By Rita Steadman
Twenty years ago I was part of a discussion group. Our host was a beautiful, even glamorous, woman, who was rich with a rewarding career and family and seemed to have it all. One night, we gathered once again for dinner and discussion, and our host looked unusually tired and a little dazed. She explained that it had been a strange day that just hadn’t gone right.
She’d flown to New York that morning for meetings at a bank for business. Something had slowed her down and she missed her flight to Boston. She was flying there because her son was graduating from university. She’d done her best, racing as fast as she could, slowed here by traffic and there by other circumstances. She arrived too late and raced again to the restaurant where they were celebrating his graduation.
She arrived just as her husband was paying the bill. Lunch was over. The celebration was over. And it was time to head back to the airport to take the shuttle home. She’d come straight home and to the group that was meeting around her dining table. She’d intended to jump right in, making it back in time. But she was distracted. She looked dazed and confused as she told her story. And at the end she said, “I feel like something’s off.”
Her lifestyle was a little larger than life for most of us. And because of that, her busy day seemed almost like a parable or at least a cautionary tale. Like most of us most of the time, she was simply trying to do her best. She was trying to be responsible to different demands. She was trying to do too much. She was trying not to choose and not to disappoint. Trying to move forward. And somehow something became very off. Off-kilter. Off-center. She lost what was important. She missed her son’s graduation.
We too may find that we’re trying to do our best, but end up feeling like we’ve lost our way. At times, we might feel like something is off, that we’re not living the life God intended for us.
Jesus gives us a stark picture today of life a little off. It’s a picture of stewards, tenant farmers, who forget they are stewards. They think they own the vineyard. Their sense of self is way off and they don’t want to hear otherwise. When the owner of the vineyard asks for his share of fruit, they kill the messengers. He sends his son and they kill him. Instead of having hands stained with the sweet dark juice of the fruit that they would press for wine, their hands are stained dark and red with blood. From misunderstanding their identity, not recognizing who they are and whose they are, their hands are dripping with blood.
It’s a larger-than-life picture, vivid and shocking to grab our attention. Jesus holds up a dramatic picture so we can look at our much more mundane circumstances and ask relevant questions: When we consider our lives, do we think we’re in charge? When we make decisions, do we think that they are our decisions alone? Do we think we own our vineyards? Do we see ourselves as kings? Or do we see ourselves as stewards? Do we give God his fruit? Do we acknowledge him as Lord, as the one on whom our life depends? The giver of all good gifts? The Creator of heaven and earth? Who is at the center of our life? Even as religious people, it can still be really hard to surrender our sense of autonomy, of our own authority.
Practicing stewardship is a way to intentionally put God at our center, to correct and heal our sense of self, to acknowledge our relationship with him as stewards of this precious life he has given us. He asks for our first fruits as his stewards, not just what we might or might not have left over. This is true for our resources, both of time and of money.
In this month of stewardship we remember that God gives us all our days and asks that we give time to him regularly in prayer and worship, time with Scripture, time in acts of service. We may find unique ways to pray and times that work with our life’s circumstances and our personality, we may find ways to serve at home or in our community, but our time is not our own. God wants our fruit.
Similarly, all that we have comes from God, and he asks for us to use our financial resources, our money, for his kingdom’s work, for giving tithes and alms to support his church and care for those in need. He asks for his fruit — a portion of all he gives to us. We may ask, “How much? 2 percent, 10 percent, before tax, or after tax?”
The details aren’t as important as the principle — giving to God an intentional portion first that reflects our gratitude and our acknowledgement that all comes from him and that we are his. When we try to practice a stewardship of first fruits, invariably we struggle. It’s hard. The practices of giving God our resources as first fruits pushes us to face fears about the future, fear of not getting things done, fear of failure, fear of not having enough. Stewardship practices push us to trust God and to look for his purposes. They call us to surrender our authority to his.
These stewardship practices also make room for God to move and work within us and within our lives. They lead us toward compassion and mercy. They prepare us for God’s holiness and righteousness working within us. They make room for God to grow the fruits of righteousness within us. This we have no control over, but our stewardship practices prepare the ground.
It is the Spirit’s work, and the Spirit produces the true fruits that God desires within us and from us. These are the same good grapes that he longed for from his people Israel, as we heard this morning in the prophet Isaiah. These are the true fruits that God is looking for when Jesus confronts the scribes and religious elders in this morning’s parable.
When God is at our center, our life becomes a part of God’s will. Our actions become a part of his righteousness and we grow the fruit naturally that he seeks from us. Our practices of stewardship are a concrete way of working for God’s justice in our world. When we give him the first fruits of our time and money, we surrender to his purposes and his fruits of righteousness grow.
When God is at the center of our lives, like a big heavy rock, pulling our life into order with his, working out his good purposes, working all things together for his good, then we can pray with confidence, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” We can proclaim with Paul today, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” We can say with the prophets, the saints, and with Jesus himself: The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone, and it is marvelous in our sight.
It is marvelous in our sight.
The Rev. Marguerite (Rita) Steadman is rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bangor, Maine.