Genesis 41:25-49; Psalm 24:1-6; Luke 12:32-40
Think about all the keys you have – car keys, house key, keys to your safe, your toolbox. Having a key gives you access, it indicates ownership. Or at least that someone has entrusted you with access to this thing of value. If I’ve got a car key, the car must be mine. House key? The house is mine.
In this part of the story about Joseph in Genesis, we see that this former underdog, former slave, former prisoner, has essentially been given the keys to the kingdom. He was able to correctly interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and understand the message that after seven years of bountiful harvests, the land would suffer seven years of drought and famine.
With this information, Joseph offers to steward the country’s harvests in order to save enough for the drought. Pharaoh puts him in charge, gives him all the keys to their storehouses which become full under Joseph’s guidance. And when the lean years befall them, they have just enough to get them through.
Do you know what the word “steward” means? It means the “sty warden” - the keeper of the pig sty! The person in charge of the animals and the silos and the granaries was entrusted with carefully overseeing the operations of the farm. And that person was ultimately answerable to the owner of the estate. The steward knows that what has been entrusted to him is not a gift – he cannot just do with the pigs and crops whatever he wants. It all belongs to the owner to whom he is accountable.
Joseph models for us what it means to be a good steward. He knew that the harvests he was overseeing were not his to do with whatever he wished. It all belongs to God, and God holds him accountable for how he manages what has been entrusted to him.
Now Joseph could have used the knowledge he had to save his own skin. He could have tried to fool Pharaoh and used his gift and knowledge for his own personal gain. He could have rationalized feathering his own nest by saying something like, “Hey, God gave me these gifts of interpreting dreams and excellent management and leadership skills. I can do with them whatever I want. They’re mine.”
But Joseph knows that’s simply not true. His talents are not a gift for him to do with whatever he wants. They are temporarily entrusted to him, but ultimately all that he has – his skills, his talents, his newfound leadership position – it all belongs to God.
This is an important fact for us to realize when it comes to our own stewardship. I recently heard a presentation by Chick Lane who spoke to the pastors of our synod about stewardship and leadership. He said something that really took me by surprise: God doesn’t give gifts. Giving a gift is a transfer of ownership. If I give you a five-dollar bill and say it is a gift, then you will understandably reason that you can do with it whatever you want.
But that’s now how it works with God. Whatever you have, it all still belongs to God. God owns this money. God owns your house, your skills, your job, your car. God owns the land, the water, the air, the entire earth, as the Psalmist says: “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). You are merely the steward of what has been entrusted to you for a short time. And you are answerable for what you do with it. You are accountable to the owner.
Now we can use what we have to benefit only ourselves or our immediate families. We can use our talents and skills and jobs and money for our own personal gain. And we can rationalize feathering our own nests by saying something like, “Hey, God gave me these gifts of the labor of my hands, and the sweat of my brow, and the skills and talents I have. I can do with them whatever I want. They’re mine.” We can rationalize polluting and stripping God’s Creation, filling the atmosphere with carbon-dioxide from our fossil fuels, and destroying the natural habitats of God’s creatures. We can say, “Hey, the Bible says God gave us all of this. We can do whatever we want to them. They belong to us.”
But as Christians, we know that’s simply not true. Our talents and skills and paychecks and the Creation around us are not a gift from God for us to do with whatever we want. They are temporarily entrusted to us. Ultimately all that we have – it all belongs to God.
Jesus understood that as well. We heard these oft-quoted words of Jesus in our reading from Luke: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Notice he didn’t say, where your heart is, your treasure will be also. It’s where your treasure is that determines your heart. Because your money has the ability to take our heart along with it.
Just look at where you spend most of your money (or where most of your debt is owed). Whatever gets the bulk of your funds is what you value the most. For some, their hearts belong to their house, because that’s what gets the most of their funds. For others, it’s their education. And sometimes our hearts go to things that are not quite so positive. Like casinos. Or some other addiction that takes your heart and your money.
We can rationalize where our money goes, justifying our spending by insisting that it’s our money and we can do with it what we want. But here’s the thing: if you want your heart to get closer to Jesus, closer to God, then put your money there. That’s what Joseph did. All that he did was with the understanding that God is the one who entrusted him this life he was living, his dreams, his gift of interpretation, and his leadership skills. And the more he gave to God, the more God moved him into positions where he was entrusted with greater and greater responsibilities.
Like Joseph, you have also been given an important role by God. You have been given great responsibilities. God thinks so highly of you that God has chosen to entrust some of what God owns into your care. So how will you steward this trust?
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, had this instruction for how to steward money:
Gain all you can without hurting others.
Save all you can without hurting others.
Give all you can without hurting others.
In other words, it’s not at all bad to earn income from a job, or from investments – as long as that job or those investments do not hurt other people or the Creation of God’s earth.
And, like Joseph, save all you can without depriving yourself or your family or your church of what’s needed to live in the present time. For example, it’s good to save for retirement and to put aside money for an item or a trip that you are looking forward to. But do not hold back so much that it impinges on your ability to be generous with your church or with people in need today.
And, as Joseph did, give all you can. Next week we’ll come to the end of the story of Joseph when his brothers come to him from their famine-inflicted land of Canaan, desperate for food. Joseph could have withheld the resources in his control, and his heart would have followed. He could have withheld any food from them as punishment for what they did to him so many years ago. His heart would have gone to revenge. But he recognized that even the bad things that happened to him were up to him to steward in a way that served God. The same goes for us – even when you suffer betrayal, loss or any negative thing – it’s up to us to steward even the bad things that happen to us in a way that honors God. With Joseph, he gave freely to his brothers, and his heart followed. Yes, he struggled with testing them. But in the end, rather than have resentment in his heart, he let forgiveness rule his heart.
On Tuesday the ELCA Director of Stewardship, Keith Mundy, visited our congregation and spoke to our council and some members who joined us for the meeting. He shared with us much thought-provoking information which you’ll be hearing more about in the coming weeks and months. But one set of questions he asked really struck me as being pertinent to this story about Joseph:
“Don’t just ask, ‘How are we stewards of money?’ Ask: How are we stewards of our careers? Our education? Our retirement? How are we stewards of our relationships in this congregation?” In what ways are you and your spouse and your children trying to grow in your giving based on how God has blessed you? If the biblical standard is to return a tithe to God – meaning to give 10% of what has been entrusted to you back to the church or some other charitable organization that serves those in need – then how can we tithe our jobs? Our schooling? Our time in retirement? How can we tithe what we do in this congregation so that it goes outside of our four walls?
These are questions that I hope will start a conversation in our church. I hope that Joseph’s story will not end when you walk out to the parking lot today. I hope this question about stewardship walks with you out to your car and nudges you when you go to work. I hope the question sits next to you at the kitchen table when you are writing your checks for the month. I hope the question sidles up to you when you are filling in the white spaces of your calendar.
I know for a fact that you’ve let the question stand next to you in the grocery store and as you stood looking at your kitchen pantry. Because look at all we have gathered into the storehouses today with Souper Bowl Sunday! Not only did virtually every one of you give a portion from your storehouse, but nine of you gave a portion of your time yesterday morning, braving the sub-freezing temperatures to go through West Milton and collect the food bags that the community put out for us to bring here today. Like Joseph directing the workers, Annette and Mike and the Social Ministry Committee have been leading the charge to gather in food that will be needed by those who are experiencing their own famines, right in their own households.
|Ellen McCormick and The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade in face paint for Souper Bowl Sunday 2015.|
|Members of United in Christ Lutheran Church collected over 500 food items for food banks and $130 for a local community meal program as part of the 2015 Souper Bowl of Caring|
You see, God has already given us the vision of plenty. We have followed that vision, heeding God’s word. We stewarded ourselves and our finances and our time and our talents in a way that have resulted in having just enough – not just for ourselves, but with our community. We know it all belongs to God, and we can trust God to make sure that our needs are met when we align ourselves with the values of generosity and gratitude modeled for us by Joseph and, generations later, by Jesus.
God has given me a lot of keys. I’m praying that God gives me the most important key of all – the one that unlocks my mind from fear to let in trust. The key that unlocks my heart from self-centeredness to be open to generosity. In the end, I know that all these keys - which represent all that I am and everything I temporarily own – it all belongs to God. I give thanks for these keys. And I give thanks that God is right now fashioning a key of faith just for you and for me. Amen.