Sunday, October 16, 2016

Stewardship: the true measure of devotion

Genesis 2:4-9, 15
1 Corinthians 9:3-14, 17
Luke 12:42-48

“Each of us will be accountable to God.”  Romans 14:12

“Every faculty you have, your power of thinking or of moving your limbs from moment to moment, is given you by [The Lord]. If you devoted every moment of your whole life exclusively to His service, you could not give Him anything that was not in a sense His own already.” 
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

So according to Mr. Lewis (and no less according to sound biblical principles), there can be no part of our being that is not already claimed – and more especially so by the Blood of Christ Himself.  It stands to reason, then, that everything we do and every word we speak are responses to this reality.  We are in a constant state of response to The Eternal Covenant.  This is an important distinction because we must not believe being justified before The Lord automatically makes everything we do or say good or right.  We still possess the capacity to do our own thinking.  It is the power of thinking which is given from Above.

So the first thing the modern Protestant Church needs to do is to shed the common assertion that in the Covenant of Christ, we don’t “have to” do anything.  This is not only held to be blatantly false by Jesus’ many words; it has been proved over the generations to be extremely destructive to the Church and Her mission because at best it is an incomplete statement. 

This “alibi” has led to the statistical reality that only 20% of the people of the Church gives, and only 20% of the people of the Church does the work.  The other 80% simply does not care.  The Church is already limping through the 21st century; imagine what the Church would look like if EVERY Christian decided he or she didn’t “have to” do anything.

On the other hand, imagine what the Church could accomplish for the Kingdom and the communities we are called to serve if every Christian spent more time thinking in terms of stewardship instead of ownership.    

What is most unfortunate about the biblical principle of stewardship is that many, maybe most, Christians immediately think of money; and almost immediately after this thought crosses the mind, we go numb, we shut down, and we stop listening.  Tithing and other offerings are certainly a part of a total heart for stewardship, but money in and of itself is not at all a component of a life devoted to faith and to Christ and His Body, the Church.  Stewardship is entirely about what we do with money and with every other component of our being.

So we must not think of stewardship as an “expensive” proposition but, rather, as an “expansive” one that encompasses every facet of our lives – whether we are working, shopping, playing, babysitting the grandkids, worshiping, or studying the Scriptures.  Stewardship is where the concepts of faith, work, and leisure time come together.  There is no part of our doing that is not “accountable to God”, as St. Paul wrote to the Romans and no part of our speaking that will not be called to account, as Jesus spoke in Matthew’s Gospel (12:36); because every part of our being - in how we worship and work and play in stewardship - is equipped and called for the sake of the Gospel.

The psalmist begins the 24th psalm with, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”  And from the very beginning, humans were created to work.  The work in the beginning was to tend and care for all of creation – not only for man’s own benefit but for the sake of The Lord’s charge to him.  Then, of course, as the Genesis account goes, The Lord determined that man could not do this alone, so woman was created. 

This account can go in a couple of different directions, but for our purposes let us consider what I believe to be the dominant principle: stewardship is too big to do alone.  And let us also consider that each human was not charged to do only so much as what may have been required for individual need or desire.  The charge to care for it all is humanity’s first “commandment”.  And within the structure of woman being created for man, we should consider the very broad principle that we are created to care for one another to make the work possible.

Stewardship, then, is our expression of obedience, a measure of faith and devotion to all The Lord has entrusted to us.  This is part of the reason why the vows we take when we join the United Methodist Church – which must never be taken lightly - challenge us to consider stewardship to be of the utmost importance in the life of the Church; because much like our marriage vows, we are not promising to go along as long as everything is going well.  We vow to The Lord Himself that we are committed to the very end.

Hugh Whelchel is executive director of the Institute for Faith.  In a 2012 article, he pointed out four fundamental principles of stewardship: ownership, responsibility, accountability, and, last but not least, reward.  Each principle has a biblical justification, and each principle speaks volumes about the biblical reality that we own nothing.  And if we do happen to think we are entitled to these things we think we own, even as we worked and saved for and hold title to these things, we are also reminded by the Scripture, as the Israelites were cautioned by Moses, “Remember The Lord your God, for it is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18). 

The “ability to produce wealth” but still with a mind to decide what to do with it, however much or little.  As a nation, we’ve come to expect the so-called “one-percenters” to pay their fair share – whatever “fair” may be; but as the principles of biblical stewardship go, we often fail to realize that no one who claims the Holy Name is immune.  No one of us should consider ourselves so poor or so in debt that we have nothing to offer to The Lord and His Church – or so ‘saved’ that we don’t “have to” - because it simply is not true.  This is why stewardship must never be reduced to only a discussion about money and tithing.

Jesus’ parable in Luke 12 (42-48) combines all the principles of stewardship held forth by Mr. Whelchel (ownership, responsibility, accountability, and reward), but take note that the parable says nothing exclusively about money.  This is not to say that stewardship is about everything except money; but we do see by this parable that while the Master is away, those who live and work and do according to His imminent return will find reward.  Not the reward we think we are entitled to by our own standards, but by our faithfulness with everything entrusted to us will The Lord decide what our reward will be.

It is not enough to think of stewardship in terms of how severe or light our punishment may be when The Lord returns and calls us all to account.  What is most important – above every principle, every standard, every ideal, certainly above every silly superstition – is that in stewardship, we live and work and play and shop with the joyful expectation that our Lord IS coming back!

Like the slave (or servant) in the parable, we must not allow ourselves to be convinced The Lord “is delayed” in His return to the point that we may do according to our own desires and exploit what is at our disposal for our own pleasure or personal gain.  Rather, we must learn to live in the Promise of Joyful Anticipation – the kind of anticipation we experienced as children while counting down to Christmas!  Remember “being good” for Santa?  Helping around the house? 

In the simple mind of children, it was – and still is - all about what might be found underneath the tree on Christmas morning.  For the mature disciple, however, it is entirely about a state of mind and heart to live with the knowledge that The Lord’s Promise is sure and certain – much more certain than our paychecks or Social Security! 

Stewardship is discipleship more clearly defined.  Stewardship goes far beyond believing something to be true; it is a life spent in knowing our Lord is true.  And just.  For the principle of stewardship is not at all about gaining adequate reward; it is entirely about showing The Lord what we can be trusted with in His Eternal Kingdom! 

Because that Kingdom is coming!  Glory to The Lord Most High!  Amen.

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