It is amazing to have this reading from the Letter of James on the first Sunday of our new program, budget and stewardship year — a year in which we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of this congregation; a week after each of us has received our Deeply Rooted. Always Growing financial pledge challenge, on the very first day our 2012-2013 stewardship fund envelopes are available to us, in a year when we, as a congregation, are facing serious financial challenges. Knowing me, as you do, you would think that I planned this. But I assure you, as a pastor in the Lutheran communion I have never had control of the appointed readings for each Sunday and, as you well know, all of the excellent work on financial stewardship this summer has been the work of Pastor Stahler and our Parish Council’s Stewardship Task Force. For the past two week’s I’ve been playing “catch up” to their wonderful work and simultaneously having been marveling at their progress.
This confluence of readings and celebrations and challenges is even more amazing to me because, for a significant portion of my sabbatical time with church leaders in Norway and Denmark — each being dis-established
as national churches and therefore losing much of their government funding — has been spent discussing congregational stewardship and the way we do that here.
I don’t believe in coincidences, and so when I am confronted with a series of confluences like these, I am always convinced that it’s God who is acting; it’s God who has something in mind. That now is a kairotic, that is, timely, moment and that our task as the people of God is to grab onto what God is doing and has in mind. If James is right, God is at work in our challenges and in our giving. That is something to celebrate and to depend on. It’s also something to emphasize right now.
Lots of emotions are stirred up when a faith community faces a financial challenge or financially challenges its people; whatever the size or scope of the community, the emotional responses are always the same. Fear: What will be cut? Will we still be here? Divisiveness: Will it be my favorite program? Party spirit: ‘They’ are wasting money anyway. ‘They’ are not pulling their weight.
In the Letter of James, which we’ll hear often over the next month, each of these and several other visceral responses are addressed.
James’ words today, especially when they are taken together with Jesus’ words in the Gospel, address the most insidious emotional responses of all; insidious because so many of us enjoy them: Guilt. Shame. Some of us like to feel these. More of us like to use these. According to today’s Gospel, Jesus’ opponents have the use of these down to a science, “teaching human precepts [that] abandon the commandment of God.”
Which is to say: Guilt and shame are not motivators acceptable to God. They divide, they do not build up. They cause us to forget “to abandon” the loving activity of God.
This is why these words of James’ are always critically important and especially so now when we are talking about money and the challenges are so great. Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above…which is to say, God always gives generously even when we are doing the giving.
God always gives generously. How does the Eucharistic Prayer rehearse it? …full of compassion…with infinite love [God] grant[s] [us] people [God’s] life. God always gives generously; and God always gives nothing less than God’s life. Thus the motivation of our giving is always God’s giving; our emotional response is thanksgiving which is always an act of faith. You’ll hear this metaphorically in German in the cantata during the offering and I commend it to you in Ulrike and Watson’s translation: Just as a jet of water is forced upwards, yet one sees that its downward rush equally moistens what lies beneath.
I calculate that I’ve preached about 6,000 sermons in my public ministry and about 2/3 of them have happened here. In every one of them you are reminded that God acts freely for us, out of God’s love to give us abundant life and to motivate us to live in fully and free and in every one you are also reminded that this is always has a purpose, a “so what;” a “so that”. With absolute clarity, James states that purpose —
the purpose of God’s giving — today: In fulfillment of God’s own purpose, God gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of God’s creatures.
First fruits which, in biblical terms, is an offering. First fruit, which in the New Testament is what God has made Jesus through his death and resurrection. First fruits, which arise from a people who are deeply rooted and always growing in the loving care of God by the power of the Holy Spirit through the nourishment and example that is Jesus Christ. First fruit, which we feed upon in the Eucharist so that we become for the Church, the city and the world, exactly what we eat.
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above — the definition, motivation and content of our giving and stewardship: God giving the people God’s life in, with and through Jesus Christ who comes in with and through each of us who are together the Body of Christ, the Church of Jesus Christ in the city for good.