Stewards of Life
| Isaiah 65:17-25
||Sun, November 15, 1998
Rev. Ed Searcy
|The poetry is incredible. The poet is outrageous. Imagine: "new heaven, new earth, new Jerusalem". A new heaven and a new earth of rejoicing and of delight. Why? Because in that new world there will be no more infant mortality, no more orphans left stranded ... and no more elders who die too young or continue as a shell while the life is gone. Heaven and earth will rejoice because in God's new world those who build will live to inhabit and those who plant will survive to harvest. No more people being taxed out of their homes, no more rapacious seizure by war, no more the big ones eating the little ones. Heaven and earth will rejoice at the newness wrought by God because there will be no more labouring in vain, no more birthing into anguish, no more raising children in anxiety and fear, because God will make life everywhere available. Heaven and earth will rejoice because in that new world formed by God, God will be attentive. God will be like a mother who hears and answers in the night, knowing before we call who is needed and what is needed. And we shall never be left alone again. It is outrageous. Outrageous because the new world of God is beyond us. It is beyond our world, beyond our imagination. It simply does not seem possible. Is it our fatigue? Is it our self-sufficiency? Is it our cynicism? Yes. All of this - and more - causes us to believe that such promises could not happen here. Not in this world. Not in this time. Such poetry is only outrageous fantasy in the face of the persistent realities of injustice and grief and terror which never seem to have an end ... not in any future we can conjure.(1)
Not only is this poetry outrageous. It is dangerous. That's what the Stewardship Committee must be thinking. Yes, this is dangerous. Dangerous because on a Stewardship Sunday what we don't need is a sermon that says: "Don't worry, God's got everything under control". I can hear them now wondering to themselves how the preacher ever got himself into preaching from this text. Surely he could have found one of a hundred texts on tithing ... or on giving ... or at least on being called to serve. It is the Stewardship Committee that meets here when everyone has gone home and scratches their heads over the lack of enthusiasm that is reflected in the weekly offering. They're the ones who pray that at least on one Sunday of the year the preacher could focus on the hard realities of the dollars and cents that are needed for our congregation to function. And this year, in particular, they wonder what has happened. The financial statements are revealing. It is as if we have had a bout of collective amnesia ... as if many of us assume that someone else is going to shoulder the burden on our behalf. And, of course, it is outrageous. Outrageous to imagine that we can all leave it to someone else. Surely someone has to take responsibility.
Someone has. This is what Isaiah declares. Through him the Holy One's poetic voice sings across the ages: "the wolf and the lamb shall feed together ... they shall not or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord". An outrageous word on a Stewardship Sunday? Yes. The Word of God on a Stewardship Sunday? Yes! Without it we are constantly in great danger ... in great danger of focussing on ourselves and on the church. We too easily reduce 'stewardship' to one Sunday a year. Stewardship becomes a synonym for offering plates and envelopes. More than that, we begin to imagine that the purpose of Stewardship Sunday is to obtain personal commitments to the mission of the church. But Isaiah's poetry imagines something else. Isaiah imagines that it is not the church which has a mission to accomplish ... not the church which is the focus of Stewardship Sunday. Isaiah imagines that it is God who has a mission to accomplish on the earth. Isaiah would have us imagine what on earth God is up to. Isaiah would have us entertain the outrageous notion that beyond ourselves and beyond the church God is up to goodness and healing and shalom in the world. This is hard for us to believe. We live in the modern world ... a world whose very premise is that humans are the masters of the universe. It is up to us. This is the message of the age of reason. See how outrageous Isaiah sounds in such a time?
It is God who is creating new heavens and a new earth. It is God who intends to put an end to terrible memories of former tragedies. It is God who calls the earth to "be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating". It is God who is the owner and master of the universe. And it is God's mission that gets us up on a Sunday morning and causes us to sing for joy. It is not the mission of the church that inspires us with hope. If the world's future was in the hands of the church then there would be cause for despair. But the future is in God's hands. And God intends redemption not destruction. God proposes liberation not oppression. God persists in reconciling, not in dividing. God is determined to save, not to lose, each precious lamb of the flock. This is our story and our song fifty-two Sundays a year ... even on Stewardship Sunday.
Because, you see, we have been made stewards of a precious mystery. We who gather here have fallen in love with the outrageous poetry of Isaiah ... and of the Psalms ... and of Jesus ... and of Revelation ... and more. This great poem of hope, this great song of joy, this Word of God has been given into our care. We have been entrusted with remembering it and speaking it and singing it and living it here and now. Do you understand what this means? In a world which is flooded with so many illusory messages of hope - so many false gospels - we have received good news of great joy. When we gather for worship on Sunday morning it is no ordinary gathering. It is not simply 'going to church'. Placing our offerings in the offering plate is not simply one more obligation to fulfill. Here we share the poetry of God. Here we steward the wonderful mystery ... here we tend and care for God's Word of Life. Without it we would wither and die. Without it we would be lost in despair. With it we rejoice. With it we have reason to hope. With it we have the courage to act.
Do you see what it means to be stewards of the Word of life? You have been called. I have been called. We have been called. We cannot deny it. Don't ask me why you heard the call and others did not. Don't ask me why you responded to the call and others have not. The call of God is a mystery. Something about God's Word of life has called you here and brings you back.
What is it that calls you here? The space? Yes, this wonderful transcendant space. Open to the world. An opening to the sacred. The glass. The wood. The stones. Burning candles. A wooden cross. The silence. The bell. Yes, the space.
What is it that calls you here? The music? Yes, the music. The joyous, haunting music. The sweet harmonies. The blending of voices. The piano. The organ. The flute. The language of the music. The tears that it brings to the surface of our lives. Yes, the music.
What is it that calls you here? The Word? Yes, the Word. The ancient Word, no longer an embarrassment to be explained away, but once again a gift to be received as Wisdom with life giving power. Preaching that surprises, confounds, delights, transforms. Yes, the Word.
What is it that calls you here? The prayers? Yes, the prayers. The prayers of a people offered up in the voices of the people. Simple prayers. Thoughtful prayers. Hungering prayers. Honest prayers. Prayers for others. Prayers for the world. Prayers of need and prayers of gratitude. Yes, the prayers.
What is it that calls you here? The mission? Yes, the mission of God on this campus, in this city and beyond. The challenge of announcing God's good news of great joy in a land of grim self-sufficiency. The delight of sharing God's Word with others who are hungry for the bread of life. The open future that God has in store for this congregation. Yes, the mission.
What is it that calls you here? The people? Yes, the people. Students discovering faith in the springtime of their lives. Elders keeping faith in the winter of their lives. Singles and couples, young and old, bruised by life yet finding here faith in the compassion of God. Children eagerly carrying baskets of food for the poor. People seeking to live the Way of Christ. People committed to caring for one another. People opening up to reach out to orphans half a world away and the homeless half a city away. Yes, the people.
What is it that calls you here? The offering plate? Yes, the offering plate. The offering is not a break in the proceedings. It is not the collecting of dues. It is Christ's call in our lap every week: "Follow me". The offering plate comes as an invitation to participate in the generosity of God. In a culture where we are taught to grasp and hoard in fear of scarcity, the offering plate comes as a blessed opportunity to give trusting in the abundance of God's economy. The signature of an open-handed, open-hearted people is the overflowing offering plate. The offerings proclaim an 'Amen' - sometimes loud, sometimes barely audible - to God's mission in the world. They say 'Yes, we will steward God's Word of Life'. Our offerings affirm our determination to ensure that this message of hope is sung and spoken, prayed and lived ... in this Chapel and on this Campus ... in our homes and offices and neighbourhoods. Our money in the plate is the sign of our decision to participate in the community of stewards as caretakers of the Word. Yes, the offering plate also calls us here.
Who is it who calls you here? The God whose kingdom is dawning? Yes, it is the God of new creation who calls. And this God is not an outrageous dreamer. God's kingdom comes into the world already in the most surprising of locales. God's promised future breaks out into the open right here. It arrives in sacrificial acts of love. It is marked by amazing acts of grace. See the handiwork of God in reconciliation between races. Glimpse the new creation in acts of repentance and forgiveness. "New heavens, new earth, new Jerusalem" ... in our worship and in our work. Yes, it is the God of new creation who calls us here ... who causes us to rejoice ... who entrusts us with the Word of Life. It is God who invites our participation in the renewal of all creation. Some people call us a 'church'. Others say we are 'disciples'. In this era when it is so apparent that the old metaphors of mastery and domination of the earth are death-dealing not lifegiving, let us be known by the world as 'stewards'. Generous stewards of hospitality and care. Wise stewards of hope and compassion. Faithful stewards of God's abundant gifts. Welcome to the community of saints ... the company of stewards.
1. This opening paragraph is based on the opening section of a sermon by Walter Brueggemann entitled "Outrageous God, Season of Decrease" in "The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness" (Fortress Press, 1996), pp. 64-69.