Stewardship of Treasure
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | November 21, 2019Hi friends, this past Sunday was our big Taking the Next Step celebration and the climax of our focused financial stewardship season. To those who were able to be there, and to those who have already returned an estimate of giving card, thank you! It was a good day, with good music, good food, and even better company!
If you weren’t able to join us, I hope you’ll return your estimate of giving card soon. You’ve heard me say before that home is the place where you’re one of the folks who takes out the garbage. We only do chores at our own homes—not when we’re guests. This is one of the ways we understand volunteering—time, talent!—at St. Liz. There’s a similar dynamic at work when it comes to money: home is the place where our ongoing commitment of treasure helps enliven and sustain the family’s common life and work.
As I’ve reflected on the role of money in the life of the Church over these past few weeks, I found myself returning to 2 Corinthians 8-9. They’re helpful chapters for thinking about stewardship of treasure. In short, in the life of the Church, money needs to move in order to do God’s work. Why? Because God, the Holy Spirit, is always moving.
Here’s the background to those chapters: the Church in Jerusalem, which is primarily Jewish in character, is struggling financially. During his travels, Paul has been organizing a collection on their behalf—not only to support them materially, but to generate a feeling of unity between the Jerusalem church and the more urban, Gentile-filled churches elsewhere across the Mediterranean.
He’s had some success, too. The churches of Macedonia (probably the Thessalonians and the Philippians) have gone over and above what Paul might have expected, giving with joy despite their own myriad struggles. Paul uses this story of the Macedonians to encourage—and perhaps gently twist the arm of—the Corinthian church to do likewise.
That’s the gist of 2 Corinthians 8-9. Paul wants to get that money on the move to where it needs to go. There’s a subtle theological current at work here. What’s so noticeable about these chapters is just how often the word grace appears. (Nerd alert! In Greek it looks like this: χάρις.) It’s used ten times in these two chapters and gets translated in all kinds of ways into English: in addition to seeing it simply as grace in the NRSV (8:1 and 9:14), we get privilege (8:4), generous undertaking (8:6, 7 and 19), generous act (8:9), thanks (8:16 and 9:15), and blessing (9:8).
This word grace is the close cousin and root of another word, gift. (You can see the visual similarity: χάρισμα.) We see this word for gift in Pauls’ other letter to the Corinthians: “Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit,” (1 Cor. 12:4), and to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7).
So, what can we say about all this? All Paul’s talk about the role of money in the life of the Church is really about grace, and grace, in whatever its form, is gifted to us by the Holy Spirit. The particular situation Paul is addressing is about money, but the deeper issue is that he’s trying to get the Corinthians to feel, to drift upon, to rise and sink and rise again on the current of the Holy Spirit moving among them.
The word for Spirit and the word for breath are the same. (πνεῦμα.) In his financial collection on behalf of the Jerusalem church, it’s as though Paul is trying to get the Corinthians to listen for and feel God’s very breathing.
I’ve found this to be a helpful metaphor. Breath is always on the move: it’s always coming in or moving out. Holding our breath isn’t something we can do for very long without turning blue; it’s in the very nature of breath that it is breathed. This is a helpful metaphor in guiding our stewardship of treasure as Christians: our treasure flows into and out of Christ’s body, the Church, as one more vehicle of grace, flowing in and out as the Spirit breathes in and through us.
It’s fitting, then, that Christians should expect that faithful financial stewardship should either look like offering a portion of our income to God through the Church, as Paul’s Macedonian communities do, or receiving financial support, as the Jerusalem community does. Simply sitting by with neither active generosity nor an expressed need, as the Corinthian church seems prone to doing, simply isn’t a faithful option. In other words, we give financially as a part of our discipleship, or we let the Church put groceries on our table. Anything else is a bit like holding our breath.
Now, I’ve drawn those categories a bit simplistically to demonstrate a point. Just because the Church helps with your power bill one month doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t put a fiver in the offering plate on Sunday if you’re moved to do so. The dignity and grace of offering our treasure to God, particularly during the offertory in liturgy, is in our participation in God’s own self-offering to us, not in the dollar amount. (Remember the widow’s coins in Mark 12?) Likewise, just because you’re financially secure and giving to your church doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t also receive from your Church in any number of ways.
Still, as we’ve seen, if our stewardship of treasure is to be guided by the Holy Spirit, which is to say if it is to be a gift and a vehicle of grace, then we’ve got to let our money move. In and out. In and out, with the rhythm of God’s own breathing.
If you’re on the fence about that, I hope you’ll reach out. I’d love to talk with you more.