On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among/within you.’
So… here we all are, “Growing God’s Kingdom”. When our Stewardship Committee first began meeting together, we very much liked the idea of seeds. Seeds are small. Seeds are common. But they are also a beginning. Locked away within each seed is the potential to break out and grow into a beautiful, living, and life-giving tree. It’s a fitting and memorable image for stewardship. Though our gifts may be small, and they may be common, each of the gifts that we give is also a beginning. Locked away within each gift of time, talent, and resources that you give, there is the awesome potential to grow into something much greater, something beautiful, and living, and life-giving. We would not be here Sunday after Sunday if that weren’t true. We call this place our church home because of that potential.
Many of you heard stories of potential when we first began holding our cottage meetings. In our gatherings we got to watch a video in which Dewitt Jones spoke about the importance of believing before seeing. Sometimes the belief, the faith in a particular vision becomes the catalyst that brings that potential to reality. In the video Dewitt Jones alluded to a story about Michelangelo, who had unveiled his latest masterpiece sculpture to a waiting crowd. With a flourish he swept off the cover and revealed an angel, one of the most breathtaking sculptures any of them had ever seen. There was no wind blowing that day, yet the angel’s wings seemed to be spreading to take flight. Marble can neither speak nor move, yet this angel’s mouth appeared to be in the very act of blessing, with hands folded in prayer. The audience burst into applause, and when the commotion had died down one person dared to speak up and ask, “How did you do it? How did you produce such an amazing work of art?” Michelangelo replied, “I saw an angel in the stone, and carved to set it free.”
“I saw an angel in the stone.” Some people, some artists, just seem to have this gift, to see the thing that is un-seeable, to have faith in the figure that already exists within the material, and then use their tools to remove everything else, freeing their masterpiece. And that ability is so striking to us! There seems to be something almost divine about it, something God-like about that ability to see the something in the midst of the nothing, and then bring it out. That’s how God is, right from the very beginning. In the beginning there was nothing, a formless void, chaos! And then God begins chiseling away. A piece here, a piece there, and suddenly here we are. But God doesn’t just create things and then step back to watch. No, God keeps right on creating with us and in us and through us. God sees all the blessings that we, the creatures, are capable of being underneath our rough exteriors. God works in our lives as the master sculptor who makes things new, shaping us into beautiful and faithful servants. Even more than that, God calls us to take part in the artistry, the work of creation, by making the best use of our lives and the gifts, the tools, that we have been given for the sake of God’s work in the world. The word we use for that is stewardship.
Instead of a hammer and chisel, as God’s stewards, one of our main tools is giving. Every time we share some of what we have, every pledge and every tithe, every hour spent and every talent given, it all goes to further the work of Christ’s church in the community and world. It goes on to grow God’s kingdom, through Hot Meals, and Scouting, and the Weekday Preschool, and Wonderful Wednesdays, and Vacation Bible School, and Alcoholics Anonymous, and Room in the Inn, and Sunday School, and Father’s House Church, and Stephen Ministry, and on and on and on, and that’s the Kingdom of God looks like! That’s the kingdom that’s within us and among us, and every time we share, and sacrifice, and give our best to God, it’s like carving away a bit of “marble” to reveal more and more of the vision that God has for us here in this place.
Whenever we give, it carves away a bit, to reveal more of our true selves, our generous Christian selves. We are indeed transformed by our giving and sharing and serving. Yes, our hands may lack the sculptor’s skill, but through Christian stewardship, our lives can reveal a beautiful work of art. I love that image, and I think it is inspiring to think about our lives becoming beautiful works of art when we are generous. Indeed, an entire kingdom can grow through nothing but our simple acts of giving.
In Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel entitled Pay It Forward, she wondered what would happen if just one person began performing random acts of extraordinary kindness for others, but instead of asking for anything in return that one person would simply ask the person who received the act of kindness to “pay it forward” to three other people out of their sense of gratitude. And then what would happen if each of those people did the same thing? What if one person performing one act of extraordinary kindness could cause a snowball, an avalanche of gratitude and generosity to sweep through the community?
The novel begins as a journalist recalls the time when his unreliable old car broke down on the middle of the road and caused a traffic jam. Angry that he’s going to be late for work, he gets out of his car and tries to get it running again, but nothing works. This kind of thing happens from time to time, and usually leads to a lot of honking, and yelling, and particular gestures that are less than sympathetic. But as the journalist is trying to figure out how to get his car out of the way, a man parks his new Acura nearby and offers to help push the car to the side of the road. Gratefully the journalist accepts, and before long they have the car safely off of the highway. As the journalist turns to shake the man’s hand, he is stunned to see the man’s hand outstretched, not for a handshake, but in order to give him the keys to the Acura. “Let’s trade,” the man says. Too stunned to even think, the journalist listens as the man explains that he had been helped recently and had been tasked to pay it forward to three different people. And now, the man explains, it is the journalist’s turn to do the same.
This begins the journalist’s quest to find out how this all got started, and he is amazed to discover that it all began from three acts of kindness done by a twelve-year-old for an extra-credit assignment. The point of the story is that there is something incredibly powerful about acting out of gratitude. There’s also something contagious about generosity, and it has the power to spread throughout the community regardless of age, race, gender—it is simply a force that cannot be stopped. Amazing things can begin with generosity. Amazing generosity almost always begins with gratitude.
When Jesus walked into that leper colony out on the outskirts of Galilee, do you think he knew what he would find there? To say that he was off the beaten path would be an understatement. That region between Galilee and Samaria was a place where no self-respecting Jew would ever go. First of all, it was out in the middle of nowhere. Second, it was a little too close for comfort to where all those wretched Samaritans lived, and if you were a Jew living in Galillee (or anywhere else for that matter) in that day and age, the last thing you’d ever want to do is run across some hated Samaritan.
Jesus, however, sees something there. He sees something out in the middle of nowhere that other Jews don’t. There’s a leper colony up there, which would have been reason enough for Jews and everybody else to stay far, far away, but Jesus insists. Lepers living out in a colony would often cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” whenever someone came within earshot of them, so that any passersby could keep their distance. When Jesus comes near, however, they shout, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus hears them and apparently does have mercy on them. He tells them simply to show themselves to the priests, and as the lepers leave, they are made clean. They are healed. Only one of them, a Samaritan, turns back to give thanks. With a loud voice he falls down at Jesus’ feet and thanks him. When Jesus says, “your faith has made you well,” he isn’t speaking about the healing event itself, for in fact Jesus heals a number of people (nine ungrateful lepers included) who seem not to have any lasting faith.
No, Jesus here is speaking of the man’s gratitude, calling it “faith” and proclaiming that it has made him well – it has given him something that the other nine did not have. Perhaps now that he has been healed, he will be able to live a life centered on gratitude for what God has done for him. Perhaps he will go on to share that gratitude, that blessing, with others. Perhaps “being well” means living in gratitude and letting our gratitude shape who we are.
Ultimately, that is why we give as Christians. We give because God first gave to us. We give because God spoke words of something-ness into our nothingness. God came to us while we were out in the middle of nowhere. We give because our God is a generous God who did not hold back, but emptied himself, that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us, saved us, and made us whole.
Anne Lamott in her book Traveling Mercies wrote a piece about why she makes her teenage son, Sam, go to church when so many of his friends don’t. “I make him go to church because I want to give him what I found in the world, which is a path and a little light to see by. I want him,” she says, “to follow a brighter light than the glimmer of his own candle, and to be part of something beautiful.” Anne Lamott first came to her church when she was poor, and pregnant, and addicted. That church did what all good churches do: they brought her clothes and food and the assurance that her baby was going to be a part of a loving family. She wrote, “I was usually filled with something like shame until I’d remember that wonderful line of poet William Blake’s – that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love.” That, she says, is why she makes Sam go to church – to endure the beams of love, to witness generosity, to see God at work through the love and giving of others and to be a part of that beauty and to learn to pay it forward to others. She wants him to see the generosity of others, feel the hospitality and acceptance of others, and share the love of God in real, concrete ways that make a difference in people’s lives.
Ultimately that’s what stewardship is about. It’s not just about paying the bills, or filling committee spots, or filling out a pledge card because that’s what good church going people do. It’s much more than that. It’s about growing in our awareness of God, growing in our appreciation for what God has done and continues to do in our lives. It’s about growing thanks and showing gratitude, and glorifying God with all that we are and in all that we do.
When we give out of gratitude, when we share joyously our financial resources, time, and talents to the glory of God and in support of Christ’s church and its ministries of love, caring, and hope in the world, when we do this, our lives reveal beautiful works of art. We grow something beautiful, and living, and life-giving. We grow a kingdom.
Today on this Stewardship Dedication Sunday, let those things that get in the way of our gratitude and our generosity be chipped away, to reveal more and more of that vision that God has for us. Jesus said that there is a kingdom among us and within us. Let us now give to set it free.
Thanks be to God. Amen.