Our Stewardship Campaign, Autumn, 2017

Our Parochial Church Council agreed at its meeting in July 2017 that it was time to look again at stewardship.  We can all be part of God’s mission in many ways and one of the important ways is through our giving.

Stewardship is about making a whole-hearted commitment to God in every part of our life.  It is not only a way of making sure the church can pay its way.   It is about recognising that everything comes from God and that we only give back what is from Gods hands.

“All that we have comes from you, and of your own do we give you.”

 We have a generous God.  In the third chapter of John’s gospel we are reminded of the ultimate gift of generosity and love that God the Father was prepared to make –

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

 Jesus with all the riches of his life in the glorious mystery of God’s inner being, became poor, both in the sense that becoming human and in the sense that the human life he took on was not rich and splendid in world terms but instead poor and humble.

It is this generous heart of God and his call on us to care for those in need as demonstrated by the early church in the Acts of the Apostles that should motivate us to give.

The question for us when we consider what we give is not what should I give but rather how can we be a living sacrifice and how can my giving reflect something of God’s utter, abundant and generous love for me?

During September, our Sunday sermons focus on:

Sunday 10th September: The incomparable riches of God – The Pearl of Great Price (see text below)

Sunday 17th September: The Generosity of God – For God so loved the world (see text below)

Sunday 24th September – Harvest Festival: All things come from you and of your own do we give you.”

Around our Harvest Festival time, we will all receive a Stewardship Leaflet and encouraged to make our commitment to contributing towards God’s Mission in our community.  A box will be placed in church to receive our confidential commitments and the outcomes from our Stewardship campaign will be announced towards the end of October.

Please do give some thought to how you can help.

The Pearl of Great Price – Matthew 13 vv 44-46 – Stewardship Campaign Week One
Today’s gospel paints two cameo pictures of the Kingdom of heaven. If we had all day we might try to unpack both, but since we don’t, I want to focus on the story of the trader who found a pearl of great price and went off to sell everything he had in order to buy it.  It was a good image for Jesus to use.

Pearls were perceived in the first century in much the same way we view diamonds today. They were the most valuable gem in the world at that time. If you owned a pearl, you owned a fortune.  And there was a good reason for it. Pearl hunting involved immense danger. The fine quality pearls are obtained from the pearl oyster. Since that oyster thrives at an average depth of 40 feet, a pearl isn’t a treasure you just stumble across as you walk along a beach.

In biblical times they were obtained at great cost in human terms — many people died while pearl hunting. They didn’t have the equipment that’s available today.  First century pearl hunting equipment consisted of a rope and a rock. A pearl diver would tie a large rock to his body and jump over the side of a little boat, allowing the weight of the rock to carry him down to the oyster beds. He risked danger from sharks, moray eels and other creatures to scour the mud below for oysters. An average of only one oyster in a thousand contain a pearl. All the while, he had to hold his breath and hope he wouldn’t drown.

You can see why pearls were so precious. The Jewish Talmud said, “pearls are beyond price.” The Egyptians actually worshipped the pearl, and the Romans copied that practice. When women wanted to show their wealth, they put pearls in their hair. When a Roman emperor wanted to show how rich he was, he would dissolve pearls in vinegar and then drink them in his wine, in much the same way that a multi millionaire today might show off in a rather vulgar way by lighting his cigar with a wad of notes.
The Bible also stresses the value of pearls. Jesus said in Matthew 7:6 that we’re not to cast our pearls before swine. In other words, “Don’t give something of such great value to a pig; it’s a foolish thing to do!” In Revelation 21, when John described heaven using earthly figures of speech, he mentioned the streets of gold and the gates of pearl. Tremendously valuable!

So this parable of Jesus describes a man, a merchant, who goes around looking for beautiful pearls and then sells them to retailers for a profit. But when he finds the most beautiful pearl he has ever seen, he sells everything that he has to obtain it for himself.  The parable is there to teach us about the incomparable value of God’s kingdom. The pearl is an especially appropriate figure for the kingdom because it is the only gem that cannot be improved by man. Think about it! All other jewels have to be cut and polished by skilled craftsmen before they have value as gemstones. But a pearl is perfect when it is found and it can’t be improved by cutting and polishing.

So the Kingdom of heaven isn’t a pleasant religious idea that you might like to explore sometime when you have an hour or so to spare; it isn’t like an attractive object in a museum that you might visit and look at admiringly when you have time. Rather it is the most valuable and important thing in the world, like the biggest, finest purest pearl that any jeweller ever imagined – and it’s yours for the taking if you’ll let go of all the other precious things or pearls in your life.  The story cuts right across the view prevalent in the ancient world and still popular today that each religion is like a different pearl you can collect. Jesus is saying that there is only one pearl worth keeping – the gospel of the Kingdom of God which he announced and embodied. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respect and seek to understand those of other faiths … of course we should; and we rejoice when we can work together from shared values towards the common good of society.

What the parable does mean is that we need to be clear about what we are offered in Christ. That we need to be clear about the generous love of God who gave himself for us, shared our human life, died for us, and rose again defeating the powers of death and evil and now reigns over all things, and draws us together into his family. The pearl of the gospel makes clear that our generous God makes available to us through his Holy Spirit all the rich resources of heaven and calls us to follow him and to live out that same generous abundant life in the world. Jesus proclaimed that he came to bring us life, and life in all its fullness – abundant life. Not because we have earned it but because we are offered it. But sometimes we are so wrapped up in the world’s idea of abundance – good health, lots of money, power, fame, that we lose sight of the incomparable riches of God at our disposal. And it is often the poor who can teach us what is valuable.

There’s a story once about two wealthy Christians, a lawyer and a merchant, who travelled with a group that was going around the world. As they were visiting in Korea, they saw by the side of the road, a field in which a boy was pulling a crude plough and an old man held the plough handles and guided it. The lawyer was amused and took a snapshot of the scene.  He turned to the missionary, who served as their interpreter and guide, and he said, “That’s a curious picture. I suppose they are very poor.” The guide replied, “Yes, that is the family of Chi Noue. When the place of worship was being built, they were eager to give something to it, but they had no money, so they sold their only ox and gave the money to the church. This spring, they are pulling the plough themselves.”  The men were silent for several moments, then the businessman replied, “That must have been a real sacrifice.” The guide said, “They do not call it a sacrifice. They thought it was fortunate that they had an ox to sell.”

My prayer for us all is that we will know the joyful abundance of God’s Kingdom life, and that nothing will stand between us and the embracing of that life.

The Generosity of God -1 Chronicles 29:10-18, John 3:1-17   Stewardship Campaign Week 2

“Generous God, open our eyes to the abundance you give us and set us free to live generous lives. Amen”

This is the second Sunday of our Stewardship campaign and my theme today is the generosity of God.

“Abundant, copious, ample, rich and full, given freely, magnanimous” … these are all words which my dictionary suggests as ways of understanding what the word generous means. I wonder if when we talk about God as generous, what we are saying is that God is a God of abundance, whose resources are copious, ample, rich and full, that he is a God who gives freely, who is magnanimous?

“All things come from you” writes the chronicler as he records King David’s prayer of thanksgiving as he surveyed the abundant riches with which the temple was to be built – silver, gold, precious stones. Every part of God’s creation comes from God. The creation stories tell of the wonder and variety of all that God created and of the goodness of that creation. We are richly blessed in the gift of this earth and this universe. “All things come from you”. We say it very easily, and yet I wonder how often we stop to marvel at the abundance we enjoy? From the riot of colour and scent of the summer flowers in our gardens to the wealth of foliage on the trees outside the church; from the variety of food we have to eat to the myriad colours and textures of the different fabrics from which we make our clothes and our furnishings; from the warmth of the sunshine to the refreshment of the rain; from the preciousness of rare and expensive stones to the preciousness of the basic earth in which so much can grow and on which we stand – “all things come from you”. Not just in our generation but for thousands of years as the earth has developed and evolved. Wow! “This abundance comes from your hand” says David as he surveys the riches brought for the temple. Abundance indeed. There is an extravagance about God’s love that we often miss.

But it isn’t only material riches which God lavishes so generously on us. God is rightfully ascribed greatness, power, glory, victory and majesty and it is God who gives human power and might – David, one of the greatest Kings of Israel is quick to acknowledge that it is in God’s hand to make great. “Riches and honour come from you” he says. David makes no claim for himself. The gifts we are given – our personalities, our strengths, our skills, our responsibilities are all gifts. It is very human to be distracted by trying to compare ourselves with other people and wanting other people’s gifts and responsibilities … but there isn’t one person here who is not gifted and tasked by God. Most of all God is generous with his love.

One of the most profound pictures of God’s generosity I have experienced, occurred when sitting in Iona Abbey at an informal communion a couple of years ago. We were a motley crowd of island residents and visitors, some like me staying for a week and living in community, others on a day trip from Mull. And as we gathered in the Abbey it became clear that this was different from your usual communion service. The table was literally full of chalices – not one or two or even four, but more than I could count, and as I watched the minister poured wine into each – not carefully or frugally, not counting how many people were present, but freely, liberally, filling each one to the brim. And then I saw the bread – not wafers, not cm cubes of white sliced, but big mouth watering loaves, lots of them!

Bread and wine are important symbols to us – and here were those symbols of God’s generous love being shared as if there were no limits. Shared as a sign that there are no boundaries to God’s generous love towards the world he has created; no boundaries to God’s generous love to we who are created to love him; no limits to the life which God offers. And we were encouraged as we passed the bread and the wine among us, to break off a large chunk of bread and offer it to our neighbour, and to take not a tiny sip but a good draught from the chalice. There was no rationing, rather there was enough and to spare. I found myself thinking of the feeding of the 5000. Here was enough for each and every one to have their fill and more, far more besides.

It was a powerful object lesson and I will never forget the moment my neighbour pressed a large chunk of bread into my hand. I was not going to be hungry that night! It was like the best kind of party – when the table groans under the abundance of what is offered and the host makes you so welcome that you don’t want to leave. The cloisters echoed to the sound of our singing for some considerable time after the service that night because many of us did not want to leave either! We had caught a glimpse of God’s generosity and we were content. Our hearts overflowed with praise and thanksgiving. Rather like King David we wanted to say “Blessed are you, O Lord”.  When we open our love hungry hearts to God, we will not be starved or rationed. We will be fed until we are satisfied – as will our neighbour, our enemy and anyone else who asks to be fed. God’s resources do not run out; they are not scarce. They are abundant, copious, ample, rich and full, given freely by our generous God. When I receive all the love I need, it does not mean that another of God’s children goes without. In God’s economy there is always more. When my enemy is richly blessed, it does not mean that God will not bless me. God’s blessing is sufficient for us all.

We sometimes talk of God’s love as a fountain of life and that image of a fountain is another one that reminds us that it doesn’t run out. It simply keeps on flowing. And I’m probably not the only one who remembers singing the chorus as a child in Sunday school “Running over, running over, my cup’s full and running over”.

But it is easy to forget that. In our living, we sometimes behave as if there might not be enough and so we’d better be a bit frugal, we’d better cling on to what is ours, in case we don’t have enough. And when we cling, our hands are shut and unable to receive more. Hands need to be open in order to receive. It is possible to be rich and yet to experience poverty –living in fear of not having enough. It is possible to be poor and yet to experience abundance – trusting in God’s power to provide what we need.

When we are tempted to think that we may not have enough, what is it that might remind us of God’s generosity? You may have many answers to that question – perhaps from your own experiences of God’s generosity to you or to those you know. And it is good to recall those personal experiences of God’s giving and resourcing. But we can all remember God’s greatest gift to us. If God’s gift of creation is saying “all that I have I share with you” then the gift of Jesus, says “All that I am I give to you”. God so loved the world that he gave his own self in the person of his Son, in order that we might have eternal life – life which is to be lived abundantly now as we turn to face towards God with open hands and draw on the resources of our God and Father who delights to give good gifts to his children, and look forward to a life which will be even more abundant after death when we see God face to face.

Whoever we are, whatever we have done, God has laid down his own life so that we may be close to him and share with him in living our lives generously too.
Next week as we celebrate our Harvest Festival and thank God for all his good gifts, and bring gifts for the homeless, we will also receive a leaflet setting out the finances of the church – reminding us of the vision developed by you during the interregnum, celebrating what has been achieved, and beginning to dream of what we hope to do here. And I would ask you all to read it, and to pray and think carefully about your part in that.

For some reason it seems that we often see the church as the place we give what is left over after we’ve covered all our other expenses. Actually, the Old Testament principle of setting aside the first tenth of what we earn for God is a good one because it reminds us, month in, month out, that all that we have comes from God. God is our treasure, and so believers are to give generously and freely. Some will struggle to afford 10% and God honours those for giving what they can, but for many in the western world, giving freely and generously may mean giving more than 10%.

The church’s mission and ministry is the responsibility of us all as we respond to God’s generosity to us. How much more might we do to reach out to our community if our finances were more robust? How can we all contribute to being good news in Taplow?

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