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A Community of Stewards

November 20, 2017

“A Community of Stewards” Haggai 1:1-2:9; 2 Corinthians 9:1-15; Matthew 25:14-30 © 11.19.17 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Last week, at the congregational meeting, you heard discouraging news. In light of an expected shortfall in income for 2018, the session had passed a budget with a number of cuts. Some of them had been recommended by the budget team, others by members of the council. And even with the reductions, we may still not come out in the black. Add to the budget woes the fact that due to deaths, as well as families and individuals joining elsewhere, our roll at the end of 2016 showed 68 active members, after years of hovering around 80. That was a trend that began in 2015, with 73 at the end of that year. Worship attendance has declined from an average of 50 in 2013 (a figure that included Christmas and Easter) to 39 for the first half of this year.

Having said all that, it’s important that we get a little perspective. First, we’ve been here before. At the end of 2005, according to the official statistical report, membership was 62, though average attendance was almost 50, which again included Easter and Christmas. Yes, the budget for 2018 is lower than this year’s, but since 2003, the figures have fluctuated from a high income of $91,881 in 2013 to a low of $76,560 in 2008. Second, we received six wonderful youth in the confirmation class this year, and the youth group will soon get going again. Third, the percentage in attendance at worship is actually about what is typical for a small church, around 50%. Larger churches, like the one I had in KY, do well if a third of their members come on a Sunday. Finally, I have complete confidence that you—session and members alike—will meet the challenge of the coming year. You always have or you wouldn’t have been in this place for 113 years and counting.

As we think about what lies ahead, especially financially, I want to turn to three passages of Scripture that particularly remind us what a community of stewards looks like. Before we do that, let me define that term. A steward is someone who takes care of someone else’s property and typically also oversees finances and personnel. He or she is responsible for the careful use of resources, whether of a club, a community or of the earth itself. A steward has authority, but is still an underling, a servant, accountable for his or her actions. Similar words are caretaker, trustee, overseer, regent, keeper, gardener. In the case of the church particularly, we are stewards of God’s resources, entrusted to us, and we will be accountable for the wise and joyous use of them to his glory. As the old hymns say: “We give thee but thine own, whate’er the gift may be; all that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.” And “Praise to God, immortal praise, for the love that crowns our days; bounteous Source of every joy, let thy praise our tongues employ; all to thee, our God, we owe, Source whence all our blessings flow.”

With our calling and accountability in mind, then, let’s look first at the short, obscure book of Haggai and see what it has to tell us about being a community of stewards. There are a couple of things here. For one, stewards live in the real world, not insulated from its politics or economics. They also have their own daily needs that have to be attended to. Notice that Haggai is very specific about the dates and cultural context of his prophecy. Darius I the Great is on the throne of Persia. The book begins on September 1, 520 BC. It continues through the middle of December of the same year. In the background are the changing fortunes of the Jews according to the decrees of whoever it was that held power over them. The Babylonians had conquered Judah in 587 BC, and taken into exile anyone who could contribute to the economy of the city-state. But in 539, Cyrus the Persian had defeated Babylon. Shortly thereafter, he issued an edict that whoever among the Jews wanted to return home was free to do so. Not all did, having made a life in Babylon. No doubt they anticipated the bad conditions that faced the returning exiles, like a ruined city and inhabitants that resented the presence of new people, which put a strain on resources. The Temple was to be rebuilt, but after some efforts, the project stalled. That was no doubt due to the people needing to attend to their daily needs, like food and shelter. Talk about the real world! By Haggai’s time, the house of God was still neglected, and he complains that the priorities of the community are misplaced, for which, in the prophet’s view, they’re bearing the consequences.

Building did begin again, though, when the prophet had convinced and motivated the leaders. But then reality came crashing down again. Everyone worked and worked, but their efforts were disappointing. The few old-timers left saw the new Temple and no doubt wept. It was nothing compared to the glorious structure that Solomon had built. Why even go on if this was the best they could do?

Like those ancient Jews, we’re affected by changes in political leadership, financial markets, demographics of the community, and on and on. We steward the resources available to us wherever and whenever we might be. We do our best in the church to control costs, but sometimes what we have to pay for utilities or the pastor’s insurance or the per capita assessment is simply what is. Families and individuals have to provide for daily needs and save for tomorrow, and there may not be much available for gifts to the church or to charities. And like those folk of old, we deal with personal and corporate disappointment, when our efforts, maybe over a long time and to the point of exhaustion, yield very little return.

On the other hand, the real world is not all doom and gloom. It also holds surprises. You might blink, as someone said Wednesday night, and suddenly an empty fellowship hall is filled with people for a dinner, talking and enjoying each other’s company, and an extra table has to be added. Or a very satisfying number of boxes of stuffing come in for the Pantry, with more to be added for the next holiday. Or think of times for you personally when you were pleasantly surprised and overjoyed that something you did truly paid off, against your expectations and experience.

So, we live in the real world. But, next, Haggai reminds us that it’s precisely because of our daily, individual concerns that we need a focus beyond ourselves, which brings us into partnership with others. We need to know there is something larger than ourselves, a cause we can contribute to that will outlast us and benefit future generations. Or we’re encouraged when our efforts with other people of faith or goodwill meet a need of our neighbors right now, when we’re challenged to bring all our skills to bear on a problem or an opportunity. For Haggai’s people, the Temple project was such a focus. When they gave their time and energy to work together, they would discover that they were not just building a structure, but new relationships and understanding. The prophet’s conversational style suggests that he was interested in broad input and welcomed ideas from leaders and common folk alike. Not a strict, top-down hierarchy, but a collaborative community.

Haven’t we seen or experienced how a focus outside ourselves can lead to benefits beyond getting a project done? After a disaster or an attack, people find resources within themselves to rise to the occasion, and they work as one, putting aside at least for the moment whatever differences divided them. A church with squabbling factions might find some unity when they cooperate on building a home or feeding the hungry or restoring their sanctuary after a storm.

Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, once spoke of an amazing thing that happened during a blitz build in North Carolina in the 1980s. He said: “After we gathered the first morning and had our devotional…we grabbed our hammers and went to work. And there went an Episcopal priest and the most conservative Baptist preacher in Charlotte to begin hammering together. When you’re on the roof of a house, it don’t matter whether you’re a conservative or a liberal. All that matters is if you can hit the nail on the head. Those two preachers didn’t know each other before they started work on that house. Now they’re good friends.”

The Temple or the house or whatever the immediate project might be are all important. But the ultimate benefit to the community of stewards and to those they serve is the experience of the incarnated Presence of God. Whatever the relative success of an effort by any metric we choose to use, God is there. In the face of disappointment or disheartening predictions about finances or other aspects of the future, the community in 520 BC or 2017 AD hears: “Take courage and work, for I am with you.”

Haggai’s favorite title for God tells us how confident he is in the resources God provides as he stands by the side of his people. “Adonai Sabaoth,” “Lord of hosts,” the prophet names God. Someone calculated that although Haggai is only two-tenths of one percent of the Bible, his use of “Lord of hosts” accounts for five percent of the uses of the term (Steed Davidson, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1844). It translates as “Lord of heavenly armies.” Haggai believes God provides resources beyond measure that his people can depend on. He even promises in the name of this Lord of hosts that the nations will contribute their treasures to rebuild the Temple. And in the end there will be shalom, which means “peace, wholeness, prosperity.”

To envision such a future takes some imagination, exactly the quality every steward needs to have. How can we do what needs to be done with what’s available? Even when things look bleak, how can we solve the problems that face us?

There’s a wonderful scene among the many in the classic movie The Princess Bride (1987) in which Fezzik the giant, Westley the pirate, and Montoya the Spanish swordsman are preparing to storm a castle to rescue Princess Buttercup. Westley has been “mostly dead” all day after the evil prince tortured him. But a healer called “Miracle Max” has given him a pill to revive him. Only now, as the trio plans their assault, is the pill taking effect. Westley can talk, but has only minimal use of his limbs. He asks Montoya: “What are our liabilities?” 60 men guarding the gate, and only one key, comes the reply. “Our assets?” “Your brains, Fezzik’s strength, my steel,” the Spaniard says. It turns out they also have a wheelbarrow and a special cloak, which Fezzik pulls out from under his shirt (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093779/quotes).

They faced impossible odds, but they succeeded, because they used what was at hand with imagination. Yes, it’s a fairy tale, and we live in the real world. But the Lord of hosts is with us. As Martin Luther reminded us: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he, Lord Sabaoth his name, from age to age the same, and he must win the battle.” What do you and I expect God to provide today, to do today?

So a community of stewards depends on the powerful God who provides resources. But finally, we trustees of God’s gifts serve joyfully and without fear. As Psalm 84 puts it: “How happy is everyone who trusts in the Lord of hosts.” And we heard Paul say this morning that God loves a “cheerful” giver. That translation is actually a little weak. The Greek term is the root of our word “hilarious,” “great merriment.” The joy stewards feel when giving is like the over-the-top celebration at a holiday party, delight beyond measure. Paul doesn’t want giving to be about have-to, pressure of circumstance, arm-twisting. It needs to come from the heart, because the community is convinced of the goodness of the God who provides.

Jesus says much the same in his story of the talents, coins with an astoundingly high value. Without fear about the future day of accounting, two servants invest the money, doing the risky things necessary in order to get high returns. The other, though, admits that he sees the master as a hard man, taking things he didn’t deserve, and he was afraid. That attitude, more than his failure with the money, is what lands him in a bad situation, bereft of any resources at all. The message to me is: if God has entrusted us with great gifts, then we need to trust him in return when we step out in faith. God would rather we do something creative and positive with the resources we have than hide them in the ground, as it were, keeping them safe.

There is a favorite line I have from the Book of Order, found in the section on foundational principles: “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life” (F-1.0301). Or as the commentator Timothy Simpson puts it, speaking of Haggai’s promise that God is with us: “[O]ur strivings are producing little but anxiety, both in ourselves and in our people: the harder we work, the less things seem to improve. The truth is that none of the conventional methods and means in which we have so long invested can help us. If we are to be prosperous, it will be because of the presence. If we are to be safe and secure, it will be because of the presence. If we are to have a future, it will be because of the presence (Timothy Simpson http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-managing-expectations-haggai-115b-29/).

So having begun with Haggai, we end with him. As someone has observed: “Haggai says that God meets us where we are, not where we wish we could be, even and especially in downsized circumstances like a rebuilt temple in a ravaged Jerusalem. His Spirit moves even when we might not see or feel His presence. When we least expect it, in the dust and dirt of our lives God says, ‘From this day on I will bless you’ (Haggai 2:19).” (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20071105JJ.shtml).

Thanks be to God, the Lord of hosts, who is with us, and calls us to be a faithful community of stewards.

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