Years ago, when I was growing up in church, we had sermons on tithing, usually when we got to passages in the Bible about bringing tithes and offerings. We had sermons about use of your talents, especially when the pastor preached from the parable of the talents, but also whenever Scriptures about individual gifts and abilities arose. We had sermons about the early church, the calling to be transformative agents of change, about care of the broken and hurting world around us. We had sermons about the natural world — its beauty and our obligations to it. Sometimes we had a sermon about the year of Jubilee — the year when debts were repaid, slaves freed, the land lay fallow, and the earth and its people rested and healed.
Throughout my childhood, in my church, in my home, and at the Mennonite schools I attended, I was taught about our need to be stewards of the earth. I was taught to eat lower on the food chain in order to better care about poverty, to protect the other organisms just as Adam was to tend and care for the garden, to care for my neighbor by preventing environmental degradation. We gardened, we sewed, we went to thrift stores. We brought food to people who have none. We received food from those who had more.
Much of my life and work has been spent on stewardship of the natural world. I am the first to admit that I poorly reflect my own beliefs as I try to live simply in a complex world, to care for the poor in a wealthy area, and to educate the next generation on how to help solve problems that have been hundreds of years in the making. I do not live the earth-careful fantasy that exists in my mind but rather a muddled conglomeration of compromises. Sometimes these compromises wear on my heart.
The church is a place I come to get sorted out, and to bring what I have to the group. About every couple of years I get asked to do a Sunday School presentation on the environment. I am in a church community with people who are working on an array of good things: stopping sex trafficking, promoting sustainable development, regulating fisheries, and educating the next generation. We are trying. But my leadership on environmental issues in my church is less than I wish it was. However, environmental stewardship is a huge part of my professional life. I am an author of an environmental science textbook. I was lead author on a report on poverty and climate change for Christians. I teach on the environment and speak on Christianity, the environment, climate, and poverty.
I see this as part of the good news — the gospel message of Christ lived out. Whenever I read a report of the increased lack of water in arid areas, the loss of species, or the pollution of land in poor areas, I see an opportunity for the body of Christ to bring good news. We are the hands and feet of God. These are our neighbors.
In liturgical churches each topic has a set time in the year when it is mentioned. Topics don’t cross boundaries as easily as in my childhood churches. On Rogation Sunday, you are grateful for crops and trees; on the Blessing of the Pets, you are thankful for farm and companion animals; on Stewardship Sunday, you hear about stewardship. That’s cool. My life is about stewardship, at least I want that to be true. This Sunday at least, I figure, ought to be about what I know matters. Well, it turns out this is a different kind of stewardship than that which is heavy on my mind.
Fourteen years ago, new to a liturgical church, I remember hearing about Stewardship Sunday. "Oh wow!” I thought. “There’s going to be a sermon on care of the creation! Wow!” It wasn’t. It was on giving money and time to the church. Now don’t get me wrong. Giving to the church matters. I’ve been a long time tither and volunteer. I don’t have a problem with that. But it wasn’t what I thought stewardship meant. Giving to the church is only the tiniest sliver of what I think stewardship means. Every time I tell that story, if the listener is from a liturgical church, they laugh. They can see immediately how foolish I was. Stewardship Sunday, it turns out, is widely understood as being about what congregants can give to the church.
We have a wonderful, young priest. A couple of years ago, I told him that story. I told him how much I want to make a difference in the world, and how much I care about the environment. I feel tired, and tapped out. There are so many things I would love to do, I said, and I can’t find more time or energy. But I long for the church — our church — to be leaders in stewardship. Not the stewardship about individuals giving to the church, I meant, but the stewardship of all of us — the body of Christ, caring for the world on behalf of our children, on behalf of our neighbor. I want this, even as I know that my job and other obligations keep me from being much of a leader for this in my congregation. What I want and what I can promise to do, don’t match. I know that, and it pains me.
This year, instead of Stewardship Sunday, it was announced that we would be having a series. I was excited when I heard. I immediately envisioned hearing from the pulpit a call for us to care for the aching marine environment, to enfold and protect forests, to remove pollution from water, and set vigil against those who spew toxins into the air, to be a part of the peaceable kingdom and to protect those most harmed by its degradation. I envisioned a call for the body of Christ to hold in trust this wonderful world and pass it to our children in better condition.
Then I heard the announcement. The three parts, our priest said, were, “Time,” (okay time makes sense), “Talents” (okay, talents makes sense) and (and here I wondered what word for the natural world would start with T), and “Treasure”.
Treasure? Like natural resources? No, no, I realized. Like money. Like giving to the church. It wasn’t, I saw, going to be any different than any other year. My heart clenched. My face fell and I just sat there.
And there it is. The stewardship I see as most important, what I see as the most valuable thing Christians can do in the world today, what I am pouring the better part of my life into does not get into Stewardship Sunday. It doesn’t even get into the expanded three part series.
For a moment, I was tempted to despair. This church that is so central to my life, this place of solace and repentance, this community I love dearly does not speak into the pain I feel in a profession that so desperately calls out for the voice of Christians. Where are you, church? Why am I out here by myself hollering about the beautiful, broken, polluted, natural world on Stewardship Sunday? The world seemed colder and I felt more alone at the end of the service than at the start.
But that is not the end of the story. Somehow at the end of the service I manage to speak to the priest. Somehow I say even a part of this. It is an awkward conversation. He trails off explaining that there isn’t time, the series is only three weeks, you can’t fit everything in . . . he’s still scrambling for some response as I leave, almost in tears. I feel mad. He is left befuddled. I spend the week wondering if the church is relevant in my life. Christ? Yes. The church? I just wonder.
The next Sunday, the first sermon starts. Yes, the priest says, the series will be Time, Talent, and Treasure. But, he continues, a parishioner’s remarks and some other things he has read, have pushed him to acknowledge that this is only a tiny part of what stewardship means. He accurately describes our conversation and his ineffectual response with a tone of regret. He reads a quote from John Westerhoff,
Stewardship is nothing less than a complete life-style, a total accountability and responsibility before God. Stewardship is what we do after we say we believe, that is, after we give our love, loyalty, and trust to God, from whom each and every aspect of our lives comes as a gift. As members of God’s household, we are subject to God’s economy or stewardship, that is, God’s plan to reconcile the whole world and bring creation to its proper end . . .
Further, Westerhoff writes,
Stewardship typically has been turned into a yearly campaign for funds and an attempt to get people to devote their service to the church by teaching in the church school, singing in the choir, being on the vestry, or assisting in the liturgy. A yearly pledge of time, talent, and [treasure], based upon programmatic budgetary needs to run an institution, is a strange understanding of stewardship. (Westerhoff, Building God’s People in a Materialistic Society p.15, 23)
As a result, my priest says, because stewardship matters so much, we will begin a whole year of paying attention to stewardship. This is our calling and we’ll give it the careful thought it deserves. I realize that this had been what I was hoping for. Yes! So instead of a three-week series, we get a stewardship year. Instead of ignoring corporate stewardship, we will give it attention. Over several weeks, our priest unveils a series for the year. We will be looking at stewardship of land, of cities, of our diocese, of youth, of our church, of the nations, of each other, of God. I don’t even know what some of the topics will involve but I am thrilled. This is our year of intention, a year of attention. This coming year I will take off from school and write a book about the environment and my church will have a year of stewardship. It will be the year of Jubilee right here in suburbia, in the conflicted zone, in the place of terrible compromises. I feel great hope.