Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. – 1 Corinthans 4:1-7
Hanna sat on the end of her bed… praying. It was just after nine o’clock in the evening and the eighty-year old was slowly working her way through the list she held in her hand. She had already prayed for her extended family (they didn’t need to be written on a list), and now she was lifting up the names of others she knew needed God’s care: church members, acquaintances, the young woman she had seen at the grocery store struggling with the three toddlers she had in tow, the homeless man who occupied the corner near the center of town. It was her evening ritual and sometimes, after a long day, she would fall asleep before she finished. She expected that God understood, but she always made sure to complete the list when she rose in the morning. That is, after she finished her devotions.
Hanna was a steward of God’s mysteries.
During a day bookended by her morning and evening rituals, Hanna remained as active as she could given the realities of her age. She visited a couple of her older friends who were homebound. She attended a bible study at the church. She took care of her great-grandchildren. Hanna did her best to be caring to those she met day by day. Occasionally, she would pause to add someone to the prayer list she carried in her pocketbook.
Hanna was a servant of Jesus Christ.
Day in and day out, Hanna tried to live her life in the Way of Jesus. Nothing flashy. Nothing pushy. Just a quiet, wise humility and a heart for those she encountered day by day. She trusted that Christ went with her and placed her hope and confidence in the promise of God’s grace.
At Hanna’s funeral, the community gathered told story after story of her ministry, of the ways she touched their lives and how she witnessed to her faith through her compassionate way of being in the world.
Christian stewardship is born in the cradle of the life of faith. People from other faith traditions, and those with no particular faith understand the importance of care of self, care of the world, generosity and service. These things are not unique to Christianity. But for those who follow in the Way of Jesus Christ, our understanding of stewardship grows out of our understanding of who God is and what God has done for us and the world in and through Jesus Christ. As stewards of God’s mysteries, we become stewards of God’s creation. As servants of Christ, we become servants to one another: to family and friends, neighbors and strangers.
Christian stewardship begins at the foot of the cross of Christ. Through the cross and resurrection of Christ, God demonstrated God’s great love for us and for the whole world. As Paul teaches in Romans 6, through the cross we are joined to Christ’s death and resurrection and given new life and hope and possibility. Through the cross we are liberated from sin, death and evil so that we might live for others as servants and ministers of reconciliation, justice and love.
Jesus taught his disciples to “take up the cross” and follow him. Stewards of the mysteries walk alongside the suffering and sorrowful of the world. Through a life of prayer, we not only lift up the needs of those who are hurting and struggling, but we explore our own brokenness and need for God’s love and grace in our lives. Prayer begins with listening for God’s still small voice of forgiveness and mercy in the midst of the storms that blow around us and within us. The more we come to terms with our own need for forgiveness and mercy, the more our hearts are opened to be compassionate to those around us. The more we come to understand how we were reconciled to God in Christ, the more we are driven to work for reconciliation in the world around us. Hanna came to understand this through years of practice sitting on the edge of her bed at the end of the day, as she gathered with her brothers and sisters for worship and the study of scripture, and looked for opportunities to serve those around her. For Hanna, it wasn’t just about praying through a list. It was opening herself up to the power and possibility of the cross of Christ.
This practice of stewarding of God’s mysteries and living as a servant of Christ day by day was traditionally called a person’s “piety.” Piety was about practicing one’s faith through prayer, the study of scripture, worship, service and almsgiving. Unfortunately, over time, piety has come to be associated with self-righteousness, judgmentalism and hypocrisy among Christians who regard themselves as better than others who are not similarly “pious.” Pious people were stereotyped as boring kill-joys who lived stiff lives shackled by oppressive rules that took all the fun out of life. Who would want to live like that? I certainly wouldn’t!
But, piety – the practice of our faith — is not meant to shackle us. Instead, the practice of piety opens us to the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit and draws us deeper into the love and grace of God who frees us to be the human beings God intended us to be. Piety did not limit Hanna’s life, but gave her life a depth and richness that was seen and experienced by the people whose lives she touched. Her relationship with God shaped and molded her relationships with everyone else.
These days, I sense a lot of people across the age spectrum yearning for a deeper and more meaningful “spiritual” life. I see this not only in people outside the community of faith but also from those who are a part of Christian congregations. I would say that this is not just a yearning for some vague spirituality, but for a fuller relationship with God and with one another.
I recently spoke with a teenager who asked me if I had ever read the Bible. I told her that I had, and she confessed that she had tried, but had not gotten very far in her attempt. No wonder. She tried to read it starting on the first page, without anyone to guide her. She didn’t realize that this book is actually a collection of writings written by people who, like her, were trying to articulate and understand and explore their own relationships with God. I have always found that starting with Genesis usually doesn’t work. I suggested that it might work better if she started with a Gospel story like Mark or Luke. I encouraged her to find someone who already knew the stories to read with her.
The stories of faith lead us to a deeper knowledge of God and God’s love for us, and that in turn opens us up to prayer and worship, which are the language of faith. The stories of faith, our prayers and our worship inevitably drive us out into our daily lives to live for others. As we come to realize that every breath is a gift, that every moment is an opportunity and that we are loved by God in spite of our limits, shortcomings and failures…we are moved to share the care and compassion we have experienced with others. We discover that life is not just about us. When we begin to reach out in love to our neighbors (and, even more, to our enemies) motivated by God’s love for us, a funny thing happens: we begin to see God in the face of the other. We come to grow even deeper in our relationship with God as we serve those who, like us, are loved by God and who, like us, are created to reflect that love in the world.
We become servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.
Like Hanna, we become stewards of faith. We become stewards of all that God has placed in our hands, not for our sake, but for the sake of one another and the world God loves.
Since 2011, the Rev. Michael Girlinghouse has served as Bishop of the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Prior to the call to serve as Bishop, he served in parish and campus ministries in Oklahoma, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.