As we continue our conversation about Stewardship, we need to remind ourselves of the importance of how we can all contribute “time, talent and treasure” to make sure our community of St. Nicholas continues to grow stronger and self-sustaining. As a means to this effort, I felt it wise to print and share the wonderful sermon preached by Fr. Jim Steen week before last about this very matter in the hopes that those who were not able to be with us in church can also benefit from his uplifting message. Stewardship is ownership…let’s all commit ourselves to being fully engaged in the day to day ministries of our community of faith and seeing to it we help move our church forward and onward, with God’s help and the assistance and love of each member who calls St. Nicholas ‘my home.’ Here is Jim’s sermon:
The Reign of Christ – Year A
St. Nicholas, Elk Grove Village
November 19, 2011
In 1885 Leo Tolstoy wrote a story about a cobbler named Martin, a good, honest, and respected man who experienced more than his share of pain during his life. Over time, all of his elder children died; then his wife died, too, leaving him with a three-year old son. Martin loved the boy and sacrificed a great deal to provide him with a home. Then, just as the child reached an age when he could be a support and a joy to Martin, he, too, contracted a raging fever and died. That was too much for Martin. He became bitter and murmured against God; and he rejected the Church. Would you blame him?
One day an elderly religious pilgrim from Martin’s native village happened by, and Martin poured out his heart to the holy man. He reproached God, cursed his fate, and told the man that he only prayed to die. The monk showed Martin no sympathy. He chastised him, saying that the reason he was miserable was that his goal in life was his own happiness, rather than living for God. When Martin asked him how to do this, how to live for God, he told him to buy a book of the Gospels where he could learn from Jesus.
Probably more from desperation than anything else, Martin bought the book and began reading it, only occasionally at first, then more and more. Eventually, he wanted to read the Gospels constantly and he found that they were changing him. As he read, over time he began to feel different: happier, even joyful. He was especially moved by the story of Simon the Pharisee, who failed to show hospitality to Jesus, and by passages urging generosity like the one where Jesus says, “From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” It became clear to Martin that living for God meant showing hospitality to the stranger and becoming what some might call foolishly generous. He came to understand that living this Gospel of Christ wasn’t just a matter of dabbling in generous hospitality; it was something to which he would have to dedicate his life.
One night Martin had an odd dream or vision and heard a voice say, “Martin, Martin! Look out into the street to-morrow, for I shall come.” After waking up the next morning, he wasn’t quite sure that the vision was real, but he couldn’t get it out of his mind, either. While mending boots and looking out the window, during the day Martin saw three people in serious need, and he invited each of them into his house. The first, an old man weary from shoveling snow, he invited in and slaked his thirst with tea and fed his soul with the Gospel’s message of love.
Next he saved a woman and her baby when he brought them in out of the bitter cold and gave them food, warm clothes, and money. Finally, he saved a juvenile thief from an old woman’s wrath and ended up converting her to forgiveness and turning the two into friends in the process.
After the last of these encounters, Martin went back into the house and, after finishing his work, he opened the Bible and began reading the passage to which the book fell open: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing.” And at the bottom of the page he read, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” And Martin understood that his dream had come true; and that the Savior really had come to him that day, and he had welcomed him.
As Martin discovered, opportunities to show such generosity are all around us. So are opportunities to find the joy that comes with generosity.
You might think that generosity is something we either have or we don’t have. I’ve learned that, as with so many other qualities that we admire, that isn’t necessarily true. Looking back at growing up in my family, I’m aware that my mother was always generous. I suspect that there had so much generosity in her family that, being raised with parents who were lavish with their love – they actually didn’t have much money – she never learned how to be stingy.
To give you some idea of who true this was, when my son, Jeremy turned 16, my parents gave him a Mustang. It wasn’t that they were wealthy, just very generous. Jeremy was a good kid and a jock, the sort who gave his parents little to worry about during those turbulent adolescent years. However, armed with his driver’s license and his new car, he had a date one night that he had to impress; so he let her drive his new car and in short order she totaled it. I was fit to be tied. How could Jeremy have used such poor judgment? The girl didn’t even have a driver’s license.
I knew I had to call my parents and tell them what had happened. I fretted and stewed about it for quite some time. Finally, I called and my mother answered. I told her what had happened, bemoaning Jeremy’s poor judgment and the destruction of their gift. In my state of anxiety, I was totally shocked when my mother replied, “Who among us hasn’t used poor judgment? I’m sure this will be a great lesson to Jeremy. Now go out and get him another car.” That response may seem outrageous to you, as initially it did to me. But upon further reflection, I’ve come to view this event as a kind of modern day version of the parable of the prodigal son.
My father was quite a different story, and you only had to meet his parents to get a sense of why. His mother, especially, clung to whatever she had with such tenacity that she developed the physical appearance of a tight, pinched person. But living with my mother for over sixty years, my father didn’t have a chance. I could see this as a child. Little by little, moved by her example and by her not always so gentle prodding, he began to open up and to risk forays into the land of generosity. By the time I was in college, my father was a complete convert, and I was keenly aware of this because I was a beneficiary of his largess.
We all have good raw material: We are formed in the image of God. What could be better? But cutting, chiseling, and polishing that raw material is another matter. Like becoming a professional musician, an outstanding athlete, or proficient in prayer, becoming a generous person takes practice. And I am convinced that the more we practice the more proficient we become. As Malcolm Gladwell tells us in his book “Outliers,” although different people have innate gifts for different things, what distinguishes the truly great in any field is not how gifted they are but how much they practice becoming more proficient at their craft.
This is a stewardship message. There are of course many reasons for us to be generous when it comes to how we use our resources. When it comes to the church, the more generous we are, the more effectively the church can carry out its mission to transform lives. But it isn’t all about altruism, and I’m not opposed to a little healthy self interest. Yes, I give to the church because I believe that when the Christian community is at its best, we offer the world a glimpse of the kingdom of God, which is the world’s best hope. But I also give because I know that being generous changes me and offers me a glimpse, however fleeting, of what it is to become the person God sees when God looks at me; and that is an experience of pure joy.
The Rev. S. James Steen