Sermon: Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity, 8 October 2017, St John the Divine

Launch of Stewardship Campaign

Two Sundays ago, our Gospel reading was the parable of the workers in the vineyard.  If you were here, you may recall that the vineyard owner paid all his labourers the same amount, whether they had started work early in the morning, or clocked on in the late afternoon.  I wasn’t at SJD that Sunday, but in my sermon at SMM, I suggested that vineyard owner was very unfair.  The unions would have had much to say about the situation – and rightly so!  But it wasn’t really a story about how to run a workplace, was it?  This story was surely intended to tell us something about God’s generosity and grace.  ‘Grace’ is a hard word to pin down, but a definition I have always found helpful is ‘the undeserved favour of God’.  So, the point of the story was that whether we have been working all day in the hot sun, or are one of the Johnny-come-latelies doesn’t really matter: God’s generosity is for all.

Last week, we celebrated Harvest Festival, and all the blessings we receive, not least in terms of the food we eat, and those who work to provide it. Harvest reminds us also of our responsibility to be wise stewards of our often fragile and vulnerable planet and its environment, and to be good and caring neighbours, particularly to those who are less fortunate than we are.  I suggested in that sermon that living with gratitude instead of complaint can make such a difference to our whole approach to life, citing the words of Meister Eckhart, the 13th-14th century German philosopher, theologian and mystic, who once commented that ‘If the only prayer you ever say in your life is ’Thank you’, that is enough.’  It is stating the obvious that being grateful isn’t merely a once-a-year routine, but an ongoing thanksgiving in response to the generosity of God.

It seems very logical, then, that in all three of our churches this Sunday, we are launching our stewardship campaign, the first for quite a few years, because the theme of stewardship has as its starting point the generosity and grace of God.  What we see of God in Jesus and his teaching is that an overflowing generosity is at the very heart of God’s character, and is an essential building block of the Kingdom Jesus sets before us in the Gospels.  Indeed, God can do no other than be generous, because, as the Christian perception of the divine reminds us, God is love, and the essence of love is giving.

Christians try to be open to, and align themselves with, the values of the Kingdom Jesus exemplifies.  Being open to his Spirit invites the Kingdom into our lives, enabling us to mirror at least something of God’s generosity and grace, transforming our own lives and, by extension, the life of the world.  Issues of stewardship and generosity are vital topics in the life of discipleship to which Christians are called.  Part of that transformation to become more like Christ, and to try to serve him in the world, will inevitably involve considering how we use the time, skills, money and resources at our disposal.

The Bible has a lot to say about stewardship of God’s resources and about giving to the community of faith.  From the earliest days of Christianity comes a picture of a loving community whose shared life reflected the generosity of God himself.  We see it in the Acts of the Apostles and in many of the NT Epistles.  Mutual responsibility is a notable mark of the NT Church and it includes, among other things, clear financial implications.  In I Corinthians and also in the Letters to Timothy, financial provision was made for the support of those in ministry, just as it had been among the Hebrew people in OT times.  Provision was made, too, for supporting brothers and sisters who were less well off. 

Now, I think that stewardship is about more than just money, and it isn’t only about church.  I am very well aware that many parishioners give generously of their time and skills, and that they are very supportive of other people, involved in local community and charitable organisations and, I guess, support many good causes.  I’m also conscious that all of us as church members face spending, financial and lifestyle questions on a daily basis, and that sometimes choices have to be made and priorities ordered.  You know where you fit into all this, and I know where I do.  There will be no prying in this stewardship campaign, but we do all have a responsibility to reflect on our giving specifically to the ministry of the church, and to do that prayerfully and realistically.

So today, and the rest of this month, is about church and specifically our ministry here in the Richmond Team, and how we resource it.  And part of that must include – uncomfortable though we often are to do it – talking about money. 

Did you know that over 2300 verses in the Scriptures relate to money, wealth and possessions, and a third of Jesus’s parables relate to these themes as well?  So there is good precedent for addressing this topic as part of our ministry.

Today, or in the next few days for those who aren’t here this morning, all our regular worshippers will receive an envelope containing a copy of this booklet, which includes: a message from Wilma, our Team Rector; a summary of our Team’s Mission Action Plan for the next three years; some really nice pictures depicting aspects of parish life (!); an explanation of how the money we give to the church is spent; and an invitation to respond, including some information and suggestions on how you might consider your response.  There is a confidential response form and an envelope to send it back.  All responses are seen only by the Team Stewardship Secretary, not by the clergy or anyone else.  If you don’t find an envelope with your name, there are some blank packs available as well, so we’d still like you to take one.  We’ll record your name, so there won’t be any doubling up.

We are encouraging our three congregations to consider seriously and prayerfully how, how much and how often they give to the church.  The plain fact is that our weekly giving has declined quite considerably in recent years, and we need to increase it to enable us to carry on the work of our churches.  We would particularly value some element of planned giving, so that we can make financial and mission plans on a firmer basis of knowing what income we can expect to be able to use.  We’d like to ask you to consider joining a form of planned giving, if you’ve never done this before, preferably through the bank, but possible also by weekly envelopes.   This means that even if you are not in church every week, you are still contributing in a systematic way.  If you give through the collection plate and are a UK taxpayer, please complete the front of the envelopes in the pews, which enables the parish to claim 25% extra on your gift.

If you already give in a planned way, we’d like to ask you to review your gift and, if you are in a position to increase your current level of giving, to indicate that on your response form.  Even if you can’t currently give more, we’d still like you to send in the response form.  Each of us will obviously need to consider all this in light of our own circumstances, but whatever the response is, we’d still like you to respond within the next three weeks.  Some members of our congregation have kindly volunteered to act to remind non-responders, but it will obviously save them a job if we can try to ensure the responses are in by Sunday 29th October.  You will find that the theme of stewardship may well also feature in sermons over the next 2-3 weeks, but today it is the main focus as we launch this initiative. 

So, in closing, let me return to where I began.  Christian stewardship is about how we live as Christian disciples, how we best manage resources, and how we use all that God has given to us as individuals. It is about how we respond as generously as we are able to the God who is unfailingly generous towards us.

About Revd Neil Summers

Revd Neil Summers served as a non-stipendiary minister in the Team between 2000 and 2014, whilst continuing his work as a lecturer in further and adult education. In October 2014, he was licensed as full-time Team Vicar of St John the Divine. He has particular interests in the literary and poetic aspects of scripture and theology, the rational case for faith and belief in an increasingly secular culture and the strengthening of links between the local church and the community in which is it set. Among his spare time pursuits are travel, literature, theatre, dance (only as a spectator!) cycling, singing in a local community choir, and gardening.
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