You call this a stewardship sermon?

A Note from Jamie Howison: What follows here is the audio recording and text of a sermon preached on September 19 at saint benedict’s table. It is my version of a “Stewardship Sunday” sermon, yet as you will see it has little to do with balancing a budget or raising our income, and more to do with the challenge of living into the adventure that is our faith. An additional reflection on this notion of a shared adventure is available a bit further down on this homepage.

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ate in August, as we began to move out of the summer and into the fall, I realized that it was time to offer something by way of a reflection on gifts and givings; what is in some contexts called “Stewardship Sunday.” While it is necessary to speak of such things, that code word of “stewardship” can make people nervous. I suspect most of us are familiar with some variation on the following scenario.

(And if you’d rather listen to a sermon than read one, here’s your way in…)

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You arrive at church and settle into your place in the pew. As you wait for the service to begin, you discover a note in the leaflet says that it is “Stewardship Sunday.” The sermon is entitled something like “God loves a cheerful giver”, or perhaps more ominously, “Who do you serve: God or mammon?” Maybe there is a biblical text included, something like 2 Corinthians 9:6-8 (which includes the line about the “cheerful giver,” along with Paul’s words that, “the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”) There is a little chart on the corner of the leaflet, giving a summary of the finances—almost inevitably a bit desperate—and while every attempt is given to keep things upbeat…

Frankly, it is probably all you can do to keep from running out the side door.  “Oh please, not this week,” you think. Or maybe not any week. Who wants to talk money at church?

If it is any consolation, chances are pretty good that at that same moment, the preacher is struggling with the temptation to flee… or at least this preacher would be. We tend to get more anxious and uncomfortable and embarrassed talking candidly about money than we are about just about anything else.

So, as I looked over the gospel readings appointed over these September weeks, I almost laughed out loud when I saw that the one that clearly took us into the terrain of money was the one we just heard read aloud: the rather thorny parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13). If ever there was a text that pushed a preacher to drop any pretense of speaking politely and euphemistically about money, here it was.

It is a strange little story, with an utterly bizarre conclusion. There is a rich man, who has hired a steward to oversee his investments. It turns out that the steward is doing a rotten job of it – the charge is that he is “squandering” the rich man’s property – and so he is fired. Before he packs up his office, he runs around to all of those with outstanding accounts, arranges to cut their various debts to a level that they can pay off, thus securing for himself good favour with those debtors.

Yet instead of the rich man getting angry at this, he actually gives the steward full marks for his actions.

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

Which is followed by Jesus’ rather extraordinary concluding statement:

And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

Really. The translation of N.T. Wright softens the bite of the phrase about “dishonest wealth” – “use that dishonest stuff called money to make yourselves friends!” (N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone) – but if you were ever tempted to take Jesus’ parables as being self-evidently moral tales akin to Aesop’s Fables, this should stop you in your tracks.

Interpreters have agonized over what to do with this text. Wright suggests that the working assumption for Jesus’ original audience would have been that the rich man had finagled a way to charge interest on these loans – something the Jewish law forbade – and that what the steward was doing was to basically lop off that hidden interest. The rich man, then, was impressed by the way in which his steward had more or less cornered him into having to back off from his interest-collecting ways.

Perhaps predictably, I’m drawn to Robert Capon’s reading, which steadfastly refuses to try to imprint any whiff of respectability on any of the characters… and at the same time he reads the unjust steward as being the Christ-figure of the parable. The steward is a disreputable sort of character, but as Capon is at pains to remind us, in the eyes of the establishment so was Jesus. Jesus is written off – and eventually executed – for his refusal to be a properly respectable teacher and leader, and for his insistence on keeping company with all of the lost and the losers of his world. He won’t keep the moral account books that the Pharisees think he should, and so rather than bean-counting our sins he just keeps chopping down everyone’s debt and taking us out for lunch (Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace)

I think that in an interesting way, this reading actually dovetails with what Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove spoke of when he was here with us last fall. “Make friends with money,” he kept saying in the session he did with us on God’s Economy. Basically, let go of the stuff – let go of its central claim in your life – and see if in the sharing and releasing of it something new can’t be born. A friendship; a circle of friendships; a community; something worth more than the world’s bean-counting will ever be able to reconcile.

Which brings us to the verses that closed tonight’s reading. There are some words of Jesus about being faithful with that with which we’ve been entrusted, and then this:

No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’

And that really offers the most substantial reason for releasing the claim that money so often places on our lives in this society. The act of learning to release is in fact an act of defiance; this thing will not define me, and I will not serve it. I will use it, and in doing that friendships and relationships and even community might well be enhanced.

Well, that is a long way around what was ostensibly the stewardship sermon. There isn’t now going to be a big appeal or pledge drive, and there certainly isn’t a graph or pie-chart anywhere in sight.

Instead, there is just this: In the life and work of Jesus Christ, God has officially declared that He is not in the business of being a book-keeping God. When money or success or anything else takes the place of God in our lives, the book-keeping takes over. But not in Christ.  In Him we’re on a grand adventure; participants in this glorious thing called the Body of Christ and the Reign of God.

So, bring what you have, offer what you can in terms of your gifts, your time, and your imagination, and be a part of the adventure.

Amen.

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