Recently I participated in a “Teach-In” with Diana Butler Bass. Over the course of three seminars, we revisited Diana’s seminal work entitled, “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and The Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.” This book was first published in 2012 so we are approaching its tenth anniversary. Some of the statistics have changed but overall, the foundation of this book has propelled Diana to write three additional books delving deeper into some of the key themes she explores in the original book.
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof (Psalm 24:1).
From the opening chapters of Genesis to the end of Revelation, the Bible teaches us that God is the creator and owner of all things. It also teaches that we are trustees (stewards) and accountable to the owner. Jesus’ parables often emphasize this theme. Whether it is the parable of the householder (Matthew 20:1-16), the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), or the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), the message is the same: God is the owner and master, we are the trustees and servants.
We are a generation of recycling bins. Many of us have taken on the challenge of having bins in our garages where we sift and sort the glass bottles, the aluminum cans, the plastic, and the cardboard. In some of our communities, we have one-stream recycling bins trusting that the sorting and recycling is happening once it has been picked up at our home.
A couple of years ago, Farley Lord, Associate Minister of Stewardship, and Christian Peele, Executive Minister of Institutional Advancement, at Riverside Church in New York City expressed a sentiment that is often overlooked about the core of Stewardship. Simply said, “Stewardship is Love!” Stewardship is a spiritual practice!
“Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful in a few things,
I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
In the Parable of the Talents, we are reminded that we are called to steward that which God has entrusted into our care. We are called to receive what we have been given, nurture and grow it, share with those in need, and return to God what belongs to God having been faithful stewards of many things.
Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.
I Peter 4:10
So much has happened in the past month, and our calendars and lists of activities have completely changed. We have replaced daily and weekly meetings at the church to Zoom meetings and conference calls. Worship has gone from weekly gatherings to video or recorded events. Sessions are meeting virtually. Everything looks a bit different than it usually does this time of year.
Some stewardship committees focus most of their attention on the fall Stewardship emphasis. Frankly, that’s plenty of work. But our calling as stewardship leaders is not just to the fall “ask.” We are also called to help shape the identity of stewards among our peers and as a community. We are entrusted with many assets, some of which are physical (like buildings and money) and some of which are relational (like our congregational community or our congregational mission). All of these are inflection points where we can invite others to think and act like stewards.
Stewardship is not just a way of life; it is a good way of life. In fact, for many, it is a way to a better life. Stewardship means belonging to God. It means allowing God to rule our lives, putting God in charge of everything, including our time and our money. Surrendering control does not come easily to any of us. But God is good at ruling people’s lives. If we really do belong to God and if we really do put God in charge of everything, we will not be the worse for it.
Recently Minner Serovy, one of the Ministry Relations Officers for the Presbyterian Foundation, shared an interesting experience she encountered while participating in a panel for an adult education class. The opening question was, “Is the church a business?” All the other panelists were members of the church where the panel was taking place, and all were businesspeople. They explained their reasons for thinking of the church as business. With some discomfort, Minner said, “I could not find my way to agreement.”
One of the blessings we receive from God is that our faith causes us to strive to be more godly people. When I think about this from a Stewardship perspective, this means that what God does for us, God then enables us to do for others. For example, the phrase we know so well from 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because he first loved us.” Playing with that wording, we also might say, “We promise because he first promised us.” God in Christ has offered humankind a splendid promise, which we in turn can offer others. In so doing, we as believers become stewards of the promise.
One of the lectionary readings for the last Sunday of the calendar year is I Samuel 2:18-20, 26 which begins by addressing the power of a promise. Hannah is a barren woman who prays fervently to God for a child. The story also relates that Hannah’s husband, Elkanah has another wife, Peninnah. She has children, but Hannah has none. Peninnah taunts Hannah incessantly. For years Hannah has bargained with God to dedicate any child to God’s service if God will give her a child. This was Hannah’s promise to God. The biblical text tells us, “In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord’” (1:20).
This is often the time of year when many of us make New Year’s resolutions. We resolve to make promises to ourselves, others, or even God. Unfortunately, breaking promises happens easier than keeping them. We have become so familiar with broken promises that we see promise-breaking as a likely human failing, and we are pessimistic when someone offers us yet another promise. We are often hesitant to make promises for fear that we will not be able to keep those promises and cannot bear the guilt of falling short.
The promises we make before God and one another help us recall that a promise is a pledge or a covenant. So reliable stewards learn to know what it means to manage our promises. We promise our children at baptism that we will raise them in a Christian home and place them in the worshiping community. The church promises to help raise them and teach them the faith. We promise to “love, cherish, and honor” one another in the church’s marriage ritual. We build strong families on such promises.
Think about the vows we take to become faithful members of a congregation. When we promise to be faithful to our church community, we promise to be loyal to it with our prayers, presence, gifts and service. We build a strong church by way of that promise. Genuine church growth is not numerical. It is a result of people keeping their vows to God. It is a result of true faithfulness to the promises we have made in response to God’s promises to us. Israel’s history changed because Hannah made a promise to God and kept it.
As we approach a new year, I think we are called to pause and consider the importance and freeing exercise of making promises. A promise is what makes us who we are and what we are to become with God’s help. Perhaps our promise to God comes in the form of a pledge to the ministries of this congregation. Perhaps it is a commitment to teach a Sunday school class. We promise to be more faithful in worship, to attend regularly, to join in the ministries of the church and be engaged in Christian relationships and fellowship. These promises are part of what God has called us to steward, to manage and care for our own spiritual lives and to care for one another.
This year when you think about making promises, consider most importantly the promises you are making to God. How can we be good stewards of the promises we make? How can we live out those promises in the most faithful way possible? What will your promise be to God in the coming year? How will you steward those promises?
May you be blessed during this Christmas season, and may you experience the promises of God in a special way!
Associate for Stewardship for the Presbytery of the James
(Excerpts taken from “The Stewardship Companion: Lectionary Resources for Preaching” by David N. Mosser)