(With apologies to Proverbs.)
Three things are feared by preachers,
Four topics make them all afraid:
Stewardship, Doubting Thomas, and the Trinity.
On Wednesday, the Vestry requested that I preach on Stewardship. For various reasons, this had not been done at St. Paul’s for a good long while, but being an odd duck, I really like preaching about stewardship. I have been known to break into stewardship sermons in the middle of August. So I said I would give it a shot.
Here’s what I said. People liked it, which I think might be a Thanksgiving miracle.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
November 19, 2017
Ordinary Time, Proper 28
Parable of the Talents/Absentee Landowner
It may or may not surprise you, but when I took the theologically risky path of googling this parable, a lot of sermons came back extolling the virtues of capitalism. (You find strange interpretations of the Bible when you google without knowledge–if you google the story of Esther, for example, you find a lot of Sunday School lessons on how important it is for girls to be obedient to adult authority. Which is 9 kinds of toxic, in light of the news of the past few weeks.)
The parable of the talents, these random Internet sages argue, is principally about how God, in the figure of the absentee landowner, gives us gifts, or resources, and then expects us to make them as profitable as we can while we have them, before he returns. If we fail to do that, then woe betide us.
And the VERY BEST way to do that, many of them argue, is lending money at high rates of interest in a capitalist system which is clearly what those slaves were doing!
I got a new book by the Conservative Jewish writer and New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine on the parables last month, and so she and I are here to tell you that there is a lot wrong with that proposition. For one, there really wasn’t any sort of market system that we would recognize going on at the time of Jesus. There’s no way Christ was advocating an early Adam Smith philosophy here.
But more importantly, let’s consider the personality of the landowner here. He’s…sort of a mean dude. He randomly gives money (a lot of money, actually) to his slaves, and then leaves. We aren’t told why. And when he returns, he demands it back, and not only that, he demands that the slaves should have made him a hefty profit through what appear to be really risky means. And he gets EXTREMELY ANGRY AND VIOLENT with the slave who didn’t do that–even though these were never explicit instructions.
Is this a good parallel for God? Really? Does this sound like the God that Jesus has described up until now? The God who asks us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to turn the other cheek, and not chuck them into the outer darkness, the God who constantly reminds us that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, and as Professor Levine pointed out–has a special concern that fields and vineyards not be over harvested, so that the poor may eat for free. The idea that God would be represented in this parable of Jesus’ as an absent, greedy landowner who deprives his slaves of even the little they possess is confusing at best, when you stop to consider it. Nothing Jesus has told us about God up until now fits with the landowner.
Indeed, Jesus tells us that God doesn’t leave us. God isn’t absentee at all. Jesus’s constant refrain throughout the gospel is “The Kingdom of God has come near”. God never leaves us. A more consonant way to read this parable might be as a diptych with what comes next–that famous story about the sheep and the goats. So we have this rather awful story about the World as it is–where an absentee landowner expects his slaves to make tons of money for him alone, and when that isn’t done, he reacts violently. But you turn the page, and hear “But when the Son of Man comes, with his angels around him, he will separate the sheep from the goats”.
And in this “judgement” scene, the flock will learn that, contrary to what they had believed, contrary to the images of an Absentee Landlord in the sky, He hadn’t left them at all–he had been with them all the time!
And, when he divides them, one from another, it won’t be based on who made the most money–rather it will be on who used what they had to care for the most suffering people. An entire reversal of what came before.
In Jesus’ kingdom, what is important is not how much money you make. How much profit you can accrue for Some Scary Man in the Sky who Will Punish You. It’s how much you used what you had to care for others–how much you gave your talents to the care of others, and not to accruing more and more money. THAT’s what counts.
At St. Paul’s, we dedicate a full 14% of our budget to our food ministries and to our school in Haiti. That’s over $112,000 a year. Compared to other churches, that’s an enormous percentage, and does not include the amount of money we give to the diocese.
That money goes to the work you see around you all the time. The food pantry, which gives away so much food, three times a week, no questions asked, to our neighbors in need. The various food programs that we also keep running here: Meals on Wheels, Senior Commodities, TEFAP and Backsnacks, meet the needs of various communities who also rely on the food we give out, but for one reason or another, can’t make it to the pantry as often as they need to.
We also, through your generosity, run a school and church in Haiti, in a very remote part of the country, and have for over 30 years. The children who come to our school receive a hot meal every day, and a quality education which prepares them to enter the workforce and change their country for the better.
But not just that. Because, let’s face it. If you wanted to feed the hungry, or help children in Haiti, you could do that by giving your money to Harvesters, or the Red Cross. But when you give your money to St. Paul’s, what you are also doing is keeping this place alive. A place that not only provides food and shelter to those who need it, but a spiritual home and haven to generations who have come through those doors. You keep the lights and heat on so that people can stop and rest here and find a moment of peace. You keep your preachers supplied so we can give a word of wisdom each Sunday to someone, maybe who has never heard it. When you give your money to St. Paul’s each year, quite frankly, you change lives. You change lives in Westport, in Haiti, and right here in these pews.
We at St. Paul’s know that God is not that absentee landlord, who abandons us to make our way as best we can, alone in the world. We at this church know that God is always with us, and that God gives us Christ, and gives us each other to care for. We know that our job here is to care for those least able to care for themselves, and to tell the world this story we know about the God who loves them, and who is here with them.
But crucially, it is only with your support that we are able to do these things. It is up to you, and how you spend your talents, that determine whether we can keep doing the work we have been doing together.
We’re entering stewardship season (as you might have guessed.) And that’s a word that mostly scares the pants off of good Episcopalians. But stewardship is just about how you decide where to put your resources–that question of the slaves. Do you put them to the goal of earning more and more money, like those first servants, whether you just stick them in the ground, or whether you dedicate them to the material and spiritual care of others. This is what we have to decide, because it is part of the spiritual life. This is part of following Christ.
At St. Paul’s, over the years, we have done our best to put our resources towards keeping the light of God’s love shining in this corner of the city. That is what we will keep doing. And with your help, that is what we will always do for generations to come.
Best Stewardship Sermon ever!!
That particular story has always bothered me and I am pleased to see another interpretation. I enjoy many of your sermons but this was a real bell ringer! Too bad I live so far away – St Paul’s seems like a real community church.