Sunday, November 11, 2018

Stewardship Once Again


                                        Mark 12:38-44



Timmy didn’t want to put his money in the offering plate Sunday morning, so his mother decided to use some hurried creative reasoning with him.

“You don’t want that money, honey,” she whispered in his ear. “Quick! Drop it in the plate. It’s tainted!”

Horrified, the little boy obeyed.

After a few seconds he whispered, “But, mommy, why was the money tainted? Was it dirty?

“Oh, no dear,” she replied. “It’s not really dirty. It just ‘taint yours, and it ‘taint mine,” she replied. “It’s God’s.”

               Today is Stewardship Sunday, probably everyone’s least favorite Sunday of the year.  And I want to let you in on a secret: it’s most pastors’ least favorite Sunday of the year too.  Stewardship tends to  be the one Sunday of the year when we talk about money.  We are uneasy talking about money, it feels like a taboo subject in many ways and each year we have to have this uncomfortable conversation.  But, as Rev. Michael Piazza points out, stewardship really should be a year round conversation.  As he puts it,  “(The real issues is)…how we change the culture. Because the church has talked about money only when we wanted some, we have abandoned our greater responsibility to shape the value system of a culture in which people are systematically and relentlessly metamorphosized from Human Ones into consummate consumers.”

 He continues, “We pious types can rant and rave about greed, and pollution, and poverty, and income inequality, and all the other evils that arise from "the love of money," but what we really need to do is repent. The church has treated money the same way we, for decades, have treated sex. We never talked about (it) unless we were ranting against it is some form, and we never talk about money unless we want some of it. In both these areas, the church has utterly failed to inspire transforming values.  …money… (is a) powerful gift.. from God, and the church should have taught us how to be better stewards of (that gift). … people come wanting to know how to raise more money. Frankly, fundraising is easy compared to teaching society how to be better stewards of all the gifts that come from God.   

“Another reason for our impotency around this issue is the third topic the church avoids: death. Oh, we talk plenty about resurrection, but we seldom have the courage to remind us that we all are going to die. If we lack a powerful sense of our own mortality, we can pretend that we earned what we have and that it is ours to keep. It isn't. You ARE going to die and leave it all behind. That is why it is called ‘stewardship.’”



               His points are really good ones: the money that we have been entrusted with is exactly that: money that we have been entrusted with.  We haven’t earned it.  I want to say that again: we haven’t earned it.  We may have worked for it, but we know that the amounts people are paid have very little to do with how hard they work.  For example, some of the hardest workers in our culture are wait staff.  They are also some of the least paid.  In contrast, most of our wealthiest people have inherited at least a good portion of their wealth, and we know they play much harder than they work.  We have different amounts of wealth, not because some are better people and certainly not because God loves those folk more or cares for them more.  But we all have at our disposal some resources, and no matter how we’ve come by them, they aren’t ours.  They are Gods, and we’ve been entrusted with our wealth to use for the work of God and God’s people in this world. 

So, with that information, what are we really called to do with our resources?  Well, as I’ve said before and will no doubt say again, the way we spend our time, money and talents is a clear indication of what we value.   So I invite you to think for a minute about what you value, truly and deeply.  If it is God, then the question remains, what is the best use of your resources?  What is the best way to serve God with those resources?  I realize that there are many areas that each of us care about.  Housing, the hungry, immigrants, children, refugees, racism, LGBTQ+ rights, the environment… there are many, many ways that we help God’s creation and that we serve God.  Church is only one of those and I recognize that.  While we do a great deal of mission through this church and in this church, sharing your resources here is only one way in which we act as stewards of God’s church.

At the same time, to be real and honest about what that means in this place: our budget this last year was about $285,000. With that money we provide worship, education, care for one another, counseling for some, and give a great deal to mission both through our time, talents and our money.  We have about 100 members.  What that works out to is about $2850 per member per year.  Or, $240 per month per person, not per family.  Not everyone can pay that, so that means some are paying significantly more.  Our Old Testament encourages giving (to all the causes you give to) by a tithe of 10% of your income: that’s gross, not net, by the way.  The New Testament goes further, and suggests that if we are giving out of our abundance rather than to the point at which we feel it, we are missing the point of giving.  But I give you these numbers in the hope that it helps us all to be realistic about what it costs to keep our programs and our church community the way it has been.  I also give you these numbers because I think it is easy sometimes to not realize the cost of what we do in this place. 

All that being said, my intention this morning and every Stewardship Sunday is not to guilt trip folk into giving more. 

As Michael Piazza said, giving, stewardship, should be a way of life.  It is not about just paying those who deserve to be paid, or paying your dues, or about being giving people.  It isn’t about trying to assuage guilt, or it shouldn’t be.  It is about remembering, at all times and in all things that all we have is not “ours” at all.  And that out of gratitude for what we have been entrusted with, we are called to use those resources for the good of God and God’s people.  But that is a pretty foreign mindset in this culture.  When I read financial pages, they all encourage saving: but saving for what?  They encourage saving for our future, for retirement, for our children’s education.  They encourage delaying gratification of “now” in exchange for gratification later.  Never have I read a financial site that encourages generosity of giving, that acknowledges that with privilege comes responsibility, and that with resources comes the gift of being able to contribute to the world in a real and meaningful way.

Changing our mindset, converting our thinking from “this is mine and if I give any of it away it is because I am being generous” into “this is God’s and I’ve been entrusted to use this money, this talent, and this gift for the highest good for all people,” is not an easy thing to do in a culture that says otherwise.  I sometimes wonder, actually, if so many of our problems as a society don’t stem from this basic confusion over what is really ours.  What is yours and really yours is only that which you take with you when you die.  And that does not include any of the resources of this world at all.  So what do we want to leave behind?  Do we want to die known as successful by cultural standards, having raised the bar of what it meant to be wealthy, that we collected so much of the world’s resources to ourselves?  Or do we want to leave behind a legacy of caring for others, making the world better, contributing what we have for the good of the world?   How would we want our loved ones to describe us after we have passed on?  Who do you want to be in the world?

But perhaps even more, a deeper question to ask ourselves, who do we want God to see us as?  I’ve asked you at times to think of what gifts God has given you: what are your talents, what are the things God has blessed you with that God gave you to use for the good of God’s people and God’s creation?  But now I’m asking you, if God were to write a sentence describing who you are, what would you want that sentence to be?  What would you want God to say about how you have been and who you are in the world?  Do those desires match your actions?  Do they match how you walk and how you act and how you move on this planet?  What could you do to be more the person God calls you to be?  What could you do to be more the person you want God to see you being?  What is the best way for you to serve God in this world?

When 9/11 happened, money came pouring in to the Red Cross in order to help.  Apparently, they received a total of about $547 Million in response.  But at first, Red Cross put all the money into their general fund and weren’t going to designate that money for the purpose of helping the 9/11 survivors.  The public outrage at this decision, however, forced the Red Cross to change its mind and they decided that every penny given towards that cause would go towards that cause.

In the same way, perhaps, God calls us to use the money, talents, time and resources with which we have been entrusted to serve and help God’s creation.  Not easy, and God doesn’t take away in the same way that those who donated to the Red Cross could take back their resources.  But God is putting a sacred trust in us and calling us to live that out.

As I wrote this sermon I found myself thinking about J.K. Rowling, a woman who was hugely successful not only because she wrote wonderful books but because she intentionally gave up being a billionaire by giving so much of her wealth to charity especially to the Multiple Sclerosis society and to a group called “Volant” that supports women, children and young people at risk in Scotland.  She has chosen to use her resources in service to other people.  That is a legacy worth leaving behind.

None of this is just about money.  Caryl Aukerman and her husband felt called to work with the very poor in Albania.  They took with them into Albania their three young children, who were sad because in living in such poverty, they found they could not continue to do the things that they loved the most: art, music, and dance, especially.  They felt cheated and the Aukerman’s began to be concerned that they were depriving their children of the opportunity to live into and use the talents that God had given them.  As they found ways to help their children still use those talents, they discovered that the neighboring kids also yearned for these kinds of experiences.  So they began classes out of their homes: they found a way to not only teach their own kids, to allow their own kids to live into their gifts, but to share those gifts with other children as they taught art, music and dance at home.  The children they served were still poor, and their work was still focused mostly on creating ways for these families to have enough.  But they also brought the arts alive into this community and enriched the neighborhood children far beyond the meeting of basic needs.  There are things all of us can do with the gifts God has given us.  It may take time to figure out how to use those gifts, but they are there to be shared, they are entrusted to you to be used for the good of all.

Studies show that most people feel they would be fine if they only had twice what they currently have.  It doesn’t actually matter how much a person has: even billionaires feel that they would be fine if they only had twice what they have now.  Humans “needs” seem to expand with what we have.  At the same time, those studies also show that having more does not equal being happier.  We think we will feel more content, more at peace, more okay when we have more.  But the reality is something else.  What DOES increase happiness is helping other people, and feeling gratitude.  These can make a huge difference in how we feel in the world.  So I wonder if, instead of feeling poor and focusing on getting more for ourselves, we focus on the gratitude of what we have and explore how we can give more to those around us.  Again, I’m not just thinking monetarily.  I’m also thinking in terms of our time, our talents, and our other our resources.

Stewardship is about all of these things.  But the bottom line is that stewardship is actually about your well-being, your wholeness.  We are happier, we are more whole, we are more connected to God when we can remember that we are stewards of what we have and that we are called to use God’s resources to help those around us who have little, who have less, who are in need.  We will feel more content and more full when we are generous with what is not even ours to begin with.  Stewardship is an invitation to remember that all we have and are come from God, are God’s and will return to God in the end.  Thanks be to God. 

--

The church council met to discuss the pastor’s compensation package for the coming year. After the meeting the chair of council told the pastor: “We are very sorry, Pastor, but we decided that we cannot give you a raise next year.”

“But you must give me a raise,” said the pastor. “I am but a poor preacher!”

“l know,” the council chair said. “We hear you every Sunday.”

Thursday, November 8, 2018

All Saint's Day: Life and Death

Ezek. 37:1-14

John 11:1-45



The old time pastor was galloping down the road, rushing to get to church on time. Suddenly his horse stumbled and pitched him to the ground.  In the dirt with a broken leg, the pastor called out, “All you saints in Heaven, help me get up on my horse!”

Then, with superhuman effort, he leaped onto the horse’s back and fell off the other side.

Once again on the ground, he called to Heaven, “All right, just half of you this time!”



“Jesus wept.”  The shortest verse in the Bible.  “Jesus wept.”  What does it mean to you that Jesus wept?  What do you think about Jesus weeping?  

Today we celebrate All Saints Day, and while by “all saints,” we include ourselves (because “the saints” are all of those who are communing with God both during and after life), it tends to be a day when we honor, remember, celebrate, and grieve those who have gone on before us. We remember our loved ones who’ve died.  We celebrate the lives they led, and we remember that death is a temporary physical separation from those we’ve loved.  Death is a change in our relationship from one which is material, to one which is purely spiritual.  But while All Saints Day is a day to remember and celebrate, it is also appropriate that those memories would bring up some grief for us as well.  And All Saints Day is a day to honor those feelings as well, to remember that while we can rejoice in lives well lived, while we can celebrate the end of pain, while we can carry forward the legacies of those who led the way forward for us, while we can honor those who’ve passed by leading the best possible lives forward that we can, none the less, there is grief involved for each of us when a relationship changes from one of physical interaction to being simply one of remembering, celebrating, or speaking to our loved ones that have passed without tangible reassurance or promise of an answer.  That grief is a good thing.  It is a sign of the depth of the love we have for the other.  And it is a God-given experience: an opportunity to express the changes that happen within and without when someone we love has passed.

Sometimes people struggle to accept the grief they feel, thinking that in comparison to others, the loss they are experiencing is minor.  Or they feel they shouldn’t grieve as long as they do. Or we feel that we should just be thankful for what we do have and not mourn what we have lost.  I cannot tell you how often people say to me, “I shouldn’t feel this way.  I’ve been so lucky…”  But grieving is not unfaithful.  It is a recognition that we have loved and loved deeply.

“Kierkegaard said, ‘the most painful state of being is remembering the future… particularly the one you can never have.’ ”   I want to say that again, “The most painful state of being is remembering the future…particularly the one you can never have.”  In other words, the deepest grief comes when we realize that the future we envisioned for ourselves, for example, with another person, is no longer a possibility. 

Grief is an invitation to work that through.  When we are able to do that, then we can live lives that honor and celebrate those who have gone on before us.  When we try to stuff the grief, that is when we get into trouble.   

Many years ago, a parishioner died whose husband had spent the last thirty years caring for her.  It was his purpose and his focus in his life to care for her.  And when she died, her husband was left not only with the grief of losing his wife, but also with the feeling of having lost his purpose and his meaning in life.  He could not deal with the pain and he avoided

it by jumping into another relationship almost immediately, interestingly with someone who also needed a great deal of care.  He was remarried within six months of his wife’s death.  But while that whirl-wind romance put off his feelings of grief for awhile, it could not keep them away in the long run.  The result was that he then had to do his grieving within the context of a new marriage.  His new wife, not understanding grief, felt hurt by his pain over his wife who had passed.  She felt that he hadn’t let go or that he didn’t really love his new wife enough.  It made their relationship very difficult as he struggled both to live within his new relationship and to honor his old relationship through the honest and natural process of grieving.  In addition, the woman whom he married, as I mentioned, was also extremely needy and probably not someone he would ever have married had he taken the time to heal from his last relationship.  He jumped in to this relationship, he ran away from his grief into this relationship, not making the best choice for the long term.

That’s not to say that grief has to look the same for everyone or that there is one right way to grieve or even a right time line.  There isn’t one right way and grief looks different for everyone.  While grief specialist Kubler-Ross identifies as normal parts of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance, there is no prescribed order to these feelings and many experience them in different amounts, at different times, and in different ways, sometimes experiencing each of these stages multiple times and again in multiple ways, other times skipping one or more of these stages altogether.  Other grief specialists add “pain and guilt” into their lists of normal feelings associated with grief saying that even in cases in which a person could have done nothing differently, we feel guilty about things not done, about things that might have been done, things that should have been said.  But however one experiences grief, grief is a natural, normal process in life that we can’t avoid as human beings, as real honest people.

I remember a conversation I witnessed in which a parent was trying to protect their child from grief, keeping the loss of their grandmother from the child, not allowing the child to attend the memorial service, telling others not to mention the grandmother around the child, removing the child from any situation in which the grandmother’s name might be mentioned.  The mother thought she was doing what was best for her daughter.  But the daughter in her wisdom, as she grew a little older, finally told her mother, “I have to go through this. By forbidding me to grieve, you are taking away from me something that is extremely important and beautiful.  Please don’t take my grief away from me.”  Unlike her family, she understood the deeper truth that not going through the pain of grief was in some way denying her something important.  There is a gift in that grief.  There is a gift that is hard to see when we are in the midst of deep pain.  But the gift of grief is that it leaves us open and able to see things as they really are.  It leaves us able to move on, to heal, and to be ready for what God will bring in the future.  For Christians, the gift in the celebration of the Saints who have gone on before us is that we are invited once again into a deeper relationship with God, for God is with us in our grief, grieving with us as well.  And God is the God of resurrections, bringing new life out of every loss.  But again, we have to grieve, have to go through the death of the past in order to be open to the new life that God brings.

And that brings us back to today’s verse, “Jesus wept.”  It can feel difficult to understand this verse at some level because Jesus kept saying to all those around him both before and after Lazarus had died, that Lazarus would live.  Jesus knew that Lazarus was not really gone forever.  In light of that, what does it mean that before he raised Lazarus from the dead, that he wept for him?  How could his grief have been sincere when he knew his loss was not long lasting or real?

I belief Jesus’ grief was real.  I think that Jesus realized, and reminds us through his grief, that new life never looks the same as old life.  A resurrected person doesn’t look the same or act the same as a person who has never died.  We are changed by the losses we experience, the deaths we live through.  Roberta Bondi sums it up well in her book “Memories of God” with these words, “Even Jesus was resurrected with his wounds.”  Jesus, too, was not the same after his resurrection and he knew that Lazarus, too, would not be the same.  He grieved the Lazarus that died because the Lazarus who was raised would not be the same.  He would be different, he would be changed by his experience of death.

The reality is that it is hard for us to look at those wounds, the wounds of life, the wounds that have forced us into lives different from what we imagined.  It is hard to accept that even though new life has come, the old life is gone, really gone.  But it is.  Lazarus died.  He truly and actually died.  And while Jesus was able to bring new life to Lazarus, he first had to grieve for the life that had died, the life that was, the life that ended.  That, to me, is the message in that one very important Biblical passage, “Jesus wept.”  Jesus knows that we, too, must grieve for what was, grieve for what has past, for what is over, for what is done.  It is only through grieving and letting go of the past that we can really truly be open to the wonders of the present, to the gifts of the now, to seeing the new life around us.

Those two simple words, “Jesus wept” give us permission to not just live in the Easter celebration of new life, but to grieve the death that preceded it as well.  “Jesus wept” gives us permission to recognize that every change includes grief, and that it is okay to feel that even as we look towards new life.  Jesus wept.  And we can, too.

I want to end by reading you a poem by Washington Irving:

There is a sacredness in tears.

They are not the mark of weakness, but of power.

They speak more eloquently than 10,000 tongues.

They are the messengers of overwhelming grief,

of deep contrition and of unspeakable love.

            So today, I would like to invite you to come forward and put your pictures on the tables that are set up and name the Saints that have meant something to you.  If you would like, tell one good thing about that person.  If you did not bring a picture or a momento, I invite you still to come forward and say the name of someone whom you are remembering this day.  For this is our celebration of the Saints: all those who have blessed our lives, and continue to do so with our memories and celebrations of their lives.