A Steward's Story
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Advent
December 15, 2019
“Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.”
TODAY we call them flight attendants, a term that doesn’t allow for gender specifics. But in the past, they were stewards and stewardesses. On board ship, it was always a steward that served the cabins, caring for the passengers in their needs. In ancient houses of wealthy and powerful men and women, the stewards were elevated servants, trusted servants, who looked after his or her masters’ goods. A steward was given authority to act in the master’s stead, doing for his boss that which the boss would do for himself. This was high honor, an important position, and a heavy responsibility.
We see the stewards in the parables of Christ handling, or mishandling, their master’s treasury. One is given ten talents, and after a long period of the absence of the king, he is called on to account for that treasure. Ten talents would, in today’s economy, be valued at about $4 million. The faithful servant produces $8 million, after wise investing, and is commended for it. Another steward given 2 talents, returns today with 4 talents, about $1.6 million in all. “Well done, good and faithful servant,” exclaims the king. “You have been faithful over a few things, so I will now entrust you with greater things. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” It’s what we all want to hear on the day we are judged by God. “Well done, good and faithful servant.” It might be so, and it’s our dream. It might also be like the other steward in His story.
Let’s call our unworthy steward Jude. Jude is a surly fellow. Look at him now. He sits there with a sour expression on his unhappy face. He can often be found here, sitting, mulling over his gripes and disappointments. Hear him now. He’s mumbling to himself…
“Thinks he put one over on me, does he? Lays a trap for me, does he? I won’t be fooled so easily. I’m onto that trickster. It’s easy for him, isn’t it? Everything he does makes him money. He doesn’t have to work for it, just gives orders, snaps his regal fingers at me and says, ‘Jude, take care of this! Jude, fetch that, there’s a good fellow.’ Oh, yes, Jude is always handy, let him fetch and haul and tow and build your wretched kingdom! Hah!”
Well, you’ve heard enough to get the picture. He’s had his expectations dashed by circumstances. Some of them were not of his making, and he may have some small right to complain about injustices. Who doesn’t? It isn’t whether we face opposition in this life, or suffer wrong, but it’s how we deal with it, how we choose to live in the light of what opposes us that makes us what we are. If we smile at our enemies, and pray for them, blessing them for providing us with stairs to climb, obstacles to be strengthened by, lessons to learn, and reasons—frankly—not to live as they do, we are more than conquerors. If we adopt a bad attitude, then they’ve won, but more importantly, we’ve failed to learn or grow or benefit where real lessons of life are learned. Jude has a bad attitude.
I once had some business on the north coast of Alaska. The oil fields were being built, and thousands of workers were imported to Prudhoe Bay, living in very nice barracks with a cafeteria that would rival a 5-star restaurant. The company didn’t want unhappy workers so they fed them well. Still, it was a pressure cooker for human psychology, as the men saw no sunshine for months on end and lived indoors, as the air outside kept a constant 50 below. I was given a tee-shirt, meant as a joke, with the letters BBBBAC. It was an outlaw underground quasi-organization of men from there, self-titled the Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad Attitude Club. I was only an honorary member. I actually carried out my company’s business faithfully, and I was fascinated by Alaska.
Attitude was the real test for the King’s stewards. The most faithful and able servant was given the most to handle, and as the Lord already knew, he was wise with investments. His treasure made the most in return. But in like proportion, the lesser servant’s treasure was doubled also, and he was equally congratulated. Then there’s Jude.
Attitude may be exactly what we are judged for. I will admit: sometimes my attitude stinks. Look at Jude, and if you can stand it, let’s hear a little more of his thoughts.
“I should have been given ten talents, like that other fool. Look how he brings his prize to the master! Nice puppy, nice dog! I was meant for more than this. Give me something to work with, something worthy of my efforts. But no! you give me just one talent, and you know it’s got to fail. What if I lose that? Eh? To the dungeons for Jude! Just set the goal barely an inch above the gutter, and see if Jude can fail. No way! You don’t work for it, so why should I? What did you ever do for me? You want perfection, don’t you? You’ll judge the slightest failure with wrath and punishment! I won’t fall for that. You’ll get your money back, every dime of it. It’s safe, I didn’t lose a penny of it.”
Even when he’s called to make account, his poisonous thoughts are heard in how he returns the exact amount he was entrusted. The king sees his money simply returned to him, and asks, “What’s this? Just the same as I gave you to be steward over? Why didn’t you use this treasure? Where is my return?”
“Oh, I had you figured out, king,” says Jude. “I know you. You’re so hard to please. Impossible to meet your standards, so why try? You take what you don’t work for, and keep all the profits of hard labor done by honest men like me. Then, when we make a little slip, it’s off to prison for us. No. Here’s your money, safe and sound. You can’t accuse me. I took nothing. I buried it safely and secretly. Now you’ve got it back.”
What do you say to such an attitude? Scripture says of God, “With the merciful thou wilt shew thyself merciful, and with the upright man thou wilt shew thyself upright. With the pure thou wilt shew thyself pure; and with the perverse thou wilt shew thyself shrewd.” 2 Sam 22:26-27 The last verse is tricky: with devious people you will show yourself even more clever, is another way to say it. God is not mocked. He will not be anyone’s fool. There is no room in Jude left for mercy, which would have been shown if Jude simply tried to work his money and failed, honestly, working and being unlucky: never judged by God for trying. This task, however, is thrown back in God’s face. Like a life lived in sullen bitterness, taking every hardship for an insult and in the end, refusing even life as a gift, the honor of being a servant of such a great God.
It’s like a suicide. That horrible word has probably touched all of us, at some distance or far too close. And I do not mean to infer that God judges the suicide as old church doctrine used to say, always a damnable offence. No. But those of us left behind, in the wake of a suicide, it’s the hardest thing to recover from. Here we have a victim who is also the perpetrator. We have a murder victim who was himself the murderer. And in the worst cases, in an attitude like that of Jude, throwing the precious life he’s been given in trust back in God’s face, saying, “There’s what you gave me. I don’t trust you either. Take it back. You cheated me.” Of course, when the suicide meets Jesus, I still pray he finds a sympathetic face. God knows how sick we may become in spirit, and the evil one preys on our hearts and minds. Just the same, Jude is committing a suicide, of a sort, with his boss.
And the King responds accordingly. “You evil and lazy servant! If you believe that I profit from things I don’t work for, then why not invest the money with bankers? I’d at least have received my money back with interest. Take the talent away from him! Give it to the one who has the ten thousand! To all who have, more will be given, and they will have more than enough. But everything is taken from those who won’t have it. Throw this useless servant outside into the darkness. Such people must cry and lament.”
We may feel for poor Jude. He’s like many people we’ve known, perhaps a little like ourselves at times. Life’s unfair. We’re given too much responsibility and not enough authority to do the job adequately. I’ve worked in a place where there’s no accountability for anyone, and my work goes unrewarded while others goof off and make as much as I do, or more. Why does that guy get to drive a Benz? What did he do to earn it? How did he ever get such a good-looking wife? It’s easy for you. You’ve got rich parents. I had to work for everything I’ve got. BBBBAC.
Look. Here’s a talent. It’s worth perhaps $400,000. It’s not enough for you to move into the mountains and live on, but it’s something of value. What can you do with it? The decisions you make will judge you, examine your heart, test your mettle, assign value to your abilities. But more importantly, the whole matter will be a litmus test of your attitude.
What do you really think of God? Is He a beloved Father to you, a gracious Savior, a valiant Friend, a wise Counselor, a vastly rich Benefactor?
Or is He your unfair judge and jury, executioner, who looks for faults and judges them harshly? It’s so easy for Him! Just lifts a finger and everything just happens. Why does He think it should be so easy for me, tell me? I hope that’s not what burdens your soul.
God is high, but He is also very near. God is powerful, but He makes Himself vulnerable to us, to us! He gave us His Son, to brutalize, to reject, to falsely accuse. We’ve done that. It was the plan. He was abused by us, and came out praying, “Father, forgive them!” Can you hear Him? It is to this King that you have been made a Steward, a keeper of the treasure. And your precious life has been entrusted to you, with an eternal spirit, and now His Spirit in you, to bring it back to Him at the end of all things, enriched, enlarged, in many dimensions better than at first, to offer back to Him with gratitude.
Our attitude should be gratitude. Remember that. It’ll get you so much farther than your own sense of justice.
“Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.” 1 Cor 4:1-2 A bishop needs to be a steward, the serving towel, called a maniple, hanging from his left arm. Like the old-time first-class stewards at the front of some planes, asking you, “Would you like a hot towel? We’re about to land.”
We are the stewards of the many graces of God. We have been entrusted with wonderful truths that were hidden once, but are now manifest, shining everywhere. We are about to celebrate a bright season of Christ’s birthday, the wonder of God incarnating as a man to save us all from sin and death. What more could we ask as a Christmas gift? And we are to share that blessing with everyone.
But in order to share it, we need our attitude right. Grateful is what we must be. All hardship, every heartbreak, the world’s most brutal injustices having done their worst: we rise again in the light of a few candles with fervent expectation, with praises on our lips and hope in our hearts, to hear what we’ve longed to hear from Him, beaming down on us: “Well done, good and faithful servants! You have been faithful with small things. Now I entrust to you the vastness of my new Kingdom. Enter into the joy of your Lord!”