Faithful Stewardship in a Time of Uncertainty
by Melissa Spas
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
~ Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
This spring has been a time of dramatic disruption and ongoing uncertainty, as the novel coronavirus COVID-19 continues to take thousands of lives, requiring social distancing that upends the global economy, and prevents us from coming together in response to crisis, as we ordinarily would. The challenges to our faith and religious practice are very real. All of our ways of being faith communities together have been paused, discontinued, or rearranged. Meetings, pastoral care, and worship are all being conducted remotely, online or asynchronously, as we isolate in our homes. Every day we read or hear about people who are sick, dying, or vulnerable, as well as about the sacrifices made by healthcare workers and those in other essential professions who enable this large-scale response. In this circumstance, we are beginning to ask about an unknown future… returning to “normal” seems nostalgic, and even identifying a “new normal” may be beyond the scope of our current position. Yet, we cannot help but look ahead to a time when we resume activities of daily life. How can we be faithful stewards in this season of uncertainty?
A few weeks ago a wise colleague shared with me this quotation from the Christian pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith.
What does it mean for us, in this sense, to have faith? How can our living in the world, which leaves us hungry or furious or gasping for breath, be an expression of faithfulness that honors God’s care for us, without falling into the hubris of building bigger storehouses and relying first on our own understanding? Is this a privilege of only those who have enough safety net, in their personal lives or in their financial reserves, or can we all consider the challenge of faithful stewardship in uncertain circumstances? It cannot be, if we are to discern the way we are called by God to go, as a people. Everyone must be able to offer their perspective and insight, so that together we can take seriously, as Bonhoeffer says, the sufferings of God in the world.
We are able to be faithful because God is faithful to us first. When we consider faithful stewardship, we are paying attention to the ways that we can respond to God’s generous love for us with thoughtful, responsible care for all that God has entrusted to us. We are meant to steward our time, our labor, our resources, and our spirit. Stewardship on each of these dimensions calls for discernment, creativity, and openness to God’s direction, and this is especially true in times of change and uncertainty. Faithful response to God requires attention to the dynamic nature of our world, and it will require different things from us in different seasons, as Ecclesiastes reminds us.
Faithful stewardship may require patience, endurance, and sacrifice, and it may not always match our ideals or ambitions. Yet there can be new life that comes from what appears to be fallow time or a makeshift solution. Faithful stewardship can also be dynamic and responsive to external challenges, recognizing the opportunity in difficulty, and opening us to the gifts of the season. In this sense, stewardship is not primarily a strategy, or a marketing plan, even if it calls us to new practices. Online worship, emailed bulletins, Zoom coffee hour, and electronic apps instead of offering plates might feel tactical, but they can be holy expressions of our faithfulness in a time of change. We may find that faithful stewardship in this season bears unexpected fruit far beyond our current crisis. Faithful stewardship in a time of uncertainty can allow us the time and freedom to discern the purpose God has for every aspect of our lives, and to encourage our communities and institutions to do the same. This leads me to many questions, none of which have easy answers.
What does it mean to steward well the gifts of a faith community? Are we inviting everyone to share what they have? Can we celebrate gifts that are very different from our own?
How will we be good stewards of the resource of time, in a season that is marked by disruption and, for many, an enforced slow-down in the pace of life? What can we do with this time that honors God, nurtures a deepening of spiritual life, and cares for the most vulnerable among us?
How is our work contributing to the flourishing of life, to the care and tending of God’s creation? Are we working in ways that honor God, and is the fruit of our labor something that we can celebrate as good? If not, what changes might we be called to make in this area of life?
Are we making right use of the material resources and assets entrusted to our care? How are we directing our earnings, our savings, and our investments? Does a disorienting, unforeseen disaster change the way we think about money? What does our faith ask of us in this case?
In times like these, with catastrophe, disorientation, and death all around, we can easily see that a lack of faithful stewardship leads to suffering. The Gospel of Luke, chapter 12 offers a great deal for us to consider about our own inclinations, and how different we are from God. God’s unfailing faithfulness to humankind is the pattern for faithful stewardship in return, and we are called to trust in God. Stewardship of all that we have is distinct from the selfishness that can follow from fear. Storing treasure on earth is a sign of our own unfaithfulness, whether that is in the form of over-sized endowments for empty buildings or a store of food we can’t possibly use before it is lost to “moths and rust”. We are called to model our care for all creation on the generosity and abundance of God’s mercy and wisdom, trusting that God’s love for us extends far beyond the poverty of our imagination. God has a purpose for every season, and in this time of grief and change, responding to God with faithful stewardship may mean that we contend with many questions. This work of discernment and listening to God is itself faithful stewardship.
by Rev. Bruce Barkhauer
The faithful practice of stewardship means making choices. Melissa Spas’ excellent reflection on the Ecclesiastes passage invites us to consider what choices will we make based on what time we discern we are in. Different seasons, different choices. Among those choices is what will we invest in. Melissa’s words brought a fresh reminder of the story of the “rich young ruler” as told in the synoptic gospels. Essentially the man’s question is “how do I get to participate in the Realm of God?” Jesus, apparently responding to the man’s great wealth, replies: “Sell it all and give it to the poor.” No chance to simply dip a toe in and slowly try the water; this is all the way in.
Yes, Jesus at one level was talking about money and the words are therefore hard words: hard for the man to accept (he goes away sad), harder still to put into practice. Giving it all to those things which alleviate the dehumanizing burden of crushing poverty seems wonderful, even desirable, but where is the practicality in that? What will there be left to live on? Won’t I just then become among the poor myself? So, we ask, is Jesus serious? Is this really about money and possessions? Do we have to sell everything to see the Realm?
Perhaps not, but without removing the pure shock that the encounter creates not only for the rich young ruler, but also for us as listeners to the story, Jesus is saying: “Now is the time to go all-in with the values and principles of the Realm.” The poor having bread was a sign to the rabbinical tradition of the presence of the Realm. Thus, giving the money to the poor (so they can have bread) would be an invitation to “bring the Realm now”. The desire for the Realm (the full reality of God getting everything God wants and desires) has to become what Paul Tillich called our “Ultimate Concern”. It has to take priority of the whole of our life. Our time, our gifts, our treasure, and the very hope and desire of our heart.
While stockbrokers are recommending this is a time to “hold tight and wait it out”, Jesus is calling this a Kairos moment, beckoning us to sell out completely and move all of our resources into something better and longer lasting. Something that will make us, and the world complete. Perhaps a way to not simply return to the way things were, but to steward our way into a new world of being.
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