Friday, October 15, 2010

Luke 17:5-6

As you have heard next Sunday is our “Grow One Sunday”. And so during this week we are asking you to pray about whether God is calling you to grow one step in giving this year – Either by making a pledge if you haven’t done that in the past, or by growing in the portion of your income that you give. And to help us get started in our thinking and praying, let’s think about mustard seeds. (Instead of mustard seed, The Message paraphrase says “poppy seed” – most of us have probably had a poppy seed muffin or bagel, so we can picture what he’s talking about) So, let’s think about poppy seeds.

When I came to this story from the bible that is assigned for today, I had to stop and think for a minute and try to remember. What was going on that caused the disciples to say to Jesus, “Give us more faith”? I couldn’t remember, so I read backwards to see what had been going on. And the context is this: the disciples had just asked Jesus a question: with all this talk of forgiveness, Jesus, how often do I have to forgive someone who wrongs me? Seven times? And Jesus replies: no, not seven. Seventy times seven. You have to live life of forgiveness. Wow. That's a lot of forgiveness. No wonder the disciples said, “If that’s the case, Jesus, you’d better give us some more faith.” And Jesus answers them in this surprising way. “If you had as much faith as this tiny seed, you could say to this tree, “be planted in the sea, and it would obey you.” And you can almost hear the disciples, can’t you? "A poppy seed? Really? That’s all the faith we need? Well, I’ve got that much faith!" And that’s exactly the point.

The original text of this passage is in ancient Greek and Greek grammar can be a bit tricky. When Jesus says, “If you had faith as big as a tiny see…” it’s a clause according to fact. You know how we say, “Is the Pope Catholic?” It’s the same sort of thing – it’s as if Jesus were saying: if the sky were blue… iff birds could fly… If you had faith as big as a poppy seed… Which you do! You’ve got that much faith! And it’s enough. That’s enough faith. You just have to use it.

There is a story about Alexander the Great, the Greek ruler who created one of the greatest dynasties in history. A man came to Alexander, asking for ten talents. Alexander responded by giving him 50 talents. The man tried to stop Alexander, saying that 10 would be enough. And Alexander replied, “True, ten are enough for you to receive, but not enough for me to give.” Alexander’s giving had to do with who he was, not who the recipient was. His giving had to do with his own need to give. That’s the question for us today: How much do we need to give so that we can grow in faith?

There was a time in the life of the church when we made some serious mistakes regarding stewardship. Mistakes that have proven very difficult to undo. There have been times when we have acted as if stewardship is all about the church’s need to receive money. And in doing that, we have lost focus on the real meaning of stewardship as a spiritual practice. We’re trying to correct that.

You may have noticed that in recent years, when we start to talk about stewardship, we don’t usually say much about the church budget. Because as we talk about stewardship, to focus on the church budget, would be to miss the point, it would be to ask the wrong question. The question, in Alexander’s terms, is not “how much does the church need to receive?” As if God were waiting for a hand out from us. After all, we are a part of the church of Jesus Christ, established by God to endure through the ages.

And we know that this congregation that we’re a part of is doing great things – in missions, with baby kits and Father Bill's and our new church wide emphasis on housing needs. We’ve got a new Sunday School program for the kids and the Breakfast club for the teens and an entire youth group experience focuses on helping kids reach out to help others. We trust that, Chuck Frary has said about a thousand times since I’ve known him, God gives us what we need to do the work God wants us to do.

No, the question at hand is not how much does the church need to receive, the question, as Alexander asked himself, is how much do I need to give? That is the question for me and it is the question for you: How much do I need to give to be true to myself? How much do I need to give to be faithful to the God that I know in my life? How much do I need to give as a spiritual practice? For giving, at its best, is a spiritual practice that benefits us, the givers.

We have talked all summer and into the fall about spiritual practices. A spiritual practice is something that we do intentionally that connects us to God – to God’s creation – and to other people. A spiritual practice is something we do to create an open space within our lives, within our hearts, where God can come and dwell. And giving – regular, planned, disciplined, generous, giving is a spiritual practice that is foundational for all of us who want to follow Jesus. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism said it this way: earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.

Occasionally someone will say to me, “I don’t really need to make a pledge. I give whenever there’s a need – I give when they need money for Father Bill's or for the disaster relief or for baby kits. But I don’t want to make a pledge." And when I hear that, I think of how giving is like prayer. Many, perhaps most, Christians pray at certain times in our lives: When we are going through a difficult time, when we’re grieving or worried. We give thanks when something wonderful happens, when we feel blessed and thankful. And those prayers are so important.

But it is the other kind of praying that really bears fruit. Regular praying, every day, day in day out, in good times and bad times – but mostly the in the in between times. Praying whether we feel like it or not. Praying whether it seem like it’s doing any good or not. Regular, disciplined, planned praying – this is the spiritual discipline that opens the space in our hearts where God can come in and dwell.

And so it is with giving. Giving when there is a special need or perhaps when we’ve had an unexpected windfall is important. But it’s the regular giving, every week, every month – writing the check whether I want to or not, whether I feel like I can afford it or not, whether I feel changed by me giving or not, that eventually make the place in our hearts where God can dwell. You have heard testimonies last week and the week before from people about how their own giving, in some cases, their own tithing, has changed them. How they have been made different because they give. A greater trust in God, a deeper peace, a sense of being a part of something much greater than oneself, freedom from the power that money tries have in our lives. It’s different for everyone. But giving in this way changes us.

But back to the mustard seed or the poppy seed. Most of us who gather here are trying to come closer to God, to have some experience of the holy. We are trying to put that poppy seed of faith to use, and giving as a spiritual practice is one way which we do that. So my prayer is that as we prepare for our Grow One Sunday is that we would follow Alexander’s example, and ask ourselves, “how much do I need to give?” What is the portion that I need to give to open that place inside me where God can come and dwell? May God be with us as we put our poppy seed of faith to use. Amen.