Hi, my name is Frank Lawler, and my wife Ann and son Rowan and I have been parishioners here at Epiphany for about ten years.
I was asked to give the annual stewardship sermon, which is ordinarily given at this time of year, as it has been every year in every church I’ve ever attended as far back as I can remember.
Ordinarily, a stewardship sermon might talk about the programs that are supported by the church staff and facilities and paid for by your generosity. But this year is not an ordinary year, or even a simple blip before a return to ordinary times. These are extraordinary times.
The Meaning of Stewardship
So, instead of launching into an ordinary stewardship sermon, I felt the need to dig down into what stewardship means: responsible management of resources, but…Responsible management of resources, that is, entrusted to one’s care.
The term comes down to us from mediaeval times, when noble houses would each have a steward, or manager. The lord of the house wouldn’t handle daily cashflow or oversee how their money was spent on projects within the household. That would be left up to the steward, who held authority because their lord had trust in them: Belief that the steward would on a daily basis do their will without being micromanaged, sometimes, without the lord being present for months if not years on end. It’s important to remember that the mediaeval steward did NOT possess castles, or servants, or riches. All of that belonged to the lord.
But stewards had power over all of that because the lord had granted it to them. When distilled down to basics, the most valuable thing that the steward possessed was the trust of their lord. That trust gave the steward all the power necessary to fulfil their lord’s will.
Ab(use) of Confidence
It also left open the temptation for stewards to take that power for granted; to use that power to fulfil their own will instead. One could imagine a steward thinking, “If the Earl is away in France for six months, I don’t have to work hard at it. I could even throw a party for me and my friends at his expense. He’ll never know.” Or, “if the Countess is in Scotland for the summer, why not skim off some of her income to make my own life a little more luxurious? She’ll never miss it.”
Conversely, a faithful steward would manage their lord’s estates in such a profitable way that, upon returning, the lord would be pleased at how their domain had thrived.
Today’s Gospel and its Variants
This may sound familiar: The parable from the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew speaks of a lord going away and leaving his three servants – his stewards — in charge of precious assets. Variously described as coins, bags of gold, or talents – highly valuable units of money whose name has a wonderful double-meaning. Two of the servants invest these assets and reap rewards for their lord. The third merely hides them away. When their employer returns, he praises the first two and condemns the third for playing it safe.
The same parable, told slightly differently, can be found in the 19th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, but were you aware that there was a third version? The parable of the talents which is found in the Gospel of the Nazarenes. This was written in the 2nd century, and is now lost to us, aside from fragments which have come down through transcriptions and translations.
The parable in the Gospel of the Nazarenes also has three servants. But in this version,
- one of them invests the talents – he is praised,
- a second one buries them for safekeeping – he is rebuked,
- and the third one squanders them on frivolity and immoral living – he is thrown into prison.
Taken together, these variations give us three possible things that stewards can do:
- Put the resources to profitable use so that those resources grow the lord’s domain.
- Be cautious and make sure no one touches them. Perhaps not trusting their investment skills or believing they must be stored up for a time of need, a future time of crisis.
- Spend them on the high life and enjoy themselves, perhaps because life is short – and who even knows when the lord is returning?
Theologians have long identified this parable as referring to how God hopes that we will use God’s blessings on us for the advancement and growth of God’s Kingdom. How we must never forget that those blessings come to us from God, not merely from our own efforts; for none of us is truly a self-made individual.
None of us achieves anything without God having bestowed resources, skills and strengths upon us. God encourages us to invest those gifts to expand God’s kingdom. But what does that investment look like?
As Father Doyt pointed out in his sermon series on the politics of God, we are called by the Lord to ask the question, “What can I do for you?” We are called by the Lord to invest our talents in love, because love is the foundation of God’s kingdom.
But God does not tell us exactly how to invest our talents. God trusts us to do our best, just as the lord of the Gospel reading trusted his stewards. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if he’d given us detailed instructions? Instead, we each have to figure it out, although we do have some investment guidance from the parable:
- We can Invest our gifts by cultivating God’s kingdom, using the tools and resources that have been granted to us.
- We can lock up our gifts in safekeeping so that we don’t risk loss. Maybe we feel we should save them up in case a crisis arises, say an epidemic. Or a wildfire. Or racial unrest. Or all three simultaneously.
- We can spend them to fulfil our own desires, like the third servant from the Gospel of the Nazarenes.
Or Perhaps we could choose a combination of the above, an investment portfolio, if you will.
The World’s Wisdom: The 50/30/20 Model
Financial advisors have created various models for how to wisely budget personal spending. Most involve dividing your money into buckets. One of the most well-known is the “50/30/20” rule, so I’ll use that as an illustration. It has three buckets and goes as follows:
- Spend 50% of your income on your basic needs, i.e.
- 30% of your income on your additional wants,
- Shopping for things that are nice-to-have, but not critical
- Going out to eat
- Your pastimes
- The remaining 20% goes into your savings
- emergency fund
- retirement fund
This seems quite reasonable and wise. And while it appears to be a sensible, logical system, there is a serious problem with this model, as with similar budgeting guides, for those who seek the Kingdom of God.
That problem is the absence of the category of giving.
The 50/30/20 rule asks:
- What do I need now?
- What do I want now?
- What can I tuck away for later?
It does NOT ask “What can I do for you?”, the pivotal question we are called to ask in God’s Kingdom.
Each bucket in the 50/30/20 rule is already labeled for myself. To give to someone, I’m limited to following three choices:
- What can I give up from my WHAT I ABSOLUTELY NEED bucket to give to you instead?
- What can I give up from my WHAT I REALLY WANT bucket to give to my neighbor instead?
- What can I give up from MY HARD-EARNED SAVINGS bucket to give to others instead?
In all three cases, I think of those buckets as mine first. Then, I may choose to take a bit from one of them to dole out to others depending on my mood and generosity.
The model does not follow the wisdom of The Kingdom of God. It also ignores the fact that my blessings are not self-produced. I am merely a steward of my wealth. A caretaker of my gifts from God. As a management tool for stewards of the Kingdom of God, the financial advisor model by itself is not enough to guide us.
The Wisdom of the Kingdom of God: A Different Model
Perhaps we can merge the financial advisor bucket model with ideas from the parable of the talents. If we remember that our wealth is ultimately not ours but entrusted to us by God, we come out with three new buckets:
- How much of what I’m stewarding can I spend to build up God’s Kingdom?
- How much of what I’m stewarding should I save up for a crisis, either personal or within the kingdom?
- How much of what I’m stewarding do I really need to take care of myself?
This framework forces us to think beyond ourselves. This framework is no longer just about me.
It’s looking better as a model. But our work isn’t quite done. Unlike the 50/30/20 Money Model, our Kingdom of God model doesn’t have any percentages attached to these buckets, and God again hasn’t given us any detailed instructions. God trusts us to decide those proportions for ourselves.
How does one decide? I would answer that with another question: “How much has God given YOU?”
The exact wording in Matthew regarding the parable of the talents is: “To one he gave five talents, to another two talents, and to another one talent—each according to his own ability.” The resources that were given were proportional to the servant’s ability—to what the servant had the potential to do with them. Not given according to which servant was more deserving.
Jesus also phrases it a slightly different way in the 12th chapter of Luke: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
In other words, if God was generous with you, He doesn’t expect you to take all His blessings and bury them under a rock. And to reference the Gospel of the Nazarenes, He also trusts you won’t spend them all on a lavish lifestyle.
Fulfilling our Potential in a Time of Crisis
During this season of stewardship, each of us is asked to make a positive difference in God’s kingdom. And in 2020, a year which so far has been rife with troubles of biblical proportion, God trusts us more than ever to fulfil our potential as Christians. If ever we feel we should make use of the talents stored in our crisis bucket, make no mistake, my brothers and sisters.
This is a crisis.
In these uncertain times, one thing I’m certain of is that each one of us seeks God to guide us, comfort us, and inspire us more than ever. If you are looking at the world and feeling anxious or worried about what to do with the state of the Kingdom of Humankind, try instead to look at the world not only as a member of the Kingdom of God, but also as a trusted steward of God’s blessings. How many talents have each of us here at Epiphany been given? And how many will we, as faithful stewards, return to our Lord to expand God’s Kingdom? One? Two? Five?
God’s stewardship model asks not what I can do for me, but what I can do to further God’s Kingdom. It asks me what I can do for you. Whatever gifts God has entrusted to us, He entrusted in proportion to our potential to further His Kingdom. In the midst of pandemic, protest, wildfire and hurricane, I believe God trusts each of us to be good stewards. How do you and I respond to that trust?