“Stewardship” is not about what the church needs. It’s about what you need to give – and what the church needs to give for the sake of the kingdom of God.
15th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) – September 6, 2015 – James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
What Do You Need to Give? – Pastor Evan Davis
Who here passed Lutheran confirmation class? Or a new members’ class here? Here’s a “fill in the blanks” question for you: Lutherans believe God saves us by _____________. By…what? That’s right. By grace through faith. Not by works. God doesn’t love you because of what you do but because of Christ. Because you are united to Christ in Baptism, and so when the Father looks at you, he sees Christ the Son – it is no longer you who live but Christ who lives in you. Your sins are forgiven. Christ dies for you and is raised for you and includes you in his death and resurrection!
And you experience all this through faith in Christ, faith which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. But then here comes James, saying this: “what good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” He goes on to say, “you see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Woah.
Martin Luther didn’t like James. Not at all. He called it the “epistle of straw” and he hid it in the back of his Bible on unnumbered pages. You can tell why. Lutherans have this tradition of setting faith and works against each other like they’re oil and water. But I think Luther is wrong about James. That’s right – call the bishop! – Luther is wrong here. And you know what? Luther said basically the same thing James is saying here. If you take a look at Luther’s introduction to the book of Romans, he says this:
“Faith is a living, [daring] confidence in God’s grace; it is so certain, that someone would die a thousand times for it. [ …] Through faith, a person will do good to everyone without coercion, willingly and happily; he will serve everyone, suffer everything for the love and praise of God, who has shown him such grace. It is as impossible to separate works from faith as burning and shining from fire.”1
When Luther talks about faith, when St. Paul talks about faith, he isn’t talking so much about what you believe about God – like that God has three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or that Jesus is of one being with the Father. That kind of faith is important, but it isn’t the most important aspect of faith. Luther says, faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace. It’s trusting in God’s love so much, trusting that God’s kingdom is already here in Christ, trusting that God is on a mission in this world and God’s dream for the world will come true, so all bets are off in life. That you become willing to do good to everyone without reward or punishment, just because God loves that person too and Christ has united you to her. Faith is trusting God so much that you now find joy and meaning and fulfillment in serving everyone, suffering anything for the love of God and God’s mission, for this God has shown you such grace. So faith and works are impossible to separate.
So if someone talks about having faith in God, but doesn’t welcome everyone in worship, but shows favoritism between the snappy dresser with the thick wallet and the pretty ripe-smelling homeless brother trying to get clean, that person is struggling in faith. If someone talks about faith and God and Jesus, but doesn’t care for widows and orphans, for the single moms trying to get by who yes, need a little help from Medicaid or SSI or welfare, but isn’t willing to have empathy for the sister or brother who is naked or hungry…well, that’s not really faith. And we’re all in that boat sometimes. It’s why we all need to pray that the Holy Spirit would give us faith anew. Because there are days when I turn the cold shoulder to the person in need but then go right on talking about Jesus, and that’s when I have to come back to this baptismal water and be washed in God’s grace again. Because even James has to say, mercy triumphs over judgment. And God’s mercy triumphs over any judgment for you.
So all this turns our lives upside down. Now that this God loves you this much, was willing to die for you, includes you in the new life of the Son, Jesus Christ, what are you gonna do with your life? As my professor, Dr. Tim Wengert, asks, “what are you gonna do now that you don’t have to do anything?” What are you gonna do with the freedom God gives you in Christ? That’s James’ question.
And this is also the question of stewardship. That word, “stewardship,” means, more or less, “management.” How are we going to manage, or take care of, or faithfully use our lives and all the gifts God gives us? You could also just call this “discipleship,” or “following Jesus,” or “walking the Way of Jesus.” It’s your whole life in response to God. Notice that this stewardship of life is about you. It’s not about the Church institution itself. Here’s the question of stewardship:
What do you need to give to your neighbor, knowing that when you give to your neighbor you are giving to God? What do you need to give as a follower of Jesus, for the sake of the kingdom? Where is your faith crying out inside you, saying, “give me away! Give me away!” Maybe that’s money. Maybe that’s a skill. Maybe that’s time and energy. Maybe that’s love. What has God given you so that you may give it to your neighbor, through the church or beyond it?
Stewardship is not about what the church needs. Hear that. It’s not about what the church needs. It’s about what you need to give. It’s not about the church budget, although we need a church budget, for sure. When we all give what we need to give, we can take a step back and ask the question, “what is God telling us through all God is giving through Trinity/St. Jacob’s church?” What might God be calling us to do? It might be that God is giving us less than what we have now, and we adjust what we’re doing accordingly. It may be that God is giving us way more than we ever thought we needed, and then we have to think about how the Spirit is calling us to use that. We’ll have to ask, “what does the church need to give? Maybe we need to provide great worship, maybe we need to use this building to provide space for activities that give life to our neighbors, or maybe we need to give money away to other ministries.
Because we don’t give money to keep churches alive, or to keep church buildings well-maintained. Because the church is not the end goal. The end goal is the kingdom of God, and the church is the servant of the kingdom. The church is the Body of Christ, the Body of the one who came not to be served but to serve, and so we give our time, money, energy, skills, and love as the church, through the church, to the kingdom, and the kingdom looks like making new disciples of Jesus Christ, it looks like giving school supplies and food to the Minnick School/food pantry, it looks like cleaning up a cemetery or reading to children or building a shed or painting at Mercy House or worshiping God or singing in beautiful harmony or rocking to a praise song or sending a heifer to South Dakota, it looks like walls coming down between Jewish rabbis and Syrophoenician women, and between us and our family, friends, and neighbors who don’t worship with us, and sometimes the kingdom looks like elements of church we have loved, that have served God and us well for years, dying, so that God may raise up something new for the sake of the kingdom….that’s what James is talking about, that’s what Jesus is all about, that’s the what the church is for, that’s what stewardship is. So what do we need to give? What do you need to give as a follower of Jesus? Because God has already given you everything, and God will keep you in his grace now and unto eternal life. Amen.
1Martin Luther, Preface to Romans. I have replaced “unshakeable” with “daring,” mixing two different translations for rhetorical effect here. I wouldn’t do that in an essay, but this is a sermon. I ask your forgiveness.