Cowritten by the Rev. Lonnie Lacy & the Rev. Cindy Taylor
originally for Project Resource in the Diocese of Georgia
Chances are that if you’ve hung around Episcopal churches long at all, you’ve heard your fair share of stewardship sermons. In those sermons, you’ve doubtless been given dozens of reasons why stewardship ought to be a way of life for every good Christian. Here are a few of the angles you’ve likely heard:
Divine Duty: “All we have comes from God, and it is only right to return a portion unto him.”
Personal Piety: “Living and giving generously makes us better, holier people.”
Rational Responsibility: “How we care for what have speaks to who we are. If we cannot be trusted with a little, we will not be trusted with a lot.”
Mission Mindedness: “Your giving makes possible the work of the Kingdom, the spread of the Gospel, and the future of the Church.”
And then, of course, there are the trusty standbys of Panicked Pragmatism and Good old Guilt: “If you don’t pony up, the doors are going to close, the lights are going to go off, and the church is going to die!”
In a sense, there is truth to all of these, but in their oversimplification, each misses the mark. Ultimately, stewardship is the Christian way of life not because of light bills, parish programs, or personal spiritual progress, but because of one fact and one fact alone: God is love.
The Relentless Love of a Self-Giving God
The witness of scripture has revealed to us a God who is relentless in his self-giving love and who will stop at nothing to make himself known to us.
It all begins in Genesis, where the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—or, as St. Augustine once called them, “the Beloved, the Lover, and the Love” [i]—fashion us in their own image, calling us into being and into relationship with them and with one another. We owe our very existence not to a happy accident of amino acids or to the whim of a disinterested deity high atop some Olympian mount, but to the One who is Love itself: a love that is generative, contagious, and cannot be contained. The love of God ought to be the motivating factor for all we do, for truly it is the motivating factor for all that God has done.
And yet, since the beginning, our own motivations have always skewed less loving, less giving, less divine. Despite having been conceived in and for the love of God, “we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.” [ii] One would think God would have given up on us long ago, scrapped it all, and walked away, for what else is a loving, giving God to do when his own creation refuses to love and give in return?
Turns out, he went for broke.
He bet the farm.
He gave it all.
In Jesus we see the fullness of who God is, broadly in his life, death, and resurrection, but acutely in that famous conversation he holds with Nicodemus the Pharisee. There at the end, in John 3:16, he lays it bare: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but may have everlasting life.”
As one commentator has put it, this one sentence above all others reveals the magnitude of God’s relentless, generous, self-giving love:
For God:The greatest subject ever
so (much):The greatest extent ever
loved:The greatest affection ever
the world:The greatest object ever
that he gave his only begotten Son:The greatest gift ever
that whosoever:The greatest opportunity ever
believeth in him:The greatest commitment ever
should not perish:The greatest rescue ever
but have everlasting life:The greatest promise ever [iii]
From Genesis to Jesus, the witness of Scripture is clear: if we want to know God, we must know him as Giver.
Knowing Ourselves as Givers, Too
Likewise, it follows that if we want to know ourselves—if we want to know whereof we are made and whom we are meant to be—then we must know ourselves as givers, too.
We are made in the image of God, born in his likeness, and built for something more than ourselves. This loving, self-giving God has placed in us a need to love and to give, too. It’s written on our spiritual DNA. Simply put, it is who we are.
Such giving, of course, takes many forms. Often we hear the tried and true formula of “time, talent, and treasure.” We urge one another to support the work of the church financially; to volunteer our hours as a valuable commodity; to bring our unique skills to bear on the many projects and pursuits of the parish.
All of these are good and right, but in reality the stewardship of the Christian life goes deeper. Each of us have much to offer, but the thing that Godoffered was his very self, his very life. He, above all others, “gave ‘til it hurt,” to coin a phrase. It is when we experience a similar kind of giving—a giving that moves beyond the depths of what we have into the depths of who we are—that we begin to know something of the true joy of life in the loving, living, giving God.
The Joy of Giving Together
That joy, of course, is not simply a matter of individual experience, as our God is not simply an individual God. Though One, he is also Three: a beloved community of selflessness, always inviting, always giving, always loving, always receiving.
Rublev’s timeworn icon of the Trinity depicts something of this community. The heavenly Father in his resplendent robe. The incarnate Son bearing the red of our flesh and blood. The Holy Spirit adorned with the green and blue of their creation. All gaze dynamically back and forth at one another, in constant communion and community. Most importantly, though, they leave a seat open at the table as the Spirit extends a hand, an invitation to us to join in their communion.
Like theirs, the joy we experience in giving is meant to be a shared joy. Giving of who and what we are is meant not simply to satisfy the self, but to widen the circle and to deepen the fellowship.
Perhaps we see this played out no more clearly than in Acts 2:43-47, as the early disciples give freely and joyfully of who they are and what they have:
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
It is clear that the Lord—the Holy Spirit—is moving, changing, and remaking these early disciples more and more into the likeness of the loving, living, giving God. And yet, without their “glad and generous hearts,” would the Spirit would have been able to work at all? The joy of mutual generosity, of shared sufficiency, of happy trust, and welcome gift is both seed and fruit, an ingredient for and the product of abundant life in the Triune God.
Stewardship & the Joy Divine
The word “stewardship,” like a heavy sack, holds many meanings for many people. Despite the Church’s best efforts, that one word has too often come down to a simple sense of burden . . . duty . . . obligation. But this is not the nature of our God. Ours is the loving, living, giving God who has created us for love, who has rescued us at great cost from our own selfishness, and who has done so as pure gift, free and clear. This is the One of whom the great hymn sings:
Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blest,
well-spring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!
Thou our Father, Christ our brother, all who live in love are thine;
teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine. [iv]
So, why stewardship?
Why teach others to give, too?
Because God is love.