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Sermon – February 27, 2010 – “Stewards of Mysteries”

Sermon for February 27, 2011    The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg
Stewards of Mysteries

Isaiah 49: 8-16a, 1 Corinthians 4: 1-5,    Matthew 6: 24-34
This should be a memory verse, a verse printed on posters, a verse printed on the bookmarks people put in their Bibles: ! Corinthians 4: 3b. The whole verse reads “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself.” The bit of that to be designated by verse “3b” is this: “I do not even judge myself.” Its counterpart comes in verse 4b, which reads “It is the Lord who judges me.”
Wouldn’t it be great if every believer honestly could say, “I do not even judge myself”? Wouldn’t it be great if every follower of Jesus Christ could regard the criticisms and deprecations of others with the relative unconcern Paul professes in this passage? It is relative unconcern– he says “It is a very little thing”–that’s not nothing. Paul’s pride is wounded, no doubt, his feelings are hurt, he feels slightly threatened. But while it is not nothing, it is a very little thing. He remembers who he is, and who God is, and how this works. He is judged, when all is said and done, not by his fellow mortals or even by himself. Judgment, when it is pronounced, will be from God.
There are lots of things in the New Testament, many said by Jesus but some said by Paul, like this one, which seem to make life too easy. Anyone who has suffered the insecurities of growing up or the anxiety of being in a position of responsibility during a controversy can see the merit in deferring to God for judgment, and not succumbing to being wracked by guilt or confounded by second-guessing. Throughout our lives we are conscious of the fact that it is the practice of some people to belittle other people to make themselves feel better, and a hardy indifference to such carping, if it could be cultivated, would secure oneʼs peace of mind.
I think this teaching has much in common with Jesusʼ sayings from the Sermon on the Mount about taking no thought for the morrow and letting the dayʼs own trouble be sufficient for the day. Jesus doesnʼt mean you canʼt lay in your groceries for the next nightʼs supper or check your appointment book–he takes it for granted that it is a necessary part of daily living to use a little foresight and be conscious of whatʼs going on. What heʼs saying is donʼt invest more than is necessary in such preparations, and donʼt be focused forward so much that you arenʼt enjoying the present. What heʼs certainly saying is donʼt approach life as though you were in control of it to the extent that you miss Godʼs presence, and forget to whom it is that you owe thanks for blessings. And Jesus simply is right about the futility of worry.
Paul similarly isnʼt saying not to have a conscience, which is a kind of built-in process of self-judgment. Paul isnʼt saying not to use good judgment in making choices about what to do and how to do it. Paul is saying, donʼt presume to decide whether you are worthwhile or not, or good enough to deserve life, or things like that. Donʼt condemn yourself. Itʼs not your place to do it. By the same token neither is it your place to decide that youʼre perfectly all right with God. Paul says heʼs not aware that heʼs done anything very bad but thatʼs no proof that he hasnʼt. God may have a different take, and Godʼs got a right to that different take. Paul is staying out of it, and the beauty of that is that it liberates Paul from focusing on himself.
See, that commonsense spiritual advice “Donʼt think too much of yourself” is true in two senses. Itʼs true in the sense that you shouldnʼt have a big head and think youʼre so great. Itʼs also true that you and the world will be better off if you spend as little time as possible thinking about yourself. When people admire other people for being “selfless” they arenʼt saying that thereʼs nothing there in the core of that person which constitutes a self- – selfless people always have very distinct personalities– what they are saying is that the person isnʼt hung up on himself or herself. The person is using his or her energies on other things, like caring about other people.
Being outward directed and primarily interested in othersʼ well-being is such a large part of spiritual health that you almost can diagnose mental or emotional illness by the degree to which a person is fixed on self. When a personʼs life is all about him or all about her, thatʼs not healthy.
Paul has a model which explains why he has abandoned self-judgment. it is that he is now acting on behalf of a superior whose place it is to pronounce judgment. Paul consciously is doing his best to serve God by offering Godʼs benefits to the world. In our culture people sometimes equate evangelism with salesmanship, because we are a huckstering nation. Paul, however, has an older model. It is that of stewardship, of the trusted employee whose loyalty is to the Master, and whose province is responsible management of some part of what belongs to the Master.
I want to talk a little bit about stewardship because itʼs an important part of Paulʼs refusal to get too involved in self-judgment. We donʼt have too many stewards in our society, especially with the eclipse of unions, which at least have people named shop stewards. You can still find stewards if you go far enough the other direction, to a fancy enough restaurant that it has a wine steward.
I did that exactly once, so itʼs not too familiar a kind of steward, either, but the concept isnʼt too hard. The wine steward– or sommelier, to use the fancy French title, has a little of the aristocratic bearing that goes with a fancy title. Heʼs dressed better than the rest of the wait staff, and he combines a generous portion of self-confidence with a keen desire to steer you in the direction of the beverage which best will enhance your experience. He has his learning, his credentials, and his own refined sensibilities. He knows his wine cellar well. He has trained and prepared for this, out of love for wine and out of love for sharing what is wonderful in wine with others. He might like the fancy clothes and title, too, but those arenʼt enough to justify accepting the life. He is in it because he is fulfilled in administering the mysteries of fermented grapes to patrons seeking a wonderful experience.
Paul of course has something better than wine to offer to others, but he, who would have known about wine stewards–they are mentioned in the gospels so itʼs an old trade–is in somewhat the same relationship to God as the steward would be to master of the feast or, in our day, owner of the restaurant. He has studied and worked and done his best to understand what there is to provide for othersʼ benefit, and he consciously strives to be responsible to his craft and to his master, and thatʼs the best he can do. If he really fails in some meaningful way it will be his master heʼs failed, and it will be up to that person to say that he has failed. Until that happens heʼll continue to do the best he can do, because it is not about him. Itʼs a life of service–service both to a body of knowledge and to anyone at all whom he is able to serve with that body of knowledge. Itʼs also a life of devotion, involving a passion for something mysterious and wonderful, and serving that and sharing that passion with anyone else open to experiencing what is mysterious and wonderful in it.
So with regard to the familiar verse that nobody can serve two masters, instead of anguishing with you about our attachment to our wealth, Iʼll point out how it reinforces Paulʼs understanding of his life. He has a master, and it is not himself. The masterʼs place is to pronounce judgment, and since he is not the master, he doesnʼt pronounce it. He has been entrusted with some part of what is the masterʼs– the mysteries of Godʼs love for the world- – and he does his best to see that the world is provided with the mysteries of Godʼs love.
Godʼs love is mysterious. It is not something we comprehend, no matter what comparisons to human love we make. Todayʼs passage from Isaiah offers an unusual image of what Godʼs love is like. God loves so much that God writes the name of those God loves on the palm of Godʼs hand. Not only is that interesting as an insight into the primacy of writing in the cultural imagination of Israel, but it sounds like something right out of junior high. Isnʼt it in seventh or eighth grade that kids who are smitten with the wonderful qualities of people on whom they develop a crush write their names in the margins of notebook pages and scrawl them on books or walls, and write them on themselves? Isnʼt it an image right out of adolescent enthusiasm to see a young soul cherishing the secret of a sudden and profound love by gazing into his or her palm and reading the name there? As much as we discount puppy love, it is whole hearted, and it is sincere. Sometime when you are thinking about the love of God, if this isnʼt already the way you conceive it, think of it in these terms. God loves you like one who writes your name on the palm of a hand.
The good news of the gospel is that this is who pronounces judgment on us. Until that happens, when Godʼs grace and goodness and unfathomable affection for us becomes our hope, we must do the best we can with what we have been provided, and focus our energy not on how we measure up, but what it is that God shares with us to share with others.

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