Monday, October 06, 2008

Stewardship Rather Than Ownership

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, October 5, 2008: Isaiah 5:1-7; Matthew 21:33-46

The tenants in the parable we just heard are guilty of murder. However there is something behind the murder, something that motivated it. That something was greed.

Greed is something we might talk about easily these days. It is greed that has gotten us into the financial mess we are in as a nation and a world. It is greed that has driven the desire of a few to make nearly obscene amounts of money in high risk schemes that have ended up hurting significant numbers of people who thought they had managed to achieve the American dream of owning a home. And now it has all come crashing down. Whether we support the “bail-out plan” or not, we are justifiably angry that it seems that the very ones who perpetrated this disaster are those receiving the bail-out.

And it should be lost on no one that we can come up with $700 billion to solve this crisis, and we haven’t been able to come up with the resources to solve the crisis of our healthcare system or the increasing levels of poverty and despair in our cities.

We have shown our true priorities this past couple of weeks.

I say “we.” Most of you probably think that I should say that it is the politicians and those in financial power who have shown their priorities. And you would be right. But I still say simply “we.”

For this is a moment when that phrase from one of our general confessions comes into play in a very stark way: “the evil done on our behalf.”

We have been in collusion with this greed. That’s the truth. It is particularly true of those of us, including this parish, who have any money invested in the stock market. We have been perfectly happy to look the other way at the greed of the few, as long as we were making money too.

This is all about stewardship, our fundamental stance toward the gifts we have been given, which are, of course, simply everything.

The tenants in the parable were stewards for the landowner. But instead of exercising their stewardship, giving the landowner the portion that was his, and keeping for themselves the portion that was theirs, they exercised greed. The opposite of stewardship is greed.

The downside of our capitalist economy is that it tends to breed greed. I’m not advocating for a different economic system necessarily. I don’t think that the Bible advocates for any one economic system. But there is a biblical standard for the values that undergird any economic system, and those values are summed up in the word “stewardship.” Without a strong sense of stewardship, capitalism tends to benefit the few at the expense of the many.

What is this “strong sense of stewardship?” It is the fundamental belief that what I have been given does not belong to me. I am a steward of it. “Ownership” is an illusion. Nothing is “mine.” Everything belongs to God.

This is not how it works in our world. We think we own things as naturally as we breathe. One of the first words we learn as children is “mine.”

Part of the conversion we are called to as followers of the God of the Bible is from the value of ownership to the value of stewardship. It is not an easy choice. There is almost nothing in the world around us that supports us in taking this stance.

But take it we must. It is one of the demands of the Bible. There’s no way around it. Our natural instinct is to rebel against the word “demands.” But the truth is that God does have some, whether we like it or not.

The demand is that we relate to the creation as stewards. And this makes for fulfilling another, related, demand of the God of the Bible, the demand of justice.

In the passage from Isaiah this morning, the prophet uses the image of the vineyard, and complains that the vineyard of the people is yielding unproductive “wild grapes.” At the end of the passage he speaks of the nature of these “wild grapes.” They produce injustice, they bleed people, and they cause the cry of those who have not.

Whatever our economic system, these things should not be.

Now it must be said that seeing ourselves as stewards and acting as stewards does not mean feeling guilty about the things we have. God wants us to have. Our having only turns bad when we do not share substantially, when our acquiring things becomes more important than our sharing things, when “mine” overtakes “ours.”

For most of us it is so easy for our concept of what we need to get wildly distorted. In my own life I am surrounded by things I thought I needed when I acquired them. Truth to tell I needed much less than half of them. I am like the child who has piles of toys he or she never plays with.

What is the answer to all of this? Three simple things:

· My ongoing conversion from ownership to stewardship.
· My commitment to simpler living for the sake of others and, indeed, for the planet.
· My willingness to share substantially from the gifts I have been given.

There is much talk these days about “Wall Street vs. Main Street.” In God’s economy both must be ruled by these values. If they are not, we will continue to find ourselves in these financial crises every few years. And we will continue to live in a world where a significant number of people do not have the simple things they need.

It’s really very simple: let us commit ourselves to stewardship rather than ownership as a way of life.

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