By Roger C Lynn, Pastor, The United Church of Moscow, Moscow, Idaho (an American Baptist/Disciples of Christ congregation)
Summary: As God pours out His gifts of grace and love upon us, we respond with everything we do and have—with our whole being.
I. Responding with our lives (Isaiah 6:1-8; Mark 1:16-20)
Stewardship, at the heart of it all, is about everything we do with everything we have, in response to God’s love and grace.
God’s grace and love are abundant. Do you have a list of the abundance of God’s love and grace? If you have enjoyed a sunrise or a sunset, then add that to your list. If you have eyes to see a tree, or ears to hear the song of a bird, or a nose that smells a flower, or a tongue that tastes your favorite food, or skin that feels the wind, then add those to your list. If you have family that loves you, or friends who care about you, or a teacher who gave you the gift of knowledge, or a neighbor who waves and smiles when you walk by, then add that to the list. If you have ever offered a prayer and had a sense that there was someone who heard you, then your list is growing. If you have, in one way or another, experienced the unseen touch of the eternal in the midst of the finite, or if you have become aware of the sacred here among the ordinary, then you have glimpsed a piece of God’s love and grace. If you have ever felt encouraged or comforted or empowered by the knowledge that God loves you, then you understand something of the magnitude of God’s gift.
Everything is a gift from God. Everything we have and everything we are comes to us as a gift from God. This awareness is an important prelude to any discussion about stewardship, because it keeps before us the essential truth that what we do, in whatever specific form it takes, does not spring forth out of thin air and does not exist in isolation. Stewardship is a response that is prompted by an impulse of gratitude. It is saying yes to God because God has first said yes to us. Remembering this helps prevent our efforts from becoming drudgery or an obligation. It serves to remind us that stewardship, like faith itself, is primarily a relational matter. It emerges out of and occurs within the context of the relationship we share with God.
In the dramatic story of Isaiah’s heavenly vision, we watch as he moves from being overwhelmed by the presence of God to experiencing the transforming power of God’s unconditional grace to responding to God’s call to action. In all of that experience, God is always the primary foundation upon which everything else is built. It is an awareness of who God is, and what God has done that prompts Isaiah to respond, Here am I—send me! (Is 6:8). And that is stewardship—choosing to respond to God with his life.
In the story from Mark’s gospel about Jesus calling the first disciples, we find a different kind of picture, but the same results. The scene here is far more ordinary and mundane than the heavenly throne room in Isaiah’s vision. It is just Jesus walking by the Sea of Galilee, encountering men working on their fishing boats. You and I can identify with this scene in many ways—it is an example of how the holy is experienced in the midst of our everyday living. There is nothing dramatic about the experience, but there is something about it that is powerfully compelling. Jesus simply says Follow me, and they respond not with words, but with decisive action. Something beyond description (and probably even beyond explanation) leads them to make significant life changes as they choose to follow—thus beginning a journey they could not possibly comprehend. And that is stewardship—choosing to respond to the God whom they experienced in Jesus.
Every response is unique and personal. And what then of us? How does all of this play out in our lives today? There are no concrete and definite answers, for the answers will be different for each of us. Isaiah experienced God in his own unique and personal way and thus responded as only Isaiah could have responded. Simon, Andrew, James and John each encountered God in Jesus from their own perspective and responded with a life that was uniquely theirs. And so it will be for us. To answer the question, How can I respond to God? We must first ask of ourselves, How have I experienced God? What are the gifts you have been given? What are the needs that catch your attention? What are the dreams that won’t let you go? The answers to questions such as these will go a long way towards providing the answer of how you can respond to God. But whatever specific shape your individual response takes on, always remember that it is a matter of stewardship—everything we do with everything we have. Such a perspective will help us experience all of life as an encounter with the holy!
I. Responding with what we keep (Psalm 96; Matthew 25:14-27)
For most people, most of the time, stewardship is not a subject they give much thought to. Stewardship is not exactly a fun and popular topic of party conversation. Stewardship tends to focus primarily on giving—whether it be time, talents, or money. Stewardship is often connected with issues such as proportionate giving, generous giving, and sacrificial giving. Or we look at reasons for giving such as generosity, gratitude, responsibility, and faith. Or we turn our attention to what can be accomplished when we give—things like supporting worthy causes, helping people who are hurting, providing resources to teach our children, and maintaining the church building. All these are vital aspects of stewardship, worthy of our attention, and not to be undermined. But for a moment, let’s look at another side of stewardship—a side which often attracts far less of our attention but occupies a significant portion of our lives. Let us look at stewardship in terms of what we do with what we keep.
We are called to be faithful. If we are called to be faithful in giving away a portion of what God has given us, then are we not also called to be just as faithfully responsible with the portion that remains in our control? I believe the answer is yes. Over and over again in scripture there is a clear sense that we are called to respond to God with our whole lives. The Psalms speak about giving thanks to God with our whole being. The prophet Micah tells us the Lord wants us to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). In response to a question about which is the greatest commandment, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul and mind and strength (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37). The focus is always on the wholeness of life and the reality that all of living is a matter of faith.
It is in this context that Jesus tells the story of the man who entrusts a portion of his wealth into the care of his slaves. In the end, it is a story about the responsibility of being stewards of that with which we have been entrusted. What we choose to do with our lives, or what we allow fear to keep us from doing, is finally what is important—not because such choices and actions will somehow earn us a ticket into God’s kingdom, but because God has designed life to work best and be experienced most fully and richly when we live it intentionally, with our priorities ordered towards enabling everyone to experience fullness of life.
Stewardship transforms life. So, what does it mean to be responsible stewards with what we keep? In concrete, practical terms, how do we begin to allow faith to shape and order the whole of our living? For many of us, it will not involve drastic or dramatic changes in how our lives already are. If you have made an effort to make decisions in your life that are in keeping with your faith, then such faith will already be evident. None of us are perfect and there is always room for growth; but for many of us, faithful living is already a part of who we are. In another sense, however, taking seriously the idea of stewardship in all of life will transform our entire experience of faith. It will enliven even the mundane aspects of our life by affirming the connections with the divine source of all of life. It enhances our sense of purpose in life as we remember that everything we do holds meaning and makes a difference.
Practicing such stewardship is not always easy. Sometimes it means spending more time and energy making decisions. Sometimes it means making unpopular choices. Sometimes it means living with the uncertainty of not knowing for sure what is best in a situation. But we can move forward with the confidence that we are never alone and we are always loved. Because we are talking about the ways in which faith impacts virtually every aspect of our living, it would be impossible to cover the subject even in a superficial way. But a few examples provide a sense of what such an approach to life might look like.
Stewardship means being intentional. Time is a resource each of us can use. Every day we have 24 hours that can be used in a variety of ways. The choices we make about how we spend our time have direct implications regarding faith and our experience of life. We have choices in how we spend our time and those choices impact not only our lives, but also the lives of those with whom we share life. It’s easy to fall into unhealthy habits simply because we don’t pay attention. Good stewardship means being intentional about our choices and decisions.
Another aspect of such stewardship has to do with how we use our money. Our personal budgets reflect our faith, perhaps much more than we would care to admit. What is important to us? What are we choosing to support with the resources at our disposal? A good question to keep before us (regarding not only money, but also all of the other life choices we might review) is, Will the results of this choice enhance my life and the lives of others in the world, or will it detract from an experience of abundant life for me or for others? Such a question keeps open a wide range of possibilities, while maintaining a sense of connection with the rest of creation and with God. It becomes a balancing act. Some of our choices in life will directly enhance the quality of life for others (volunteering in an elementary school or a crisis center, for example) while other choices will be directed more towards ourselves (joining a health club or renting a movie might fit in this category). But in all of the various ways we use the resources of our lives—time, money, talents—an attitude of stewardship will keep before us a desire to enhance life rather than detract from it. So, even in our choices which seem most personal, we will want to reflect on the impact we might be making, both in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. The real point is that such decisions are taken seriously and examined from a perspective of faith. How is my faith being lived out in this particular choice? How we relate to our children, how much time we spend at work, where we invest our savings, the kinds of things we do for entertainment, the car we buy, the way we treat our neighbors—all of these represent choices we make in our everyday lives. And they all have something to say about our faith. It is not just a question of whether we are stewards of what we have been given in this life. It is a question of what kind of stewards we are being. How are you responding to God with what you keep?
II. Responding with what we give (2 Corinthians 8:1-7; 1 Peter 4:10-11)
We get a little bit uncomfortable when we start talking about money and giving. Indeed, our culture has the negative perception that the church is always talking about money (usually in the form of asking for some of yours). And such a perception is not completely without justification. The church has not always been very responsible with this message, but a strong case can be made that the church has a responsibility to talk about the whole issue of stewardship, including money and giving, in the strongest and most persistent terms possible. Stewardship is not an option in our lives. We are stewards of the gifts that God has given us. That is simply a given reality, built into the very fabric of our lives by our creator. What will we do with the trust that has been given to us?
We are created in God’s image. The foundation was laid down the moment when God decided on the fundamental shape of humanity. The creation of human beings is described this way, ?Then God said? ?Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’? (Gen. 2:26). With that decision to build the nature of God into the very core of our being, the mold was set for stewardship. Since we are created in God’s image and likeness, and since God is, among many other things, both giving and loving, then by definition we were created with a basic need to give. It is a part of who we are. To deny that need is to be less than what God intends us to be.
There is joy in giving. A minister worked closely with a couple on the wedding plans over a fairly extended period of time. The actual event was a small, family-oriented service, which was very meaningful for those who participated. The next day the newly married couple stopped by his office to thank him for his help and to give him some money as a thank you gift. He told them that working with them had been a privilege and he would like for them to keep the money. They responded by telling him, Our joy will not be complete unless you accept our gift. That attitude is at the heart of Christian stewardship. Our joy will not be complete unless we can respond by giving something in return. Not only have we been created to give, but we have also been given an overwhelming abundance and variety of gifts with which to respond to this built-in need. John 3:16 tells the story—For God so loved the world that he gave.? From that basic foundation comes our understanding that ultimately all good gifts come from God. Our gifts are not all the same and they are not always easy to discern, but we can be confident that they are waiting for us to discover. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us (Rom. 12:6). It is only when we bring all our gifts together that the ultimate gift of God’s grace can be fully realized and experienced in our lives and in the world. We each hold a piece of the gift, but the combined whole is definitely greater than the individual parts. We have been created to give. We have been blessed with the gifts and the resources to give. And we have been called to give in service. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received (1 Peter 4:10). Paul describes this attitude of stewardship to the Corinthian Church as he tells them about the churches in Macedonia. They voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints (2 Cor. 8:3-4). Ultimately, the purpose for our gifts and the reason for our giving are found in serving one another in the name of God. It is an economy of abundance and a worldview based on love as the central and defining principle. It is a privilege in which we can discover joy.
Giving is important to our spiritual health. How then, can the church not talk about stewardship and giving? Stewardship and giving are as important to our spiritual health as prayer and Bible reading. It is a theme that is at the very heart of what it means to be human beings who have been created by God in His image. It is an essential part of what it means to be in relationship with God. And it is a vital component of the life that God calls us to live in response to the grace that God has revealed to us. We are people who have been abundantly blessed. The question then before us is, How will we respond? We have an opportunity to take an important step towards responding. Will we be faithful in offering our gifts to God? Will we be faithful in using our gifts to serve? Prayerfully consider ways in which you can be intentional and generous. Stewardship is everything we do with everything we have and as stewards of God’s grace, we have been called to serve with all our gifts.