Based on Judges 4:1-7, 1Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30
Many United Methodist churches are using worship today as the end of their “season” of stewardship. They have conducted their pledge drives over the preceding weeks and this is the day where everyone turns in their “pledge card” in a formal ceremony usually during the Offering. The robust term of “stewardship” has too often been limited to the act of pledging a monthly or annual monetary gift – neglecting the other aspects of what it means to be a faithful steward. Thankfully, the churches of this Charge have an understanding that stewardship is not just a single day commitment of giving for the next year, but rather the ongoing oversight and caretaking of all that God has entrusted to you. Stewardship is the realization that we are all called to continuously share our time, talents, gifts, service and our witness in order to further the work of God in our world. Stewardship, when seen in this light, is the fulfillment of what God charged Adam and Eve to do on behalf of all that God had created. Faithful stewards are those who care for what the Master has given them to protect, maintain and improve in order to bring honor to all.
Faithful stewards in the United Methodist tradition follow the teachings of John Wesley on how believers were to conduct themselves in the world. Wesley taught that followers of Jesus the Christ should live by three simple rules: (1) first do no harm, (2) do good and (3) attend upon the ordinances of God (by which he meant consistently participate in public worship, partake of Holy Communion and fasting, listen to the Word preached, have consistent family and private prayer time, and routinely read the holy scriptures). Attending to the ordinances of God (i.e., working on our relationship with God) would thus deepen the loving relationship between God and human and through God’s grace, move the believer on towards salvation (i.e., growing into the mind and heart of Jesus). Our scripture readings today offer us views of what faith-filled stewardship looks like versus a hit-or-miss approach to loving God and neighbor. Before we go any further, let us go to God in prayer asking for God to open our hearts and minds so that we might become ever more faithful stewards…
Last week’s First Testament reading was Joshua exhorting the Israelites to make and follow a covenant to serve the God of Abraham. Joshua made them swear three times to do this. It took all of about a half of a chapter into the Book of Judges for the Israelites to fail to follow their agreed covenant – that is, they failed in their stewardship. The Book of Judges presages the remainder of the First Testament’s story of how the people of God “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD”, so God punishes them, they cry out to God for relief from the oppressor, and God appoints a new leader to deliver them and bring them back to God. In our reading for today we meet the prophetess and judge, Deborah. Israel has once again left the God of Abraham behind for other gods and have been oppressed for twenty years by the Canaanites. Deborah tells the leader Barak that God will deliver the Canaanite army into his hand if he will gather 10,000 men and travel to the Wadi Kishon. All he has to do is be a good steward of what has been given him and God will bring him success.
The Epistle to the Thessalonians reminds the believers that Jesus is coming back soon. Building on what Paul had previously written, he notes that those who are good stewards are children of the light and will be awake and alert – watching expectantly for the second coming. They will be sober and conduct themselves with faith, hope in salvation and love – encouraging and building up one another while they wait.
Jesus continues his challenging parables in Matthew’s Gospel. Hard on the end of the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, he tells the story about a wealthy Lord who is leaving on a journey. Before he leaves, he instructs three servants to be stewards of his property and he gives the servants an enormous amount of money, each according to his ability. To one he gives five Talents (an amount approximately equal to 75 years worth of wages), to another 30 years of wages and to the third, 15 years of wages. The master then went away for an extended time and while he was gone, the first two servants each stewarded their resources and doubled the master’s gift. The third, not wanting to lose any of the master’s money, buried it until the master returned. Upon his return, the master rewarded the two servants who increased his wealth and punished the one who returned what he was given.
What is the take-away from these three scripture readings with regard to our call to be faithful stewards of what God has given us? It is an easy and obvious approach for preachers to simply say that God rewards those who make use of the extraordinary gifts that God gives each of us, and punishes those who never put their gifts to use for the kingdom. Many sermons will be preached this day using that very theme. Yet that does a disservice, in my considered opinion, to the complexity of our relationship to God, to each other and to our understanding of how we are continuously called to identify our gifts and use them in conjunction with God to bring about God’s kingdom.
To illustrate my point here, let’s consider the dynamic relationship between God and the Israelites as depicted in the First Testament. Time and again, the Israelites lose sight of the beneficence of God and do evil in God’s sight – they chase after other earthly gods and forget from whom all their blessings flow. In Wesleyan terms, they lose sight of the role of God’s grace in their lives. God then punishes them and leaves them oppressed until their hearts are broken open and they cry out to God for intervention. Then God, out of God’s unconditional and unlimited grace, raises up a leader to bring the people out of oppression. For a time, the people remember God and celebrate God’s gifts and presence in their lives, and then they revert to previous behaviors. They are a fickle people who are easily distracted and whose stewardship reflects their lack of commitment to God.
All human interactions of any length and depth are characterized by a dynamic perception of how close the two people feel. At any moment in the relationship, one party may feel closer to the other. Sometimes both feel quite close and at other times both feel very distant. If there is an underlying strong commitment between the two partners, then even at the distant times they are still connected strongly enough to come back together. Our relationship to God is somewhat similar, except the perception of how close we are is all one-sided – it is all in our minds. This is because God’s grace keeps God’s commitment to us strong, ever ready for us when we once again seek out a relationship with God. It is always our commitment to God and to being faithful stewards of our time, talent, gifts, service and witness which changes.
The biblical witness from the earliest writings on, showcases a faithful and loving God who is pursuing humans who struggle with their faith and their feelings of love for God – and thus with their stewardship on behalf of God. This is where many of us struggle as well, kind of like the third servant. Afterall, it wasn’t that the timid servant in Jesus’ parable did anything wrong (i.e., he didn’t lose any of his master’s money) and he wasn’t given much money in the first place because he didn’t have as much ability as his fellow servants. The issue at hand was that he didn’t take the opportunity to even give it to a banker to get a minimal return. In essence, to put it in Paul’s terminology, he was asleep at the wheel or inebriated with the concerns of life, and thus became “destined for wrath”.
The same is true for us. In the United States we are blessed with significant per capita wealth compared to many parts of the world. Case in point, United Methodists in the U.S. give enough money to support 70% of the work of the Denomination around the world. Where I see our stewardship lacking is in the non-monetary areas – sharing of our time, gifts, service and witness. Most of us are doing no harm to ourselves, but how about harm to others and to our relationship with God? We’re also not doing all the good that we could, and many are not fully committed to practicing all the ordinances of God. We do not invest enough time “encouraging one another and building each other up” – especially in this time where we must keep ourselves physically distant in order to do no harm to each other. Consider today, at the close of this liturgical year, how you will improve your stewardship of your time, talents, gifts, service and witness – the whole of your spiritual self in the coming year. The more of yourself you invest with God and your neighbor the more you will realize like Paul, “that whether you are awake or asleep you [we] may live” with God. Amen and amen!