Sermon, 10/3/21: What form Stewardship: Is it worth it?

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19 Pentecost

Psalm 26; Job 1:1, 2:1–10; Hebrews 1:1–4, 2:5–12; Mark 9:30–37

As for me, I will live with integrity. Psalm 26:11a

Even before we became limited in our in-person contacts due to the pandemic, people in our various parishes have often been curious about how their clergy spend their time.  Thinking, in a business mode, of 40 hours per week, the questions arise: ‘Surely, celebrating Eucharist, preparing a weekly homily, taking Holy Communion to those in the parish who cannot attend mass, filing reports with diocesan headquarters, meeting with civil authorities or ecumenical leaders, responding to telephone calls and email messages cannot take 40 hours!’ 

What lurks behind such curiosity is an unspoken word: “Stewardship.”  This word is especially problematic because, when we hear the word “stewardship,” there are not ‘visions of sugar plums’ dancing in our heads, but the often-dreaded question of how much one should pledge to the annual parish appeal: 10%, 5%, 3%?  The word “stewardship” conjures up what I call “bottom line thinking.”  Its closest cousin is “accountability.”

If money is the first and, perhaps, primary thought that comes to mind when that word “stewardship” is tossed about in our churches, then I suggest strongly that we clergy have not done our jobs well.  The question that I lay before us today is “How do, or should, we define stewardship?”  And to confuse matters even more, I suggest to you this morning that the tale of Job is all about stewardship.  However, before I come directly to Job, it is important that I explain how I arrived at that conclusion, which will give you, so hope I, a sense of how I spent some of my time in the week just concluded.

On Tuesday evening of this past week, together with parishioner David Olsen, I attended for 1.5 hours a Zoom meeting of lay and clergy in our deanery, the Alewife Deanery.  It was conducted virtually, that is, in accordance with diocesan guidelines on the pandemic.  It was there that one of our co-conveners, in a discussion of climate change, shared a quote which, I believe, addresses more than climate change.  I share that quote now with you:

There is too much bad news to justify complacency.
There is too much good news to justify despair.

That thought was voiced by Dr. Donella “Dana” Hager Meadows, late.  That quote so engaged me throughout our meeting, that my dinner on that evening was delayed until well after 9:00 p.m.  I rushed, after our closing prayer on Tuesday night, to find out more about this woman, who was born, as I later discovered, in the same year as was I.  I had to know: Was she a theologian, a sociologist, a psychologist?  And what I discovered, thanks to the Internet, was that her concept of stewardship, of employing the gifts with which our Creator God had endowed her, took her not into any of those disciplines, and most certainly not into economics, at least as defined as dealing directly with money, but rather into the direction of making us aware, as I voiced last week, that Creation did not end on the Biblical Sixth Day.

Donella Hager Meadows (13 March 1941 – 20 February 2001) graduated from Carleton College, in Minnesota, and moved east to Harvard in neighboring Cambridge, where she completed a Ph.D. not in theology, nor in psychology, nor in economics, but in biophysics, which then took her down the road to MIT.  Her stewardship is captured in her message, which I now share with you from the website of Donella Meadows Organization, named in her honor after her death.

We humans are smart enough to have created complex systems and amazing productivity; surely we are also smart enough to make sure that everyone shares our bounty, and surely we are smart enough to sustainably steward the natural world upon which we all depend.

No theologian could have articulated more clearly the concept of creation and our place in it.  I see in her message a 21st century articulation of the mission of God’s Messiah.

Everyone who is ordained in the Episcopal Church, whether as deacon or priest, states and then signs the following oath: “and I do solemnly swear that I believe the Old Testament and the New Testament to contain all things necessary for salvation.”  It has always been of great comfort to me that the oath, administered over all these many years, has never required that the ordinand swear that he (or, now, she) swears to take every word literally, which brings me to the story of the long-suffering Job.

‘Once upon a time, in the land of Uz, there lived a man named Job.’  Admittedly, this Book of the Bible does not begin quite like that, but it could.  To begin an English-language tale with the phrase “Once upon a time…” alerts the listener or reader that what follows, is an account that might have a grounding in fact but is told with embellishments.  Such tales have tucked away important truths.  So it is with the book of Job.  I checked out the beginning of several stories common to other languages that I speak or read.  Because these languages are all in what we call the ‘Germanic corpus,’ there is very little variation as to how stories, tales, and sagas begin, and in their content. 

Most biblical scholars believe that the Book of Job is a joining of two parts: Quite possibly an ancient writer, finding the original shorter story, which we hear as chapters one and two, decided to flesh it out with conversations that amount to an interesting theological dialogue.  Scholars detect a change in voice, i.e., how the story is told.  Some scholars have put forth the proposition that the story of the man named Job is quite probably a work of fiction.

In so stating this position, it is not my intent to discredit the Bible or to deny the oath which I took decades ago.  If every word is not absolutely true, why or how did it make it into the Bible?  And even though I treat this book as an allegory, I must certainly do believe that it contains information that we may use toward our spiritual wellbeing and in building God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven

The image of God presented in the Book of Job is that of an ego-centric being who takes his sport in allowing one of his most devout servants to be handled as if an object.  God makes a deal with the devil, much as Faust does with Mephistopheles.  Such an image of God simply does not fit with the overall image of God in our Book of Records.  However, as an allegory told in order to raise our awareness of a critical and essential relationship between the Creator God and the created, all options are available to the story’s author.

Would the God of Creation permit this abuse that you have just heard in the first reading, in order to sooth or inflate his own ego?  Scholars and lay believers alike respond with a firm “No.”  However, just as stepparents in many fairy tales are often painted as mean and wicked, so God can be painted in a less-than-favorable light for the purposes of making a point. 

Job is upright and blameless so that, when his children have little or no regard for stewardship of time and resources, as seen in their wild parties, or when his wife urges him to curse God and die, Job never forgets whose he is and to whom he must give an account of that which he, Job, has been given.  Job becomes a prime example of what it means to be a loyal steward.  How should one respond when confronted with, or set upon, by events and forces over which one has no control?  That is Job’s stewardship, namely, despite what life throws at him, to strive always to make things right and better for himself and those in his charge.  Ultimately, Job’s dilemma is decided in a powerful pronouncement from God, which helps Job to see thing in perspective.  The story then ends quite wonderfully.

The Biblical scholar David Clines (the Australian born professor emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Sheffield, U.K.), writes: “The church can properly hear its Bible as scripture only when it reads it as literature.  God does not play dice with the living.  Yet, when we read this story as literature, we can learn amazing truths.”

We know from history, if not personally, that there have been individuals throughout the history of humankind who have been challenged, and could have been tempted, to forsake their principles.  We know of individuals whose beliefs in things that they (because of their limited knowledge, vision, and intellect) just do not understand.  Yet, despite all adversity they hold fast to those beliefs in God, a God whose will it is that we employ our stewardship of different talents and intellect towards community.  That is their stewardship to those in their environment and those of us who in later times read about them. 

Life presents us with challenges.  How we meet those challenges will test our stewardship, a stewardship that, for people of faith, is grounded in our conviction that life is far greater than our individual limited selves, and that we will succeed so long as we do not cease to place our stewardship, in whatever form it has been given us, in the service of others.  This is what Donella Meadows believed and how she lived out her life.  That is the story, the allegory of Job, an individual who never failed to place God as his North Star.  And we affirm Job in his understanding of true stewardship when we lift our voices in song:

God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year;
God is working his purpose out, and the time is drawing near;
nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters covers the sea.

All we can do is nothing worth unless God blesses the deed;
vainly we hope for the harvest-tide till God gives life to the seed;
yet nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters covers the sea. 
(Hymn 534, The Hymnal 1982)