I’ve been watching Rings of Power – the prequel drama that draws on a compilation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s unpublished materials set thousands of years before the events of the Lord of the Rings. After his father’s death Christopher Tolkien published these in The Unfinished Tales. The action takes place on Middle Earth during its Second Age – laying out the timeline of events that burst forth in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
There’s a curious national stereotyping in this Amazon Prime presentation. The Harfoot – ancient forebears of the Hobbits have rural Irish accents as befitting the acorns and wheat sheaves in their hair. Contrastingly, the Dwarfs in the Mountain speak with the broad burr of the lowland Scots – somehow betokening their stolid dour industriousness. Of course, the druidic mystical imagery associated with the HIgh Elves requires the lilting cadences of the Welsh. The humans of Middle Earth have accents that range from Standard Received English for the seemingly higher born descending into the broad regional accents of the West Country for the peasant types. I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from this but it’s interesting to note how accents denote cultural associations for us.
In a recent scene the Elf, Elrond speaking with Galadriel recalls his father’s words:
The way of the faithful is committing to pay the price even if the cost cannot be known – trusting that in the end it will be worth it. Though the cost is dear, we have little choice but to keep serving.
Last week I launched the Annual Renewal Campaign for 2022-23. I likened the campaign process to that of a spiritual inventory – inviting us to consider with reawakened eyes the quality and nature of our gratitude for the fruits of God’s generosity in our lives. It’s even more imperative in chaotic and fearful times that by strengthening our connection to a deep and abiding sense of gratitude for all we enjoy as gift from a God whose nature is pure generosity – generosity becomes like living water flowing through us to irrigate a barren and thirsty world.
It’s tempting for all of us to think – well now the rector has done his annual pep talk about money we need say no more about stewardship. But this would be to mistake stewardship only for treasure i.e., for money. Instead, I offer a good working definition of stewardship inspired by St Benedict’s invitation to his monks to exercise a tender competence in the service of all things.
Service is the expression of the faithful trusting that even though we may not see the result or be able to anticipate the cost – the end will be worth it because though the cost is dear our nature as Christian disciples is to keep serving.
Christian stewardship involves the practices of the three Ts’ – time, talent, and treasure. If we confine stewardship to writing checks – although I’m aware that most of us no longer write many checks as a form of payment – we are falling short of the dream that God has for us as agents in the divine work of renewing the creation. We are also shortchanging our deepest desires for ourselves, for those we love, and for our concern for change in the world because as the divine nature cannot stop loving, so we have little choice but to keep serving.
Our community is dependent for the quality of its common life on our willingness to share our time and talent as much as our treasure. In an increasingly frenetic world where we struggle with impossibly overscheduled lives, time is increasingly in short supply. Pressure on our time from competing priorities renders us reluctant to share our gifts, abilities, and passions with one another.
I recently had lunch with Rabbi Sarah from Temple-Beth-El. As we were commiserating with each other over the burdens of faith community leadership in the current context I quipped that we have fewer and fewer people willing to step forward for the traditional ministry roles. In response, the staff is having to do more and more and then the parishioners complain about this. She replied – same with us!
A memory from my first months at St Martin’s resurfaced the other day. I remembered feeling astonished at the human richness and potential of the congregation. I marveled at the levels of skill, sophistication of vision, and curiosity about ideas. While I knew that returning the parish to a more secure financial basis would be challenging, I was deeply encouraged and sustained by the quality of the people I was called to work among. I still am.
Seven-years on we’ve returned to as secure a financial base as the volatility of a changing world allows, yet we’ve continued to watch a steady erosion of our traditional culture of service.
A good example here is – you’ve heard me say before that we are an every-member-community, by which I mean that we cannot afford to carry passengers who make no contribution to building up our common life and work. When you think about something that you would like to see happen, remember that if you are not going to make it happen, then there is no one else available to do so.
Given the world we must contend with – the regrettable fact is that church as the focus for the spiritual journey made in the company of others within a network of social relationships is no longer a central foundation stone in modern lives. In the modern world we are continually scratching the itch we don’t recognize we have. Christian faith communities are the original template of serving communities. In the words of the great reformer and wartime Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple:
The church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.
I think that if asked to pause and reflect more deeply – the thing many of us would say is that we miss the satisfaction of service inspired by gratitude. Gratitude causes generosity – like living waters – to flow through us in service of a parched world.
In a world of conspiracy theories and a constant barrage of contradictory social and political messaging the only safe option for many today is to hide – ignore what’s going on – keep our heads down and get on with our lives as best we can.
The Pauline author of Second Timothy could well have been writing to us in our day and age when he predicted:
The time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away into myths.
That time seems to have already well and truly arrived. What’s to be done?
After diagnosing the malady, the writer of Second Timothy gives us the solution:
As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
Or in Elrond’s father’s words: The way of the faithful is committing to pay the price even if the cost cannot be known – trusting that in the end all will be worth it. Though the cost is dear, we have little choice but to keep serving.
Stewardship has three T’s – time, talent, and treasure. Last week I spoke about treasure as the expression of our gratitude to God for the good things we have been given to enjoy – so that like our creator we may also live lives in which generosity is like living water flowing through us to irrigate a barren and thirsty world.
Today, I’m reminding us that through the other two T’s, time, and talent – we find our gratitude expressed in service. At the ordination of a deacon – a word which means servant – we pray:
Stewardship, tender competence in the service of the world requires us to take to heart the words in second Timothy – to carry out our ministry to the faithfully so that the whole world will see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things that had grown old are being made new.
Ours is to carry out our ministry to the fullest extent possible through lives of faithful committed service – trusting that in the end it will be worth it because though the cost at times may be more than we thought we were signing on for, we have little choice but to keep serving.