Sunday, October 5, 2008

Owners or Stewards - A Sermon

Seems like the past few weeks all I talk about is the financial crisis.  Well, everywhere I go, that’s what people are talking about.  $700 billion.  Bailout.  Corruption.  Wall Street’s killing Main Street.  Greed!  But, come on, this is nothing new.

Jesus’ parable about the wicked tenants has all the same elements.  In this parable, you have tenants and an absentee landlord.  When harvest time comes, the lord wants his rent but the tenants want to keep it all.  First they abuse representatives -- the rent collectors, even killing some.  Then, when the lord sends his son (and yes, this is an allusion to Christ as the Son of God), they figure if they get rid of him, then they can keep it all for themselves.

This may sound crazy to you, but in the context of the times, they just might have thought they could get away with it for two reasons.  One is that the law said actual occupation of the land determined possession so that if nobody was there to claim it, the tenants got it.  Second, the landlord was apparently an absentee landlord -- and popular sentiment was always against absentee landlords who seemed to have it all.

In the end, however, Jesus says playing on popular sentiment and playing the rules will not work.  They will come to destruction for their actions.

So, you see, today’s mess and the parable are the same: People in charge of other people’s stuff wanting it for their own.  Break rules, slide by rules watching the letter while ignoring the spirit, miss the big picture, and doing irreparable harm.  

That’s why we have rules and regulations.  That’s why the people of Israel got those ten basic rules for getting along with each other.  So they didn’t kill each other and make their community a nightmare.

But biggest thing isn’t just rules.  It’s knowing who we are.  In the parable, they were stewards - but they wanted to be owners.  Rather than care for the stuff and give back to the lord what was due, they wanted him out.  They wanted it all for themselves and blinded themselves to what is good and right.  They also blinded themselves to the consequences, figuring there’d never be a day of reckoning. Sound familiar?

Paul had a different way of looking at it.  The wealth was all loss, all rubbish -- nothing mattered compared to the grace and joy he found in Jesus Christ.  It wasn’t in accumulating or in playing the rules -- the law did not save him, he discovered, nor did his possessions or his citizenship or his membership in the best society.  Only God’s grace and the righteousness it guided him toward.

 But what’s important for us today is what it says about US.  Right here at St. James’.  What does this say about your life?  My life.  Do we see ourselves as stewards, or are we owner-wannabes?  Not that having a house and car are bad, but do we have this sense of ownership (“it’s MINE and I deserve it”) or of stewardship (“these are temporary things I am using for my good and the good of my community”).  Because, of course, we’re stewards -- put here for only a short time to care for those things and people put in our path while we walk the earth.  God and the earth and all the possessions will be here long after we are gone.

We are stewards, and God intends for us to pay that first fruit -- to show what we’ve done with the things in our charge.  If we’ve been put in charge of little, then perhaps there will be few first fruits, but if it’s a lot, then many.  What we don’t have the right to say is that we get to keep it all or that we owe God nothing.

So let’s ask: what do WE owe to God, the lord of our manors, the lord of our lives?  It’ll be a different answer for each of us, but we have to get past that first mental block -- we are stewards here, not the owners.

Something they seem to have forgotten in the corporate world.  But maybe in the face of crisis, our whole society can think of itself in terms of stewards rather than owners.  I’ll be holding my breath...  Amen.