Sermon – November 16, 2014 Stewardship Sunday

Stewardship Sunday
Spiritual Practice

I read a little story in the Washington Post online this week about a young man who, according to the headline, found what he was looking for on his 2000 plus mile hike of the Applachian Trail.  Good for him.  That’s why a lot of people do that.  As you might know, my brother and I gave that a whirl some years ago, and in our trek we discovered as all hikers do, that this adventure requires a great deal of discipline.  Discipline in your pace, discipline in your eating, discipline in your water consumption, discipline in your sleeping.  Discipline in your awareness of weather, terrain and critters.  It’s not just a little stroll in the woods.  We ran into a whole host of characters out in those mountains.  Many of them had their own particular reasons for embarking on a 2100-mile journey from Maine to Georgia.  Some, like my brother and I, were just looking for a little adventure.  Some were trying to shake off some troublesome time in their past.  One guy we met was planning to hike the whole shebang eating nothing but rice.  That was his idea of discipline.  It was part of a spiritual journey, I suppose.  I’m here to tell you, that guy looked bad.  He was super skinny, with hollow, sunken eyes and a flat, expressionless demeanor.  He just looked wasted.  I remember thinking, “man, you need some balance or you aren’t going to make it another week.”   A hike like that requires you to slog a 30-50 pound pack on your back up and down and around those mountains day after day.  Rice just won’t cut it.  I don’t know what happened to him, but I’ll bet you a buck he bailed.  You just can’t do it on rice.

We all need some balance in our lives.  We can’t just eat sugar or pork, and expect good health.  We need balance in our personal lives, where we are neither all work or all play.  We need some balance in our relationships, where we honor our commitments of time and support and sharing with our partners and families, but also need to carve out some individual time and interests to sustain our autonomy.   Without that balance, all of these things get out of whack.

The same is utterly true in our spiritual lives.  Without balance in our spiritual lives we are never satisfied or complete.  We are cast from moments of enthusiasm to moments of uncertainty and troubled by some of the emptiness we might feel.  We have to have balance in our spiritual lives, we can’t undertake, we can’t walk the spiritual journey existing on our own, or feeding ourselves with just one source of sustenance.  We need to balance the gifts of spiritual discipline.

One of the essential ingredients to balance in our spiritual lives is regular worship, gathering with God’s people to receive the word of Christ’s forgiving love, to share in the welcoming sacrament that greets all people the same, conveying to each of us the gifts of forgiveness, fellowship and hope.   Nor is worship a solitary event, but a community gathering where we receive the gifts of fellowship and mutual consolation and encouragement.

We can’t have a balanced spiritual life without regular prayer.   Prayer is an open line to God that changes us, that frees us, that gives us an outlet for our anxiousness and uncertainty and our pain, but also an outlet for our thanksgiving and our awe and our wondering.  So, we cannot have a balanced spiritual life without the practices of worship and prayer.

We can’t have a balanced spiritual life without service to our neighbors.  We are called to love and treasure our neighbors.  Legend has it that St. Lawrence, a third-century deacon in Rome, was martyred when, commanded by Roman authorities to hand over the church’s riches, he responded by gathering the city’s lame, sick, poor, and excluded, presenting them as the church’s real treasure. Jesus makes a similar point to the disciples in our gospel lesson this morning. Dismissing their awe at the sight of the stunning new temple, he assures them that “all will be thrown down”. God abides in the temple of humanity, not in buildings.  Abides in our fellowship, in our neighbors, in the places where his word is shared and proclaimed, in our worship, and in the people we raise up.

We cannot have a balanced spiritual life without a regular encounter with the word of God.  Bible reading, study, small groups, devotions all keep the story of God’s faithfulness, our belovedness, our ministry and the needs of our neighbors before us.   Regular encounters with God’s work saves us from the trap of making it up as we go along, and serves to guide us in a life and world-view that sees life and creation and the faith to live under God’s guidance as bountiful gifts.  So, we can’t have a balanced spiritual life without worship and prayer and service and regular encounters with the Word of God.  We reflected on these last week as the oil in our lamps.

And we cannot have a balanced spiritual life without giving.  It is an essential spiritual gift that is, maybe more than any other, challenged and assailed by the competing values of the economy, of our politics and ideology, and of our own self-interest.  We integrate ourselves deeply in the body of Christ by sharing the gifts that God has blessed us with.    We participate in the community with our lives, with the gifts and resources God has placed in our hands.  Time and time again scripture lifts up this discipline.  As the church was formed after the Pentecost we read that the people gathered in homes to share the words and witness of the apostles and to share all things in common.  Paul describes the proper attitude of the giver as cheerful, meaning joyful and eager to share, as he proclaims, “God loves a cheerful giver”.  And Jesus links our sharing with the encounter of his very self, as Matthew 25 reports, “Truly I tell you, just as you shared this food and drink and compassionate fellowship with the least of these, you shared it with me.”

We cannot have a balanced spiritual life without these things, worship and prayer, serving and bible study and giving.

Some of us are satisfied with one of these.  For example, we come to church and that’s enough.  And then we wonder why we discover gaps and struggles in our faith.  Some will pray vigorously and forgo the community prayers in worship, or neglect our study, and look past the needy neighbor.   Some will serve but see the rest as just “organized religion” as if there were anything else.  The one probably most neglected in our spiritual lives is our giving, and we hold on to our gifts even knowing that it is important to us, we give over to the fear that somehow God’s grace, God’s abundance, God’s gifts will somehow will not be sufficient.
The practices of spiritual discipline, giving and worship, prayer and service and study change us, open our eyes and hearts to a new perspective, give us the realization of our ministry and our purpose, allows us the courage and faith to set and pursue audacious goals in Jesus’ name.

This is a day when we celebrate the spiritual discipline of giving, when we remind ourselves of the gifts God has given us, of the discipline of giving back, of giving thanks, of refusing to be bound by the fears that accompany many of the world’s definitions of our worthiness, what we make, how we dress, what we drive, where we live.  The spiritual discipline of giving reminds us God’s graciousness, girds our commitments concretely, turns us away from ourselves and toward the other, reminding us of the things of true value in the kingdom, God’s beloved people

These spiritual practices change us, so today, I invite you to take a step toward that change as you consider your giving to this congregation’s mission and ministry, to its service to our children, to our study, to our worship, to our community prayers, to our participation in the fullness of God’s kingdom.  As you do so, push yourselves a little, challenge yourself to wonder is this the best I can do, can I exercise that freedom to share God’s generosity.   The spiritual disciplines, including giving, change us, strengthen us and give us clarity in our faith, food for the long journey of discipleship.  Together, they may be called the bread of life, life in the presence of God and in fellowship with our neighbor.  We can’t grow and flourish in our faith if we practice only one, we can’t make this journey on pancakes or rice, but only on the bread that God has provided us.

Thanks be to God.