Collecting the Graces

A Sermon for October 21, 2012
Stewardship Sunday
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

Today is Stewardship Sunday—but let me tell you right up front that I am not going to talk about money this morning.  Not because we don’t need it at St Stephen’s—not surprisingly, we actually need more this year than we ever have before.  But I figure you already know that since we’re a growing, spirit-filled congregation with a lot of mission and ministry going on.  I also figure that most of you are sharing your financial resources remarkably generously already— not just with St Stephen’s but with numerous others who are doing God’s healing work in this sadly broken, yet exquisitely beautiful world entrusted to us.  You just couldn’t sit here week after week worshipping God and not be generous givers.

So I want to talk with you this morning about stewardship from a different perspective. You see, while I was on my silent retreat last week, God—as usual—did something totally unexpected.  God opened up the way I think about Christian stewardship—which was, quite honestly, the last thing on my mind when I began my retreat! But I now feel certain—though no doubt I had heard it many times before—that Christian stewardship is about far more than how much money we give to the church each year.

Christian stewardship, I am now thoroughly convinced, is about how we respond to God’s generous love.  In the email meditation from the Brothers at SSJE in Cambridge yesterday, Br. Curtis wrote: “Be caught by the love God has for you… and for everyone else. It’s real, and it’s forever, and it’s for now.”  Yes!  God’s love is real, it’s forever, and it’s for now! And Christian stewardship is about how we respond to that incredible love–in terms of our church, yes—but in so much more than that, too.  Christian stewardship is about how we respond to God’s love in terms of our friendships, our marriages, our children; our community, our careers, our creativity; our bodies, our intellects, our passions; our material possessions, and yes, our money. Christian stewardship is about how we respond to all the gifts God continuously gives to us out of pure, unconditional love.  And Christian stewardship is about how we respond to God’s abundant love with every aspect of our lives—wisely, humbly, compassionately, and generously.

Now, this may seem obvious to you—as in retrospect, it does to me.  After all, how could it be otherwise when our very lives themselves are gifts entrusted to us by God—fragile yet precious gifts entrusted to us with the divine hope that we will be compassionate stewards of them? And yet this simple truth had essentially escaped me until recently.

When I entered my time of retreat a little more than a week ago, I had few, if any, expectations.  Mostly I was just looking forward to being wrapped in the velvet-like cloak of communal silence, in the womb of secure and sacred space, surrounded by acres of magnificent natural beauty in which to walk.  On my first morning there when I met with my spiritual director I told her I had no particular agenda, but was aware I’d brought with me a heart filled with both grief and gratitude.  Grief, because we have buried more than a dozen parishioners at St. Stephen’s in the past year– most of them women, and most of them far too young.  Gratitude, because I continue to be in absolute awe at the wonder that is my life today:  Not only have I never known such deep joy and happiness, I never even dreamt of knowing such deep joy and happiness.  I am incredibly blessed to be exactly where I think God intends for me to be, doing exactly what I think God intends for me to be doing. I love my family and my friends, I love the house I live in, and I love this church (and by that I mean all of you); I love the ocean, I love the seasons, and I love this amazing little town of storybook Currier & Ives beauty.  My life is good.  Very good.  God has indeed done more for me than I could ever ask or imagine.

So I was happy to be entering my retreat in a place of such gratitude, but decidedly did not want to focus on the grief part.  Yet much to my surprise, it was precisely where grief and gratitude intersected during my retreat that the grace of a new understanding of stewardship—and a new sense of interior freedom for me– was born.

Grief and gratitude gave me an awareness of the fragility of life and the preciousness of all for which I am so grateful.  Grief and gratitude prompted me to wonder: Am I taking care of these gifts as God would have me do?  Am I appreciating them and honoring them?  All of them?  Am I relating to them in a way that is healthy and life-giving?  Do I have the interior freedom to share them generously? In short, am I being a good Christian steward?

And as I reflected, the grace of grief and gratitude revealed for me a previously blind spot, a new awareness of where I am falling short of God’s desire for me, a place of sin where God is inviting me to be a much better steward of His gifts.  And for me, it wasn’t about money, or possessions—it wasn’t about time, talent or treasure.  No, the place where I suddenly realized my heart needs the most transforming as a Christian steward—and this is rather embarrassing to admit in a room full of people–is in relation to my physical body.  I am not a good caretaker of my body.  Granted, I’m a much better caretaker of it than I was 18 years ago, but I still do not care for my body wisely, compassionately, or generously.  I overwork it and overfeed it; I don’t get enough exercise or sleep. And wouldn’t you know that my body was noticeably absent from the long list of things for which I was grateful?  Now how can one be a good steward of something about which one cares so little?

But now grief and gratitude are awakening me to the miracle that is a healthy human body.  So my pledge this year, in addition to my tithe, is to do all that I can to become truly grateful for my body as the precious gift of God that it is…to really inhabit it and honor it and listen to it…to take care of it and be a good steward of it—motivated not by vanity but by gratitude.  And this, my friends, will take nothing less than a conversion of heart.

Evelyn Underhill once wrote that, “the tendency to give, to share, to cherish, is the mainspring of the universe…and reveals the nature of God…therefore when we are most generous, we are most loving and most real…”

When we are most generous, we are most loving and most real–because that is God’s nature: generous, loving and real—and we are made in God’s image.  Whether it’s in terms of our friendships, our marriages, or our children; our community, our career, or our creativity; our body, our intellects, or our passions; our material possessions or yes, our money—when we are most generous, we are most loving and real.  Such is the life of a good Christian steward.

I wonder where your heart might be most in need of conversion as a Christian steward?  Might you be lacking gratitude for any of God’s many gifts in your life? Might God be inviting you to a more generous attitude in relation to any of your gifts?  What role does fear or denial have in your ability to recognize and share your giftedness?  Could you pray for the grace of gratitude or for the interior freedom of a more generous heart?

Christian stewardship is about a lot more than how much money we give to our church each year.  It’s about how we respond to God’s amazing, abundant love!  Love that is real, that is forever, that is here right now, loving each and every one of us exactly as we are.  All is gift.  And Christian stewardship is nothing less than how we respond to those gifts with every aspectof our lives—wisely, humbly, compassionately, and generously.

So your mission this week—should you choose to accept it—is to make a list, in writing, of all the things in life for which you are grateful.  Make it a running list that you can add to each day for a week.  Nothing is too general or too specific to be put on this list.  You can give thanks for life itself, and for the cup of coffee that sometimes makes it worth living.  There is no such thing as too long a list.  Remember: All is gift.

Then share your list with someone you trust, and ask them if there’s anything you’ve overlooked or should add, and add it!

Finally, in a quiet place where you won’t be distracted, write a prayer thanking God for these many gifts, and asking for the grace of a generous heart to be a good Christian steward of all that He has given you.

Then listen, in the silence, for God’s response.  What you’ll hear, is the sound of love.  Amen.

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