When talking about stewardship, most pastors and most stewardship resource guides that churches publish focus on generosity.
Opening our hearts and hands, and giving freely.
Nurturing an attitude of God's abundance rather than an attitude of scarcity.
Discovering the joy of giving.
These are the basic themes of generosity-based stewardship, and without a doubt, generosity is a key aspect of Christian stewardship. Without generosity, stewardship does not exist. Without generosity, there is no giving or sharing. But while generosity is a necessary component of stewardship, it is not, in my view, sufficient in and of itself. For a church to have good strong stewardship, two other components of stewardship must be present.
These other two components are vision and trust.
Vision and trust--we find both present in this morning's gospel lesson.
In today's lesson, Jesus restores the sight of a blind man named Bartimaeus. Now we can interpret the restoration of Bartimaeus' sight as a physical healing, as a physical restoration of sight, or we can interpret it symbolically as a restoration of spiritual sight. In the Bible, blindness is a common metaphor for the inability to see God, discern God's will, or understand God's ways, so Biblically speaking, Bartimaeus can easily represent spiritual blindness. In the context of Mark's Gospel, we could say Bartimaeus does not understand what it takes to enter into the kingdom of God, the subject of Jesus' revelation to people, including his twelve disciples.
Because he is spiritually blind, because he cannot see what it takes to enter the kingdom of God, Bartimaeus is spiritually impoverished. What he has in his favor however is that he recognizes that he is blind and impoverished, and he asks Jesus to restore his sight--to restore his ability to see God's presence, discern God's will, and understand what it takes to enter the kingdom of God.
Jesus does this. Jesus restores his sight. Bartimaeus sees. He understands. He is enlightened. And he follows Jesus on the way. Following Jesus on the way is coded language in Mark's Gospel. It doesn't mean he physically followed Jesus to Jerusalem. It means he saw and understood who Jesus was, he saw and understood what Jesus wanted him to do, and he went and did it. Enlightened by Jesus, he went home as a disciple of Jesus Christ, following in the way of Christ, living in a Christ-like manner.
Jesus' encounter with 'Bartimaeus comes toward the very end of Jesus journey to Jerusalem with his twelve disciples, and Bartimaeus stands in stark contrast to The Twelve, who throughout their journey with Jesus have misunderstood much of what Jesus has told them. The Twelve follow him physically down the road, but in many ways they remain blind to his teaching, especially his teaching on humility, becoming great by serving the least, and picking up their own cross.
The difference between The Twelve and Bartimaeus seems to be that Bartimaeus recognizes his spiritual blindness and he asks Jesus to open his eyes. The disciples don't seem to recognize their own blindness. In the end, Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way. The twelve scatter and abandon Jesus.
I believe vision--the spiritual vision that we receive by asking Jesus Christ to open our eyes to the reality he wants to show us--is a necessary component of strong stewardship. For a church to have strong stewardship--for a church to have a strong investment of time, talent, and money from its membership--a church must have a strong and compelling shared vision:
--a strong and compelling shared vision of who Jesus is.
--where Jesus is leading them.
--how Jesus wants them to live.
--what Jesus wants them to do.
--and how Jesus wants them to use their time, talent, and money.
As I noted last week, I'm not talking about a vision that Jesus imposes, or a vision that the pastor imposes. I'm talking about a spiritual vision that emerges within the consciousness of a community that gathers frequently. A vision that people share because they worships together weekly. Because they share their joys and concerns with one another on a level deeper than the superficial. Because they pray together for one another. Because they struggle with one another and for one another. Because they struggle in the world together.
I'm not advocating forced uniformity in belief, doctrine, and dogma. I am advocating a shared vision, derived from the message and living presence of Jesus Christ, that creates a set of commitments that are so deep and so compelling that people will experience a strong desire to give their time, talent, and money generously in order to pursue that shared vision.
I believe one reason stewardship is as strong as it is in our church is that we do have a shared vision. This shared vision may not be clearly spelled out in any one place, but it is not hard to discern its existence and the response that it evokes.
This morning we read our church's statement of faith; it is based on our shared vision.
Look at the welcome that we include on our worship bulletin; it is based on our shared vision of who God in Christ calls us to be as a church.
We hang a "Torture is Wrong" banner on our church.
A second banner proclaims "peace, fellowship, diversity."
A third proclaims "Our faith may be 2,000 years old, but our thinking is not."
We are Open and Affirming to gays and lesbians.
We minister extensively to homeless youth.
We sell Equal Exchange coffee and invest in micro-lending projects.
We support Micah 6, the Religion and Labor Network, the Equal Justice Center, the Workers Defense Project, Texas Impact, Austin Area Interreligious Ministries, and Back Bay Mission--not just with money but with people who are actively involved in these projects.
We now have a Care Team ministering to the sick and dying in Austin.
We are making our church handicap accessible, so that it will be truly open and welcoming to all.
All of this ministry arises from and expresses our shared vision. All of this ministry arises from our interaction with Jesus Christ--from the way Jesus Christ has opened our eyes, and from the way we envision the world Jesus Christ is calling us to create. All of this ministry represents a set of commitments that are deep and compelling, that evoke from us a strong desire to give our time, talent, and money, and to give it generously.
Generosity and vision are key ingredients to strong stewardship, and so is trust. This trust must exist on at least two levels.
On one level, we must trust the one who opens our eyes and calls us to follow him--Jesus Christ. Bartimaeus trusted the one who opened his eyes, and followed him on the way.
But on another level, and no less important, we must trust one another. A church in which the members have a high level of trust in one another will have much stronger stewardship than a church in which the members do not trust one another. This seems so obvious it hardly needs to be stated, and yet it is often overlooked. No matter how generous people are or want to be, a church in which members trust one another will have much stronger stewardship giving than a church in which members do not trust one another.
Think for a moment--what are we really doing when we pledge to the church, especially our money, which is a strong focus of our pledging this morning? When we pledge our money to the church, we are pledging it to one another. We are entrusting our money into one another's care. The church is not some abstract entity, not something twice removed from us. The church is us. We are the church. When we pledge our money to the church, we are handing it over to one another for safe keeping and intentional use. Our stewardship is not only an expression of how generous we are, it is an expression of how much, and how deeply, we trust one another. And trust can only be built as people prove themselves to be trustworthy.
Over the past four weeks, we have heard the Boards of our church share their stewardship visions. Each has shared what they have accomplished this past year and what they plan to accomplish next year. They have shared their ministry, and their ministry is consistent with and an expression of our shared vision.
When we pledge our money, we do so trusting that John Goff and the Outreach Board will be good stewards of our money, and that they will invest it into ministries that pursue our shared vision. When we pledge our money, we do so trusting that Betty Bodman and the Board of Deacons, that Reuel Nash and the Board of Trustees, and that Doyal Pinkard and the Board of Christian Education will use our money in ways that express our deepest commitments.
If we did not trust Jesus Christ, we would not follow him on the way. And if we did not trust John, Betty, Reuel, and Doyal, if we did not trust one another, we would not share our money with one another. And if we did not share our money with one another, our stewardship would be much weaker. Our church would be much weaker. If we did not trust one another, and did not share our money with one another, we would not have any of the ministries that I mentioned earlier.
The other night at Coordinating Council, Carol Barret marveled at just how much our church accomplishes for such a small church. Carol's right, we do have an impressive array of ministries, and an impressive array of people who are actively involved in these ministries. And I think it call comes down to the incredible strength of our stewardship. It comes down to the fact that we do have a shared vision, one that is Christ-inspired, one that is compelling, and one that evokes a strong and generous response from us. It comes down to the fact that we have developed an incredibly high level of trust in one another. Through our worship together, through the sharing of our lives with one another, through our shared ministry, we have developed a level of trust in one another that enables us to open our hearts and our hands to one another, and to generously share our money with one another, so that together, we can follow Christ and pursue the vision he has given us.
So this morning, as we celebrate Stewardship Sunday, let us celebrate the vision of love, justice, and peace to which Christ has opened our eyes. Let us celebrate that spirit of trust that brings us close together and enables us to be an incredibly strong church. Let us celebrate the generosity with which we give.
And let us commit ourselves, once again, to being a people who continue to follow Christ on the way.