A Community of Good Stewards
I Peter 4:10-11
“Imagine the beaches of Hawaii.” That was the lead-in pitch to a group of graduating seminarians in 1980 by the late Jim Tubbs, then executive of Wilmington Presbytery. Jim could sell a space heater to someone living in the Florida Keys. He had come to Union Seminary looking for prospects to serve churches in that coastal presbytery. On that same trip, I met Johannes Bron, the musical, young member of the Pastor Nominating Committee of the Bethany Presbyterian Church, just outside Wilmington, N.C. Jim made Wilmington sound like tropical Hawaii and Johannes made Bethany sound like Nirvana, so two weeks after our first-born child arrived, we headed off to coastal North Carolina.
I cannot explain why the fine folks at Bethany called me as their pastor at the ripe old age of 24. I had been blessed with a fine undergraduate education at William and Mary, followed by a fine theological education at Union. That said, I was not a preacher’s kid and I had just a little more than a clue about church life and how to do ministry at that point in my life. Fortunately, I was not lacking for confidence, and I had no small amount of male arrogance.
But then I got started. After I had preached two sermons, I sat in my first official office and wondered, “I think I have said everything I have to say. What do I do now?” Fortunately, the good folks at Bethany believed that God had more for me to say. Their trust in me kept pointing me back to these benedictory words from I Peter:
10 Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. 11 Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To God belongs the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.
“A good steward of the manifold grace of God.” I could think of few things kinder for someone to say about my ministry on the 40th anniversary of my ordination to the Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.
Throughout most of my ministry, the words “steward” and “stewardship” have been tied to autumn in the church. These two words have been used as a prettied-up euphemism for money, tithing, and pledging. I certainly have used them that way. For one cannot pay attention to Jesus and not talk about money. I hope and pray, though, that over the course of my ministry, I also have helped to untie those two words from simply meaning “money talk.” For good stewards are not so much money managers or money raisers as they are good caretakers of the grace of God.
As I look back and look around, I can see that my ministry has been marked by and shaped by so many good stewards of the grace of God in the churches I have been called to serve. One of my first pastoral visits was to Mary Catherine who at the time, I thought was ancient, but was probably about the same age as I am now. She rocked in her chair, sipped her sweet iced tea, looked at me and said, “Son, aging is not for sissies.” I had no idea what she was talking about then. I sure do now.
A few years later, I was beginning a new ministry and at a welcoming party a retired naval officer shook my hand and said, “Son, glad to have you here. Don’t stay too long.” It was not the warmest welcome I have ever received in a church, but perhaps, it was the wisest. Stay too long and you are tempted to believe that the church begins and ends with you.
Soon after arriving at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, I met Bill and his wife Jean. Bill was a recently retired Baptist pastor who had decided now to hang out with Presbyterians. He and I became and still are fast friends, and when church life was getting the best of me, he had an amazing knack for calling me out to hit some golf balls and go for what Mark Twain called, “a good walk spoiled.” Every pastor needs a pastor. On numerous occasions, Bill has been mine.
Some stewards of God’s amazing grace have not been church members, but consistently, I found them to be “speaking the very words of God.” Lucille and her husband Wilbert maintained our church in Newport News. Their mentally challenged son who lived with them won the VA lottery. Suddenly, they did not need our church’s weekly paycheck. Lucille came to me in tears and said, “Pastor, people tell me to quit this job, but I love my job and I love these people. I don’t want to quit. What should I do?” When I think of what a “good steward of God’s grace” looks like, I think of Lucille.
While serving Hilton Presbyterian Church, I met someone who was geek enough like me to love to study biblical Greek. Brian Blount and I soon found that we also shared a love for certain ethnic foods, for fiction, for movies, and for pick-up basketball. Some years later, our friendship led to our writing a book about the Gospel of Mark. I love Brian like a brother and sometimes we argue like brothers, but if I had to name one person who embodies a “good steward of the grace of God,” it would be my friend, Brian Blount.
In Alexandria, I met two men, one white, one black, each of whom had a passion for education and not just for the privileged. Neither of these men were members of our church, but both men were spectacular stewards of God’s grace. When I sketched out an idea for creating a tutoring consortium for elementary age children at risk of failing, with members of local churches, synagogues, and mosques providing the tutors, these two men did not pause in making it happen. Long after my ministry at the Meeting House, the Alexandria Tutoring Consortium has grown far beyond our initial vision, because of men like Herb and Bill and countless women and men whose love of reading and love of children make them tireless servants of the life of the mind, all “good stewards of God’s grace.”
In my first week in Atlanta, I locked horns with the feisty and fiery Katie Bashor. She and her husband Mark, members of the Catholic Shrine next door, had helped to found the Central Night Shelter in 1980, along with the unstoppable Joanna Adams. Katie was just fine with me being the new pastor at Central as long as I did not get in the way of providing shelter and food and foot care for almost a hundred men a night. It did not take long for me to come to love Katie Bashor with a passion and my heart broke when she died far too soon. She did not die, though, before teaching me that if I would just shut up and listen to our guests off the streets, I would meet a remarkable collection of God’s “good stewards.” She was right. She knew she was right. She also knew that soon I would learn she was right.
I was born in Virginia, educated in Virginia, and have spent much of my life and ministry in this fine state, but until I got a call from Fran Hooper, chair of Cove Presbyterian Church’s Pastor Nominating Committee, I had never heard of Covesville, Virginia. On an icy winter’s night, I left Waynesboro, where we were visiting Jennell’s mom, and wove my way to Cove. I met Fran and Renee, Susan and Beth Neville, and Will Dinwiddie. We talked and talked and talked some more. Then Jennell and I sat down with Greg and Jane Govan and later I met with a wonderful young man named Josh, Cove’s Covenant Pastor, with a name that I could not spell right today. It was not long before I was extended a call to be pastor at Cove and I gladly accepted that call.
Not only is this the 40th anniversary of my ordination, this is the fourth anniversary of being called as pastor at Cove. Last Sunday on a Zoom Town Hall, I was reminded again of how naturally Cove lives out the stewardship appeal of I Peter: “Whoever serves must do so with the strength that God provides.” The Town Hall began not by you asking for things you want, like knowing when we will worship again in-person. It began by people asking what I needed, about how I was doing, and it moved on to ask how we can best help with neighbors in need of housing and food assistance and how we can deepen and expand racial conversations and reconciliation.
If you passed Cove on the highway, you would see a charming little brick building and if you gave it a second thought, you would probably think, “What a quaint little church.” What I have come to learn over the past four years is that there is nothing “quaint” or “little” about Cove. You are not a community of the “quaint” but a community of faithful, serving, good stewards who live out the grace of God at work, at home, and through a shared ministry. It is an honor to be your pastor.
On what is a special day for me, there is one “good steward of God’s grace” I must mention, because Jennell has been a constant throughout this journey. When we started dating in our junior year in college, she soon noted that she never had had any interest in getting into a serious relationship with a red head or a future preacher. Well, you do not always get what you want. In addition to Jennell, my life and ministry has been richly blessed by two incredibly talented children. I would not have been able to serve churches for forty years without the love and support of Jennell, Erin, and Josh.
Occasionally, a young pastor will ask me how I have maintained the energy to serve the church for so many years. The answer was penned in I Peter centuries ago: “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” So today, I celebrate and give thanks for those “good stewards of the manifold grace of God” who have made my ministry rich and full, some colleagues, some interns and Resident Pastors, some novelists, painters, sculptors, plumbers, nurses, therapists, teachers, singers, instrumentalists, vintners, builders, politicians, accountants, scientists, homemakers, and the list goes on.
About a month ago, Jennell asked me: “Guess what I found today?” Then she showed me this bulletin from my ordination service on July 20, 1980. The service was framed around the benedictory words from I Peter. I hope they are words that more often than not have framed my ministry and may they be words that forever frame your lives, you “good stewards of the manifold grace of God.”
Thanks be to God!