As our stewardship campaign for this year moves towards its conclusion next Sunday, I want to say something about stewardship, both for us as a Church and for us as individual followers of Jesus.
And our Gospel reading is directly on topic—a parable all about how we use the resources entrusted to us by God. Indeed, the message of the parable is almost uncomfortably appropriate.
The master in the parable stands for God. We are the master’s slaves entrusted with the resources God has given us. And God will one day hold us accountable for what we do with the resources God has entrusted to us.
This parable challenges all of us, but I find it particularly challenging because of my own attitude towards money.
When Carrie and I first married, she rightly worried that I was careless with money. A few years later, she flipped, and began to worry that I was too stingy. After a few more years, she came to see that I am just irrational and inconsistent with money, sometimes strangely careless and other times irritatingly resistant to spending any money at all.
Sadly, her assessment is pretty accurate. But there is a common thread in how I handle money. I don’t mind spending money for things I want. But I am VERY risk-averse when it comes to money.
So, if someone entrusted me with a large sum of money—and a talent was a large sum in the first century—there is no question what I would do. I would do the modern equivalent of burying the talent in the ground, hiding it and protecting it so that I could hopefully return it intact when the time came.
For people like me, our parable is a summons. God wants us to use our resources, not hoard them. That’s a good stewardship lesson and perhaps all that needs to be said.
I think about our collective stewardship of the resources we share as a parish, about our building, our money, the time and talent of our parishioners. How are we supposed to use the resources God has entrusted to us? That’s the stewardship question.
But as is true for all of Jesus’ parables, we can keep playing with this one. I like to imagine a fourth slave who received a talent from his master, traded vigorously with it, and lost it all.
I imagine that slave listening with horror as his master punished the unproductive slave. At least that guy could return the master’s money intact. I imagine the fourth slave approaching the master fearfully, and confessing that he didn’t have the talent the master had given him, that he had tried to make more money but had failed. And I imagine the slave, to his astonishment, receiving his master’s praise for making an effort.
My imagined fourth slave reminds us God forgives mistakes. What God punishes, in our parable, is the refusal to take risks, not the failure to make a profit. So, what are the risks we are called to take in our effort to be good and trustworthy servants of God, to be commended for our stewardship?
In my imagination, the master entrusts yet a fifth slave with a talent, and then goes away. The master is gone for a long time. And this slave comes to think of the master’s talent as his own, to do with as he pleases. The fifth slave spends his talent on the pleasures of life. When his master finally returns, when his master asks for an accounting and all he can say is that the money is spent, he is likely to regret his earlier thoughtlessness.
We are called to use the resources God has entrusted to us with courage and confidence, relying on God’s grace for help and trusting in God’s mercy when we fail. But there is still accountability. God wants us as a community and as individuals to act as discerning, faithful stewards, who do our best to follow God’s will.
Our Vestry met this week to do that, to begin thinking about our budget for next year. Conversations about our budget are all about our stewardship of resources and our commitment to God’s mission in the world. Working on our budget is an important step in discerning together how to use the talents God has entrusted to us.
We should do something similar as individuals.
Some years I renew my pledge without much thought. I’d like to think that is OK. I don’t need to be constantly evaluating and discerning every detail in my life.
But we all need, every once in a while, to pause, to reflect, to pray, to discern afresh. We need to take time to make courageous and faithful decisions about how to use the resources at our disposal. Stewardship season is an invitation to each of us to enter into that process of discernment.
I was recently reminded that the biblical standard of giving is the tithe, ten percent of our income. To get to ten percent would, I suspect, be a challenge for many of us, and a real hardship for some of us. But having the tithe in mind as a goal gives focus to our annual stewardship discernment.
As I think about giving, about how to use the talents entrusted to us, about the pledge decision, I have three guiding principles.
The first is, giving shouldn’t hurt. What I mean is, people who are really struggling shouldn’t worry about yet another financial responsibility, yet another source of pressure and stress.
But, principle two, generous giving isn’t supposed to be easy either. It’s a matter of priorities. If I routinely prioritize the things I want for myself over contributing to God’s mission, that’s worth pondering and reconsidering. God commissions us as stewards, charged with using our resources in accordance with God’s will. And some day, we will give an account for the choices we make.
Still, and this is my third principle, giving, even sacrificial giving, can and should be a pleasure.
The giving that is hardest for me is Christmas gifts. I have never enjoyed shopping, so I grew up choosing presents based mainly on how quickly I could find them and on how little they cost. That became a problem when Carrie and I married. Carrie is excellent at finding just the right present.
For years, our gift-giving mismatch was a source of some tension. On Christmas morning, I would open her presents to me with a sinking feeling of dread and inadequacy. I don’t know how she felt as she opened my presents, but the result was usually disappointment.
Then one year, I decided to do it right. I started my shopping early. I took my time. I thought about what Carrie might like.
And here is the amazing thing: I actually enjoyed it. Christmas shopping went from being an unpleasant chore to being an expression of love. And that Christmas morning, I found myself looking forward to watching Carrie open her gifts from me.
Giving that year took work and even self-sacrifice. But giving that year was also a joy.
Supporting our Church, supporting God’s mission, can be like that: a commitment, maybe even a challenging one, but also a joy.
Next Sunday we will dedicate our pledges. If you have not already made your decision about a pledge for next year, I invite you to reflect on what God is calling you to do. Ask God to free you from whatever holds you back. And, whatever you decide, ask God to give you the joy of giving in love.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan