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Scriptural Foundations for Christian Stewardship

United Methodist Summit on Christian Stewardship

February 4-6, 2003 in Atlanta, Georgia
Presentation by: Bruce C. Birch

All of us gathered at this meeting share a concern for the way in which we receive, manage, and use God’s gifts to enable the mission of the church and the purposes of God’s kingdom. We all know that we are here as stewards; we are called to be stewards of the gifts of God and to live in the world as part of a covenant community of stewards.

Israel in Babylonian Exile

The experience of Israel in Babylonian exile addresses this question, and I want to suggest to you in our time together that voices out of that experience can empower us in our role as stewards. Let’s just remind ourselves of the basic story. In 587 BCE, a Babylonian army broke through the walls of Jerusalem, tore every stone from stone, pulled down the walls, destroyed the temple, ended the Davidic kingship, and carried all of the chief citizens of the land away into exile. I don’t think we’ve taken seriously enough the central importance of this moment in our biblical story and the words that come to us out of that experience. Part of the reason we haven’t taken it seriously is that we have thought too exclusively in terms of geography. But this wasn’t just a matter of geography. It wasn’t just a matter of some Jerusalemites being carried geographically into another place. There are of course, places in the world where that geographic displacement is a very vivid reality. But even here in our churches, there is an important dimension of the exile experience that applies to us apart from geography. Exile is the time when all the centers of meaning are thrown into question; when the centers don’t hold; when we wonder if the things we trusted in, that we thought we could count on, could be trusted anymore.

Singers In the Midst of Non-Singers

For me the mood of exile is captured best by the 137th Psalm:

By the rivers of Babylon,
  we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.
  On the willows there we hung up our lyres,
  for there our captors required of us songs,
  our tormentors mirth,
  saying “Sing us the songs of Zion!”
  How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Do you hear the implied answer to that question? The implied answer is, We can’t. We’ve already hung up the instruments. There is no singing the Lord’s song in this place to which we’ve come. And that’s what exile is really all about—the times when surviving in the present seems so overwhelming that we don’t believe we can sing anymore. Exile is the time when the songs don’t come. The mood of exile becomes the mood of despair, complaint, self-interest and nostalgia for what once was. We settle for simple survival. People are so overwhelmed by the present that they live in the here and now moment. There is uncertainty and confusion around the usual centers of meaning and security. All this is a part of that exile mood.

I’ve come to believe that the vocation of the Church in the exile times that come to every generation, may be to give singing lessons, to be singers in the midst of the non-singers, to be stewards of the songs of hope even when others despair of singing.

In the midst of exile arose the most hopeful voice of the entire Old Testament, and one of the most hopeful voices in the entire Bible—an anonymous prophet, whose words are preserved for us in Isaiah 40-55, a prophet whose name didn’t even survive to us and we call Second Isaiah. Remember where he was. He was in the midst of the non-singers by the rivers of Babylon. He is the prophet of the exile, the voice who dares to speak of hope, when others know only despair. His chapters are entirely devoted to hope, a singer in the midst of the non-singers. I think it’s so wonderful that his opening words are known best to us by one of its most famous musical settings:

 

“Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people,” says your God.
  “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
  and cry to her that her warfare is ended,
  her iniquity is pardoned.
  She has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
  And then listen to the prophetic imagination take off here:
  A voice cries out in the wilderness,
  “Prepare the way of the Lord.
  Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
  Every valley shall be lifted up:
  every mountain and hill be made low.
  The uneven ground shall become level
  and the rough places a plain.”
  At this point I always feel as if I could lift my baton for the mighty chorus from Handel’s Messiah,
  “And the glory, the glory of the Lord, shall be revealed.” (Isa. 40:1-5)

I believe this great prophet points us to some foundations of hope in the midst of exile that can be foundations for our work as stewards of hope—stewards of all of the gifts that enable the hopeful good news of the gospel.

God’s Enduring Word

The first foundation of hope in the midst of exile is the prophet’s clear understanding that it is God’s word that endures. As stewards, we often look at the resources available to us, and the challenges that face us and we feel overwhelmed. We assess the resources needed to enable our mission, and then we adjust our mission to fit the resources. We find ourselves responding like Gideon, facing 50,000 armed Mideonites, with only lamps and horns. We’re like the disciples looking at the multitudes, dismayed that there are only five loaves and two fishes.

Isaiah 40:6-8; 55:10-11

The prophet of the exile speaks to the non-singers on this matter. In chapter 40 of Isaiah starting with verse 6, the prophet, just for a moment, reveals a little bit of himself. This is the only place in these chapters where the prophet speaks in the first person of himself.

  A voice says, “Cry out.”
  And I said, “What shall I cry?”

This is not the word of the Exodus story that speaks of crying out in pain. This is a verb that means proclaim, speak out. The prophet is called to speak God’s Word but he doe not know what to say. In most translations, the quotation closes there, but I think the quotation goes on.

 

All people are grass;
  their constancy is like the flower of the field.
  The grass withers, the flower fades
  when the breath of the Lord blows upon it.
  Surely the people are grass.

The prophet says, “I can’t see anything to proclaim, because everything I see around me is passing away before my very eyes, just like the grass. Even the people are perishing, what do I have to say to that? What do I have to say in the kind of world that I have on my hands? In verse 8, I think, is God’s response to the prophet. There’s an extra little particle in the Hebrew there. It’s hard to translate. It’s called the particle of emphasis, but I translate it like this: God says,

 

“yes indeed, the grass does wither, yes indeed, the flower does fade,
  but the Word of our God will stand forever.”

Look only at the sum total of our own human resources, our own ecclesiastical resources, the results of our campaigns, our management, our personnel, our budgets, our program initiatives, and there may be little reason to proclaim. But look at what God’s Word has done and yet can do and there is reason enough to proclaim. If founded on the power of God’s Word our own resources will always be enough. The prophet comes back to this theme over and over, reminding those non-singers by the Rivers in Babylon of that reality. In chapter 55:10ff. the prophet gives us these lines:

 

For as the rain and the snow comes down from heaven
  and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
  making it bring forth and sprout
  giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
  so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth.
  It shall not return to me empty,
  but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
  and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Our stewardship is in the service of what God’s word is already at work accomplishing in the world.

Memory and Vision

The second foundation for hope lies in the dynamic relationship between memory and vision. The prophet spoke to the non-singers by the rivers of Babylon with one foot planted in what God has done—remembering telling the stories, claiming Israel’s memory—but the other foot planted in the future, in anticipation of what God yet can do. What God can do is not exhausted by the past.

Memory - Isaiah 51:1-2

Let’s look at memory for a second. Listen to these words from Isaiah 51:1-2:

 

“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn and to the quarry, from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.”

This prophet called the people to remember the stories that have been handed on from generations before and in this passage it begins all the way back with the promise to Abraham and Sara. In the course of his preaching, he refers additionally to David and Noah and Creation and Exodus and he makes that memory live. Memory isn’t some kind of respectful treading through the museum, cautiously looking at the exhibits. Memory is there for us to claim alive as a resource in the present, so the prophet makes that memory live. Did you hear that passage that I read a bit ago about the hills lifted up and the mountains made low, the valleys lifted up the rough places become a plain. That is an Exodus memory, but in the prophet’s imagination it becomes a new super highway through the desert. (This is the first biblical reference to interstate highways.) All the obstacles are leveled out and the children of Israel are coming home from Exile.

The Church serves as the steward for the memory of our story as God’s people and it is through that memory that we learn what we have been called to be, and we allow our story to be intersected by the biblical story. I firmly believe that when we allow our story to be intersected by the biblical story that it will be out of those intersections that the Word of God, the memory of what God has done and the testimonies of our ancestors live again for us in the present. Too often we go along on parallel tracks, respectfully looking at the exhibits over there every once in a while. But when you allow the biblical story to intersect your own story, something comes alive in the memory. Here is where the richness of scriptural foundations for our tasks as God’s stewards expands far beyond the scope of any one presentation. The biblical story is filled with themes important to our roles as stewards.

At this point, I am going to shift into what I call the “Macro Gear.” There is far too great a richness in our biblical memory for me to do justice to it all. I want to give us a road map of it at least. It begins with creation of course.

Creation

The world in which we live is the gift of God, and it is not just the gift of God for church people. It is the gift of God we share with the entire world, human and non-human. Our lives are given to us as creatures in the image of God. We are entrusted with the care of the earth and it’s resources. We are not owners of any of this, because the scriptures are clear that God is the owner, and we are but the stewards. Attention to the rich themes of creation theology help us understand the comprehensive character of our mission as stewards. It reaches to the whole of the earth and its resources.

Deliverance

But the God of our story did not create and withdraw. The God that created all that is, saw the brokenness of the world. God took the risk of allowing human freedom, but God knew that we would not always choose wisely and the world becomes broken as it still is today. So the god of our story did not withdraw from it but became involved in human history in the midst of the creation at the point of human suffering. It was the God who created it all who says to Moses out of the burning bush, “I have seen the affliction of my people; I have heard their cry because of their task masters; I know their suffering and I have come down to deliver them” (Ex. 3:7). What does it mean that Israel, the people of God, first come to know who their God is as the God who sees, who hears, who knows and who comes down to deliver. The most radical of these is the verb ‘to know’. In Hebrew, knowing is not just in the head (cognitive). To know something is to enter into and experience what is known. Think how radical it is in the ancient world, how radical it is now, to say that our God is a God who experiences human suffering with us. This is one of the early testimonies to what eventually comes in full view on the cross—God, who fully participates in our human suffering. Our beginnings as God’s people were not in a triumphant revolution, where we gained our freedom by our own power. Our beginning’s as God’s people were in bondage in Egypt and God’s deliverance comes as the gift of God’s grace, the gift of salvation. God’s action for our wholeness comes as a gift, physically, socially, spiritually. God is at work making for wholeness in every form of brokenness, and thus our stewardship must always have a missional edge. Its repeated several times in the course of the great covenant texts, “You will remember that you were once slaves in Egypt.” Therefore, as God’s stewards, we use the gifts of God for the sake of others in oppression and pain and suffering and alienation. Delivered by God’s grace, we can only act as the proper stewards of such a God by using the resources that come to us as a gift of God for the deliverance of others.

Covenant

We do this as a community called into covenant relationship with God. Israel was called into covenant community with that God to give testimony to God’s deliverance so that the memory wouldn’t be lost. In light of that memory God’s people, Israel and the church, are called to live differently in the world as God’s covenant partners.

We are a community of stewards. We are not all off on our own private stewardship missions. We are a covenant community of stewards. We are called to build the faithful community, the just structures, and the ongoing commitment to obedience. As the great prophet Micah later said “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God (6:8).” Life as God’s covenant community involves us in life as an alternative to the communities of the world, and it involves all of the arenas of our role as stewards. Covenant community claims us as an alternative visionary community in our religious life, our economic life, our political life. Our religious life is to be focused on doxology and not on our own self-interest. Our economic life is to be focused on equity and access to the resources for basic human needs. A political life in covenant community is to be governed by justice and righteousness rather than self interested power. It is this combination of religious economic and political life as an alternative community that empowers and informs the covenant community down through the generations. In many ways Pentecost is a reclaiming of that covenant model once again.

Kingship

It is not easy to live as an alternative community in the world. The pressure is always to conform to the patterns of the world around us and it’s so difficult to resist the values of the other kinds of communities that surround us. In Israel this all came to a head in the stories about Israel’s temptations as they came to the prophet Samuel and said “make us a king like the other nations.” The pressure is to be like everyone else. We don’t want to be an alternative community. Covenant communities are always tempted to become like the social communities around them. The models of the world are seductive. In the royal models that come with kingship (and embody our constant temptation through the generations) the economics of equity are displaced by the economics of privilege. The sharing of resources gives way to possession of resources. The gap between those that have much and those that have little grows, and if the economic resources are not divided equitably, you can be sure that the politics will not remain the politics of justice. So, in the royal model of community, the politics of justice is displaced by the politics of power. Advocacy gives way to authority and self-interest. Religious life must also change in the royal model because it would be a travesty if the religious life was focused on doxology (praise of the God who delivers those in bondage) and the economic resources are divided unevenly while power is being used to protect that uneven division. Thus, the religion of doxology is replaced by a religion of the domestication of God. God becomes a possession and stewardship gives way to idolatry to the gods of material culture or to nationalized religion that claims God is on the side of power and privilege. It is down that path of royal power and privilege, supported by domesticated religion, that exile finally comes.

Judgment and Redemption

Our biblical memory includes the themes of judgment and redemption. At the same time Israel acquired kings, God raised up prophets to speak words of judgment to those who had failed to be God’s stewards. These same prophets spoke words of hope and redemption to those exploited and denied full participation in the bounty of God’s gifts. The prophets spoke both words of judgment and hope. They were the champions of the covenant tradition and sought to renew the community of stewards. Their proclamation of God’s Word came as judgment to those who broke covenant and failed as stewards of God’s gifts. But that same Word came as hope to the exploited and oppressed, those denied full participation in the community of stewards.

What the prophets seek in response to judgment is repentance. Their preaching is not directed at assigning or evoking guilt. There is a confusion in the church about these terms. Some voices seem to speak of judgment in a way that settles for guilt as the result. The prophets always sought to judge for the sake of turning toward God’s new future. Guilt is backward-looking in regret for things that cannot be changed. The Hebrew word for repent comes from the verb “to turn.” To repent is to turn and take a new direction. Repentance is always forward-looking, oriented to God’s intention for a new future. God has taken the initiative in forgiveness and redeems us to new life. The good news of God’s Word frees us from guilt and calls us to repentance. Stewards are sometimes called to speak words of judgment and redemption.

Incarnation

In our story the Word became flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In our story the culmination of God’s redeeming work comes in Jesus Christ. God was not finished coming down to deliver until God had finally taken full flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. In the life and ministry of Jesus we find a rich reclaiming of the covenant tradition and a radicalizing of its demands on us as stewards. Jesus taught constantly about economic matters, relationships, social structures, true worship, and costly discipleship. He calls us to renewed life as stewards and communities of stewards. The preaching texts are well known to us and rich and important. But Jesus did not preach or teach in a vacuum but as a central part of this larger unfolding story of our call from creation onward to be God’s stewards.

Resurrection

Jesus was “crucified, dead and buried, and the third day, he arose from the dead.” Jesus, the teacher is also Jesus, the Christ, crucified and risen. We live as stewards with the confidence that comes from knowing that God has, in Jesus Christ, spoken a word of life more powerful even in the face of death. Unlike exiles by the rivers of Babylon, we need not settle for survival because we know that when all seems lost, life will have the final word. And so we live our life as communities of stewards in the confidence of that.

Pentecost

In the Book of Acts, through the gift of God’s spirit, the Church is born and it lives out once again the call to be God’s alternative community of stewards in the world. The early church takes its role as the steward of resources seriously, living in alternative economics arrangements and claiming different arrangements of political power than those prevalent in their day. In the letters of Paul, the book of Acts, and the witness of the later epistles we see the community of stewards newly empowered by God’s Spirit and the centrality of the risen Christ struggling with issues of stewardship that constantly arise in their midst. Wrestling with issues of wealth and poverty, sharing resources between communities, debating the competing loyalties to God and the Roman state, beginning to develop faithful institutional structures with the delay of the Parousia—in all these ways seeking to be the faithful community of stewards.

This has been a hurried and sketchy tour of our biblical memory focused on the theme of stewardship. Particularly in the wealth of familiar texts in Jesus’ teachings it cannot do justice to the breadth of material. This can only be suggestive of a much richer story that defines us and constantly renews us if we claim it.

Vision - Isaiah 42:9-10; 43:19

Memory alone, as rich as it is, would not be enough. The prophet of the exile understood that there is a dynamic relationship between memory and vision. He not only remembered Exodus, Creation, Abraham and Sarah, David and Noah, but he said this in Isaiah 42: 9-10: “See, the former things have come to past and new things I now declare. Before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” Or this in Isaiah 43:19 “I am about to do a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” The God we claim in the memory of the community is the God who has also gone on ahead of us. God is not resident back there in our memory. The God who has done these things and has given rise to the testimonies of the biblical communities, is out in front of us in the future, doing a new thing, calling us to dare to dream dreams and see visions, to embody the alternative community for a new day. The prophet of the exile considered himself a steward of vision, not just memory, willing to look boldly into the future when many were settling for survival.

The prophet dares to speak concretely of persons and power. He deals with the realities of his time and the future that God may make possible. The great empires are in turmoil. They need leadership. They are struggling in exile over what the patterns of leadership should be. But the prophet reminded them that whatever the arrangements of persons in power, the ultimate reality is the providence of God. So these things always have to be weighed and discerned together—persons and power and God’s providence. This continues to be the arena in which we struggle for discernment about the path of our role as stewards. The prophet also lived in a time of crisis on the world’s stage, and he lived in a time when his own leadership had failed him. The corporate structures didn’t do so well by Jerusalem and there were implications for the leadership of his own community, both in the royal court and in the temple precincts. The prophet believed that all this was governed finally by the providence of God. In our own time a part of our roles as stewards is to see how God is at work even as we struggle with issues of institutional and societal leadership and authority. Even as we seek adequate resources and faithful decision making.

As a part of his trust in God’s future, the prophet of the exile believed what the prophets before him had said about God’s sovereignty. He believed that God is sovereign over the whole earth and all history. Because he believed this he scanned the horizon looking for the hopeful new things that God might be doing in the world. In Isaiah 44:24-45:6, the prophet thinks he’s found one of those places. He begins a great doxology, a recitation of praise. In it he praises God for many things, finally including praise to the God who will rebuild Jerusalem and the cities of Judah. This must have been popular words to his exile listeners. He moves on in praise of a God “who says of Cyrus he is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose; who says of Jerusalem, it shall be rebuilt and at the temple your foundation shall be laid.” Wait a minute! Who is Cyrus and how did he get into the prophet’s doxology? Isn’t he the king of Persia? Has he been to the membership class? I’ll bet he’s not ordained. The prophet goes right on in 45:1, “Thus says the Lord, to his anointed, to Cyrus.” Do you know what the Hebrew word for anointed is? Messiah. “Thus says the Lord, to his Messiah, to Cyrus, whose right hand I had grasped to subdue nations before him, to open doors before him and the gates shall not be closed. I will go before him and break the bars of captivity.” Cyrus? The prophet believed his own message about the sovereignty of God, and he looked broadly for signs of what God was doing and it wasn’t very popular. He saw God bringing a new future for the exiles through Cyrus. Later in chapter 45 he seems to be responding to his critics, finally saying “I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness and I will make all his paths straight and he shall build my cities and set my exiles free.” If we as stewards trust in what God yet can do, then a part of our energies should always be engaged in scanning the horizon, looking for the hope bringing, wholeness making, life giving activity of God and joining with what God is doing in the world rather than thinking it is incumbent on God to join us in the way we have organized things. Good stewardship may place us with allies and in contexts we never imagined and that aren’t in our control. In the end, vision points us in confidence toward the hope that rests in the trust that God, in God’s time and through the instruments of God’s own choosing, will make all things will new.

The vision of God’s final consummation of the kingdom is important to us, and in more ways than the trivial ways popularized by the Left Behind novels. Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again; thus, we’ve come full circle. As stewards of the gospel, we are once again stewards of hope, the hope that finally resides in the confidence that God’s purposes for the consummation of God’s kingdom will go forward, and we are called to join in as stewards of hope. That hope arises in the creative tension between memory and vision. This isn’t one of those either or choices given to us. The church isn’t a cafeteria line where some pass through and select Bible study while others pass through and select the social action committee. The prophet understands that we have to stand as a community in the tension between memory and hope. If we emphasize memory lopsidedly, if we get engaged in nostalgia, we run the risk of becoming the fossil church. A fossil is an extraordinarily faithful witness to the past, but it’s absolutely incapable of being anything new or different for the future. But there’s an equal danger if we rush off to the new vision so rapidly, that we are not rooted in the memory of the church. We run a different kind of risk. We run the risk of becoming the chameleon church. The chameleon church, having no identity of it’s own, simply takes on the coloration of whatever movement, fad, or ideology happens to surround it along the way. We only dare claim the vision if we are grounded in the memory. And in the tension between memory and vision, we are freed from the tyranny of the present. We live faithfully in the present as stewards of hope claiming the memory, dreaming the dreams and daring the visions. We are thereby freed for faithful witness in the present. We are not overwhelmed by the present so that we settle for survival. We live confidently in the prayer we constantly pray, “Thy kingdom come.” As stewards of hope, we place even our own time—past, present and future—in God’s hands knowing that even time comes to us as the gift of God. The time of our past, our present and our future is itself one of those gifts that we are called to manage as stewards. Our time and the length of our days is the gift of God for us to steward, and we do so confident that, in God’s own time, the brokenness of the world will be redeemed.

Exile is a reality in the experience of every generation. As the community of stewards, we don’t have any choice but to experience the reality of the exile moods and challenges of our time. It is part of the power of this biblical story that we experience it as our own. But, as the community of stewards, we do have some choices. We can place ourselves among the non-singers by the rivers of Babylon—despairing, hand-wringing, engaging in wishful nostalgia, complaining, looking out for ourselves, settling for survival—or with the prophet we can sing. I end with a wish for you, for our church, drawn from the great hymn of Charles Wesley. I wish for us, and our church, a thousand tongues to sing.

  “O, for a thousand tongues to sing,
  our great Redeemer’s praise,
  the glories of our God and King,
  the triumphs of His grace.