SCRIPTURE LESSON: Ephesians 4:25-5:2

What comes to mind when you hear the word “stewardship”? If you’re like most church folks, you think of the holy trinity of “time, talent, and treasure.” The resources you share with the church so that it can make a difference near and far.

Stewardship invites us to see everything in our lives as gifts to be shared. So my question for us this morning is this: how might we regard our experiences and emotions as resources we are called to steward?

In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul doesn’t use the word “stewardship,” but that’s what I hear him addressing. Use who you are, what you do, and even what you feel to give glory to God, to bring blessing to others, to advance God’s mission of love and justice in the world.

Invest whatever you have, I hear Paul saying. Don’t waste a single effort, a single rush of emotion, a single thought on something that goes nowhere—or worse, on something that could possibly cause injury to another, to others, or even to our community as a whole.

A few weeks ago in worship I gave you homework. Send me an email or make a phone call to let me know what in this world grieves you, what causes you to ache, what—when you look out upon the hurts and hardships that abound—really gets to you, calls you to care, prompts you to take action?

Noticing and naming this ache, this grief, this sense is the first step in a different kind of stewardship. We take what we “own,” that is, this ache, this grief, this sense—and we offer it to God that God might use it to the good. In this case, it’s the compassion we feel toward those experiencing certain realities or the ire that rises in us at injustices that plague some but not others.

“I need to do something with this,” we say first to ourselves and then to the Holy One. “This issue, this reality, this situation unsettles me. Take what I’m feeling, God, and help me make something useful from it, something life-giving, something that blesses others.”

These impulses are the headwaters of stewardship.

But before we can truly be stewards of what we have, we have to know we have something of value to share. We have to be aware. This is easy enough as it relates to our financial resources. And even our time and our talent.

But what about our feelings—all of them? Do we view them as gifts? As resources that can make a difference?

I don’t know about you but no one has ever asked me this before. What if we saw our feelings as potential goldmines? As treasure troves of value to God and the work God is doing in and through us?

Most of us have been taught to practice what I’ll call emotional segregation. We think some feelings are better than others. Some feelings are nicer than others. These we bring out into the open for all to see.

But other feelings we view as unwelcome, unsavory, unchristian, even; these feelings—so we’ve been taught—have no place in our walk with Jesus or in a loving community of people seeking to follow Jesus.

Paul seems to reinforce this divided thinking in his letter this morning. “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger…be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

Several of you who shared your homework with me confided that one of the aches you feel centers around Christian communities that don’t walk their talk. There’s gossip happening in the peace garden, there’s selfish maneuvering taking place in the meeting room, there’s dislike or disrespect hiding behind a cloying coffee hour smile.

These behaviors are concerning and certainly contrary to how Jesus teaches us to live. But they aren’t the real issue.

The real issue is that most of us don’t know how to be good stewards of the unloveliest of feelings, the most difficult of emotions. We don’t know how to extract value from them because they’re too hot or too hard to handle. And so it is that people aiming to follow Jesus do and say incredibly unskillful things—things that sting or bruise or even wound.

Paul was a first century follower of Jesus, a man with a calling to build up Christian community wherever he went. He was not an armchair psychologist. He knew nothing of the inner child, unfinished business, or unresolved trauma. He knew nothing of the ways our shadows and secrets color, even control, our feelings, interactions, and relationships.

But just because Paul wasn’t in the know psychologically speaking doesn’t mean we can’t bring a 21st century sensibility to our lesson this morning. And so we can say that there is all manner of wealth waiting for us in the bitterness, wrath, or anger that Paul names, as well as in other less-than-lovely thoughts and feelings that arise in us.

It’s just that when it’s raw anger, fresh wrath, or newly-cultivated bitterness, it’s typically too soon for it to be of good use.

This may seem gauche to stay it this way but the only difference between excrement and manure is time and respect. Time and respect. Without those two resources, excrement is just stinky, messy, and so potent it can burn and ruin crops. But with time and respect, excrement becomes manure, nature’s gold that enriches soil, nurtures growth, and contributes to a bountiful harvest.

Emotionally speaking, we have all been on the receiving end of a delivery of doo-doo. Don’t we hint at this when we say someone dumped on us? Similarly we have all, to one degree or another, done some dumping too.

Whether we dished it out or whether we took it, we know the harm that comes, the injury, the damage when a dark or difficult feeling hasn’t been given the time and respect it deserves. In the heat of the moment, things get said that can’t be unsaid, things are heard that can’t be unheard, and everyone’s left to clean up the mess.

So here’s my question for the second Sunday in August. How do we say to our emotions “no matter who you are or where you are on this journey, you’re welcome here?”

In other words, how can we cultivate practices that allow us to feel what we feel, to sit with what is hard to sit with, and yet do no harm—to ourselves and others? How do we create the inner conditions that make it more likely that we can extract the gold lying at the heart of our feelings? Gold we can then become good stewards of?

First, I think we look to the Psalms. Every human emotion is expressed there—from mad to glad to sad, from high to low, from fury that would wish for horrible things to befall an enemy to the most sublime joy a person could hope to experience.

It’s all there in sacred scripture. Human elation and invigoration, panic and terror, shame and humiliation, dissatisfaction and skepticism, centeredness and contentment.

It’s all there—every shade and shape of human emotion—and what that tells me is that there is nothing we can think or feel that falls outside the bounds of God’s love and grace, just as there is no person who is excluded from God’s embrace.

As Richard Rohr says, “Everything belongs.”

So we look to the Psalms for permission to feel what we feel and think what we think—and to know that God is with us in our experience. And that’s vital.

Also important, and this is the second thing we can do—to recall that every feeling we’ve ever had or ever will have, Jesus had, too.

Jesus got angry in the Temple, so angry in fact that he overturned the tables of the moneychangers.

In Bethany, Jesus wept at the news that his friend, Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, had died and been buried—when he had chosen to dawdle as the sisters sent their urgent plea to come. I’d cry too if I had done that.

When the demands of ministry became too great, Jesus felt depleted, drained.

When his closest friends were slow to understand, Jesus sometimes grew testy with them.

In the garden, Jesus agonized over and even dreaded his fate.

From the cross, Jesus was overwhelmed by the sense that he had been forsaken by God, utterly abandoned in the end.

We do ourselves a disservice when we think only our “good feelings” are acceptable and we treat our other feelings like pariahs, sources of shame or suspicion or self-incrimination.

To my mind, this is at least part of the reason Christians are not often enough able to walk our talk—keeping unwelcome feelings, unlovely and even ugly feelings at bay takes a lot of energy. At some point, we crack. We speak in anger, we make accusations, we run amok. Paul calls this making room for the devil.

But what if rather than turning ourselves into ringmasters armed with chairs and whips to beat back the ferocious, dangerous feelings we’re having, what if we treated them like Jesus treated every person he ever met? With respect and love, with a desire to listen and learn, with patience and grace and a belief in the intrinsic worth of everything and everyone?

It seems to me that every unlovely feeling is a kind of Zacchaeus in the tree needing to be called by name, needing to be invited down to meet face-to-face, needing to be befriended, needing to be asked to share a meal and talk late into the night.

Because of Jesus’ time with and respect for Zacchaeus, that reviled tax collector was transformed. Even he, someone greedy and unscrupulous, was someone who belonged, someone who something to contribute to the building up of God’s kin-dom here on earth.

Zacchaeus became a good steward, in other words. Which is what can happen when respect is given and time too—whether it’s lavished upon a dishonest person or a dishonorable thought or feeling.

Within rage is a pearl. But we will likely not find that treasure until we give rage the time and respect it deserves.

Within the deep sadness is a diamond, but as you well know diamonds don’t just leap into our hands; we must carefully search them out.

Within the guilt, the shame, the meanness are gifts ultimately as great as gold, frankincense, and myrrh, gifts that may need to travel some distance before they can be given.

What are we throwing away, what are we exiling, what are we judging that—with respect and time—could be the source of wealth and wisdom, the means by which we are blessed and in turn bless others?

What in us needs a welcome mat, a cup of tea, and a listening ear as patient and pure-hearted as Jesus himself? What in us needs not one moment more of rejection, judgment, or even exile? What of worth is waiting to be found in what we think—or have been taught—is simply unacceptable?

Would you pray with me?

Gracious God, help me work with my anger so that it does not become meanness. Let me tend my sorrow so that it leads me to truth rather than collapsing into self-pity. Keep my heart soft enough to keep breaking, rather than becoming a fortress that winds up imprisoning me. Keep my infuriation turned toward justice, rather than judgmentalism.

Above all, remind me that all of this, every bit of this, is for love.

Amen.


*The title of this sermon is borrowed from a deeply wise poem by Rumi, the 14th century Persian mystic.