Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Growing In Faith Together”
Rev. Art Ritter
October 27, 2019
1 Kings 17.1-16
Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” The word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi. But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
2 Corinthians 8:1-5
We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us.
Three men were hiking through a forest when they came upon a large, raging, violent river. Needing to get to the other side, the first man prayed, “God, please give me strength to cross the river.” Poof! God gave him big arms and strong legs. He was able to swim across the river in about two hours, having almost drowned twice. After witnessing that the second man prayed, “God, please give me strength and the tools to cross the river.” Poof! God gave him a rowboat, strong arms and strong legs. He was able to row across the mighty river in about an hour, although almost capsizing once. Seeing what happened to the first two men, the third man prayed, “God, please give me the strength, the tools, and the intelligence to cross this river.” Poof! He was turned into a woman. She checked the map, hiked one hundred yards upstream, and walked across a bridge.
This story came to my mind this week as I prepared to write what is known as the annual Stewardship sermon. First of all, I thought I needed a funny story to get things started and at least half of you probably thought that story was funny. Secondly, I thought of the story because of the particular lesson that I receive from it. When approaching a problem like stewardship it is sometimes easy for us to seek solutions in practical ways that we can easily understand- leaner budgets and more dollars; and to hope for deliverance in painless answers that don’t require us to think or act differently. Yet sometimes we just have to step back, to examine the map of faith, to walk on in a different direction, and find that bridge that God may have ready for us.
Next Sunday is our Consecration Sunday. For those new to our church, Consecration Sunday is the day in which members and friends of the congregation bring forward, in the worship service, a card indicating an estimate of their financial giving to the church for 2020. We encourage everyone to participate and we do it together so you won’t be embarrassed or singled out. Normally we hear a stewardship sermon on that day, delivered by a person outside the congregation, but the Stewardship Ministry team asked me to offer one this week, a week early, so we can contemplate what our giving might be.
We offer our estimates of giving, our pledges if you will, so that our boards and church leaders have an idea of how much money will be available for revenue next year as we begin to plan the budget. You don’t have to fill out an estimate of giving or pledge card but we hope you will. You can continue to give without making a commitment but we hope that you will want to make a commitment. Your estimate of giving card is not an obligation. It is an exercise of faith that helps you contemplate your commitment to God and a practical application that helps our Trustees plan a budget based on some numbers. No one sees what you have written down on your card, except for our church treasurer and our office manager. For me, it is one of the most meaningful events of the year, watching people bring the cards forward. If you haven’t pledged before, please consider making a pledge this year. If you have pledged before, please pray about how you might increase that pledge for 2020.
Stewardship sermons are not the favorite sermon of most ministers. It is difficult to talk about money, even though we are reminded that money was the favorite topic of Jesus’ teaching. I don’t like the feeling of asking for more money. I am aware of many of your limitations and certain aware of your loyal and generous support. When I preach a stewardship sermon I am aware that those who need to hear it most may be the ones who are not here to listen. Today, perhaps I am truly am preaching to the choir! I would like to think that my stewardship sermons are really not about money but about the concept of seeing our resources differently, about understanding the value and source of what we have been given and how we use those gifts to respond in a way that meets God’s intention. Yet I also hear the words of American journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken echoing in my ears. He said, “When somebody says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.” So I will openly admit that this sermon is about money, but hopefully about a different perspective in how we use our money and indeed all of our gifts, including time and talents and energy.
If you have ever been a member of the Board of Trustees, you know that this is an uneasy time of year. We are nearing the end of the fiscal year with a deficit. This year for the first time ever in my career, it was a planned and budgeted deficit. We are hoping that everyone will keep up with their estimate of giving for the remainder of 2019 so that the deficit will stay within the budgeted scope. If you have fallen behind with your pledge, this would be a great time to catch up.
The Trustees are also beginning the process of next year’s budget. They are a little wary as pledges or estimates of giving have gone down in recent years. In 2017, our pledges were nearly $230,000 and last year they fell to roughly $213,000. The number of pledges only fell by two from 106 in 2017 to 104 last year. Our church, like most mainline Protestant churches has suffered a decline in attendance, in participation, and consequently in giving. Those who were able to make larger gifts in the past are now in situations of reduced income. While we have been fortunate to receive a few extra gifts from memorials and thoughtful bequests, the decline in revenue puts a strain on our ministry and our future planning.
Those involved with the church budget process fear having to ask the tough questions: Should we run a deficit budget? How many years can we do that? Should we make cuts to the budget? If the only place to make meaningful cuts is in salaries, how will that affect the future of the church? Will we be able to maintain our beautiful building and grounds, at a time when many parts of our facility is aging out? Can we rely upon special accounts and future extra gifts to support church needs? Should we be spending so much of our time and energy on fundraising events to supplement the budget; time and energy that burns people out and is better spent on mission and education and fellowship?
Here at Meadowbrook, we have a separate benevolence budget. Thankfully, our benevolence giving has been well supported throughout the years. I know that some individuals feel that their dollars are better spent giving to benevolence rather than the church’s general budget. I am proud of our willingness to give to many international, national and local missions that assist others in need and I do not want anyone to think that I would ever discourage that. But we also need to remember that our church’s benevolence giving needs to have the structure of the church and the support of the church organization and staff that must be supported by our general fund budget.
All of our boards and ministry teams worry about the stewardship of time and talent. I mentioned before the needs of building and grounds. While we have an extraordinary crew on our Property team, more help is needed in weeding and trimming and painting and cleaning and planning and monitoring the needs of our facility. Without the gift of volunteer hours, we would have to pay for such service, thus increasing our church expenses and budget even more.
There are many other places in which those who give of their time serve Christ in ministry through the weekly and monthly activity of our church. I am amazed by how much time and how much caring some of you show for our church. Still, we are in great need of nursery attendants, of Sunday School teachers, of choir members, of sacred dancers, of Fellowship hour hosts, of ushers and greeters, and of board members. Church members and friends alike can serve in most of these roles. As our attendance has gone down, as our membership has aged, it is getting harder and harder to fill these positions and ministry roles. Those who continue to serve faithfully may feel a bit worn out. The lack of volunteers is on the verge of seriously effecting ministries that are important to the life of our church and our members and guests. Your commitment to worship attendance and to ministry teams is just as important as your financial gifts.
I mention these things not to depress or frighten you. I mention them not to make anyone feel guilty. I bring them up as a realistic assessment of our financial picture and ministry needs, in anticipation of your stewardship consideration. Like the men in my opening story, who contemplated crossing the mighty river, perhaps a plea for conventional answers or a surprise miracles today won’t work. Could it be that it is more appropriate to take out a map of faith and look for that creative bridge that God is building or has already supplied, a bridge that will bring us safely to the other side?
Both Scripture lessons this morning come from situations of dire need, times and places when resources to the faithful appeared to be lacking. Yet in each case, something was given in the name of the Lord. The people of God were challenged to reach beyond what seemed to be their limit. Offerings of time and talent substance were given and in God’s hands those gifts were blessed, found to grow, and allowed to bless others.
In the book of 1 Kings, the prophet Elijah is fleeing for his life and fed by ravens in the wilderness. He is told to visit a widow in Zarephath and that she will feed him. When he arrives at the woman’s house, she readily admits that she doesn’t have enough resources even to feed herself and her ailing son. What he asked seemed irrational and ridiculous to the natural mind. Why would God send a starving prophet to a home where they wasn’t any food? Yet Elijah told the widow not to fear and to make him a small cake, and then make another one for her son. He said that what she would provide to eat would always be enough. The widow obeyed and God fulfilled Elijah’s promise. By her act she took a leap of faith and gave even while in need; giving of something in which she was trusting for her future. God blessed her and provided for her.
In his second letter to the church at Corinth, Paul wrote to a persecuted and poor people. He wrote, “for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” From their need they gave to a ministry project that he was leading. They gave beyond their ability, beyond what was expected. They gave eagerly and willingly of themselves to God and of their resources to God’s work. And they grew in greater faith and service. They excelled in faith, in speech, and in knowledge.
What does all of this mean? I don’t want to be like some television evangelists that I have seen, asking the flock to make sacrificial gifts and then guaranteeing them future blessings from the Lord. That seems a little cheesy and self-serving. I can’t guarantee it works that way. But I would ask that you look at your giving from a different perspective than you normally do. Challenge your faith in your giving. I truly believe that stewardship is not first about giving, but about seeing all that we have been given and rejoicing in a way that cannot help but shape how we act. And I believe it is easier for us to act our way into a new way of thinking than it is to think our way into a new way of acting.
This week I would ask you to look at things the way the widow did, and the way the early Christian community at Corinth did. Act in faith. Look at all you have been given and rejoice in way that cannot help but shape how you act. Challenge yourself to find places and ways that you can give of what is important to you, not what is merely convenient or what is left over. Even in situations in which it appears you have exhausted what you can give, consider how God might be challenging you to do something more, perhaps in ways that are surprising to you. Find a way to give of something that is important to you- time or money or energy or talent. Take a leap of faith so that your faith can grow. Don’t stay where you are today.
This week one of my colleagues said something that seemed very wise. He said, “To grow in faith, to stronger our relationship with God, we need to do something that challenges us. We have to do something difficult to understand God’s willingness and readiness to bless.” Choose something that challenges you. Embrace a commitment that tests your priorities and brings you closer to God.
Laura and I intend to increase our estimate of giving again this year. We have done this every year for now thirteen years. That was not going to be our decision this year. Because of her new job and reduced salary that estimate carries with it more practical implications than previous years. But I listened to myself as I wrote my sermon. We feel we need to try and do this. We love this church and we love all of you. It is here that we find the presence of Christ in serving and worshipping, in laughter and in tears. I am grateful for the privilege of being your minister.
Certainly the months and year ahead will bring challenges, but we will find a way to that bridge across that river. Growing in faith together. When we are generous, our minds becomes lighter and more available to God’s presence and direction. When we give, our hearts develop a greater capacity to let go of things that burden us. We become lighter and freer and closer to God. Look at what you have and what you give with new eyes. May we grow together as a community of faithful stewards, giving thanks and practicing generosity.