Ordinary XXV: Stewards of God's Mysteries
Ordinary Sunday 25: 23rd September, 2018
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Stewardship Sunday. I had to take a deep breath before advertising this Sunday in the pew sheet and elsewhere; would my efforts in communication actually decrease the number attending Mass today? For some, I think, asking them to reflect with the Vicar on Church Stewardship is a bit like suggesting we get together and watch paint dry. Well, for you dear faithful souls who have come to church this morning, I will do all I can to disappoint such sentiments!
The English word "stewardship" in the way that we understand it in the church (that is "responsible use of resources in the service of God") was first used as recently as 1899. The noun "steward" is much older, derived from two Old English words: stig the name for a hall or part of a house, and weard meaning "guard" or the one who "watches out for." In the late fourteenth century the stig-weard or "steward" was a common title for someone employed to manage the affairs of an estate on behalf of the employer.
It is an ancient job-description. In Hebrew this person was called the ha-ish asher al, literally "the one who is over". In Genesis 43, when the brothers bring Benjamin to Egypt, Jospeh instructs his ha-ish asher al to bring them into the house and prepare a feast. In 1 Chronicles 27 there is a detailed description of the numerous ha-ish asher alwho look after King David's money, vineyards, orchards, oil stores, camels, sheep and so on.
The Greek word oikonomos is usually translated "steward" in the KJV but frequently modernised as "manager" in the NRSV. So we have our Lord's Parable of the Labourers in Matthew 20, where the owner of the vineyard at the end of the day instructs his oikonomos "Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first" (v.8).
So, in this sense Stewardship Sunday could arguably be renamed Parish Wardens' Sunday. They are the Stewards of St Peter's. Our Parish Governance Act (2013) makes very clear that ultimate responsibility for the property and finances of a parish rests with the Wardens. Our Church Wardens and Treasurer have produced a brochure for you today, reminding you of the various ways you can assist them in being good stewards of our resources at St Peter's Eastern Hill. Our Stewardship Secretary has prepared for those who would like them giving envelopes, which are at the back of church. And all of us on Parish Council thank you for your generosity as we struggle to make ends meet in challenging times.
But wait, there's more! And for this we need to turn to St Paul. In 1 Corinthians 4 Paul uses this same word oikonomos in a different way when talking about the apostles and leaders of the church: "Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries" (v.1). The NRSV helpfully chooses the more archaic English word here "steward" rather than the "manager" of the parables.
We are all stewards of God's mysteries; not just the Wardens! This is an essential component in our understanding of stewardship. Stewardship is so much more than business management. I've sat on many Parish Councils, and one of the temptations is to see ourselves solely as business managers, in a secular sense, rather than integrating the spiritual into what we do: "stewards of God's mysteries." We have even had debates about whether we should have a religious reflection at the start of a Parish Council meeting, or just get straight on with the business. The problem is, if we see our work in the church as managing a business, important as that is, we can miss the very crux of what we are doing here when we gather as people of faith. We need time to reflect, time to be open to the questions that emerge from our reflection. That's why we pray at Parish Council, and why we set aside Stewardship Sunday in church.
All who have served as Board members, or Parish Council members, know the importance of questions. Thoughtful reflective questions at a governance level can add great value to the direction of an organisation. The church is no different, although perhaps we should be more open to questions from the floor, or even the stranger, as well as from those in power.
In T. S. Eliot's poem "Choruses from The Rock" he writes:
When the Stranger says: "What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?"
What will you answer? "We all dwell together
To make money from each other"? or "This is a community"?
And the Stranger will depart and return to the desert.
Ðž my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger,
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.
On this Stewardship Sunday may we be open to the stranger's question: what are we really doing at church, what is the point of our fundraising, why do the poor and outcast matter? Perhaps Paul's answer best underlies our response: "we are stewards of God's mysteries." This is not just a secular business; this truly is God's work we are concerned with.
The Eucharist is of course the central mystery that gathers us each week, each day for some. We are stewards of the Mass, the real presence of Christ in our midst. Social Justice is another of these great mysteries, a first-order calling for us all as Christians. Faith without works is dead, James reminds us.
We have been blessed to have Fr Rod Bower with us this weekend, for the ISS Spring Symposium, with Dr Robyn Whitaker, and our own Dr Stephen Duckett. In his talk Fr Rod quoted Archbishop Justin Welby, who in a very powerful speech to the Trades Union Congress in Manchester recently said: "Justice is who God is ... justice is God's nature" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QewjUsHmScs). Fr Rod also reminded us of 9 year-old Harper Nielsen, who recently asked some very unsettling questions about our National Anthem. Harper refused to stand for the national anthem because in her view it excludes the original custodians of this land. As her protest hit news headlines, she has learnt at an early age something about the cost of being a steward of God's mystery of justice.
So, blessings to you this Stewardship Sunday. Do read the Planned Giving brochure, and reflect on the ways you will contribute to the mission and ministry of St Peter's in the coming year. You may be interested in reading Fr Rod's new book, and reflecting on ways you can engage at a deeper level in the mystery of social justice. And may we all listen to the unsettling questions of others; especially those of the stranger from the desert. These are the questions that drive us ever more deeply into encounter with the Real Presence in our midst, that compel us to act justly, and that will not let us rest until we are truly living "as servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries".
The Lord be with you ...