Stewards

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 46 or 97; 149, Isaiah 52:3-6, Revelation 2:1-7, John 2:1-11


Jesus performed his first public miracle at a wedding he attended with his mother. When Mary told him the wine ran out, at first Jesus replied it was none of his concern. Still Mary told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” After that, Jesus turned over a hundred gallons of water into surprisingly good wine. The servants who drew the water knew what happened, but the wine steward assumed the bridal party had been holding back.

A lot of the world is like that wine steward, ignorant of how Christ and his church are at work in the world, yet benefiting just the same. Christians hear a lot of criticism about the church. Some is justified, but a lot of people refuse to see the good the church does because they are committed to viewing it only through the lens of lurid stories of abuse and corruption. Others make over-simplified claims like “religion is responsible for more wars … blah blah blah.” We must be honest with ourselves about our flaws, but we should not be shamed about what the church is and what it does when we are actually following Christ.

Faith-based organizations feed, shelter, clothe, heal, rebuild, resettle, and otherwise positively impact the lives of hundreds of millions of people in need every year. The stereotypical “sermon before soup” model is not the norm for most of these institutions; we meet needs regardless of the particulars of someone’s faith. We should avoid engaging in pointless (and impossible to settle) debates about whether religious people are more or less generous than non-religious people, because we aren’t in competition. Our efforts, imperfect though they may be, help people who would otherwise suffer with no hope of relief.

The church’s primary business is spreading the Gospel, but the Gospel directs us toward service. That service benefits communities in ways many never (or refuse to) recognize. They focus on scandals and frauds rather than shelters and food pantries because not seeing the homeless and hungry begging on the streets doesn’t make news. We may be servants, but we can spread the Good News about where our good wine comes from.

Comfort: You and your church are not defined solely by your faults.

Challenge: Visit the web-sites of Church World Services, Heifer InternationalCatholic Charities, or Week of Compassion to read about the good work the church does, and how you might participate in it.

Prayer: God, may your people and church ever grow in love and generosity. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have a favorite faith-based organization to donate to or volunteer for?

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Make Yourself at Home

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 24; 150, Isaiah 5:1-7, 2 Peter 3:11-18, Luke 7:28-35


What do people mean when they say, “Make yourself at home?” You can almost certainly feel free to sit where you like, use the bathroom, and get a glass of water. Maybe you could comfortably grab a snack from the kitchen, select something on television, and use the phone. But it’s never really an invitation to explore the contents of a nightstand, rearrange a closet, or throw out that tacky figurine collection.

The author of Psalm 24 tells us “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it,” including the people. That means everything we touch – the land, the sea, the forests, the animals, and even other lives – is in a home where we are as welcome as we can possibly be, but still don’t own. What does that say about how we should interact with the world?

We wouldn’t want to have to tell a homeowner who’d graciously given us the run of the place that we’d trampled their flowerbeds, taken an axe to the furniture, ignored the smoke alarm, thrown trash over the fence into the neighbor’s back yard, and beaten their pets and children. Not doing these things seems like the common-sense bare minimum of respect … but are we as respectful of the things – and people – God owns?

A steward is someone who manages another person’s property or affairs. In matters of business a steward is ultimately accountable to the owner, and in matters of the world we are ultimately accountable to God. When we pollute air, water, and land, we pollute God’s garden. When the rich toss landfills and industrial waste into the back yards of the poor, we are ungodly neighbors. When we exploit people and bomb our enemies, we exploit and bomb God’s children.

It is impossible to do absolutely no harm and right every wrong in the world. We will make mistakes. But if God dropped in for a surprise inspection, we’d want to be able to say we made our choices not for our own whims and benefits, but to steward his treasures to the best of our abilities.

Comfort: As one of God’s treasures, you deserve dignity.

Challenge: Pay attention to what areas of your state, city, or neighborhood suffer from poor stewardship.

Prayer: God of all Creation, please grant me wisdom to care for the things and people of Your world. Amen.

Discussion: How is stewardship related to divine justice?

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Sunshine and Rain

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Exodus 40:18-38, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12, Matthew 5:38-48


Turn the other cheek. When sued for your cloak, offer your coat too. If forced to go one mile, go a second one. Give to everyone who begs from you. Loan to anyone who asks. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. In these teachings, Jesus is telling his followers, I know you know the minimum legal requirements, and that’s fine, but actually loving involves so much more

Who actually does these things – all or any of them – all the time?

Would it be unfair to say “Nobody?”

We spend a lot of effort justifying why we don’t  do them, and throw around words like “enable” and “systemic” and “accountability.” We make our giving conditional on the perceived worthiness of the recipients. In the same passage Jesus tells us God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” If God is not doling out sunshine and rain based on merit, maybe we aren’t as qualified to make those distinctions as we’d like to believe. Resenting that our generosity is “wasted” on someone says more about our ego and need for control than it does about their worthiness.

Of course we should steward our resources wisely when battling systemic poverty and need, but that is not in opposition to the individual acts that Jesus promotes. Loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, and parting with our money are not just about helping other people: they are about perfecting the state of our hearts. Love is sacrificial. If our every act of generosity involves an intake evaluation and a cost-benefit analysis, we’re simply swapping one set of rules for another, creating divides between the clean and unclean. Since we are as dependent on God for our own gifts as we are for the sun and rain, should we really be acting as if we know better than God who does or does not deserve them? Love is humble. Jesus says so.

Ironically, selfless love has selfish benefits. As we learn to love unconditionally, we better understand just how much God loves us – worthy or not.

Comfort: You have God’s love, regardless.

Challenge: God expects you to love others, regardless.

Prayer: Loving God, may my love for others reflect your love for them also. Amen.

Discussion: Is your generosity ever tinged with resentment?

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It Rolls Downhill

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Today’s readings (click to open in new window): 
Psalms 104; 149, Genesis 6:9-22, Hebrews 4:1-13, John 2:13-22


“Tourist prices” have been a problem for as long as people have traveled out of town. For example, non-Jewish currency was forbidden inside the temple at Jerusalem, so pilgrims needed to exchange it with money changers in the temple’s outer court before purchasing sacrificial animals. Doves, lambs, and other creatures are difficult to travel with, so livestock merchants also set up shop there. Both money changers and merchants took advantage of captive customers by demanding high prices. When Jesus arrived at the temple, he was so outraged to find “a den of thieves” where people traded faith for profit that he fashioned a whip out of cords and drove them all out. Not only had commerce defiled the temple, the institution that was supposed to protect the people was exploiting them.

The faithful are called to steward our resources justly. That means more than tithing and charity. Wealth does not buy us the privilege to shift social burdens onto the poor. In his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis describes how the poor are disproportionately affected by climate change and pollution. The wealthy consume resources and produce waste at a much greater rate than the poor, but poor communities are where we dump trash, manufacture toxins, and  ignore contamination. This burden shift occurs down the road and around the globe. Industries with environmentally devastating activities forbidden under national policies exploit poorer, unregulated countries. Many economic and social forces impact the differences between wealthy and poor communities, but property values are not Christian values. Living in a nice neighborhood doesn’t mean we deserve more justice. Faith calls us to deploy our resources in a way that protects the most vulnerable among us.

Are we in the outer court exchanging profit for justice, or are we working to make sure the poor – whom Jesus told us to serve – are at the heart of God’s kingdom? Rock bottom prices have high human costs. Pollutants we vote or litigate out of our back yards are forced into someone else’s. When the choices we make to better our lives negatively impact others, we need to make better choices. Maybe we can start by treating the poor as we would treat our own family … because Christ has made them so.

Comfort: Rich, poor, or in between, God’s justice is meant for all of us equally.

Challenge: Read about how the poor have been unfairly impacted by pollution in Ringwood, New Jersey (also known as Sludge City), Horlivka, Ukraine, or Flint, Michigan.

Prayer: Lord, help me to live justly, not just for my own righteousness, but for the love of your creation. Amen.  

Discussion: Where in your own community do you see links between poverty and injustice?

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The Balance

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 67; 150, Ezra 7:(1-10) 11-26, Acts 28:14b-23, Luke 16:1-13


The Parable of the Unjust Steward (or Dishonest Manager) isn’t one that gets trotted out for sermons as frequently as some of Jesus’s better known parables. Maybe this is because it differs structurally from the others, and is less obvious in its intent, though Jesus does follow it with some application.

In short, a wealthy man discovers his steward/manager has been mishandling his estate. The steward gets wind of this, so he goes to several of his master’s clients and gives them discounts on the debts they owe while he still has the power to do so. Effectively, this obligates them to him so he might call on their generosity and support after he’s fired. His master commends the steward’s clever response. Jesus then tells his disciples to also be clever with how they handle their wealth, for while unbelievers are more shrew in worldly financial matters, believers should handle wealth (which ultimately belongs to God) as a tool for serving more eternal purposes. If they can be trusted with little, flawed resources, they can be trusted not to ruin the larger, better ones.

Jesus isn’t recommending or condoning shady business practices, but he is telling us we need to deal with the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be. We don’t influence the world for the better by withdrawing from everyone and everything who don’t meet our litmus test for worthiness. If we can close the gap between where we are and where we’d like them to be by eight, fifty, or even twenty percent, we have accomplished something. In such transactions and relationships we definitely do need to cultivate some shrewdness so we don’t end up being manipulated to move beyond what it acceptable.

This balancing act is on full display in elections, where we have to balance what public policies and values we believe a candidate supports against her or his personal peccadilloes and misdeeds. If a person is on “our” team we’re inclined to excuse many flaws we might use to disparage a person on the “other” team. Each of us must decide where that tipping point is, and we should apply it without hypocrisy.

Of course the factors leading to that decision began long before we got to the voting booth. What have we tolerated or promoted that results in so many choices between less-than-great options? Are we focused on the little things of the short-term – like the steward was before he got caught – or on the larger things of the longer term – like he was when trying to secure his future? Real shrewdness lies in not selling out long term principles for short-term gains.

Whether we are making decisions about politics, health, personal relationships, finances, or most importantly our eternal souls we are doing so in a broken world. Even Christian communities with the best intentions must deal with brokenness – inside and out. Perfect choices are extremely rare, if they exist at all. God has trusted us with stewardship – not possession and not perfection – of the imperfect. Just because we can’t get one hundred percent of what we want doesn’t mean the remainder isn’t worth loving and tending. Let us live as though those accounts are coming due any minute.

Comfort: Everyone falls short of the glory of God, but we are still to love each other.

Challenge: Unless you withdraw entirely from the world, you’re going to have to compromise. Do it with mercy, love, and integrity.

Prayer: Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. (Psalm 67:4)

Discussion: When do find it difficult to compromise?

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Sowers Gonna Sow

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 12; 146, Ezra 5:1-17, Revelation 4:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9


In the Parable of the Sower, a man casts seeds across many types of ground. Some of it is a bare path where the birds can snatch it up. Some of it is rocky and rootless. Some is thorny and inhospitable. And finally, some of it is good soil. The different types of ground, Jesus eventually explains to his disciples, represent the different types of people who hear the Gospel.

Not much is said about the sower, who may be Jesus, but who may also be anyone (or everyone) spreading the Good News. Would we consider this sower a good steward of his responsibilities? It sounds like an awful lot of seed went to waste. Why weren’t his efforts more focused? Was he unable to tell good soil from bad? Maybe. Maybe not. In the end, each type of soil yielded or did not as was its nature … but the sower left no ground without potential.

When it comes to spreading grace, or acts inspired by grace, stewardship takes on a new dimension. Funds may be limited, but generosity is not. Physical resources may be limited, but love is not. Time and talents may be limited, but forgiveness is not. So why be stingy with generosity, love, or forgiveness? Even if they don’t yield what we would hope, we don’t run out of them. They are meant to be cast about widely – almost irresponsibly – because they aren’t about what we get back.

Are some people going to take advantage of our good nature? Almost certainly. Are some people never going to “get it together” despite our best efforts to support them? Definitely. Is it our job to size them up in advance and decide whether or not to waste our efforts? Or to withhold that seed in a clenched fist, as though there’s a finite supply, until we find the exactly right spot to sow it?

If we want to be sowers like the one in the parable … it is not. So sow.

It’s a balancing act. We want to be wise about how we steward finite resources to meet needs, but we also want to be wise about which resources were never ours to keep anyway.

Comfort: The more generous you are, the less you will need.

Challenge: When you find yourself withholding what you have received through grace, meditate on why.

Prayer: Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, may the Lord now rise up, and may we follow. (based on Psalm 12:5)

Discussion: Do you think your definition of who “deserves” grace is the same as God’s?

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Downstream

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, Ezekiel 34:17-31, Hebrews 8:1-13, Luke 10:38-42


When God spoke through Ezekiel, he compared the corrupt and powerful who exploited the poor to sheep who bullied other members of the flock:

Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? …[Y]ou pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide.

God promised to judge between the overfed and the starving – and it’s no surprise which side he favored. We can read this as a metaphor for spiritual corruption, but in a land where religion and government were the same, corruption and neglect left people starving in many ways.

Are we even aware when our daily activities foul the waters? How often do we look downstream to see how actions impact the people living there? The further upstream we are – in terms of wealth or status, or sometimes literally – the deeper our effect. The waste we generate goes somewhere, and it’s not landing in affluent suburbs.  The money we save by insisting on the lowest possible prices comes out of someone’s wages, but probably not the CEOs.  Luxuries like cell phones and electric cars include materials from mining processes that endanger children and poison the air and water of unprotected lands around the globe. Neither the pasture we trod and the stream we foul, nor the dignity and mercy God asks us to show each other, stop at state, national, or continental boundaries.

Ezekiel tells us God is not concerned with whether the overfed sheep feel they’ve been treated fairly, but with how brutally they wield their flanks and horns to fill their bellies. We’re all upstream of someone. Through conscious effort we can make more justice-oriented decisions about how we live so that those downstream have cleaner, more plentiful water. Less is more.

Comfort: If you are in need, God is on your side.

Challenge: Read this article on how wealthy nations are dumping toxic waste in poorer nations.

Prayer: Merciful God, forgive me for those I have harmed downstream. Grant me the wisdom and strength to do better. Amen.

Discussion: Do you know what happens with the hazardous trash generated by your community?

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The Kingdom Come Near

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Ezekiel 7:10-15, 23b-27, Hebrews 6:13-20, Luke 10:1-17


Jesus dispatched seventy disciples to travel in pairs to spread his word. Because he instructed them to take nothing with them, they were essentially at the mercy of each town they visited, “like lambs in the midst of wolves.” In towns that welcomed them, they were to stay and cure the sick. If a town rejected them, they were to shake the dust from their sandals in protest. But when they left a town, they were to say the same thing: “The kingdom of God has come near.”

Whether people receive the Gospel is beyond our control. Our message of love does not waver. As we witness through evangelism, service, or some other means, we are not ultimately responsible for someone’s belief or disbelief. Certainly the seventy evangelists must have felt some frustration, but there was so much work to do among those willing to hear that they didn’t have time for fruitless labor. Sometimes we may be disappointed that someone chooses to reject Christ, but we should not let that rejection sully our spirits; we can shake it off like dust from a sandal.

We might be wise to carry that attitude into other aspects of life as well. Within our work environments, faith communities, and families we will always find dogged malcontents and chronic complainers. Because we want to be peacemakers, or maybe just to be nice, we risk devoting a disproportionate amount of energy trying to satisfy people who have no wish to be satisfied. Neither curing nor shaking, we waste time at the expense of people eager to bear good fruit. Frequently these people, who are not complainers, simply leave for greener pastures and we are left with the bitter.

Of course we want to settle differences, foster reconciliation, and refrain from rejecting anyone, but sometimes we need to accept that have been explicitly or passively rejected. There is so much good to do, some of it very hard work, that we want to steward our resources wisely. Christ loves everyone, as should we, but we are most effective where people let the kingdom come near.

Comfort: The better choice is sometimes the easier choice.

Challenge: Do an assessment of whether you are spending your energy effectively.

Prayer: Loving God, send me where I will be useful to you. Amen.

Discussion: How do you decide when to withdraw from conflict?

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Speaking of gifts…

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 19; 150, Joel 1:1-13, 1 Corinthians 14:1-12, Matthew 20:1-16


Paul encouraged followers or Christ to seek and develop what he called Gifts of the Spirit. These were abilities granted by the Holy Spirit and meant to be used for the benefit of the church. Such gifts included, among other things, the abilities to prophesy and to speak in tongues. To prophesy in this sense was not to predict the future, but to “speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” Speaking in tongues was speaking a language, either earthly or divine, that was not known to the speaker.

Not surprisingly, even though there was no need or directive to do so, people wanted to rank these gifts, and also looked more favorably on Christians who demonstrated them. Speaking in tongues seemed to be very common, possibly because – let’s be honest – it’s relatively easy to fake. Paul didn’t level this accusation against anyone, but he did tell them he’d rather see them strive for prophesy. While speaking in tongues might have been flashy and dramatic, in few cases did it have any real, positive impact on the life of the church.

Whatever gifts we have – whether the specific spiritual gifts listed by Paul in his letters, or the more mundane gifts granted us at birth or through study – we are meant to steward them well in service to the kingdom. The most immediately impressive ones, like strong leadership or inspirational preaching, are rare for a reason: we don’t need that many people to do them. Many Christians think seeking a purpose through ministry means they should be the face of a unique calling – but Jesus tells us the first are last and the last are first. Being in the trenches with other people who share a common gift is not a sign of insignificance, but of value. Rebuilding homes for the victims of disaster, preparing meals for grieving families, and visiting the sick in hospitals are the work of the kingdom; making a name for ourselves is not.

We don’t value what comes easily to us, but it may be gold to someone who doesn’t have it.

Comfort: Your gifts are valuable.

Challenge: When considering how to use your gifts, start by finding where they are lacking elsewhere.

Prayer: Thank you, generous God, for the for the many gifts you have given your people. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been surprised that something you could do, which seemed unimportant to you, was important to someone else?

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Peace as Preparation

Today’s readings: Psalms 18:1-20; 147:12-20, Zechariah 4:1-14, Revelation 4:9-5:5, Matthew 25:1-13

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In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus relates a parable about ten bridesmaids – five foolish and five wise. They all take lamps to meet the bridegroom, but only the wise ones take supplies to keep the lamps burning when the bridegroom is delayed. The foolish bridesmaids ask the other for oil, but the wise ones are wise enough to say no because they’d all be unprepared. The foolish bridesmaids leave to buy oil and return to find the bridegroom and wise bridesmaids have left them behind.

It’s not difficult to imagine the foolish bridesmaids thought of themselves as unlucky, or victims of the wise bridesmaids’ stingy nature. Very often what we call poor luck or unfairness is our own lack of preparation. How do we properly prepare for the kingdom of God?

By not giving away more oil than we can spare. That doesn’t mean a lack of generosity; we should be generous of spirit and wallet. The oil we need to keep topped off is the energy to stay vigilant for the presence of Christ in the world. Many things conspire to steal this energy if we allow them: demanding jobs,  busy social schedules, housekeeping, and so on. None of these things is inherently problematic – they are  mostly good! – but neither is any of them our true purpose. If we don’t learn to say “no more oil for you, foolish bridesmaid” the energy left over for worship, charity, and our relationship with God can quickly dwindle to nothing. And by the way, if we think of those as “left overs” the reserves are already below acceptable levels. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)

Preparation means laying the groundwork for our whole lives, not just our spare time, to serve God. When we carefully steward our resources, we have enough energy to seek Christ and our peace in him. We must fill and refill our own lamps through prayer, service, rest, and worship.The wise will not save us from ourselves. Have you checked your oil lately? Tomorrow could be too late.

Comfort: It’s okay to do less so you can be more.

Challenge: Take an inventory of your obligations and eliminate the ones that drain your oil.