s178g01 Sunday 11 Somerton Park Stewardship Sunday 17/6/01

Jesus said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." Luke 7:50

What a superb set of readings to have on the day I am to speak about stewardship! They ground our thoughts fairly and squarely - solidly linking our stewardship and our thanksgiving. We give for no other reason than out of thanks for all that God has done for us. We give, not like the man in Nathan's parable who took someone else's lamb to set before his guest, but we give out of our own blessings that we have received.

Again we see in the first reading, the utter contempt that God has even for the person divinely anointed to be shepherd of Israel and contrasts this with the love and concern God has for the alien, Uriah, the Hittite, an employee of David.

The words make it quite plain that God's concern was not primarily the morality of David having an adulterous affair - it was that David, who had all that he could ever want and more - took something from someone who had far less than him.

Again we see in the gospel the contrast between the religious leader, who well knew who was a sinner and who was righteous in the company, and being affronted that Jesus accepted the offerings of someone else, someone whose reputation was more than a little dubious.

And Jesus said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." Not "my power has saved you", not "your ministrations have saved you", not "I have forgiven you ..." No, it is HER faith that has saved her! And that faith is precisely that God cares not for the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and insignificant, but rather favours the cause of the latter. Indeed one could legitimately conclude that it was the woman's faith which brought the reality of God's forgiveness to her. She forgave herself ...

I want, before talking about stewardship, to draw out the faith conclusions to this parable; for it was the religiously rich who denied the offerings that the poor sinner woman came and brought to Jesus. They expressed their religiosity by denying the value of gifts that other people offered Jesus. Effectively Simon who had so much, "stole" any dignity the woman might have had. And, of course, Jesus restores that dignity.

I also draw your attention to the fact that Jesus in his reply to Simon, speaks about the two debtors who had had their entire debt cancelled. Jesus did not claim that he had forgiven the woman's sins, or that Simon's sins hadn't been forgiven. Jesus makes it plain that both persons' sins had been forgiven already. The difference in reactions is that Simon's sins were less obvious than the woman's, or at least that the woman realised the fact of her forgiveness rather more than Simon realised he actually had sins that had been forgiven in the first place. God pardons sins. Even before the Cross, God was a forgiving God. The Cross made no change to that. What the Cross puts before us is the propensity for human religion (christian as much as any other) to restrict God's forgiveness to the chosen few. The Cross shows that this forgiveness is universal. Our job is to get on with living and caring for others, whoever they are. We in the Church, who have the riches of knowing the length, breadth and height and depth of the love of God for ourselves, actually need to realise that it is just as long and broad and high and deep for everyone else too.

Jesus doesn't complain to Simon that he did not extend to himself the normal courtesies of a gracious host. So too Jesus is not going to look at what we put in the plate, and judge us thereby. Neither does Jesus ask this woman to lavish such extravagant attention on himself, and he does not excuse her because of it. No one's offering will be taken away from them, except that offering which is actually at the expense of someone else or someone else's offering.

Jesus bids Simon recognise, acknowledge and appreciate the gift of the woman. We too are bidden to recognise, acknowledge and appreciate the gift another offers.

And so we come to stewardship.

The incident in Simon's house shows us that our giving expresses our faith, and it is our faith that saves us. If we think that we are going to be saved because we give, or by the amount that we give, then this actually expresses our doubt that we have indeed already been saved by God. So we give in response to our perception, our faith, that God cares for us and for all people, rich and poor alike, Jew and Gentile alike, Christian and atheist alike, male and female alike ....

I note again that Jesus neither asked Simon to extend to him the normal courtesies of a host, nor did Jesus ask this woman to lavish such attention on him. So I conclude that Jesus doesn't ask for our faith, devotion or money for himself either. God doesn't forgive us our debts in order that we might feel eternally grateful in response. God doesn't need our money or our gratitude. We give to God for two purposes. The first purpose is so that the Church can continue to proclaim a God who loves all people even to death on the Cross - so our giving of money is actually for other people, that they might, in turn, hear the good news. And the second purpose, it seems to me, is that we give so that the immediate physical needs of others might begin to be provided for - our missionary giving. So our giving "to God" (or to Jesus or to whomever) actually is always for other people - because God cares for other people as well as for us, and we care for others in turn too.

Our giving to God is a bit like money spent by NASA in space exploration - all the money stays on the ground - where it is indeed needed! And hopefully some of it goes towards the relief of the needs of others.

On the other hand, we do give to God. Every Sunday, whether I use the words of the offertory prayer audibly or not, we present the gifts at the altar at the offertory, and they become God's - they are no longer ours. How many hours have been spent in debates, in Synods and in Parish Councils, on the presumption that somehow the money is still "ours". The money is not the parish's or the Dioceses' - it is God's. It is only money and the quicker it is spent, the more good it will do. Because someone has an opportunity to spent it in turn ...

For the reality is that money is only useful as it circulates. Money hidden under the proverbial mattress - or in a hole in the ground - is absolutely useless - it does no one any good whatsoever. At least money in the bank helps the bank with its collateral, so that it can confidently lend to others. Recently I was talking to a priest who had holidayed in Papua New Guinea about the same time as we were in Bali. He commented that if he went again he would take a stock of our 50 cent coins. They were worth about 4 kina, as jewellery, there!

So it really doesn't matter what we spend money on. We might give to someone who is destitute, and they are fed for a few days. We might buy an expensive decoration for the Church. Those we purchase this from, they in turn are given an opportunity and the wherewithal to give something to charity, or to buy what they need for living. Whatever, someone is helped, and the money keeps circulating ...

So this stewardship Sunday, it is not so much what individuals may or may not give, for in the end this is not all that important. The real question is our attitude to our money ... does it stop in our pockets, under our mattresses, in our little hide-aways. Or is it spent, given away ... Do we ever think of the prostitutes in the far country and how welcome the coming of the son of the prodigal father might have been to them? It could well have saved some from starvation ...

I hope that this Stewardship Sunday is not a time to weigh up God's blessings on our personal computers and divide the result by ten ... I pray that our giving reflects the prodigalness of the father who was happy to see the younger son launch out into life on his own, albeit unwisely. Our giving reflects the prodigalness of our heavenly Father who sent Jesus, not to be welcomed but to be maltreated, derided and killed because of the very prodigal nature of the love of God which inspired the incarnation.

It is this prodigalness which hurries money on its way, as opposed to the scrooge, which stops every red cent that comes its way and hoards it to it's own.

And the choice is before us all - life or death.

So I am NOT asking you to give beyond your means to the Church. Paying for your groceries at the local supermarket is quite as important. If you buy your partner an expensive present, there is no need to feel guilty. The money continues to circulate, someone else is helped. The message is be prodigal, keep the money circulating, for in the end as soon as it stops, it ceases to be worth the paper it is printed on ...

 

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