and foolish, that we miss the actual relationships—like the maidens out buying moral-of-the-story-oil instead of just being there for the prince and for one another.
Sometimes we're so obsessed and distracted by our lamps and our oil—our own worries, our own deficiencies—that we forget our friends, our families, anyone in need, we forget our responsibilities to God.
It really doesn't matter how much oil we have in our lamps, or how well others meet our expectations. What matters is that we're there for each other, and we’re ready, together, for the Lord. That’s more important in these challenging times than ever.
So, again, the big question: “How shall I respond to God’s love and care for me?” This is a personal, spiritual question. And our answer is about the stewardship of our talents, our time, our very lives. Our answer involves our giving. How does our giving reveal our answer to this big question?
Herb Miller, in the New Consecration Sunday Stewardship Program, says that three kinds of people answer this big question in three different ways:
One kind of person answers this way: “I feel God is calling me to give 10 percent of my income to the Lord’s work. I have been thinking about tithing, as the Bible calls it, for several years, and I want to begin that journey this year.”
Another kind of person responds: “Eventually, I want to begin tithing, but I am not ready to do that this year, especially with the pandemic and the economy the way it is. But I feel God is calling me to start somewhere—to drive my tent pegs in the ground at 5% or 6% or 4%, knowing that God will bless that decision by helping me increase my giving toward the goal in coming years.”
A third kind of person has been tithing, giving 10% of their income, maybe for years. One couple said years ago when they were just getting started, ‘We’ll tithe now and later we’ll do more.’ Years rolled by and now they say, ‘Well we have so much more now that 10% is not a sacrifice for us at all. So we feel God is calling us to give 15% or 20% of our income to God’s work, for our church, for ministries that reflect what’s important to me as a Christian.’
Any of these answers is a good one, and how you answer really is between you and the God who knows you and loves, between you and the God you seek to know, love, and serve more faithfully.
So I encourage us all to pray for God’s guidance, as we all must answer this big question: “How will I respond to God’s love and care for me? What kind of steward will I be, of my time, my talent, and my treasure?”
My father, who served as a United Methodist minister in West Virginia, spent his last year and a half in a nursing home, suffering from, among other things, dementia. During World War II he had served as a chaplain in Indo-China and the Pacific Theater with the Army Air Corps. And of course this week on Veterans Day we honor all those who have been so generous and selfless stewards of their lives by serving in our military services.
Well, during some of his confused times, Dad would tell my siblings and me about the hidden millions of dollars he had brought back with him from China after the war. We knew it wasn’t true—though I confess we did search our folks’ house just in case!
Dad would also share this news about his imagined wealth with his caregivers at the nursing home. He really wanted to bless and thank them for the wonderful way they were caring for him.
So while he was flat on his back and unable to move, while they were meeting his needs, he would tell them, “I want to give you a million dollars just as a way to thank you for being so kind, so good to me.”
When my siblings and I would visit, the nurses would tell us, “Your dad has been so generous with his money! He’s promising to give us all millions of dollars!”Well, this went on for months.
One day his caregivers found Dad unusually quiet and withdrawn, which was so out of character for him. This lasted several days. And then, he died.
One nurse told me, “We knew something was wrong when he quit giving his money away so generously.”
Friends, I hope you and I become so generous, generous with our money, generous with our time and our talents, generous with our very lives, that people will notice if we stop giving and say, surely something must be wrong.
May you and I be known for being as generous as our loving Father in heaven has been with us. Because living generously will change our lives. And, maybe, the world.
Prayers from Book of Common Prayer, The Episcopal Church, 1979.
New Consecration Sunday Stewardship Program, Herb Miller, Sermon Ideas
Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Being There,” Nov. 7, 2017; Unfolding Light newsletter