The sermon this morning is entitled, “Imitating Good Stewards.” Imitation is defined as “the action of using someone or something as a model.” When it comes to stewardship there are a number of models we could follow, but the best is Jesus himself. Over the course of his life Jesus gave us two very different models of stewardship.
For the first thirty years of his life, he gave us a very traditional model. We know from Mark 6, that at the time he started his ministry, he was living in close proximity, and probably under the same roof with his mother, Mary, four named brothers, and several unnamed “sisters” besides. He lived in the village of Nazareth, and he worked as a carpenter. In his book, “The Mind of Jesus,” William Barclay observes that Mark calls Jesus a “teknon,” which is the Greek word for a master carpenter. Barclay said that Jesus undoubtedly kept a shop in his family home, and Barclay imagines that the sign over the door of the shop may have been an ox yoke, on which Jesus, or Joseph before him had written, “My yoke fits well.” That little bit of advertisement would later furnish Jesus with a superb illustration of what it means to be his disciple. One who takes the yoke with Jesus takes a yoke that does not bind or chaff.
There is no doubt that for the first half of his life that Jesus engaged in a trade and earned a living. Likewise there is no doubt that Jesus gave a portion of that salary to the synagogue. In Matthew 23, Jesus criticized the Pharisees saying:
But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and dill and every herb, and (you) neglect justice and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
Jesus would hardly have approved the tithe without practicing it, though he probably practiced it as a minimum. We know from the gospels that Jesus also was mindful of and gave to the poor (John John 12:5, 13:29, etc.). In Matthew 6 Jesus was undoubtedly speaking from experience when he said,“When you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” No doubt, over the course of his life, Jesus knew both ends of that exchange.
When he was about thirty years old, Jesus left Nazareth to begin his ministry. From this time on, he gives us a completely different model of stewardship. He depends completely on God, and on the kindness of those whom he serves. Accompanied by his disciples, Jesus moved about the country preaching the kingdom of God. As he did, Jesus and his followers often slept outdoors. Thus in Matthew 8, we read how Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” During the time of his active ministry, Jesus and his disciples kept a common purse, and they accepted charitable donations. Likewise, they often ate in the home of good friends, like Mary and Martha, and they sometimes ate in the home of people who either accepted the gospel, like Zacchaeus in Luke 19, or (initially at least) rejected the gospel, like Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7.
When Jesus sent his disciples out to preach the good news of the kingdom from town to town, he charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff. He permitted them to wear sandals, but not to carry an extra tunic, or bread or or money. He told them to rely upon the hospitality of those who received their message. We know from the book of Acts, and from certain of the epistles, that even after the resurrection, the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and certain other prophets and evangelists and teachers continued to rely upon the hospitality of those whom they served. Eventually, the number of people who did this multiplied, and it got old. A late first century document known as “The Didache,” and sometimes spuriously called, “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” warns that a true prophet may ask for bread or a night’s lodging, but if he ask for money he is a false prophet. Likewise, The Didache warns that a true prophet may visit with a church in a particular location, and stay a day, or two; but, if the prophet seeks to stay a third day, he is a false prophet. The purpose of the Didache is pretty clear—it warns the itinerant preachers that are welcome in the churches, but only for a very brief visit. Of course, The Didache was not scripture. Thus, over the centuries from that time to this other Christians have felt called to depend completely on God for their living.
In the early 13th century, the man we now know as St. Francis of Assisi was the son of a wealthy merchant by the name of Pietro di Bernardone. When Francis felt that God had called him to rebuild a certain church, he took several bolts of cloth from his father’s business, sold them, and used the money to refurbish the small chapel. When his father learned of it, he declared that Francis had lost his mind, and demanded that Francis payback the money he had taken. A few days later, Francis and Pietro appeared before Bishop Guido. They stood on the steps of the cathedral and presented their arguments. The Bishop ordered Francis to repay his father. So Francis entered the cathedral and took off the expensive clothes he had worn to the trial. He then came out of the cathedral, stark naked. Without a hint of shame he announced:
“Until the present moment, I have called Pietro di Bernardone my father. Now, since I am determined to serve God, I return to him the money over which he is so upset, and also my clothing that he bought for me. From now on I wish to say only ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven’ and not ‘My father, Pietro di Bernardone.’ ”
As Bernardone stumbled off with his goods, Bishop Guido ascended the steps of the cathedral and covered Francis with his enormous cloak. Soon Francis would follow the rule laid down by Jesus for his disciples when he sent them out to preach from town to town, a simple tunic, belted with a rope. Francis started a movement of like minded brothers that endures today as the Franciscans .Some have called Francis one of the greatest human beings who ever lived. Yet, even those who admire Francis most admit that he is not the model that all of us can imitate. If some few people wish to follow the example of Francis, the rest of us give thanks to God, and call those people saints. However, if all of us were to follow the example of Francis, we would soon create a hardship for our families, and our friends, and the church, and the society in which we live. We know from the Book Acts and the Epistles of Paul that the members of the church in Jerusalem sold all that they had, and held all things in common. It was a grand attempt at communism. However, after a very few years, St. Paul was going around to the Gentile churches collecting alms for the relief of the church in Jerusalem. Likewise, in 20th Century India, Gandhi lived a lot like Francis; but the Mahatma knew this model would not work for everyone. Gandhi famously and rightly said, “My poverty has cost my friends a fortune.”
The first apostles, prophets, and preachers existing on hospitality alone; but this model did not last indefinitely. We know from Acts 18:3 that Paul and Silas worked as tent makers.We know from 1st Thessalonians 2:9 that they worked at this trade day and night so as not to place a burden on that church. And we know from 1st Corinthians 9:18 that they did this so they could make the gospel free of charge. Even today, some people engage in what we now call “a tent making ministry.” I know a young baptist preacher with a Ph.D. who lays tile to support his ministry. Not long ago, he told me that God has not yet seen fit to call him to a full-time church, but God has seen fit to prosper his tile business.
Of course, as you know, not every pastor works outside the church. Over the centuries, as the gospel spread and churches grew in both numbers and in size, it seemed good to the church to set aside certain persons to an ordained ministry, which was deemed worthy of a salary. I think it is interesting that, though St. Paul never took a regular salary himself, in the case of others, he did justify and approve it. He discusses the matter several times, and it all comes down to what he said in 1st Corinthians 9:11. There in Paul writes, “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” In other words, Paul says that, in general it is o.k., and even desirable for the churches to “…pay the preacher.”
Now let me say a word in the defense of all the preachers, pastoral assistants, Christians educators, organist, business managers, secretaries, custodians, etc. who do receive a salary. If we were primarily interested in money, or better benefits, or shorter hours, or longer weekends, or an early retirement, we would certainly have followed another calling. Most of us are salaried because simply because that is the model of the churches we have served. If the model changed, most of us would change, too.
So, we have dealt several models for church staff; but what about the rest of us. What about the church in general? What models do we have that we can all follow?
Well, we can all imitate the example of Jesus the carpenter, if not the example of Jesus the preacher. The character of Jesus did not change when he changed his primary vocation.
Likewise, in1st Thessalonians 2:14, Paul says that we can imitate the example of the churches in Judea. Of course, If we do that, we must pick and choose. We have already seen that the Judean churches tried communism, and failed; and we have seen how their failure put a hardship on the other churches. Thus we can imitate them in generosity, but we can hardly follow them into that failure. Paul says we can also imitate them in their willingness to suffer for their faith. It may sound strange, but one who suffers, through no fault of their own, and suffers well, is a wonderful steward, and a sterling example to us all. We know from Romans 5 that St. Paul thought suffering was good for us, as it produced endurance, and character, and hope. The only chance we have to suffer, and suffer well is in this life. As Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “He who shirks suffering, and escapes it in this life, will find it eternally without remedy.”
Likewise, we can imitate the example of Paul himself. In Philippians 4:9 Paul says, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.” We have already talked about what we have heard and seen in Paul. What have we learned and received from him?
Well, in 1st Corinthians 16:2 Paul tells the members of that church to “…put something aside on the first day of every week as he or she has prospered.” Let’s break that down.
First, we must give regularly. We may give weekly, or monthly, or whatever, but it is important we give regularly. Remember: We plant a thought and reap a word; we plant a word and reap an action; we plant an action and reap a habit; we plant a habit and reap a character; we plant a character and reap a destiny. If we want to fulfill our destiny as good stewards, we must make giving a habit by doing it regularly.
Second, must give proportionally, according to how we have prospered. At this juncture, it is hard not to mention the tithe. In Genesis 14, the first person in the Bible to tithe is Abraham, the father of all who have faith. He paid a tenth of all that he had to Melchizedek, the Priest of God Most High, whom the book of Hebrews calls a “type” of Christ. Then, in Leviticus 27, Moses commands the children of Israel to make a tithe of their herds and flocks, saying that every tenth animal is holy to the LORD. Eventually the people of Israel gave a tenth all their income and possessions to God. Thus in Malachi 3:10, God speaks through his prophet saying:
Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house; and thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.
Paul echoes this passage from Malachi in 2nd Corinthians 9:8 wherein he says that “…God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.”
Now, what if we can’t afford a tithe. If someone can’t afford a tithe, there are two options. First, we can give a lesser percentage, in hopes, that, as God prospers us, we can increase the percentage. If you can’t give a tithe, give five percent. If you can’t give five percent, give two percent, and increase it as you are able. Leviticus 27 says that it is possible to redeem the tithe at a later date by adding ten percent to the tenth.
Second, I would be remiss if I did not suggest that we may make a leap of faith, and trust God to supply the resources we need to tithe. When Elayne and I married, I made $430 a month, and she did not work. At the end of the first month of marriage, we were flat broke. The second month we started to tithe. We were away, so we took a tenth, $43 dollars and split it right down the middle, sending $35 to my church and $8 to hers. We have never been broke since. Or what about this, a much better story. I had a friend, no longer living, who started tithing at about the same time he started a new business. He wrote and dated 52 checks, filing in an amount he hoped would be a weekly tithe. He then gave the checks to his church treasurer, and told him to cash each check as it fell due. He told me that not only did he have enough money in the bank to cover each of those checks; but, at the end of the year, he had to write a 53rd check that was written for almost as much as the total of the first 52. I know this little story sounds suspiciously like it was purchased from one of those internet sights that peddle sermon illustrations to busy preachers, but it is genuine in every particular. The grandson of the man that told me that story is now a member of this congregation, and the business his grandfather started is still going strong after more than fifty years.
Now, what if you can afford more than a tithe? This a tremendous opportunity, for when start to give beyond the tithe, we tend to make special gifts to the people and ministries that matter to us most. Nothing gives me more pleasure than making a 2nd mile gift—a gift beyond what I have pledged to the local church, to some deserving cause. That cause may vary from person to person, whether it be the Mission in Cuba, or Hope—“Help Our People Eat,” or Laurel Ridge, or the Forsyth Prison Ministry, or City with Dwellings, or Hurricane Relief, of The Open Door Lunch which benefits a number of local ministries, or some special ministry of your choosing.
Paul says that several things happen when we give.
First, we have the satisfaction of having something to give. All of Paul’s teaching on stewardship assumes the truth of the Proverb, “It is better to give than to receive.” How do you want to pass your life? Do you want to spend it looking for the relief that comes when someone makes a gift to you? Or would you like to live your life looking for an opportunity to invest in the lives of others? With this understanding, everyone wants to develop the habit of giving!
Second, we have the satisfaction of watching the gift grow from seed to flower. It is a joy to watch a new building go up, or to see an old one refurbished. It is a joy to follow the launch of a new ministry. It is a joy to watch the positive impact our gifts make in the lives of others. Though it is always wonderful to be personally involved, it is not always possible; but we can our money to work of us.
Finally, we have satisfaction of knowing that God will not only multiply our fiscal and physical resources, but God will also “increase the harvest of our righteousness.” That is from 2nd Corinthians 9:10. In other words, St. Paul ties the state of our stewardship with the state of our discipleship! Billy Graham does exactly the same when he says we are not converted until the religion of the head reaches down into the heart, and the religion of the heart, reaches down into the religion of the pocketbook and out through the hands that we have pledged to God’s service.
God loves a cheerful giver! Those of you who wish to express that Joy may bring your gifts and promises of the same and place them on the communion table as we sing our final hymn.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.