Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Luke 17:11-19
October 13, 2013
Like most churches started more than 40 or 50 years ago, 1st Christian Church, Odessa can identify with the exiles who received Jeremiah’s letter. They had been taken from the comfortable security of Judah to unfamiliar, unsettling Babylon. They wished they could go back to a world they understood as quickly as possible. Older congregations in decline are both jealous and critical of mega-churches and baffled by the increasingly secular society in which church, religion and God are pushed to the margins if not rejected.
Judah’s Babylonian captors treated them as a zoo exhibit. “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” They responded, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4) Their discouragement was aggravated by unrealized, unrealistic expectations. Similarly today, talking about how churches used to prosper when the world was different only contributes to discouragement.
Instead of pandering to a false hope of a quick return to the familiarity of Judah, Jeremiah instructed them to settle down for the long haul in foreign territory. Seek the welfare of the city where you are, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For today’s congregations, I think that means letting go of the booming church years of the 50s and 60s and settling into the 21st century as foreign as it feels. Our welfare is tied to the time and place where God has put us now, not where God put our parents then.
Jeremiah offered the exiles in Babylon a practical plan: build, plant, grow and pray. Houses and gardens set down roots that nourish. Don’t wait for a better time; have children now. And above all, pray! Not just for yourselves but for the very people who carried you into exile. I think Jeremiah would tell us not just to pray for 1st Christian Church, Odessa. He’d say to pray that the other churches in town will prosper too. There are plenty of people who don’t know Jesus to go around. Evangelism is not about competition between churches. Instead, pray for the people of Odessa who are not connected to Christ.
Congregations who struggle to keep up when they no longer feel comfortable in their world are tempted to view stewardship in terms of survival. How can we raise the money to pay the bills? This can lead to a discouraging downward spiral. Conversely, congregations who catch the vision of the spiritual welfare of the unchurched people around them find that stewardship is about mission. How can we develop the resources to introduce spiritually hungry people to Jesus? A focus on outward mission motivates compelling passion.
We are talking about a vision for mission in the Leadership Conversations, Prayer Triads, Merger Committee, Stewardship Committee, the Elders and the Board. As your interim pastor my job is to help you discern the mission to which God is calling you, not to define your mission for you. But my prayer is that this congregation will become a hospitable community who welcomes its neighbors into faith relationships with Jesus.
When stewardship is integral to a congregation’s vision for mission, it ceases to be a necessary function for responsible planning and budgeting and becomes an act of faith in God’s long-range purpose for the church. Making a pledge for the coming year is a commitment to what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction.” It expresses confidence in God’s purpose regardless of short-term results. It is what Jim Collins in his book Good to Great imagines as turning a flywheel, not stopping too soon but building long-term momentum.
Like every stewardship campaign, you are being asked to prayerfully consider what God wants you to pledge for the mission of 1st Christian Church, Odessa in 2014. I suggest you ask God what size of pledge would stretch your faith. Also ask God how your giving for the rest of 2013 could stretch your faith?
Many pastors are understandably reticent to say too much about money for fear of sounding like they want a bigger pay check. As an interim pastor I can be forthright about the importance of stewardship on the interim journey between pastors because my pay is already settled.
First, building stewardship momentum during the interim journey is important to maintain and build ministry momentum. We are not marking time and waiting. We are accelerating into God’s future for this church. Many churches slump on the interim journey by adopting a “wait and see what the new pastor is like” attitude. Don’t!
Second, the interim journey is the time to amass a generous start-up reserve so that when the new pastor comes with proposals for new ministries, you can get started right away and not lose time as you seek the resources to start new ministries. Instead you can capitalize on the enthusiasm of having a new pastor.
Third, good stewardship is essential for attracting top pastoral candidates. When they look at your congregational profile, they want to see that you are in good financial shape in the present and are financially prepared for the future. Solid stewardship in 2013 and 2014 will give your Search and Call Committee the confidence to offer a package to a top candidate that says, “We want you!” and not “We hope we can afford you.”
Stewardship expresses and nourishes our personal spiritual well-being. Last week we listened to Jesus say that faith as small as a mustard seed accomplishes great things. When our giving stretches our faith, we also trust God to set our priorities on the rest of our resources. When our giving stretches our faith, we get to trust God to meet our needs with what’s left. Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers in Luke 17:11-19 is a window into the practical spirituality of stewardship.
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.
15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.
17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Gratitude is the highest spiritual motivation. When we appreciate all God has done for us in Christ, we switch from asking “How much should I give?” to “How can I find a way to give more to express my thanks?”
A healthy sense of responsibility is also a spiritual motivation if it doesn’t get distorted into guilt. All ten lepers were healed, and nothing suggests that Jesus took back that healing when they didn’t express gratitude.
That one out of ten expressed gratitude, echoes the truism that 10% of the people do 90% of the church’s work. I’ve heard it compared to a football game: 22 people desperately in need of rest and 50,000 people desperately in need of exercise.
You may know that in a Jewish synagogue certain prayers cannot be said without a minion of 10 heads of households (men in conservative and orthodox synagogues). This reflects a practical application of tithing and full community participation. If a small Jewish community in the diaspora wanted to start a synagogue and hire a rabbi, they needed ten heads of households who would commit to tithing. That way the rabbi could be paid what was average for them and the rabbi’s tithe paid synagogue expenses.
Personal involvement in mission is also spiritually motivating. Jesus was motivated to heal the lepers who were outcasts and very needy. The one who returned to thank him was a Samaritan, making him a double outcast. When Jesus told him his faith had made him well, he went beyond physical healing to spiritual wholeness. One of life’s greatest satisfactions is participating when Christ transforms people. That requires having personal relationships with the lepers and Samaritans around us. Mission driven stewardship provides the resources for such opportunities.