Rev. George Miller
Oct. 4, 2015
This week I had a chance to go through my office files; to thin things out, to get rid of outdated information, rearrange papers in a more orderly manner and to reacquaint myself with things I have forgotten about.
For my fellow A-Type, Right Shark, German heritage sisters and brothers, y’all know how satisfying such a thing can be.
The alphabet letter I was on? “S” which meant I got to go through all the fun, racy files, like the ones titled “Sin,” “Sex” and most shocking of all- “Stewardship.”
Yes, of all the topics one can talk about in church: politics, terrorists, Planned Parenthood, none are more controversial, likely to make people uncomfortable, get the pastor in trouble than stewardship: talking about money, what to give to the church and why.
I was going through the file with info about the last 7 Stewardship Campaigns, when I came across a bulletin insert from 2009, which stated that we were expecting an $8,000 deficit, our reserves were being depleted fast and were going to run out.
It reminded me of the 2014 Budget Meeting when we created a bare-bones budget and anticipated that we’d receive $8,000 below what was needed to do the ministry of Emmanuel UCC.
2009 and 2014 seemed to bookend one another, except here’s the good news- our reserves have not run out, we built a new kitchen, started the successful Vacation Bible School and Shepherd’s Pantry programs, made our Administrative Assistant full-time and have not touched our savings in 5 years.
We should be celebrating and ever-thankful, but instead we worry. Why?
Because we are logical creatures dealing with the chronicity of life and the reality that eventually almost all things come to an end, unless if you’re a rock, or an ocean, or Cher.
The Stewardship File had other articles. Inspiring ones that shed light on the joy of giving, and the reality that Jesus talked about money all the time.
One article was from Guideposts magazine, about a woman named Oseola McCarty.
Miss McCarty was born in Mississippi, 1908 to a family of independent black women who raised peas, potatoes and corn and washed the clothes of white folks.
Oseola’s skill was ironing. At 10 she was ironing clothes for folk, earning a dime here, a quarter there. She kept her money stashed in the lining of her doll’s stroller.
At 12 she took her coins to the local bank, about $5 worth, and opened a checking account. Every month that’s where all her money went, except what she put in the offering plate at Friendship Baptist Church.
The Depression hit, Miss McCarty kept washing and ironing, making extra money working at parties.
“I loved to work,” she said, “I always asked the Lord to give me a portion of health and a portion of strength and some work to do. And over the years He did just that.”
One day the bank teller explained to Miss McCarty that she could put her money into a savings account and collect interest; soon they suggested CDs.
Oseola became a licensed hairdresser and did that for awhile until she went back to washing and ironing, saving her money and giving to Friendship Baptist Church.
Oseola worked until 1994, when she turned 86. The bank asked her what she’d like to do with her money when she died.
The officer laid out 10 dimes on the counter and said each dime represented 10% of her money. She set aside a dime for each of her cousins; she set aside a dime for a church.
Then she took the remaining six dimes and said she always had a dream- “I’m giving the rest of the money to the University of Southern Mississippi, so deserving children can get a good education.”
The bank officer looked at her all funny-like and said “that means you’ll be giving the school $155,000.”
The news of her generosity soon spread. Newspapers and magazines came calling, as did invitations to visit the UN and to meet the President, but none more important than meeting the first recipient of the “Oseola McCarty Scholarship.”
When people ask her why she didn’t spend the money on herself, Miss McCarty smiles, and thinks “Thanks to the Good Lord, I am spending it on myself.”
This is one of my favorite faith-based stories, and the story I think of whenever the topic of tithing and stewardship comes up.
Tithing is the biblical principle that states we are to give 10% of what we receive back to God. It’s spoken about in Leviticus and Deuteronomy; it’s addressed in Matthew, Acts and Hebrews.
It’s a very simple, spiritual notion that for every dollar we receive, we should give a dime back to God.
A dime for every dollar. So easy, so clear cut.
Why does the Bible say we should tithe? It is a way to show God thanks and to rejoice in all the ways the Lord has blessed us.
It is also a way we can serve one another. A way we can do justice and show that we love kindness.
But perhaps another reason why we are called to tithe, to make an offering to the Lord is because we remember.
As we talked about last week, memory is an important part of our faith; recalling the acts that the Lord did for God’s people is important to the called community.
What do we remember? That once “we were slaves in Egypt.”
But not just that, we remember how God set them free, redeeming them so they can praise God and not the Pharaoh.
God didn’t just free the people, but God led them into the Promised Land, and God fed them when they were hungry.
In Exodus 16 we remember that when the people were in the wilderness and starving, God responded by raining down bread from heaven, frost-like wafers that were sweet like honey.
We also remember something else: it wasn’t just the Jews that God took care of with miraculous bread.
A few weeks back, Jesus reminded us about a Gentile widow living in Sidon. She was in a lonely place, with only a handful of meal and little bit of oil.
Yet, as 1 Kings, chapter 17 tells us, God sent the prophet Elijah to her and her supplies never ran out and she had bread to eat for days upon days upon days.
So looking back upon the stories of the Old Testament, we have at least two instances in which to remember how God acted to ensure limitless bread; bread to Jews in the wilderness, bread to a lonely Gentile on the outskirts of town.
We remember that when there seemed to be nothing, God gave bread in abundance; God gave bread beyond logic; God gave bread beyond our limited imagination.
Now Jesus reboots and modernizes these Old Testament memories.
As Luke tells us, Jesus and the disciples have come to the end of a day’s ministry. A crowd has gathered and they are hungry, but there’s no Quizno’s or Panera Bread nearby.
What to do? Send them away, into the deserted place, to find their own food? It’s the logical thing to do.
But Jesus has another plan.
He has the people sit. He puts the disciples to work. He gathers their resources: five loaves and two fish.
Instead of worrying about their reserves, instead of thinking it can’t be done, Jesus takes what they do have, says a blessing, and breaks the bread…
…and lo and behold, somehow, someway, through some miracle that’s never truly explained, there is enough for all, and enough to be gathered.
This is a great scripture to talk about stewardship, because it’s a story about utilizing resources, about working together, about trusting in the Lord.
Sometimes the scriptures we read give us hope, remind us that miracles do happen and that God has a way of working things out.
But scriptures also show us how we can be the hope, how we can bring hope to others, how we can do our part to make miracles possible.
For example: do you believe that Jesus is like the green, green grass that people find rest upon in the wilderness?
Then acts of stewardship become an opportunity for us to make those moments of rest possible.
Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Bread of Life to those who are spiritually starving?
Then our giving can become one of the ways in which we are able to share the Good News and ensure that our neighbors are spiritually fed.
Do we believe that in God’s Kingdom there is enough for all, even when the Pharaohs of the world say it isn’t so?
Then our generosity becomes a way we can show this to be so.
Like Miss Oseola, our ability to give back to God, to give to our church, to give to others, is a way to show that we remember, we recall, that the Lord has given us a portion of health, a portion of strength, and some work to do.
As I wrap us today’s message, I’ll like to extend a challenge.
In 2009 we were worried about running out of reserves. In 2014 we created a bare-bones budget.
Yet we are still here, thriving, growing and we are doing the work of the Lord.
We have 13 Sunday’s left of our calendar year, with about $70,000 to meet our budget.
What if we embrace the story of the loaves and fishes?
What if we remember how God fed the Jews in the wilderness, how God fed the Gentile widow on the outskirts of town and how Jesus fed a multitude of people hanging out in the countryside?
In remembering, what if we decided to raise our individual offering by 2 fish or 5 loaves each week?
Just so there’s no confusion, when I say fish and loaves, I mean dollars. The price for a cup of coffee or a mocha-frappacino.
If that’s all we did, we would see our offering go up an extra $4,000; we’d be that much further away from dipping into reserves or worrying what the future holds.
God is good. Jesus is good. The Holy Spirit is good. That’s what the stories in the Bible tell us; that’s what they invite us to remember.
And by remembering, we are able to act. To do our part, to find a way to bring hope to the hopeless, healing to the lost and lonely, and food to the hungry.
That’s how we make God known. That’s how we make the ways of the Kingdom much more real.
We don’t have to wait for extremes to experience Bread from Heaven; we can do our part to make it rain down and to have it multiply.
Amen and amen.