This morning I’d like to talk about a topic that is very near to my heart: Stewardship vs ownership. First let’s talk about ownership. Where does the concept of ownership come from? How do we view ownership? What do the scriptures say about ownership? Ownership is a very strange concept. The idea that we own something – this is mine, this is mine, that’s mine - is something purely concocted. It doesn’t existing outside the imaginations of our minds. However, we give credence to concept of ownership simply because we all agree on an arbitrary set of rules that define the bounds of our lands, our bank accounts, and our continually accumulating pile of stuff. Let’s talk about real estate for example. Nothing produces a stronger sense of ownership than to able to say, this is my property. Well, not really. The deed to your house is a contrived document that exists only because a few hundred years ago we managed to displace the indigenous population, and divvy up the proceeds. The truth is that the indigenous tribes had a much better relationship to the land than we do. We conjured up the term, “Manifest Destiny”, to justify the wholesale grabbing of everything in sight as it suits us. This of course was followed by the biggest abomination of them all, the idea one person can claim another as their personal property. Not our finest hour as a people, nor as a nation. Let’s talk about stuff. Do we own our stuff? Our stuff comes from natural resources. Trees, petroleum products, minerals, etc. We grant ourselves the right to extract natural resources simply because we collectively agree to pursue what is in our mutual interests. We harvest, drill, pollute, dig up, chop down, consume, all based on this fabricated concept of ownership. One of the problems with wanting to own things, is that we want to own more things. Proverbs 27:20 says the eyes of man are never satisfied. The recent increase in inflation gives testament to our insatiable desire as a society to accumulate more stuff. Especially during the pandemic, the temptation to accumulate has increased. As a contractor, I’ve been very busy. Who here has too much stuff? We all have too much stuff. Perhaps we should unburden ourselves and give much of it away. Let’s look at what the scriptures say about ownership. Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, and all they that dwell therein.” The Psalmist presents an entirely different perspective on ownership: Our creator owns everything. We do not own anything. It all belongs to the Lord. It’s not your money, it’s not your house, it’s not your car, it’s not your stuff. It all belongs to the Lord. We are simply stewards of what is in our possession. As far as land ownership goes, in reality, we’re just a bunch of squatters! Now let’s talk about stewardship. What does stewardship mean? A steward is one who manages the possessions of another. God is the owner, we are the stewards, over things that are temporarily in our care; until we pass on that responsibility to someone else. This is an entirely different perspective than ownership. I Corinthians 4:2 says “…it is required in stewards that a man be found faithful.” This is the fundamental requirement for stewardship, that we are faithful. That we utilize what we have in our possession for a purpose greater than ourselves. Rebecca read Acts 4 this morning, which reveals how the believers in first century church had a wonderful perspective on managing their earthly possessions. Verse 32 says, “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” They made a distinction between possession and ownership. We see from the verses following that their recognition that they did not own anything resulted in them sharing with those who had need. They relinquished ownership, and instead demonstrated a strong understanding of the concept of stewardship. In the Gospels, Jesus talk a lot about stewardship. He never mentions ownership. In Luke 16, Jesus tells the story of the unjust steward, who wasted his master’s goods, and had to account for his stewardship. Jesus then summarizes the parable by saying “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in that which is much.” In other words, the proper handling of money, things in our possession, those things that in actuality are the least important, is a fundamental requirement to having greater responsibility of things in the spiritual realm. During the last few years, while we have been experiencing this challenging pandemic, I’ve thought about proper stewardship of my resources. The idea that I do not own anything has encouraged me to increase how much I help others. As we all know, the rising cost of real estate is a real problem for first time home buyers. During the last three years, four of the key men in my company, the guys who help me run the projects and keep the company running smoothly, decided to buy homes for their families. However, they did not have enough money for the downpayment. Nadja and I decided to give them each a sizable financial gift. A couple of weeks ago, the last of these four men just closed on his house. Of all of the investments Nadja and I have made during the last twenty years, this was by far the most rewarding, helping these four families to acquire and be stewards of the homes they live in. I’d like to talk about net worth. What an absurd term! The idea that our worth as a person, our value as an individual, is determined by our financial assets, is preposterous. I challenge you to redefine your calculation of your net worth not by how much you accumulate, but rather by how much you give away. In Luke 12, Jesus talks about faithful and wise stewards. In verse 48, He says, “for everyone to whom much is given, from him much shall be required.” We read Matthew 19, which tells the powerful story of a man who wanted to follow Jesus. Jesus instructed him to sell his possessions, and give to the poor. Yet the man went away grieved, because he was very rich. He did not understand the concept of stewardship. He was stuck in a mode that was self-destructive. He deceived himself into thinking that he owned his possessions. In truth, his possessions owned him. I find these verses very compelling. Where does this ungodly urge to accumulate come from? If our goal is to accumulate, we will most assuredly be disappointed in our expectations. I Timothy 6:7 says we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we will carry nothing out. Let us seek to be content with what we have. The more we focus on ownership, the more complicated our lives become. We become focused on ourselves, we become concerned about not having enough, or losing what we have. Stewardship on the other hand, enables us to fulfill our greatest purpose in life, which is to help others. Our lives are more in balance, and more fulfilling. The concept of stewardship is far more powerful than the concept of ownership. Let’s relinquish ownership, and embrace the concept of stewardship. To us much has been given, and much is required. --Robert Young, July 24, 2022
Today human societies are in the same trap we set up for ourselves at Babel. The fantasy behind it is this: only if we remain a single people with a single language and a single purpose, can we be all-powerful! The builders of Babel feared being split up and spread out across the earth, yet that’s just what happened to them. For fame and power, they wanted to build a city with a monolith touching the heavens. They sought hegemony. But God wouldn’t have it. When they organized themselves, God intervened and split them up after all. The human will to power was and remains God’s greatest challenge.
The unity–really, the monopoly–humans wish for is contrary to God’s purpose. God stands for the whole people of God. The accumulation of wealth and the intensification of power such as you can have in a city conflicts with care of people and planet. Babel would not be a city built by God. Their self-exaltation was inconsistent with human responsibility to God. As one commentator put it, “God is going to limit human possibility for the sake of greater possibilities.” God seems to be saying, diversity is now going to be a permanent fact, live with it, learn to live through it. God the Creator in whose image we are made stands not for monopoly but for creativity.
Well, but just how? The disarray of diverse societies is challenging, inconvenient, conflictual, unmanageable. This continues to be the greatest challenge to every society.
Then see how the New Testament comes along and continues the question with its own vision. The Pentecost story in the Book of Acts shows ethnic and national differences to be a fact of life, a fact of life that could be lived with, that could be transcended. The Holy Spirit comes not to homogenize society but to help us humanize it. It is through the gospel of forgiveness that this will be accomplished, if it is ever to be accomplished.
This moral of both stories remains relevant to us in the churches of Christ. Throughout history, not only do nations collide, seek hegemony (Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin), only to collapse, religions follow the same pattern–even the smallest splinter of a religion harbors fantasies of hegemony. Faiths collide, and factions within faiths collide. Whenever faiths collide it has been a mortal disaster, now reaching another climax this very day through Christian white nationalism, although long before this, two competing Christianities on this continent sought monopolies through force. Christianity, reinforced by the state, has sought unity by conformity to doctrine–a lust to be the orthodoxy of the state religion. And as American Protestantism splintered into competing sects and denominations, much of the population said, “a plague on all your houses,” and chose none.
I see the sad truth of all this, but I personally look at religion differently. The riches to be found in religion can be known and savored best when you look behind or around, beside or below the doctrines.
It means keeping our eyes open without proprietary assumptions or preconceived notions. It means putting aside the self-abasement that is inculcated by Christianity in places.
You have been sitting here in your usual pew, and the worship service has followed the bulletin, just as has been unfolding here so far.
But now I ask you to imagine with me that this space is actually a great theater, a really large one–in fact, picture an opera house, the grandest of grand opera houses.
These pews here are where the audience usually sits, in the orchestra and the mezzanine and balconies.
The stage itself is huge, a vast proscenium arch, with deep wings, high fly tower, and the rear wall is recessed far away behind the flats.
Now I invite you to leave your pew and actually step up onto the stage itself, because you are in this drama–a church service is the closest thing to an opera–that’s why I put the image of a cast of The Magic Flute by Mozart on the bulletin cover.
All of you have parts, some spoken, some sung.
You may walk among the actors, or pull up a chair and watch it all close-up.
You recognize many others on the crowded stage because all of church history is telescoped into the space.
At this moment, you are in the middle of the fable of Babel where it says, “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower.”
As the line is spoken by a narrator, you become aware in an extra-sensory way of past interpreters of this story–Luther (two kingdoms) and Mother Teresa (City of God) and Jorge Luis Borges (the library of Babel).
You can hear the music accompanying the line appropriate to the time–Gregorian chant, Bach chorale, colonial plainsong, Appalachian shape note hymn.
And on the flats are conceptions drawn by Pieter Breughel and Gustave Dore and Salvador Dali, as they successively proceed through time to the present.
Throughout this moment, God is shapeshifting, now a judging God, then a punishing God, and then a mischievous God, even a laughing God.
It’s marvelous, you are in the middle of an opera that simultaneously stands still over a single line and collects time like looking in the wrong end of a telescope.
Over there at the edge of our performance, on another elevation of this vast stage you see a performance of Jewish liturgy going on, also enacted in the same way, such that you can catch the voice of the cantor as she is pronouncing “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower” for people who are in the Alexandria diaspora, the Warsaw Ghetto, and modern Jerusalem.
Yet in another plain of the stage, you walk over to Islamic chanting of the story, where in this case it is Pharoah who puts up a henchman Haman to build the tower in a challenge to Moses. There too as you mingle among the prayerful, an imam interprets, and you experience the three-dimensionality of the story. Now you hear the interplay of the same story in other frames, similar images, words that speak to each other. God is One, but human relationships to God are many.
All of a sudden a fire engine goes by, siren blaring, and you realize you are in your pew with everybody else.
You shake your head and see that everybody went into the coffee hour.
So I believe there is a remedy to the ego-driven conflicts of religion. Nobody has to change their religion, or give religion up.
Change your lenses. Change your seat. Step through the proscenium arch and enter the story, the mythic journey of God’s people to embrace all of humanity. Experience art, creativity and the sacred.
I used to be an ecumaniac. I believed in ecumentism. I had a Catholic priest participate in my ordination in 1970. I loved the idea of religions being one. I applauded the many interfaith dialogues that sprouted after Vatican II. All kinds of conversations were going on between different denominations and different religions. Inter-communion took place, unthought of before.
Now I am a recovering ecumaniac. It all fizzled. After Roe, reproductive rights drove a wedge between the Christian denominations and divided churches internally. In the 1990s, gay marriage and ordination prompted profound conflicts among and within the churches. After 9/11, Islamic terrorism inspired hate from many Christian communities. Religion, religion everywhere in the news and not a dialogue to be found.
Today, I understand religion to be less a matter of belief in particular doctrines and more about story. I have shown you religion as a huge theater, painting its own sets over the centuries, writing its own scripts, composing its own music. People are meant to get up on the stage–to sing, speak some lines, walk among the actors, or pull up a chair and watch it all close-up. No one has to agree or disagree to anything, just absorb the spiritual atmosphere that totally surrounds you. People leave magically transformed.
And the curtain never comes down, the way I see religion now. All the world is a religious stage. Maybe you get what I mean?
Reproductive freedom has been gutted, but gay rights, too, are threatened by the Supreme Court. You would think good Christians would applaud couples who promise eternal fidelity to each other, as gay couples want to be able to do, in keeping with universal marriage values. That’s how I always felt. If two people come to me to bless their intention to live together in a permanent, sexually exclusive relationship, that’s what the church has always been in business for! There are plenty of heterosexual couples who promise the same thing and are either not able to keep those promises or never intended to from the outset. Why in heaven or on earth would a minister or priest deny either the wish or the opportunity for the most fulfilling of relationships to anyone? This is a point of bitter contention between and among Christian denominations.
It all depends on how you look at the Bible. There are big differences between the various churches on this score. First, many hold with the literal inerrancy of the Bible–one of the four fundamentals of fundamentalism. Second, many view the Bible as a blueprint for society, which it isn’t and couldn’t be. It is written in our Eliot Church covenant, “we accept the Holy Scriptures as our rule of faith and practice.” But the Bible is like the US Constitution–it needs interpretation. Basically, there are only two Christianities: one in which the Bible is God, and the other in which the Bible points to God. We belong to the latter.
And it depends on where you look in the Bible. If the Church really wanted to promote satisfying, long lasting, and sexually exclusive relationships, there needed to have been a basic understanding of and respect for human sexuality, but the Church couldn’t handle it. It is hard to find such in the Bible, but there is a place to look, the Song of Solomon. The Church included this unique book in the Bible, but only grudgingly, without knowing really what to do with it.
It’s a short book of 8 chapters, made up of what seem to be bursts of 31 intense lyrics between two lovers, identified in some translations as the Bride and Bridegroom. This engaged couple are profoundly, almost painfully in love–they address each other in superlatives of tenderness and yearning. They are clearly in the throes of the “carnal consummation of love,” as Robert Alter put it. Yet their “unholy” love is sanctified, made holy, by the presence of the Spirit.
Prof Renita Weems, emerita professor of Old Testament at Vanderbilt, herself a womanist Christian theologian, identifies this as a countercultural book. It is the only book of the Bible in which the female voice predominates, she is anonymous and she is black-skinned. Her speech is bold and un-self-censored, and perfectly reciprocated by her lover. This leads Prof Weems to observe that this book is a protest against crass materialism–it honors the body, it honors woman and women’s sexual experience and men’s. Their sexual identity is outshined by the power of love at once human and divine. Their gender identity pales in significance compared to their humanity. This sexual drama reveals a snapshot of divine possibility in the human sphere–the intimate bonding of love is the incarnation of the Spirit. Their sexual orientation reflects cultural norms of that time, of course, but the Bible is making a more fundamental point about sexual love–the body is the Temple of the Spirit. Spirits unite when bodies unite–this is the miracle of human loving.
This is why divorce is so painful, and I have been through that, or the dissolution of any intimate relationship. The Bible declares that this love is the birthright of any two people who give themselves to each other in this way–person to person, person seeking person, person serving person. These love lyrics between a heterosexual couple are just as relevant to same-sex couples.
So, as I said at the outset, you would think good Christians would applaud couples who promise eternal fidelity to each other, as gay couples want to be able to do, in keeping with universal marriage values. Let’s just ask, what is marriage for? Theories abound–for the protection of progeny, being the principal one. Another is to secure property rights over females.
What if we turned the question around and asked, why do people get married? The fact is, “as studies show,” people consistently find that same-partner sex is most fulfilling. In fact, the spiritual union that results from sexual union is indelible and wants celebrating. The two become one flesh, as the Bible itself says, amazingly affirming the pleasure bond. You could just say that marriage is a need, a fundamental human need. As the marriage liturgy inveighs, “Let no one put asunder whom God hath joined together.” The point we celebrate every Sunday here is the reality of the Incarnation, the mystery of spirit in flesh.
The great story of Jesus’ at the wedding in Cana where he turned water into wine is a fitting symbol and summary of the Bible–there is more than meets the eye to human life. Water miraculously gives life to flesh. But we are also a volatile mix of flesh and spirit, and wine symbolizes the indissolubility of flesh and spirit. Ultimately, we are persons seeking persons.
We sometimes start in unholy ways, but everyone’s birthright is to be sanctified in a relationship made holy by God.