The Stewardship Journey – May 2021 Lectionary Preview
April 13, 2021 by Anna Pinckney Straight
How and where did your stewardship journey begin? Throughout the years, I have listened with awe and reverence as church members have shared stories of grandmothers who made sure dimes and quarters were ready to be placed in church offering plates; mothers and fathers who sat down to talk about budgets, tithing, and giving as an act of gratitude. Witnesses powerful and mighty, establishing generations of faithful stewards, worthy of sharing.
I did not have one of these experiences. My stewardship journey started with a pastor who told me “no.” And, full confession, it wasn't in high school – or even college. It happened when I was in seminary and an inquirer into the ministry of Word and Sacrament. A Presbyterian since birth, the path to ministry had brought me to New York City, and the church where I was now a member was also the church where I was interning. On the occasion of becoming a part of the congregation, one of the pastors handed me a pledge card. I handed it back. “I don't pledge. I'm just a student. I don't have much money.” It was a response spoken without much (if any) thought or prayer.
“No.” He told me. “God needs you to give. You need to give. You need to pledge a gift to this congregation of which you are now a member.”
He didn't give me an amount or a timeline, but neither did he let me off the hook. He followed up with me until the pledge card was returned, filled in. I pledged $50 that year, but my stewardship journey had begun. It was the very first time anyone had challenged me to think faithfully about God's generosity and the importance of giving. His challenge flowed into the lessons and witnesses of future congregations who expanded on what I had learned there: proportional giving and tithing, showing me the connections between finance and faith, justice, and jubilation.
In the lectionary text for the final (and fifth) Sunday of May, we have the story of Jesus and Nicodemus. It's a text full of nooks and crannies, notes and side notes, but for stewardship's sake, I am reminded that Jesus did not let Nicodemus off the hook- he challenged him. He doesn't allow Nicodemus to stay where he is. “Do not be astonished?” “Are you a teacher of Israel?” “How can you believe?”
Jesus does not hesitate to challenge Nicodemus, who he loves and who he sees with the eyes of love. When I was challenged to fill out a pledge card, it was because my pastor saw faith that needed to grow – an abundance of which I needed to be aware. He wanted me to know the gift and joy of giving, trusting abundance over scarcity, knowing what is enough. That journey has transformed my life, faith, and vocation.
As nephew Fred told his Uncle Ebeneezer in A Christmas Carol:
“And therefore, Uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that Christmas [stewardship] has done me good and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
Suppose your congregation, like mine, has good ideas about year-round stewardship but still relies on an annual pledge campaign that happens in the fall. In that case, this Sunday might be a good one to talk about the ways in which God challenges us, specifically in the ways of giving.
How many people sitting in our pews, watching on video, or listening to radios have never had someone speak to them directly about stewardship, the ways in which they show gratitude to God?
Such challenges, when invitational, can open doors that otherwise will remain shut because people assume they should be shut or are expected to remain shut.
How many of them do what I did and think that they cannot/should not/will not give because they are just ______ (you fill in the blank) or they do not have anything remaining at the end of the month to give? Or those who are complacent because they give what they have given for years?
John 3 reminds us that Jesus loves us just as we are, and loves us too much to allow us to stay there.
One of my favorite theologians is a Catholic woman named Leah Vader. In addition to teaching me about birds and plants, she has taught me more than a few things about God while leading hiking groups at Ring Lake Ranch in DuBois, Wyoming. Leah has a few rules on her hikes. You are not, in any circumstances, allowed to put yourself down or speak disparagingly of yourself. And when it comes to birds, there is no bird whose name begins “Just a.” There is no “Just a mallard.” “Just a magpie.” “Just a little brown jobbie.” Each bird, common or rare, has its own worth, its own place.
And so it is with all of us – no matter our means or our place – we all have a need to give, an opportunity given to us by God to give in order to grow in faith and discipleship. Will we be asked?
The Nicodemus text provides the richest exploration of challenge in this month's lectionary, but there is a parallel stream of abundance that feeds the heart and soul in order to make faithful stewardship possible.
There are several references to the abundance of the waters of Baptism, waters which are not to be conserved or protected (Acts 8 on May 2 and Acts 10 on May 9).
The Pentecost texts (May 23) are a gloriously spilling forth of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Good News, overcoming fear and uncertainty among both disciples and listeners.
We also hear of much fruit that is brought to bear by our Vinegrower God ((John 15, May 2). Not some or enough fruit, but much fruit.
How big is God's love? As big as Godself. And joy? It is complete. (John 15, May 9)
Eternal life is certainly an image of abundance which can be explored (May 16, 1 John 5). God's offer of life does not flee, nor is it bound by circumstance.
And May 23 – Pentecost! The abundance of the Holy Spirit turns the world right-side-up with connection, communication, and understanding.
We don't know too much about Nicodemus after this encounter. How did he respond? We want people to know Jesus better, not to run in the other direction. Our answer comes 16 chapters later when John tells us that Nicodemus comes with a mixture of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus' body. May we, beloved children of God, like Nicodemus, hear the words of Jesus calling us to step further in faith, compassion, and care.
A native of Charleston South Carolina (the sixth generation of her family to be a member of Second Presbyterian Church) , Anna Pinckney Straight is a graduate of Agnes Scott College (BA, 1993), Union Theological Seminary in New York City (Master of Divinity, 1996) and Wesley Theological Seminary (Doctor of Ministry, 2007). Her calls have been to serve congregations in Arthurdale, West Virginia – Greencastle, Pennsylvania – Chapel Hill, North Carolina – Lewisburg, West Virginia. In June she will be moving to New Bern, North Carolina where she will be one of the pastors at First Presbtyerian Church. The family team includes Ben (a microbiologist) and Sarah Allan (a junior in high school).