Sunday, May 10, 2015
Now wait a minute. Something’s wrong here. It’s only the middle of May. Why are we talking about stewardship? Isn’t the pitch for stewardship supposed to be reserved for November? Every year, as we approach the time of thanksgiving, Jane Chin asks me about the Sunday I plan to deliver the stewardship sermon. The truth is, I don’t try to limit our consideration of stewardship to just one Sunday or just one season of the year. Perhaps you’ve picked that up by now.
For whatever reasons, in our journey with Brian McLaren, this is the Sunday he’s selected to focus on stewardship. I don’t think it will do us any harm to stay with him on this phase of our walk together. Of the many biblical passages that consider money and resources, he chooses three, two of which we have as texts today. The ancient word from Deuteronomy addresses how we handle resources in the context of Sabbath. The letter to Timothy seeks to establish in the young man a proper appreciation for the place of money in the economy of God and in the development of his own sense of godliness.
Among other things, McLaren says stewardship is “love in action.” I like that idea but maybe it needs a little unpacking. What would love in action look like to you? How would it shape a practice of stewardship? What I like about this notion is it grounds giving, sharing, caring in an attitude of gratitude.
In his commentary on Deuteronomy, Mark Biddle argues that “The economic aspect of Deuteronomy’s understanding of the Sabbath principle – release from slavery, release from debt, release from need – underscores the Old Testament’s very this-worldly viewpoint.” He argues that “Deuteronomy does not speak of a ‘spiritual freedom’ only, or of merely emotional responses to God’s Grace. One freed from the very real hardships of slavery in Egypt will find it difficult to enslave another! Can gratitude and greed co-exist?” he asks. “To begrudge the needy, among whom one was formerly numbered, is to hardheartedly and tightfistedly deny YHWH’s redemption and blessing…Deuteronomy understands Sabbath as a principle of liberation from oppression and need. In order fully to participate in the Sabbath, then, it is not enough to be freed. One must extend liberty!” (Mark E. Biddle, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy, p. 270.)
Have you ever seen someone freed from some form of bondage, let off from promised punishment, given a second chance, then turn on another seeking similar freedom and possibility? Remember the parable Jesus tells in which a debtor, released from a great debt by playing on the pity of the ruler, then cruelly demands that another who cannot repay a small debt to him be thrown in prison? In the end he meets a worse fate when the ruler finds out about his lack of mercy (Matthew 18:21-35).
The whole Sabbath tradition is centered in good stewardship. It insists on learning to care for creation which, of course, means caring for our sisters and brothers. It calls is to work and play and rest in the joy of our relationship to God who made us and loves of us with unending love. The writers of Deuteronomy, as does Jesus, insist that stewardship is grounded in attitude of gratitude – gratitude to God for the wonders of creation, for the invitation to share with God responsibility for creation and, above all, for God’s grace and mercy when we manage to mess things up. In her wonderful book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott tells us that the two best prayers are “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” In an interview, she expands: “The full prayer, in its entirety, is: Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you. But for reasons of brevity, I just refer to it as Thanks.”
First Timothy, too, expands on the attitude of gratitude. The early church developed within the rule of the Roman empire. In this context, Christian Eberhart writes that “For the most part, riches could only be acquired through continuous cooperation with the Roman administration. Those who were rich, therefore, usually supported a system that oppressed the vast majority of the population for the benefit of only few at the center of the Empire” Christian A. Eberhart, “Commentary on 1 Timothy 6:6-19, September 29, 2013”, workingpreacher.org).
While the early church was largely counter-cultural, they didn’t exactly eschew wealth. People of means helped to fund the enterprise and keep it viable. In some cases those with resources pooled what they had with those who had little or nothing so that everyone had enough. Remember the passage from Acts we read a couple of weeks ago? “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (Acts 2:44-47). Remember I said that one of the things that stood out for me in this passage was that they ate their food with glad and generous hearts”? Talk about an attitude of gratitude. And the result, they had the “goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
The problem is not wealth per se. It is people’s attitude toward it. The writer tells the young Timothy that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” It’s the attitude that matters. It’s not money itself that’s the root of so much evil, as we have often heard it misquoted. It’s the love of money, the lust for wealth, that gets people into all kinds of trouble, but we don’t know anything about that, do we? Bill Leonard reports that “In the May 3 Times Nicholas Kristof noted, ‘Just the annual bonuses for just the sliver of Americans who work just in finance just in New York City dwarfed the combined year-round earnings of all Americans earning the federal minimum wage’ (Bill Leonard, “Sifting the Conscience,” May 6, 2015, baptistnews.com).
The clearly counter-cultural words of the writer of First Timothy hold a different perspective for those with wealth. “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” Enjoyment? Doing good? Generosity? Sharing? Sounds like an attitude of gratitude to me. What if we were to cultivate just such an attitude, not only for stewardship season, when the whole culture suddenly rediscovers thanksgiving, but all the time, every day, every moment? Thank you, thank you, thank you. Wouldn’t this be liberating, the very freedom that the Gospel offers so freely? An attitude of gratitude – I think it’s worth a try.