When I prepare these talks, I usually wait for some inspiration. Fortunately, I think it arrived in time for today. It happened when I realized that inspiration, inspiring, to be inspired, is one way that God draws near to us. When we inhale, yes we draw in air, but we also draw in the Holy Spirit. In that instant, God is so near to us to actually be inside us. + As I speak, may God bless the meditations of my heart and mind, and inspire you to draw closer to God in the way you live and give.
Indeed, inspiring people is a key feature of Anglican stewardship teaching across the country. It is part of a trinity of ideas: Inspire! Ask! Thank! As Christians, we inspire ourselves with worship, scripture, acts of service, participating in community and storytelling. Often these stories stretch our imagination; we have to let them touch our hearts with the truth they carry from generation to generation. When we are inspired by the Holy Spirit, we can do more than we ask or imagine.
Drawing near to God is the stewardship theme across the diocese during this season of focus on financial giving. The writer of the Epistle of James says “Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.” This reciprocal relationship with God can be found in many areas of our church life. We draw near to God in our worship, in our prayer, in reading the Holy Scripture and in the way we live our lives, both in the church, and in the world around us.
Today I want to focus on the last of these ideas – living our lives in the church and in the world around us. In the readings throughout this season of Drawing Near to God, there are some themes that rise up from the Gospel readings. One of them is the word ASK, the second in the trinity of stewardship directions. Our Gospel readings during this financial stewardship season are filled with examples of asking.
For example, last week’s Gospel found disciples James and John asking Jesus for the impossible. Let us sit at your right and left they asked of Him. Rather than ridicule them, Jesus draws near and opens a whole new world of stewardship – the world of servanthood. He tells James and John that if they want to be great, they need to serve others. In fact, modelling the behaviour he introduces, Jesus says he came to be a servant of others. This has me wondering about what Jesus is saying about servanthood to our churches; and to you, and me?
The servanthood model opens up a whole new form of asking. To be like Jesus, we need to ask others how we can be of service; and to ask each other to be servants too. Jesus does this in our Gospel reading this morning. Asking the blinded Bartimaeus, Jesus says “What do you want me to do for you?” There are no parameters, no limitations to the ask that Jesus makes. Bartimaeus is completely free to ask for whatever he wishes.
I appreciate Bartimaeus’ determination. Despite the shocking behaviour of the crowd who “sternly ordered him to be quiet” – Bartimaeus has the courage of his faith to “cry out even more loudly.” I wonder what motivates the naysayers in this passage. Did they not want Bartimaeus to draw near to God; or did they not want Jesus to draw near to the faithful? I wonder what your reaction is to this – do you call on God as aggressively as Bartimaeus did? Do you take action relying on your faith, in spite of the crowd telling you to be quiet?
Bartimaeus’ faith is not limited by the art of the possible. No, he imagines seeing again! His faith in the healing power of Jesus is great. Bartimaeus has drawn near to God in his faith and Jesus draws near to Bartimaeus in his healing act. In this story there is new sight – a new vision of the faithfulness of and to God.
I cannot resist peaking at next week’s Gospel and I apologize in advance to Father Patrick. Is there an ask? Indeed there is. This time it is Jesus doing the asking. He asks God to raise up Lazarus. Here we see just how much faith Jesus has in his Father. Jesus asks and Lazarus lives. God, Jesus and Lazarus are very near to each other in this shared moment. It is as though Jesus renews his own faith as he says to the assembly, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God? Because he asked, Jesus and the crowd have the experience of death and life.
These passages are calling us to shift our stance of servanthood from death to life; to shift our asking and sharing from ourselves to those in need. We are called to live in servanthood of those in need. Last week’s Gospel states that we must be willing to give up our lives to be like Him. To draw near to God; to have God draw near to us; we need to shift our approach in life from hoarding to sharing, from me to we, from getting to giving.
Dying to materialism, or the possession of things, is a cause of conflict and dispute because of the cravings that are within us. The risks we take to possess more stuff, whether it’s the many pairs of shoes or the suits we own or the size of our personal libraries, are sources of disputes and conflicts the world over. Materialism prevents us from drawing near to God.
And each of us faces these challenges personally. I have been confronted by this very recently. We have sold our home and bought another – we move in 5 days. The real estate agent asked us to declutter the place – apparently it helps buyers imagine how they can use new space. Decluttering was very hard work. And while I understood the facts – the need to declutter, really reduce my extensive library – was very difficult. It surprised me how emotionally attached I was to some of those books!
Our consumer society encourages us all to be this way. We’re supposed to covet our possessions – and replace them often! Getting more, wanting more, is the mantra James wants us to reject, saying “Submit yourselves therefore to God”. Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald says that indigenous people feel closest to God when, like God, they are generous, giving their things and money to those in greater need. The indigenous practice of the Potlach is their ceremonial way of doing this.
As we free up our serving resources from the avarice of materialism, we can respond to the questions we ask. We will be able to respond by serving and sharing with so many that have so little. As we give more, we draw even closer to God, and God is drawn closer to us. The end game of being generous is not to maintain church buildings. The new story of generosity is about welcoming and asking and serving the stranger and refugee, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and educating the children. The new narrative of generosity is that God’s mission in the world is the work we are called to do. This is the new church God calls us to be.
Bishop John Chapman, in the Diocese of Ottawa, says that we are being called back into the public square where we welcome the stranger and care about issues of justice. This new church we are creating is one where we offer hospitality; provide programs that are life changing, welcoming and supportive; and focus on issues of justice as we live out our baptismal promises with generosity and integrity.
When I talk to individuals about how generous they want to be, I first try to discover, to ask what their passion is – what is it that inspires them? I ask them what makes them so passionate about a particular issue. I believe that God has drawn near to them; that the Holy Spirit rests on their shoulders, guiding them to servanthood. When I tell the story of the church, I keep their passion in mind, and I ask you to do the same.
You see, this passion or concern is what draws them to give generously. When we ask for their gifts of time and skills and knowledge and money, they respond. People, whether rich or poor, who ask how the situation can be better, care about issues of justice and the needs of the world. They are generous in serving and sharing their abundant or limited resources with the community and individuals. When you frame the story to show how the needs of people are being addressed and the givers passion is being served, God is nearby and the gifts can flow in a climate of trust and peace.
So, what has all this got to do with stewardship and gift planning – my areas of responsibility as your servant? Jesus says whoever wants to be first must be last of all, and servant of all. God is generous, every day, every moment, with all of us. As the Holy One shares with us, we need to try and draw near to God in our behaviours. I believe that as we inspire each other, ask for gifts, share God’s abundance and say Thank you, we are not only alive, but very near to God. In sharing, you will discover who you really are as a human being and a child of God.
I will close with a prayer of Teresa of Avila that calls people to servanthood: Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours. Amen.
By Glen Mitchell