Stewardship and the Joy of God
Sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul
by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, November 15, 2020
24th Sunday after Pentecost (year A, proper 28): Matthew 25:14-30
Matthew 25:14-30 (NRSV): Jesus said, “It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then 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 one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
On this weekend of our Annual Meeting, the Gospel reading is the well-known parable of the talents. This is one of many parables about stewardship that Jesus tells. Stewardship is the Christian practice of tending to the property entrusted to you—tending to God’s gifts to you as God would have you tend them.
A man goes on a long journey and entrusts his property to his servants. In particular, he entrusts them with large sums of money. A talent is a measure of money in the Roman Empire, worth fifteen year’s wages, by some accounts. When the man returns, he sees how his servants have invested this property and what returns they have gained. He praises good and faithful servants, but he criticizes the servant who did nothing with the talent entrusted to him, nothing but burying it in the ground.
A few words about the text itself. The New Revised Standard Version that we use (a translation of the Bible from the Hebrew and Greek to English) makes some odd translation choices. First of all, the NRSV almost always translates one word as “slave,” when that word can mean either servant or slave. I find that blanket translation distracting, especially in this parable. Second, the NRSV calls the first two servants “good and trustworthy.” But the word for “trustworthy” is “faithful.” Faithful certainly includes trustworthiness, but it is a word that is related to belief and commitment and reliability.
Jesus describes as faithfulness the risks taken by the first two servants to be fruitful with the master’s money. This involved risk, but they sought to be active in investing that money in ways that would serve their master. The third servant opted out because of fear.
Now, perhaps you might consider this investment advice, but Jesus is after something more. This parable appears in a section where Jesus is talking about what happens when he returns in his second coming. Jesus is going away, and he will entrust his disciples with his treasure. This includes us, of course; Jesus entrusts us with his treasure. Sometimes this includes literal treasure, the money that God has blessed us with. And sometimes this means other gifts, gifts of our time, our relationships, our responsibilities, the insights and skills that we can use to serve God and to welcome others into relationship with God.
Many of Jesus’ stewardship parables are about sharing the good news of Jesus and growing new disciples for Jesus. When Jesus returns, he will see that we have taken this precious gift of God’s grace and shared it with the world, bringing in a harvest of more disciples who will share in the master’s joy!
Many Christians have embraced the mindset of stewardship and have indeed found it a path to sharing in God’s joy. First, we recognize that all that we have comes from God and indeed belongs to God. The more we release our sense of ownership over our things and resources, the more we give back to God what God has given us. And when we see these resources as belonging to God, then the question for each of us is “how does God want me to use his resources?”
This mindset changes how we manage our resources. We start with a mindset of abundance instead of scarcity. God provides for us, and in that, we can rejoice. The master’s words to the second servant were the same as his words to the first: “well done, good and faithful servant! Enter in to the joy of your master!” The gifts were different, the yield was different in size, but the joy was just as joyful. Given God’s abundance to us, we then think about how we can use our resources to help others and support God’s mission in the world. This is true for money, and it is also true for our time, or our influence or our relationships or our families, or our unique skills that can bless others and serve God.
Part of stewardship is how we feed and clothe and house our families, how we provide medical care and education and support in life’s journey for them. Part of stewardship is also how we can feed and clothe and house and heal and teach and support others. God has given us a greater family too—our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the world outside the church that is hungry for God’s grace, if only we are there to share that grace with them. Any one of these gifts may seem minor, but all of these gifts are valuable to God. The more we invest God’s gifts in God’s service, the more we and others will share in God’s joy. The only failure is to ignore God’s gifts.
I wonder whether our experience of the COVID pandemic teaches us something about Christian Stewardship. As a church, we have to figure out how to make the best use of our resources, even when our ability to use some of those resources is temporarily restricted. When we cannot fully use the building, how can we serve God with the gifts he has given us? When I say “we” I don’t just mean the staff or leadership, I mean “we” as a whole community, and each of us personally. How can we be good stewards of God’s financial resources during this time? How can we care for those in need, and support and strengthen each other in our journey with Christ?
As Christians, I think that COVID has required us to consider what is truly important and what it truly means to be the church. Take away the building for a while, take away some of the comforts of church that we’re used to and will we still be faithful? Is our faithfulness secured on solid ground? Is Jesus Christ alone the source and sustainer of our faith? Or will we fall away when we don’t receive the usual services we expect to receive?
And what does faithfulness look like when we cannot gather? This shines a light on another question: outside of Sunday mornings, can others tell that you are a Christian? Do you have any other point of contact with God outside of a church building? Do you walk closely with God in your daily life, outside of the church?
I look forward to the time in the near future when we can return to gathering more freely in person and inside. But I hope that we never lose sight of this question about our faithful response to God: is our faithfulness based on what we get? Or are we faithful with what God has given—whatever the gift? In God’s hands, even when we invest a little, we will see a joyful return.
The good news about stewardship is that it is a response to what God has already done for us, and in us. Stewardship is not the idea that we’ll get more things if we do what is right. Stewardship starts with recognizing how generous God has been to us already! God has given us a great abundance of gifts, and God invites us to share his joy by sharing that abundance with others.
We share that abundance as we pray for others, as we help those who are in need, as we talk with other people about God, as we care for our families and help them follow Jesus. We share that abundance as we worship and study and serve God together. We share that abundance as we invite others into this life and journey, to join us as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Consider your own stewardship to God. How is God calling you to invest your gifts for a bountiful harvest? Part of that is how you support this Christian community in formal ways, with finances and ministry and worship and prayer and fellowship. Part of that investment is walking closely with God in what you spend and how you save and how your household seeks God together, finding God at home. Stewardship is a daily practice of sharing in God’s abundance, and inviting others to share that joy too. God bless you as you seek God’s joy in your own life, and as you share that joy as faithful stewards.