Eighth Sunday After Epiphany (Year A)
Sunday, February 27th, 2011
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Preached by Anna C. Haugen
Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
If there is a blessing in our nation’s current economic woes, it is this: right now, it’s easy to see where we put our trust, whether in God or in material prosperity. Or if we put our trust in God through material prosperity—after all, we print the words “in God we trust” on all our money. Jesus’ words seem tailor-made to address our situation. Raise your hand if you’ve spent significant energy in the last few years worrying about your finances—savings, job, mortgage, retirement fund, health insurance, car payments, all that stuff. I’m not talking basic common-sense contingency planning and goal setting. I’m talking the kind of worry that keeps you up at night. The kind of worry when you are afraid that you can’t control what’s going to happen, when the things you relied on can’t be counted on anymore. The kind of worry that infects everything you do and think, even when you try to ignore it.
I know how you feel. I’ve done it myself. I worry about two things, mainly. Will I be able to get a call when I’m done here? The recession affects pastors, too, you know—when I started Seminary, they predicted there would be a shortage of pastors by now. You see, the Baby Boomer generation of pastors is supposed to be retiring. But with the economy and the state of the pension fund, many of them are choosing to work a few years longer than they otherwise would have. Then there are churches that can’t afford to pay a pastor anymore. So instead of a shortage of pastors, there’s a surplus. Some of my classmates who graduated last May didn’t get a call until a year after they were assigned to a region—and because of the way the schedule works and the fact that I’m doing things out of order, I can’t get assigned until a few months after I’ve graduated and am done here. And I’m going to have to start paying back my student loans six months after I my internship ends—what if I don’t have a call by then? The other thing I worry about is my parents. My parents are portrait photographers who own their own small business. Portrait art is a luxury; not many people are spending money on luxuries now. What will happen to their business?
There’s nothing I can do to make more calls for pastors available or help my parents business. And so I worry. It’s useless—it does nothing but make me upset. It can’t make things turn out the way I want them to. As Jesus says, my worrying can’t add a single hour to my span of life. It won’t make me any likelier to get a call quickly, and it won’t miraculously send customers to my parents’ studio. All it can do is make me unhappy, blind me to the many gifts and blessings my family and I already have, and distract me from serving God. And yet even when I tell myself that, it’s hard to stop. Wealth—mammon, material prosperity, whatever you want to call it—has a lot more of my allegiance than I’d prefer to admit.
At heart, this kind of anxiety is a fear that God won’t be there to provide for our daily bread—or a belief that we know better than God how much and what kind of daily bread we need. This anxiety is based on the belief that we live in a world of scarcity, with not quite enough to go around, where we must hoard and take care of ourselves rather than trust in God and take care of the world around us. After all, regardless of Jesus’ poetic words about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, we know that there are animals out there that eat birds and bad weather can wreak havoc with the crops of the field—we’ve certainly had enough bad weather lately to see that. And I don’t know about you, but when it comes to my finances I prefer a much more solid and dependable answer than poetic metaphors!
This worry about our finances is also tied in to a kind of arrogance—the belief that we know better than God what we need. Then if things don’t go the way we planned, we think it’s because God didn’t answer our prayers, or isn’t with us in our time of need. In the words of Isaiah, we say “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” But God is always with us, in good times and bad. Like a mother watches over her baby, God watches over us and will never abandon us. In good times and bad, in prosperity and adversity, God is with us—even when we’re too blinded by our own worries to see. Even when the crops wither or are frozen out or torn up by a storm, God is there. Even when the birds of the air lose their nests to a storm, God is there taking care of them. And you know what? No matter how much bad stuff happens, there’s a lot more good in the world and in our lives.
God created this world to be fruitful, and our God is a God of abundant life. No matter how broken, sinful, unjust, and unpredictable our world is, it was created to be good. And our world and everything on it—including ourselves, our time, our talents, and our treasures—ultimately belong to God. All the things that we cling to so deeply are gifts from God, gifts meant not just for us but for us to share with the world. When we serve our wealth instead of serving God, when we allow our worries about our material possessions to consume our attention and our energy, we tend to pull back in on ourselves. We want to serve ourselves instead of our God and our neighbors. We begin to resent God’s call that draws us from our self-centered ways and out to work for the kingdom of God.
Our God is a generous and abundant giver. We have been given so many blessings, both physical and spiritual. But these gifts are not for ourselves alone. We have been given them to equip us to work for God’s kingdom and righteousness, for the spreading of the Gospel in word and deed in our community and throughout the world. As Saint Paul said in today’s second lesson, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” Now, a steward in Paul’s day was an important person: a manager. The one who made sure the whole household functioned well, that everything was done properly, that all members of the household were cared for and equipped to do their part in maintaining the household. The steward was the one who made sure resources were used efficiently and responsibly. Stewards had a lot of responsibility, and a lot of trust was placed in their hands, that they would serve faithfully and well. But a steward also had to trust his master. You see, if a steward didn’t trust his master, the steward would start trying to run things his own way, instead of his master’s way. And that would break up the relationship—it’s hard to trust someone who doesn’t trust you.
We are God’s stewards. We have been given abundant gifts to use to build up the body of Christ and to work for God’s kingdom. As a congregation, St. Luke’s has a lot of people from all age groups and walks of life, with a wide variety of skills and talents. We have financial resources. We have a good building. As individuals, and as families, we also have many gifts. When we focus on our fears and anxieties, we blind ourselves to God’s gifts and allow ourselves to be drawn away from God’s will. Instead of looking for God’s grace and ways we can live out the Gospel, we pull back in on ourselves to try and conserve our resources. We don’t trust that God will be there for us, to support us in the things he has called us to be and do. We believe, but sometimes we fail at putting that belief into action.
Over the last month, Saint Luke has been doing a survey of members—remember those yellow sheets you all got handed out, and asked to pray about? This congregation has some thinking and praying to do, in the next few months and years, about where God is calling you to go from here, how God is calling you to get there, and how you’re going to answer that calling. I don’t know where this process will take you, and I won’t be here long enough to see it through myself, but I am sure that God will be with you along the way, and that God will give you the blessings you need to be able to do what God calls you to do. But you still have to put your trust in God, and choose to be faithful stewards of those blessings.
It’s not always easy to be a faithful steward, because there are a lot of temptations out there in our society. Jesus spent a lot of time talking about money and wealth. And a lot of the things he said make us uneasy, because he was fairly critical of it, and we are a nation that worships prosperity and profit. Jesus criticized those who were blinded by their possessions, whose attention was focused on their bottom line, who forgot that everything they had was a gift from God. The problem was not the money itself, it was the way they centered their lives around it. It’s easy to see that flaw in others, but a lot harder to see and change in ourselves. We have been given many gifts from God—we are rich in blessing, even in this recession. We are the stewards of all God has given us, and God calls us to use his gifts for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness. May we always be faithful and trustworthy in our management of God’s gifts.