Rev. Sabrina Ingram
1 Corinthians 3: 10 – 4:2; Mark 4: 26 – 29

A wealthy man was dying and he was determined to take his riches with him to the next life. He instructed his wife to put all their money in a bag and tie it to a rafter in the attic above his bed. He reasoned that when the time came, he could grab the bag as he went up to heaven. His wife did as he requested. That night, he passed away during his sleep. Eager to see what happened, the wife ran up to the attic to see if the bag was gone. Needless to say, she wasn’t too surprised to see the bag still hanging where she’d left it. Shaking her head, she went back downstairs to the rest of the family and said, “I knew I should have put it in the basement.”

Today and next Sunday, we’ll be talking about stewardship. And no, I don’t know of any way you can take it with you. I do know that, at least in heaven, you won’t care, because all your needs will be met. Perhaps elsewhere they take bribes. But in heaven everything that belongs to God will be yours to enjoy; just as on Earth everything we enjoy belongs to God. We often relate the word “stewardship” to “money”; to how we spend and where we give our earnings and assets. Stewardship is much broader than that. Stewardship is a lifestyle. Stewardship is first and foremost about God. And stewardship is about how we use whatever God has entrusted to us. Stewardship is about life. It’s about caring for everything God gives us. It’s about how we manage every aspect of our lives. And it’s about doing our best for God.

We are God’s stewards. Do you know what a steward is? A steward is the manager of another person’s assets. In a way, a courier driver is a steward. He’s given the task of safely delivering other people’s packages to the correct destinations. Now let’s say you have a very beautiful crystal vase to ship to a friend across the country. You’ve chosen a courier because of their reputation. You believe you can trust them. Because of its value, you package the vase very carefully and you arrange for a pick up. The courier sends a man to your home. You sign the paper work. He takes the package, rips it open, and says, “Thanks for the vase, my wife will love it!” A bit shocking, eh? You’d be on the phone giving the company an earful. The driver should get fired for doing something like that! That’s exactly what Christians do when we live as if our lives, bodies, possessions, time and financial resources belong to us. They don’t. We don’t own our things. In fact, we don’t own ourselves. We have no entitlement to the assets we manage. It’s our job to find out what the owner (God) wants done with what he’s entrusted to us and to carry out His will. That is what stewardship is all about.

Both our scripture readings today give us insights into stewardship. Paul is writing to the troubled Church at Corinth. If ever a group of believers had trouble giving up their old behaviours, it was the Corinthians. From incest to greed, they covered the full spectrum of human vice. And pettiness and pride where right in the mix. Paul had established a Christian community in Corinth. Another leader named Apollos built up the church when Paul moved on. Both were well loved by the people they served, and emotional loyalties developed. People would defend the ways of one or the other and brag about the one to whom they “belonged”. This led to “jealousy and quarrelling”. It had the potential to split the congregation. So, Paul addressed it head on. To make the point that both he and Apollos were mere human beings and servants of God, not worthy of their devotion, he used the analogy of a garden: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God made you grow” (1 Corinthians 3: 6). Paul and Apollos are simply servants and stewards of the good news of salvation found in Jesus Christ. Therefore, God is the one who deserves their attachment. It’s Jesus they should be lifting up. A similar image is used in Jesus’ parable where he likens the kingdom of God to a farmer who plants seeds. Having done what he can, he goes to bed. Next time he checks the field, plants have appeared, and they continue to grow. It’s a great mystery which he can’t explain. How do seeds grow? Well, we know there’s a factual scientific explanation, yet however God does it, life comes by God’s will alone. It’s God who gives the growth. Our role is to take whatever God has given us and use it in ways that are most productive to God’s kingdom. Not only actual seeds or the gospel but everything God entrusts to us. And that means everything there is.

Paul emphasizes this by reminding us that “everything” begins with the Church – the community of believers, which is built on the foundation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Every Christian community belongs to God. Paul uses the image of a temple. In Israel in Paul’s day there was a physical temple and within that temple was a special box known as the Ark of the Covenant. The Jews believed that God dwelt in the Ark in a unique way. The Greeks also had temples to their gods. Paul tells the Corinthian church, “You realize, don’t you, that you are the temple of God, and God himself is present in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). Later in Corinthians Paul personalizes this, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? You have been bought with a price, so glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6: 19 & 20) As Peterson puts it, “God owns the whole works.”

How can we be good stewards of “the whole works”? Since “it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy” (4:2) how do we fulfill that requirement as a congregation and as individuals within our congregation? As a congregation we belong to God. What actions reflect this? What actions give back to God? What actions build God’s kingdom and glorify God.
• Well, the first purpose of the people of God is worship. When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt he was instructed by God to “Tell Pharaoh, ‘God’s message: Release my people, so they can worship me” (Exodus 8:1). God’s soul reason for the deliverance of his people was not so they could be free or feel loved or enter the Promised Land, it was so that he could receive their worship. Worship is more than just your presence here. It’s even more your songs or offering. It’s about presenting your entire being, your entire life to God. If you can’t give God an hour a week how are you going to give him your heart, your will, your actions? Worship acknowledges God’s right to the central place in your life. Worship is an action through which we re-dedicate “the whole works” to God. We all know how quickly we take it all back into our own hands and will, so a weekly act of worship renews our dedication of give our lives to God. It’s an act of submission.
• Publically professing our faith is an act of stewardship through which we take the grace we’ve received in Jesus Christ and declare our acceptance of it. Through it we celebrate God’s gift of salvation and return our redeemed souls back to God’s service. Sharing our faith with others is also stewardship. As Paul says, “We are guides into God’s most sublime secrets, not security guards posted to protect them” (4:1).
• We’re stewards through our collective ministry and mission. We serve one another and we serve those beyond our doors. An inward-looking congregation that’s concerned with survival is a dying congregation. A congregation with concern for our neighbours and which looks for ways to positively impact peoples’ lives is hope-filled. We’re blessed in St. Stephen’s to have so many people who participate and serve in whatever ways they can. Along side our service as people, we need to use our building for others. Mission means opening our doors and letting community groups in, even if that means taking risks.
• In community, God gives us to one another. How we treat each other is an act of stewardship. When we pass the peace each Sunday, we look at the people around us and bless them with the peace of Christ. We also need to see and to be a blessing to one another when we’re working together in a meeting; helping with pasta supper; preparing for a BBQ or a bazaar; when we’re speaking to one another and when we’re speaking about one another. We develop boundaries so we’re taking care of what is ours to do. If everyone does their own task, the work gets done. A father-daughter trapeze act were about to perform for the first time without a net. The daughter was anxious and said to her dad, “Look out for me up there. Make sure I don’t fall.” Her father replied, “If you do what you’re supposed to do, and I do what I’m supposed to do, everything will be fine.” We need to focus on our part and trust others to do theirs – the world rarely falls apart. We’re called to show love and respect to each person, regardless of age, gender or heritage. In intergenerational churches age differences can be challenging. Older people sometimes feel the need to ‘discipline’ our younger members, and young people can dismiss older people rather than seeing them as amazing people who have lived full lives and have much to share. Older people may resist newer music and younger people may not be respectful of traditional music – in both cases we can miss the richness they have to offer. We learn to be sensitive to how we affect others and respond to them according to their needs. We need to be aware of people – our tendency is to smother or nag people, when sometimes, they just need space. Our “over-caring or insistence” can cause them to distance themselves. Accomplishing a goal is less important than including others in it, so we learn when to let go and let others be involved. We make room for others, especially our youth and people who are new.
• We are stewards of our collective finances. St. Stephen’s is fortunate to have a stewardship team who takes this task to heart. When congregations have money they tend to either spend it like it’s going out of style or they hoard it for fear they’ll never see another nickel. We need to be constantly aware that whatever we are given is God’s money and we need to ask how God would have us spend it. Money serves the kingdom – mission of the congregation. It is meant to be bear fruit in some way. The parable of the talents certainly reminds us that saving it with nothing to show for it isn’t too pleasing to the one who owns it.
• Because everything belongs to God, our decisions must belong to him as well. This takes discernment. A prayerful asking and listening to what God desires. This is often a process. Sometimes, God directs us through opportunities, closing one door and opening another. And because we’re all fallible and God usually wants what I want, we must hash out our bigger decisions as a group and explore the possibilities. When final decisions are made, we need to trust and support the groups’ discernment, even if it wasn’t ours. We don’t take our cookies and go home. Even our cookies belong to God.

The mystery of stewardship is that God takes everything that is his – the world, life, death, the present, the future— and entrusts it all to us. We become part of a chain of privilege in which all these seeds “belong” to us and we belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God (3: 21 – 23). When we plant these gifts, God causes them to multiply. That’s how our gardens grow. What are you producing?