This Sunday is Reformation Sunday. I am preaching. We are also in the middle of Stewardship season here, and coincidentally, it is the Sunday that we will receive our congregation's Estimates of Giving.
My first thought upon considering this was to have receive our congregation's Estimates of Giving on Another Sunday.
But, I did the math, looked at the calendar, and Reformation Sunday it was. I could do not other.
My second thought was a sort of perverse one: that financial stewardship and the Reformation are like oil and water, the Reformation being kicked off by a sort-of fund-raising event of sorts. Those indulgences were sold in order to renovate the Cathedral of St. Peter in Rome. So yeah. It feels weird to talk about financial stewardship on Reformation Sunday, the Sunday on which you make sure that everyone knows that God's love is a FREE GIFT.
So, we don't want to sell indulgences for financial stewardship. We don't want to manipulate people into giving. We also don't want people to give to "the church's budget." We want people to give freely, understanding that everything they have has first been given freely to them. Everything you have is on loan from God anyway. That's the stewardship message. The tithe is not a requirement, but it is a discipline, like daily exercise, and although it hurts sometimes, in the end, it is good for you. You loosen your grip on material things and find the place where true life begins. That's the way it is supposed to work.
But sometimes, even though it's true, it still feels manipulative to me. Give! It's good for you! I say. It's true. Everything you have is on loan from God anyway.
But since this Sunday is Reformation Sunday, and I'm thinking about Martin Luther, I started thinking about it another way. One of Luther's most famous essays is called "The Freedom of a Christian". Its simple premise is that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are free. We are free from the requirements of 'the law.' There is nothing that we have to earn. Salvation has been given to us. There is NOTHING that we have to do. There is nothing that we HAVE to do.
Luther applied this thinking to 'good works', those things that medieval Christians were compelled to do. He said that God doesn't need your good works. But then he said something else.
He said, Your neighbor does.
I think that this applies to giving as well. God doesn't need our offerings. But our neighbor does. The church does. Not for itself, but for sharing the mission of God with our neighbors. And some of our neighbors are sitting right next to us in church, and some of our neighbors are down the street, and some of our neighbors are around the world.
Make no mistake, God loves it when we give. Not just because he loves us, and knows that when we give, our money will lose some of its power over us. But just also because God loves our neighbor, and wants them to be fed, and sheltered, and know they are loved.
And when we offer up our tithes and our offerings to God in worship, what we are really doing is offering ourselves, and what we are really saying is this: God -- use these gifts -- use us -- to make your love known -- to shine light in the darkness -- to be instruments of peace.