Today marks the beginning of stewardship emphasis month in this church. Stewardship is really the church’s word for the faithful management of all of God’s gifts.
During stewardship season in the church we receive an annual reminder that all that we are and have has come to us from God. We didn’t give it to ourselves. We didn’t get it through luck or accident or random events. Though our own talent, skill, cleverness, connections, intellect, personality may have played a role in bringing some of those things to us, it is God who gave us all our talent, our skill, our cleverness, our connections, our intellect, our personality, and so we acknowledge, again, that God is the source of all that we are and have.
Moses said as much to the Israelites in his last sermon to them, as they prepared to leave their interim time in the Sinai and go into the Promised Land. He said to them, When you get into the Promised Land “and you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them…and your silver and gold has multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God…Do not say to yourself ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:12-18).
Stewardship season is the time every year we stop saying arrogantly, “Look at me! Look at how well I have done for myself! I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps! I’m a self-made man, a self-made woman!”. Instead, during stewardship season we humbly remember God, not ourselves. We remember that we have been God-helped in this life, not self-helped. We remember that we are God-made, not self-made. And we humbly remember all that God has given us. We take a personal inventory and list all the gifts we have been given by God in this life, and then we ask God for divine guidance in how to use the gifts we have received from God. That’s a religious outlook on life, a Jewish one and a Christian one.
God’s answer to our prayers for guidance through the scriptures is what we in the church call “stewardship.” A steward is God’s faithful manager. Faithful stewardship is managing all of God’s gifts in a way that glorifies that God who gave them and blesses others, including the church and God’s wider world, but also our families, and even ourselves.
We are reminded during stewardship season that nothing we have in this life belongs to us. It all belongs to God, who loans us all that we have for a season, and who calls in the loan on the day we die, and who like a good banker looks for a return on investment.
Psalm 8 first acknowledges God, the Lord, as sovereign, the ruler over all, in charge of all there is, owner of all, to whom all belongs.
But then the Psalm reminds us of the surprising interest God has taken in human beings, and the surprising honor God has given to them, giving them dominion over all the things God has made. The Hebrew word translated into English as “dominion” has nothing to do with domination, but is in fact connected to the ideas of shepherding and faithful stewardship. In Psalm 8 we are reminded again of our basic call to stewardship, to be faithful managers of the part of God’s creation that God has given to us.
Our gospel reading from Luke 16 is a stewardship parable by Jesus. It’s often regarded by Christians as the least favorite of Jesus’ parables, probably because Jesus seems to hold up as a model for us a failed manager, an immoral, unethical person.
It’s a story that begins with a rich man, probably a Gentile foreigner, an absentee landlord, who owns a farm in Israel, which according to historians was common in Jesus’ time. He arranges for one of the Jewish locals to be his manager of the farm while he is away. It would not be surprising if the manager was actually the former owner of the farm, who fell into debt and had to sell it.
The rich man, the owner, receives disturbing news while he is away that the one he has put in charge of his farm, to manage it responsibly and produce a good return on investment, has not been a good manager, and is in fact squandering his property. Jesus has just told the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15, and in Luke 16 we are introduced to the prodigal manager. The rich man then comes back to the farm, shares with his manager the stories of his bad management he has heard, and then fires his manager on the spot.
The manager is in a personal crisis. He’s lost his job and is wondering about his future.
But what the prodigal son discovered is what the prodigal manager will discover: a personal crisis isn’t all bad. A crisis is not pleasant to go through, certainly, but it can in fact bring a clarity to your life that you didn’t have before. When the prodigal son found himself penniless in the pig sty, he understood that life back home with his father would be far superior than anything he had in the present, and so he went home to his father. In the same way the prodigal manager, when he lost his job, received a clarity about his life. He knew he couldn’t dig for a living or beg, but before anyone found out that he was no longer a manager, he could go around reducing the debts of those who owed the rich man money, and they would be so grateful that he would invite him into their homes, and so he did and they did.
It is both the rich man in the story and Jesus himself who affirm the manager in the end for good management. He failed as a manager the first time around, squandering the rich man’s property, but when he had another chance he managed very well, He used the power he was given as a manager to make friends for himself.
And that is the test of whether we are managing our God-given gifts faithfully. You know that you are managing God’s gifts to you well when you use them to enter into new relationship with others, or use them to re-enter into old relationships that have become estranged for some reason. The gifts we are given by God are intended by God to put us into relationship with God and with others. And so when we use our God-given gifts in relational ways, we can be sure that we are fulfilling the purpose for which the gifts were given to us. To use our God-given gifts in the relational expression of love for God and others, we participate in the eternal.
It’s comforting to me in the story that the man who initially failed his test as a manager is given a second chance, and this time he aces the test. Perhaps we have not done so well so far in our management of God’s gifts, but in God’s world there is always forgiveness and another chance to get it right. Today is a new day, with new possibilities for faithful stewardship.
In your Sunday bulletin today is an insert on stewardship that is meant to give you a stewardship overview. I have tried to take an inventory and list some of the basic gifts that God has given to all of us, and then recall some of the Biblical guidance we have been given for the use of each one of those gifts.
Sometimes in the church, church members hear that word “stewardship” and think that stewardship is just about money, but I hope you will see from the list that money is just one of many gifts that God gives us, and that God’s dream for us is (what I would call) a total life stewardship, where we are trying to being obedient to God with every single gift that God has given us. On this insert you will find the beginning of scriptural guidance to help you be obedient with each of these particular gifts.
Whether you are young or old or middle-aged, whether you are a woman or a man or boy or girl, whether you are new to the church, or a longstanding member with deep family ties to the church, whether you are rich or poor or in-between, we all have this in common this morning: we have all been called to be faithful managers of the particular gifts God has given us. Some of us have more gifts to manage, some less, some in-between, but we can be assured that the particular gifts we have been given now are appropriate for us now. The Lord has determined that those gifts are right for us now and manageable for us now. If you prove faithful in the management of those gifts you have been given now, you may well be given more to manage in the future.
In the next three weeks, we will dig deeper into what God’s word has to say to us about the proper, faithful management of three particular gifts God has given.
But for now, on this, the first Sunday of stewardship emphasis month, I say to every single one of you: “Welcome to Management!”