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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.