Year A, Proper 27 November 12, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“The kingdom of heaven will be like this.”
Next week is the conclusion of our annual pledge campaign. We’ve received a goodly number of pledges already, and we’re going to collect the pledges of the leaders of the congregation today at the offertory, but next week its your turn. We’ll collect them all together, offer a special blessing and then gather for lunch downstairs. We’ll even have wine, thanks to Steven and Cathy and their vineyard out in Crow. So bring your pledge cards next week! We have plenty on the back table if you need one.
Money, in particular money being given to the church is not a comfortable topic for many of us. I don’t know what it is like in other churches, but it is very uncomfortable in Episcopal churches, so we don’t talk about it much. And wouldn’t you guess it, Episcopalians give at the lowest rate of any mainline Protestant denomination. (We’re also the denomination with the highest per capita income. That’s something to think about).
But we need to talk about money. It might be a necessary evil, but it is necessary, at least until the kingdom erupts as promised. So that’s what I want to talk about a bit today, about how and why we give, and maybe give you somethings to think about as you discern what you will offer to Resurrection this year.
Why do you give (or not give)? That’s the key question. Our campaign in general is designed to show the deep and abiding work of this parish and how that work changes us, converts us into better Christians, better people. This year we focused on the formation of our children, how we welcome them into the Christian family, how we form them as moral human beings and equip them to thrive in a difficult world. We heard how that ministry changes them, and in doing that ministry, changes us. We heard form Stevie, from Annie, we heard about the whole life of the parish from Debbie last week. Brilliant. (Her poem, and brilliant, all the things we do here). That’s all what we give for. But why do you give to that?
Some of us give out of a sense of obligation; we are supposed to give to church. That’s how we were raised. It is just a given. In some churches, like the Mormon Church, it is a basic ethic of Christian life. You give because that is the teaching. (I wasn’t raised that way). I had a bunk-mate in the Marines, a fellow Lieutenant, who was having financial problems. Our Captain sat down with him and helped with a budget, and found that he tithed, he gave 10%. He was a good, corn-fed, Indiana Christian boy. He gave because that is what you do. His tithe was less negotiable than his student loans. He wasn’t forced to do it, but he needed to do that, it was part of his faith, his obligation. He figured it out, his money problems. He said it would, “it always works out, somehow! God is good.” He was a cheerful one. We have people here in this parish that approach giving like that and they are some of our largest donors; our budget depends on that sort of dedication. Real strength is shown, real growth can happen when you stick to principles, to obligations in a full way. Some people give from a sense of obligation.
Some people give out of a very positive sense of charity. We, the church, certainly Resurrection, are a Good Cause! We together, collectively, corporately, are a good cause, we help in the world. From the direct services we offer to our most vulnerable neighbors, to the community space we provide, to the care of our sick and dying, the formation of children into spirited, moral actors in the world… we do God’s good in the world and that aligns with your values and is something worth investing in and supporting. And we need the support to do our ministry in the world and it does align with your values. One reason why some Episcopalians don’t give as much to the church as others is probably because they give to lots of other things, too. And that is great. The HIV Alliance needs your help, too. So does the ACLU, SquareOne Villages, the Relief Nursery and Beyond Toxics. And we are a Good Cause, too. Our 38 ministries relieve suffering, help the helpless and just make Eugene better, and we need your support. Some people give out of a sense of charity.
Some members of the church give to the church like it is membership dues. Not fee for service, but an individual contribution to a communal project. You get something out of it, it is a benefit to you in some way AND it is a good cause, it helps the community. Joining the YMCA is a similar example. You join and give because of everything you get from being their and by you supporting it, a net good exists in the community. We are, in a way, a religious gymnasium: you come and get your spirit exercised, stretched, firmed up, smoothed out. We keep spiritually fit. I think we fit that model more than a spiritual spa. I hope we are more rigorous than a spa, we ought not come here for solace only, like the Eucharistic prayer says, this is not just a place for rest, but must also be a place for strengthening, learning, preparing for the journey on the Way of Christ.
It is a little harder to figure out how to support the church as a membership organization. In your giving statements, we have to include a clause that says that the only thing received from the giving were “intangible religious benefits.” I whole-heartedly disagree, I think religions benefits are extremely tangible, but they are hard to quantify. How do you monetize spiritual benefit?
In doing weddings or funerals, most folks have no idea how much to pay the priest as we don’t usually have set prices. One guide I have heard is spend the same on the priest as you do the flowers, or the appetizers. So are we worth as much as your gym membership? Your cell phone/cable/internet bundle? Your monthly entertainment budget? A predecessor of mine in a cynical moment once quipped that if people gave what they spent at the liquor store each week the church would never want for money again. I’m just saying… Maybe it is eating out, or iTunes, or impulse Amazon Prime purchases: how much do you spend on your most expensive vice? Your spending is a window into your priorities, your values. It can be sobering, maybe literally. There are profound theological implications to our budgets.
So an ethical obligation, charitable giving, membership dues… these are some reasons why we give. Let me offer another: religious practice. Religious practices are regular practices, things we do that bring us closer to God. Coming to church regularly is the most common practice in this parish. And it is a good one. There are countless others. Saying all or part of the Daily Office. Meditating or doing centering prayer. Saying grace before you eat (and maybe thank you afterwards). Reading Scripture. Using the Forward Day By Day. Walking the labyrinth. Serving week in, week out with religious intentions. These are practices that can bring us closer to God. Giving can, too.
So our family income for next year is going to be just about $71,000. As a priest, there is an spoken expectation that we tithe, give 10%. We are working towards that, have been since we’ve been here, increasing each year. We are giving $4800 this year, $600 more than last year. Just about 7%. The percentage isn’t what is important to me religiously. What is important to me, religiously, is that I, we, can feel it. It is our largest expenditure each month after housing and food. We notice it. And that’s the point.
You want to buy something, but you can’t afford it. If you can’t because you are poor, or the thing you need (not want, need) is beyond your capacity to pay, that is a tragedy. Poverty is a blight, a structural sin from which no merit arises. But if you can’t afford something because of a principal, a religious practice, something very different happens. When I encounter some wanted thing that I cannot afford, sure there is disappointment or craving desire that is unsatisfied, but when I remind myself that I am giving x up because of my giving, I take pause. I feel full. I feel present. I feel, even in the petty little sacrifices I make throughout my month, I feel like I have given something up intentionally, for God, for the sake of my relationship with God. And do you know what I am doing in that moment? Thinking about God. Thinking about how Jesus Christ is more important to me than that $5 mocha. And it is still there, that want (I like $5 mochas), but the sting is very rewarding, and over time, that process of sacrifice can become very gratifying. If you can’t feel your gift, you lose out on many of the spiritual benefits of giving. I am totally serious here. This is not a sales pitch. It feels, not good, like pleasurable good, but good, like going to the gym good.
Our gospel this morning is another harsh Jesus one. The door is closed. “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Jesus is saying a lot in this parable of the Kingdom. There are many lessons that can be gleaned. One of those, the one important to us this morning, is that it takes effort. Life. A relationship with God. Salvation. It takes effort, exertion, or to go back to that old-time religion, being a follower of Jesus Christ takes sacrifice.
No one expects their garden to grow without maintaining the fertility of the soil. No one expects to do well in school without studying. No one expects to get in shape without any effort. I know you can’t tell under the slimming lines of this Chasuble, but I started going to the Y recently. If I want my body to be healthy, it is going to take effort. It could be fasting, removing harmful things from my diet or life habits. It could be a practice, in this case, working out. But I have absolutely no expectation that I will get in shape without real effort. Why do we expect that same of our spirits? It takes effort, sometimes strenuous effort to draw closer to God. That is one of the important lessons in the parable of the ten bridesmaids.
God is always there, warm comfortable arms wide open for us, ever welcoming, ever forgiving. So we’re not working to get God to love us, grace is real and that love is offered unconditionally to everyone. But most of us aren’t able to accept it. Aren’t able to experience the love of God in Christ with the Holy Spirit. We’re all tangled up. We are far too much of the world as well as being firmly in it. Practice, prayer, it works in that it works on us, opens us to God and neighbor, points us in the direction of God, opens us so God’s bright light can shine in our usually dark and closed hearts. It takes a lot of effort to do that. Immense effort. Think of the story of any spiritual hero. Immense effort.
The bridesmaids who made it to the banquet, they had prepared, they had made an effort. They made sacrifices to get the oil in time. They did what they were supposed to do and therefore were ready when the time came. I am not sure why they didn’t share the oil, but that doesn’t change the lesson that to be in right relationship with God we need to exert effort.
A lot of my life is guided by my religious practices. I pray the office and for all of you. I do my chi kung. I read my scripture. I go to church a lot. I serve the poor. I give. I must say, that when I am mindful, and engage with the money that I give, it is as profound a practice as I do. It is concrete. It is a real experience of intention. It is, excuse me Mr. Tax Man, it is tangible. It really does become money given to God via the church. It is a sacrifice, and it is one that returns forty, and sixty and one hundred fold.
The Church of the Resurrection depends on your giving. I depend on your giving. You are generous people, you have kept this church alive for 54 years. You are generous people, you support me and my family well. Thank you for that. And thank you for considering a pledge this year. I am not saying give ‘til it hurts, but I am suggesting that giving ‘til you feel it, feels really good. And it is good for you. We’ll see you with your pledge cards next week. Thank you. AMEN