October 8, 2017 18th Sunday of Pentecost
Genesis 39:4-6 Philippians 3:4b-14 Matthew 21:33–46
Jesus told a lot of stories about tenant or stewards who were in charge of their master’s houses when the master was away, a common practice in the first century.
This story is actually rather gruesome and the most radical example of stewardship neglect in the Bible. The tenants lose no time trying to commandeer the farm from the rightful owner. They don’t even attempt to send to the owner his rightful produce for a year or two before they try to cheat him. You see, tenant farmers actually had the right to a negotiated percentage, usually ten percent, of the produce as their payment. In a good year the ten percent would be larger than in a bad year, so the better the tenants worked the better their pay. It was an incentive to maintain the farm and improve on it. But there were a lot of ways to cheat an absentee landlord that I am sure Jesus’ audience knew about – Everything from hiding a few bushels of produce for yourself, to selling stuff on the side, or even cooking the accounts. It would actually be in the best interest of the tenants to play the game of appearing honest while they cheated the landowner rather than cheating the landowner outright.
But these tenants don’t play that game. Over and over again they beat up the servants and finally get the brilliant idea to kill the son thinking that if they do so that the farm will be theirs free and clear. This is such a blatant disregard for the law that the Pharisees say right away that the landlord will execute the tenants and replace them with good tenants who will follow the rules. And they are not happy when Jesus equates them with the tenants and says, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”
Stewards were very important people in ancient times. Property was industry and needed proper management. One of the most famous stewards was Joseph who, because of his honesty in administering first a nobleman’s house and then the Pharaoh’s household, eventually rose to become prime minister of Egypt. To take care of someone’s property and make sure that it prospered was a noble calling. A steward controlled not only the property, and was in charge of buying and selling his master’s goods, but he was also responsible for the management of the servants and setting their wages. If you hired people who were honest and fair and paid them decent wages you could expect that they would work for you with the motivation to bring a profit to the landowner, which would trickle down to everyone. The basic theory, expectations, and economics of stewardship are not that different from modern management.
But stewardship has a broader meaning than just an economic managerial one. It means in its base roots: to take care of the hall. The hall was the main part of the building that everyone lived out of. So stewardship can be expanded to mean that we take care of anything that we use.
We all exercise a stewardship of our bodies. If we do not take care of our health we can’t expect to be very productive people. I admit to being a bit of a health nut, and I apologize for all the before and future times that I bend people’s ear about a new health book that I have read. But that is because I know that I need to take care of my physical body in order to keep going at a decent pace, and I want you to do that too.
Stewardship is also about taking care of our physical surroundings. I know that when I get really busy and don’t take some time to straighten or clean my house that I start to get stressed out. It has been found that people function better and are happier in a cleaner, neater environment than they are in a dirty messy one. It doesn’t have to be military clean but it should be functional and comfortable clean.
The other big source of comfort or stress is our economic environment. If we regularly take care of our economics and know how our money is going in or out, even if we don’t have a lot of money, then we feel that we have a measure of control over our economic well being. Economic well-being is measured in terms of having enough money to be comfortable, but it’s also measured in knowing how to best manage it for now, and how to keep ourselves going into the future.
So if you think of stewardship as a combination of taking care of our physical bodies, our mental state, our physical environment, and our economic means, you realize that stewardship is a holistic management of how to best take care of our lives so that we can be better people for God’s love.
What about spiritual stewardship? John Wesley was really into that. In fact his general rules: Do Good, Do No Harm, and Attend on the Ordinances of God, were created so that if people became Methodist they had an outline to keep on developing and managing themselves.
But stewardship always comes back to property – it’s just the nature of it because we need to manage our physical world as we manage our spiritual selves. So now I would like to talk a bit about the management of our church.
Nearly all of Methodist societies started as house churches. For whatever reason the people who started them didn’t find answers or comfort in the Congregationalist or the Episcopalians, or any of the other area denominations. It has been said that in America we don’t join denominations we join congregations. The Methodist system of disciple development spoke to them. They got something out of the structure of the classes, and the prayers, and the discipline to stick with it, grow their societies, and eventually move from meeting in houses or barns, to putting up a church building that everyone could use for the purpose of developing their spirituality.
Church buildings aren’t meant to be social clubs – they are meant to be places where people can come to develop their spirituality. Specifically they are places where we should be setting up programs to be better disciples of Christ for ourselves, and to teach people outside of our church how to be better disciples of Christ. It has been shown that congregations who believe that their church is being used for that purpose will donate willingly to maintain the building.
But that puts a bit of a stress on a congregation to be more than just the Methodist (or any other denominational) social club. In order to keep any congregation alive the people of the church need to be always re-evaluating and themselves by asking if they are strengthening the people in the pews as Christians, and are they reaching out to people in the community to help them be better people emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, with our common Christian values. It has been shown time and time again that if the church claims that their purpose is to develop disciples both inward and outward then that church has a vital congregation. If it’s only concerned with taking care of the disciples in the church then it is classified as a chapel.
Is this building being used just as a chapel for ourselves, or is it being used also as a church that reaches out into the community with its values? That’s a question we need to ask about our church culture.
I think that our churches can be proud of what we do in our communities. But can we strengthen our spiritual culture to do more? And more importantly – do we want to keep this church going so that we can do more? We have been talking in visioning meetings about revitalizing or merging, but we must be clear during either process that we are maintaining our churches for a purpose, not just because we’ve been maintaining them for two centuries. We talk about the need and importance of giving to maintain our organizations of Lakeville UMC and Sharon UMC, but we must be clear that we are maintaining ourselves for a purpose, not just because we’ve been maintaining them for 225 in Lakeville or 182 years in Sharon. We need to claim that we are a movement of God’s love, not just an organization of God’s love.
The tenants in the parable, and the Pharisees, never understood that they weren’t working for themselves – that they were ultimately working for God. Think about the fact that God loves us and trusts us to work in his vineyard – and He will pay us fair wages – but we need to treat Him fairly and respect His property as well. If we work on maintaining the foundations surrounding the cornerstone of God’s loving Grace we will be able to do great things that will be marvelous in our own and God’s eyes.