“Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you. . . ,” A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on the Feast of the Dedication September 21, 2014.
I remember the bishop who used to say, “Just give until it hurts.” He also used to say, “You can’t take it with you; you never see a Brinks truck following the hearse.”
Stewardship is easy. Did you know that the Episcopal Church years ago adopted the Biblical tithe as the standard? I think it’s one of our best kept secrets! But tithing makes stewardship easy: no worrying about how much to give: just put down your income and divide by ten and fill in your pledge. Actually it’s not that easy because some think you should tithe before taxes and some afterwards and some think the whole tithe should go to the church and other charities afterwards and some think the tithe should be divided between the church and the Sierra Club and Red Cross and et cetera. But the tithe sets a standard.
I’m always amused by parishes that resolve to elect no one to the Vestry who isn’t “tithing or working toward tithing.” “Working toward tithing” provides a lot of room to grow. Is that a five year plan or fifty? It’s one thing if you are already at 9% and another if you’re at 1%. The easy way to do it is just do it.
I like the story of the widow with small children and hardly any income who tithed to her church and it concerned the elders of the church that she was giving so much when she had so little so finally they went to her and said, “We’re so concerned for your situation that we’ve agreed you shouldn’t need to tithe.” And her eyes filled with tears and she said “You are taking away the one thing that makes my life worthwhile.”
I also like the story of the man who began to tithe as a child. He made a commitment to God that he would tithe whatever he had. When his allowance was a dime, he put a penny in the plate and when he got an after school job and earned a dollar a week he put a dime in the plate. When he got out of school and went to work for a hundred dollars a week (at MacDonald’s?) he put ten dollars in his offering envelope. And he did very well. He got better and better jobs. When he earned a thousand dollars a week he put a hundred dollars in the plate and when he earned ten times that he wrote a weekly check for a thousand dollars. But he kept doing better and better and finally he went to his pastor and said “When I was a child I made a commitment to God to return a tenth of whatever I was given but now I’m earning so much that that tithe is just way too big and I want you to ask God to excuse me from that commitment I made.” And the pastor said, “Well, I don’t think I can ask God to let you break your promise, but I can ask God to reduce your income back to where you feel you can tithe.”
So stewardship is easy to talk about and important to think about and of course it’s not just stewardship of our private resources but of our public resources as well, the water we drink and the air we breath. We’ve only begun in recent years to realize how vital it is that we be better stewards of this earth. And when we think in those terms, we realize that stewardship isn’t about ten percent, it’s about a hundred percent. I mean, suppose you tithe, put ten percent in the plate each week and invest the other ninety per cent in industries that destroy the environment. What good is that? What good is it to give back ten percent in thanksgiving for all that God has given us and use the remaining ninety per cent to destroy what God has given us.
Stewardship is about the responsibility we have to God for all that God has given us, for the whole of creation. We have the ability to conserve or destroy. God put us in charge but only recently did that assume the proportions it now has. There was a time when there was all the clean water we needed and we could burn coal in our furnaces and the air would be as clean as ever because there were so many fewer people and fewer furnaces. Not any more. This whole blue earth is in our hands to conserve or destroy. But I hardly have to preach about that because we can’t help getting that message if we watch television at all or read a newspaper.
So stewardship is easy. The church and Bible give us an easy standard and the media take it from there to remind us of the need.
Suppose you went away for a year, a sabbatical, a long overdue vacation, the first year of retirement, or even a work assignment that required living elsewhere for a year. So suppose you look around for someone to live in your house and take care of it while you’re away and suppose you came back and found it almost totally destroyed, trashed. And suppose that whoever you had entrusted your estate to said, “But I kept ten percent for you!”
Jesus told a parable with a similar theme about a man who entrusted three servants with ten and five and one units of wealth and returned to find the first two had invested their fund and made more while the third had buried it and gave back exactly what he’d been given. That was not stewardship and even though he had kept it safe it was taken away and given to those who knew what to do with a gift.
Stewardship is about everything God has given us. Stewardship is not just putting it all in the plate but caring for it, using it wisely and well, as you would want someone to care for your possessions in stewardship. So stewardship is easy and I was happy to accept the assignment to preach about it. But then they said, “Here are the readings,” and the readings have nothing to do with stewardship. The readings are all about the anniversary, the dedication of the church. It’s all about buildings. It seems like a totally different subject.
But let me ask you to look more closely. Look carefully at the first reading. Yes, it’s about dedicating a building, it’s about Solomon dedicating the temple in Jerusalem, but listen to what Solomon said: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you. . .”
Stewardship is easy. God is not. You can put your pledge in an envelope but can you contain God in your mind or heart? There are those who think church attendance is down because we live in a scientific age and know so much about the universe. We know nothing. We are children playing at the edge of the ocean and we have hardly any idea of what the ocean contains or what lies beyond.
Solomon, two thousand years ago, probably thought the earth was flat and that the sun went around it. Now we know that the earth is round and goes around the sun. Big deal. Maybe we know twice as much as Solomon, maybe a thousand times as much, but how much remains far beyond our comprehension? What lies beyond the universe? What led to the big bang at the moment of creation? What was there before that? What is that God like who knows the thoughts of three billion hearts and cares about each one, each one? Does the terrorist who beheads a captive know that? Does the President who orders a drone strike to deal with a terrorist remember that? Do the Californians who turn back a busload of immigrant children remember that? Do you and I when we distribute our income between ourselves and others remember that? God made and God cares for every single one.
The Prayer Book, you know, contains orders of prayer for morning and evening and suggested readings from the Old and New Testaments. This last couple of weeks we’ve been reading through the Book of Job, that ultimate exploration of the problem of evil. Why do bad things happen to good people? There was a best selling book by that title a few years ago. The author proposed that there were only two possible answers: either God is not all-powerful or God is not good. His solution was to suggest that God is not all-powerful. So what power is it that limits God’s power? I think that would be God.
The Book of Job has a better answer: “Consider the hippopotamus.” That is God’s last word to Job: “Consider the hippopotamus,” and Job is satisfied with that answer. Consider the butterfly if you prefer. But can you begin to create such wonders? So we can make iPads: wonderful! Yes, and we can throw them away when a new improved model comes along. There’s a small blue butterfly indigenous to Golden Gate Heights just east of here. There aren’t many left, but we can’t replace them. We can do iPads but not butterflies.
At the end of the book, Job ponders the hippopotamus and realizes that he has “uttered things that I did not understand; things too wonderful for me that I did not know.” Has science indeed answered all our questions and made God unnecessary? God might say to us, “Consider Iraq. Consider Israel and Hamas. Yes, and the hippopotamus and the black holes and spiral galaxies and let me know when you can answer all my questions.”
One of the psalms asks, “What are human beings that you visit them or human beings that you care for them?” Three thousand years later that question also is unanswered. Why should God care? Why indeed should God care? And maybe that’s the other side of the scientific coin, if I can put it that way. Science can say, “We are able to answer all these questions, so who needs God?” Or it can say more honestly, “The universe is so vast and so unknowable that any Creator God is beyond imagining.” True; indeed God is beyond all imagining and the answers we have are childish answers. Does that mean there is no God?
In a few minutes we will recite the Nicene Creed and those are childish statements using our limited vocabulary to paint the best picture of God that we can. Christians have fought and died over those answers as if they were a full and final analysis of the being and nature of God. No, they are far from that and you are free to question any part of it and suggest better answers if you can. But for the moment, the last 15-some centuries of moments they’re the best we have and they are enormously helpful but let’s not imagine that they are a full and final definition of God. Solomon knew God could not be contained in any human building and we should know that God cannot be contained in our minds or in any form of words.
And yet, the Bible tells us, Jesus told us, the readings today tell us, this unimaginable God cares for you and invites your response. “Come to him” says the second reading “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5 like living stones, let yourselves be built1 into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” “Come to him . . .” Insofar as God can be known God is known in Jesus and our challenge is to know that much and to be known ourselves, to be known to God ourselves. However little we know about God, God knows everything about us including, to get back to my starting point, the size of the check in our offering envelope.
I cannot imagine a God so small or a God so great that any moment of my life is unknown or unimportant to the God who comes here in Jesus. How could the Temple in Jerusalem, this hundred year old church, this Creed we recite, this piece of bread and sip of wine, contain the eternal God? Yet this God would be born in a stable, die on a cross, and, yes, come to us here today in word and sacrament and wait for our response.
© 2014 by Chistopher L Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.