We are now into the Lenten season, a time for gaining some clarity about who we are, and more importantly Whose we are. The Lenten invitation that comes to each of us on Ash Wednesday reminds us that we do not have all the time in the world. It’s not a threat to “remember that we are dust;” it’s just the truth, in a world bent toward denial of death. We think we have all the time in the world, but we do not. By remembering the earth from which we come, and to which we return, we are invited to reflect on what matters for the living of these days.
The dominant metaphor of “wilderness” is not a punishment either. It takes us deep into the solace of fierce landscapes that remind us how important the desert is to the Biblical narrative. The Israelites spent forty years in the Sinai Desert trying to unlearn the ways of slavery. As we heard a couple of weeks ago in the reading from the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus draws on that deep wisdom when he quotes from Torah in responding to the devil during his own forty days in the desert. Wilderness lessons learned: (1) we do not live on bread alone; (2) we worship only God; (3) we best not put God to the test.
Drawing on the experience of the Israelites and the model of Jesus, it became the custom of the Church to give roughly a tithe of each year to return to the “desert” – where we are invited to regain our bearings by focusing on keeping first things first as we prepare for Easter.
There are literal deserts and wilderness places in our world, not limited to the Sinai Desert and the Judean Wilderness, and they have much to teach us. But this is also a rich metaphor that reminds us that the Christian life is not about leaping from one mountaintop experience to the next. In the trials and tribulations of our lives we often find ourselves gaining clarity on what matters. Few people waiting for their chemotherapy treatment tend to think, “Gosh, I hope I get a chance to attend more meetings.” Bucket lists tend to focus on the things that make us feel most alive – especially when facing the reality that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
So what does all of this have to do with Christian stewardship? For me, everything. In my bones I know that the words sometimes spoken as our offerings are placed on the altar are correct: “all things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” All of life –each breath we take, the bread we break, every day we are alive—all of it is sheer gift. In the precarious of deserted places (literal and metaphorical) most of us know this to be true. Yet we are tempted toward a form of idolatry that lives as if this is not so. We are tempted to believe that it is ours, that we are “self-made,” that we are in control. Lent calls us back into our skin and insists that we are utterly depending on God and God’s people. There are no solitary Christians.
As a parish priest I often used Lent as a time for adult forums led by funeral directors, financial planners, healthcare providers and attorneys. We reminded folks to make their wills, and to remember the church in their wills – not because we needed their money but because they needed to let their legacy speak to their core values even beyond the grave. Preparing to die is hard, but holy, work. For me it is at the core about being good stewards of God’s good gifts. Always this is about more than money. It’s about our time, our talent, and our treasure. But it is never about less than money. Mammon is a false idol that is alive and well in our culture. The curse of worshiping this idol is that we cease to own our stuff, and instead become owned by it. The practice of stepping into the wilderness and focusing on daily bread is that we see God and our neighbor more clearly. This is still the way to the Promised Land.
Now if you are with me to this point let me take a risk and say one thing more as I move from preaching to meddling. I spend a lot of time in my diocesan role with vestries that worry about money. In much the same way that financial worries can cause stress for families that are living beyond their means, this causes congregational stress as well.
The church’s mission requires generous givers. That is where the “revenue” comes from. Hear me out – you’ve come this far! Imagine a congregation with fifty pledging units that faces a $25,000 deficit. Every month, year after year, the vestry meets and wrings their collective hands about how this can’t go on – about how we need to find ways to cut expenses. Since the oil bill and the electric bill and the plowing are pretty settled, and most of our parishes don’t have huge program budgets, almost always this means looking at cutting clergy or staff, or both.
But here’s the deal: if fifty pledging units all agree to increase their giving by $10/week, that commitment would more than cover a $25,000 deficit. (To be precise, the parish would have an extra $1000 for mission if everyone did that.) No one person has to write out a check for $25,000. But together we can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
I have not met very many Episcopal households who cannot find $10/week more to support God’s mission of mercy, compassion, and hope for the world. This is loaves and fishes stuff – it’s about the bread. Always it’s about the bread – the manna. And there is enough.
The wilderness teaches us to ask the question about the difference between wants and needs. What does $10/week represent for you? Giving up a cup of coffee each day? One less bottle of wine per week? Making your own lunch instead of eating out? It’s not for me to say, but most of us (if we are honest with ourselves) would admit that we could find $1.43 a day if that meant the difference between our congregation doing the work it is called to or not. So the problem is not that the church doesn’t have the resources it needs. The problem is that the money is still in our wallets and not yet in the collection plate! No strings attached – we are called to give because we have been blessed and we have been given much. The wilderness is the place where we get real about that. And when we do we discover again and again: there really is enough.
Vestries that are not worried about money are freed up to become more creative, indeed to be co-creators with God. As we become more and more generous givers, for the sake of the neighborhood, and the planet, we embrace the work God has given us to do. Always with God’s help.