Sermon for Sunday, October 27th, 2019
“Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford.”
I’m willing to bet that this is not the sermon that anyone wants to hear the week after our parish fair and biggest fundraiser. We just spent months collecting donations, moving furniture, advertising, cooking and setting up displays. We spent two days of long hours with some people working in the heat while others worked in the cold. We saw old friends and welcomed new people. We spent money. We raised money. We did pretty well actually, and thanks be to God for it, because we need it. You know it takes a lot to make worship happen here on a weekly basis. It takes a lot to keep the lights and the heat on. Over $5,600 a week. That’s a lot, and I assure you we try and run a pretty slim organization. We are blessed to have a lot of dedicated and talented people that give of their time generously. We are and have been blessed.
But here, the week after the fair, after all that we have done and raised, I am going to stand here and tell you that it’s not enough. It’s not enough y’all. I warned you that this wasn’t going to be a sermon anyone wanted to hear. That’s why I made sure this morning that I was wearing shoes I could run in. But before you start sharpening your pitchforks, hear me out. I know that we’re good Episcopalians, we don’t like to talk about money. Money seems common and profane, and we don’t want to risk worshipping it, so we just avoid talking about it altogether. Money brings up issues with people. It can cause embarrassment and shame if you don’t have it. It can lead to pride and vanity if you do have it. What priest in his right mind wants to talk to his people about money? Best to avoid it and not offend people. Well lucky for you your priest isn’t in his right mind.
Your priest recognizes that there are two big problems with trying to avoid talking about money: the first is Jesus. Jesus actually talks about money quite a lot. It’s all over the gospels. Unless you want to take a pair of scissors to the words of Jesus (something which I don’t advise) then at some point you will have to confront what he has to say about money and our relationship to it.
The other big problem is worship. Now you may think that the worship of God is something that happens within your heart, and Lord knows I hope that is true. I hope that you are worshipping God in your heart in ways that are inexpressible and free, but the outward worship of God is costly. It always has been. Maybe it is supposed to be.
From the beginning of our scriptures worship has been tied to sacrifice. This isn’t just a Judeo-Christian thing though; this cuts across religions. Worshipping God and giving up something of value have always walked hand in hand. We cannot escape that. From the beginning of time worship has meant sacrifice. We give up something we value, because we value God more. We give, because we recognize how much we have been given. That is sacrifice.
Now maybe you are thinking: Great, why don’t we sacrifice this priest? After all he is one of our biggest expenses. That’s true. But the ordained clergy are kind of a necessary evil if you want to have mass and not just a community meeting. The expense of priests has always been a factor in the worship of God, it has been since Old Testament times, that’s not new.
The worship of God has always been costly. It costs money, it costs time. And for many people, it has cost their lives. Many of the saints of the church were martyrs…people who gave their lives to God….and we worry about talking about money?
So here is our dose of truth this morning: we raised about $40,000 at this year’s Friendship Fair and that is terrific and it is a testament to the dedication of this parish, but it is enough to keep this place running for less than 2 months.
The truth is the church does not, and cannot survive, much less thrive on fundraising. No church can. Churches that are thriving and growing, churches that have robust membership and ministries, and they are out there those churches, they aren’t balancing the budget by having bake sales every week. Churches that are thriving and growing are churches where the core membership understands that worship means sacrifice. They are churches where people are committed to giving to God. They are churches where people have such gratitude for what God has given them, that they are willing to joyfully and generously give back. Not to get something from God, not as some sort of bribe, but because of what they have already been given. That takes faith. And people when they visit churches like that can feel and experience that faith, even if they never look at the church budget.
When people come through those doors they can tell if this is a community that is committed to gratefully and thankfully giving back to God. They know. That is what attracts people. Nobody wants to join a church that when you walk in the door people just see a dollar sign or someone to serve on a committee. Nobody wants to be asked to pay for someone else’s faith. That’s not attractive. But you know what is attractive? When you walk into a place and you can tell that the people there have something precious that they are committed to and that they care for and they look at you and say welcome, would you like some too?
Friends we have such a treasure here. We are a blessed church. Our building is beautiful, and we have talented people, but most importantly we have the grace of God. We have our Lord’s presence in his body and blood. We have the story of God’s healing power of forgiveness and we have the hope of eternal life with those we love. Now that is treasure. And I think that when most people walk through those doors, they know that that is a treasure we are committed to caring for and sharing.
Yes, it is true that the fair helps us do that, but I remain convinced that the primary benefit of the fair is not the money it makes (no matter how much we may need it). The primary benefit of the fair is the connections it makes. We get to interact with the community and with each other. Visitors witness our commitment to this place and the worship here, and that speaks volumes. Now next year is not a fair year, for which many of us may be breathing a sigh of relief; however, stay tuned because I am going to be proposing soon a smaller one-day much simpler event for off-fair years. Why? Would a little extra money in off-fair years help with the never ending maintenance issues around here? You bet. But that’s not the primary reason to do it. The best reason is that it gives us another chance, as a community, to show others what this place is all about.
Fundraisers are great. They are necessary. But money from fundraising should never be more than the gravy on any church budget. The meat and potatoes, the substance of the meal comes from us. It comes from understanding that worship means sacrifice. It comes from looking at all that God has given you, and choosing to give back. I mentioned how much it takes to run this place, because you should know it, but it is important to remember that stewardship, sacrifice and tithing is not about paying the bills here. It really isn’t. It is about you recognizing how much God has given you and making the commitment to give back to the best of your ability. That is why the tithe in the bible is a percentage and not a specific amount. It is the benchmark for a level of giving that we are called to honestly strive toward, recognizing that the one who really knows how much we have been given, God, is the one that will ultimately be the judge. And you may wonder why 10%, what is so special about that number? It’s the biblical and traditional standard, but why? Well maybe it is because that is when it starts to hurt. That is when a sacrifice starts to be significant. Don’t believe me? When was the last time you went shopping at a 1% off sale? When have you ever seen a rack at the department store labeled “Big Sale! 2% off!”? Stores know that discounts start to get meaningful at 10%. That is when we recognize that it really means something to us and to them. If they offered us less, we wouldn’t take them seriously, because it wouldn’t be much of a sacrifice to them. 10% is where is starts to hurt. It is a serious commitment, but it should always come from the place of gratitude in our hearts, not pride.
Jesus tells a parable this morning about a Pharisee that was ranking himself in comparison to another man in the temple. And one of the things that he was proud of was how much he gave. He was giving the biblical standard, 10%, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was his pride. Maybe he thought he was giving more than the tax collector. Maybe he thought that the tax collector was a lesser person because he gave less. Truth is we have no idea how much the tax collector gave, Jesus doesn’t say. But which one of them was really the most grateful for God’s grace? You see it’s not whether we are doing better or worse than the person in the next pew; it’s not whether you toss in a twenty folded just right so the usher can see it, or whether you have to let the plate pass you by because you gave online, or even because maybe you aren’t sure where your next meal is coming from. The question is not “are you doing better than this person or that person, or any other person?” The question is simply, “how are you responding to God’s grace?” How am I responding to God’s grace? That’s it. Maybe you really can’t afford to tithe, God knows that, but is your heart so disposed that you really do want to give God everything you’ve got? God knows that too. That is what stewardship is all about.
Today is NOT stewardship Sunday. I am not asking anyone today to make any financial commitments to the parish for the coming year. What I am asking you today is to think about that tax collector in the temple, the one that is so humbled before God he can’t even look up. What if, on his way home someone stopped him and said “Good news! God heard your prayer. He has forgiven you. He wants you to come home.” What in this world, would mean more to him than that little bit of good news? How might he respond to that news? How might you respond?