Stewardship Dedication Sunday
Exodus 35-36, selected verses
Everyone who was excited and eager to participate brought the Lord’s gift offerings to be used for building the meeting tent and all its furnishings. – Exodus 35:21
Previously in Exodus… or when we left our spiritual ancestors, the Israelites, last week they had escaped from slavery in Egypt and were fleeing with only what they could carry. Standing on the banks of the Red Sea with water before them and Pharaoh’s army advancing on them from behind, they had no way out – until YHWH spoke to Moses saying: “Tell the people to step forward! … Lift up your staff and stretch out your arm over the sea and divide it.”[i] Thank goodness Moses didn’t stop to ask questions. He didn’t say, “What? Do what?” Moses did as the Lord commanded and The Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind …and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground. [ii]
From there, with fear and some courage, the Hebrew refugees set out for Canaan. Along the way they complained about everything. They didn’t like the food. They complained that the water tasted funny and that they did not have enough of anything! Through it all God stayed with them, inviting them to trust. God showed Moses how to purify the water. When they were hungry God sent manna and quail – free – the food literally fell from the sky. All they had to do was reach down and pick it up. When they were afraid of getting lost God sent them a pillar of cloud by day and flames of fire by night to follow. Over and over and over again God provided for them. Then when God believed they were ready, God summoned Moses up Mt. Sinai to make a covenant. The result was the Law we know as the Ten Commandments – God’s greatest gift to Israel.
Tragically, while Moses was away -- the people did the unthinkable. They gave in to their anger and their fear and created a distraction, a demi-god, a golden calf, something they worshipped instead of YHWH who had saved them. That was when Moses smashed the tablets. I think Rembrandt captured both his love and his fury. When Moses came down the mountain a second time he was carrying two things – The Ten Commandments, and the instructions for building the Tabernacle. It would be a traveling sanctuary, the visible symbol of the presence of God among them. It would contain the stone tablets of the Law in the Ark of the Covenant, and would stand at the very center of the Israelites camp. Everyone needs a place to worship. God knows; we all worship something. Worship was the reason God created humankind in the first place, and the reason God saved Israel.
The instructions for building this worship space take up a third of the book of Exodus. This emphasis makes it clear that worship is very important to God. God brought the Israelites out of Egypt to worship God. You and I and the Hebrew people were born to glorify God forever. In God’s amazing grace, the Tabernacle would happen! And God would draw near to them. So listen to God’s instructions. As I say, it’s long so I’m going to read selected verses from Exodus, chapters 35 and 36:
Moses said to the whole Israelite community, “This is what the Lord has commanded: Collect gift offerings for the Lord from all of you. Whoever freely wants to give should bring the Lord’s gift offerings: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and deep red yarns; fine linen; goats’ hair; rams’ skins dyed red; beaded leather; acacia wood; the oil for the light; spices for the anointing oil and for the sweet-smelling incense; gemstones; and gems for setting in the priest’s vest and in the priest’s chest pendant. All of you who are skilled in crafts should come forward and make everything that the Lord has commanded. …"The whole Israelite community left Moses. Everyone who was excited and eager to participate brought the Lord’s gift offerings to be used for building the meeting tent and all its furnishings, and for the holy clothes. …
Everyone who could make a gift offering … that could be used in any kind of building work brought it. All the skilled women spun cloth with their hands … in blue and purple and deep red yarns and fine linen. All the women who were eager to use their skill spun the goats’ hair. The chiefs brought gemstones and gems to be set in the priest’s vest and the chest pendant, spices and oil for light and for the anointing oil, and for the sweet-smelling incense. All the Israelite men and women who were eager to contribute something for the work that the Lord had commanded Moses to do brought it as a spontaneous gift to the Lord. …
Moses then called together Bezalel, Oholiab, and every skilled person whom the Lord had given skill and who was eager to come and do the work. Moses gave them all the gift offerings that the Israelites had contributed to the work on the sanctuary. They kept bringing him spontaneous gifts, morning after morning.
Finally, all the skilled workers building the sanctuary left their work that they were doing one by one to come and say to Moses, “The people are contributing way too much material for doing the work that the Lord has commanded us to do.”
So Moses issued a command that was proclaimed throughout the camp: “Every man and woman should stop making gift offerings for the sanctuary project.” So the people stopped bringing anything more because what they had already brought was more than enough to do all the work.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
On Wednesday afternoon at Bible Study, Marty Clayton mentioned how much this account from Exodus reminded her of the classic film, Lilies of the Field. In 1964 Sidney Poitier won both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Actor for his portrait of Homer Smith, a gloriously sassy, itinerate handyman who stops at a small convent in rural Arizona to get water for his overheated car. The nuns have escaped from communist East Germany, Hungary and Austria. They speak almost no English, but still manage to convince Mr. Schmidt, as they call him, to build them a church.
The nuns serve a community of Catholics, mostly Mexican farm workers who are very poor. With no place to celebrate Mass they gather in the parking lot of a tavern every Sunday, in the blistering Arizona heat. It isn’t easy but Old Mother is as stubborn as a Presbyterian. She has no blueprints for a church and no money for building materials, but manages to wiggle a truckload of bricks out of a local businessman. And Homer sets to work – building a sanctuary in the middle of the Arizona desert. Homer works – oh man does he work. Mother Maria complains about everything but Homer keeps working. There’s never enough of anything. He too grumbles and complains but keeps working. Before long, members of the church begin showing up to help. At first Homer is not keen on this. He has no Spanish. He doesn’t need the church, he says, but the members persist. They are eager and excited and they bring offerings: a magnificent brass chandelier, a hand- carved walnut door, and a beautiful, cathedral shaped, stained glass window and more. The whole thing turns into a kind of a Stone Soup affair and Schmidt ends up with so much he has to turn some away.
Too much giving! Have you ever heard of such a thing? When Israel took an offering to fulfill God’s work, the people gave so much that Moses had to tell them to stop! That’s not giving from the pocketbook; it’s giving from the heart! This text is spot on when it says that God wants offerings from those who freely give. Generosity is not primarily a financial matter. It’s a spiritual matter.
Thirty-five hundred years after the Hebrew people left Egypt … things are different now. We’re not refugees, farm workers or former slaves. The Israelites gave from the only resources they had. They shared the valuables – gold and silver and fine cloth that their Egyptian overlords had given them when they left Egypt. [iii] Today just about all of us own more than we can carry on our backs. We have enough for necessities and some of us can even afford luxuries. And so we give freely and from the heart. For example, in the last year and a half years we have pledged and given over 2 million dollars to upgrade our buildings and create a more energy efficient, greener and more beautiful campus. What a blessing!
Our ancestors didn’t have the opportunities for generosity we have. Yet they gave sacrificially, so much that Moses actually had to tell them to stop giving! Wouldn’t that be something … if before next Sunday after the pledges are counted, Tom Lerario, our Director of Finance, were to come to me and say, “The people are pledging way too much. We have more than enough to do the work that God commanded us to do.” Yeah. That would be something.
We would have enough to give our staff a raise. Woods has a gifted, hardworking, faithful staff; I know you know that. They lead and serve our ministries in hundreds of life-giving ways. Did you know that the Woods staff has not had a cost of living increase since 2017, and only 2 in the past 10 years. If we were to step up in giving the way the Israelites did, we could give the staff the compensation they deserve. And we could let them know how grateful we are for all that they do for us.
If more people were to pledge we could step up the saving work we are doing in the community too. Yesterday morning I had the opportunity to meet and talk with women from The Well, one of Woods’ key mission partners. The Well is a community of women who are survivors of human trafficking, trauma, and abuse. Many are recovering from addition. I spoke with a woman named Stacy, an Annapolis native. Unfortunately Stacy’s story is not unusual. Following a trauma she began abusing alcohol and ended up living on the street. With the help of Woods’ mission, Stacy is now in recovery. She is seven years sober! She has a good job she loves, and she is thriving! God’s miracles happen everywhere when people step up. If more people were to give as God commands we could help many, many more Stacys – in this community and beyond.
I wish we had time to share the many other stories like Stacy’s that I get to hear every day from recipients of Woods’ missions. They live in places like Guatemala, Cuba, West Baltimore, and Severna Park, and they are all our brothers and sisters. These are just some of the letters I’ve received celebrating Woods’ transforming work on behalf of youth, veterans, and families in need. One of these says that we provided services for more than 4000 individuals and families in one year alone, including 28,000 nights in the shelter and 95,000 meals in addition to mental health and addiction counseling, and employment assistance. And that is just one of our missions; there are dozens more.
Giving is what we do at Woods. We don’t shout about it; we simply step up and do the work the Lord has commanded of us. We are able to do this because every year at this time good people step up and bring their cards forward and place them here on the communion table or mail them in and give with willing hearts. That is good news. I just wish everybody would do it. Every year the number of people who pledge to Woods, and nearly every other church in the Western world, decreases – and with it our witness and ability to impact lives for Christ decreases as well.
Let me suggest an alternative. Let’s buck that trend and follow the lead of our ancient ancestors. Let’s bring our pledges with excitement and eagerness to participate in the Lord’s gift offering. Let’s give more than God needs to accomplish God’s plans here! I pray for this kind of generosity in the church in America. Our world needs us, folks. Would you join me in praying for that? … Praying that our own hearts and lives and families will overflow with generosity. There are so many excesses in the world around us. Let’s pray that God will make Woods Church a beacon of love and faithfulness in this community, that the blessings God has given us, will shine the light of Christ in every corner of this hungry world.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.