First Sunday in Lent. Stewardship. Genesis 2, 15-17 & 3, 1-7; Matthew 4, 1-11.
How would you define generosity? What picture do you have of generous giving?
At the beginning of the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, we read the accounts of creation. In the newer myth from the priestly strand, over six days God creates this planet earth , what astronomers have called a “Goldilocks planet’, with ideal conditions for the emergence of life forms such as ours. The myth describes the creation of a planet with cycles of light and darkness to allow sleep and refreshment, with an enormous variety of plant and animal life, with land and sea and air teeming with creatures, with enough food for everyone, a place of beauty and harmony.
Then God creates us human beings, and gives us stewardship of the earth: the responsibility to care for it, to enjoy it, to develop and change it, to use it as we decide. God retains ownership of the planet, but doesn’t stand on property rights. God’s is a generous shared ownership.
And this generous giving is not piecemeal, grudging or given bit by bit. Rowan Williams said it is like being under a giant waterfall, soaked in God’s giving every moment of our lives. It is not given as a reward. As the Bible reminds us the sun shines and the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous in equal measure. The saying in the Sermon on the Mount, which reminds us of God’s endowment of the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, is yet another reminder of God’s genrous provision for our needs.
Such generosity requires a response. During Lent, as a parish, we are going to be thinking about that response in terms of our stewardship of what God has given us, our time, our talents and our money.
There are appropriate responses to God’s generosity, and inappropriate ones. The two lectionary readings for today are indications of inappropriate ones. There are many ways of interpreting the sin of Adam and Eve; but one interpretation of their desire to “be like God” is that they (and we, for they are us!) take ownership of the good things of the earth as if it was ours, and misuse it, instead of remembering that we have the earth in trust from God.
In the story of the Temptation from the New Testament, Satan attempts to persuade Jesus to use his time and his talents for his own glory, instead of for the glory of God: to gain followers by providing them with bread, to use his miraculous powers to protect himself from harm, to follow the way of violence and evil, rather than following the ways of God. That, as Jesus makes clear in his answers, would be misuse of the gifts that God’s generosity have given us. Those temptations face us too, as we consider how to use the good things of the earth which we enjoy.
The appropriate response to God’s generosity is to return it, to give back, with thanksgiving.
First, we need to acknowledge that what we give back comes ultimately from God, and is God’s not ours. In 1 Chronicles 29, we hear the account of David collecting funds and materials for the building of the Jerusalem temple. He collects materials, and makes a large donation from his own personal property, and this prompts the heads of the clans, the officials of the tribes, the commanders of the army and the administrators of the palaces to give generously too. When David makes a speech about the building, however, he reminds them that everything they have given is not theirs, but Gods, in words we often use at the offertory in the Holy Communion service: Yours, Lord, is the greatness the power, the honour, the splendour and the majesty; everything comes from you, and of your own to we give you.
This is partly what saying grace before meals is all about. But saying grace needn’t be limited to mealtimes. G. K. Chesterton said: You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before a concert and the opera, the play and the pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing,dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.” That is also the attitude of Orthodox Judaism, where there is a blessing of God for the divine gifts before almost every aspect of daily life – upon rising, when bathing, when smelling and eating fruit, when lighting the Sabbath candles, on entering the synagogue, when going on holiday, for marriage and so on, and so on. Psalm 118 begins “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good” and that is the attitude a life of constant thankful acknowledgement of God’s generosity helps to build up.
So second, we need to give with a right attitude. We don’t give as an obligation, just to return a favour, or in the hope that we will gain some advantage from it – as we do perhaps when we invite people to dinner because we’ve been given hospitality by them, or we try to give a present equal in value to what we have been, or expect to be given. We give in genuine thankfulness for God’s generosity towards us, for all that is given as gift, as grace.
And third, we give in union with, and in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians: ‘Be thankful in all circumstances. This is what God wants from you in your life in union with Jesus Christ”, a message reiterated in Colossians. We are invited to give in the way that Jesus gives, which means giving generously and sacrificially. Jesus gave everything, including ultimately his life, in the service of God’s Kingdom. Our giving should imitate his.
So how we give of our time, our talents and our money are an indication of the place God has in our lives, and our response to God’s generosity. What that means to each of us individually is something we will each have to consider during the weeks of Lent. There will be other sermons in the coming weeks on different aspects of Stewardship, as well as a leaflet and a letter from the Vicar.
How we exercise our stewardship will differ, according to our circumstances. It should include consideration of how much of our time and our talents we give, as well as our money. The Lent study course will, we hope, help us to look again at how we spend our time, and whether it is right for us to adjust that in order to make more ‘Sabbath’ time, or time for God. There are always opportunities to volunteer and offer our time and our skills to the Church and our communities, and particularly at the moment, we are being given an opportunity to consider how what talents and time we may offer in the future through the current Church and Community Survey.
And though our giving of time and talents is not unimportant, our giving of money is a clear indication of our response to God’s generosity. It is the aspect of life that Jesus talked about frequently. We live in money economy, and if we want the church, and particularly our church buildings to continue to be available, we need to give generously to support them.
Our stewardship is part of a cycle of generosity in which God gives to us our talents, our life, our money- and in true thankfulness and in the Spirit of Christ, we give back to God through the Church and through serving others in need.