Calvary Episcopal Church Photo of Peggy Gunness
Memphis, Tennessee
October 17, 1999
The Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost

The Hidden Powers of Stewardship
The Rev. Margaret B. Gunness

Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-9
Matthew 22:15-22 it's my turn to speak with you about stewardship, and I'm glad. For, you see, I believe that stewardship is a journey, that invites us, that draws us forward, into the very heart of God. So this morning I'd like to talk about stewardship from three interrelated perspectives: first, stewardship as the foundation of commitment; then what I would call the soul significance of the pledge; and finally stewardship and the power of community.

So first, stewardship as the foundation of commitment, and I begin with a story. It's a story about the German author Heinrich Heine who was visiting some of the great cathedrals of Europe with a friend. At this point in their tour, the two of them had just spent the better part of a day in the magnificent cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, where they marveled at its majestic buttresses, and the massive intricate symmetry of its facade, and the hushed grandeur and sanctuary of the spaces inside. They spent the whole day there, and when it was finally drawing to a close, they went to the far end of the plaza in front of the cathedral and then turned around for one last, long, hushed gaze at this extraordinary house of God -- a hymn, a prayer, an alleluia of stone and leaded glass. They stood there in silence for a long time, and then Heinrich's friend asked him, almost wistfully, "Why don't people build cathedrals like it anymore?" And after a few moments, Heinrich answered, "In those days people had convictions, but today, they seem only to have opinions." In those days people had convictions, but today they only have opinions.

I think there's an important truth for us in this little story. It does indeed take the power of conviction, of deep-seated conviction in order to accomplish any great piece of work. While opinions are somewhat like fireflies, brilliant and illuminating for a moment, but quickly spent and soon swallowed up by the darkness.

So I ask you - and I ask myself - where are you on that spectrum between opinion and commitment? Where do you stand on the great urgent issues that confront human society today, issues such as the struggle for world peace, or the places of entrenched poverty throughout the world, or the depletion of natural species and resources. Where do you stand on these issues, and why do you stand there? Do you know? And do you stand in one place rather than another because of an opinion you have about these things? Or because of the power of a conviction you have concerning them? It's hard to determine sometimes, isn't it? I often think that, in order to determine, we need somehow to sneak up on ourselves, to catch ourselves unawares and snap an interior photograph of our minds and hearts that could reveal to us those truths which are otherwise so hard for us to bring into focus.

And perhaps one way to take just such an interior photograph is to notice what our instantaneous reaction is to the word and to the season of stewardship. I don't believe that it was ever intended that stewardship be thought of as the careful, studied response of the people to the stated needs of the parish church. And I don't believe that it was ever intended that we ascertain what we will give to the church by determining the extent of our support for the ministry that the church is or is not doing. That's all opinion work. And Christian stewardship is conviction work, deep, bedrock conviction work. Year after year the season of stewardship calls us to examine our convictions, to wrestle with them, to deepen them, to re-commit ourselves to them. For the work of Christian stewardship is and must be built on the foundation of a self-dedication which is the sacramental expression, an outward and visible sign of our inward and spiritual convictions. I pray that you will examine your convictions during this stewardship season at Calvary Church.

Then second is what I have called the soul significance of the pledge, or phrased differently, the significance of the pledge to our soul. For you see, a pledge is not just a promise to do this or to do that. It's a statement of loyalty, a commitment of our whole selves, our entire being. We pledge allegiance to our country. A man and a woman pledge themselves to each other in the sacrament of marriage. In baptism we make a pledge to follow Christ. And each pledge re-directs and re-forms our life. A stewardship pledge can do that too. It can do that because it calls us to shift our focus, to reorder our priorities. A stewardship pledge calls us to remember that we are the visible, palpable presence of Christ on the earth.

And it's the fact of the pledge that counts, not the size. I know of a young woman who lived primarily on medical disability income. She tried very hard to give to the church through her time, her volunteer work and such. But that didn't seem to satisfy her. Then one Pledge Sunday she came up to me and said, "I finally get it. I finally understand what's different about a pledge, and I want to make that kind of commitment." Then she went on to explain that the one luxury she allowed herself was a cup of Starbuck's cappuccino coffee one or maybe two times a week. And the first pledge in her life that year was the equivalent of one week's cappuccino. And later she told me that it had changed her life, that for the first time she felt that she was a member, a valid part of that parish community, but even more, a vital member of the Body of Christ. The soul significance of a pledge was life giving and evident in her.

Then third - and finally - stewardship and the power of commitment, for, you see, I believe that both the commitment and the action of stewardship create community and invite us into community, and in so doing they empower the community itself and each individual part of it. Now that may sound complex, but let me give you an illustration with one of my favorite stories, told by a man named Parker Palmer, who is a seeker, a Christian, and a person of great conviction.

He tells of going up to Anchorage, Alaska, at one point, as I recall, to speak before a group of church representatives gathered there for a meeting or convention of some sort. And when the convention was over, he was taking a very early morning flight back to the lower 48. Well, that morning, when he and the other passengers had just gotten to the airport, an announcement came over the loudspeaker system asking them to board their flight right away, because a turbulent weather system was coming towards the area and they wanted to try to get out before it arrived. So they loaded up very quickly, got on the plane and soon were airborne. But then, not long afterwards, the stewardess spoke to them over the PA system, apologizing for their inconvenience, thanking them for their cooperation, but then apologizing, saying that unfortunately, since they'd had to leave in such a rush there hadn't been time for the catering service to put any coffee or breakfast supplies on board. So she was terribly sorry to have to tell them that there would be nothing to serve them until a complimentary meal in the airport upon arrival in Portland some several hours later.

Well, you know how people can be without breakfast or coffee. And Parker said you could just feel the collective bad mood on the whole airplane. Well the stewardess was doing everything she could to calm people down, and finally she spoke over the loud speaker again and said, "Could I please have your attention, ladies and gentleman. I can hear that you are very upset, and I'm truly terribly sorry. But I want you to help me help you get beyond it. Now, I recognize quite a few of you who were with me on the flight yesterday afternoon coming up to Anchorage. And I saw several of you then put the apples and snacks I passed out into your travel bags. And then in the airport I saw some of you buying gifts to take back with you, dried fish and crackers and such. So I'm going to go down the aisle with an empty cart, and I want you to put on it any edibles you might be able to share -- and then we'll ..... redistribute them. Immediately the mood changed. People reached into their bags to share -- fruit, cheeses, biscuits, coffee, tea bags & honey. Soon there was laughter, there were stories, there was generosity -- and plenty. In fact, there was a sweet, sweet spirit in the place. People had done together what people can't do alone. They had discovered the power of community.

So think about it: Stewardship as the foundation of commitment, stewardship and the significance of the pledge for our soul, and the power of community. I wonder, how will our stewardship affect each of us this year? And then, how will it affect this wonderful community we call Calvary Church and our ministry with those we are called to serve? Let us pray:
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imagination, so control our will, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated unto you; and then use us we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and to the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


Copyright 1999 Calvary Episcopal Church

First Reading: Isaiah 45:1-7
Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him-- and the gates shall not be closed: I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things. NRSV

Psalm: 96:1-9
O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth. Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts. Worship the LORD in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.

Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered him, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. NRSV

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