Last week we began a three-part sermon series on the meaning of religion – religion as a rule of life, religion as a way of ordering your faithful response to God, religion as a way of putting a helpful structure around your spirituality, a container for your experience of and relationship with God. We outlined four aspects of Christian religion that the Church, over time, has found to be most useful to us in our practice of faith. The four elements are corporate worship, daily prayer and Bible reading, stewardship, and works of mercy and justice. Last week we focused on corporate worship – gathering with other Christians as the Body of Christ (corpus) to praise God, be fed by Scripture and sacraments, and have our spiritual “reset” button pushed. Next week we’ll think about works of mercy and justice.
Today our topic is daily prayer and Bible reading, as well as stewardship.
But first I want to set the scene with the Gospel parable Jesus tells. It’s usually referred to as the Parable of the Talents, and right away we need to get something clear – this is one of those items that comes under the heading of “Things you want to ask a Biblical scholar.” A talent in the New Testament has nothing to do with abilities or things you are good at, like math or music or sports. A talent is a unit of money – in fact it’s a very large unit of money, equal to 15 years of a laborer’s wage. In modern-day terms, assuming the current New Jersey minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, one talent would be equal to $247, 00. That means we could say that the master gave one of his household servants $247,500; to another $455,000; and to another $1,037,500 – an incredible amount of money!
So right away we know that this is not some sort of morality tale or allegory that Jesus is telling; instead, he’s trying to get a point across about what the kingdom of God is like. For our purposes today, Jesus is saying that we each have been given resources – spiritual, personal, financial – that we will be asked to account for and return to God when the Kingdom comes in all its fullness.. Just like last week’s parable, this one bears a lot of study and digging and asking questions of; but for today I want us to reflect on what we do with the resources that God has given us – especially the resources of our faith.
We know that in traditional Islam, the faithful are told to pray five times daily; in Orthodox Judaism prayer is required three times a day. What about Christians? How often should we pray? When and how? There are lots of answers to that question, but for today I’ll give you the Episcopal answer: pray continually – that’s what St. Paul says just a few verses on from the end of our second reading (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17).
Whoah; how can I do that?! I don’t have that kind of time, or even inclination; not happening! OK, take a breath, and remember that there is a great stream of prayer that is going continually throughout the world from Christians and churches everywhere; somewhere, someone is always praying, whether formally or informally. And whenever we pray, we step into that great stream of faithful, continuous prayer; and our goal is to grow in awareness of that prayer and praise going on all the time.
Having said that, there are some very helpful, structured things we can do. At least twice each day, morning and evening, we should offer prayer to God and put ourselves in a position of listening to God by reading the Bible or some other spiritual writing.
When we wake, we give thanks to God for the day, we offer up what will be before us, we remember Jesus’ resurrection which took place in the early morning hours; we ask for strength, guidance and wisdom; we ask God to use us to be a blessing to others; we pray for the world and to remain aware of Christ’s presence always.
In the evening, we give thanks for what has been, even as we review our day and ask forgiveness for the places where we have fallen short; we remember that God is in charge, even as we sleep, and commend to God’s care all those we love, and all the things that worry us, remembering that Christ is always our light in the darkness.
Now there are lots of ways to do this, and many of you do it already – you can use Forward Day By Day, or some other devotional; you can follow the Prayer Book Daily Lectionary as printed in the back of the BCP or on-line. Some mix of using your own words as well as fixed forms of prayer probably works best – include the Lord’s Prayer, a Psalm, perhaps a favorite collect or canticle.
Take out the Prayer Book and turn to page 137, and you will see a very short form of structured prayer for morning, noontime, early evening, and bedtime; choose one this coming week and try it out for seven days: just what is printed there, nothing more besides your own particular prayer concerns.
The hardest thing, of course, is time, which most of us never seem to have enough of. If that is true for you, you can still pray: in the car, on the train, waiting on line at Shop-Rite, waiting to pick your child up from school, waiting for a doctor’s appointment, while you are doing yard work or washing the dishes. You already know the Lord’s Prayer, and you can easily add your own; and if your time is severely limited, here a prayer that anyone can say: “I praise my God this day. I give myself to God this day. I ask God to help me this day.”
What matters is that you find a way to connect to God each day, to step into that stream of continual prayer, and do it in a structured way that doesn’t leave you floundering on your own. Prayer is the way we recharge our batteries, that we refocus on God; it’s also the way we develop the spiritual resources that God has given us. It’s as though God has planted us seed in us that will grow, eventually and over time, but will be a much healthier, abundant and fruitful plant if we give it the sun and water of daily prayer and Bible reading.
As Christians we have another element to our structured religious practices that helps us to grown in our love of God and love of neighbor – and that is stewardship. There are two short definitions of stewardship: Stewardship is everything we do after we say “I believe”, AND Stewardship is all that we do, with all that we have, all, of the time. The point, of course, is that everything that we have has been given to us by a good and generous God, but that we don’t own it; it all belongs to God, and we are simply the caretakers, the stewards of what we have been given.
With that in mind, we need to use what we have wisely and well, and we also give some of it back to God for the work of God’s Kingdom. In part, it’s a structured way of sharing, of acknowledging that there are other people in the world besides ourselves, and that we live by God’s grace, not only by our own efforts.
Perhaps the most obvious or easily identifiable form of stewardship is the decision to set aside a percentage of your income to give back to God, and then offer it for God’s work – usually through the Church, but also for other ways and projects where you see the Spirit of God working to bring reconciliation, mercy and wholeness to the world. In these days of EFT and on-line giving, we are perhaps a little less connected to a weekly sense of offering than in the past, but every time and offering is made in Church – money, food, music, bread and wine – we remember that the most important thing we are offering is ourselves; as the Rite I Eucharistic Prayer says: “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.”
There are other forms of stewardship, as well. As a parish we have been trying to be good stewards of our buildings – to keep them safe and in good repair, so that they may continue to be good and useful resources for doing God’s work. That is true for any of our physical possessions; not to idolize them, but to use them for God’s glory and for the good of God’s people (and that includes us).
The natural world is another gift of God of which we are called to be good stewards. The beauty and inter-connected life that is all around us in trees, rivers, oceans, air, plants, animals, birds, swamps and mountains is God’s creation, and we Christians are engaged in a struggle (along with the rest of the people on Earth), about how we will care for it; what will be the costs; what will be the benefits; what are our responsibilities?
And then there is time, perhaps the most precious commodity of all. How do we use and apportion and order our time so that it reflects our gratitude to God? How can we be good stewards of our time – not just more efficient or effective, but how do we recognize that time is God-given? We start by recognizing that often there are choices to be made, that not everything that seems interesting is something that we will be able to do.
And it helps to remember that all of our electronic devices tell us 24/7 that there is always something else we could or should be doing if we want to be: fit, smart, successful, attractive, etc., etc. But that is, in fact, a lie – and Christian stewardship helps us to put life into perspective, to remember that we are limited, finite human beings; only God is infinite, and we make ourselves crazy when we forget that. But it is the temptation of our age, and I fall prey to it all the time: God is infinite, and I am not. Stewardship helps us to recall this in a structured, grateful way.
Spiritual resources – daily prayer and Bible reading, and stewardship; these are two of the practices that the Church has laid out for us as a way to develop and deepen our faith.
When we do these things – however skilled or clumsy or half-hearted we may feel about them – we will be like the servant who has more talents to give to the master upon his return. And when we do so we surely share in God’s joy.
To be continued…..
Let us pray.
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly thine, utterly dedicated unto thee; and then use us, we pray thee, as thou wilt, and always to thy glory and the welfare of thy people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. ~ BCP
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
November 16, 2014