Sunday, November 21, 2004

Living With Thanksgiving

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Philippians 4:4-9

Three Missionary Journeys

The wily members of Tau Kappa Epsilon together had enrolled, that autumn, in a course titled New Testament Introduction, 2pm. They had signed up on the bungled information and misplaced laziness conveyed by someone who said it was an easy A. It was not. In fact, it turned out to be a blistering forced march through ancient history, psychology, sociology and philosophy. Thousands of pages! Which they did not read. Three term papers! Which they hardly completed. Pitched battle midterm! Which they failed. And the class itself, 2pm, affectionately known in the hallowed TKE halls as ‘Death in the Afternoon’.

Thanksgiving approached, and with it the specter of responsibility, the cavernous approaching maw of a final exam worthy of the Grand Inquisitor. The brothers, in fear and trembling, had stopped going to class. Some had written short notes home, before the holiday, indicating that, amazing as it might seem, they perhaps could predict, sorry to say, one failing grade to come.

As it happened, however, the fraternity that year was blessed with an optimistic president, who saw every problem as an opportunity and every terror as a challenge. Thus, the night before the moment of doom, he gathered his sorry brethren in the chapter room. They sang their school song, read from the holy book, recalled other days, and then heard a stirring presidential peroration: “Men. We have not yet begun to fight. We are not defeated yet. An exam is not about what you do not know, it is about what you do know. Remember: you can if you think you can. We are going to pass this course if we simply remember that. Now. I happen to know that this teacher for 29 years has given the same final exam question: “Trace the Three Missionary Journeys of the Apostle Paul”. And I am prepared, as your President, between now, 9pm and tomorrow morning at 5am, to teach you the answer to this question.” Leadership is so crucial. Up went the maps of Greece and Asia Minor! Out came the coffee and cigars! Dusted off were the unread Bibles and textbooks! As one man, the fraternity bent to their challenge, the three missionary journeys of the great Apostle. As dawn broke on D Day, the blinds were drawn back, and the coffee put away, and all the gentlemen of Tau Kappa Epsilon knew in excruciating detail the path of Paul, in Arabia, in Macedonia, to Rome, and on to Spain. Bloodied but unbowed, bluebooks in hand, they marched forward to meet their fate, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do.

Imagine their surprise, prepared as they were. Imagine their shock, set as they were. Imagine their pain, hopeful as they were. Out came the examination, and its singular question….

Analyze and Criticize our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount…

One by one, beginning in good biblical fashion with the eldest, to a man they presented themselves to their professor, whose spine and mettle they had sorely under measured, and confessed their sin. “I was not prepared”, I will see you in the winter. “I did not study”, I will repeat in the winter. “The wheels of justice grind slow but exceedingly fine”, I will enroll again. All so confessed, save one lone freshman, who sat at the back of the room and remembered his leader, his president saying, “An exam is not about what you do not know, but about what you do know. You can if you think you can.” To the amazement of his watching brothers, and the bemusement of his professor, this young, pale freshman tore into the first bluebook, and then into another, and then into a third. At three hours and thirty minutes, soaked in sweat and covered with ink, the young lad stretched, rose, smiled, deposited his document, and left, to rejoin his astonished fraternity. And what did he write?

We may imagine his initial page encased behind glass in the fraternity trophy room, beside paddles, and photos, and sorority articles. He wrote:

"Esteemed Professor, It ill behooves such a lowly person as I to take upon myself the moral weight of such a supreme question as the one you so elegantly and concisely pose. It would not comport with my low station in study and life, to presume to respond to this majestic question. Such an answer would lack all proportion, and all humility. After all, I am a lowly freshman, a mere pledge in my fraternity. How could I possibly analyze, let alone criticize, the most wonderful words ever spoken by a human tongue, divine words from the Son of God? I am not worthy to gather up the crumbs from under the table of this heavenly teaching. Your example and your precept regarding humility, dear teacher, your very life and vocation have taught me otherwise. I cannot, should not, must not, may not, will not presume to analyze or criticize Jesus. Instead, esteemed Professor, by your leave, travel with me in your imagination, as I dutifully retrace THE THREE MISSIONARY JOURNEYS OF THE APOSTLE PAUL…"

We See Paul Living with Thanksgiving

Paul concludes his writing, and we may suppose his earthly existence, on a high note of joy, a wing and a prayer and a song of thanksgiving. We meet him here, captured by the cross and also by the Roman guard, living and to the end with thanksgiving. How did he do this? How did this dyspeptic, polemical, cantankerous, argumentative man find the grace to write, “In all things, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, lift your needs to God”? It took him three journeys. And not the ones to the east and to the north and to the west, not the ones to Arabia and Macedonia and Ephesus. In the Spirit of the crucified Christ, Paul learned about living with thanksgiving.

First, he made a spiritual journey from law to liberty. He learned to savor the taste of freedom. He became the archangel of religious freedom. It was Paul who said, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, there is no male and female”. A taste of freedom. It was Paul who said, “For freedom Christ has set us free, stand fast therefore and do not be enslaved again.” A taste of freedom. It was Paul who wrote, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” A taste of freedom. It was Paul who said, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ”. On a spiritual journey from the valley of law to the hillside of freedom, Paul learned about living with thanksgiving. In all things, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, lift your needs to God.

Second, he made a spiritual journey from success to faith. Oh, he had an eager interest in fulfilling, and that successfully, his vision and mission. To spread the good news throughout the known world. Still, he could see and trust that in the course of his labor, there would be failure, mistake, risk, hurt and loss. None of which would invalidate the great good news of which he was mysteriously made a steward. He could be afflicted without being crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed. He could take a punch. On a spiritual journey from the colony of success to the homeland of faith, Paul learned about living with thanksgiving. In all things, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, lift your needs to God.

Third, he made a spiritual journey from independence to community. For such a singular person, this may have been the toughest trail of all. Yet we see emerge in his letters an ascending sensitivity and sensibility about the miracle of fellowship, what he calls the partnership of the gospel. He can rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. And, most astoundingly, be patient with them all. He can observe varieties of gifts, but one God. And varieties of activities but one Lord. And varieties of workings, but the one Spirit. He can admonish the Romans, whom he has not yet visited, to let love be genuine, to hate what is evil, to hold fast what is good, to love one another with mutual affection….On a spiritual journey from the island of independence to the mainland of community, Paul learned about living with thanksgiving. In all things, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, lift your needs to God.

Are We Living with Thanksgiving?

Perhaps, in these brief moments of worship, as we lift our hearts to the living God and as we rest in God’s presence and love, we might consider whether we are living with thanksgiving? There is much that is wrong. War, hunger, terror, poverty, immorality, illness, strife. There is much that is right, too. Life, love, hearth, home, country, church, grace, God. We have known dislocation and disappointment, but we also have known grace and freedom. On the journey from what is wrong to what is right, are we living with thanksgiving? Are we praying, as our storehouse leader does for every client, ‘God sees, knows, loves you and so do I’? Are we gratefully gathering others to church, as one busy young mother did in September, phoning a college student to bring her to church? Are we willing to accept risk and service, as one young person, thrust by change into a new leadership role did, without an audible gulp? Are we giving generously, as one young parent did when after church on stewardship Sunday she amended her pledge upward? (Someone today could probably write a check for $100,000 to further the work of the church). Are we breathing, and listening and smiling through every day? Are we living with thanksgiving? And if not, what will take to get us there?

We have a new stage in our education wing. It is beautiful. One September Sunday, following church, an adult passed by the room to see a half-dozen young women using the stage, developing a play, dancing to imaginary music, enjoying the moment, the space, the church, life—living with thanksgiving.

May the prayer of Howard Thurman be ours, too:

"In Your presence, O God, we make our Sacrament of Thanksgiving. We begin with the simple things of our days: Fresh air to breathe, Cool water to drink, The taste of food, The protection of houses and clothes, The comforts of home.

For all these we make an act of Thanksgiving this day! We bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that we have known: Our mothers’ arms, The strength of our fathers, The playmates of our childhood, The wonderful stories brought to us from the lives of many who talked of days gone by when fairies and giants and diverse kinds of magic held sway; The tears we have shed, the tears we have seen; The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these we make an act of Thanksgiving this day."

In all things, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, lift your needs to God.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Two Beggars

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 9

“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:31).

This year we will scale a great promontory, the highest peak in the Bible, which is the Gospel of John. With every cut-back trail, at every rest point, atop every lookout, with every majestic view, this spiritual gospel will address you with the choice of freedom, with the ongoing need to choose, and in choosing to find the life of belonging and meaning, personal identity and global imagination.

In John 9 we reach the summit. Here this morning is the crucial chapter within the Fourth Gospel. In it we see clearly the two level drama of faith which John acclaims. Said Luther, “preaching the Gospel is one beggar telling another where they both may find bread”.

Today we meet two beggars. One is a man lost in the mist of memory, who somehow recovered his sight at the pool of Siloam. The other is the church, John’s church, and by extension Asbury First, existentially lost, who somehow recover sight at the hand of Jesus the Christ. John has two eyes at work. One is trained on the distant memory of a powerful Jesus. The other is trained on the experience of the Risen Lord in the life of the church. Both see the healing action of the divine.

This blind beggar, and his healing, and all the trouble that such a good deed occasions, is important to John because in him John sees clearly what is going on in his own church. At Siloam, there was a lonely beggar. We are beggars too. In Jerusalem, one was powerfully healed. We have been healed too. With Jesus, a man’s sight, his most prized faculty, was restored. So too our spirit. So long ago, Jesus was heard to say, “I am the light of the world”. He is the light of our world too. Did Jesus of old bring healing to the needy? By grace he does so every week in our midst still! What the earthly Jesus did for the blind beggar, the Risen Lord does for the beloved church.

That’s the good news.

There is other news too.

At Siloam, Jesus heals on the Sabbath. We too have learned that the Sabbath was made for man and not the other way around. In Jerusalem, there is immediate conflict over what this new Power means for old traditions. We too know the conflict between gospel and tradition. With Jesus’ healing there comes a division between generations. Such contention and difference is ours too.

Our gospel shows us two beggars, one in Jerusalem a long time ago. And one which is the church itself, to whom Jesus speaks, the Risen Lord speaking in the spirit through the very human voice of John.

Of the first beggar, blind in Jerusalem, we may say: He was visited by Jesus; he was exonerated by Jesus; he was touched by Jesus; he was sent by Jesus; he was commanded by Jesus; he trusted in Jesus; he was healed by Jesus; he was questioned about Jesus; he witnessed to Jesus; he told the truth for Jesus; and for this, and for his Lord, he paid a price. He was shunned. He was thrown out of the synagogue.

Of the second beggar, the community for whom the Gospel is written, blinded by dislocation and disappointment, we may say: They were visited by Jesus; they were exonerated by Jesus; they were touched by Jesus; they were healed by Jesus; they were commanded by Jesus; they trusted in Jesus; they were healed by Jesus; they were questioned about Jesus; they witnessed to Jesus; they told the truth for Jesus; and for this, and for their Lord, they paid a price. They were shunned. They were thrown out of the synagogue.

Two blind beggars, one a man and one a church. Expulsed, thrown out, shunned, set apart.

Most especially, in this crafted memory, the blind man given sight is then thrown out of the synagogue for consorting with Jesus. And this is the central communal dislocation of John’s church. The beggar was thrown out of the synagogue, and John’s church too, is like a beggar, wandering outside of inherited tradition. And we are, too.

The expulsion from the religious family of origin has two dimensions, one of sight and one of sound, one sociological and one theological. First, in actual experience, the little and poor community has lost its roots and its support. It is dislocated. Second, in the nature of hope, the community has now to find new resources, new ways of thinking about hope. It is disappointed.

(Why the separation? For the Jewish community, John’s high claims about Christ amounted to a breach of monotheism, a kind of ditheism, two gods. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one….” And the charge had merit. Now we can say so many years later, why this is minimal, look, by the fourth century the church acclaimed not one, nor even two, but three persons in the Godhead!)

Here is the greatest of good news, for us, this day! The Risen Lord addresses us through His Word and places us in earshot of saving grace and lasting freedom! By grace ye are saved through faith, and not by the works of the law! For freedom Christ has set us free, stand fast therefore and do not be enslaved again!

And that is today’s gospel, in brief. Now we may ask, is there any application we may make to our life today? Given that 14 minutes still remain in the sermon time allotment, we may hope so! And in fact, two applications quickly appear, one of grace in dislocation and one of freedom following disappointment, one sociological and one theological, one of faith and one of hope, one for the church and one for the world.


For nine years we have worked hard to reconnect our congregation to the connection of the United Methodist Church. As you know, I am and will continue to be a life-long, committed, and loyal United Methodist. So we have worked for the future health of our denomination as strongly as possible. We have paid massive apportionments, and yet relationally we are somewhat shunned in our conference. We have instituted a connectional Sunday, sponsored a pulpit exchange, participated in youth ministries, and yet our voice is not fully heard for the future of the denomination. We have sent our clergy now every year to conference, and have taken our places, hours on end, in the Visioning Committee, on the Board of Ministry, on the Finance Committee, in teaching and preaching across the area, yet we are “put out of the synagogue” when the voting occurs. We have hosted the meeting of the conference, even, and yet in the gathering we are distant cousins.

John’s gospel can really help us, here and now. We are not the first to know the endless contention and intractable difference that are a part of all institutional life. There will be grace enough and to spare in this period of turbulence. We can be kind without being dishonest. We can be honest without being unkind. This week we gave over to God one of our greatest saints. A woman raised in the heart of the Methodist tradition, whose loving witness epitomized the combination of deep personal faith and active social involvement which Mr. Wesley taught…A champion of women’s ministry…A graduate of a Methodist school…A lover of people who also did all the good she could…A great hearted person who knew that institutional and spiritual needs, when true and real, are in full concert. Friends, as long as we have the healing presence of such insightful saints, we will be able to make our way forward, and to deal with dislocation. Yet, to move forward with health, we will need to confer and discern together, with kindness and with honesty.

Honestly, in these years I see now, by a sort of restoration of sight to the blind, which comes by the light of the world, that I may have acted the part of the co-dependent spouse, with regard to this connectional relationship. Our beloved connection, our conference, is, from my perspective, addicted to frightful outspending and overspending. This is the pattern of addiction. It is a systemic, not an individual dilemma. The co-dependent protects the addict from reality, through denial, through ignorance, through avoidance. How does the co-dependent become truly helpful? By recognizing the condition, and by engaging a full, careful process of honest, kind discussion. A special meeting, for which we can gently and carefully prepare, is scheduled with our superintendent for April 18, 2005.

Am I preaching only to myself? Or do you recognize some signs of co-dependency in yourself? At home, at work, in family, in community, in friendship?

Our story of sight restored will have to wait for its inclusion in the future life of our denomination. We can wait, until the time for speaking comes. We can wait, wait without idols, until the end of this particular word famine. We can wait, and be ready and happy to speak and lead, down the road, when there is a teachable moment, a readiness to hear. Truth, as Kierkegaard reminded us, is not so much known, as lived. And through it all, as we have done, we can continue to love, love, love, in thought, word and deed. But not in co-dependence.

Here, just here, right here in our communal need stands the Gospel of John, a moment in the Day of God and the Gospel of Christ: you will find grace for every time of need. In the supreme dislocation, the movement from dysfunction to well-being, from addiction to sobriety, you will sense and you will know real grace.

That is one possible application of this gospel to our life, John 9 at Asbury First. Here is another.


On Friday I was brought to heel sitting at the red light on Goodman and East. At the corner a man was being tutored in the use of a seeing eye dog. The old black lab, harnessed and steady, was ready to guide him across the street, and his care-giver, a strong woman, held him at the shoulder from the back. Green came for him and the dog pulled forward. But the noise was great, and the wind was blowing, and the traffic was heavy, very heavy, and drivers were zinging left and right, all in the shadow of the Lutheran Church. And this dear young man held fast in fright. He could not move. The dog pulled and the woman pushed and he froze. At last, she saw that he was not ready. And her arms went around him to a great hug from the back, and she pulled him back toward the safety of the sidewalk. I had no right to see the utter disappointment on his face and covering hers too. Yet I see there an autumnal holiness, a real freedom, a love. Her hands moving from his shoulders to cover his chest and enfold him told me, somehow, that one day, one day, one fine day, he would muster the courage to shake free of disappointment. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must take to trust a mute animal, a dog, amid the cacophony of urban traffic. But I know he will find it. Why I bet by today he has done so. Sometimes you just have to jump. You know. When you learn to swim, and let the water hold you. When you take a leap and take a new job. When you ask someone to marry you. When you decide to leave a relationship or a friendship. When you retire. When you join or leave a church.

Looking out over sixty years of theological imagination in this country and abroad, speaking now both of, and to, the liberal Protestant communities, it will have been in retrospect rather a disappointment to see that we have not moved beyond Genesis 9, and in particular that we have not made our way out six more chapters to Genesis 15, in these sixty years. We stand frozen at the intersection. It is Noah who receives the rainbow, the covenant of color; but it is Abraham who receives the firmament, the covenant of light!

Jesus says, I am the light of the world.

I love the rainbow too. I love what Bishop Roy Nichols used to preach, that the world needs a spiritual rainbow. I love what I learned across the rainbow from K. Koyama, and DJ Hall, and J. Cone, and G. Guttierez, and B. Harrison, and C. Heyward, and C. Morse, and R. Ruether. Yes, all this color, celebrated in our churches and in our consciousness for sixty years, from the day my dear parents sat at the feet of Howard Thurman in Boston, it is good. We can sing a rainbow. And we have. But Jesus here does not say I am the color of the world. He says light.

And all the rainbow colors behind the pieces of the other gospels, and the documents like Q behind them, and the stretches of independent writing like Luke’s midsection, and the authentic Paul, and the secondary Paul, and the little John letters, and James, and all the others, all the colors, they are good. But John reminds us of the light from which they are all refracted. And for the 21st century, we will need more light than color. W E B Dubois was right that the issue of the 20th century would be the color line. The issue of the 21st century is light. We will need the universal truth, the global gospel, the eternal dimensions of Christ, that John most celebrates, to carry us out of our very real, and very constricting particularities. Asbury First, with its crowned, regal, welcoming Christ, has everything to offer, as part of a global village green. Jesus said, “He who is not against me is for me.”

I like color. Indigo and Yellow, great colors. Orange, a personal favorite. You like blue, he likes red. Good for you. It is not easy being green. Believe me, I know. Color is great, as long as color remembers the light from which it is refracted. We are all far more human and far more alike than we have recently envisioned. It is John who fills our existential disappointment with a great, universal hope! That this world can work! That in Christ there is no east or west! That God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human!

It can be dangerous to focus too much on difference. Bishop Sharon Rader told this humorous tale. On a winding mountain two-lane, two cars pass. Coming down the hill in a convertible, a young woman, hair blowing, radio blaring, waves and shouts at the car climbing toward her: “Pig! Pig!” Scowling, the other driver, an older man, mumbles that everyone still thinks he is a chauvinist. What right does she have to honk and yell? She doesn’t even know him. He is no chauvinist pig. So he thinks, as he rounds the corner doing 60 and runs right into—a pig. Friends, we are all more human and more alike than we regularly affirm, all of us on this great globe.

We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion.

We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion.

We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion.

We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All six billion.

We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion.

We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All six billion.

And in the light of the light of the world, what of all our colorful difference? Perhaps we will in the 21st century come to say, of this, as did Aquinas of all his voluminous writing, in a moment of epiphany—“so much straw”.

It is the covenant of the rainbow that fascinates us still. We have not yet opened our eyes, or had our eyes opened, to the awesome bounty and beauty of the covenant of Abraham, the promise of firmament. We have been so concerned about who is in the car, and especially with where everyone is sitting, that we have paid no attention to where we are going. We have been so faithful to representation that we have ignored reality. We have so adored colors that we have forgotten numbers. We have been so eager to provide space for voice that we have neglected the body, the incarnation. To have voice, first you need a torso, lungs, larynx, mouth—body. We have been blind, blinded. The body needs the body to be the body. I love the rainbow too. Galatians 3:28. We miss though the global, expansive, covenantal promise that our progeny will be as many as the stars in the sky, and that the gospel undergirds the world! Galatians 6:14.

We need to leave the rainbow and gaze at the firmament, to leave the afternoon haze and the rainbow for the night sky and the blazing firmament.

“Warmth, warmth, warmth! We are dying of cold, not of darkness. It is not the night that kills, but the frost.” (Unamuno). To leave the fretting about color coordination for the joy, the expansive great joy of welcoming the 50% of this county that has had no first helping of faith, no first exposure to the light. That is where the fun is.

Here is one great, freeing hope for the 21st century, that will move from Noah to Abraham, from rainbow to firmament, from difference to grace. Two Sundays ago our organist, somehow, caught two tunes, and made them one, an utterly Johannine thing to do. He started with “I can sing a rainbow”, and then he moved on to, “He will give me grace and glory”. May the next generation of theologians do the same: move happily from rainbow to firmament, from color to light, from varieties to common ground.


“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:31).

Good news: in dislocation, hold onto grace, the grace to be co-dependent no more; in disappointment, hold onto freedom, the freedom to walk in the light as he is in the light.

“A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom” (Frost). So too a sermon, and a life.

One summer day in 1983, arriving late, I walked across a field in Vancouver, toward a tent at the edge of the ocean. The World Council of Churches was meeting in Assembly. Philip Potter, Robert Runcie, Desmond Tutu, Pauline Webb. I can hear the singing still, “In Christ there is no east or west…”

This week you can choose to grow in faith, and so find a fuller part of your second identity. This week you can choose to grow in love, and so open a fuller part of the world’s imagination. This week you can choose to grow in faith, and so find a fuller part of your second identity. This week you can choose to grow in love, and so open a fuller part of the world’s imagination.

Faith is personal commitment to an unverifiable truth. It involves a leap.

Faith is an objective uncertainty grasped with subjective certainty. It involves a leap.

Faith is the way to salvation, a real identity and a rich imagination. But it does involve a leap.

Now is the time to jump.

All of us are better when we are loved.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

A Practical Guide to Stewardship

Asbury First Methodist Church

Text: II Corinthians 8

G K Chesterton was once asked if he could choose only one book to have with him on a desert island which would he choose. I suppose his young, academic inquirer expected him to say The Bible, the plays of Shakespeare, the poems of Milton, or Moby Dick. His response? A Practical Guide to Shipbuilding.

Whether Asbury First survives past the year 2020 depends today on two challenging issues, one of which is the subject of the sermon this morning. Your gift to the future will either move us off the desert island of the present, or will maroon us here for life—and beyond. We need to read just one hypothetical book, whose chapter headings follow, and whose title is this: A Practical Guide to Stewardship.

Chapter One: Waking Up

There is no longer any other Asbury First alive and well in New York State. We are the only remaining large, urban regional, historic, city located United Methodist church of any size. Central Park Buffalo, First Church Syracuse, Central Church Utica, Trinity Church Albany—two are closed and two nearly so. To thrive we must consistently draw people to drive twenty minutes or more, past several other churches, out of their cultural comfort zones in the suburbs, into an aging city, and ask them to poll vault their way into many generations of history, over high parapets of architecture, into layers of accumulated friendship—without clear direction for parking. We are a broad church in a narrow time, an English church in a German conference, a blended church in the age of red and blue. These years of steady growth, by God’s grace, sail across the prevailing wind of our denomination, which has its own struggles, and is therefore not much able to help or heed. We have not a dollar, hour, person or prayer to spare. This is the condition of our desert island, 2004.

Chapter Two: Giving Thanks

Somehow, God has blessed us with growth and health. From 2000 to 2300 members, from 550 to 720 in worship. You can list a dozen ways in which this great church excels: organs, choirs, adult classes, teaching, service ministry, architecture, building, new building, youth, program, staff, pastoral care, children’s ministry, management, endowment, fellowship, service. Let me emphasize one other: mission. In its apportionment, storehouse, dining caring center, daycare and nursery, Honduran mission, homeless housing, designated and other gifts, and in staff and physical support for these your church invests $400,000 or more a year. Is this enough? Easily. Is it too much? Maybe. Can we be thankful for this? Surely. Will it last? That depends. Every day, may it be firmly stressed, we see tremendous giving, creative generosity, abundant loving, in and through this church. On the day of the composition for this sermon, for example, I drove in past a new tree planted in memory of a loved one; I read a note of explanation about a great personal gift to our church; I remembered the promise at breakfast some days earlier of a new gift to come this year; I conversed about a stunning, astounding class pledge to our capital campaign; I was touched by a more elderly saint who described himself, even as he was making his daily contributions, as a “reluctant single”; I met again with a colleague whose own great generosity lives as an example for all; I reflected on the careful preparations made the evening before for our Taize service; I caught a glimpse of Ellen Donovan, Day Care Director; I heard about some community service provided by one of our members; I had lunch with a retired minister whose ongoing generosity is a daily inspiration; I thought about you, you all, all you all who make this church thrive. All in a few hours between breakfast and lunch, in the autumn of the year, along a beautiful avenue.

Chapter Three: The Joy of Giving

You have found a way, in a balanced and measured manner, to give to others. As a congregation you know the truth of Paul’s advice in giving. 1. You are excellent in so many other things, so you will want to excel here. 2. Real giving is always of one’s own free will. 3. There is a healthy comparative rivalry for growth in giving which we may affirm. 4. We give according to what we have, so that he who has much may not have too much and he who has little may not have too little. 5. Our measure of what is right, “honorable”, is found both in the sight of God and in the sight of others. 6. One who sows bountifully reaps bountifully. 7. Happiness, cheer is the mark of real giving. 8. God will provide what is needed. 9. The main blessing of giving is to the giver: You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God, for the rendering of this service not only supplies the wants of the saints but also overflows in many thanksgivings to God. Under the test of this service, you will glorify God by your obedience in acknowledging the gospel of Christ, and by the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others.

Chapter Four: The Present Need

We encourage you to give, to pledge, to increase your pledge, to tithe. Our congregation will grow as we find ways to move toward tithing. You know that the pastoral team and households are strongly committed to the support of this church. We give so because we believe in what you are doing and know that generosity is the highway to happiness. What distinguishes us as a people in Christ is largely our capacity to give of ourselves for the welfare of others.

Chapter Five: Three forms of Giving

We encourage all of our members to remember the church in your will. We encourage all our members to give to our capital campaign. We encourage all our members to pledge every year. You could look at your annual income and calculate a percentage of that income. 10%, 7%, 5%. Add your pledge and your annual capital gift together, and subtract these from the percent you chose. You earn $50,000 a year. You want to move toward tithing by giving 5%. That is $2,500. So, you pledge $1,500 for the year, and make an annual $1,000 gift to a Time to Build.

Chapter Six
You can give too much. Some of us probably need to be encouraged to be careful, to plan for the future, to recognize that we already are tithing, and so we should be moderate in further, future giving.
Chapter Seven: Tithing is the Christian Way

The careful use of material resources is as central to the life of a Christian person as is the daily fidelity to the covenant of marriage. Tithing and marital fidelity are both centrally important ways of keeping faith. In both cases, the question before is not about the past but about the future.

Chapter Eight: Our gift to the future will form a part of the future

Last Sunday was a great day in the life of this congregation. Music, youth, attendance, fellowship, education, luncheon, all. We further enjoyed an afternoon with our extended family. The festivities of Halloween followed, always a joy in our neighborhood, as they were this year. But as the evening wore on, and more and more children, older children, and many younger without any noticeable parental guidance came our way, in these later cases, many driven to our street from other, needier parts of the county, I began to feel a little differently about the day. All these children, so many of them, at least to my eye, seeming to be without much guidance, without much embrace, without much shaping influence. I wonder just how much more we could do for so many more if we really put our heart and muscle and financial discipline to work. Yes, we are doing well with some of the county. But how is the county doing, and the many needed children in it? By comparison with what might be done, what we are doing, while so very commendable, does seem to fall short. I say this not to be critical or negative. To the contrary. It is the very success we have had so far, juxtaposed to the current county need, that makes me wonder how much more we could do. Some years ago we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Camp Casowasco. We held a dinner in Auburn, and planned a night of celebration. All the former staff people came, many of the clergy and lay leaders who had worked for the camp since the mid-forties. Several of the original leaders and workers were there to be honored. We sang our hymns and ate our chicken and offered our happy remarks. I guess 800 or 900 youth had been to camp that year. I felt proud to have come of an age and into the ministry through such a place. At the end, though, Sheldon Stevenson, one of the young clergy in the forties, and then the pastor, about to retire from Ithaca St Paul’s in the nineties, stood up to speak. He complemented the work of the camp, and the evening. He expressed his faith in God. He told some funny stories. Then he paused, and said that in retirement he had been ushering for events at the Carrier Dome, many of them musical concerts, 50,000 youth together in the dark. He told about the issues and problems in such concerts. He admitted that he was learning about another age and culture. He said, “I see these tens of thousands of young faces, holding up their candles and flick lighters in the dark, swaying with the little flames lit, and I see such a hunger, and such a longing, and such a loneliness, and such a need—50,000 a night. I guess our 800 a summer is alright, but how much more we could do!” It is his sense of gratitude, but also his capacity for honesty, his sense of accomplishment, but also his acknowledgment of the tremendous untouched possibilities that I hope we will keep before us this year.

Chapter Nine: A Story

How do people learn stewardship? I wish I could say that the 26 stewardship Sunday sermons I have preached since 1979 have changed the world of giving. They have not. These practical guides only work when your heart is in it. When your heart is in it. How does that happen? That only happens when your heart is changed, warmed, healed. How does that happen? Usually it happens in a very humble way. It happens when you are ready to let it happen, and it happens then when you hear something. A word. Oh I do not discount the example that others set that makes us think and act, but we only come in earshot of such examples when our heart is changed. And that change comes whenever it does when we wake up to how much we have been given. As in this story from my friend Doug Mullins:

Belinda was a single parent, trying to take care of herself and raise five-year old Ryan. She was single because her husband had left her. One evening Belinda tucked Ryan into bed and was reading a book to him. He interrupted her to ask if she had bought that book for him. “Yes” she said. He then inquired if she had also bought the bed in which he slept. Again the answer was “yes”. Had she the bought the house they called home? Yes, she had. And what about the new sweater he liked so much? “Yes”, she said, she had bought that too. He thought about how good she had been to him, supplying his needs, and he finally said, “Mommy, get my piggy bank. There are seven pennies in it. Take them and get something you really want for you.” As is so often the case, we have much to learn from our children. Ryan realized that everything he had was a gift from his mother. His response was to offer her his seven cents, everything he had. Our relationship to God is just like Ryan’s relationship to his mother. Everything we have is a gift from God. Ryan offered his mother seven cents. It was not much, but it was all he had.