THE GOOD STEWARD
As we have looked at the sermons of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, I have mostly chosen sermons from the end of his career. I've done that because Wesley changed his mind about a lot of things over the course of his lifetime and in general, I am much happier with what he preached at the end than with what he preached at the beginning.
There is one area, however, where Wesley stood firm from start to finish, and it is a thread that weaves through just about all of his sermons. On the matter of stewardship, Wesley never budged; and I find I am right on board with him whenever he mentions the topic. I think it is one of his strongest contributions to modern-day methodism. So, this morning, I want to draw on several of Wesley's sermons to try to give you a picture of his heart...no issue is more central to him, both for his preaching and for his life.
Wesley does recognize that stewardship has to do with more than just money, and that is the topic of his sermon "The Good Steward." His idea should not be new to you, unless you are new to this church, because I am right there with him on this and the thought is woven in every place I can possibly get it. What's the message? We are stewards, not owners of all that we have. From our money to our talents to our bodies to our families to our time to the breath that we draw every minute...all of it has been entrusted to us by God to be used for the glory of God.
From the very beginning of the Bible, we see that Adam was not placed in the Garden of Eden and told..."There, this earth is yours, do with it what you want." Adam was put there to tend the garden and to keep it, within the bounds set by God. Scripture is full of the reminders that the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein (Psalm 24:1). In Christian thinking, and especially in Methodist thinking, there is not the first bit of room to say, "It's mine, I can do with it what I want," whether you are talking about your body or your money or your time. None of it is ours...all of it, all of us belong to God, whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not; and one day all of us will have to make account of our stewardship to the owner. Jesus has parable after parable that illustrate that in no uncertain terms.
Well, why does God care what we do with this stuff? I thought you said God is love, why is God so serious about how we use our money and time and bodies? Well, let me show you how I think the divine economy works. Bear in mind that I could be completely wrong. I'm sure there are times when God says "Ay-yi-yi! I can't believe she said that...and in church, no less!" But if I am wrong, Wesley is wrong right along with me, because this is also what I hear him saying in his sermons.
In the divine economy, God is the owner of all that is...earth, animals, plants, people and everything they grow or make. But God does not want an owner/slave relationship with Creation. The witness of the Bible is that God is a God of love and freedom.. The amazing message in the concept of stewardship is that the God of the universe...the God who made and owns all things...the God who is as far above us as the heavens are above the earth...that God decided to share authority and responsibility with us. God decided to make us partners in the work of God's kingdom; and as partners, we were made overseers of a bunch of stuff.
In sharing that authority and responsibility, God decided not to micro-manage. We were given real, honest-to-goodness responsibility for what we were given. We were given freedom to make the choices we felt were best, even if God looked on and saw that we couldn't manage our way out of a paper bag. God offers abundant help and guidance when it is asked; but God valued freedom too much to step in and interfere with our choices...even though we might make choices God felt were unwise.
The point is, we were made partners in the work, but not owners of the company. If we are using the resources we have been given for the work of the firm to our own advantage...or worse, to the detriment of the company...well, just check out the news to see the response. Check out Enron and Arthur Anderson or check out those who have contributed to the Catholic Church and discovered that their offerings were used to buy the silence of the victims of pedophilia. That is a small-scale version of what Wesley is trying to talk about.
The divine economy, like the church economy is supposed to use resources for a specific end. God's purpose for every last speck of dust in the cosmos is to provide for all of creation to thrive, that it might show forth the glory of God. We are made partners in that project because we, as human beings, are made in the image of God and, of everything in Creation, we are best suited to show God's praise.
For us to pollute the earth, air, and water is just as much of a crime as me embezzling this morning's offering or you skimming funds from your job. We are stewards, not owners of the earth. For us to throw away food or eat more than we need while others go hungry is as much a crime in the divine economy as the Boston couple recently charged with starving their baby to death. Or here's a more direct way to look at it.
This comes from the report of our Annual Conference Statistician given a couple of weeks ago at Annual Conference:
Yes, I know that's hitting hard, and it is aimed at myself just as much as anybody else. I have way more than my share of stuff, but it's not just having a lot of stuff that is the problem. At the time that Adam Smith was writing the Wealth of Nations, Wesley was writing his sermon "The Danger of Riches," crying foul to the way of the world that was bent on gaining more and more and more. In that sermon, he wants to make clear that it is not what we have that is so much the problem, but how we use what we have.
When I look around my house, the things that bug God are the things that I have but don't use and the things I use that do not bring glory to God in some way. Let's hit where we women often live. Is there anything in your closet you have not worn in the last year? With the tags still on it? Men, are there tools in your shed or garage that fall in the same category? Are there boxes in your attic or basement that have not been opened in so long that their contents are a mystery? Have you ever bought something you don't need just because it was on sale? Do you have videos you never watch? Books you will never read or never read again? CD's that you never play? Did you pay top dollar for an appliance or computer with features you don't use? Do you own a house you don't live in or more cars than there are people in your home? At one point back when I was married, my husband and I had five cars. Even if both of our dogs drove, we still had too many cars.
The Bible tells of some people who sold all they had and gave it to the poor. For goodness sake, we could make a huge difference, just by selling off the stuff we don't need and giving to the poor, or by not buying what we don't need and passing that wealth along to those who need it most. Wanting more than we need lies at the root of every single one of what have been called the "seven deadly sins." Pride is wanting more importance than we are due, greed is wanting more money and things than we need, lust is wanting to accumulate sexual experiences, anger when left unchecked is wanting more revenge than is our place to exact, gluttony is eating more food than we need, envy is wanting to possess what is not ours, and sloth is wanting more leisure than we need. They are called the seven deadly sins, because if left to their own devices, they will kill our souls, and they all represent poor stewardship.
Well, what does Wesley recommend that we do? His formula is easy, and he spells it out in a sermon called "The Use of Money." He says, simply, "Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can." American culture right now is hot to trot on the first part of the formula...gain all you can. Wesley means we should gain all we can honestly, by the way. In honest labor, while caring for the body God has given you, earn all you can.
Step two isn't practiced much today, although the financial experts keep telling us of its wisdom. Save all you can. The point is not to earn more so we can spend more on stuff we don't need. If you don't absolutely need it, if it can't be used for the glory of God or to help someone else, save your money. So far, it would seem like the Protestant Work Ethic that has thrived in Northern New England and a number of other places is doing pretty well, but this is where Wesley parts company.
The purpose of gaining all you can and saving every dime possible is not to protect you from a rainy day, to live well in retirement, or to pass along a substantial inheritance to your children. Saving money for Wesley does not mean grow a bank account. In his sermon he says, "You may as well throw your money into the sea as bury it in the earth. And you may as well bury it in the earth as in your chest, or in the Bank of England. Not to use, is effectually to throw it away." (P. 355) Save your money...not in a pile, but save it from one thing for something better. Save it from the rich merchant who will sell you what you don't need and give it to the poor beggar. Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can. We are to earn and save for the goal of giving.
Now the thing that makes the difference between Wesley preaching this to you and me preaching this to you is that Wesley actually lived it out to the letter. When he began as a preacher, he was poor and most of his salary went to supply basic needs. He was able to give away only a couple of pounds a month. But as his income grew, the amount he spent on living expenses never grew...all the extra income was given away, and that grew to be quite substantial. Because he was living on only what he needed, all the money that rolled in from his publishing and other efforts went to start hospitals and orphanages and women's work cooperatives.
Well into his 80's, Wesley brought meals to widows, tramping through the slush and snow in worn boots with holes in them. That gave him the pneumonia that finally ended his life. To the very end, he earned all he could, he saved back every penny that wasn't necessary, and he gave every bit of what he saved up for the work of God's kingdom. That's why I am letting Wesley preach this sermon. My own life is still too cluttered with things I don't need for me to preach that message with integrity. And yet I know he is right. I know I will have to one day stand beside a homeless family and beside nations of emaciated children and explain why it was OK that I have what I have. I know God loves me and is patient with me. I also know that God expects me to do better, and with God's help, I will. Will you?
Sermon © 2002, Anne Robertson
John Wesley's Sermons: An Anthology edited by Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater. Compilation and Preface Copyright 1991 by Abingdon Press.
Sermon texts reprinted from The Works of John Wesley, Volumes 1-4: Sermons I-IV, Copyright 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987 by Abingdon Press.
Return to AnneRobertson.com