Scripture readings: Isaiah 49:8-16a
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
This sermon begins a stewardship preaching series at the end of Epiphany and during Lent, as part of a stewardship project that began with a workshop given by the United Church of Canada's Montreal & Ottawa Conference stewardship consultant for the Ingleside and Newington pastoral charge. The sermon was intended to introduce the congregations to the concept of being a steward, using the Revised Common Lectionary readings for that Sunday.
The Apostle Paul is writing to the church at Corinth, telling them to think of their leaders in the church as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries, and reminding them that stewards must be considered trustworthy (1 Corinthians 4:1-2). In the time of Jesus and Paul, well-off families had large houses and estates, and the steward was the manager. In fact, that’s how some contemporary Bibles, like the Common English Bible, translate this word: manager. The steward looked after the accounting, supplies and upkeep for the whole household. The word for steward in Paul’s original Greek carried with it emphasis on great responsibility and accountability. For one important aspect of being a steward was that in that position he reported only to one person, the head of the household. He didn’t answer to the other servants, the other members of the family, or anyone else, even though his decisions would affect them all. No one other than the head of the household could praise or criticize his work.
In the same way, Paul is saying, since he and the other leaders of the Corinthian church are stewards of God’s mysteries, they, too, only report to the head of the household. Of course that means God. Only God can judge the leaders, and determine who had done well. This continues what Paul has been saying in this letter to the Corinthians, about the church there being divided into factions, each arguing that they belong to a leader, whether Paul or Apollos or Peter. Here Paul is saying again that all the Corinthians’ bickering over which one leader is the right authority, and taking sides about which leader is greatest, is completely misguided. For all the leaders are stewards, and so, as in households, stewards answer only to God. It is up to God to assess their ministry.
In many United Church congregations we have a Committee of Stewards, who do a great job looking after finances, property maintenance, and insurance: all the things needed to keep the building up and heated and lit and the bills paid. If we use the word ‘steward’ much in our church, we’re usually referring to them. But Paul is using it to refer to all the leaders of the church in Corinth, and it actually can become even broader than that, if we look at what Jesus is saying as we read his Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus says, No one 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 (Matthew 6:24). Or, to put it another way, no one can be a steward for two heads of households. You couldn’t be a steward in two houses at the same time. Stewards were in exclusive service.
Jesus goes on to say, you can’t serve God and wealth. The King James Bible expresses this as, you cannot serve God and Mammon. Mammon is an old Hebrew word for material possessions. Originally it wasn’t a bad word at all, but over time it came to mean that in which you put your trust. It came to be regarded as an idol, something that people worship and to which they feel allegiance. When we trust in material things and rely on wealth for security, then possessions indeed become idols. They become like God.
So this makes us think about what place our possessions have in our lives. I have been using the Daily Study Bible commentaries by William Barclay, which he wrote in the 1950s and are particularly good on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Barclay writes that at the basis of what Jesus taught about possessions are three great principles. I would add, these are different than and counter to the way our society and systems think about wealth.
First, all things belong to God. This is crystal clear through the whole Bible. When Jesus tells stories, he often depicts God as the master of these big estates, and back then the owner had complete authority. We may be able to rearrange and alter things, but we can’t create anything on this planet or in this universe. Only God can do that, and so ultimate ownership of everything belongs to God. No matter how hard we work, we can’t point to anything and say, this is really mine. We can only say, this belongs to God, and God has given us the use of it as God would want it to be used. So we are all stewards. We manage. And we answer to God for the way we manage the creation God allows us to use.
Second, people are always more important than things. If wealth is accumulated by treating people as things, then these riches are wrong. Jesus says, what does it profit someone if they gain the world but lose their soul (Matthew 16:26)? What puts money in our bank account and makes us prosperous may be at the expense of others. Barclay uses the example of making money during the Industrial Revolution in England by putting children to work in mines and factories. If he were here today, he might point to the chocolate we eat, made from cocoa which is often harvested by child labour. And today we are often treated solely as consumers, as the sum of our purchases.
Third, wealth is always secondary. We often think that the Bible says that money is the root of all evil; but Scripture in fact states that it is the love of money that is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10). This is what John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, preached: material things can be used to help your family and to benefit your neighbours and community, and that is good. But possessions can also be sought simply to heap luxury on top of luxury. Wealth can become the thing we live for and live by, and that is bad. Riches can take over the place in life that only God should occupy. Then wealth does become Mammon, an idol that replaces God.
For Barclay one more point comes out of these principles from what Jesus says about wealth: The possession of money and material things is not a sin, but it is a great responsibility. Just as the stewards of Jesus and Paul’s time had great responsibility over household finances and property, and the Committee of Stewards in United Churches today has responsibility over finances and property, we have great responsibility as stewards of all the gifts God has given us. I was amazed at how much stuff we had when we moved to Ingleside! If we own so much, then this is not a matter of congratulating ourselves: it is a matter for prayer, that we will use our possessions as God wants us to.
For we may not use our possessions at all. We may be so miserly that we may delight simply in getting, and not using. All of our stuff may actually be quite useless. All of our money may just sit there, doing no one any good.
Or we may use our wealth selfishly, piling up thing upon thing just for the sake of having things, and owning the latest and greatest of everything. We may think of possessions simply and solely in terms of what they can do for us.
We may also use our riches maliciously. The news is always full of stories of how wealth and the power it brings can corrupt. Displaying money can be a tool to dazzle others and persuade them to part with their money. There have been lots of financial advisers lately who have made enough to recruit clients who would then lose all of their savings.
Or we may use our riches foolishly, or more accurately, accumulate what seems to be wealth in foolish ways, like borrowing so much and spending so freely that we are so deep in debt that we can’t get out again.
But we may also act as good and responsible stewards, using our possessions for the happiness of others. After all, we don’t really own anything – it is all God’s, and is to be used for God’s purposes. After we provide for ourselves and our families, as stewards we are to manage our finances, property, and goods so that they can be of benefit to our neighbours, and above all our neighbours who are in need.
When my Dad was a boy in New Brunswick during the Depression, he and his brother would only get a few Christmas presents - usually a book, a barley toy, and something my great uncle made in his workshop. But Christmas of 1934 Grampy Hayward hitched the horses up to the sleigh, and they drove up the frozen St. John River to one of the neighbouring houses. The Haywards had little, and lived in the parsonage of the Advent Christian Church as there was no minister there at the time. But the nearby family had even less, and lived in a shack made out of logs covered with tarpaper. And Grampy, Dad, and my uncle gave the children of that family some of their Christmas presents and a basket of food from the pantry, and those would be the only presents that family would get.
So it doesn’t matter how wealthy we are, for we can be just as bighearted with ten dollars as ten thousand dollars if ten is what we have. Remember how Jesus talks about a poor widow who could give only two pennies to the Temple offering, and how her gift was more blessed than the offerings of the rich men who had so much more to spare (Luke 21:1-4). What is important as stewards is for us to use what we have so that giving ranks above getting. For after all, if God is so wonderfully generous to us - if God indeed, as the prophet Isaiah says, never forgets us and inscribes us on the palms of God’s hands (Isaiah 49:15-16) - how can we not be generous to others? Jesus says, it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).
Now, my Dad was only six years old, so he may not have been particularly happy to have to give away his Christmas gifts. Later in life he and my uncle did think that Christmas did give them some sense of what Christmas, and giving, should be all about. But we can be pretty grudging in our giving, too. Paul addresses this when he writes to the Corinthians and reminds them that, if you sow a small number of seeds, you will reap a small crop, and if you sow a generous number of seeds, you will harvest a large crop. Everyone should give whatever they have decided in their heart, but not with hesitation or because of pressure. God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:6-7).
Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians that if they are made rich in every way, it is so that they can be generous in every way and their generosity can produce thanksgiving to God (2 Corinthians 9:11-13). That is stewardship, managing what God has given us in God’s gifts of the talents we have and the money and material things we own. We are stewards with great responsibility, the duty to give willingly and lovingly from all that we have for the work of the church to extend God’s realm. We are stewards with accountability, answering like the stewards of ancient times to the head of the household. We serve one master exclusively: our God who created all things and to whom all things belong, and who calls us to look after what we have with trustworthiness, compassion, and joy.