The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
transcribed by Gaile E. Zimmer
Gracious God from whom every good gift comes, send your spirit into our lives and by the flame of your wisdom open the horizons of our minds. Loosen our tongues to sing your praise in words and to go beyond speech praising you in the silence deep within our hearts. Amen.
Some years ago I read a meditation in Forward Day By Day that always comes back to mind when it’s stewardship time of year. The story and the meditation go like this:
There was a young girl whose family’s practice was that on Sunday mornings her father would give her two nickels. One nickel was to go in the collection plate at church and the other nickel went to buy her an ice-cream cone after church, signifying for us that bribery starts early. That was not part of the meditation. And so one Sunday morning they got to church, she opened up the door, stepped out, and accidentally dropped one of the nickels. It rolled and went straight down the drain and she burst into tears. Her father didn’t see what had happened, but he looked and saw that his daughter was in deep distress and so he ran around the side of the car and he said “what’s wrong?” And she asked “was that nickel God’s or mine?”
It’s a cute story, but that’s a really good question. What’s God’s and what is mine? And I like to think of stewardship in the context of a covenant relationship. You heard in that passage that Lew read from Deuteronomy, the story of Moses. He had just given the Israelites the Ten Commandments, the Mosaic law—their covenant of what it meant to be in right relationship with God and in right relationship with one another. It was all about relationship. God had said, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” And understood in that covenant relationship was fidelity, one to the other, and with that were some expectations and some requirements: the Mosaic law. And we see that throughout Hebrew Scriptures and then as it continues to make its way into the New Testament. And we understand the New Covenant being our relationship with God as revealed to us in Christ.
We see that in the passage in Jeremiah of writing the Scripture in a way that we can’t forget it. What does Moses tell the people as they’re about to go into the Promised Land? He’s led them out of the wilderness where they had been enslaved in bondage in Egypt in a time of scarcity and wandering in wilderness and they’re about to go into the Promised Land. And Moses tells them you need to remember, in addition to the Mosaic Law, two important things. God has given you this land, and it’s yours to have a wonderful life as the people of God; but you didn’t create it, you didn’t earn it. It was freely given as a gift from God; share from the abundance and generosity with which you have received; share with others. And sometimes I think that’s hard for us to do.
We make all kinds of covenants, one with another. Thinking about the whole issue of stewardship—and all that we have and all that we are are gifts from God: our time, our talent, our treasure. It also reminds me of a marriage covenant. I think one of the most beautiful parts of the marriage ceremony and service comes when the couple exchange rings and here’s what they say, “I give you this ring. It’s a symbol of my vow, my covenant, and with all that I am and all that I have I honor you.” Nothing is held back. Everything, all that I am, all that I have, I’ve committed to you, publicly. A public covenant in the presence of God. But the question becomes for each one of us—what does that look like on the ground, that covenant relationship, that recognition that all we are and that all we have are gifts from God? And sometimes it’s really a struggle to work our way through that.
I’d like to share a personal story and I do so with the permission of my husband, John, because it’s actually his story that I’ve appropriated for tonight. About sixteen or seventeen years ago John and I were facilitators with The Disciples of Christ in Community (DOCC) at our home Parrish, St. John’s Lafayette Square. During that time John worked downtown and he often would go to St. John’s to the noon Eucharist and one day he went, and it was in February, and it was one of those bitter, awful, cold, biting Washington winter days. And when he went into the sanctuary he sat down and he noticed a few pews in front of him that there was a man who was uncontrollably shaking. I mean, you couldn’t miss it, and John could tell from his appearance that he was probably homeless and had come in to be warm. So John began thinking about what would be the appropriate response. How should he help this person who was in such obvious need? As John was thinking about that he thought well, “maybe he has a coat,” because I’m wearing my very best dress overcoat, and then he said to himself, “well he probably doesn’t have a coat.” So he starts wrestling with the fact that he’s got on his best coat, but he remembers that he’s got another coat—it’s in his closet at home; that’s the old frayed coat that he then traded up for a new coat. And he was thinking how much easier it would be to deal with that issue if he were only wearing his old coat as opposed to his new dress coat. And he became totally obsessed with that struggle—looking at this person continuing to shake uncontrollably, and wrestling. He couldn’t focus on the service; he was totally obsessed with his internal struggle on what the appropriate thing to do was. Then he thought well maybe I could give him some money and he could buy a coat.
Finally, at the end of the service, and John is just totally transfixed, he knew that he needed to give him his coat, and he went up to the man and he tapped him on the shoulder and he started to offer him his coat. And the man looked at him and thanked him and he said, “Well that’s very kind of you, but that other man who was sitting over there gave me his coat,” and John wept. He was ashamed at the own struggle that he’d gone through but he also wept in gratitude that someone was moved enough to follow Christ, to share from the abundance with which he had been given. John was so taken by this—he couldn’t go back to his office. That night was DOCC night and the leader that evening quoted some Scripture that we were going to then meditate on and reflect on, and the passage that the priest read that evening was the Gospel lesson you just heard. And that too moved John to tears and he knew he had to stand up and he knew he had to tell that story even though it would be an embarrassing story about his own internal struggle. But what it really did was lift up that the people in that church lived in a church where people were walking their faith and responding.
The passage says: three different groups come to John the Baptist and they basically say what then should we do? And to each, in turn, he lifts up our most vulnerable points where we’re most likely to trip. To the crowds he says if you have two coats, give one to someone who has none. Then he goes on to the soldiers, and the bankers, and the others who are in a position of power, but it’s power that’s been given to them by God for right use.
So we go back to the beginning of the story of whose nickel is it? What’s God’s and what’s ours? I believe that God has so richly blessed us so that we might bless others. They’re gifts that have been entrusted to us whether it’s our time, our talent—the gifts that are embodied within us—and yes, our treasure. You can only answer that question for yourself on what is yours and what is God’s and how we are called from the abundance of riches that God has showered on us to give back to be in right relationship, not only with God, but with one another.
This is our stewardship time of year when we do reflect on our blessings and how we give back in gratefulness and in joy and thanksgiving for how God has so richly blessed us to help the on-going ministry of this church in a hurting city, in a hurting world. So I ask you to reflect on that. If you’ve not yet made your pledge I’m confident that Nat has pledge cards in the back that you can sign later; but it’s an important question and only one that you can answer. Let me just leave with this, Frederick Buechner once wrote that, “To sacrifice something is to make it holy by giving it away in love.” We have both the opportunity and the privilege and the responsibility to give things away in love—love for God and love for one another. Amen.