I Corinthians 4:1-5
Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they should be found trustworthy. 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. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.
“Stewards of the Mysteries”
When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a detective when I grew up. I was an ardent fan of Nancy Drew. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Nancy Drew, she was a young woman detective in a series of books that I couldn’t get enough of as a young reader. Nancy Drew, with the help of her good friends Bess and George, her devoted father, her boyfriend Ned Nickerson, and her snappy roadster, solved mysteries from the Secret of the Old Clock to The Hidden Staircase and the Sign of the Twisted Candles. She was fearless and smart and had an insatiable curiosity that sometimes got her into trouble but always kept her on the trail of the truth. (And what I didn’t realize at the time was that she was a feminist.)
I learned from Nancy Drew that with the right luck and the perfect clues any code could be de-coded, any puzzle put together, and any mystery could be solved. I carried that unflappable belief in the solvability of mysteries into my adulthood until the day it finally occurred to me that some mysteries were unsolvable, especially those things that fell into the category of “the mysteries of God.” Even super sleuth Nancy Drew can’t help me with that one. But that doesn’t deter my fascination with Paul’s phrase here in this letter to the early church: “stewards of the mysteries of God.” So much so that I just breeze right by the first part of the sentence and focus only on the mystery. Just say the word mystery and I’m in!
If you remember anything at all from the backstory about Paul and the church in Corinth, you’ll remember that Paul was often in some sort of squabble with that congregation. An underlying issue that Paul is addressing in this passage has to do with the question: “To whom does this ministry belong: to Paul or to the congregation?” There always seems to be some underlying conflict going on around who’s in charge of the Christians in Corinth who are trying to work out what it means to be followers of Jesus. The congregation is always trying to poke holes in Paul’s authority, or credibility. Paul moves back and forth between advocating for his authority as a leader, and valuing the importance of the whole body of Christ, or the whole church’s ministry. Here Paul says: “Let’s think of it this way, we are all servants of Christ.” In other words: This ministry belongs to God, not to me or to you, but to God.”
Hmmm, this affirmation that the ministry belongs to God has a familiar ring to it. Now where have I heard that recently? We’ve been having a lot of conversations over the past few months in meetings with the Deacons and the Pastoral Search Team and over the past year and a half between the Transition Team and the congregation. OCBC has a long history of affirming the Baptist principle of the Priesthood of All Believers, meaning that we don’t need a priest to mediate our relationship with God, but we are all responsible for that God-connection. In the late ‘60’s and early ‘70s, OCBC began to explore what was then an emerging emphasis on the ministry of the laity.
So, over the past forty years, this congregation has encouraged its members to live out their many ministries out there in the world: in the workplace, marketplace, community, and home as well as supporting lay ministers to develop their gifts for preaching, teaching, and leadership within the life of the church. This blossoming of the ministry of the laity has born many fruits as men, women, and children have grown as capable leaders in God’s ministry in the church and in the world. Yet, as we can tell from a look at OCBC’s recent history, an emphasis on the ministry of the laity has sometimes had a shadow side, which shows up in conflict between the pastor and the congregation, and in ambivalence around affirming the leadership function of the pastoral role. The tug-of-war between Paul and the congregation in Corinth about “to whom does this ministry belongs” is not foreign to us. And to those who say: “I wish we were more like the New Testament church,” well, we have arrived.
The Apostle Paul offers a corrective to Corinth and to us: This ministry doesn’t belong to the members of OCBC, as capable as you are. This ministry doesn’t belong to the pastors of OCBC, as capable as they are. This ministry belongs to Christ, to God, to the Holy Spirit. Betsy, a member of the OCBC search team, reminded us recently of the story of another American Baptist congregation, The Dorchester Temple, who struggled with a similar issue a number of years ago. Their congregation was aging and in decline and the neighborhood was rapidly changing around them. The pastor, Dan Buttry, preached a sermon on “Whose Church Is It?” which evoked a shift in the congregation’s perception as they began to consciously affirm that the church belonged neither to the pastor nor to the congregation, but to God. The church began to grow and transform, and in time the church became a leading force in gang violence intervention in the Boston area. This was not a ministry that they could see at the time, but God was working among them to bring healing to their community.
The Apostle Paul suggests that if we are asking: does the church belong to the congregation or to the pastoral leader then we are asking the wrong question. The question he invites us to ask is: Does this ministry belong to Christ Jesus, author of our faith? How OCBC answers that question shapes and determines the way this congregation will move into the future.
“Think of us in this way,” Paul writes. “As servants of Christ, and stewards of God’s mysteries.” Which brings me back to where I started: mysteries and Nancy Drew, who evidently was a part of my ministerial formation. Nancy Drew, super sleuth, taught me to bring the virtues of curiosity and tenacity to my pursuit of the mysteries of God. How do we understand these mysteries that come from Christ, and how are we stewards of them?
A steward is someone who oversees the property of another. As one scholar notes: “The Greek word that Paul uses here, the one we translate as steward, is oikonomos, which combines the root word for “household,” oikos, with the root word for law, nomos. So an “economy” is the law of a household, and a steward, an oikonomos, is the one who carries it out wisely.” So the mystery is not a secret and you might find in the Mystery Religions of Paul’s time, where you had to have special knowledge to be “in.” But rather mystery is something that is bigger than any of us can get our heads around, in an “It’s a mystery to me,” kind of way. The mystery, over which we watch, is the gospel of Christ, which belongs not to us, but to God.
The mysteries of God, are those places where the grace of God’s mercy, forgiveness, love, justice, hope, and kindness show up, and we just can’t fully explain how that happens, but we are happy to be a part of them as participants or stewards.
What are the mysteries of God over which we are invited to be stewards?
Here’s a mystery: Nelson Mandela spent over 25 years in a South African prison for his anti-apartheid resistance and when he emerged as the President of the new African National Congress he initiated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past human rights violations. How does a man who suffers so under institutional racism come out on the other side with such a compassionate commitment to a ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation? That is a mystery of God that I can never fully explain, that that is the kind of mystery we want to be a steward of.
Here’s a mystery: A small Baptist congregation becomes a lone voice in their denomination, deciding in the early ‘80’s that the GLBT community was deserving of God’s full welcome and affirmation in the house of faith, challenging those who used scripture as a stick to punish that community and to exclude them from God’s love. Where does the wisdom and courage come from to initiate such a stance, which hadn’t occurred to many other people? That’s a mystery of God, one that many of us want to participate in.
Here’s a mystery: A Sunday School teacher gives her second grade class little strips of paper with scripture verses written on them. She patiently helps the children roll them up and put them in vitamin capsules, teaching them that scripture is something that nourishes our soul like a vitamin nourishes the body. Years later one of her students is still influenced by that life lesson as she preaches week after week, exploring the Bible as a source of vitality and nourishment for her faith and the faith of her community. How that little seed the teacher planted grew into a ministry that feeds the religious imagination is a mystery to me, and one that I am grateful to be a steward of.
Here’s a mystery: a wife or husband stands beside their spouse as they suffer the terrible effects of Alzheimer’s disease, still managing to find laughter and love and tenderness to celebrate and hold onto even when life is so painfully hard and hope such a faint thing. That kind of steadfast love is a mystery, one that we are honored to bear witness to and participate in.
Here’s a mystery: in a religion that so often focuses on who doesn’t belong a congregation insistently proclaims God’s radical hospitality and says that there is room around the table for everyone. That’s a mystery we want to steward.
Here’s a mystery: a woman learns that it is not safe to use her voice, a reality that is reinforced by violence and trauma. But somehow, mysteriously, she finds people who listen to her, who value and give her support. She finds her voice and learns to use it bravely to speak up for self and others. This is a mystery we can be stewards over.
Here’s one last mystery, though there are many, many more: a congregation and its pastor work together in a collaborative partnership, nurturing one another with a balance of challenge and support that is always marked by kindness, thereby multiplying each others efforts to proclaim and live out God’s forgiveness, justice, and resurrecting love in ways that change the world. Pastor and congregation all know that their ministries belong not to them but to God. How they manage to arrive at the place where they can live that reality out in love is a mystery to me, but that is the kind of mystery of which we all long to be a steward.
These mysteries belong not to us, but to God. It doesn’t take a Nancy Drew to figure out that God’s mysteries are beyond our control or comprehension. Our detective skills will never lead us to a complete understanding of these mysteries. Yet God in God’s amazing generosity invites us to be stewards of these mysteries. May we be faithful stewards always. AMEN.
 Thanks to Stephen Montgomery for the idea that the mysteries can be understood in terms of “stories.”