Depths of Stewardship

Click here to listen to this 16-minute message.

Stewardship or dedicated giving is an important dimension of the life of most churches and most Christians. It is about pledging to invest our time, our abilities, our resources and our finances into the work of God through the local church. Stewardship, however, runs the risk of becoming an administrative process of ticking off some boxes to settle our dues with our church, without really touching us or the world at a deeper level.

In this message, I draw on two verses from the Gospels – Matthew 21:33-34 – and show how this text points us to a far deeper and broader understanding of the importance of stewardship:

“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.”

  • First, this passage echoes the creation narrative in Genesis 1, where we find God creating a world and placing people in it, with the task of taking care of that world, which is an expression of the love and being of God. This suggests that stewardship reaches right back into the very origins of humanity, and is rooted not just in some things we do, but in our identity. Being a steward (or gardener or farmer) is the foundational calling that God makes of all humanity. It means, among other things, that everything we do in life should champion and protect the environment.
  • Second, later in this parable (v43), Jesus reveals that the vineyard is, in fact, the Kingdom of God, which is the world under the loving rule of Christ, who reconciles all things together to himself. We, as his followers, are called to bring out the fruit of the Kingdom of God, or the fruit of the Gospel. This means, among other things, that everything we do should help to bring into being God’s Kingdom values, such as love, justice, mercy, equity, relationships, integrity and grace.

Stewardship, then, is not just about signing up to help make tea or work in a soup kitchen, nor is it just about pledging to donate money to the church on a monthly basis. It is an expression of our identity as people created to take care of creation and as people striving to transform the world into the Kingdom of God, through every breath we take, from rising until sleeping. In so doing, we let God’s will be done here on earth as it is in heaven.

Being God’s Beloved: Talk 1: Who is Your God?

On Wednesday 12 March, we started the series of five talks on the theme of “Being God’s Beloved” at St Martin’s Anglican Church in Irene, South Africa. The first talk asks the question “Who is your God?” and gives attention to the essence of the Triune God and the creation of humanity. The 21 minute was part of a one-hour programme, involving prayer, small group discussion and large group feedback.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 4: In the Beginning

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

The opening words of a novel are regarded as the most important words of a book. The American Book Review lists the top 100 opening lines. Number one: “Call me Ishmael” from Melville’s Moby Dick. Opening lines serve to grab your attention, to focus your energy, to pique your interest and to reveal something key about the text to follow. Writers spend hours finding the perfect opening line.

The opening words of the first book of the Bible are no exception. In these few Hebrew words we are presented with the start of the story of God in relationship with humanity. They provide us with four key elements that set the stage for this great story.

First, we are oriented to the time in which the story starts: “In the beginning”. This is in contrast to what we looked at yesterday, which was before time and space. There we looked at a ‘time’ before the creation of time – a time most of us cannot imagine. The author of Genesis 1 cues us to recognise that there must have been a before in the beginning, prompting us to think about God before creation. But Genesis 1:1 also locates us at the start of time as we now know it. This point in eternity marks a fundamental and supercosmic change from time-less to time-bound.

Second, we are introduced to the central character: “God”. I love those opening two words in the Hebrew: “In the beginning God.” The writer tells us that when everything that we know began, God was already present. God is the originator, the source, the wellspring of everything that exists. Whether you accept a seven-day creation or not, Genesis 1 asserts the reality of the God who is. We could say that this is the fundamental tenet of faith – we believe that at the beginning of everything, God was.

This assertion of God’s presence at the beginning is also important, because it sets God as THE central character of the book. You don’t open a book like this and then have Athaliah (a name I randomly picked out of the Bible) as the central character. That doesn’t make sense. The author here asserts not only God’s existence, but also God’s centrality. This is a book about God. It is, of course, a book about people also. But specifically it is about people in relationship with God, or rather (and please forgive my dreadful use of hyphens) God-in-relationship-with-humanity.

We do not learn a great deal about God as God alone in the Bible. Nor do we learn a great deal about people as people alone in this book. What we do learn a lot about is how God and people interact. About their reciprocal relationship. About how God sees and feels about us, how we respond to God, how we are changed through this relationship with God. In all of this, God is central.

Third, we are introduced to God’s central work, God’s main activity: “created”. This is the first and most fundamental thing that God does – God creates. We are not introduced to a God who speaks, judges, pronounces, descends, incarnates or saves. Though these are all important activities of God, and we shall discover all of them as we continue to read, they are not central to the story. What is central is the God who creates. God makes, shapes, forms, calls into being, moulds, invents.

Fourth, we are introduced to a creative and artistic God, who makes things: “the heavens and the earth.” God does not make a Red Velvet Cake or compose a piano sonata. No. God makes everything that we know – the earth, on which we live, and the heavens, which includes everything around us. And on the sixth day, God created us. The whole of the first chapter of Genesis unpacks in some detail what the author means by the ‘heavens and the earth’ so that we are in no doubt that everything that we know comes from the mouth of God.

Great opening words to a great story!

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

What we don’t get so clearly, is God’s motivation for creating. Why did God make the heavens and the earth in the beginning? What prompted such a remarkable decision in the eternal life of the triune, perfectly complete God? Surely God was not lonely or bored? Surely God was not pressured in some way to create? Surely God knew that the creation would not go according to plan? Surely God knew that God’s existence would change after the creation?

The author of Genesis does not give us a full disclosure about God’s motivation, but we are given hints. Here are the three main hints:

  1. “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” (Genesis 1: 26-27). Here we learn something about the people that God created. This was not like the previous days of creation, where God spoke and described and they came into being. There the creation is described in a somewhat impersonal way – God creates things that are unlike God. But on day six, God creates something that is similar to God in some way: people in God’s image, God’s likeness. Here God chooses to make beings that are in some way like God. Let me suggest that God chooses to make beings to whom God can relate – beings with whom God can be in relationship. God cannot relate to the sun and moon and plants of the earth. But God can relate to people. This decision to create us in God’s image speaks to us about God’s desire to be in relationship with humanity.
  2. “The Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2: 7). What is striking about this more detailed description of the sixth day’s creation activity, is that God is no longer just speaking creation into being, as was the case in Genesis 1. Here in Genesis 2 we have a much more tactile, hands-on, earthy description of the creation. God forms the human from the humus,[1] much as a potter might shape a piece of clay into a vessel. The writer does not spell it out, but we are surely invited to imagine God’s hands getting dirtied with the mud, actively and intimately working to shape the earth into an earthling.[2] And if that is not intimate enough, God then breathes into the nostrils of the human to give Adam life. God here imparts something extremely personal and precious to the human. Imagine, if you will, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation – up close and personal. Not only are the first humans shaped to be like God in some way; they are also shaped in a highly tactile, personal and engaged way by God. God desires to invest God’s self in our creation.
  3. “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18). In this last stage of the opening creation story, God looks at the human that has been made, and recognises something lacking in him – he is alone. The creation is perfect, though. God steps back repeatedly and says, “It was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Adam is not flawed in any way. But he is incomplete – he needs a companion, a helper. And so after looking to all the rest of creation, and finding none that is suitable, God creates a partner, taken from Adam’s rib so that they can stand alongside each other – Eve. God recognises that humanity ought not be alone, because God is not alone. God desires that humans should not be alone, that humans should be in relationship not only with God but also with other humans.

What do we learn when we put these three hints together? We learn that God creates, out of God’s own heart, beings who are in various ways like God and who are endowed with God’s special attention and presence. God creates not just an individual, but a partnership between two people. In the Hebrew of Genesis 1: 26-27, there is a definite shift from singular in the first phrases to plural in the last, suggesting that what may have begun as a creation of one quickly turns into a creation of more than one. The narrative from Genesis 2:18, confirms this – Adam created as one, quickly completed with the creation of a second, moving immediately into marriage – a joining of the two into one, reminiscent of the three-in-oneness of God.

All of this leads to the conclusion that God’s intention was to create a community or people-in-relationship that reflected something of the community or relationship within the triune God. God did not create just one human, because God is not just one person. God created people-in-relationship, because God is three-in-one. We are then, most like God, most conforming to the image of God, when we live in relationship with those around us. Because loving relationship is at the heart of God.

Finally, let me briefly come back to God’s motivation for this creation. Although we are not told this, imagine with me that God created people-in-relationship because God wanted to share God’s own satisfying and completing experience of being in relationship. God was not lonely, because God had eternal relationship already. But out of the fullness and joy of that relationship, and the overflowing love experienced within the Godhead, God created people, in relationship like God, to experience and share some of that love. God created out of love, to share God’s love with you.

Meditation for the Day

Imagine all the fullness of relationship and love within the Triune God – so full that it bursts forth in a great creative activity of God’s desire to share this relational love with others. With you.

Prayer for the Day

God of infinite love and generosity, thank you for creating me and for creating my relationships with my family, my friends and my community. Help me to accept that my existence is a result of your overflowing love.

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[1] Alter, R. (2004). The five books of Moses: A translation with commentary. New York: W. W. Norton, p. 21. This is based on Alter’s evocative translation of the Hebrew poetry in Genesis 2:7, ‘adam (human) from the ‘adamah (soil):  “The Lord God fashioned the human, humus from the soil”.

[2] Trible, P. (1978). God and the rhetoric of sexuality. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, p. 78. This is based on Trible’s translation, “Yahweh God formed the earth creature of dust from the earth”. A third translation is from Korsak, M. P. (1998). ‘Et genetrix’. In B. Brenner (Ed.), Genesis: The feminist companion to the Bible (second series, pp. 22-31). Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, p. 27, “YHWH Elohim formed the groundling, soil of the ground”.