Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Steward's Reward - 1st Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 1:26-31
Romans 14:1-12
Luke 19:11-27

“Anyone who tends a fig tree will eat its fruit, and anyone who takes care of a master will be honored.”  Proverbs 27:18

The phone rang at a church.  When the assistant answered, the voice on the other end said, “I want to speak to the Head Hog at the Trough”.  Not being sure of what she thought she heard, she said, “Who?”   The caller again said, “I want to speak to the Head Hog at the Trough”. 

Very indignantly, the assistant said, “Sir, if you are referring to the pastor of the church, you will have to treat him with a little more respect – and ask for ‘The Reverend’ or ‘The Pastor’ – but you must not refer to him as the Head Hog at the Trough”. 

The caller answered back, “Well, I was thinking of donating $10,000 to the building fund”, to which the assistant replied (very quickly), “Hold on.  The Big Pig just walked through the door!”


Before you begin thinking this may be a sermon about tithing, let me stop you there because a broader understanding of stewardship does not mean only tithing or giving money to a special church fund.  Tithing is very much a part of responsible stewardship, of course; but it is only one component of stewardshipStewardship encompasses much more than what we choose to put into the collection plate on Sunday.  Think about it like this: a tithe means 10%.  Would we suggest The Lord is only concerned with 10% of our money or only 10% of our lives? 

At the same time, stewardship principles challenge our sense of priority.  A priority list which puts The Lord first and then stair-steps downward may sound noble and even almost biblical, but it also implies there are segments of our lives and the choices we make that need have no bearing on our religious faith or our devotion to The Lord and His Church. 

That The Lord should come first is, of course, biblical as Jesus teaches us to “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33a), but that decision bears not only on a priority list but in every moment of life and living.  We need not worry about what comes 2nd or 3rd if The Lord really is #1. 

Jesus assures us we will be shown what we need to focus on, what will be pleasing in The Lord’s sight, and what will ultimately not only bring Him glory but will make possible for us a much fuller life than we can make for ourselves – “all these things [we truly need] will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33b).  Make no mistake, though; “full life” cannot – and must never - be measured subjectively by material or cultural standards.

So we are compelled to look more closely for a broader understanding of what “dominion” means in the Genesis context, what was intended from the very beginning.  In doing so, we may discover that our God-given “dominion” does not mean we “own” it; and it certainly does not give us license to exploit anything or anyone for personal gain just because we think we can.  Rather we may find that what we mistakenly think of as our own private domain - with no Divine Concern - is not personal privilege or blessing but complete, perfect, holy responsibility. 

Everything we have and everything we do must reflect our abiding faith in The Lord.  “Abiding”; to be completely and unreservedly “in” as Jesus “abides” in the Father and the Father in Him.  For as our Lord says, “The Father and I are One” (John 10:30).

Thus to have “dominion” over all of creation and even to “subdue” it, as some translations read, does not mean to claim it or to dominate it or beat it into submission as an owner would - but to tend it as a manager would for the Rightful Owner, to control it as we have ability, and to use it responsibly as if all has been entrusted to us for a short time for the sole purpose of bringing Him Glory rather than handed over to us to squander at our own discretion.

The responsibility of “dominion” takes on even greater meaning for the Church after the Ascension of The Lord.  Leaving the Church with Her “marching orders” to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19) and to “proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24:47), and then empowering the Church on Pentecost to do these very things, we find ourselves large and in charge of all creation as in the beginning.  We are placed in The Lord’s creation in this time and space to “till it and keep it” just as Man was charged to do in Eden (Genesis 2:15).

So everything we see, everything we touch, and everything we acquire must be understood as much more than a personal blessing meant only to enrich our own lives.  The concept of personal blessing as opposed to having been entrusted with something much greater has given rise and traction to that false – or very misleading - prosperity gospel narrative that proclaims material wealth as a sign of Divine Favor.  

The seriousness with which we must acknowledge and accept this responsibility as a condition of our baptism and membership in the Holy Church as “slaves of Christ” is emphasized in Jesus’ parable of the “minas” (Luke 11:19-27; known as “talents” in Matthew 25:14-30).  In each, the “pound” or the “talent” are understood as measures of currency.  In reading each passage more broadly, then, we must learn to appreciate all The Lord has left for us to manage, to “keep and to till” until His return – however much or little.  I dare say 10% of what we only think is ours barely scratches the surface.

Now we might be tempted to think we would not really care to be put in charge of anything in the Kingdom which is coming, that we would be perfectly content with that little “corner of a mansion in Glory Land” as the old hymn goes, but that option was not offered to the third slave who did absolutely nothing with his entrusted portion of his master’s wealth.  In the end, that “wicked slave” was left with nothing – not even a little “corner”.  In Matthew’s version, that “worthless slave” was thrown into “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (25:30).  He was thrown OUT of the master’s domain.

In Luke’s account, the “citizens” who chose to rebel against the “nobleman” do not even factor into the nobleman’s “slaves” whom he knew and trusted.  Understanding this concept on this Sunday following Pentecost, we should consider that the remarkable Gift of the Holy Spirit on that glorious day was, indeed, the “wealth” with which we are entrusted. 

It was then given freely and generously without reservation.  Not 10%, then, but 100% “with you until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). 

For us, then, there is the tithe which Jesus affirms (Matthew 23:23).  Yet Jesus also refers to the rest of our lives, the rest of our being and doing with, for, and to one another for the Glory of God and for the sake of the whole society on behalf of the congregation of the faithful as the “weightier” or more important matters of the Divine Law – NOT either/or … but both/and. 

Our Lord asks much more from those to whom He has entrusted the Entire Kingdom for the sole purpose of “making disciples” in “proclaiming repentance and the remission of sins”!   It is a BIG JOB no one can do alone.  This, I think, is exactly why even Jesus teaches that we must all “count the cost” (Luke 14:28) before we decide whether we are all in or not at all in.  There is no middle way or third choice except that which we’ve created only for ourselves to justify ourselves and our godless choices.

We must not misunderstand the comparisons, though we must understand that as burdensome and inconvenient as discipleship may sometimes seem (as a careless and empty man-made gospel tries to imply that we don’t “have to” do anything), our Lord assures us the rewards for the faithful are immeasurable by human standards.  And through it all, though our Lord asks much from us, He promises us even more.  But first must come our willingness to trust Him and take Him at His Word.

Let us consider, then, that our Lord truly is The Lord of our whole life and not just a small percentage of what we choose to offer to Him.  At Gethsemane, Jesus made His own decision to be all in to include even His very life.  Dare we offer any less than our whole life?  Amen.

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