The past few weeks I have been pursued by a phrase, three simple words: make something beautiful. I worry that it sounds trite or perhaps too playful for serious church-folk. Yet I have been trying to build a practical theology of stewardship that is more spiritual than the budget-based frustration of our tradition but more gracious than the “Bible tells me so” theology of the conservative traditions. There has to be more to stewardship than blind obedience. Jesus didn’t reject the Sabbath itself, just a legalistic observance of the Sabbath that ignores its gift of freedom. Grace says that we don’t have to be generous, but our faith is lacking something when we are not. At the same time, there has to be more to stewardship than the pure practicality of meeting a budget. In most of our scripture stories, in most of Western literature, generosity is something joyful, while miserly and miserable share the same root.
And then I thought about the images we have had about bearing fruit. In the reading from the gospel of John a couple of weeks ago, Jesus described himself as the vine and his followers as the branches and the job of the branch is to bear fruit. I thought about the garden of Eden myth, where God puts the first human in the garden to till and keep it. I remembered a phrase of one of my theology professors, that to be human is to be a “created co-creator.” And I thought about what we can do with what we give. One of the most neglected ideas in talk of stewardship is that money and time can do things; they make things happen. We treat it as a dirty secret. In my career I have been to many council and committee meetings where finally spending money almost felt like a failure, like we were doing something wrong. I once spoke to a contractor who spoke about his dislike for fixing old churches because congregations never want to spend money, so when he shows up because something has gone very wrong, he can almost guarantee he will find other things that have failed, are about to fail or were fixed badly and no one likes to be the bearer of bad news.
Yet we can do amazing things with a little time and generosity. Last Sunday was beautiful. A number of people mentioned to me about how it was a beautiful Sunday, some even saying we should do it every Sunday (perhaps forgetting that the occasion for last Sunday was the death of a member so that is not a sustainable model). What you may have missed is that last Sunday was also a product of time and money. Because of your financial giving, you have a pastor and minister of music in place to orchestrate some of this an event like Sunday. You fund a custodian. Chris was here on Friday morning cleaning up and downstairs. Leading up to Sunday, I know Vicki and Ilona were here a few times setting things up. I know on Friday afternoon other folks came for cleaning and preparation. The choir was here early that Sunday morning to practice, giving a little extra time. This is not even to mention the food which many people prepared, purchasing ingredients that will not register on a financial statement. Together, as a community, we made something beautiful. That is our job and that is what good stewardship can do.
The problem with talking about making something beautiful is getting stuck on that word, “beautiful.” Beauty tends to be subjective, in the eye of the beholder. I may find something quite beautiful that someone else does not. We have different tastes and cultural norms when it comes to things like art or music or poetry. But I also think we have to go a bit deeper than art, music and poetry otherwise we will end up with the same kind of culture wars and divisions that have shaped discussions around worship for the past few decades. Organ music is beautiful but electric guitars are not. Ballet is beautiful but hip-hop is too common. Hymnals are beautiful but video screens are ugly. We will get caught in the weeds of preference and miss the deeper meaning and purpose of beauty.
As I define it, in the context of Christian stewardship, beauty is that which points us to the true meaning of Beauty (Beauty with a capital B), namely God. God is the source of all things beautiful. God is beauty beyond beauty. And we live in a world where many voices try to convince us that what is ugly is beautiful, that what is destructive is beautiful, that what is hateful is beautiful. We live in a world that looks for beauty in gold-plated bathrooms, that finds beauty in violent rage and well-placed insults, that finds beauty and purity in the clear lines of division.
Our call to stewardship is a calling to make something beautiful, something that reminds the world of the true nature of beauty. Love is beautiful. Community is beautiful. Peace is beautiful. Creation is beautiful. Kindness is beautiful. Shalom, that Hebrew concept of being whole and complete, is beautiful. These things are beautiful because they reflect who God is, what God seems to want, what God hopes for humanity.
But there is another aspect of beauty that we need to embrace as the church: with the exception of God, beauty is a moment and not a constant. One the great Christian mystics described our experience of God as though looking at God behind a cloud of unknowing. We never see God clearly, but now and again, if we pay attention, the cloud breaks and we glimpse the beauty of the divine. We experience temporary moments of beauty in this life. Last Sunday, we had a glimpse of the beautiful as we gathered together. People walked away with a sense that something special had happened. It was a beautiful moment, but only a moment.
This is true in our own lives, in the passing seasons, in the growth of children. The daffodils bloom and then wither. The moon waxes and wanes, beautiful but never the same. The cute child becomes the awkward teen.
Yet as the church we act as though beauty should be codified and canonized, our buildings permanent fixtures, our memorials eternal tributes. Much of our stewardship goes into preservation, keeping things as they are or renewing what they were. So much so that we often end up pointing to ourselves rather than pointing beyond ourselves. Now don’t freak out because I am not making some kind of prophetic proclamation. We are not meant to be here forever. Organizations are mortal just as people are mortal. Again, I am not putting a timeline on that, just saying that we are temporary. We are not meant to be here forever, but we are meant to be beautiful while we are here. If all we are doing is maintaining what we have we are not doing our job. We are missing out on this glorious calling to make something beautiful.
And I know some of you will still hear this and say, “But I’m not an artist. I’m not a musician. I’m not a creative person.” Remember this is not primarily about making artwork but rather beautiful acts of lovingkindness, beautiful gatherings of loving community, beautiful gifts of sharing and welcoming and honoring others. Make a beautiful moment.
So here is my challenge to you. Using the gifts you have, the talents, the money, the possessions you have, how can you make something beautiful? Take that home and think about it. And then join me in discussion as we think about how we can make something beautiful together. How can we show the beauty that is God? How can we poke through the cloud and let others glimpse God at work. How can we be good stewards and make something beautiful?