“The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1)
In late summer Brent (Damrow, our pastor) called me and ask me to preach today as “a witnessing steward.” He said the concept, which was used at Old South Church when he was there, was to have someone with an outsider’s view help the congregation think about stewardship.
I said I would glad to do it, but I didn’t know how much of an outsider’s view it would be since Martha and I had decided to join the church the next time new members were received. Brent assured me that it would be all right, but little did I know it would be on the very same day. Later in this service I will remove my robe and join the other new members. So in these last minutes of my outsider status let me share with you some thoughts about stewardship.
I have preached many stewardship sermons, but this is the first time I have ever preached one where I wasn’t the pastor, and I have to tell you it is very liberating. Since the pastor’s salary is typically one of the largest items in a congregation’s budget, as it should be, we ministers sometimes feel sheepish about preaching on stewardship, as if people might think we have an ulterior motive. So here I am; I don’t need a job or seek a raise. I come to you as one without guile.
But I do have an agenda, and since I come without guile, I’ll tell you what it is. I want to accomplish two things in this sermon. The first thing I want to do is give you a clear understanding of what Christian stewardship is. And the second thing I want to do is to share ideas that will help you be a Christian steward.
So, first things first. What is stewardship? Both Claire and Joanne, in their eloquent testimonies the past two Sundays about what this congregation means to them, expressed that their dictionaries weren’t much help in explaining stewardship. I figured out the problem: they needed a Bible dictionary, and I just happen to have one, two, actually.
Here’s what I found. The principal Greek word for steward is oikonomos. It has the same root from which we get our English words “economy” and “economics.”
The oikonomos was the servant, typically a slave in Jesus’ time, who took care of any household of note. He was entrusted to take care of what belonged to the master. In the Book of Genesis Joseph was steward to Potiphar’s household in Egypt. Everyone in Jesus’s day would have known the term, a house manager who takes care of what belongs to the master.
Now our English word steward is what we call a dynamic equivalent translation. There wasn’t a word in English that meant exactly what oikonomos meant in Greek. So when Tyndale and the other early translators of the Bible were casting about for an equivalent they came up with steward, which originally comes from the Old English “stie-weard.” “Sty” is the pen where the pigs were kept, pigsty being one of my mother’s favorite metaphors for my room when I was a teenager. And we know “ward” from words like warden, the one in charge. So “a sty-ward,” a steward is literally “the keeper of the pigpen” Not very elegant, but there it is.
Are you still with me? Good! So we’ve established that the steward is entrusted to look after the master’s possessions. A Christian steward is entrusted with the things that belong to God.
So what belongs to God? This is where we need a good refresher course in theology 101, and especially a good doctrine of creation. And here I turn to the beginning of Psalm 24. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” Or for you old timers who grew up on the King James Version, as I did, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” Either way, what belongs to God? (Someone shouts out “everything!”) That’s right, everything!
The great creeds of the church say the same thing, “We believe in God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things, visible and invisible.”
So you see the weight of these important words, steward and stewardship. They mean the taking care of everything of God’s, and I could preach a whole sermon on the environmental and ecological implications of Christian stewardship, but that’s a sidebar for you to muse on. I expect Brent will do that at some point.
I want to say one more thing about stewardship before I get practical with you and it is this. The steward is expected to make good use of the things with which he or she is entrusted. The keeper of the pigs doesn’t just sit there and watch them in the pigsty. No, the steward must feed them, protect them from predators, and see that they are healthy.
There is an active quality to stewardship. We see that in the reading you just heard, the Parable of the Talents. The servant who buried his money in a field was untrustworthy, not worthy of trust, because he passively protected the money and didn’t actively seek to make it prosper.
So stewardship is the active tending of everything God entrusts to us, which is everything.
And the steward is the one who does it.
You can see it’s a pretty big job! So Part Two of this sermon is to give you some guidance on how to be a trustworthy steward.
But you may be asking, “OK, Rick, I get it, but if stewardship is such a big category and means taking care of everything of God’s, the air, the water, the earth, our health, why in the church does it always lead to talking about money?”
And that’s a great question. And I have a great one-word answer for that: Jesus.
Did you know that Jesus talked about money more than any other topic except the kingdom of God. Why do we think that is? Because he knew the symbolic power of money, and its perils and risks for the disciple. “You can’t serve God and money,” he once said, and he meant not just the physical money, but mammon, who is the personification of wealth, the god of money.
Because Jesus knew money could be an idol. Remember the rich young ruler who went away sorrowful from Jesus because he was too attached to his money, and the rich fool who built bigger barns to store his wealth? These stories and parables Jesus tells are warnings about spiritual health. Because he knew that money can be a bar to discipleship.
Or it can be a bridge. Jesus also said, “Where you treasure is there will your heart be also.” So we have too often sold stewardship backwards when we say, “the church needs your money,” since the more important need is for you to give money to the church.
So the crucial stewardship question for each of us is not, “How much of what I possess shall I give to God?” The crucial stewardship question for each of us is, “How much of everything God has entrusted to me will I keep for myself?.”
And I promised you I would help you with some ideas on how to be a Christian steward, and now I will. Let us think on what are the values or attributes of Christian stewardship that we find in the Bible. I can identify several:
- Christian stewardship is intentional. You need a plan. If you wait to look into your purse or wallet in the parking lot to see what’s in there for God, you need to work on that. That is why we will provide you with a pledge card that is simply a written record of your intention for the year.
- Christian stewardship is regular. Now you have a plan, you need to follow it. To give each week in worship will also remind you of what you are doing; you are being a trustworthy steward.
- Christian stewardship is generous. In many mainline churches such as our UCC the average pledge is somewhere between 1 and 2 percent of income. It will be hard for a congregation to flourish with poor stewardship like that, and again, I’m not talking about the budget, but about the level of discipleship. Whatever your level of giving it needs to be generous.
- Christian stewardship means giving God our best: the first fruits of what we have received. We don’t give to God the leftovers; we give off the top. In the agricultural world of the Bible the first fruits meant bringing the early crop to God as a thanksgiving, and a reminder where it had come from. The farmers consecrated the crop before God, and likewise we can consecrate our life and work before God. The great J. S. Bach wrote the Latin words soli Deo Gloria on every piece of music he ever wrote, sacred or secular, because to him his work was for the glory of God. He consecrated his work before God.
- Christian stewardship is proportional. Remember the widow’s mite? Nowhere in the Bible does it say, “Give fifty-two bucks.” What it does say is “give in proportion to what you have received.” The Biblical tithe, or ten percent, is the most obvious example, but for some a tithe would be easily done and for others, impossible. Whatever we give it should be proportional to our ability to give and to that which God has entrusted to us.
- I saved the best for last. Christian stewardship is cheerful. “The Lord loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7) When we change the way we think about stewardship from a theology of scarcity to a theology of abundance, something mysterious happens. Giving becomes a personal act of faith for each of us, and a shared act of the compassionate community for all of us. God has provided us with plenty. And if we can enlarge the pie of our available resources by faithful stewardship we can then do more for the glory of God, more for our church, more for our communities, and more for the world. Because God wants more for us and for this congregation than mere survival. God wants us to flourish, and has provided us with more than enough to do so.
So, in conclusion, if I’ve done my job here, you know what a steward is, and you know how to be one. I invite you to enjoy the process of thinking and praying about how you will use all that the master has given.
And as you do so, recall those words that Jesus said the master spoke to the good stewards: ‘Well done, good and trustworthy servants. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ Amen.
I preached this sermon at First Congregational Church UCC, Stockbridge, Massachusetts on October 27, 2013.
(Photo: R.L. Floyd. Somewhere in NW Iowa)