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St. Pauls – Lent 4 – 3/10/2024 – Stewardship

My guess is that most priests, when speaking of their seminary training, would say that very little, if any, time was spent in teaching or forming them to be a successful chief executive officer or business manager. This is certainly true for me. Yet, a significant percentage of my time is spent dealing with budgets, office things, and other administrative matters. Every year our parish files a parochial report and stewardship summary. It is always due by March 1st. I turned ours in the last week of February thanks to help from Bob Fast. These reports are, as a colleague of mine likes to say, focused on nickels and noses. We report the annual income, number of pledges, pledged amount, the number of members, new members, members who left, average Sunday attendance, and the number of Eucharists, daily offices, baptisms, weddings, funerals.

The business model of profit and loss has in many ways infiltrated the church. This is evident in the reporting requirements described above. It can be seen whenever the efficiency of Robert’s Rules of Order takes precedence over prayer and discernment. Sometimes the gospel truth is spoken softly, if at all, to avoid angering parishioners and losing attendance or pledges. The reality is numbers matter. While most priests and bishops would probably agree that numbers do not tell the complete story, the underlying and often unspoken assumption is that the larger the numbers the more successful the ministry.

In recent years, carpe diemseize the day—has become a motto for living each day to the fullest. That’s actually a biblical concept. We only have a limited time on earth to fulfill God’s purpose for our lives. We must seize every opportunity God gives us as long as it is still called ‘Today’ (Hebrews 3:13).

This concept is called stewardship. It refers to the way we manage the life God has given you and me. We often think of God’s gifts in three areas: our time, our talent, and our treasure. In each area, we must be willing to carpe diem by managing every day of our lives.

Stewardship of Time:  Investing the Minutes of Life in the Priorities of God 

You’ve heard it said, Life is like a coin. You can spend it however you want, but you only can spend it once. Psalm 90 (the oldest psalm) tells us that we have a limited time on earth to accomplish God’s plan for our lives. We know time has to be handled carefully, but search the     Internet for time management, and you’ll find 500 million sites full of tips and techniques to better manage your life. With so many options, where do you start?. . . God’s Word. Scripture shows us how we should wisely invest our most valuable asset, the minutes we spend on earth.

So teach us to number our days,
That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.
Psalm 90:12

Stewardship of Talent: Putting Your Skills to Work in the Family of God

When you were baptized, you gained the right to be called a child of God. And with that position came the responsibility of pitching in to help meet the family’s needs. God has equipped you by His Spirit to minister in a way as unique as your fingerprints. In God’s family, in this faith community, everyone is considered gifted. Regardless of your personality, your IQ, or how high or low you rank on the social strata, you have spiritual gifts. And the body of Christ needs you—just as God designed.

Stewardship of Treasure: The Joy of Partnering with God

The whole subject of giving money can be confusing. We ask ourselves bottom-line questions. How much should I give? To what cause should I contribute? What’s the   proper attitude I should have toward giving? The Bible explores our giving in great and varied detail,         demonstrating how important our acts of financial  stewardship are to God. By giving back a portion of what we have received from God, we’re acknowledging God’s ownership of it. We’re acting as channels through which God supplies others’ needs. We’re proving our faithfulness in large and small matters.

Most of all, God wants us to give because this act of    worship is like a sweet, fragrant aroma to Him. When our generosity goes deep, the sacrifice delights God (see Mark 12:41–44). When we give enthusiastically to God, we put our money where our hearts are.

Do you want your life to count? Do you want to fulfill the purpose for which you were born? Begin here: seize the day . . . and entrust yourself to God. As the first and highest act of godly stewardship, invite God to direct your days and the ways you spend your time, your talent, and your treasure.

At St. Paul’s, the numbers may be growing and yet I ask myself all the time….are the people growing? Are you growing? To me that is the real question? Because stewardship at its best is only as good as our relationship with God. In that relationship, we realize that everything we have is a result of God’s love for us (remember the Gospel for today?). And our response in terms of being good stewards is answering the question of what we are called to give do and be with what we have been given by God.

Simple numerical analysis of Sunday attendance and    giving, though significant, is not the ultimate indicator of growth and the health of this church. The critical question is not how much money was collected or how many people showed up but rather, how effectively do we   transform and affect lives. How well did we create what St. Basil called the disposition, the atmosphere, the environment, the ethos in which to cultivate and activate humanity’s tendency toward spiritual development and communion?

To the extent these questions can be answered the answers will be more qualitative than quantitative. We will need to look for evidence of growth over a period of time. More often than not we realize growth in ourselves or another only in retrospect. Such evidence might be found in asking the following:

  • How is your life of prayer? What is it like today? How has it changed over the last year, five years?
  • What is your participation in the sacraments and worship both quantitatively and qualitatively? Is your experience different now than it was three years ago? How?
  • Describe your study of scripture, theology, spirituality? What are you reading? What are you learning?
  • Do you participate in spiritual direction?
  • How are you involved in outreach and social justice ministries? How has this changed? Where and how are compassion being expressed and manifested?
  • Where and how much money do you give to ministry within and outside the church? Do you tithe? Are you progressing toward a tithe?
  • Reflect on your marriage and family life, work life, and other relationships in light of the gospel and the life of Christ. In what ways are those relationships growing, deepening, changing?
  • Where in your life is reconciliation taking place?

I am not suggesting that we disregard giving and attendance numbers. Those numbers are important and can offer useful information but can they or should they be the ultimate basis for establishing conclusions about the success of a priest’s or church’s ministry when the aim of the ministerial art, according to St. Gregory Nazianzen, is to provide the soul with wings to rescue it from the world, and to present it to God. It consists in preserving the image of God in us, if it exists; in strengthening it, if it is in danger; in restoring it, if it has been lost. Its end is to make Christ dwell in the heart through the Spirit, and, in short, to make a god sharing heavenly bliss out of the one who belongs to the heavenly host.

This is about more than nickels and noses.

It means nothing less than a change of heart, a new level of consciousness in which people enter a new world, expand their horizons, and accept a new set of meanings. This change of heart is ultimately the choice to grow.

Growth is the ultimate criterion by which a true ministry to, with, by and for persons is measured. Spiritual growth is situated in striving for wholeness or holiness within oneself, and in one’s relationships to God, others and all of creation. It does not merely refer to a process of intellectualization, an inherent mental capacity, or emotional maturation. It cannot be limited to facts in any shape or form. How then do we measure spiritual growth?

I offer these questions to reflect upon not as the criterion but simply as a way to begin thinking, and talking about how we might recognize and measure spiritual growth in the lives which God has entrusted to us. We do this not for ourselves but for those we are neighboring and enabling to identify and use their gifts. It is a necessary part of our care for one another and our obedience and faithfulness to God. If people are growing spiritually in our faith community, my experience says so are the other statistical numbers.

Let Us Pray

Spendthrift God,

past all explanation or deserving

we have received from you

grace upon grace upon grace.

Though many come disguised

each one blesses, challenges, bewilders,

supports, stretches, comforts us,

though none protect us

from the struggles of life

and that, too, is cause for thanksgiving,

for neither do they quarantine us from

courage, compassion, creativity

and our consciousness of

deep communion in our common life at St. Paul’s

So we ask you to bless this parish,

its community and all its gifts

keeping us in your fierce love

as we strive to be good stewards of your many gifts…

increasing by your merciful love

the good for which you intend our gifts

and which we yearn for them to do;

and nurturing by your pervasive love

those brothers and sisters,

we live in this faith community called St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Marfa Texas

and for whom we give so much less generously

of the grace and joy and gifts we have received,

For it is in your hands we commend

our spirits, gifts and hopes

as we struggle to be good stewards of your dappled grace.

In Christ’s name we pray,

AMEN+