There is a story about a man who was a member of his parish, but who didn’t give anything to the church one year.
When the priest went to check on him, he opened the door and asked, “Did you know that my son just wrecked his car and needs a new one?”
The priest replied, “Why no, I didn’t know.”
“Or did you know that my daughter just lost her job and has no money.”
Again, the priest replied, “Oh my- no I had no idea.”
“And did you know that my wife is very sick and needs treatment?”
The priest, taken completely aback, said, “Oh my gosh, I’m just so sorry.”
The man said, “So if I didn’t give anything to any of them, what makes you think I’m going to give anything to you?” And closed the door, leaving the priest outside.
The man in this story clearly had a value attached to money that might not be the same as what we find in today’s gospel readings. We have today a series of parables about how God’s kingdom is different from what we expect, from what we are trained to value.
In the parable of the mustard seed, we have a tiny seed– a weed, really, that takes over subversively. It isn’t anything the gardener wants to have planted in the yard: it just shows up; the tiny seed having been invisible among what he planted. When I lived in the desert, the mustard plants would take over the whole yard if I didn’t weed carefully each spring. They even came up through the landscape fabric designed to keep them out. They were insidious- they just appeared. Just like that, Jesus says the kingdom of God sneaks up from outside the expected places of the powers and provinces the way the empire works and then takes over with a different way, like a weed.
And next we have the parable of the yeast. Yeast silently works its way through the flour to leaven the whole batch. And the three measures of flour, incidentally, is quite a lot: enough to make about eleven loaves of bread. When is the last time you needed eleven loaves of bread at once? It’s abundant. It’s almost too much. This woman has taken the yeast and hidden it in about two gallons of flour. So this yeast has silently worked its way through a lot of flour, quietly but effectively working its way through a huge quantity. Just like the story of the mustard seed: the kingdom of God starts with something small and unseen, but before you know it, it spreads to something bigger than we can imagine needing. This is a generous God, working behind the scenes to change things in unexpected ways.
So it is no wonder that the next two parables then talk about what that kingdom is worth. In the parable of the hidden treasure and the merchant in search of fine pearls, the abundant price for the field and the price the merchant is willing to pay are only matched by the abundant yield of the kingdom. But that kingdom- worth so much these folks would give everything they own for it- isn’t a kingdom of vast resources of gold, or silver, or even oil or steel. This is a kingdom of mustard seeds and leavened bread from the prior two stories. But somehow that is worth everything these two people have once they learn about them.
So that’s what the kingdom is. This kingdom of God is subversive, it is worth giving everything away for, and it looks like… some bushes and bread. In the words of one commentator, Jesus’ point is to ask something like, “Would you give away everything you have for a crop of kudzu?”
Because God’s kingdom doesn’t look like the way we expect kingdoms to look. The kingdom of God isn’t a kingdom of silver and gold. It isn’t cosmetic beauty even, or riches, or power. It’s something much more valuable.
What does that kingdom look like then? What does that mustard seed produce in our time? What is like the yeast for us, that goes to work silently transforming the world, maybe even getting out of control, even looking a little dangerous, but is actually the kingdom of God at work transforming the world around us? Is there anything you can think of that might call you to give up all you have– especially for something as seemingly meaningless to the world as a mustard seed or eleven loaves of bread?
This is why we have to talk about money when it isn’t stewardship season. Because Stewardship isn’t fundraising for the church, although that’s what we’ve reduced it to. Stewardship is something much bigger than that.
Stewardship, for me has two components in the spiritual life. There is the corporate aspect of Stewardship: that is, how will we, in our common life, use all that we have to do all we can for the mission of God– to spread all the mustard seeds we can, with all the yeast we can find, hiding it into all the flour available. But while fundraising in a non-profit may include conversations with donors about whether they are getting what they want and need, corporate stewardship in the church is not about that. Corporate stewardship is discernment among the whole body, where we work together knowing that everyone will not always get what they want, but that the members of the body work together for the common good of the mission of the church, not for the good of any one individual member, but for the furthering of the spread of these silly mustard seeds and that pesky yeast. It is about whether we are following God’s mission for us rather than donor’s desires, and that takes the body to discern with the leadership.
But there is another component to stewardship that is the root of Christian discipleship.
Personal stewardship is how each of us use the resources of the kingdom of this world in order to work for the kingdom of God. It’s how as individual followers of the Christ we are called to do all we can with all we have all of the time.
And, I’m sorry to tell the man from the beginning of the story, that includes money. Oh, we don’t like to talk about our money! But it also includes our children and our parents and our energy and our environment and what we purchase and everything else, too. Stewardship is doing all we can with all we have all of the time. It is selling everything we own to buy the field with that remarkable treasure in it; it is giving away everything because we have discovered the value of the pearl of a great price.
That is a really hard thing to talk about. Because just like the yeast, the kingdom is subversive. It isn’t something we can just write up some talking points and say, “this is why you should be a good steward.” Stewardship is doing all you can with all you have all the time, because you have found a hidden treasure, and you just know it’s value is unmeasurable.
Stewardship is making a decision about how you see the world and living into that, even when the world seems to value other things.
Stewardship is believing that the resource of kindness should be doled out amply. And deciding to give it out even when it seems like it is in short supply.
Stewardship is believing that reconciliation is a more abundant resource than getting even, and being willing to make withdrawals of forgiveness even when it seems in short supply or that being right is the only currency available.
Stewardship is seeing your child step out and make a decision that may not be what you would choose, but believing that her own agency and independence are her gift to be cherished and cultivated in abundance, so it is the currency that you convert to, because she doesn’t belong to you, she is simply yours to steward for a season.
Stewardship is treating all people, immigrants, transgender people, even political enemies with respect. Because human dignity is the only currency for human interaction that have in your bank, and fear and tribalism are bankrupt.
Stewardship is choosing to be friendly to the earth, because it is the resource that you value as a generous gift from God to be revered.
Stewardship is not so much banking on the memories of the past or investing time in countless possibilities of future, but living fully in this present moment, knowing it is much more precious than past or future.
Stewardship is knowing that God is generous. Gratitude is the practice of naming those things of value that are otherwise discarded by the world so that you can treasure them, and value them, and see their worth in the world around you, and let go of the things that others may value more.
And that may mean that Stewardship might include determining how to live off of 90% of your income, so that you can live generously giving 5% or 7% or the Christian standard of 10% back to God in gratitude for cultivating this subversive kingdom that I hope you strive to be a part of. And it may mean that you do something different, too.
Whatever pearls of great price you have found, I hope that you use gratitude every day to remember their value, to cultivate generosity, and to remember the God that offers you a kingdom of abundance.
The Rev. Canon Jeff Martinhauk
Proper 12A, July 30, 2017
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
Matt 13:31-33; 44-52