Today we celebrate the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis turned from his life as a wealthy young man, living in Italy in the early 13th century, to found a monastic order devoted to living simply and prayerfully, and serving the poor. We’ll honor Francis’ memory later at our Blessing of the Animal service, but I’d like to tell you a story about Francis right now.
This is the story of Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. The earliest version was recorded not long after Francis’ death. This version comes from the Taming the Wolf Institute, which teaches conflict resolution.
[Read the story here: http://tamingthewolf.com/saint-francis-and-the-wolf/ ]
… I use that story to introduce or re-introduce a word: stewardship. It’s a word that gets used out there in the world, but we use in the church in some particular ways. In a lot of churches, “stewardship” is kind of a euphemism for asking for money. There are some good reasons for that – it frames the church’s need for financial support from its members in terms of our mindful use of the resources God has given us. But it’s not so good to talk about stewardship as if was only about money, or to use that word to mask our discomfort with talking about money.
When I came here, we had a stewardship committee that ran the annual pledge drive every fall. And right away, they told me, We don’t like that name. We don’t like the way our church is using “stewardship” as if all it means is people’s financial support for the church. People’s giving to the church is tremendously important – more on that in a few weeks! – but it is absolutely not the only thing we mean by “stewardship.” So we renamed the committee – today we have a Finance Committee and a Giving Campaign Committee.
AND we re-introduced the idea of Stewardship to the congregation. Instead of talking about stewardship only in October and November, when we’re asking for people to pledge their financial support, we should talk about stewardship year round. And instead of only talking about stewardship of money, we started talking about stewardship of all kinds of things. Of our members, your time and skill. Of our grounds and buildings. Of our own spirits and energy. And more.
We developed a cycle of Stewardship Seasons: in the fall, starting in October, a season of Stewardship of Resources, when we reflect on how we use our material resources – including, but not limited to, money. This is the season for pledging and budgeting; it’s also a time of giving, for our church and for individuals in the holiday season. Come February, we’ll begin the season of Stewardship of Spirit and Space. And the months of June through September are our season of Stewardship of Time and Talent.
So what do we mean by that word?… Stewardship? Stewardship is the understanding that what we do with what we have, matters. In the Bible, a steward is a high-ranking servant of the household
who manages and oversees things on behalf of the master. Somebody trusted and competent, who can keep things running, meet everyone’s needs, deal with crises. In the second chapter of today’s Epistle, the author of the second letter to the Hebrews points out the authority and power given to human beings… quoting somebody somewhere (I love that – it’s actually Psalm 8)… We are made just a little lower than the angels, and all things on earth are placed under our authority.
And then, before we can get too chuffed about that, the author goes on to hold up Jesus as our model, who calls into the same kind of wise, loving, self-sacrificial authority by naming us as his brothers and sisters. Stewardship has to do with power, authority, control; but it’s a particular way of exercising power and control, shaped by Holy Wisdom, driven by holy longing for the flourishing of humanity and creation, and for the reconciliation and restoration of all.
The word reminds us that we are stewards – caretakers, managers – of gifts and assets that come from God and belong to God, who gives them to us in trust, to use and enjoy. The stewardship mindset reminds me that what I casually think of as “mine,” in my personal life as well as my work as rector of a parish, is really ours, and God’s. I’m blessed and privileged to have a role in what it becomes or how it is used.
I think the story of Francis and the wolf is a good story about stewardship because Francis is balancing needs and resources, and finding a healing and sustainable solution for everyone involved. The people in Gubbio had a problem: a destructive, dangerous, hungry wolf. They had tried using the resources of weaponry, force, and manpower to solve the problem, but that approach had failed. Instead, Francis suggested that they use different resources: their plentiful food, and the resources of community and relationship, to meet the wolf’s needs and change its behavior. It was a fresh approach that took some work to put into place, but the ultimate outcome was much better for everyone than killing the wolf would have been.
If that sounds like a bit of a stretch, maybe it should. I’m trying to stretch our concept of stewardship, our capacity to look at challenges and difficulties as issues of resource use and resource allocation, and to help us think of innovative ways to use our resources to move into fresh and lifegiving ways of being.
So, today, the first Sunday in October, we begin the season of Stewardship of Resources. At the end of the month, on Sunday the 25th, we’ll kick off our Giving Campaign, four weeks in which we are all invited to make a pledge of financial support to the church for next calendar year. Those pledges, taken together, allow your Finance Committee and Vestry to finalize a budget – which is a statement of how we plan to steward the church’s financial resources, in accordance with its needs and its mission.
But these first three weeks of the month we’ll think about stewardship together in a different way, through three weeks of shared reflection on hunger, in our community and beyond.
This Sunday we’ll make our customary first Sunday offering to MOM, Middleton Outreach Ministry. Half of all cash offerings given today, and any checks with MOM on the memo line, will go to MOM’s food pantry, which truly does amazing work addressing hunger in Middleton and far west Madison. And over Coffee Hour, Judy and Sharon will lead folks in packing our Backpack Snack Packs, little bags of kid-friendly food that go home with kids who depend on school food programs, to help prevent hunger on the weekends.
Next Sunday, the 11th, Percy Brown, the Director of Equity and Student Achievement for the Middleton/Cross Plains School System, will be with us to talk about poverty and equity issues in Middleton. On Sunday the 18th, we’ll be invited, as a partner church of the organization Bread for the World, to use the resource of our voices and votes to contact our elected officials to urge budgeting and policies that address the epidemic of child hunger in our nation. And we’ll send out a team of walkers to the Madison-area CROP Walk, to raise awareness and funds for fighting hunger locally and worldwide.
So for these three weeks, our stewardship focus is on how to help support our neighbors who live with need and uncertainty as daily companions – and not just to help meet their needs in the moment, but how to commit our time and voices and resources to building a world – or at least a city – in which no child goes hungry.
And of course today is also our Fall Clean-up Day. We honor St. Francis by blessing our pets later this afternoon; we also honor Francis by tending our grounds. Weeding and pruning, preparing our grounds to sleep for the winter and flourish in the spring. Francis saw God’s grace powerfully present in the natural world and all living things, and felt deeply our kinship, as humans, with all God’s creatures. Pulling a weed, or picking up beer bottles along the road edge, or piling up sticks, might not feel like a profound act of environmental stewardship. But we are living out our mission of creation care in these small acts. We are serving as stewards of this place God has given us. And, as we always do when we get outside and pay attention to the natural world, we rediscover the beauty and integrity of the natural world; we tune in to its patterns and rhythms; and we find fulfillment and delight in working for the health and flourishing of this little garden of God.(And it is ALL a garden of God – even the woods, even the weeds!)
So in this season – in every season, really – we’ll be trying on that idea that one of the things we are called to be, in Christ, is good stewards. Trusted servants who’ve been given authority over certain resources, in our own lives and in our life together as the people of St. Dunstan’s – who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to use those resources well – to keep the household running, meet everyone’s needs, deal with crises, and cultivate peace and well-being among humans, plants, bunnies and birds, and even ravenous wolves.