Sunday, November 16, 2014

Stewardship: Don’t try this at home alone

Stewardship Sunday
1 Corinthians 12:12-17, 24b-27

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You could call this sermon on stewardship today,
a sequel to last Sunday’s sermon on hospitality.
Two very different ideas, you might think—hospitality and stewardship.

But similar, in that they are both grossly misunderstood.
Both been stereotyped, defined far too narrowly,
and so we miss out on their larger meaning.
Hospitality has been mistakenly defined
as inviting people home for dinner.
Stewardship has been mistakenly seen
as dropping more money in the offering.

Both those things, of course, are good and noble.
I encourage you to do both.
Invite people for dinner, be generous in your tithes and offerings.
Quote me on that.

But having people for dinner,
is only a part of a much larger overarching invitation
to open our lives more deeply
and be radically hospitable to the other.
And giving more in the offering,
is only a part of a much larger overarching invitation
to put all that we have and are at God’s disposal,
to be stewards all the time, with all God’s gifts.

But besides being misunderstood and too narrowly defined,
hospitality and stewardship have something else in common.
They require the same attitude, the same posture toward life.
They require the ability to trust.

Hospitality requires the capacity to trust
the one we are inviting into our lives
—friend, family, stranger, enemy, God—
and to believe they are going to
honor the trust we are placing in them
and not take advantage of our welcome,
not harm or violate our trust,
and that they will respond, in time,
with a similar posture of openness and trust of us.

Stewardship also requires trust,
but more specifically, a mutual trust between ourselves and God.
We trust in God as source and owner and provider of all good things.
And we believe that God trusts in us to be good caretakers
of all those good things that God owns.

As I said, we think too small about stewardship.
Theologian Douglas John Hall once said,
“Stewardship is all that I do after I say, ‘I believe.’”
I agree.
Stewardship reorients everything.
Forget the silly notion that stewardship
is deciding how much money to give the church.
Stewardship is everything we do, after we say we believe.

If what we believe is that
God is creator and owner of all that exists in the universe;
If what we believe is that
God entrusts us with the responsibility to care for all of it
in a way that honors the owner;
then welcome to your full-time job,
a job for which you’re not just on-call, but on-duty 24/7.
Your job title is “God’s Trustee.”

I use the word trustee on purpose.
I could say “steward.” Means the same thing.
But when I say “trustee”
I are explicitly naming the essential truth on this subject—
Stewardship is all about trust.

We all know we are invited to have faith in God,
to trust God.
But the astonishing truth
is that God chooses to have faith in us.
God trusts us.

If we don’t understand that,
we don’t understand the core message of scripture.

God loves us, extravagantly.
So God needs to trust us.
God needs to give us freedom to choose
whether to respond to that love, or not.
Else, it wouldn’t be love.
It would be control.

The love response God looks for, hopes for, trusts for, from us,
is that we voluntarily move toward God and God’s purposes,
is that we choose to lean in toward God.

Because God decided to invite us, rather than control us,
the consequence is that sometimes we lean away from God,
sometimes we chose against God’s purposes,
to our detriment, and the detriment of the world.

But God is still determined to bring us, and all creation,
back to our created purpose.
Whatever it takes.
God is determined to save, to redeem, to restore.
But God will not do it alone.

God needs trusted partners in this work.
God needs trustees.
If God worked alone, unilaterally,
with a divine flick of the wrist,
that would eliminate freedom,
the very thing needed for love.
So God invited a people,
and made them trusted partners in mission.

Saving, redeeming, restoring, and reconciling is God’s mission.
And we are God’s trustees.

Trustees are ones who are given trust
by the owner of whatever valuable thing is being entrusted.
We know this term from other examples in life.
When a young child inherits a large sum of money,
it’s put into a trust fund,
and managed by a trustee.
Someone who can be trusted, more than an 8-year-old,
to manage large sums of money.

When a church appoints trustees
to look after the building and grounds,
they choose people they trust
to take care of the property the church owns, collectively.

And when it comes to being God’s trustee,
is it’s never a solo job.
We are appointed as a board of trustees.

It’s not a lot different than the board of trustees
of any organization you know,
like a university, for instance.

The board of trustees don’t own the university.
Maybe a church denomination owns it.
Maybe the state government owns it.
Either way, the board of trustees
carry out the mission and vision of the owners.
Trustees don’t make up their own mission,
they are obligated to serve the mission of the owners.
If they don’t, they will be replaced by those who do.

It’s not always clear, at any given moment,
when facing any given decision,
exactly how the vision and mission of the owner
gets interpreted and applied—
like how to prioritize the annual budget,
and whether to fund this building, or that program,
or change this policy, or that curriculum.

So the Trustees job, is to act as a community of interpreters.
They don’t start from a blank slate,
and decide on things based on what they think are good ideas.
They keep their eyes always
on the mission and vision of the owners,
then, carefully examining all aspects
of the changing needs and circumstances,
they make decisions as a community of interpreters—
they interpret the intention of the owners,
and apply it to the decision at hand.

That’s why it’s healthier when a board of trustees
has a wide range of perspectives,
with a variety of gifts and strengths and expertise,
who approach problems from different angles.
When they pool their expertise and various perspectives,
and remain unified at the core,
they are more likely to stay faithful to the owner.
_____________________

We—those of us who say “we believe”—
are God’s board of trustees.
We have accepted a communal responsibility,
to act on God’s behalf in this world.
We don’t define our own mission, as we wish.
We serve the mission and purposes of God.

We are the body of Christ.
Literally, physically.
This is not just a metaphor.
We physically, politically, socially embody Christ in the world.
We act in this realm, on God’s behalf, as God’s trustees.

God saw fit to give this body a variety of gifts.
God blessed the body with a variety of perspectives,
and personality characteristics,
and ways of thinking and solving problems.
So that working together,
with God’s saving and reconciling mission at the center,
we have what it takes to be good trustees,
faithful to the trust God has placed in us as a body.

That’s what we heard in today’s epistle reading from 1 Corinthians.
“The body is one,” Paul writes, “and it has many members.”
We need each other.
“If the foot said, ‘Hmmph! I’m not a hand,
So I don’t belong to the body,’
that would not make it any less a part of the body.
And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”
But God arranged the body,
and God intends the body to work together
with a unified purpose.
That is the body to whom God had entrusted
his mission and purpose for all creation.

_____________________

This is all sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it?
We’ve heard it said many times:
“We are one body with interdependent members.”
We have no problem with that.
We embrace it fully. In the abstract. In the theoretical.

But when it starts getting personal,
our enthusiasm diminishes.
We start getting nervous about this notion
that we all share some responsibility for each other, mutually,
in terms of how we’re doing as God’s steward,
God’s trustee.

We don’t really want other trustees looking over our shoulder,
giving us specific counsel,
on how we’re using the gifts we’ve been given.
Gifts in almost any area of our lives—
our vocation,
our relationships,
our time.
And it’s certainly all hands off
when it comes to money and possessions.
That’s private.
That’s just between me and God, thank you very much.

I do think privacy, as it relates to money and possessions,
is essential in many contexts.
It makes sense economically, relationally, spiritually,
to have clear boundaries on information-sharing.
I don’t want, nor would it be helpful to me,
or to my Christian discipleship,
to have all my finances part of the public record,
accessible to all who are curious.
Don’t know about you,
but I don’t want my weekly giving
to be published in the church bulletin.

But I don’t think we can defend privacy
as some noble biblical value.
I think our knee-jerk “it’s-none-of-your-business” reaction
to talking about our money in the church,
is more about our culture of individualism,
than about being guided by biblical principles.

“Oh,” you are probably thinking,
“Didn’t Jesus teach that when we give our tithes,
we shouldn’t let our left hand know
what our right hand is doing?”
No. He did not.
Jesus did say that when we give alms to the poor,
we shouldn’t go out in the street and make a show of it,
so as to impress other people about how kind we are.

But from a biblical standpoint,
accountability for finances was assumed in the faith community.
People were held accountable.

Three quick examples:
One day Jesus sat down with his disciples
directly opposite the temple treasury deposit box,
and not only watched what people dropped in,
but pointed it out to bystanders,
and made comments about it.
Did you see what those rich people put in?
Did you see what that poor widow put in?

Members of the early church, Ananias and Sapphira,
were publicly called out, and punished by God,
for their deceit,
when they didn’t give proper accounting to the church,
for their financial gift.

And when Paul wanted other churches to contribute
to the needy Christians in Jerusalem,
he played one church off another,
the Macedonians off the Corinthians.
He encouraged generosity
by publicly pointing out the generosity of others.

But for us in the church today,
privacy about money is our sacred cow.

No, as I said, I don’t feel called to invite all of you who are curious,
to come over to our house on Thursday,
and scroll through our financial register,
and then advise us on how we plan
to fill out our Faith Promise cards for next Sunday.

I’m not interested in either financial exhibitionism,
or financial voyeurism.
I’m not going to invite you all to look at my personal finances,
because I don’t have that kind of covenant with all of you.
I love you all as my sisters and brothers in Christ.
But I don’t have that level of relational capital
and trust and accountability with all of you,
or you with me.
But if I would say that I can’t imagine opening my books
to anyone else in my covenantal faith community . . .
If I would admit that I have no Christian brother or sister
that I am giving account to . . .
no one in my baptismal covenantal community
that I seek counsel from . . .
then you should begin to wonder about me,
and whether I take my discipleship seriously.
Why are finances off-limit,
when we publicly said at our baptism,
something to the effect that
“we are willing to give and receive counsel
in the congregation?”
and that we “commit ourselves
to our brothers and sisters in the church,
to live in covenant together,
and in obedience to Christ as Lord?”

Is money not part of our obedience?
By what rationale do we say that our use of money and possessions
is somehow off the table,
and not part of our ordinary Christian discipleship?

Is it conceivable, as God’s trustees,
that we might seek counsel from our fellow trustees,
on the matter of how God might wish us
to spend, save, or give away God’s money,
and God’s other material assets
that we are privileged to manage for God?
Is it conceivable, as God’s trustees,
that we might pray with and consult with others,
as part of the process of discerning how we fill out
our 2015 Faith Promises?

It’s probably not conceivable,
if we haven’t already been honestly and authentically
giving and receiving counsel
in other areas of our walk with Christ.

If we haven’t been discussing and praying together
about our vocational choices,
about where and how to live,
about conflict in our families,
about stewardship of our time and energy . . .
then we probably aren’t going to begin
the journey of accountability
by opening up our check book and bank statements.

But if we do have the kind of trusting and covenantal relationships
that help us navigate lots of other challenges of discipleship,
but we have our financial lives under lock and key,
then I wonder if something went wrong somewhere.

Radical way of thinking?
Maybe, for our culture.
But not for biblical people, I would think.
Not for people who think Jesus meant what he said
when he taught his disciples
how to live in the now coming kingdom of God,
a kingdom that consistently confronts
values of the dominant culture.
We may not get all the way there, in one fell swoop.
But what one step might God be calling you, and me,
to make . . .
one step toward a greater obedience,
and greater faithfulness as God’s Trustee?

—Phil Kniss, November 16, 2014


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