Stewardship.  A sermon by by Rev. David M Bryce

Summary: This is our religious community; it is our spiritual home.  In it we find hope and comfort for ourselves, and we give hope and comfort to others.  Today we celebrate the community we are and have.   

There are three terms I want to tease out from each other today that reflect our attitudes towards giving to congregations.  These are Consumerism, Membership and Stewardship.

Consumerism is when someone asks the question, “What is this worth to me?”  That is exemplified by the woman who approached me at coffee hours some years ago and asked, “What can you do for me?”

Some ministers become quite exercised about this topic because they feel that consumerism has no place in our congregational life.  After all, our congregations are not corporations; they are not stores; they are religious communities where we are or are supposed to be in covenantal relationship with one another. 

For me, consumerism is a perfectly valid stance, especially for visitors and newcomers.  And I have been there myself.  I have gone to new congregations and I want to know when I go someplace new that you have what I seek.  In looking for a religious community we want to know that we will find things there that we are comfortable with.  That may be theological compatibility, it may be spiritual deepening, it may be moving sermons, it may be a community of support and comfort.  Whatever it is, visitors especially have a right to ask about those kinds of things.  We are not stuck with the religious community that happens to be closest to us.

Consumers will pay what they think something is worth: What does this do for me, what does it provide to my family;  it is worth x number of dollars to me so that is what I will give—or I will give the portion of that which I can afford.  That is perfectly valid.  And the truth is that some people who attend religious congregations are always gong to be consumers.  And that is fine. 

Then there is Membership, which brings with it a sense of belonging and ownership.  This place is mine, I am part of it and I like it and I want it to thrive. 

It is important to me and maybe to my family because of what it is and has done for us; or because of what I believe it will do in the future.

Membership is a much stronger commitment than consumerism.  It includes a sense of connection within the heart, and that is powerful.

But that is also a time limited commitment, that is, I am part of it now, I like it now, I want it to thrive now and in the near future.

Stewardship is something rather different. 

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a great evangelist of the late 1800’s, said the following in an address to Ministers and Students, “To come to the main point: a steward is a trustee of his master’s goods. Whatever he has, belongs to his master; and choice things are put into his custody, not that he may do as he likes with them, but that he may take care of them. The Lord has entrusted to each one of us certain talents, and these are not our own. Gifts of knowledge, and thought, and speech, and influence, are not ours to glory in, but ours in trust for the Lord alone. It is His pound that gains five pounds.”

A steward is someone appointed to care for the belongings of another.

For example, when Genie and I first wrote up our will my brother was named as guardian of our daughter until such time as she turned 21.  His responsibility would have been to care for her and her finances, to provide her with food, clothing and education, but also to watch over any estate, any money we might have left her so that she would be well in the future.  It would not be his money, it would be her money which he was caring for.  If he tended it well, it might grow over the time he cared for it.

If we are named someone’s health care proxy we are being asked to care for them in a different way, to make decisions for them that they would wish to make if they were able to.  Not the decisions we would make for ourselves, and not the decisions we would make for them, but the decisions they would make for themselves if they were able to.

Stewardship is not ownership; it is caretaking for someone else.  And so it is a sacred obligation.

We are free to expend our own belongings in frivolous ways, we are not free to do so if we are stewards of someone else’s property or belongings.

In New York State there is a Religious Corporations law and it has sections for almost any religious tradition you can think of.  Under the section about Unitarian Universalist congregations, there is a stipulation that if any UU congregation decides to dissolve itself, a representative of the Unitarian Universalist Association must be invited to attend the of dissolution.  That is because New York State recognizes that a congregation is not of itself alone, that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

We are stewards of this congregation.  Legally we are the owners, but morally and ethically we do not own it, we hold it in trust for the generations of the past who created and nurtured it over the years, and for future generations, for those people who will be here in the years to come.

We also hold it in trust for other Unitarian Universalists throughout the world.  We hold the name and should honor it so that we maintain its good name for them.  Because they will be judged in part by who we are and what we do.

We hold this congregation and the name Unitarian Universalist in trust for Unitarian Universalism in general and it is our responsibility to tend it and care for it as we would want others to care for it in our name.

I am going to talk about some of the programs here.  Some ministers do not like to do that as it tends to encourage consumerism; paying what we think is the value of the goods and services we receive.  That denies the cornerstone of Unitarian Universalism which is that we are in covenant with one another, that this congregation is a shared responsibility, that it is our responsibility—your responsibility–to be providers of those same goods and services.

Still, I will mention some not to encourage consumerism, but to point to the value of what we do even if you yourself never are part of one of these programs:

Religious education programs for children and youth that build character and wonder and responsibility.

Adult education programs which strengthen our knowledge of religion and ourselves.

Support programs like Small Group Ministry, Living With Serious Illness, the Job Support Group, Caring For Older Adults and others which bring us into deeper relationship with others.

Our tradition of individual freedom in religion where my path belongs to me, where I am free to explore my faith beliefs within the fold of our religious tradition.  We have no creed; no one can tell me what I must believe about God, whether or not God exists, or the universe or human nature.

Paradoxically, while our trust in individualism is strong, we also hold to the strength of community, and we this especially in the actions of this community. 

Stewardship recognizes that the true owners of this congregation are those who preceded us in it, those who will follow us in it, and that also it is owned by the mission of this congregation.

Stewardship includes giving of time, talent and treasure.  Time including offering to share our talents by working on committees or programs. 

Treasure is our money.

I quote from the Stewardship Chair of this congregation: “how we choose to use our money is a very spiritual matter indeed, and says a lot about what we value — for where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also.”

Stewardship is about caring for this congregation and the values it represents.  It is about tending to it in ways that seek to ensure it is passed on to better than it was when we received it; healthier, stronger, fuller. 

Let us be good stewards of this place, this house, this community.