Today we conclude our 4 week preaching series to help us appreciate “stewardship,” a word which has been used in church for a long time but is often misunderstood. Rev. Molly will focus on living useful lives with a sermon entitled “How Can I Help?”. Audio and printed copies of the sermons are available now on the church website or by request at the church office.
“How Can I Help?”
November 23, 2014
Today marks the final sermon in our series in which we have considered stewardship as fruitfulness. If you have been with us over the past month and a half, you have heard both Glen and I preach about fruitfulness – about what it means to share the rich abundance of what we have with the world around us. We have talked about what it means to offer the best of what we have – our time, our money, and our gifts – in order to build up this faith community and further God’s work in the world. We have thought about all that it takes to keep a place like Orleans United vibrant and relevant. We have taken seriously what it is that each one of us has to offer this community. And today, we take a final moment to think about how all these pieces come together when we live with a spirit of helpfulness.
Now when Glen and I first thought about the topic for today’s sermon, we thought we would look at living useful lives. However, as time passed and this sermon started to take shape, the word “useful” just didn’t seem to be cutting it for me. Somehow it seemed too utilitarian to describe the kind of fruitful lives God wants for each one of us. Instead, the word “helpful” is what continued to pop into mind as the stewardship word. I like the intentionality and sense of meaning behind a given action that comes when using the word “helpful”. For example, when I can’t reach the glasses on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinets, I find that a step stool is useful. But when my tall husband reaches up and takes the glasses down for me, well that is helpful. A sturdy shovel to clear the end of the driveway when the snow plow has just gone by – useful. A neighbour with a snow blower taking care of the ridge of snow – helpful. In a similar way, it was pointed out in Bible study this week that while a gesture of helpfulness might not always be useful in a given situation, it is the spirit of helpfulness that makes a marriage, a friendship, a community work. And so it is today that we consider what it means to bear fruitful lives marked by a spirit of helpfulness.
As I searched for a Scripture passage that might speak to the concept of helpfulness, I came across the passage from Romans that Frances just shared with you from The Message translation. I was taken by the sentiments of this letter to the church in Rome, as it spoke to me of the essence of the ministry that we are called to be in together, as well as offering both spiritual encouragement and practical advice for the listeners.
In this Scripture reading, the author describes how it was that Jesus engaged in ministry, writing “Jesus didn’t make it easy for himself by avoiding people’s troubles but waded right in and helped out”. I think that might be one of the best descriptions of Jesus’ ministry that I have ever read. And indeed, when we think about it, when he met someone in need, what did Jesus do? He helped out. When they ran out of wine at a wedding? He helped out. When people were hungry, when children were excluded, when outcasts were rejected, when injustice was rampant, what did Jesus do? He looked at the situation and figured out what it was he could do to help.
The Scripture passage then goes on to instruct Jesus’ followers then and now, saying “each one of us needs to look after the good of the people around us, asking ourselves “how can I help?””. And really, isn’t the ministry of Orleans United, the ministry of each of our congregations, the ministry to which each of us is called to as a Christian, characterized by asking the simple question “how can I help?”. It is a question that is seldom unwelcome, and almost always relevant. It is a question that most definitely invites others into a discussion of openness and inclusion, love and respect, justice and hope. It assumes that each one of us has resources, abilities, and gifts we can share. However it does not presuppose that we know all the answers or have a magic solution to make everything all better. Instead it brings people into relationship and dialogue in order to discern a way forward, together.
At Orleans United, we tend to speak about stewardship in terms of a partnership – partnering with each other and with God to allow ministry to take place in a whole variety of ways. This kind of relationship requires that we not only be attentive to what our ancestors in the faith have shared with us about Christian living, but that we continue to be attune to the call of God to us today. As we worship and play and learn and sing and plan together, it seems to me that one of the best ways that we can listen for God’s voice in the midst of it all is to keep this little question from Scripture on the tip of our tongues. As we head into the rich, chaotic worship season of Advent filled with unique opportunities to celebrate together. As we make budgets and plans for the coming year at this church. As we hear of a fellow parishioner who is sick, who is lonely, who is overwhelmed with life. As we encounter a new face in the hallway. As we watch the news, read the paper, engage with co-workers, relate with family members. In all these situations, and so many more, all it takes is a moment to pause and ask “how can I help” for us to contribute to the building up of Christ’s body and the living out of Christ’s mission in this time and place.
Now I hope you have noticed that I have tried to be intentional about not actually answering the question for you. It strikes me that the quickest way to be unhelpful is to presume that we know what it is that would help someone else and barging in and doing it without first asking. Indeed what it is WE think is helpful versus what the person in need would find helpful are often very different things, and we must be incredibly careful to make sure our efforts to help are indeed welcome, relevant, and caring. Being helpful means being vulnerable and open to all the ways that God’s grace might be made known – even if sometimes that is unexpected or inconvenient. Being truly helpful is about meeting the needs of another, not our own needs, and sometimes we are surprised, taken aback, even put off by the responses we can receive to asking the question. It is a bold, brave thing to ask “how can I help?” and truly mean it. And it is worth the risk, every time.
It’s an especially important question to remember as we recognize that life in a Christian community can be challenging at times. Much as we want to think that in the Church we are somehow shielded from the hurt, the pettiness, the arrogance, the discrimination of the world in which we live, the reality of life in any group, even a church group, can take shape in real and hard ways. We know full well that when we live in community, there will be times of struggle and questioning. Times when change feels overwhelming and we are stretched in ways that are uncomfortable. There will be times of mistakes, of challenge, of disagreement as we seek to live out our mission. It strikes me that it is in these times above all others, that it is especially important for us to ask “How can I help?”. Being a responsive and vibrant Christian community requires all of us to be part of the good times, and the hard times, seeking to build up each other in whatever ways we are able. Taking a moment to ask the question of ourselves, and of the people we are dealing with, can make all the difference in how our interactions will take shape.
Now, much as I said we should never presume what might be helpful for another, as I conclude this sermon, my deep affection for this congregation, my earnest belief that we are doing God’s work in this time and place, and my almost 15 years in ministry prompt me to be bold enough to offer a few possibilities of what might be helpful at this time. I offer them humbly, trusting that God will guide each of your hearts to do what is right to build up Christ’s ministry together.
Don’t underestimate the value of your contributions – financially, practically, or emotionally. Much as you think you don’t have much to give, we know otherwise. Some of the smallest gestures have had the biggest impact on the ministry of Orleans United. The overall value of your offerings far exceeds the sum of each little piece. What you have to share does truly matter.
Pray for the mission and ministry of Orleans United. That its leaders would make wise and careful decisions. That its people would grow in love and understanding. That its ministries might find purpose and offer possibility to this community. Pray intentionally and specifically about how we might continue to serve God and our neighbours.
Ask for help when you need it. Part of practicing the spirit of helpfulness is knowing when you are in need of it yourself. As clergy and as a congregation, we can’t always anticipate what it is you are waiting for. Reaching out for help, asking for support, making your needs known – these are ways that we allow others to participate in meaningful ministry opportunities.
And finally, remember that sometimes the most helpful thing we can receive is a simple smile or a word of grace. When someone looks us in the eyes, smiles and wishes us a good week, we leave this place feeling encouraged. When someone asks us how we are doing, and takes the time to listen, we feel truly cared about. Making genuine connections with people around us is one of the great gifts of being part of a worshipping community. So whatever your relationship with OUC, whatever has been your practice before today, when the benediction is said and the postlude begins this morning, you are hereby given permission to talk to the people around you, to speak to someone you don’t know, to wish your neighbour well before you leave your pew. Be the cause of someone walking out of here with a smile on their face. This is the way we bless each other.
And so it is that while our season of stewardship sermons comes to an end for this year, Scripture reminds us that we need to keep alert for whatever it is that God will do next. There is no doubt in my mind that the Spirit is alive and at work among us, moving us in ways we have yet to realize, strengthening each one of us for the ministry to which we are called. However it takes the passion and commitment of all God’s people, acting in faith together, to allow God’s vision of justice and inclusivity to be brought to reality – that is the true nature of stewardship. The ministry of Orleans United Church requires all of us to share the fruits of our lives with each other and with our world. And when we do so, when we respond to God’s presence in our lives by offering the best of what we have and the best of our selves, we are empowered, encouraged, and enriched in ways we could never have imagined. May we continue to reach out to one another in Christ’s name, using his example to ask “how can I help?” And in so doing, we may be continue to create a faith community in which all God’s people might believe, belong, and become, together. Amen.
Today we resume the 2nd half of our 4 week preaching series to help us appreciate “stewardship,” a word which has been used in church for a long time but is often misunderstood. This Sunday Rev. Glen will continue his reflections on “living fruitful lives.”
This is a audio recording of a 4 week preaching series to help us appreciate “stewardship,” a word which has been used in church for a long time but is often misunderstood. Rev. Molly and Rev. Glen will approach “stewardship” from the perspective of “living fruitful lives.”
November 2, 2014
Last Sunday I had the distinct pleasure of spending the morning with the youth classes of our congregation. They are an amazing group of teenagers who are seeking in their own right to figure out what it means to live faithful lives and to be part of a Christian community, and it is a joy to accompany them on this journey. Knowing that the congregation was beginning a month-long focus on stewardship and what it meant to live fruitful lives, I thought I would carry this theme into my time with the teens last week. I said to them was that if they really wanted to freak their parents out at the dinner table, instead of talking about sex or drugs, this time they should raise the topic of the church and money. I challenged them to ask questions – how much do they give to the church? How much do they think people should donate? What charities do they support and why? Talk about the church and money – that is how to make them squirm.
Indeed, many of us are squeamish to talk about money in specific and direct ways, especially when related to the church. As a minister, it’s always interesting to me to hear the great public misperception about the amount of “money talk” that happens in the church. Many people who are not part of a faith community, and even some who are part of a congregation, believe all the church does is ask for money. They feel it is unseemly, or inappropriate, or exhausting to be continually asked for money, to be told how to spend their money, to mix talk of money with talk of faith as if somehow those two topics are mutually exclusive. Too much money talk in the church, they cry – and cite that as a reason for staying away. On the other side of the coin, so to speak, there are those who bemoan that the preacher never talks about money and its importance. Often it’s those who are charged with the leadership of and financial oversight within a congregation, although not exclusively. These ones think we shy away from money talk too much and say the only way to get more money for the church is to have the minister speak from the pulpit. They beg for more sermons to be focused on addressing money head on and want specifics – numbers, dollars, percentages laid out clearly. And caught in the middle of all of this, we preachers realize that, like so many other things in church, there will always be a group of people who are displeased with what we do!
From my vantage point, there is definitely room to talk about money within the church. Why there are 2,350 passages in the bible dealing with money and material possessions – more passages than on any other subject – so it seems to me that our ancestors in the faith received some pretty good teaching about it, and so should we. However I believe that any discussion of money in the church needs to be placed within the context of a discussion of stewardship on a much wider scale. That is why at Orleans United we are continuing a conversation about stewardship that understands God’s fruitfulness in all its varied aspects – not simply about dollars and cents. Wise stewardship of all God’s resources is an important part of a healthy church and a fruitful life. And yet in this discussion, we do need to talk openly and specifically about finances. So today I have the challenge, I mean privilege, of spending time with you thinking about fruitful giving: the spirit of generosity.
The story of the widow’s mite that Flora just shared with you is the all-time great story of Christian giving, the story of a poor woman who gave everything she had to the church. It’s a story found in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels, so it must be one that captivated many and spoke to some truth experienced by the people of Jesus’ time.
Jesus and his friends are visiting Jerusalem for the Passover Feast during the final week of his life. On the previous day, they had taken part in a demonstration against the temple priesthood and its thievery from the poor – that famous “Jesus cleansing the temple” scene. This day we find Jesus back at the temple, this time sitting across from the treasury box where monetary offerings were made. The treasury was the place where the Jewish people paid the tithe required by the law as interpreted by the priesthood that Jesus was so upset with. It was a flat tax, applying the same to the rich and the poor. In his gospel, Mark points out that many rich people were making a great show of the large sums they were putting in the treasury, surely hoping that in an effort to boast of their wealth, others would take note of their offerings as the coins rattled and clanged as each was dropped in. It was the place to see and be seen by all those who were in the upper echelons of the social and economic circles of the community.
It is in the midst of this scene there enters a widow, the poorest of the poor, and she makes her way slowly to the treasury. In her hands she clutches two copper coins called leptons, the smallest and least valuable coin in circulation in Judea. One lepton was worth about six minutes of an average daily wage – a coin so small it was barley worth most people’s bother. Invisible to all but Jesus, she pauses before she lets the two copper coins fall into the box, still damp from her hands. They made such a small sound that only she could hear it. And, equally quietly she leaves the scene, forgotten and unnoticed as she was in all of life – by everyone. Well, everyone, that is, except Jesus.
Jesus saw her walk to the temple treasury to give up her two coins, and something about the way she did it – the length of time she stood there, maybe, or the way she cradled them in her hand like her last two eggs – something about the way she did it that let him know that it was the end for her, that it was everything she had, so that when she surrendered them and turned to go, he knew she had nothing left that was not God’s. Her sacrifice was complete, so complete that he called his disciples over to witness it. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
That is why we know about her today, that nameless woman – because she gave all the little she had, holding nothing back, which made her last penny a fortune in God’s eyes.
Now before you think that this is a story about us having to sacrifice our every last penny to the church in order to be pleasing in God’s sight, you’ll note that nowhere in this passage does Jesus praise the widow for what she is doing. He simply calls his disciples over to notice her, and to compare what she does with what everyone else is doing. He invites his friends to sit down beside him and contemplate the disparity between abundance and poverty, between large sums and two copper coins, between apparent sacrifice and the real thing. He does not put anyone in the wrong. He does not dismiss the gifts of the rich. He simply points out that the major characters are minor givers, while the minor character – the poor widow – turns out to be the major donor of them all.
It was a great tribute Jesus paid to her, pointing her out to his disciples as the clearest example of what he had been teaching his whole ministry – a moment in which the enormity of her gift was acknowledged, even honoured, only she never knew it. She walked into the temple with her last two coins in her hand and she walked out again without them, totally unaware that she was being watched. As far as she knew, no one even saw her. She came in with no name and she went out with no name, but where she went and what she did once she had given her life away remains a mystery.
There are many lessons that we might draw from this story of the widow’s generosity, but today, it speaks to me of the kind of relationship we are called by God to have with the money we earn. In a world where the message of materialism seems to scream loudest of all, in a time when success and happiness are all too often measured by the newest gadgets, the biggest houses, the most exotic trips and the largest investment portfolios, it’s also a story that is hard to swallow.
It was obvious to the woman that all she had belonged to God, and that sharing that offering was the right thing to do. It exemplified the trust she had that God would provide, that sharing results in unimagined abundance, that when we give away what we have we are blessed with the unexpected riches that come back to us. But it is also a story of sacrifice. Of doing without. Of making a conscious decision about how to spend what we have in ways that are not all about us. And so it is a story that is easily chalked up as an unattainable ideal that us “regular” Christians could never actually live out, or dismissed because the model of Christian living it provides is simply too costly – literally and figuratively.
One of the great revelations from our youth class last week was that every penny that it costs for Orleans United to be the thriving, meaningful, active Christian community it is today comes directly from the pockets of its supporters. The youth had assumed the church was like any other organization where government funding or public sponsorship made up a good portion of our budget. Not so, I told them. The money that it costs to provide salaries and heat the building and buy paper towels for the washroom, every bit of it comes from the donations we receive through offerings and fundraising. And then I asked them “how much do you think that it costs us to keep OUC running for a year?”. It was a hard question for them to answer. Numbers like $10 000 or $20 000 started being shouted out. Higher I told them. $50 000? Not $100 000?! Keep going. When finally someone as a joke shouted out “half a million dollars”, I said that was about as close as they had come. They were shocked. Indeed, the operating budget of Orleans United is a large sum. Perhaps even larger than we feel comfortable admitting, because to think of having to generate between $400 and $500 000 can feel pretty overwhelming.
And that is why I think the story of the widow’s mite is one which can and should speak to our hearts today. You see, knowing the sums of money that others were putting in the treasury, knowing the kind of revenue that was created on an on-going basis, it would have been easy for the widow to discount her two coins, thinking that with such little money to offer her money didn’t matter. And yet, this woman, having a heart filled with generosity and a spirit that knew fruitful life only comes when one shares from a place of trust and faith, believed that her offering was worthy and valuable, and so she offered what she had, to the glory of God.
We are not a church who dictates how much each of you should give financially to support the ministry of our faith community. We shy away from percentages and dollar amounts, asking instead for you to make meaningful contributions as you are able. We believe that your financial contributions to the church should be made with the same careful consideration that you place into all your household budgeting. But make no mistake – we believe that prayerful consideration should be placed into what it is you are able to contribute financially. The story of the widow’s offering challenges each of us to consider what the spirit of generosity truly looks like in our lives. As Christians we are called to share not only out of our abundance, but to give from a place of true meaning and value. And when we do, when we truly share what we have with sincerity and with hope, we are assured that our contributions, no matter how great, or how small, will be pleasing in God’s sight.
“The One to Watch“ From Barbara Brown Taylor’s book “The Preaching Life”.
Today Orleans United begins a 4-part preaching series on Stewardship. If you’ve been around any church regularly over the last 60 years you’ve likely heard the word, but still may not have a really good idea of what stewardship strives to encourage among those of us who are followers of Jesus. Every year Rev. Molly and I try to give our church family a different look at stewardship, and this year we focus it through the lens of “fruitfulness.” If you’ve already looked at the Life & Ministry page for this week you will have noticed the themes we’ll be addressing, and in addition a brief definition of the word “fruitfulness,” which has just been added to a growing collection of stewardship words compiled by a ministry team at OUC called “Stewardship Conversation.” And if you’re interested in joining a conversation like that, check out “Words that Encourage Meaningful Living” on our church website … that’s a good place to start.
As Stephen is coming forward to lead us in prayer and read our Scripture for today, I also wanted to say a word about what was a dominant philosophical idea during the time when the Apostle Paul was writing his letters 2000 years ago, and honestly which continues to influence the way many people still understand the tension between good and evil today. It was commonly accepted then that the human body was at odds with the sacred spirit … that human flesh was a cesspool where all evil things resided and that the only way to be saved was to choose what Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit” in this passage. This artificial dualism has convinced many people that the passions of our human bodies need to be eliminated or at least suppressed in order to live more spiritually – that somehow our bodies get in the way of our spiritualty. From my faith perspective, that couldn’t be farther from God’s truth, but when you hear our reading this morning you might assume that God disapproves of these bodies in which we live. I’m here to tell you, God loves you – your body and your soul – and wants to partner with your whole self to sow God’s love as generously as you can.
From Paul’s letter to the Galatians in chapter 5:
19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
OK, let’s be honest. Human beings are capable of some really bad behaviour. Sometimes it’s laughable, like our bizarre obsessions with sexuality, or shopping, or food, or watching professional sports or following celebrities online. But there are times, like this past week, when bad behaviour can break our hearts, can frighten us to death, and can even compromise our belief in the goodness of all people. Some of what Paul calls “the works of the flesh” offend us so deeply, we don’t know exactly where to turn or what to do.
I’m grateful – even though I don’t subscribe exactly to Paul’s tension between flesh and spirit – I am grateful that he follows his list of top 10 ugliest “works of the flesh” with such a beautiful list of human blessings. And I’m especially appreciative that he names them fruit … the fruit of the Spirit. I invite you to prayerfully speak them together now and feel their soothing affect – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”
So when you think of fruit, the kind you actually eat – what’s your all-time favourite? … who said peach? I’m with you! Last August we were in PA when the peaches came in. So we went to the orchard, got a small basket, and took them home to my sister’s. I rinsed the best looking one in the bunch, and leaned over the sink to take my first bite. Whoa! That’s the definition of fruit. The texture and flavour and sweetness fills your mouth … and it’s goodness is so overflowing that it runs down your chin and into the sink … and you chew slowly, even reverently, so as not to miss one note of the experience … and the only words that form in your mind and mouth are from the Bible, quoting God, “That’s good.” Real fruit is a whole body experience, and if it’s spiritual in any way it’s because your body participates and shares. I like to think the same way when I contemplate “the fruit of the Spirit.”
Look at them again. It’s not enough just to think about these ideas. In fact, if you’re only contemplating them they really don’t qualify as fruit … oh, they’re wonderful ideals to affirm and proclaim, but only when you actually take a bite and taste their goodness, only then can they bless you with God’s promise of a whole and fruitful life. Only then can they feed and nourish you from within, only then can they shape the way you will choose to live in God’s world. By ingesting and embodying the “fruit of the Spirit” in your everyday living is how God blesses you and those around you. It’s how the Spirit guides us as we cultivate the attitudes necessary to live as God’s expression of goodness for others. So take any one of them and ask yourself, if I take a full bite of patience (for example) what will patience look like in my daily choices? How will patience behave in my relationships? Where will patience be visible to those who know me best? The fruit of the Spirit is given by the Spirit to actively cultivate in you God’s attitude of goodness. God’s goodness is not just something you consume; it actively works in you in order to share.
Which gets me back to the Children’s time this morning; the best part of the fruit is its seed. Late last summer I read Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda, which chronicles the earliest contacts between Europeans and the First Nations in Canada – a powerful book on many levels. When I read the description of how those aboriginal tribes celebrated harvest I was touched. It wasn’t only the cooperative gathering up of the bounty, storing it for winter, sharing the abundance within their community and beyond, all of which was moving enough. The ritual of harvesting the best seeds from the produce, and the prayerful preservation of those sacred seeds, the reverent mindfulness of how the Spirit’s goodness and their blessed hope for the future was embedded in those seeds – that made me ponder how little many of us really know or care about where our fruits and vegetables and grains come from these days.
In our highly consumerist culture, genetically modified seeds somehow are invented by multinational chemical corporations and then planted and harvested by monster-machines of huge agri-businesses around the globe – science and technology swallowing up the mystery and spirituality of fruitfulness. But I don’t criticize; I simply observe that fruit is not for consumption only … the most important part of fruit is that it alone holds within the seeds for our future. And that’s also true of the fruits of the Spirit. To harvest and consume them for ourselves only, to say yes I want gentleness or patience or joy for myself, but I’m not willing or able to collect and plant those seeds for others, is to miss the very nature of fruitfulness.
And that’s where our church community comes in. Here is the place where we weekly harvest the best seeds from this fruit; here with each other we prayerfully preserve the teachings that encourage faithfulness, here in God’s presence we honour the goodness of these attitudes and the desire to plant them again and again in the lives of all who worship here. Here, in our faith community is the sacred storehouse of the Spirit’s fruits. And because we live by the Spirit, we are also guided by the Spirit to plant those seeds of fruitfulness in our children, for each other, among our neighbours, and around the world. Thanks be to God.
Orleans United Church
October 26, 2014