Song of Solomon 8:6-7
A few months ago, the head of our Stewardship Board came to a meeting and said: “Here’s our theme for this year: ‘Stewardship Is Heart Work.’”
That’s on the bulletin cover this morning so you can read it in living color.
Stewardship is heart work.
While I’m generally reluctant to admit it, my hearing is not what it should be. So I thought she said: “stewardship is hard work.”
And, you know, a lot of people, even those with excellent hearing, think of stewardship that way—hard work.
Some think that stewardship is primarily about having their money taken away. They think that stewardship is about being squeezed and pressed, begged and cajoled. They think of scarcity—of how little they have and of how much they want and of the seemingly wide gap between the two.
None of that is stewardship.
It might be fundraising. It might involve something called “giving to the church.” It all might be part of the militaristic sounding stewardship “campaigns” and pledge “drives” that march through so many congregations every fall with the intensity and devastation of Sherman marching to the sea.
All that is hard work.
But stewardship—the wise use of all that has been entrusted to us;
stewardship—the day in and day out decisions about how we will spend our money, how we will use our time, how we will best put our individual gifts and talents to good use’
Stewardship is heart work. It is.
The heart, as we encounter it in scripture, has been described as “the innermost spring of individual life.” It is regarded as the source of all of our physical energy, our thinking, our feeling, and our will.
So if we’re going to be active and responsible managers of all that we have and all that we are—that is, if we’re going to be good stewards and not just good givers—we need to go to that wellspring of our life.
We need to do some heart work.
This work of the heart invites us first of all to consider our desires.
The Song of Solomon is filled with just such deep longing.
The brief section of the Song that I read this morning is one of the few sections in this book that can be read in polite Iowa church company on an October morning—even with the children out of the sanctuary. While both Jewish and Christian tradition hear the love between God and God’s people expressed in these songs, let’s be honest: this is a collection of poems that deal with human sexual love. One person describe this “R” rated book as “concerned with a man and a woman who, with heightened sensations of sight and smell, taste and touch, celebrate each other’s beauty just as they praise the hills and the animals, the trees and the flowers of Israel.”[i]
This is a book about passion—a topic that we don’t talk about very much in the church. Congregationalists were long called God’s “frozen chosen.” But there is an ecumenical spirit that keeps desire from creeping into the conversation in most congregations. Most hymns are along the lines of those found in our hymnal that ask of God, “From earth-born passions set me free,” or look forward to the time when “earthly passions turn to dust and ashes.”
But the Song of Solomon gives us an ancient hymn about love that is strong as death, passion that is fierce as the grave. It is about the longing that is the rough surface of life that is answered by the depths of the gospel.
Now, this book is one of only two in the entire Old Testament that makes absolutely no mention of God. And yet, as one person has suggested, “The more its authors sing of love, the more they whisper of God.”[ii]
Maybe that’s true of our own lives as well.
Many people in the United Church of Christ don’t talk directly about God a lot. We talk about the need to feed hungry people, about seeking harmony and cooperation between races, between economic classes, we talk about justice; we talk about beauty and creativity; we wonder about the origins and the destiny of the universe, this earth, and humankind. All of this talk is heart work. When we speak loudly about the love of our neighbors or about the desire for justice or about the sheer mystery of life, we, too, are whispering of God.
So today and in the coming week, I invite you to consider, as Psalm 20 puts it, your “heart’s desire.”
What is the desire of your heart? What stirs your deepest passion?
To get at this, we first need to, as we sang in the hymn, “First clear the cluttered heart.”
There are a lot of different types of clutter. Think about your own homes and you’ll probably see what I mean.
There are those things that seemed important to hold onto at one time, but that now are just in the way:
Bank statements from ten, twenty years ago.
Those records that you know you’ll never play again.
Some old tires that you are saving for. . .why is it you're saving them?
In the same way our hearts get cluttered with
Grudges that we nurse along, keeping them healthy and strong.
Anger that at one time was necessary and appropriate but that now serves no purpose.
Bitterness or regret over taking the wrong path.
Some things that seemed vital at the time have grown stale and are now simply taking up space in your heart—space that perhaps could otherwise be filled with things like peace, joy, love.
There is the kind of clutter that comes from holding onto things because they might be useful in the future:
Boxes and packing materials for moving.
Wood for some project.
Pieces of fabric for a quilt.
Maybe you will use these things, but right now they’re starting to get in the way.
And so our hearts get cluttered with
Schemes for getting even.
Cutting words that we’re looking for just the right chance to use.
There is even the clutter that comes from things simply being out of place:
Toys that didn't get put away.
Tools and equipment that didn't get put back after being used.
Books piled high on tables.
Those things that are good, useful, and necessary, can become clutter. It’s a matter of placement and proportion and perspective:
Work, when it is all consuming.
Over involvement in a cause at the expense of others.
Even order itself, when you start to obsess about it, can clutter your life.
We can begin to do some heart work: to remember again what really matters—or to discover it for the first time; to separate the important in life from what is merely urgent; to get rid of what has been allowed simply to stand around, all that has become stale and dead.
It won’t happen all at once. Clearing the cluttered heart takes time. But now might be the time to start that heart work.
Clearing the clutter isn’t simply a matter of doing away with, of throwing things out. Sure, your life is full of demands and commitments and obligations and desires. But it’s not a matter of cutting out your family commitments, or of calling into work tomorrow and saying “I won’t be in tomorrow, I’m doing some heart work and clearing away the clutter.”
Start instead by asking yourself: “What is important in my life—and why?” It might be your family, your work, your relationship with God, your commitments to other people. It’s probably some combination of all of the above. Seek to be clear about what it is you value.
You might want to put all that is important to you into new relationships with each other—a new fit, a new balance. Knowing what is important for you—and moving toward it—will go a long way toward clearing up the clutter.
And maybe you need to get rid of some things—old, worn-out obligations, the regret or anger that is just taking up space.
Once some of the cluttered heart is cleared, we can begin to better see our passions, our desires.
It’s been suggested that “God finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak; we are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and ambition and greed, when infinite joy is offered to us. We are far too easily pleased.”
If we lived out of our desires, if we acted upon our deepest commitments, we would astound ourselves with all we could do.
Your heart’s desire—what is it?
Developing a loving relationship, nurturing a family, doing the work that you’re best at and like to do best, creating a work of great beauty, making this city, this world a better place. What do you want?
What do you want for this congregation? That it would be a place of acceptance, of love, of kindness, a center where forgiveness is encountered, where the love of God is shown to the world?
What do you want? And what are you willing to do?
This is the work of stewardship. Your heart’s desire is a gift from God. Being aware of what you want is another part of the responsible use of all that God has given to you. Desire needs to be nurtured. Right stewardship of your desires will give new vision. How are you taking care of and using the passion in your heart?
Ultimately we are faced with the question posed by the poet Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Your answer will be found in the heart work of stewardship.
This past week a newsletter for church leaders arrived in my inbox with the headline: “Afraid of Preaching about Money? Don’t Be.”
If you’ve been around here for a few Octobers, you know that preaching about money is not one of my fears. Along with the Stewardship Board, the Trustees, the Church Council, and the other leaders of our congregation I want you to give generously to our ministry and mission in the coming year. And, honestly, because this is the Congregational UCC of Iowa City and I know how much you value the work that all of us together do as a congregation, I expect you to give generously. It’s just what we do around here—it’s one of the marks of membership.
Generosity is good for you. Studies show that.
Just yesterday, The New York Times had an article that reconsidered some of the advice in three very popular personal financial books. As I read it, these words jumped out: “Oddly, for books centered on bolstering wealth, all three advocate contributing to charity. They say this is the right thing to do in itself, but they also say it’s worth doing on a spiritual level: The more you share with the universe, they contend, the more the universe will share with you.”[iii]
Maybe so. Maybe so.
But you don’t need a study or The New York Times or even a sermon to tell you this—you know this from your own experience.
Generosity is good for you.
But before you decide what giving generously means for you—and before you give generously—I want you to do some the heart work of stewardship: clearing your heart, knowing your desires, deciding what is important to you and how you will steward your money, your time, and your many abilities in the year ahead.
Let us together turn ourselves to the heart work of stewardship.
Because, after all, a little heart work won’t hurt you.
[i] Grace Schulman, “Love Is Strong as Death,” in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, pg. 346.
[ii] Schulman, op. cit., pg. 359.