The realm of God is characterized by gratitude. Gratitude is the fundamental act of worship. Giving thanks is the most theologically-sound response to life we can offer. "A stewardship campaign is simply an annual gratitude alert, calling us to recommit ourselves to giving thanks in concrete ways."
A Grateful and Generous People
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
While driving into Minneapolis on the freeway the other day a car passed me with a license plate tailor-made for a stewardship sermon. It said "TITHER." I was curious as to who might so publicly claim the biblical 10 percent of income as a guide to giving. I sped up to see if I knew the driver.
This was clearly a believer in the gospel of prosperity. The car was a new Mercedes Benz. I glanced over and did not recognize the driver as a Westminster member. I am not sure if I was relieved or disappointed; but I certainly was not surprised -- not because we do not have tithers among us, but because we are not so inclined to broadcast it on our license plates.
We remember the admonition of Jesus: "When you give alms," he said, "do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets ... But when you give, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (Matthew 6:2-3).
This past Lent I invited members of our church to try tithing for a month. I heard from a number of you who wrote to say that you have been tithing for years. "A practice my parents taught me," one of you wrote. "Something I started when I got my first job," another said.
A common theme in those many notes was the simple, quiet gratitude behind the giving. All those who wrote me named gratefulness to God as the primary motivation for their tithing. If we were inclined to vanity license plates about our Christian faith, I would expect "GRATEFUL" would be more to our liking.
Gratitude comes with our faith. In fact, giving thanks is the fundamental act of worship for Christians. From birth to death, deo gratias -- "thanks be to God" -- is the most theologically-sound response to life we can offer. A stewardship campaign is simply an annual gratitude alert, calling us to recommit ourselves to giving thanks in concrete ways.
In recent years, our stewardship program has shifted later in the season, falling now on the Sunday just before Thanksgiving Day. Linking stewardship and Thanksgiving makes sense; both point toward faithful Christian living.
A few weeks ago, a delegation from Westminster worshipped with our partner congregation in Cameroon, the Kumbatown Presbyterian Church. We were there on Harvest Sunday, a national day of thanksgiving in the churches of that West African nation, akin to what we will do this Thursday across our land.
During the service, four separate singing processions took place, each one preceded by dancers bearing the fruits of the harvest, lifting them high as they sang and moved down the long main aisle. People flowed up the aisle, following the symbols of the harvest. As they reached the front of the sanctuary the hundreds of people in the processions made financial offerings of gratitude for the fruits of God's creation. The receipts were tallied right there at a table and later announced in the service.
Five offerings were received in worship that Harvest Sunday. I thought about suggesting we try multiple offerings at our interfaith Thanksgiving service this week, but I suspected my colleagues would have declined!
That African service of song and dance and gratitude and giving reminds us that our faith begins and ends and is sustained by giving thanks to God. One of our church members who is grieving a death in the family said to me this week that her grief has put her "on the road toward gratitude" -- an insightful and moving way to deal with a painful loss.
If saying, "Thank you, God," were the only thing we did as followers of Christ that would be enough, for we cannot be genuinely grateful and simultaneously unloving and unjust.
The Apostle Paul writes to the Colossian church that it is their "joyful thanksgiving" to God that enables them "to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light" (Colossians 1:11-12). Our active citizenship in the reign of God depends on knowing how to express gratitude and to whom thanks is due. Gratitude opens a window in the heart that lets in the mysterious and shimmering presence of God.
The realm of God is characterized, first, by gratitude.
Today we mark Christ the King Sunday. Paul's marvelous hymn names Christ as the ruler of creation and all the cosmos, "the image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15). Another poet would later call him "the Potentate of time, creator of the rolling spheres, ineffably sublime" (v. 4, "Crown Him with Many Crowns," by Matthew Bridges, 1851).
As those who follow Jesus, our lives have at their center this Cosmic Christ. It is in Christ the King that "all things hold together" (Colossians 1:17). Our gratitude leaps into voice at the enthronement of Christ, who reconciles the world to God and gives cohesion to our fragmented lives. He presides over the church, drawing us all -- newcomers, youth, elderly, people from all walks of life and every land -- into a community that withstands the darkness around us.
This is the one whom God's people have long awaited, the one foretold by the prophets of old:
"The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land" (Jeremiah 23:5).
We who long ago gave up earthly kings might be helped by pondering what it means that we have a king from above. For starters, it means our loyalties are subject to challenge. At the center of our lives is not obedience to earthly authority but rather, to our God who came among us as Jesus.
William Sloan Coffin writes, "The love of Jesus is the plumb line by which everything is to be measured." (Credo, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004, p. 159.) For citizens of the realm of Christ this means that we reject the standards of the world, where success is measured in terms of the accrual of influence and status and wealth. At the center of our lives is not that which is perishable, but the imperishable love of Christ.
The church seems especially vulnerable to the temptations of this world. A few days ago, I received in the mail a slick brochure inviting me to a conference with hundreds of other pastors of large churches or aspiring pastors of large churches (and maybe just a few large pastors -- aimed at me, I am sure)! The brochure seductively assures us that at the conference we will learn to be "champion pastors."
The implication is that the best pastors are those who win some ecclesial competition. Maybe that tither in the Mercedes was one of the champion pastors. I declined the invitation to the conference.
As much as we would like it to be the case, Jesus does not come to reign over the blessing of our lustful desires or to confirm our self-righteous impulses or to sanction our political schemes or to commend our pride or to endorse our national ambitions. He comes, instead, to break open our lives, to claim for himself the world we thought we had mastered. He comes to "execute justice and righteousness in the land," and to usher in the realm of light.
I sometimes wonder if we worship the same God as those who would domesticate Christ and subjugate the Spirit to their own interpretation, and then I realize that we must not be getting it right either. In our own ways we, too, diminish and underestimate the transforming power of God incarnate. We are all at the foot of the cross, silently watching Jesus mocked as our king.
There is no way you and I -- or anyone else today or 2,000 years ago -- could grasp the breadth and depth and height of the love of this one called Jesus. It is beyond our capacity to comprehend it. We can only give thanks for it, receive it and find ourselves held together by it.
Peter Marty writes, "Jesus Christ is the coherence of creation ... Were God's love to dry up in the life of this Christ, the world would revert to chaos -- a jumbled and incoherent mess" (Christian Century, Nov. 16, 2004, p. 20).
That almost happens at the cross. There, God's love is tested for the last time.
The crucifixion of the "King of the Jews" is a sobering story to read on the same Sunday in which we exalt Christ the King. There is something disconcerting about being on the verge of Advent and reading the story of the death of Jesus. He is not even born, and already we are hanging him on the cross.
That cross throws a long shadow into Advent and points to the coming sorrow of this king nobody wanted. It appears that the crucifixion undoes our sovereign. Yet, even there, even there, on the cross, this Messiah-King of ours keeps coming at the world in love.
Look at what Jesus says in that scene -- only two things: "Forgive them," to those who crucify him, and "Today you will be with me in paradise," to the criminal dying beside him. The ruler of the universe has no need to make his case or avenge himself or leap down from the cross to prove a point, but only to reign in generous grace.
At that moment, we learn the true nature of God's reign among us: generosity is the hallmark of this kingdom that has no end. Not even death will cut off the grace. That is what we celebrate this morning in baptism -- God's grace freely offered.
Baptism is the sacrament of generosity, the sign that we have been, as Paul puts it, "rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom," a realm ruled by this one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Colossians 1:13).
In Christ, all things hold together. What is there left to say but "Thanks be to God?"
So we are a grateful and generous people, and we show that today by making our commitment to the ministry and mission of this small part of the reign of God called Westminster Presbyterian Church. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen has been pastor and head of staff at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, MN since 1999.