Stewardship by Rev Paul Roberts

16 October 2016

Preacher | Guest

Stewardship by Rev Paul Roberts

Stewardship Sermon: All Saints’, Sanderstead 16th October 2016

(Mal 3:6 – 12); 2 Cor 8:8 – 15; Luke 21:1 – 4 

The circus came to town, and one of the attractions was billed as ‘The Strongest Man in the World.’ His act was to squeeze a large orange in his left hand, until no more juice came out, and then challenge anyone to get a little bit more out it. So far no one had been able to beat him, but one afternoon a little old man stepped forward into the ring to accept the challenge. Quietly he took the squeezed orange in his hand, gave it a squeeze and much to everyone’s surprise out came two more drops. The strong man looked at this little man with amazement. “How did you manage that?” he asked. “Oh it’s simple. I do it all the time,” the old man replied. “You see, I’m the treasurer of our local church.”

I wonder if you feel squeezed when we come to talk about money. Actually, we shouldn’t because it is a very biblical thing to do. There are more than 2300 bible verses on the subject of wealth and possessions in the bible. More than twice as many as there are about prayer and faith! 

In the gospels Jesus is recorded speaking about money and wealth – or using illustrations connected with money – 4 times as often as he speaks about prayer or heaven. So to talk about money is quite biblical. We shouldn’t feel squeezed, but we may feel challenged. And that’s OK if it leads us to take action.

So I want to speak under 6 headings this morning, and will try not to be too long. Let’s think about handling money in terms of loving generosity, sincere discipleship, spiritual freedom, a biblical pattern, a worthwhile investment, and lastly….practical funding

1 Loving generosity

Paul wrote to the Corinthian church in that first / second reading ‘I want to test the sincerity of your love.’  He was talking first of all about the church’s love for fellow believers in the church in Jerusalem who had been suffering hardship. Further north, the church in Macedonia had gained a reputation for overflowing generosity to the church in Jerusalem: Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. ‘Out of their poverty….’ They didn’t think first about how much they could afford; rather they wanted to make a practical expression of their joy and love. It’s a fact that in churches in the poorest areas of the country – and this diocese – people give more generously in proportion to their income than those in rich areas like Sanderstead or Coulsdon (where I am). 

Jesus said, If you want to show that you love God, then love your neighbour. In other words, our love for God can be measured by how we love others, how we support others, how generous we are to others. You probably know that a large proportion of the money you give goes to support churches in poorer areas of the diocese who could not afford the total cost of employing one full-time paid member of the clergy. Currently that cost is £48,500 which covers our stipend, NI, pension and housing. I’ll say more about funding a little later. Loving generosity helps the church in poorer areas to maintain its mission.

The story of the widow putting her 2 small copper coins into the temple treasury is a beautiful vignette of loving generosity towards God. This woman must have loved the Lord’s house – his dwelling place – with such devotion that she put everything she had for that day into the offering. She probably lived a hand-to-mouth existence, with no savings. Maybe begging the few coins she needed for a little food. But with no thought to how she would survive, she generously gave it away because she wanted to express her love for the Lord and his house. And it was this act that was noticed and commended by Jesus. He sees what we have and what we give, and he knows the motivation in our hearts – whether it’s grudging or generous. And he looks for generosity. The rich people might have given more, but they had plenty left over – what they gave probably hardly dented their wealth. But this woman gave generously and sacrificially – far beyond the principle of giving a tenth.  Loving generosity.

2 Sincere discipleship

Discipleship is about following the master and trusting him. Some years ago my wife and I needed to change our car – the old one kept breaking down and was unreliable. At the same time we felt it was right to review our giving to the church and increase it. We have always tried to give around 10% of our income after tax to the church, and currently we are among the top 10 givers in our church. I don’t say that to boast, but to show that I practice what I preach, and that it’s possible to do this. We have always budgeted carefully – in fact my wife does the budgeting, and almost all our married life we have avoided getting into serious debt. So we decided to increase our giving and trust God for the rest – including new car. Soon after I celebrated my 10th anniversary at the church we were at, and as a thank you gift we received a cheque which was for almost the exact amount that a new – well, second-hand, car would cost. We were serious in trusting God, we put him first, and we were able to survive. And as disciples of Christ we have maintained that pattern, even while paying for our children’s university education like many other people.

3 Spiritual freedom

Budgeting is a spiritual exercise because it forces us to decide what our priorities are. I think everyone should budget anyway as it’s the best way to avoid getting into debt. When our first child was born we only had one income and we drew up monthly spreadsheets with income and expenditure and kept to them rigidly. After a time we were able to be more relaxed, but still stayed within those budgeting guidelines. I would commend this to everyone, and if you are good with finances you could consider offering to help those who are more chaotic and simply need to know how to keep their expenditure within their income. 

It’s a spiritual exercise because it shows who is the master. Jesus said, “You cannot serve two masters – you cannot serve God and money.” You see, money itself is neither good nor bad – it is merely a neutral means of exchange. But if you start getting preoccupied with it, and wanting more of it, then it becomes your master and you become its slave – whether you are rich or poor. No – Jesus said we only have one master – God – and money should be our servant. Paul wrote, The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Not money itself, but the LOVE of money. 

The best way to be free of something is to give it away, and by doing so we show that it has no hold on us. The best way to be free of the love of money is to give it away.  Years ago when I was a curate a young couple came to me who had been involved in the occult. Somehow – I can’t remember how – they had had an encounter with Jesus and wanted to be free of their former way of life so they burnt all their occult paraphernalia. The more we can give away, the freer we become.

4 A biblical pattern

In the OT a pattern was established of bringing an offering of the harvest to the Lord. This was an agrarian society in which wealth was often reckoned in terms of agricultural produce – wine, grain and oil.  Right at the beginning God instructed his people to set aside a tenth – a tithe – of their produce and eat it in the presence of the Lord God as an offering (Deut 14). This wasn’t in order to pay for any service, but simply an offering of thanks to God. Later he gave instructions about bringing part of the firstfruits of the harvest as an offering of thanksgiving for being brought into the promised land (Deut 26). The point about the firstfruits is this: the people didn’t know what the whole harvest would be so they were having to trust God and take a risk in giving an offering before they knew how much would follow. This wasn’t the leftovers – the ‘cash in your pocket’ – this was an offering of faith.

The principle of a tenth was well established by the time of the later prophets. When the Jews returned to Jerusalem after their exile in Babylon they began to rebuild the temple but after a few years the work ground to a halt. Malachi was one of the prophets who spurred them on and reminded them of the priority building the Lord’s house and not withholding their tithe offerings. If, however, they wholeheartedly served the Lord and brought their offerings he, the Lord, would pour out so much blessing that they would not have room for it. 

Jesus seemed to assume that people would continue to bring their offerings to the temple as they had done before. St Paul didn’t talk about a tithe, but about joyful giving, generosity and proportionality. Although he commended the Macedonians for giving beyond their means he wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter that On the first day of every week they should set aside a sum of money in keeping with their income… In other words their giving should be proportional to their income – he didn’t specify what proportion. In 2 Cor 9 he says ‘each person should give what he has decided to give.’ We should do it joyfully because ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ – the Gk word literally is ‘hilarious’. In answer to the question ‘How much should I give?’ I once heard a wise preacher say, “Give until it makes God smile.” 

I’m sure most here give by standing order. If not, set one up today so your giving can be regular, and a priority.

5 A worthwhile investment

If we invest in anything – be it stocks and shares or property – we want to know it will be worthwhile and make a good return on our capital. Our giving to the church may not give us a financial return, but we are investing in the mission of God’s kingdom. Think for a few moments about the things you value in the church – I’m assuming you do value it! What you give is an investment for mission now, and for future generations. None of us would want to be the final generation of Christians – I’m sure we all want there to be a church for our children and grandchildren. So what we give helps to make that happen. This applies both to the ministry of the church, and to the building. Each needs the other – the mission of the church needs a physical building in which to have a focus, but the building without mission will become just a museum.

6 Practical funding

Let’s talk about figures. I know that you at All Saints have pledged £80,000 to the diocesan PSF. The total cost to each parish of paid ministry and diocesan costs is £71,800. Of that £48,500 covers clergy stipends, NI, pension and housing. What Martin and I receive is a little over £25,000 a year – that’s no secret. Other costs include that of training curates and ordinands, in-service training, retirement and settling in grants. There are wider church responsibilities which include support to other parishes, safeguarding, and the Board of Education. So that means from what you have pledged, a little over £8,000 is going to help parishes that struggle to pay what the ministry costs. That is part of your wider mission.

I’m sure your treasurer will give you all the figures you need to know how much everything costs. And let’s be very honest: although giving includes the giving of time and talents – voluntary service and skills which many people share – there is a significant financial cost in maintaining the mission of the church , let alone the church building. In an area like Sanderstead, or Coulsdon, it shouldn’t be difficult to pay what it costs. I was shocked, though not completely surprised, to see the number of people in our own parish who were giving less than £10 a month to the church. In an area like Coulsdon I told people that I didn’t think that was good enough – I don’t mind challenging people sometimes. I have no idea how much people here give, but it might be a good exercise to produce a chart showing how much people give – obviously keeping individual donors anonymous. 

Let’s end where we began – with loving generosity. There is no way we can outgive God. We can’t earn his favour by giving more – that’s not the point. But if we are touched by his loving generosity then surely, like the woman at the temple, we will want to respond generously to him and the work of his kingdom: For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you, through his poverty, might become rich.