This is quite a set of readings we have this morning – the Gospel and the Hebrew Scriptures in particular. Each one of those reading (Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:2-22 and Mark 9:38-50) would require quite a bit of unpacking if we were to be considering them this morning. But instead, we are going to set them aside for something different.
Last night and tonight are the harvest moon – the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox, the moon by which farmers in earlier times would gather their crops, because the moonrise at this time is not far behind sunset – providing longer light to work by out in the fields. This means that fall is here, the season for final harvest, for making provision for winter, for savoring the brilliance of leaves and the crispness of air.
It is also the time when we think intentionally and more intensively about our stewardship of God’s gifts for the coming calendar year, the harvest of all of God’s bountiful gifts. We know that stewardship is an all-year-round practice of our Christian faith – our continuing response to God’s generosity – we also know that having a season to focus on stewardship in a purposeful way is beneficial to all of us, even if some of these ideas may be new for you, or a bit uncomfortable.
As a focus for our stewardship this year, the Vestry chose the Gospel story of loaves and fishes. You probably know this one, it appears in all four Gospels, though with some different details; for our purposes this fall, we’ll keep in mind the version from Mark. Jesus is teaching a large crowd of people and it’s getting late; the disciples are worried about this and urge Jesus to send the people away to go buy food for dinner. But Jesus tells the disciples to give the people something to eat. When they protest that the cost would be prohibitive, to buy food for so many, Jesus doesn’t argue with them; he simply tells them to go and see what food they have: five loaves and two fish, it turns out.
After telling the disciples to invite the crowd to prepare for dinner by sitting down in the field, Jesus takes the bread and the fish and blesses the loaves, perhaps with these traditional words:
Baruch ata Adonoy,
Eloheinu melech ha-olam,
ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz.
Blessed are you God, King of the Universe,
Who brings forth bread from the earth.
Then he gives the bread and fish to the disciples to distribute to the crowd. By the time everyone has finished and has eaten their fill, there are twelve baskets of leftover scraps to be collected up – at least five thousand people have been fed in the crowd that day.
Now to read this passage and say – “How’d he do that? There must be some logical explanation!”, or even “What an amazing miracle Jesus was able to do!” is to miss the main point of the story. The main point is God’s generosity and abundance, God bountiful nature.
What seems like meager resources to us – two fish and five loaves of bread for five thousand people – when offered to God for his mission and work and generosity, become more than enough; there is satisfaction, no one goes hungry, everyone gets what they need – in this case, food. Jesus invites us into this same reality, this same worldview, where we can be open to noticing the needs of the world, take stock of our resources – that which God has given us in the first place, offer what we have for God’s use with glad and generous hearts – asking for his blessing, and then let go of control – trusting that what we have to offer will be enough in God’s abundance.
This Gospel passage doesn’t mean that if we just dig a little deeper into our pockets or check books that world hunger will be eliminated, or poverty eradicated, or all forms of debilitating disease will be wiped away. Those are all good things to be working towards, as we respond to the world’s suffering, and seek to make God’s Kingdom a reality in this world; and God may well be calling us to make a greater financial commitment to areas of particular need.
But stewardship is much larger than any one particular need; it’s about living day by day in the reality that God has blessed each one of us in so many ways – with life, with love, with a circle of family and friends, with faith and a life-giving relationship with Christ, with the beauty of nature and art and music, with talents and abilities and money and time…all of these wonderful and precious gifts God has given us. Stewardship calls us to say “thank you” to God by offering our whole selves and our resources, to put what we have received at God’s disposal, for God’s purposes.
And when we begin to live in this way, we will discover yet another benefit: that God calls us into partnership with him in repairing and blessing the world; God has a purpose for all of us, and invites us to take our place in doing things that matter, to become a link in the chain of goodness that binds the world together.
So what does all of this have to do with loaves and fishes, and what does it mean for our annual pledge campaign? On a very basic level, it means that we offer to God some portion of our time and talent and finances, and make a specific commitment as to what that will be (as best as we can) for the coming year 2013. While there is no set dollar amount about what you should give, do consider what percentage of your financial resources you will return to God; the Biblical standard is the tithe – ten percent – and while for the majority of us that is a goal, it is a goal we can move closer toward bit by bit, increasing the percentage that we give. Consider also what commitment of your time and talent you will offer back to God; we all know and feel keenly what a precious resource time is, and offering that for God’s use is a strong expression of our faith.
As we go through this season of stewardship we will be doing several things: you will each receive a letter this week outlining our stewardship plan; each week in the bulletin there will be a take-home insert from The Episcopal Church relating stewardship to the week’s Bible readings; for several weeks we’ll have parishioners offer their own thoughts and witness about faith, the Church and stewardship; later in October we’ll send you a pledge packet with some further details about All Saints’ program and finances and a pledge card that we will ask you to use to make your commitment for 2013; on October 28 we will host a Ministries Fair (as part of the kids’ Trunk or Treat event) outlining the ministries through the parish in which you can be involved; and then on November 4 – All Saints’ Sunday – we’ll ask you to return your pledge card, your promise card, after prayer and reflection and conversation with your family about what your commitment will be.
Throughout this season we’ll be praying together, week by week, the stewardship prayer on the card in your pew racks. And we’ll do all of this knowing that whatever we have to offer to God in faith and trust and gratitude will be accepted with joy and gladness, and combined with everyone else’s offering will be enough to do the work God has called us to do.
We offer what we have, God blesses it, and it is enough – bountifully enough, abundantly enough, with leftover pieces in ways that we could never imagine on our own. What a blessing to know that God has called us into this partnership, into this shared enterprise of faith and stewardship and bounty. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 30, 2012