Monday, March 27, 2017

Following Jesus: Being a Good Steward

When we hear the word "relationships," we think of our relationships with other people. In our present context, we might also think of our relationship with God. If pressed to mention other relationships we have, we might think of our relationships with ourselves or with our pets. But there is another relationship we have and which shapes us: our relationship with the things we possess.

Anything we have we either acquire ourselves or it is given to us. It may be given to us by people we know well, such as an inheritance or a gift, or people we don't, such as a grant or again, as a gift. When we acquire something ourselves, we either do so honestly, by working or paying for it, or not, by theft or deception. But however we get things, we can never retain them forever. Everything, be it possessions, money, an ability, health or looks, can be taken from us by malice or misfortune. And everything will be taken from us by death. So it is wise to look at everything we have as on loan.

The Christian view of this situation is that everything we think we own has been given to us by God on a temporary basis. As John the Baptist says, “No one can receive a single thing unless it was given to him from heaven.” (John 3:27) It follows that we cannot justifiably envy the specific possessions others have. We are not talking about rights here, which everyone should have, but material things. And our attitude towards them should be that of Paul when he wrote, “For we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” (1 Timothy 6:7-8) Most of us today would add our smartphone to that but if you see what, say, Syrian refugees are dealing with, you realize that food and clothing, shelter and safety are the real essentials. All of us in this church have that and instead of whining about our first world problems, we should be grateful for the abundance we have. And out of our abundance we should help those who don't even have the basics.

And while God gives good things to us to enjoy he also expects us to use them for his purposes. Which means largely to help others. 1 Peter 4:10 says, “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” At the place my family rented for the first several years we lived in the Keys we had a Key lime tree (or bush). And it yielded dozens upon dozens of Key limes at a time. My wife used as many as she could to make lime aid and Key lime pies and put bags of the things in the freezer for later, but there were too many for our family to use. So we would take shopping bags of them to our respective workplaces for anybody who wanted them. We also had banana trees and again would share with others out of the abundance.

Certain enterprising folks would say we should have sold them to others and made a little money. And one way to make a living is to monetize your gifts. If you have a good voice, become a professional singer. Are you good at sports? Become a professional athlete. Are you good with tools? Become a mechanic or a construction worker. Are you good at arguing about rules? Become a lawyer. That is a valid way to find a career. And if you love what you do for a living, and can continue to love it when it becomes a daily job and business, great.

The problem arises when you use your talents only when someone pays you. Imagine if elementary school teachers only taught Sunday School if they were paid, or if carpenters would not volunteer to help Habitat for Humanity because they wouldn't make money, or if nurses on mission trips to poor countries wanted to be paid as if they were working in the US. There was a scandal a few years ago when it was revealed that a lot of organizations that hold fundraisers for charities pay celebrities hefty fees to appear at the events. If a rock star or a movie star is at a charity event, you think it's out of the goodness of their heart. You don't expect them to be going home with a large amount of the money you gave to cure cancer or feed the hungry or build a hospital for children. If they are asking for anything other than what's needed to cover basic expenses for travel to the venue and food, they are not giving but taking.

Legally you can charge whatever the market will bear, but if you never share your gifts except for monetary reward, not only will you not receive the mental and physical health benefits scientists have observed in those who volunteer (higher life satisfaction and will to live, lower depression and anxiety) you will not reap any spiritual benefit either. We are created in the image of God. God is love. We are most like God when in relationships with others that arise from and are governed by love. God did not create us out of loneliness or any need on the part of the divine persons in the Trinity. We were created out of the overflowing abundance of God's love. When we act altruistically, we are acting out of something deep within our makeup. We are doing what we were created to do.

God gives. He gives us life. He gives us all abilities and talents. While we can use these things as we wish, they are not actually our own. They are entrusted to us only for a certain amount of time. They all must be returned to him eventually. And the condition in which we return them will determine what he will entrust us with in his new creation. Paul speaks of people entering the kingdom without much to show for what they have done for God, rather like a builder whose shoddy work went up in flames, but who personally was saved. (1 Corinthians 3:15) We are to be good stewards of our time and talents.

Let's say I gave my granddaughter a baseball bat to play with and told her how to use it. And let's say that the next time I visited her I found out that she had been using it to hit people and break things. I would take it away from her and give her a time-out. And in essence that's what God does. He has told us how we are to use what he has given us: in a loving manner towards him and towards everyone he has made in his image. If we fail to do so but admit that and ask for help, he will always give us another chance. But if we never begin to learn how to use the limited life, gifts and powers of this life, why should he entrust us with much greater life, gifts and powers?

But as we said, he has given us general rules for how we should be stewards of his gifts. In Genesis 1:26-28, we are told that God created humanity to rule over all life on earth. But lest you think that means we can do whatever we want, it says in Genesis 2:5 that we were essentially intended to act as gardeners to God's creation. A good gardener does not destroy what he is supposed to cultivate.

So when Cain cheekily says, “Am I my brother's protector?” the answer is “Yes.” We are to nurture and preserve and help one another. We are to be stewards of all God has entrusted to us, including our ability to affect the lives and well-being of each other.

Typically, when we talk about stewardship we focus on time, talents and treasure. And what is amazing is how little God asks of us in regards to 2 of those 3 categories of gifts. He asks for 1/10 of our money (less than the government does) and 1/7 of our days (a lot less than our job.) Talent is harder to quantify. Even if you primarily use your talent for the church, that usually means more than just an hour on Sunday morning. There's choir rehearsal during the week, cleaning the church and grounds, preparing food for events, preparation for Sunday School, committee meetings and composing and printing and collating the bulletin. Those can add up to a few more hours a week.

But in one sense we should use our talents to serve God always. Paul wrote in Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men...” Now he was addressing slaves at the time but it applies to anyone who works for a living. Society needs people using their talents in all kinds of capacities. And we see what happens when people's ultimate loyalty is to their job or company: they don't care how their products or services or processes affects others. They will dump waste in public waters; they will make up accounts for unwitting clients and charge them; they will release dangerous products and not tell the public and even resist recalling them. It's interesting that a 2015 study of whistleblowers shows them to be, not disgruntled slackers, but people who are highly paid, highly educated, conscientious and religious. That's what enables them to ultimately choose fairness over loyalty to the company. Or their decision can be seen as loyalty to a higher power than that of their bosses.

Someone once said, “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes.” Often this is erroneously attributed to Martin Luther but the sentiment is still valid. What Luther would add would be that the shoes should be good because your neighbor needs shoes and needs well-made ones. We need well-made cars and reliable medical devices and honest banking procedures and scrupulous caregivers. If you are a Christian you should do whatever you do wholeheartedly and dedicate it to God. If the industry or company you work for is making that difficult, if it does shoddy work, or exploits people or rips them off, work to reform it. If you can't do that, if the business model is inherently harmful or destructive, such as human trafficking or another criminal enterprise, you should quit and do something you can feel good about. You might even start an organization that helps people damaged by that business, such as JC Girls, a ministry that helps those leaving the sex industry, or New Beginnings-Big Country, a Christian program of transitional housing for women coming out of prison.

Something that we tend to forget when we talk about stewardship is our original job: taking care of creation. We have more than 7 billion people on this planet, and we have created economies of scale that exploit our earth and its resources ruthlessly and unsustainably. Drinkable water is getting scarcer; our winters are getting shorter; entire species of animals are moving toward extinction. We can almost—almost—excuse the pioneers of the industrial revolution. There were a lot fewer people then and the planet's riches seemed inexhaustible. The situation has changed drastically and we know a lot more. You can't blame animals for overbreeding and eating every blade of grass in their environment. They don't realize that they are ensuring their own starvation. We know better. We need to use all our ingenuity to preserve and restore our environment so we and our descendants can live. Again, will God entrust his new creation to those who destroy the current one?

And if you have no talent in these areas you can still support their efforts. If you aren't an environmental scientist, or skilled in animal conservation, you can financially support those who are. If you can't be a missionary, or build schools in Africa, or practice medicine in Haiti, or bring fresh water to distant villages, you can support our denomination's efforts in those areas. If you can't sing in the choir, or read the lectionary in front of a crowd, or fix the church's air conditioner, or mow the lawn, you can give to support the everyday operation of the church. In one of his lists of gifts, Paul says if one's gift is “contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously.” (Romans 12:8) Even this should be done wholeheartedly, for, as Paul says, “God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)

This points to the fact that, as always, it is God's intention that we become the kind of people who don't need to be told this. As we become more Christlike, we should be more aware of God's gracious gifts, more conscientious in using them properly and more generous of our time, treasure and talents. And more trusting in God's grace. One reason we hold back from God is that we worry that we won't have enough time, treasure or talents for ourselves. As Jesus pointed out in his Sermon on the Mount, worry is antithetical to faith. If we are doing what God wants us to do, he will provide what we need. (Matthew 7:25-34) We can trust him on that.

Ultimately, stewardship is about how we see our relationship to God. If we think of our lives, our talents and our money as our possessions and God as a genie who is obliged to fulfill our wishes, that relationship is severely deformed. If we see God as the source of all the good in our lives, the one who gave us our life, our talents and our ability to make money, and if we use all of those things to express our gratitude to him and our love for all those people and things he has created, we will strive to be good stewards.

We are like children who use the allowance our father gives us to buy him a gift. We will always be in his debt but what matters is not the exchange of things but the love given and received and given back again. All we are and have is God's gift to us. What we do with all that is our gift to God.

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