Sermon for Sunday, October 22, 2017 || Proper 25A || Matthew 22:15-22
Imagine with me the thoughts of a nameless Pharisee, one in the party that seek to trap Jesus with their questions during the time between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion, while he’s teaching daily in the temple.
All week Jesus had been speaking out against us Pharisees. He did it subtle like, not taking it to us directly, but talking in riddles and stories. Stories about vineyards and tenants and weddings and guests, and at the end of them, we took umbrage because all the wrong people got rewarded in his stories. They were insidious, those stories; they rattled around in my head, making up pictures in an incomplete vision that competed with the one I had always been shown. I kept quiet around my brethren that week, lest I let slip the confession that Jesus fascinated me, despite – or maybe because of – his puzzling and radical rhetoric.Continue reading “The Wrong People”→
Sermon for Sunday, October 8, 2017 || Proper 22A || Philippians 3:4b-14
Have you ever noticed that when you borrow someone else’s stuff, you’re always extra careful with it? You return the casserole dish wrapped in towels, lest it break in transit. You don’t dogear the borrowed book or break its spine. Leah and I have friends who are so wonderfully generous in lending that at any given time, our house contains six or seven of their possessions, and I’m irrationally afraid of what might happen to them.
One time I had to retrieve a couch for my previous church’s youth room. I borrowed a truck that could have plowed any other car off the road, but I treated it like the most fragile vehicle out there. I wanted to honor the trust the owner placed in me, and so I treated the truck with much more care and attention than I normally would my own car.
The thing is, if we truly lived our lives as children of God and as followers of Jesus Christ, we would treat our own possessions with the same care and mindfulness as we treat the possessions of others. Because, when you get right down to it, our possessions aren’t really ours at all. Everything we have belongs to God, who is the author of all creation. Continue reading “The Pearl”→
Sermon for Sunday, October 1, 2017 || Proper 21A || Philippians 2:1-13
Until recently, my children have been pretty good at sharing with each other. Being twins, they’ve always had the other there, so they’ve never experienced a time when all the toys in the playroom were “mine.” But since they turned three, a switch has gone off in their brains and they have started claiming territory at an alarming rate. They have realized that “if you’re playing with a toy then I am not playing with the toy, and that’s bad.” The top of our refrigerator has become something of a demilitarized zone, where toys go when the twins won’t share.
I remember one moment a few weeks ago. It was almost comical in its illustrative power. One of the kids (I won’t say which) didn’t want the other interfering with the blocks. So the child gathered all the blocks together and held them, just held them, for fear of losing the toy to the other. But with both hands and both arms full of blocks, the child couldn’t play with them. There were plenty of blocks to share between the two, but since one was intent on hoarding that particular toy and the other fixated on getting in on the action, neither had any fun. And the blocks ended up on the fridge’s DMZ. Continue reading “Opposable Thumbs”→
Sermon for Sunday, October 11, 2015 || Proper 23B || Mark 10:17-31
Jesus feels drawn to the man kneeling in front of him. His heart is warmed, and he feels the stirrings of love and compassion for this frightened soul in the midst of an existential crisis. Perhaps the man recently had a parent or friend die, or perhaps he himself had experienced an accident or illness that brought death near. Whatever the trigger, the man comes to Jesus with a serious question that has obviously been plaguing him because of some unspoken dread roiling within him.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. Jesus lists off some of the standard commandments, and the man checks each box. That’s when Jesus looks at him with love and compassion. Here is this man in fine clothes getting dirty in the dust of the road. Here is this man with obvious wealth and power coming to an itinerant preacher with no place to lay his head. “I know what’s holding you back,” Jesus says. “It’s always something. There’s always something in the way that only you can shift. I can help. I can encourage. I can give you strength and courage. But you must decide.”
“What? What is it?” pleads the man.
“In your case: sell all you have and give the money to the poor. Then come, follow me.”
Shocked into speechlessness, the man gives Jesus a hard look, stands, dusts off his finery, and stalks away, not really understanding the source of his tears. Jesus invited this man to give away his possessions. He was holding his stuff so tightly that he couldn’t open his hands to receive what Jesus was offering him. He couldn’t let go, so he never discovered how life-changing it can be to release your grip, to uncurl your hand ready to give and ready to receive.
Jesus diagnoses this man on the spot. Jesus loves him enough not to sugarcoat what he needs to do to get past the barriers his own wealth has set up. Give it all away. Just give it all away. This action of giving is one of the more powerful steps we can take in our lives of faith in response to God’s movement in those lives. So it makes sense that Jesus invites each and every one of us, like the man in the story, to give. And as near as I can tell, this giving follows a general pattern.
First we have giving up. I know, I know, the great American sports movie teaches us differently: every single one of them follows the same pattern: upstart team or individual gets trounced by dominant team or individual. Upstart trains, learns something about teamwork or grit, and challenges the champion. The game goes horribly for our heroes until the last minute – it’s gut check time – and they decide never to give up. With renewed strength and faith, the upstart wins in the last second. That’s the narrative we are steeped in here in the United States. Never give up.
And yet, that’s exactly what our faith calls us to do. Give up. So we ask ourselves: what does God desire us to give up? Most questions we put to God are hard. But not this one. God dreams for us to have as close a connection to God as God has to us. Therefore, we have to give up all that stands in the way of such intimate connection. There’s a special word for this stuff that stands in the way: “idol.” Whatever it is, each of us has something we tend to put ahead of God. We look to that something to give us life. But since the idol will never be able to give us what we need, our lives shrivel until they are brittle and paper thin, starved because the idol provides such poor nourishment.
So God urges us to give up such idols. But that’s just step one. Step two is giving in. It’s not enough to do away with the idols. If we don’t give in – if we don’t surrender ourselves into God’s loving and sustaining care – then the power vacuum will just attract another idol to take the place of the old one. So we give in to God. We surrender ourselves to God’s love and mercy.
This giving in is so hard. It continues going against the grain we’ve been taught. Now the war movie takes center stage. Of course, we’d never surrender! But again, we must ask ourselves: to whom are we surrendering. Not to the enemy. Not to the bad guy. We surrender to our own commander. We were in rebellion all along, and now we’re coming home.
So we give up, then we give in. And then we give ourselves over to trusting God with our whole beings. It’s not enough simply to surrender. Giving over means joining God’s side. You say, “You’re in charge, Lord, not me. Of the two of us, I’m not the better decision maker, so why don’t you take the lead. I’ll follow.”
Again, giving over is no cakewalk. Our socialization is still against us. We’ve seen too many movies, and now the Teacher-Pupil archetype comes to mind – the one where the hard luck case puts trust in a mentor who turns out not to be as perfect as the hard luck case thought, and drama ensues. We are the hard luck cases, but our mentor just so happens to be as perfect as we think. (More perfect even, since we can’t begin to perceive the wonder of God.)
So we give up, then we give in, then we give over. Now we’re ready to give back. We remember the TV shows and movies in which the teenager gets a first credit card and goes on a crazy buying spree. Yep, that’s us, if given half a chance, so maybe we shouldn’t be in charge. Since we trust God more than we trust ourselves, we conclude, it’s time for God to take charge of all our stuff. We can be stewards of the stuff, but it’s not ours anymore.
Each year, God gives us stewardship of most of this stuff and keeps a small percentage to be used for God’s mission here at St. Mark’s and elsewhere. We partner with God by pledging this small percentage towards God’s mission. That percentage might be 10% or a little less or a little more. Through prayer, we can discern what’s right for each of us in our circumstances.
This giving back transitions into the final act of giving: giving forward; that is, not only financing God’s mission but participating in it with our own gifts and passions. Think of disaster films in which everyone bands together to beat the odds. Giving forward means making decisions and making sacrifices with people other than ourselves in mind. Giving forward means propelling into God’s bright future those people who think they have no future.
Just as Jesus invites the man in today’s Gospel to give away all he has, Jesus invites us to give. With God’s help, we give up our idols. We give in to God and surrender our malfunctioning wills. We give over to God our self-determination and trust God’s guidance. We give back to God all that we have, knowing that our stuff is safer in God’s hands. And we give forward for God, partnering with God in the great mission of healing and reconciliation in this world. To give up, in, over, back, forward – to give – is a great act of faith. Thanks be to God, then, that God began this entire process by giving first: giving us God’s son, God’s grace, love, hope; giving us our own deep desire to give.
Sermon for Sunday, October 5, 2014 || Proper 22A || *
Because of my peculiar and very frustrating allergy, there’s one aisle of the grocery store I never travel down – the bread aisle. If you read the nutrition information on each and every plastic-wrapped and twist-tied loaf, you’ll find it contains soy flour, which means I can’t eat it. But there’s a happy byproduct of this limitation. Because I can’t eat the store bought loaves, Leah makes our bread from scratch. And, boy, is it good. I’ve watched her make it on several occasions. She starts by activating the yeast in warm water. She mixes the ingredients in the Kitchen Aid, counting the cups of flour aloud so she doesn’t put in too much. She let’s the dough hook work its kneading magic. She waits for the dough to rise, first in the mixer, and then, after forming the loaves, in the pans before putting them in the oven. The whole process takes the better part of a morning.
A group of dedicated women follows a similar process each week to make the bread we use for Holy Communion. What fascinates me about the process is how many steps there are between setting the ingredients on the counter and pulling the bread fresh from the oven. (And this doesn’t even take into account the number of steps needed to make the ingredients in the first place, such as milling the flour from grain or picking the grain from the field.)
When we celebrate Holy Communion, the gifts, which we offer to God and then share with one another, derive from a combination of God’s bounty and human industry. The bread and wine both have their roots in…well…roots. Seeds planted in the ground send roots down and stalks up as the soil, sun, and rain nourish their growth. The grain grows tall and full. The grape grows fat and juicy. Up to this point, their growth has been in God’s hands, as the overarching gift of nature’s cycles, which God wove into creation, promotes their cultivation.
But then a farmhand (or, in today’s less romanticized world of big agribusiness, a mammoth combine) comes along and picks the grain. A vineyard worker picks the grape. And human ingenuity, creativity, and wisdom begin shaping this raw material, this God-given bounty into the bread and wine we share each week.
Do you see what’s happening here? When we offer the bread and wine to God in thanksgiving, we give back to God what was always God’s in the first place, but which changed shape as humans interacted with the raw material of God’s blessing. There are two vital ideas embedded in this thought. First, whenever we give to God, we are really giving back to God. And second, God invites us to partner with God – to use our own unique constellations of gifts – in order to turn the raw material of blessing into nourishment, into justice, into peace, into hope.
Thinking of our giving as giving back keeps us in right relationship with God. When we acknowledge that God is the source of our blessings, we are less likely to attribute the bestowal of a particular blessing to the blessing itself. This erroneous attribution is how idols are made. Idols happen whenever we worship the gift instead of the giver. This way ultimately leads to disappointment because the idol will never give more than itself. And you will find yourself serving it, and you will notice more and more of your life being taken up by trying to make the idol greater than it is. And in the end, you will live a very small life, confined to the goal of making the idol into something worthy of your worship.
You might notice this happening when our relationship with money starts becoming idolatrous. Instead of thinking of money as some of the raw material of God’s blessing, we mistakenly see money as the source of our blessing. Instead of seeing it as a resource, we mistakenly see the amassing of money as the goal. It’s easy to do. Money allows us to live comfortably, after all, and to afford the things we desire. But the more we bend our lives around the accumulation of money, the less time we have to enjoy the benefits it offers. You end up spending too much time in the office, and before you know it, you’ve missed four of your daughter’s soccer games in a row. Call it the Ebenezer Scrooge problem. He lived his life bent on increasing his wealth and by the time the three ghosts are done with him he realizes he never actually lived his life. That’s what idols do. They contort our lives around the wrong goals and reduce us to very small versions of ourselves.
But when we have a proper relationship with money, a non-idolatrous one, we see our financial resources as some of the raw material of God’s blessing. Remember, through human interaction, the grain of God’s bounty become bread. The grape of God’s bounty becomes wine. The same thing happens with our money. The dollar becomes half a dozen notebooks for a classroom at St. Luc’s school in Haiti. The check becomes a hundred juice boxes for WARM’s summer lunch program. The financial pledge becomes fuel for God’s mission happening here at St. Mark’s.
If you’re anything like me, you sometimes have trouble putting money in the same category as all the other gifts God has given us. I’ve always had trouble doing this because money has this ephemeral, transitory nature. We turn it into other resources and these are what we think of as our blessings instead. But when we have a right relationship with money, it goes in the same bucket as all of blessing’s other raw materials.
To symbolize this reality here at St. Mark’s, I’m going to start doing something that I should have been doing all along; indeed, something that most Episcopal churches have always done. During the offertory, the bread and wine come forward and a few minutes later, the money comes forward in the collection plates. Because there’s a delay between these two processions, we might not connect the two. But they are connected. We give the bread and wine back to God in thanksgiving for our interaction with the raw material of blessing. In the same way, we give our financial resources back to God in thanksgiving for and in support of God’s mission here in our midst.
So from now on, I plan to leave the collection plates on the altar as we celebrate Holy Communion in recognition that we give thanks for all the blessings of our lives. When you see me place them to the side of the other gifts we are giving back to God, I hope you will remember that God has given us all that we have and made us all that we are. And God delights in seeing all the unique ways we use the raw material of blessing to further God’s mission of healing and reconciliation.
We give back to God out of the myriad gifts God has showered upon us for two reasons. First, by giving back we stay in right relationship with God. We worship the giver instead of the gift. We live full lives enriched by multitudes of blessings instead of tiny lives in service to lifeless idols. And second, giving back offers us the opportunity to partner with God and use our unique constellations of gifts to turn the raw material of blessing into new and abundant life for all.
*It’s very strange for me not to reference any of the assigned readings for the day in the sermon itself. They were all there swirling around in my head as I wrote, but every time I tried to add them in, I felt like I was shoehorning them in. Perhaps this means I wrote the wrong sermon! Or perhaps it means the readings can influence the preaching without being directly quoted.
Note: I haven’t done book reviews on WheretheWind.com in the past, but I am now dipping my toe in those waters. What a joy to have been contacted to review Planted right at the time I was thinking about reviewing books!
“In theological terms naming is the first step in moving from an ‘I-It’ relationship with something or someone to an ‘I-Thou’ relationship, a relationship where a person or creature or even an object becomes known not just for its usefulness, but for its innate worth. It’s the first step in the kind of understanding that leads to caring.”
I marked this and many other passages in my copy of Planted by Leah Kostamo with a green pen, and when I was done with the book, I had run into a common problem when reading a book as meaningful, memorable, and thought-provoking as this one. I had underlined so many passages that my green markings did very little to help me sift through them all.
Such is the nature of this delightful and quick read by the cofounder of the first dedicated Christian environmental center in Canada. Kostamo dedicates a good portion of the book to anecdotes about the sometimes wacky, sometimes dirty, always sacred life at the A Rocha center in British Columbia. These stories of interns, guests, and workers ground the tale in real life and experience. But the balance of the book is where the true depth lies. Kostamo integrates into the anecdotal narrative honest and thoughtful theological reflection on creation care, stewardship, and vocation.
While none of the theological reflection breaks new ground, Kostamo quirky sense of humor and gracious storytelling style invites the reader to hear anew the call of God to be a faithful steward of creation. Many times while reading I found myself underlining a sentence and realizing I had had the same thought myself in the past. But unlike me, Kostamo did something with it! Her experience lends a humble authenticity to her reflection that makes me both remember things I had forgotten and long to take further steps to align my life so it resonates more fully with God’s call to stewardship of creation.
For example, here Kostamo is talking about the value of being in nature: “…North American media has turned information into entertainment, rendering it impotent when it comes to motivating change. We live in a deluge of information – awash in statistics that should have us running hell-bent through the streets to some constructive action. But we don’t. It seems that fear tactics and empirical knowledge have a short shelf life when it comes to inspiring change. What lasts is wonder.” *
The notion that wonder, not fear or statistics, inspires change has been percolating in me since I read it and I’m excited to see how God is inviting me to use this new idea in my life.
Planted begins with more stories of the A Rocha center and less theological reflection, but about halfway through the ratio flips. If you find yourself grazing through the stories but not getting much out of the book, please stick with it. The stories help ground the reflection to come and both are important for the integrity of the book as a whole. Kostamo sows stories in the first half and reaps theological reflection in the second. And the harvest is bountiful.
My thanks to Leah Kostamo for the complimentary copy of this book, which I received for purposes of review.
I first posted this reflection on Psalm 8 (the Psalm from Trinity Sunday) on the website Day1.org, a site on which I am a “key voices” blogger. If it sounds more academic than my normal writing, it is because this piece began it’s life as a seminary paper. I promise it sounds way more academic in it’s original version.
* * *
Seen from aerial photographs, the oil spill looks like any old gasoline rainbow you might see on the pavement outside a gas station after a drizzle. Then you realize the picture is taken from a few thousand feet and the patch of oil is hundreds of square miles in area and the spill is growing because it’s not a leak, it’s a geyser. Such thoughts send the mind reeling. How could we be so bold, so cocky, so derelict in our duty to God to be stewards of this creation that we pump toxic liquids out of the ground without so much as even a sketch of a plan to deal with the consequences of our own fallibility?
With these thoughts on my mind (and, I must confess, I am safely ensconced on a different coast far from the poisonous ooze), I glance at the readings for Trinity Sunday and the words of Psalm 8 hit me hard upside the head.
1. O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2. Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4. what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
5. Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7. all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
8. the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9. O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
With uncanny prescience, the psalmist speaks to our modern world about humanity’s role in creation, one based on the proper comprehension of humanity’s status as God’s subjects and therefore as servants of God’s creation. The second verse, which introduces the theme of dependence, seems out of place in the overarching language praising God for creation and humankind’s place in it. Of course, it’s always the verses that seem out of place that hold the most interpretive weight. By introducing the idea of dependence, the psalmist directs the audience to reflect on the necessity of human humility in regards to humanity’s relationship with God, especially concerning the dominion over creation.
At first glance verse 2 stands in contrast to the rest of the psalm since it concerns itself with enemies that are not mentioned again; further, verses 1 and 3 flow together nicely, with the thought of heaven connecting the two verses. But instead of mentally removing verse 2 so that the psalm flows smoothly, the reader must dwell on the second to come to the subtler and deeper orientation that the psalmist attempts to reach. The psalmist praises God for founding a “bulwark” (or strength, stronghold) against enemies “out of the mouths of babes and infants.” For those reading the psalms in order, this is the first time infants are mentioned in the entire Book of Psalms; indeed, the image of the babe is a fresh idea. A prevalent mental association made with infants is their dependency on their parents. The psalmist makes this association explicit by using not only the word for child, but also the word for “nursing infant,” The nursing infant truly is dependent on his or her mother in a way to which no other relationship quite compares. And it is out of the mouths of the utterly dependent that God achieves God’s plan — in this case beating back the foes, which scholar J. Clinton McCann deems “the chaotic forces that God conquered and ordered in the sovereign act of creation.”
With the interpretive key of dependence planted firmly in our minds, we can turn to the rest of the psalm. Verse 1 names God with the divine name and then follows with a title for God. The divine name automatically engenders feelings of obedience, but the addition of a title of “sovereign” serves as a further reminder that God is in charge. Because God exercises complete sovereignty, humans are as completely dependent on God as nursing infants are on their mothers.
Moving to verses 3-5, the psalmist looks up to the night sky and is walloped with a feeling of insignificance. And why not? In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams unwittingly offers an explanation of verse 3: “Space…is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
Scholar Peter Craigie points out that the psalmist drives home the point of humankind’s insignificance by saying that God establishes this mindbogglingly big thing with God’s fingers. This awareness of humanity’s smallness in the grand scheme could reduce us to apathetic movement through life because nothing we do would seem to matter. The psalmist nearly slips into this dangerous mode of thinking in v. 4; indeed, the hymn of praise could become a psalm lament at this point. But in the words “mortals that you care for them,” the reader recalls verse 2 and remembers that we are in a dependent relationship with God, who is our sovereign. Verse 5 continues this recollection by adding “yet you have made them (a little lower than God).” By reading verses 3-5 in light of verse 2, the faith that God made us and cares for us outweighs any feelings of insignificance that the night sky may provoke.
Verses 6-8 shift the focus from humankind’s dependence on God and humanity’s misplaced feelings of insignificance to the role God has ordained for humankind on earth. These verses recall the vocation God gives humanity on the sixth day of creation. While the word “dominion” in verse 6 is different than “dominion” in Genesis 1:26, the parallels with Genesis 1 are unmistakable. The language of largeness and smallness remains in these verses, which continues the theme of significance/insignificance seen in the previous three verses. God gives humankind dominion over small sheep, birds, and fish, and also large oxen, beasts, and “whatever passes along the paths of the seas” (the Leviathan which God “has made for the sport of it,” perhaps? (Psalm 104)). Humankind is given charge over great and small creatures; as the psalmist says, “you have put all things under their feet.” However, the psalm does not end with humanity’s dominion. In an inclusive bookend with verse 1, the psalmist reiterates the sovereignty of God over all things. This reprise recalls once again the dependence that humanity has on the LORD, who is their Lord.
What does this discussion offer the modern audience? We live in a global society hell-bent on destroying itself. We clear-cut forests, remove mountaintops, and pump toxic levels of Carbon Dioxide into the air. We do not share the bounty of the land, thus pushing others to burn rainforests and oases for farmland. We live under the delusion that we can develop “safe” oil rigs. We refuse to believe that our actions are slowly turning our world, a piece of God’s creation, into a planetary rubbish bin, fit only for storing the waste we accumulate.
Psalm 8 is a wakeup call, the An Inconvenient Truth of the Bible. To put it simply, the world today has forgotten the truth, which Psalm 8 espouses — that we are dependent on God even though (or more appropriately, especially because) we exercise dominion over the earth. We miss the all-important message that God has given us dominion: we do not intrinsically have it. We properly receive this gift only when we recognize our relationship with God is one of total dependence. Scholar James Mays puts it this way: Psalm 8’s “vision of the royal office of the human race is completely theocentric, but humanity in its career has performed the office in an anthropocentric mode. Dominion has become domination; rule has become ruin; subordination in the divine purpose has become subjection to human sinfulness.”
In the end, the problem is the oldest problem in the book — human self-aggrandizement destroys the purpose that God originally conceived for humanity. Misplaced delusions of grandeur unravel humanity’s proper relationship with God. Scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “Human persons are to rule, but they are not to receive the ultimate loyalty of creation. Such loyalty must be directed only to God.” Psalm 8 calls us back to the correct relationship with God concerning creation. We are utterly dependent on God, we are significant in the realm of creation, but we are not the source or the beginning (though we may very well be the end). In Psalm 8, the psalmist reclaims our primal orientation as dependent subjects on God who has been given us the gift of caring for creation. When we recover this proper relationship, we can take steps to retrieve creation from its slow decline, so that we can once again see the “majesty of God’s name in all the earth.”
So, the United States is mired in the worst financial fiasco since I was four years old. Because of my early developmental stage back then, I was more concerned with fire trucks than the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Now, I still get pretty excited when I see a fire truck, but the economic crisis occupies my mind with far more regularity. Every news cycle seems to have a direr story than the one before, the presidential candidates talk about little else, and the crisis is the number two topic at coffee hour right now (after college football, which, of course, is more important, especially when my team is ranked #2 in the AP).
With the Dow taking a nosedive and 401Ks across the land going on the South Beach diet, can you think of a better time for churches to start their fall stewardship campaigns?
I know the previous sentence sounds sarcastic, but it’s not. Of course, I wish we had never gotten into this mess in the first place. But we’re in it now, and the best thing we can do is take hard looks at our priorities. The economic crisis is forcing us to reevaluate how we allocate our resources. The first step in this evaluation process is realizing “our” resources are not ours at all.
Jesus tells this parable: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46).
A bishop I knew a long time ago used to tell a story about this passage from the Gospel according to Matthew. I was very young, so I might get some of the details wrong and I might embellish others, but it goes something like this:
Once there was a man who found a pearl. This pearl was the most magnificent specimen. Indeed, only in the wildest dreams of clams did a pearl like this one exist. It was the size and weight of a golf ball, but no one would think to compare the two. The pearl was in a class by itself. It shone with a light all its own. The light might have hid some imperfections if the pearl had had any. But it didn’t. The pearl, thought the man, was, quite simply, perfect. The trouble is, the pearl was in a glass case and very visible alarm wire crisscrossed the case and a wrinkled shopkeeper hovered over the case. The man opened his wallet, thumbed through the small bills in the billfold and pondered his several credit cards. He pulled out one especially shiny card and, pointing to the pearl, tried to hand the card to the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper raised her eyebrows and shook her head.
So the man went home. He wandered through his house, into the garage, and onto the deck. He gathered up everything not nailed down and sold it all—his car, his computer, his beloved grill. He went back to the shop. Not enough, the shopkeeper’s look told him.
So the man sold his house. Not enough. He cashed out his stock options. Not enough. He even gave up his mint-condition Nolan Ryan rookie card. Not enough. The man stared plaintively at the shopkeeper. Then his eyes wandered down to the pearl. He knew somehow that obtaining this pearl was why he was alive, what he was made for. He didn’t know how he knew, but, looking at that pearl, he just knew. He looked back up at the shopkeeper. “What about me?” he said, “What if I give myself?”
The shopkeeper smiled, brought a jangling set of keys to eyelevel, and began searching for a key. She found it, unlocked the case, and slowly lifted the pearl off of its bed of velvet. “Here you go,” the shopkeeper said. “And by the way,” she continued, “you were willing to give up everything for this pearl. Your house and grill and baseball card are still mine, but I want you to look after them for me. And remember, you are mine, too.”
This story has been with me for quite a while, and I share it because I think it centers the discussion of stewardship better than anything I can come up with myself. To understand the importance of stewardship, we must first acknowledge that everything we have comes from God, and is, in fact, still God’s. We are just holding onto God’s stuff for a while.
Indeed, a steward is someone who manages the assets of another. So when we talk about stewardship in a Christian context, we are saying that we are blessed with abundance from God, and we are striving to use that abundance justly and wisely. When we think of Christian giving—of time, of talent, of monetary resources—we should really tack on another word. We should think of it as “Christian giving back.”
Stewardship always entails some form of giving. Stewardship has at its base a certain kind of giving that we do every Sunday. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we are literally “giving thanks,” for that is what Eucharist means. By starting with thanksgiving, we acknowledge that our gifts, our lives, our livelihoods come from God. Stewardship must start with an “attitude of thanksgiving.”
The reevaluation of our allocation of resources begins with humbly acknowledging that we are not the owners of the stuff we accumulate and gratefully giving thanks to God for what God has given us to look after. In the end, this all comes down to trust. The financial crisis in which we are currently embroiled is predicated on untrustworthy practices; indeed, we don’t even know how much certain things are worth any more because of deceit and mistrust. But God is trustworthy, and God has entrusted us with God’s stuff. How will we respond?