Proper 6 Year A Rector's Stewardship Sermon

Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector

St. John the Baptist, Sanbornville

Ex. 19:2-8a; Ps. 100; Rom. 5:6-11; Matthew 9:35-10:15

  In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

     Two men became shipwrecked on an island. The minute they got on to the island one of them started screaming and yelling, "We're going to die! We're going to die! There's no food! No water! We're going to die!" The second man was propped up against a palm tree and acting so calmly it drove the first man crazy. "Don't you understand?!? We're going to die!!" The second man replied, "You don't understand, I make $100,000 a week….we'll get found soon." The first man looked at him quite dumbfounded and asked, "What difference does that make?!? We're on an island with no food and no water! We're going to DIE!!!" The second man calmly responded, "You just don't get it, do you: I make $100,000 a week, and I tithe ten percent of that $100,000 each week to my church----I give $10,000 each week to my church." The First Man, just looked at the Second still dumbfounded and said, " I still don't understand!" The Second Man said: "Listen, I said to relax, I TITHE $10,000 a week to my church, BELIEVE ME, my pastor will find me!"

     If we were Presbyterians we could say that the second man pretty much had a guarantee of being predestined - of being one of the select saved - at least in an earthly sense!

     In our gospel for today we hear of a very active Jesus engaging in building us his ministry - activity that is similar to the hectic process surrounding starting up a new business. Jesus is extraordinarily busy, going through cities and villages - teaching, preaching, and healing. And his reputation spreads like wild-fire through dry brush. We learn that huge crowds of people came to him to be healed, to learn, and to just listen to this amazing man. And the scripture says Jesus had compassion on people because they were harassed and helpless. I think we can translate that phrase to mean that Jesus was working ceaselessly to meet the pastoral needs of the people who came to him, such was his compassion. And I suspect it was exhausting for him.

     We can liken this situation to when a hot new product comes onto the market, and is so enthusiastically received - so hot, as we might say - that the demand becomes greater than the supply. And Jesus and his ministry are really hot, so he's working over-time to meet the demand. Were it not for the fact that he was the Son of God, his workload would have made him as harassed and helpless as the people he ministered too. We would call it burnout.

     Realizing the overwhelming response to his ministry, Jesus tells his followers, "the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. " Jesus the manufacturer, realizing the incredible demand for his product, and the need to up production, looks to add on new employees to meet the markets needs, by producing more of the hot new product and then to reap the harvest - the profits - that are just waiting to be brought in. Being a gifted CEO Jesus does this by calling the twelve apostles - his company's management team - to assist in reaping the harvest of lost and hungry souls, and to deposit the profit of their salvation in God's Kingdom account. To do this Jesus gives his management team the skills needed to achieve this task. We learn that he, "gave them authority to cast out unclean spirits . . .[and] heal every disease." In other words Jesus equips them with some of the skills and resources of the Spirit needed to bring about Jesus' goal of salvation.

     Jesus' ministry was an amazing start-up operation. Think Microsoft and Google combined and then square it. ( I think Harvard Business School should take notice of Jesus' incredible business acumen and teach it!) And like all start-up operations it needed two things: Capital funds to fuel it, and human resources to make it run. In a nutshell, the success of Jesus' ministry - like the success of any business - depended upon the good stewardship of the resources of time, talent and treasure by the folks who ran it, as well as those folks who gave money to it, believing the endeavor was a worthwhile investment.

     We don't have a lot of information in the New Testament scriptures about how Jesus' ministry was financed. But without a doubt it needed money and human resources to operate if it were to succeed. Hey, it takes some money and effort to feed thirteen men, several female followers and dozens - maybe hundreds - of disciples. While it's tempting to think Jesus may have just performed miracles to whip up three meals each day, the scripture is pretty clear that only two meals were produced in that miraculous manner.

     We do have some indication that well-to-do women were a primary source of funding in the early church, especially in Paul's letters. I think it safe to presume that considering Jesus' care and compassion for women , this was true as well for his ministry. We also know the apostle's had a common purse. In fact Judas Iscariot was the treasurer, who according to the gospel stole from it. And that at least some of those monies were used to support the needs of the poor - thereby honoring the prophetic call to always look out for the needs of the less fortunate. We also know that there was a Temple tax levied on all Jews, and that Jesus was faithful in paying his tax and those of his apostles. So we have indications of both some of the income and expenses associated with Jesus ministry and mission. The bottom line is it took cash to make the Jesus operation run.

     And in addition to the money, Jesus also needed human resources - time and talent - from people, to keep meeting the ever-growing market demands for his product of the Christian message, and to continue reaping that harvest of humanities salvation.

     But what if the income and commitment of human resources hadn't continued? What if both the financial and human resources fell short of the need to keep the Jesus business running right? Or what if it just dried up altogether, with people withholding the their time, talent and treasure from Jesus' endeavor of saving souls, and building God's Kingdom? Hear another scenario of what that might be like:

     It had been a frustrating day. Jesus had wanted to set out that morning, continuing his mission of healing, preaching and teaching throughout the region of Galilee. But the monthly financial report had been given to him by his treasurer Judas, just before they were to set out. And what a disappointment it was to read the numbers. Income was down - way down. And expenses continued to climb, as the Jesus ministry grew and more and more people came to learn, and be healed, and made new people by God's abundant love. But in order to continue this mission his operation needed more capital - both financial and human - and it just wasn't coming in.

     Enthusiasm for the operation hadn't waned. People still spoke about the hospitality and radical inclusivity of the mission, and all the good things that he and his apostles were doing. The crowds coming to see him certainly hadn't dropped off, and they were just as needy as ever to hear the word, receive a gentle touch, and eat a good meal to sustain them. But the financials - swimming in red ink - showed that they could no longer afford to meet the growing demands of the mission. The numbers didn't lie: Jesus needed to take a sharp knife and cut the Jesus operation budget to the bare bones.

     Jesus couldn't quite put his finger on the reasons for this situation. People always spoke of how important the work he was doing was. Often they would confide to him that if his ministry didn't exist, that they would be greatly diminished, and at total loose ends in their life. So why the financial troubles?

     The availability of money didn't seem to be an issue with most of his supporters. He still saw people at the local markets buying good food and wine. And it seemed that these days every village in Israel had one of those fancy Turkish coffee shops. "How could it be that people would pay five shekels for a mocha flavored, de-caff Turkish coffee, and yet not help fund his ministry?", he wondered. And he had noticed that many folks were no longer walking to get from place to place. Instead they were riding around on newly purchased donkeys - some even pulling shiny new carts. Jesus was also aware that more and more folks were enjoying vacations at the lovely resorts on the Sea of Galilee. That certainly wasn't cheap. Why one those St. Peter's fish dinners, even at prix fix, could run fifty shekels per person! There was some even talk of folks getting this new form of communicating with each other, without ever having to leave the house. It seemed that someone had developed a way pigeons could be trained to carry messages in small tubes attached to their legs, and then directed to fly to specific destinations. Jesus remembered someone saying that it was being called P-Mail.

     No, money didn't seem to be the major problem. Maybe people just thought that God was going to pay for the deficit in the budget? Or that Jesus was going to miraculously make stacks of money multiply like he did the bread and fish. "I knew a lot of folks would get the wrong idea if I did that miracle," Jesus thought, " but, hey, there were 5,000 hungry people and they were miles away from a village. What else was I supposed to do?"

     Or maybe people were waiting for him to threaten them with fire and brimstone to get them into volunteering to support the operation. But truth be told, the future miracles in the Jesus operation were going to come from people hearing and obeying God's word to be good stewards. And, he laughed to himself, he was clearly not a fire and brimstone kid of guy. His message was about love, forgiveness and acceptance. It was the only true message that would save the world.

     Well, he was going to have to address this financial situation head on. Better not to make the pain worse by delaying.

     Jesus stepped outside where the crowds were waiting for him. "I'm sorry to inform you my friends that we can no longer afford to continue the Jesus operation at it's current level of activity," Jesus told the waiting crowds. "Those of you who have come today to hear the word of God, I regret to inform you we are suspending all preaching and teaching as of today. Our healing ministries are also being shut-down effective immediately. And I know that many of you are hungry, but there is not only a shortage of money to buy food, but almost no one is willing to prepare and serve it either. While the harvest is plentiful, there are just not enough laborers to reap it."

     Looking his apostles, Jesus continued, "My beloved apostles, I know you have been willing to work for minimum wages because you believed in the Jesus business, and knew that by working hard to achieve it's goals, you would be storing up treasure for yourselves in heaven. But as of today I can no longer afford to have twelve of you. I am going to continue with four of you, and see what next months income and expense statement looks like before deciding anything long-range. We are going to have to down-size and curtail operations throughout the Jesus operation. Not only is there not enough cash, there are just not enough support staff to do what God has called us to do. I myself may even go to half-time. I'm not sure what my Father is going to have to say about all this. It's a sad day for the Kingdom of heaven, which as you know is just at hand. If only we had the time, talent and treasure to bring it about."

     My brothers and sisters in Christ. It is stewardship month at St. John the Baptist. We are in the Jesus business. Will our serious commitment of time, talent and treasure allow the Jesus business to prosper - preaching, teaching, healing and feeding the people in greater Wakefield, as well as those of us in this parish? Will we bring in the plentiful harvest that is set before us? Only you have the answer within you. Only you can bring to fruition the Kingdom of Heaven, which is at hand. Jesus and I pray that the answer is yes.