Written for Third Presbyterian Church November 22nd as part of a sermon series on stewardship
Matthew 13:1-8: That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”
I attended Stewardship Kaleidoscope last year and enjoyed it. With the inspiring keynote speakers and workshops, I also had the opportunity to connect with our Presbyterian Foundation Rep., The Book Review Editor for Presbyterian Outlook (I’ve done three reviews in the past year), The Pittsburgh Presbytery Stated Clerk, and a few amazing strangers. One of those strangers was wearing the same YCWI t-shirt so that was fun! The conference was in California, but I kept myself on east coast time. I enjoyed walking around the resort with a warm cup of coffee before sunrise to reflect on all that I was learning. Those walks felt restful and restorative. Later joining the other attendees for a continental breakfast, I would look for Carla and we would pick seats and talk about the workshops we planned to attend. I really enjoyed getting to know her outside of her professional role in our presbytery. Lunch was always lively as people talked about the good food and workshops they attended. Then more workshops, snacks, dinner, rest and reading. On the last evening Ellie (Presbyterian Foundation) took everyone in her area out to dinner. We had a gorgeous view of sunset and a short walk back to the hotel. I came home rested, rejuvenated and ready to talk stewardship. But I struggled to implement anything. I made some minor adjustments to my personal financial picture, I added to a rich conversation about stewardship in our Presbytery on the foundation board and generosity committee, but eventually my enthusiasm fizzled. What I quickly realized is that effective change happens when everyone involved is immersed in the process with good, deep, soil. And it is really hard to get everyone on board without some sort of immersive experience or commitment to a long slow conversation.
The soil was good, but it was shallow.
This year, I’m squeezing the Stewardship Kaleidoscope webinars in with my regular work. It feels like trying to squeeze a rock into a complete building. My schedule is full, and I’m feeling guilty about taking time to do this workshop even though I know it will help in the stewardship work we need to do at Third. The shutdown has made it more difficult to determine what is a rock and what is a corner stone. I’m balancing time, and eye strain headaches to get everything accomplished. I’m sure some of you are engaged in these same battles. It’s like looking at a garden bed full of rocks and trying to arrange them into a nice path or using them to edge or as accent pieces, but not knowing which rocks are which, or if even want to have a rock accent in your garden, and really just wanting to pick up that big one and hurl it into space, because it turns out to not really be a rock but a large hunk of cement because the yard is full of fill dirt and not good soil. Stupid Rock. It is so frustrating to realize something so big and heavy isn’t important after all, it’s just getting in the way of what is really important. The seeds need space to grow, so priorities must be sorted out.
The soil was good, but it was full of rocks.
Other webinars that help pastors with personal finances, run the spectrum of paying off debt to investing in retirement. The debt is definitely a weed that chokes off my enjoyment of an abundant life. Each year, Kurtis and I can pull more weeds out and get a little more breathing room. The seed about retirement savings isn’t lost, but it feels like the weeds are going to kill it. We were blessed by a grant from the denomination that helped us to pull out a couple big weeds by the roots. The grant came with tools that help us to keep pulling weeds. We have weekly family business meetings to continue to work on this gardening process. Sometimes the weeds seem overwhelming. We’ve realized the weeds are more than debt, they are the emotions attached to the debt, they are the ways we think about money, they are leftover trauma from our past financial mistakes. Sometimes when we pull weeds, we cut our hands, break nails, scrape our knees and hurt our backs, but weeding is important, so we keep doing the hard work.
The soil is good, but the weeds are choking us.
Kurtis and I are also in the time in our homeownership where all of our appliances are breaking. Our oven broke just over a year ago, the water heater died this spring, the air conditioner went this summer, and our dishwasher is acting up. On top of that, our oven’s glass door shattered a three months ago. It is a factory defect, the company will replace the door, but naturally the parts are shipping from China, then through what’s left of California, and then navigate the slow downs and shutdowns all across the country. The tech said he can’t promise any time frame for the delivery, only that they will be back to install it. I have to confess it felt like someone stole our seeds. The seeds that we hoped would be stability and the seeds that had the potential to bring joy. Those stupid birds have stolen our joy.
The soil is good, but the birds stole our seeds.
I’m tempted to say, God stop throwing seeds at me, I’m not ready, there are too many rocks, too many weeds, the soil is too shallow, and the birds are circling. My garden isn’t ready for seeds, come back later. I’m working on a plan for the garden, I know where I want the roses, the sage, and the cherry tree, but the blueberries died in a pot this year because I didn’t know where to plant them. The weeds in the corner of the yard are threatening to choke out the day lilies, the deer ate the hostas, the tomatoes rotted before they ripened. I’m afraid the pumpkins weren’t ready for Halloween because we planted so late so they were just a little too green to carve. Every time we dig in our yard, we hit cement, or glass, or clay or what Pittsburgh calls fill dirt. The jalapenos kept producing long after we thought they would stop; we’ve pickled some and frozen some and just finally pulled the plant out of the ground because we didn’t know what to do with the abundance. God please stop sending seeds. I’m not a very good gardener and I can’t handle any more.
That’s when God tosses another bag of seeds to me. I can’t, I just can’t, I cry into the seeds. The ground isn’t ready, the rocks are not lined up, the weeds are not pulled, I don’t think the good dirt is deep enough and the bluejays are circling. Stop wasting seeds on me. God says, I’m not wasting seeds. Here have some more. I resist the urge to scream at God and stay still to listen to what is really happening. And in that tearstained holy listening, something shifts. I wipe my eyes and blink a few times. It’s happened again. My desire to make something beautiful has once again taken me too far and I’m sitting in the shadow of perfection with the scarcity monster. The monster says awful things, you didn’t work hard enough, you don’t garden well enough, you are not enough. I hate that monster. I would never say those things to anyone else, why do I let the monster say them to me? Who knows? But for now, I can walk away from the monster and the promise of a perfectly beautiful garden, without rocks, or weeds, or birds. Because the garden can be beautiful without being perfect.
That’s when God tosses another bag of seeds to me. This time I smile. God operates in abundance and generosity. There are always more seeds. God’s work of reconciliation and restoration is not yet complete. God certainly doesn’t expect me to be perfect and complete. God is going to keep tossing bags of seeds. Those seeds are meant to grow love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) and a multitude of other good things. And I am meant to share the harvest as generously as God has shared the seeds. And even if only a small few bear fruit, it is enough to sustain.
So, the next time I get to go to a continuing education conference, I’m going to remember that one conference isn’t the cure all to financial wellness. It’s okay to be rested and then spring up and fizzle out. Sometimes that happens. But there will always be more learning opportunities. And like Maya Angelou reminds me, “when I know better, I will do better”. It is enough to glean little bits of information at a time. It’s ok to rest or to take a break. Occasionally we all burn out. And it’s ok. The work that gets done is enough.
The soil was good, but it was shallow, and that’s ok. God is still scattering seeds.
And sometimes priorities get all mixed up. Rocks, cornerstones, and cement all start to appear the same. Sometimes I think I am holding onto cool sedimentary rock made from compacted soil showing what has happened in the garden over time, and it turns out to be a hunk of cement imbedded with glass and plastic trash. And just because I’ve held onto it this long, doesn’t mean I have to keep it. Priorities shift. And sometimes, we reject something that was a priority. Sometimes our eyes need some rest before we go out looking for sedimentary rock again. Or maybe the stones we have are ok too. With God, it’s possible that the stone that the builders rejected becomes the corner stone (Matthew 21:42). I am not so powerful that I can screw up God’s plans. It’s possible to not have priorities lined up and still experience God’s love and forgiveness. And because God has forgiven me, I’m called to share that forgiveness generously with others. At one point or another, we have all mixed up our priorities. And that’s ok. Doing our best is enough.
The soil was good, but it was full of rocks, and that’s ok. God is still scattering seeds.
Pulling weeds can hurt. We cut our hands, break nails, scrape our knees and hurt our backs. Getting our financial lives in order isn’t pleasant. But I hope that someday it can be. And for now, I’m thankful that I have a partner that is willing to do the work with me to create a budget, a plan for paying down debt, and a plan to live full lives. We’ve agreed to tithe even though we haven’t paid everything off or have a perfect plan for retirement. We do this because we believe that God is generous and that we will always have enough, even when things are tight, and it doesn’t feel like enough. We tithe by automating our banking. The checks to charities leave the bank account on pay day, and we always have enough to make it to the next pay day. By doing our giving in this way, we live in the abundance that God has given us, and we don’t think about making a sacrifice in order to give. We are happy to live on what’s left after we make those donations. In many indescribable ways, our lives are better with this system of giving in place. With each debt we pay down or pay off, we can continue to live into the generous spirit we are hoping to cultivate in our garden. Are we going to completely rid the garden of weeds? No, and that’s ok. Because the garden we have is enough.
The soil is good, but the weeds are choking us, and that’s ok. God is still scattering seeds.
Homeownership is hard sometimes. But we choose to do it to have stability in our lives and to build wealth. And even though the past year and a half has included some major appliance replacement, we were lucky enough to fit most of those into our budget. We did use our emergency fund, but like the tithing, we have that automatically moved from our checking to savings on pay day, so it is already building back up for the next emergency. Unfortunately, the next emergency came up quickly, so we did take Dad up on his offer to loan us the money for the air conditioner instead of sweating it out this summer or putting it on a credit card. When I tried to refuse his help and stubbornly sweat out the summer, he reminded me that this is what Dads are for. We made paying him back an item in our budget and after we made a couple of payments, we lucked out that we got our stimulus check quickly and were able to pay him back in full. He was surprised and said we didn’t have to do that. Apparently the First Bank of Dad doesn’t charge interest and isn’t worried about when loans get paid off or if they get paid off at all. We hope to be able to do that for someone else someday too. That is the kind of joy that birds can not steal.
The soil is good, but the birds stole our seeds, and that’s ok. God is still scattering seeds.
When I think about stewardship, I imagine the bag of seeds God has tossed to me. The bag is full of time, talent, and treasure. When I open that bag, I reach in and give the first handful back to God. This is time spent with family, friends, and building new relationships. This is my talents, education, and training to be of service to those around me. This is preparing for a life of financial well-being so that I can continue to give generously. And it seems that no matter what the seeds will produce enough.
I hope that sharing my personal experiences with stewardship will inspire others to share their stories. Thanks to Stewardship Kaleidoscope, I believe that owning our personal stories is the first step in creating a Third Church generosity story. Each of us brings different skills to the Third Church garden, with different ideas about what to do with the seeds, how to best pull weeds and move rocks, and how to keep the birds fed without losing our seeds. I know that we can create a garden that will produce good fruit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23), because the soil is good and God is still scattering seeds. And we are enough.
Collecting the offering / moment of dedication / reflection on stewardship
Stewardship season is upon us, and perhaps that is the most appropriate focus in these tumultuous times. Stewardship is not something we do only in a well-appointed sanctuary. Stewardship is about how we live, each day, as the people of God. Our pastors have crafted sermons for this season to help us to examine ourselves and our commitment to God and neighbor. These sermons are calls to a new way of looking at our faith in this season. Even in our grief over not being able to worship together in our sanctuary, we can still worship God. Even in a world so violently divided, we can still love our neighbors. Even when we are afraid of scarcity, we can trust that God will provide enough for us to live sufficiently. If we take Jesus’ message seriously, our question to ourselves should be how has my faith helped others? How do my actions contribute to my love for God and neighbor? What have I done to make this earth feel more like heaven for my neighbors, especially those who are in need of compassionate care? The answers to those questions lie in how we use our time, talents, and treasures. As we listen to the anthem today, we can take a moment to give online through the website or write a check and mail it in, but most importantly let us reflect on how our love for God and neighbor should influence our lives.