Stewardship

So I was afraid

A sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid.”

The gospel lesson today is another of Jesus’ parables. I have said before that Jesus’ parables are not allegories about God—they are stories. In this parable, it would be a particularly bad mistake to think of the man with all the property as God, because this is a story about slavery, and the relationship of human masters and slaves.

Why is there so much about slavery in the New Testament and why is it stated in such a matter-of-fact fashion? Because the economy of the Roman Empire was completely dependent on slavery, at least 10 percent of the population of the empire, and 30-to-40 percent in some areas. Ignoring slaves would be as unreasonable as ignoring the existence of people who make their living at fast food chains or as laborers working for close to minimum wage.  Some people did ignore slaves, treating them as though they were invisible, but for Jesus and the early Christians, slaves were fully human; what happened to them mattered.

This parable takes the form of a folk tale, in which two characters are used to set up the story, while the third character is used for the punchline.  So, I want to just look at the third slave’s situation.  He was afraid. Slavery was quite common, but it was also common for slave-owners to beat, abuse or humiliate their slaves. This was a slave-owner known to be harsh, perhaps even proud of it. We can be sympathetic with this enslaved man; the consequences of his master’s wrath might be very harsh indeed.

The slave was entrusted with a lot of money, basically a cubic foot of silver or gold (and at that time, silver was rarer than now, almost as precious as gold). The amounts might be exaggerated for effect, but it wasn’t unusual for some slaves to be entrusted with important responsibilities, including handling their master’s money. When a story in the New Testament refers to a steward, it’s almost always about a senior slave entrusted with administration of the master’s property. So it was a big responsibility: a bucket of precious metal belonging to an unforgiving owner. And the slave focused on that beating and his fear of it. And in his fear, he thought of nothing except avoiding the risk of punishment and all he could think of was not losing that treasure.  He thought the safest thing was to bury it, I suppose in a place where no one would look.

If you look at the top of the story, it says that the master entrusted his property to the three slaves—in other words, he gave it to them to manage. That was certainly how the first two understood it. In any kind of management, it is important to balance various kinds of risks, to use good judgement, make plans and use your resources prudently. Excessive risk is not good—the 100% return on investment that the first two delivered seems large, probably exaggerated, but we can assume that it was wise and not reckless trading—things would not have gone well for the slave who lost two or five talents of his master’s money. But anyone who works professionally in risk management will tell you that there is no way to eliminate 100% of risk, indeed if all your energy and resources goes into eliminating one risk, you are certain to fall victim to another risk … or simply cease to function. The third slave, in seeking to eliminate his risk, was left with only his fear … and his worst fears were realized. There were all sorts of possibilities for him, clearly the climate for trading was good for the others, he had plenty of resources, there were safe investments to make. Yet his fear took him in the direction of what he feared, and he lived in misery and without hope.

I’ve been asked to talk about stewardship this morning. As stewards of God’s bounty, we are called to a life that is free of fear. We live in the blessing of God’s mercy, and our lives are filled with hope, with realistic hope. Hope is not about wanting resources without limits—that is the province of what our psalm today calls “the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.” Christian hope is based on a community of generosity emerging from God’s mercy and love, generosity right now, in whatever situation of plenty or privation we might find ourselves. We have God’s mercy, and in this community we have more than enough; we have more than enough because God’s love binds us together, we can live and have no need to fear. We live in Christ’s love and in that we have the imagination to be able to help and care for others—we don’t focus on fearfulness and put our resources in the ground out of reach and out of use.

On this consecration Sunday, I encourage you all to consider your whole lives, all of the ways in which you are interconnected with others, all of your responsibilities. Spiritually we are called to love God in every sector of our lives, and to be good managers of the abundance of mercy that God has entrusted to us. Remember that we are all accountable to one another—it is in becoming trustworthy companions to one another that we discover the joy of God’s generosity and live in God’s hope.

St. Paul put it this way, in this letter to Thessalonica, one of the very earliest of Christian writings:

Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

 

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For the saints of God are just folk like me …

A sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 6, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

 

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

 

st-james-saintsToday we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. So what do we mean by Saints? The word “saint” means “Holy” as in holy people. Popularly that’s sort of understood as meaning that saints are some kind of Christian super-heroes, totally divorced and apart from anything that ordinary people could be, or would want to be. I’ll talk more about that later. But in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament, the saints are all of the holy people of God, and every one of them is made holy, not by being some sort of hero, but by the action of God who makes all of us holy through his Son Jesus Christ.

The Gospel lesson today is for and about those saints, ordinary people, living ordinary lives. It is the beginning of Jesus’ teaching: in the Gospel of Matthew it’s called the Sermon on the Mount, but here in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has come down from the mountain to a flat plain—maybe it’s a sermon to California’s Central Valley? Anyway, this part of it is called the Beatitudes—the blessings, or the description of those who are blessed. Sometimes people take these Beatitudes one at a time, but really, taken together they are Jesus’ outline of the spirituality of the Christian life.

So why does it start “Blessed are the poor?” Who are the poor? — They are those who have little or nothing left to lose. The more that people and organizations have that they might lose, the more afraid they become of risking those things for the sake of the Kingdom of God. But it is the Kingdom of God that gives life, not the things that we might have lost or might lose.

Likewise, those who are hungry. They don’t have enough to eat—they have to seek out that food—and really, in this world, sometimes people do not find it. It is for them that Jesus is concerned—in the Kingdom of God they will be satisfied.

And in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus emphasizes these things by pronouncing woe on those who are the opposite: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”  For those of us who are well-fed and not poor, that can be difficult to hear.

Jesus does not allow us to take comfort in our complacency or to fail to respect those who are hungry or poor just as we respect ourselves.

This is not to say that we should not rejoice in the good things that God has given us, and when we lose important things or people who are dear to us that we should not mourn. “Blessed are those who weep now, for you will laugh.” There is no one who does not lose: friends, loved ones, and hopes that are deeply valued—we are blessed during our tears by the compassion of God.  We mourn and we hurt. The comfort that God gives does not take that hurt away, or explain away our sorrow. God comforts us by traveling the road with us, healing our hurts and giving mercy. Our Christian spirituality takes seriously the losses of everyone; of every person. Laughter and derision because we are not the ones who are in pain or loss—that kind of laughter brings woe. It is not of the Kingdom of God.

And the last of the beatitudes: “Blessed are you when people hate you, exclude you or revile you…” This completes the Christian spirituality that Jesus is presenting—it is so easy to fall into presenting ourselves in ways that will get a positive response, regardless of whether it is compassionate, or truthful. Insisting on respect for all people; regarding the poor and hungry as the same as the rich, the powerful, and the popular; doing those things openly can be frightening, they can trigger all sorts of responses, even hatred.  Just ask Jesus. But believe me, Jesus is not the only example.

How do we live our lives as Christians? He says, “Love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” In the New Testament, and especially in the Gospel of Luke, Love is not about how you feel. How do you love your enemies? Do good to those who hate you. Seek to improve the world around you, don’t be deterred by the scoffing of others. As we struggle to find just a little bit of justice or righteousness in the church or in the world, we would become embittered and lost, were it not for God’s mercy to us, guiding us into the path of being merciful human beings. For who can be just or righteous in this world? It is certainly not those who are always convinced of their own rightness. It is in dwelling in that mercy that we can approach pureness in our heart and mind, perhaps getting a glimpse of what God has in store.

Jesus invites us all, not to some sort of heroic sainthood, but to a holiness of life that values his kingdom above all else. Many of the saints we remember were martyrs—St. Sebastian is one and, more recently Archbishop Oscar Romero, are a couple who come to mind. Not all saints, however, died for their faith, the word martyrs is a translation of the word “witness” or “confessor.” We often think of them as somehow having religious superpowers. But in reality they were not superheroes—they were Christian people. There are many that you run into each day that are just as good, just as faithful. The real characteristic of saints is that they continue to seek the kingdom with Jesus—even when, to put it in down-to-earth terms—they had a really bad day. And, because of the circumstances of their holding fast to their faith in a time of great trouble, or because they were such eloquent witnesses to the faith—or both—they have been enshrined through the ages.

But what does all this mean to us in our church here in our present-day world?

I often think about the small Episcopal Church I attended when I was a kid in Idaho. This church had no important programs, no fine choir, not much to brag about. But we did sing out of the hymnal, and it was that music, as poorly performed as it might have been, that sustained my spirit through the years. One of my favorite hymns in my childhood was the one we just sang for the gospel hymn. Perhaps the text may seem limited to early twentieth century England, but for me the images emphasize how ordinary people participate in that great cloud of witnesses that is the communion of saints: “for the saints of God are just folk like me and I mean to be one too.”

Together, we are the community of Jesus’ saints. Not superheroes or champions. Every bit as scruffy and in need of support as the homeless, the hungry and the infirm who we might encounter. Together we worship God. Together we serve the saints, and even serve those who scoff at the saints. Each of us, may from time to time be hungry, impoverished, unable to love, or be devastated by loss. At St. James, we live the Gospel, in all the real-world messiness that entails. This small assembly in the communion of saints upholds one another, welcomes the stranger and is blessed by God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.

This Sunday, our stewardship committee has asked all of us saints to commit ourselves to the support of this community where Christ accomplishes his blessing far more than any of us would be able to do individually.

After the announcements we will begin our offertory by asking each person or family to bring forward your pledge card and put it on the altar. Each person’s financial circumstances are different. We are all blessed in our poverty and in our generosity. As we all offer what we have on the altar, we are blessed by God.