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Stewardship: Sunday next before Lent, Yr B, 19.2.2012  
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(All are to honoured for what they can commit to the common cause.)

           In all the years that Dorothy and I have been at St Markís I do not remember any sermon being directly about stewardship, that is about how we as Christians make good use of our time, our talents and our money as members of the Body of Christ. 

          In the Episcopal Church in the United States for at least as long as I can remember, every single year there has been what is called the Every Member Canvas.  During it each individual or family is called on in their homes by members of the laity in what is a pastoral visit that includes a talking about their stewardship for the coming year, a stewardship of time, talents and money.  And in the US there are a number of professional fund-raising organisations which can be invited in to assist in the EMC.  Now something similar is being launched here in this diocese.

          For a long time the dioceses and parishes of the C of E were supported by very substantial funds from the monies made by  the Church Commissioners.  This support has been decreasing, not only because of the present economic climate, but also because with more retired clergy living longer, such as myself, the Church Commissioners have been forced to set aside larger amounts for pensions. 

          Our Diocese of Birmingham not only is far from being one of the more affluent dioceses, but it also has a lot of urban priority areas.  In the face of this challenge we can take pride in the fact that our diocese has a well above average record for financial stewardship on the part of the laity.

          But here are some of the facts about the situation that we face.  As many of you know, Nick was promised a second stipendiary priest when he came, but this has since been withdrawn, thereby saving the Diocese over £40,000, namely, the cost of the stipend, housing, pension, National Insurance, and Council Tax.  Or to put it another way, it keeps the Diocese from going further into the red by another £40,000.

          We have 169 parishes in the diocese, but only 36 of them contribute enough into the common fund to cover the cost of a priest.  This is only one out of five parishes. Without the input from the Church Commissioners the diocese simply would not survive.  As it is, nearly 2/3 of our income as a diocese is from voluntary giving, and over 2/3 of that income is spent on parish clergy and housing.

          St Markís has a very good track record for the amount of time and energy, not to mention money, spent over the years in giving yeomen service to the community in the name of Christ.  But even so, now is the time to look again at what we can commit, not least financially, for the years ahead, as we prayerfully consider making our pledges.

          If we turn to the NT for pointers, we find Jesus in Mark and Luke commending the sacrificial giving of the widow who puts into the temple treasury her two copper coins (Mk 12.41-44; Lk 21.1-4).  Perhaps Luke in the Gospel and in Acts has the most to say about financial matters.  In the Gospel we have the story of the self-satisfied man who piles up wealth by building more barns but then loses the whole lot by dying (12.16-21).  We also have the story of the rich man and Lazarus (18.20ff.).  In Acts Luke paints a very rosy and probably idealised picture of the church in Jerusalem having all things in common (Ac 2.44; 4.32).  And then Luke proceeds to tell the cautionary tale of Ananias and Sapphira (5.1-12) who, having sold some property, claim to have brought all the proceeds to the apostles while secretly withholding some of it.  The judgement that falls on them is that they both drop dead.  I donít think it is an accident that the way Luke tells each of these three stories those who are less than open-handed with their wealth have judgment passed upon them.  And the person who wrote 2 Thess (3.10) in Paulís name says there are to be no freebooters with the words, ĎAnyone unwilling to work should not eatí.

          Also there is the story in Matthew (20.1-6) of the hiring of workers for the vineyard, and all of them are paid a full dayís wages, from those who worked all day to those who worked only one hour. If we  reverse this, we can see that it is the spirit of our giving that counts, not the amount.

          Let me leave you with this: when you review, renew, or make a new commitment to our common purpose.  When we were baptized we became members of the Body of Christ, and, as St Paul reminds us in 1 Cor, all members of the Body need each other, from the greatest to the least, and all are to be honoured for what they can commit toward our task and joy of showing forth Godís love in Christ here at St Markís and beyond.