Saturday, November 18, 2017

Year A, Proper 28, Matthew 25:14-30, Stewards of God’s Mysteries

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
When the word “stewardship” is spoken in Church, almost without exception what we think of is that there is another fund raising campaign going on.  And to be quite frank, every formal stewardship program I have experienced has had one primary purpose, which is to raise the level of giving for the congregation’s budget.
There is an entirely different understanding of stewardship that is often overlooked in the Gospel.
Our Gospel lesson today points that out.
Stewardship is asset management.  We are entrusted with the care of a great treasury of assets, and the question of stewardship is what we will do with what we have been given.
Now, if one is a business person, and you want to talk about assets, the conversation starts with the balance sheet of the organization.  What do we own?  What have we been entrusted with?
We are a small congregation here at Peace, and we often think of ourselves as not having much.
But then, thinking of assets, if we turn to the congregation’s balance sheet we discover that we have over half a million dollars worth of assets, primarily this building, that we have been entrusted with.
The value of those assets alone should not be overlooked.
Back in 1979 Karla and I joined Agnus Dei Lutheran Church in Gig Harbor, WA.  It was a new congregational start, and we had nothing.  Nothing.
We met for worship, first in a school gymnasium, and then subsequently, in a Masonic Temple.
(One of my interesting ‘claims to fame’ is that in the entire history of the Lutheran Church, I am probably the only pastor to ever have been ordained in a Masonic Temple.)
At any rate, one of the things I appreciate about this congregation, based on my experience of being in a congregation that had nothing, is that we have property, a building, furnishings and some money in the bank.  Assets.  Resources for ministry.
The question of stewardship is in part how will we manage those assets for the sake of the Gospel?
When Karla and I traveled to Russia to visit the Church there we had the opportunity to sit down with Bishop Ratz and Bishop Springer of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia and Other States.
We talked about the resources that the Church in Russia had for ministry.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, the Christian Church across Russia was able to come out into the open once again.  The Evangelical Church in Germany took a lead with respect to reestablishing the Lutheran Church’s presence in Russia.
Bishop Ratz and Bishop Springer shared with us that one of the gifts the German Church had shared with the Church in Russia was a two million dollar grant.  This money was used to pay the salary of all the clergy in Russia.  It was running out.
What struck me at the time, was that my congregation, First Lutheran in Sandpoint, had four acres of undeveloped commercial land in Sandpoint, with a value of approximately two million dollars.  My mind was racing.
What I shared with them, was that if we could do something with the land in Sandpoint, perhaps selling it and creating an endowment, our congregation could support the salaries of all the pastors throughout Russia for years to come.
When we returned home, one of the things that happened was that our congregation started to receive offers to purchase our land.
One of the offers, which was too little, resulted in a member of our counsel saying “we should develop senior housing.”
My thoughts then were that yes, we could develop a senior housing ministry, and not only provide a much needed service to the seniors in our community, but could also, then, with the proceeds of that ministry support the church in Russia.
When the dust settled, we built Luther Park at Sandpoint, an 87 unit assisted living community.
Unfortunately, they have yet to realize any additional income from Luther Park like I had hoped, but they have this very important ministry that has been established.
The congregation contributed exactly $15 dollars toward Luther Park.  $15 dollars.
The rest was all the result of using the assets we had, to accomplish our goal.
One question that has been raised here at Peace is whether it might be possible to do something similar in Otis Orchards.  We have this property, most of it undeveloped.  Could we do senior housing?
Unfortunately, there are significant problems here that likely cannot be overcome.
First, the land isn’t worth as much. 
Most importantly, there is no sewer system, and without that it is not possible to build a large facility.
But the question is a good one.
What assets do we have, and how can we manage them to advance the ministry of the Gospel?
Now, consider this.
The greatest assets that we have do not show up on the congregation’s balance sheet.
The greatest assets we have are not material.
In 1 Corinthians, chapter 4, Paul writes:
“Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries.”
Stewards of the mysteries of God.
What a concept.
We have been entrusted with a treasure far more valuable than any piece of property, or balance in a bank account.
The mysteries of God, and the message of Christ Jesus.
As faithful stewards, what will we do with those treasures?
As I look back over my years in ministry, one of the most special experiences I’ve had with my congregations occurred during Lenten services.
I got an inspiration.
As I visited with people they shared with me one story after another about their life of faith.
What I recognized was that they did not have the opportunity to share those stories with each other.
And so on three separate occasions we had Lenten services that offered the opportunity for our members to share their faith stories.
What was most amazing to me was that over the course of those three Lenten series I invited 22 people to share their stories, and only one declined the invitation.  It wasn’t that he wouldn’t share, but simply that at that time he was simply too overwhelmed with responsibilities at work and so he wouldn’t have time to prepare.
The other amazing thing, was that as our members shared their stories of faith, the attendance at the Lenten services grew week by week.
One of the great treasures we have as a Church, one of the most important assets that has been entrusted to us, is the story we have to tell.
How has God been active in your life?
Can you tell that story?
Or is this a treasure that you are content to bury in a field?
The importance of this sharing cannot be overstated.
I’ve learned more about evangelism from AA than from any other place.
When alcoholics gather, often in church basements around the community, what they do is share their stories.  One after another, they tell, and tell again, their story about how they had been delivered from their addiction to alcohol. 
Often, it’s the same group of people, meeting week in and week out, that share their stories over and over again even though they’ve all heard them before.
But there is a purpose in rehearsing in this way the telling of their story.
And that is because one day, a newcomer will show up, perhaps even drunk, and will need to hear that there is hope.
In my group, what happens when a newcomer shows up is that the meeting becomes a ‘first step meeting’ and everyone shares how they were powerless over alcohol, too.  But that though they were powerless, God was able to deliver them from their addiction.
It’s this story telling that saves the alcoholic from their addiction and disease.
Stories are powerful and have the ability to change lives.
Our stories of faith are the greatest asset we have.
With them we write the Bible of a new age.
That is, we do, if we take the time to share them.
To bear witness to Christ and our experience of the love of God is the single most important thing we can do as Christians.
Imagine if the first disciples had kept their experiences of being with Jesus to themselves.
Imagine the loss to the whole world if they had not witnessed. 
There would be no Church, no Christianity, and no saving grace for us. 
The same holds true for each and every generation.  We are servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.
“But,” you might respond, “I don’t know what to say.”
This is the thing about being a faithful witness.  We are only called to share the story about how we have experienced God’s grace in our lives.
In order to be a faithful witness, the first thing we have to do is simply open our eyes to see the many ways God has touched our lives. 
It’s not always obvious.  And sometimes it takes years for us to fully comprehend.  After having his conversion experience and vision of Christ, the Apostle Paul stepped back and took about ten years to reflect on what had happened and what that meant. 
Many of us will have to do the same.
I can tell you stories today about how God was active in my life that I couldn’t have understood at the time.  For example, due to some conflicts with a staff member in my congregation in Baker, MT, I ended up being fired.  But, immediately, I received a call to First Lutheran in Sandpoint.
I see now God’s hand in all of that.  I didn’t at the time.
What are your stories?
What treasures do you have to share?
The future of our ministry will have more to do with whether we are faithful stewards of those stories than anything else.
No amount of money can share those stories.
Only you.

That’s stewardship.  We are servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.  Amen

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