A Sermon preached on September 28th (Pentecost XVI and Harvest Festival) at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenDeuteronomy 8:7-18, Psalm 65, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, Luke 12:16-30
Together with our brothers and sisters from the German churches, and many English churches, we are celebrating Harvest Festival today. So if you’ve been following the readings in our lectionary and are wondering where today’s readings come from – you have not got lost or made a mistake. These are the readings appointed for Harvest and Thanksgiving celebrations, whenever they may take place, which of course in the USA is not until Thanksgiving in November.
It had not been my plan to talk about Stewardship this morning, although our annual Stewardship or pledge campaign will soon commence in October, but this morning’s readings really left me no choice. All the themes of stewardship are there: Gratefulness to God for God’s goodness and bounty, giving generously, and identifying and setting the right priorities. Let’s look at them one by one.
Whenever someone in the Bible tells us not to do something, we can be pretty sure that that was what most people were doing at the time! So when the author or authors of Deuteronomy have Moses say: “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth,’” (8:17) we can assume that by the time of writing far too many people in Israel had forgotten how they got there and who was ultimately responsible for the “good land … with flowing streams, …. A land of wheat and barley, vines and fig trees and pomegranates, ... olive trees and honey.” (8:7-8) And the danger was that the good people of Israel would not only forget who had rescued them and lead them to the promised land, and forget to bless and thank the Lord, but that they would also forget the Covenant God had made with them, and perhaps even forget their God. This danger is by no means only applicable to the inhabitants of Israel in the 6th century BC. The idea of God as the ultimate source of all that we have, including our existence, and that is something we can be grateful for and should say thank you for – every day and not only when the calendar prescribes it – is not mainstream, to say the least.
In this part of his 2nd letter to the Corinthians, Paul is asking the church in Corinth to collect and send money for the church in Jerusalem, he’s asking them to pledge if you like. That’s probably why this section sounds like a pledge campaign letter, because it is one. Paul picks up on the theme of gratitude and giving thanks. The best way of giving thanks to God for God’s abundant blessings and grace, he says, is through giving. Generosity “will produce thanksgiving to God” (2 Cor. 9:11) and in and through our own generous giving we can share in God’s good work, for by helping the poor we participate in God’s righteousness. (9:12) “The rendering of this ministry,” the ministry of giving, “not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.” (9:12) My favorite line must be “God loves a cheerful giver,” (9:7) in fact I think I used it in my last stewardship letter. What Paul means by cheerful is that the gift must be a personal decision, made in compete freedom and without fear or coercion. It is not a condition for God’s grace or blessing, unlike the condition the writer of Deuteronomy is alluding to when he tells the Israelites to “remember the LORD your God, so that he may confirm his covenant!” (Deut. 8:18) God’s grace is free, it is an indescribable gift. We give in response to that gift and out of own sense of what is important, what has priority, which brings us to Luke.
In Jesus’ parable the rich man – or fool as God later calls him – had clearly got his priorities wrong! All he could think about was himself, just note how often he uses the words ‘I’ and ‘my’ are used: 11 times in 3 verses. This man has no thought for God or for his neighbor, all he can think about is himself, his wealth, and his own well-being in this life – which in this parable is about to be cut short. We need to see this story in context, just before the passage we hear this morning Jesus had been asked to adjudicate in a dispute about an inheritance, which he refused, instead he “said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’” (Luke 12:15) That’s how to understand Jesus telling his disciples not to worry about life, and what to eat or what to wear. He is not romanticizing a life without property or as a beggar. We need food and drink and clothing – but amassing them and the money to pay for them cannot be our number one priority, God must be. The right priority is not to store up treasures for ourselves but to be rich towards God (12:21) or to use Matthew’s more succinct and poetic words: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21)
We started with fertile and productive land and abundant crops and produce in Deuteronomy and in Luke we end with birds, flowers, and grass and how God cares for them. Both sets of examples serve to remind us that that God, the Creator, who loves to give good gifts, who loves to care for us, and who wants us to do likewise, is ultimately in control and that God’s values and priorities are the ones that count.
In the Collect for Thanksgiving that I prayed earlier, we ask God to make us “faithful stewards of God’s great bounty.” And I’ve suggested that good stewardship is made up of gratefulness, generous giving, and right priorities. What might that look like for us here at St. Augustine’s?
Let’s start with thanksgiving. What can we give thanks for – as a community and as individuals? The food and produce that we have decorated the church with, serves to remind us to give thanks “for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them.” They stand for the gifts of life, of sustenance, and of plenty. We can also give thanks for this community, for one another, for mutual support, for the use of this building as a spiritual home. And we give thanks for all the personal blessings and gifts that we have received.
How do we show our gratitude? Through generous giving. On the one hand, the money you give to the church is for the “provision of our necessities,” the priest, the office, our music, the materials and events for our Sunday school and youth group, our participation in the wider church, and for the care and running of this building. But we also give for “the relief of all who are in need.” That will happen today very directly when all this food is passed on to our Mission Partner, the Teestube to feed the homeless, but also through our other Outreach programs and through the work of the Episcopal Church.
And what are our priorities? Next week you will all, at least all of you for whom we have an address, receive an invitation to attend one of a series of small group conversations in private homes. Their purpose is to help us continue the process of renewing our Christian community. We will look back and forward asking, what and who do we as the Church of St. Augustine of Canterbury want to be? This is your chance to discuss and identify priorities for this church, in this place in the context of conversation and prayer. And of course priorities are also important when you consider your pledge. I encourage you to reflect on how you can use the gifts you have been given to further the only real priority we can have: the Glory of God. To finish with St. Paul: “You glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing.” (2 Cor. 9:13)