Monday, September 08, 2008


My sermon from Sep. 7 seems not to have recorded on my computer! Curses! Foiled again! It is in print below, based on 1 Peter 4:10-11...

What is a steward? Over the next couple of months, we are going to be looking together at the topic of stewardship…even more than that, we are going to be challenged to be stewards. So it seemed good to me to start this time by asking the question, “What is a steward?” After all, if I am going to convince you that you are a steward and encourage you to be a good steward, it’s only fair to talk about what a steward is.
These days “steward” and “stewardship” have very Christian connotations. Go on your computer and search the internet for the word stewardship and you will find Christian resources more than any others. And yet the concept of stewardship is not just a biblical or religious one—it is one that was widely understood in the ancient world. A steward in that day was a person who was left in charge of the important affairs of an important person. If a rich man had to be traveling on business or for pleasure, a steward was put in charge of the estate. A steward is more than a simple servant; a simple servant goes around and does whatever the master says; but the steward is different: the steward is in charge. The steward has the master’s power and authority while the master is away and might be called on to make decisions with the master’s money; he could hire or fire servants; a steward could oversee all the estate so that when the master returned things, he would find that things had functioned well in his absence and it would be as if nothing had happened, no bump in the road at all.
Many times the Bible depicts our human existence as one of stewards of God’s gifts. Sometimes, as in the passage we read this morning, it spells it right out and actually calls us stewards. More often, though, it tells stories that place us in the position of stewards. Probably the most famous one is the one Herbert preached on last week, the story of creation. Over the first 5 days of the creation story, God creates light and darkness, and the dry land, and the sun and the moon, and the creatures of the sea and sky, and finally the animals of the land. And then on the sixth day, God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” That little phrase—let them have dominion—is important because it means that we are stewards, not just servants. Our lives are not simply about listening for orders and mundanely following them; instead, our lives are to be actively discharging the power that God gave us in the world. As stewards, we are here to manage the world in the physical absence of God. Our job is not merely passive, but active; God gave us dominion, God allows us to exercise our power in the world today. This is a stewardship passage.
Another example is the story I used in the children’s sermon a couple of weeks back: the parable of the talents. As you’ll recall, Jesus tells this story where the master goes away and he goes to his three stewards and he entrusts them each with some money. To one, he leaves 5 talents (which equates to 75 years’ wages!); to another he leaves 2 talents (30 years’ wages); and to another he leaves 1 talent (15 years’ wages). And he goes away and while they’re away the stewards scramble with what they are to do with this enormous sum of money they’ve been left. And the one with five talents and the one with two talents go out and invest it and double their money; while the one with one talent is afraid of losing it and goes and buries his money in the ground. When the master returns he is thrilled with the two servants who have made money; but he is not so pleased with the third servant. HE says, “You wicked and lazy slave! You ought to have invested my money with the bankers and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest! So take the talent from him and give it to the first steward.” And then, in strong language, “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Now, again, the point of this is not to say exactly what Jesus means by this, but the point is to say that this parable points out an important fact: God expects us to do something with what he’s given us. We are not mere servants, waiting on a skywriter to spell out in the clouds, “Go and do this.” We are stewards, charged with making wise and savvy decisions with the raw materials God has given us.
And so it is with the passage we have read this morning. “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” First I’m struck with that word “manifold,” which is a word we don’t use so much anymore. Manifold means something like “multifaceted.” A cut diamond is multifaceted—it has many surfaces, many faces; that means that your perspective when you look at a diamond you see something different depending on the angle you take. It looks different when the lighting is different; it looks different when your perspective is different. When Peter talks about the grace of God being “manifold,” he means that the grace of God is something like that. It looks different to each of us—some people see sparkles in one place, some in another, and much of what you see depends on your angle.
The grace of God challenges me to seek the truth and speak the truth; it challenges me to grow as a preacher and a teacher, because those are my gifts. It might seem strange to say that the grace of God challenges me; after all, isn’t grace a gift, not a challenge? Yes, in a sense. But what I mean is my perspective, my personality, and my life experiences, all of these things make me understand God in a certain way. And I believe the way that we understand God shapes our perceptions of what He has called us to do. Many things can be said about God’s goodness—he is loving, he is kind, he is the truth, he is generous, he is faithful, he is wise, he is forgiving, he offers us a new life. And you could list many more things! Now because of my God-given personality and emotional makeup, and because of my situation in life that God has ordained, I am naturally drawn to a few of those things especially. Some of those good things about God jump out at me more than others and they seem especially good about God. You know that I’m a compulsive student, both in and out of the classroom. I’m always seeking truth. The fact that God is revealed in Scripture as the truth is important to me, it’s precious to me; it’s an aspect of God that I care about deeply. All around me, I see people who are comfortable living a life without seeking deep truth; and to me, from my perspective, I can’t understand it. I can’t understand people living life that way. I resonate with a God who is the truth; that facet of God’s multi-faceted, manifold grace is especially important to me.
Because that aspect of God jumps out at me, it challenges me. I have to live my life in response to it. Because God is like that, I’m challenged to be like that too. We call this a spiritual gift; it is my special insight into God’s character that speaks to me and forces me to live my life in response to it. Now here is the thing: it’s not only pastors that have spiritual gifts (at least not as Baptists understand it). Each of you has your own unique special insight into God’s character that speaks to you and invites you to live your life in response to it. Because of your God-given personality, and because of your God-given emotional makeup, and yes, because of the life situations that have happened to you, the good and the bad, you have a unique perspective on God that no one else has. Maybe the way you have understood God as a friend when no one else would be your friend; that probably has something to do with your spiritual gift—you are probably being called to be a friend to others. Or maybe you have known God as a healer and so your gift is healing, whether spiritual or emotional healing. Or maybe you have known God as a generous giver, when you look at your life, you are just so thankful for the gifts that God has given you in your life; and so your gift is generosity. Your understanding of the manifold grace of God—that special, unique perspective on how God has been good to you—shapes your understanding of your spiritual gift, how you should be the hands and feet of God in the world.
The passage here challenges us then, to be good stewards of those gifts. That is, if you have seen in your own special way how God has been good, if you have seen the diamond sparkle from one angle, if you have thus been given gifts for service in some way, you need to use those gifts. The verse says that you are now a steward of those gifts—because it is a unique perspective to you, you are the one who needs to use them. You are the manager of those precious gifts. If you do not exercise your gifts, they will not be used. And so we must use them. And the passage says interestingly that we are to use those gifts to “serve one another.” Again, this is sort of an interesting passage to me because you would expect the passage to say, “Serve the world.” After all, these days we’re hearing a lot these days about the need for churches to reach out. Which is of course true, there are far too many churches that are inward-focused while the rest of the world is suffering and hurting.
Yet the vision of this particular passage is that we are called on to use those unique gifts to serve each other, to strengthen the congregation. Why might he say that? Well, I think it’s because congregations are communities, not just collections of individuals; and a church like ours can only do our best job at reaching out to the rest of the world when we are strong as a people. So without apology I do challenge you as a pastor to find your gifts and use them, and not just using them indiscriminately, but to use them here. We need more than just one person’s perspective on God to function as a church; if we really want to show this community God’s love, we need to do it together, because we have so many different perspectives on the manifold grace of God, and so many spiritual gifts as a result. People will see God in us together much easier than they will see him in us individually. So that being said, I encourage you not only to seek out your gifts but to use them here; we need you to use them here in order to show people the fullness of what God is like in our community.
Now here is the amazing thing about stewardship. In the old days, when a master would leave a steward in charge, that steward was generally given the right to completely run the master’s business while the master was out of town. A steward could essentially sign the master’s name and be a stand-in for the master for as long as he was away; not a subordinate to the master but like he was the master himself. Now we certainly can’t do that, can we? Yet look at verse 11: “Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.” Now let that sink in for a moment. When you have this unique perspective on God, which becomes your spiritual gift—when you use this spiritual gift, you act with the hands and the feet of God. Not just good people doing nice things here and there. Not just random acts of kindness. Not just living at peace with everyone around you and with all of creation, but the supernatural God himself acting through you.
This is an awesome responsibility, one which I’m aware of whenever I’m discharging my spiritual gifts. I understand my spiritual gifts to be teaching and preaching. So out of all the things that a pastor is called to do—some of them really match my spiritual gifts and some don’t—but out of all things that my position calls me to do, I cannot neglect these. I believe that when I preach or when I teach, the possibility opens for people to see and hear and experience God in a new way. Does everyone see and hear and experience God every time? No. Of course not. I’m not perfect at using the gifts God gave me, and there are any number of reasons why people might not experience God through what I’m preaching and teaching. Does that sound boastful to say that people hear God when I preach and teach? I don’t mean it that way. Because first, it is all God’s doing, and because second, the same can be said of you as well! You have a way to reach out and touch the world where when you do it, it is not just you doing it, it is God doing it. I see glimmers and glimpses of it here. Two members of our church go to Mississippi to help build a house for a woman who has lived in inadequate housing since Katrina hit three years ago. Do you think that was anything less than an act of God for that person? No, that was God’s way of touching her life.
Or a youth leader reaches out to the teenagers in our church, mentoring them and being there for them during some of life’s most difficult years. Do you know how many twentysomethings are so grateful they had godly mentors during their teenage years? They weren’t just mentors, they were the hands and feet and face of God to them during that difficult time. Or a person opens their home up, inviting visitors to church over on a Sunday afternoon, extending warm and godly hospitality to strangers. Doesn’t the visitor experience the face of God and the generous heart of God through this gift too? You have a way to speak with the very voice of God, to operate with the very hands of God, to offer the very shoulder of God to the grief-stricken.
This is what it means, then, to be a steward—to manage what the Master has given you so that people don’t just see you, they see the Master when you use those gifts. Perhaps you have never thought about your life in this way before. Most of us don’t, to be honest. We live in a world that calls us consumers, that calls us voters, that calls us workers, that calls us producers, that calls us Americans, that calls us black and white and every other color in between, but never ever calls us ordinary creatures who can do extraordinary things empowered by God’s spirit. If you are willing to re-orient your life around your spiritual gifts, around that special way that you see God and that special way God uses you, then you can show the face of God to the world. If you are willing to give up all your other identities to become a steward, you can act with the voice and hands and feet of God in the world. If not, you will have to settle for a second-best kind of life, where you can be everything the world promises, but nothing worth living. I encourage you to join us over the next few weeks as we talk through what it means to be a steward, because it is the only life worth living.
And I encourage you not only to come here to worship and listen, but also to enter into the dialogue a little bit deeper. Two big ways to do this: the first is a ministry fair. Two weeks from today after church, we’re going to be holding a ministry fair in the fellowship hall. Here, you will be able to see in one place all the different ministries of our church; the Scripture we read today talked about using our gifts to strengthen each other, and that’s what that ministry fair is all about, to find out about all the ministries here. In addition, you will have a chance at the ministry fair to explore your spiritual gifts. We will have spiritual gift inventories that you can take, kind of like personality profiles, that might help you know what ministry teams would be good for you to join; if you’re more right-brain than that, if you want to explore this but don’t like inventories, there also will be a chance to hold a sacred conversation, to talk with a pastor about how you feel God is calling you to serve. So this is a chance to explore stewardship in a deeper way.
The other big way that we’re trying to talk about stewardship this fall is through the formation of small groups to look at stewardship in our own lives. These groups will be studying a book by our own Dick Rusbuldt, A Workbook on Biblical Stewardship. We’ll be hosting these in three different homes: Dawn & Dustin Flay will host one where Dick will lead the discussion; Fred & Marie Jones will be hosting one in their home; and Jill & I will host one in our home. There are details on this in your bulletin, and there are signup sheets out on the table if you’d like to sign up. We want this to be a chance for you to go deeper, to wrestle with this stuff like you never have before so that you can wind up a better steward on Thanksgiving Day than you are today.