November has been our stewardship month here at Zion—and it has included a baptism, a tender All Saints Day liturgy, a faithful congregational meeting. And interestingly enough, we have as yet not experienced a stewardship sermon. That trend ends tomorrow. Another trend which shall be challenged tomorrow is turning the matter of stewardship into a banal function of “dollars and dimples!”
Tomorrow’s gospel text, Luke 23:33-43 says:
“33And he [Peter] said to him [Jesus], “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” 34Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.” 35He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” 36He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. 37For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” 38They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.”
39He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. 40When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” 41Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, 42“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” 43Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.” (NRSV)
Peter does what so many of us do—pledge self to Jesus. But then, doesn’t our pledge of self fall pitifully short, especially when we realize the cost of this pledge of self? For many of us, don’t we excuse our half-arsed attempt to pledge self to Jesus with the too easily accessed word, “grace.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the Cost of Discipleship, says, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
When one gets right down to it—isn’t this a matter of stewardship?
An old poem says:
You tell on yourself by the friends you seek, By the very manner in which you speak,
By the way you employ your leisure time, By the use you make of dollar and dime.
You tell what you are by the things that you wear, By the spirit in which your burdens you bear.
By the kinds of things at which you laugh.
By the records you play on your very old phonograph.
You tell what you are by the way that you walk, By the things in which you delight to talk,
By the manner in which you bear defeat, By so simple a thing as how you eat.
By the books you choose from your well-filled shelf, By these ways, and more, you tell on yourself.
So there really is no practical sense, in your efforts to keep up your false pretense. (Jamie Sidwell)
Doesn’t our life reflect our inclination towards either cheap or costly grace? Doesn’t our life speak of the degree to which we “deny self, take up cross, and follow?” And to the point, doesn’t this speak directly to the degree that we own Jesus as Christ our King.
Not long after Peter makes his pledge of self, the story winds its tragic way to the place where Jesus reigns, the cross. And from that cross Jesus deigns to forgive. Jesus, perfect steward of grace, forgives, even as it all went down like this:
Arrested around midnight, brought before the religious court, is Jesus. A soldier strikes Jesus across the face for remaining too silent. Palace guards blindfold him, taunt him, ask him to identify them as they spit on him, and punch him in the face. Battered and bruised, dehydrated, exhausted from a sleepless night, Jesus, is taken across Jerusalem to the civil courts. He is sent away to another leader. Jesus suffers no physical mistreatment there and is returned to civil court. The crowd cries for a murderer’s release, cries to kill Jesus. Before crucifixion comes scourging. Stripped of clothing, hands tied to a post above his head, is Jesus. A legionnaire steps forward with a flagrum, a short whip consisting of several heavy, leather thongs with small balls of lead, bone, pottery, or glass, tied to the ends. Heavy whipping is brought down continually across Jesus’ shoulders, back, and legs. First heavy thongs cut the skin only, soon they cut deeper into tissues under the skin, drawing blood from capillaries and veins, and finally arterial blood spurts from vessels in underlying muscles. Deep bruises break open by continuous blows. The skin of the back is a ribbon-like bleeding tissue. Jesus nears death, the centurion sees, so beating stops. Jesus is untied, slumps on the pavement, wet with his own blood.
Soldiers tease him for claiming to be a king, throwing a robe across his shoulders, placing a stick in his hand as a scepter. A crown from flexible branches covered with long thorns is made and pressed it into his scalp…again more bleeding. They mock him, strike him across the face, take the stick from his hand, flail him across the head, driving thorns deeper into his scalp. Finally, the robe is torn from his back. Freshly closed wounds reopen causing searing pain…. and wounds begin anew to bleed.
Garments are returned. A heavy beam is tied across his shoulders. The procession begins; Jesus, two thieves, and the execution detail of soldiers, headed by a centurion, begins its slow journey. Jesus tries to walk erect, the heavy weight of the wooden beam, together with the shock from blood loss is too much. Jesus stumbles and falls. Coarse wood gouges shoulder skin and muscles. He tries to rise, but human muscles are worn beyond endurance. The centurion, anxious to crucify, selects an onlooker to carry the cross. Jesus follows, bleeding and sweating the cold, clammy sweat of shock. The 650-yard journey from Fortress Antonia to Golgotha ends. Again Jesus is stripped naked– except for a loin cloth which is allowed for Jews. The crucifixion begins. Jesus is offered wine mixed with Myrrh, a mild sedative. He refuses to drink. The heavy beam is on the ground and Jesus is quickly thrown backward, his shoulders against the rough wood. The legionnaire feels for the depression at the front of the wrist. He drives a heavy, square, wrought-iron nail through the wrist and deep into the wood. Quickly he moves to the other side and repeats the action, careful not to pull the arms too tightly, allowing some flexion and movement. The beam is then lifted into place at the top of the vertical beam, and the plaque reading, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” is nailed in place. The left foot is pressed backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, a nail is driven through the arch of each, leaving the knees moderately flexed. Jesus is crucified. He slowly sags placing more weight on the nails in wrists, fiery pain shoots in fingers and up arms to explode in the brain—nails in wrists pressure median nerves. Jesus pushes upward to avoid this stretching torment, placing his full weight on the nail through his feet. Searing agony erupts as the nail tears nerves between the metatarsal bones of the feet. The arms fatigue, waves of cramps sweep over muscles, knotting them in throbbing pain. With cramps comes inability to push self upward. Hanging by arms, chest muscles paralyze and intercostal muscles refuse to act. Air can be drawn into lungs, but cannot be exhaled. Jesus fights to raise himself to take short breaths. Carbon dioxide builds up in lungs and in blood stream, cramps partially subside. Jesus pushes himself upward to exhale and bring in life-giving oxygen. He watches soldiers cast lots for his garments, and says, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” He speaks to the penitent thief, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” He speaks again, looks down at grief-stricken, John, saying, “Behold your mother,” and looks to Mary, his mother, “Woman, behold your son.” He cries a verse from Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
This is the dying way of Jesus, and the dying way of people following Jesus, too. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Luther pastor, who was hanged with a piano wire noose in Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9, 1945 says, “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every person must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old person which is the result of that person’s encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a person, he bids that person come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old person at Christ’s call.”
To become stewards offering a grace-filled witness to Jesus we must die to self, mustn’t we?
Isn’t growth far more than “pledge of self,” and certainly nothing less than “dying to self?” Isn’t it far more qualitative, and far, far, far less quantitative? And isn’t it true that we only see this reality as “dying to self” becomes our consistent, regular practice? And this kind of stewardship only seems to be seen through looking backwards, through taking intentional time to reflect, doesn’t it? So it becomes glaringly true that there really is no practical sense, in our efforts to keep up our false pretense.
To this end, dear stewards, let’s reflect:
Where are you dying to self?
How is your prayer life? Is it long on talking to God and short on listening to God? Is it sparse?
How is your life in regards to the Eucharist? Are you drawn to the Meal often? Is it now only routine to you, something to do, not someone to experience?
Are you drawn to Christ through worship? Do you put your whole self into worship, praise, into receiving Christ through preaching?
How goes your study? Daily Bible reading? Daily pondering of healthy theology? Daily being engaged to foster authentic spirituality?
Do you read sound theological works?
Do you ponder spiritual insights gained through study and reflect on what you learn?
Do you have a spiritual director? Ever seek regular spiritual direction? When will you go?
Do you present Christ to the world in thought, word, and deed? Or do you profess Christ to the world but opt to present the world only you?
Do you seek to create a more just world in ways beyond your words alone?
Do you model the compassion of Jesus? How? When? Where? To whom?
Do you tithe a 10th of your gross income? Do you make an offering above that 10% tithe?
Do you make any effort towards the practice of a regular tithe of some part of your gross income? Seek to increase it each year?
Do you give more monies around the Church rather than through the Church?
How go marriage, family, and work? Do these reflect the Gospel of Jesus? Are these relationships (and others) being renewed, deepened, changed? Are they growing in love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace?
Do you truly forgive? Isn’t forgiveness a process, not just a simple word? Are there some from whom you withhold forgiveness? When will you forgive? When will you let go?
Isn’t this really the costly grace of faithful stewardship? And doesn’t everything about us, tell others about us? And to this end, doesn’t it really tell others about Jesus? Isn’t this so much more than an issue of “dollars and dimples” for doesn’t our stewardship say whether esteem Jesus as costly or cheap?