Stewards of the Story

It’s a week to give thanks.  A week to pause and recognize what a gift it all is, and as complicated, messy and hard as life and relationships often are, we are so grateful for them.  It’s a week to celebrate.

Three years ago this week we had asked people in the congregation what they were thankful for, and we recorded it and played it in worship.  I listened to it again this week, and I want to play it for you.

(Recording of people answering the question, “What are you grateful for?”  Answers included family, nature, freedom to elect our own leaders, hope for an upcoming surgery, health, food, relationships…)

Here’s what I noticed when I heard it again.  Two of the voices are those of people no longer with us – together we’ve celebrated their lives and grieved their passing and benefit still from all the ways they kept the faith while they were among us.  Another voice is someone who stopped in with us for a short time, and moved on somewhere else.  A couple of the voices have grown up some, almost doubled in age from the time this was recorded.  

Another thing I noticed was how present, in the moment, contextual, the things were that people were thankful for.  A new grandbaby on the way, in the womb – surely in preschool by now, right?  Safety for a loved one in the midst of a wildfire so long since turned to fertile soil that new trees and shrubs have sprung out of.  And yet, while gratitude is really contextual, our thanks is also timeless – there are always corrupt and unstable governments, always babies being born and surgeries looming and sky and water surrounding us and our own slowing down bodies with us.  Life is strange.  Always changing, always the same. 

Perhaps this is what it means to live within the Story. There is something enduring, continuing, that is outside and beyond us, but there is also something contextual, something about this moment and these people that links us so intimately with it all as well.

Today we celebrate our part within the Story. The table is set, the china is out, we’re marking the moment.  Pausing in gratitude.

We’ve gathered today surrounded by symbols of our story from the past few months – the tree from the garden, the fire we’ve sat at while listening to the old stories, the pictures the children did of Noah’s Ark, the drawing of Joseph’s saga that materialized before our eyes as we listened last week, and the themes that have arisen from these stories all hanging behind us. 
And all the broken and selfish people we’ve met from long ago, whom God loved and claimed anyway, and through whom the blessing continued, are part of this celebration.   Because all the stories we’ve shared – as strange and prehistoric and archaic as they are- they are not so different from our own stories.  And ours wont end up being so different from those to follow.

Today we celebrate our little spot in the Story.  In gratitude and awe we pause to consider this great thing that has been placed in our hands. This thing that it is to be church together, share life together, stand with each other in suffering and joy and together love and serve and hope for and pray for a world that we’re called to stand with and for as well.  This mysterious and amazing thing that can’t be grasped, but can only be shared, that in some way we are connected with all that has gone before and all that is to come by the steadfast love of God, which never ceases, and by which we seek to be defined.  I’m ready to give some thanks for all of this.

But it’s stewardship Sunday.  If there were ever a phrase that made my skin crawl and my defenses go up, that’s it. “Stewardship Sunday.” The Sunday where somebody stands up and guilts you in to giving your money to the church – where it is implied that faith can be measured and the mind of God can be known, because we talk all about all the things God wants to do if only we would fork over the cash and let God get on with it.  Where the plug for money is subtly woven into every part of the service –  and we’re eased into it like a frog boiling slowly in a pot of water that began lukewarm. 
I was invited a few weeks ago to a jewelry party, which I learned later, was next to impossible to escape from without buying an expensive item; I mean, I might have, but I had drunk the wine and eaten the hor devours, and glanced through the catalogs, so if I slipped out without paying up how would I ever look those women in the face again?  That’s the feeling I get with stewardship – if you want to be here, you’d better ante up, or else, how will you look God, or any of us, in the face again? 
Not to mention the air of desperation about all the pleas we get this time of year – wonderful charities on the brink of shutting down, this child who wont eat if you don’t give, this public station you’ve been mooching from all this time without doing your part, this crisis that rests completely in your self-centered hands, it’s oh so overwhelming.  And I hate it.  And it’s not what God or church is about at all. 

Besides, if we’ve learned anything so far from all these stories within the Story, it’s that God doesn’t need our money, or our power; God will do what God will do, and God has a tendency, actually, to work from impossibility and barrenness, from weakness and faltering faith, with the unlikely people and in the sketchy places we’d rather not be seen.

So I approached this week with a mixture of excitement and dread – wanting to get on with gratitude, celebrating the Story, pausing to be thankful - not wanting to disrupt our true worship and life together by carrying on some campaign for money.  I wanted a chance to communicate how thankful I am for this little group of people who love and serve God, and so I was just going to set stewardship aside, until I realized with a start that beyond all the baggage it has, and all the ways it has come to mean only giving money, we actually talk about true stewardship all the time.  And it is completely tied up in gratitude and celebration.

The word “stewardship” means having the responsibility to care for something which belongs to somebody else – and that is what we do. None of this belongs to us, really, this is God’s Story, God’s ministry.  These people sitting alongside you, they are God’s people. This building, this community we’re planted within, the strangers who walk by on the sidewalk or come in to do yoga, or talk about city planning or paint in the basement, this earth and it’s aching and abundance – it all, they all, belong to God. And we have been invited to care for what belongs to God – alongside God, along with God – to be stewards of the ministry of God, and also, as Paul says, of the mysteries of God.  We prepare a table, hang up a coat, pull out a chair and invite the world to have a seat; we hold open the sacred space where Christ meets us in and through and on behalf of a world. 

Oh, may we be good stewards! For the brief and fleeting time that it is our hands holding the mystery – others are to come and so many have gone before, but for this time and place, for the here and now, it is us! - may we steward faithfully!  This rag-tag bunch of people – with all our different, rich and poignant stories, our joy and our pain, all the things that have made us who we are, people each taking our turn to be the confident ones or the fearful ones, the strong or the weak of body or mind, the doubters or the faith-holders, the givers or the receivers and so often both at the same time.  How marvelous this is! 

God is doing something here and we are part of it, we ARE it – we bear it in ourselves and between us - and thank you God, for the chance to be this, together, for this time! 

We are not "campaigning for" stewardship today.  We are celebrating our stewardship today, which means we celebrate all of the ways we participate, the ways we steward the ministry together, the ways we tell and live the Story, (and I am mostly not talking about money).  I’m talking about praying and cooking and lighting candles and changing diapers and singing and planting the garden and welcoming one another.  I’m talking about honesty and hunger and giving away your bike when someone’s is stolen, and gluing pictures with kids we may never see again as they disappear back into the foster care system but with whom we have one sacred moment, and driving our friend to chemo.
I’m talking about watching other people’s kids grow up to know you as a part of God’s family, their family, a way they see and discover what it means to belong to God; I’m talking about washing dishes and taking the recycling home to put on your own curb, and making quilts to sell so the money can be donated to local charities and handing one another a torn piece of ordinary, store-bought bread with the incredible words, “This is the body of Christ broken for you.” 
I’m talking about intentionally being the people defined first and foremost by the love of God.

And one day, when this little congregation is no more – because NOTHING lasts forever- and when WE are no more than the stories we’ve left behind, others will be stewards, carrying on the Story, living within it, celebrating and struggling just like we have. 

But for now, for this moment, we are the ones in the story, one little group in a vast collection little groups of “we” all over the world. We are the Body of Christ, the fullness of him who fills all in all.  And God’s steadfast love that we get to share here and now, endures forever and ever.  

Today is the end of the church year, Next week we sink into the darkness of Advent, but today we call “Christ the King Sunday,” which means we’re liturgically invited to crane our heads backwards and lean our eyes forwards and recognize the hand of our God from the beginning of time to the end, but most especially right here in our own lives, our own stories.  And there’s an invitation here as well.  It is to participate: oh stewards of the mystery, steward on!  But it begins by seeing that you already do – the invitation now is to notice it. Do it on purposeChoose it.  And celebrate it, too.  It is quite something to be invited to be a blessing, quite something indeed.

So together let’s
Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
Know that the LORD is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

Our "table" in worship - with hands of gratitude created in worship, and our shared prayers of thanks and mourning represented in candles

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