Stewardship of Time
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | October 31, 2019Hi friends, whenever we talk about stewardship, we usually talk about time, talent, and treasure. On Sundays, in some mailings that will be going out, and in our devotional, Extravagant Generosity, we’re focusing on the treasure piece for the next few weeks. Today, however, I want to reflect a little on what we might mean by stewardship of time.
Any conversation about how we steward our time is a little paradoxical. On the one hand, time is just about the only thing that everybody gets the same amount of in a week: no one gets any more or less than twenty-four hours in a day. It’s a bit odd to talk about time as mine when we all share in it equally. On the other hand, however, those twenty-four hours are so vastly different for each of us—both because of our decisions and because of circumstances beyond our control—that we don’t always seem to have the time we need, or as much time as our neighbor seems to.
I think this tension is part of why we so often talk about time as though it were money. We save time by cutting corners or by trying to be efficient so that we waste none of it. We spend time doing different things. There are certain necessary parts of each day that require our time, and there are those random few minutes that offer themselves to us as moments when we can choose what we like: watch ESPN, water the flowers, read a verbose newsletter from your priest, or (my current favorite) watch internet videos featuring otters doing cute things.
There are two themes in scripture that help us navigate this tension and receive time as a gift of God to be stewarded for God’s purposes. The first is the practice of Sabbath. Many of us are familiar with this to some extent: in the tradition in which Jesus and his followers grew up, the Sabbath was Saturday, the final day of the week, the day in the creation story on which God rested after completing His work (Gen. 2:1-2). For the ancient Israelites, the commandment about the Sabbath comes in the wilderness at Mt. Sinai as one of the Ten Commandments, and it is based on God’s divine rest on the seventh day.
Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day….(Ex. 20:8-11)
What is less obvious about the Sabbath commandment is that this kind of holiness guards directly against the temptation (or coercion, as the case may be) to be perpetually productive. Remember, God gives the Israelites the Ten Commandments in the wilderness after leading them out of Egypt where they were slaves: they made bricks seven days a week with no rest or comfort. (See Ex. 5, especially v. 10-14.)
Pharaoh sees the Israelites only as laborers, producers of bricks; God sees them as His people. The Sabbath commandment gives the Israelites a day in which to meet God in rest, and for us this requires accepting God’s disruption of our cycles of productivity. It is no wonder that breaking the Sabbath commandment is punishable by death (Ex. 31:15): to refuse rest, recreation, and cessation of productivity is to lose one’s identity as the object of God’s love and therefore simply is a kind of death. To practice the illusion of perpetual productivity is to accept the terms of Pharaoh and reject the terms of God.
The second theme we find in the Gospel of John. In John’s Gospel Jesus likes to linger and have long conversations with people. In John 3, for example, Jesus has a lengthy and intimate conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus (3:1-21). In John 4, Jesus lingers at a well in a Samaritan town. He converses with a woman he meets there, and ends up staying in the town for two full days (4:5-42). During the Last Supper, John slows his account way down to give us five full chapters of Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet, talking with them, and praying for them (chapters 13-17). It’s all one continuous scene, like a long movie take.
It’s no wonder, then, that one of John’s favorite verbs in his Gospel is “abide.” Elsewhere we might translate this verb as remain. (Take 1:33, for example, where the Holy Spirit remains on Jesus). In Greek this verb looks like this: μένω (pronounced MEN-oh). It’s the verb Jesus uses when he says to his disciples, “Abide in me as I abide in you” (15:4). John’s Gospel uses this verb thirty-three times; the other Gospels use it six or fewer times each.
Why might this be? In different places in John’s Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that he was sent by God to complete God’s work. In John 4:34-38, for example, after his disciples have urged him to eat something, Jesus says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” Notice what Jesus holds together: the work that is his to complete is also his food.
This is a far cry from the frantic brick-making enforced by Pharaoh. Pharaoh works on an exclusive bricks-per-day metric. The work God gives Jesus to do, however, is more organic. In that same passage about food and work and God’s will, Jesus references a harvest metaphor, saying the “reaper is already gathering fruit for eternal life” (4:37). Harvesting fruit is different than bricks. Fruit ripens on its own schedule, and we simply come along and harvest it. And all this for eternal life, one somehow unbounded by time.
Perhaps, then, Jesus so often abides, remains, lingers because he’s giving the hearts of his followers as much time as they need to ripen. His conversation with Nicodemus in chapter 3, for example, occurs at night. Why? Because fruit ripens when it ripens. If it’s the middle of the night when Nicodemus is ready to talk, then that’s when Jesus converses with him. If Jesus’ visit at the Samaritan well needs two full days, then it takes two full days.
Jesus offers us an eternity.
The work God sends Jesus to do isn’t about Jesus’ cramming as much ministry into his years on earth as possible, the way Pharaoh wants the Israelites to cram as many bricks into a day as possible. Instead, the work God sends Jesus to do is about bearing and harvesting fruit: whether it’s twenty verses with Nicodemus or two days in Samaria, it takes as long as it takes. The deadline is simply when Nicodemus is ready, or when the Samaritans are ready, or when we are ready. It’s like taking communion together: it just takes as long as it takes.
We see in Jesus then an attentive faithfulness that allows God’s Spirit to move on its own time, ripening our hard, new-green hearts into eternity. Jesus abides with us in the garden as we grow. He is not concerned with our bricks-per-day quota, as Pharaoh is.
What has all this to do with us and our stewardship of time? As one of our volunteers recently said at a Leadership Team meeting, stewardship—whether it’s time, talent, or treasure—is an expression of love. The New Testament reminds us that all the Law and the Prophets hang on loving God with our whole being and loving our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31).
When it comes to stewarding our time, the second part of that commandment—loving neighbor as ourselves—seems to me to be in the foreground. The Sabbath theme from Exodus is one of the ways we love ourselves: we would never speak to our neighbor as though we were Pharaoh demanding more bricks, so why do we so often insist on perpetual productivity for ourselves? I say this not as someone who has this licked, but as someone who lives with a tiny Pharaoh in the back of my mind, too! When we find ourselves with a few free moments, it can be hard not to hurriedly fill them with another task, whether professional or domestic. But if we can abide that awkwardness and discomfort a few moments, we may find ourselves drawn to something more life-giving than making bricks. We may find ourselves fed with the eternal fruit of God’s loving will.
The theme of abiding from John’s Gospel might help us understand stewardship of time as love of neighbor. As Jesus lingers, abides, remains with his followers for as long as it takes, so, too, ought we to abide with each other. Give that coffee hour conversation, that awkward pause on the other side of the late night phone call, that struggle your child or parent is having—give those time. Abide with your loved ones and with the new faces at church a while; let the Spirit ripen what needs ripening.
As I’ve said before: the work of holiness almost always demands feeling a little awkward. If we are willing and able to abide the awkwardness, we give it whatever time it needs to ripen into something more. A loved one in conflict can grow into peace, a new face can become a friend, an anxious question can become discernment of what’s next, this earthly moment dilates into eternity.
Remember the rhythm of Genesis: “and there was evening, and there was morning,” and there is God abiding still on this next new day.
 As an aside, it’s worth noting that the Sabbath, and the commandment to keep it holy, is still about Saturday; it’s not about Sunday, even for Christians. Sunday is the first day of the week, the day of the Lord’s Resurrection. That’s why we worship on Sunday, not because of the commandment about keeping the Sabbath holy. In the biblical tradition, each day begins at sundown (not at dawn the way we think about it) and continues until sundown the next day. (Thus, in the Jewish tradition, the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday.) This is why we can have an Easter Vigil on a Saturday evening: once the sun goes down on Saturday evening, it’s technically Sunday!