Sermon for November 14, 2021

A Sermon Preached By
The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
November 14, 2021

      There once was a married couple, who after many  years of preparation, were flying in a small plane across the Pacific Ocean. Owing to a mishap in their calculation, the plane began to run out of gas. They saw an uninhabited island, and in the good providence of God, they were able to land the plane on the island. There they were, stranded and wondering if they ever would be rescued. They began to share with one another some of the things they had done of late. The woman turned to her husband and said, “One of the things that I did just before we left was to  make a very substantial gift to the church.” Her husband said, “Oh, really? Did you send them cash or did you make a pledge?”She replied, “I made a pledge.” “Magnificent!” said her husband. “Now I know that we’ll be found!”
      I should probably tell you that this story just proves why it is important for each and every one of us to make a pledge to the Church of the Transfiguration  next week on Stewardship Sunday, because if we ever get lost on a desert island or anywhere else for that matter, our parish will most certainly come looking for us so that we can honor our financial commitment to the parish. But that would be very poor stewardship theology, and it would be far from the truth. This is what some of my former parishioners commonly referred to as the “money sermon,” and I know that it makes some of you uneasy to hear someone speak about money from the pulpit every year. However, at the outset, I want to assure you of several things.
      First of all, we come here in a spirit of freedom and trust.  You and I are asked to make our pledges to the mission and ministry of this parish in good faith, realizing that sometimes our lives do change, and that we cannot always honor our commitment. Nor do we make our pledges out of a superstitious fear that God will then never let any harm or evil, like getting stranded on a desert island, ever befall us.  Many years ago, Fritz Kunkel wrote a commentary on Matthew’s gospel from a psychological point of view. When he came to that passage in which Jesus says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the  emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” he had this to say: “Jesus’ answer turns out to be not an answer, but a question. What is God’s? Is not everything God’s?  We are forced to make decisions well beyond our capacities. Jesus helps us by not helping us. He calls us to take steps to be independent, judging between   emperor and God.” We have a sacred freedom given to us by God.  Whatever we choose to give to the “emperor,” to our own secular concerns, we give in light of our deepest responsibility and obligation to the one who has given us everything.
      Secondly, the Church exists to absolve people of their guilt, not to make them feel guilty. No one here, especially me, wants to do anything to make you or anyone else in this parish feel guilty about the financial commitment that you will make here next week. Remember that you do not have to answer to the clergy, the Vestry, the Stewardship Committee, or  the congregation. You and I are creatures who possess a freedom of will and mind given to us by God, our creator. The financial commitments we decide to make are made in the quietude of our souls with our heavenly Father.
        And thirdly, if you doubt whether the giving of our money is a matter of spiritual or theological concern,  consider the witness of Jesus himself. He never hesitated to talk about the subject of money. More than one-third of all his parables focused on the relationship between a person and his money. There was the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Or the story of the rich farmer who built larger and larger barns, but whose soul was unexpectedly required of him.  Or how about the parable of the talents, in which everything the servants possess was given to them by a generous and demanding ruler? On one occasion Jesus held up as a model for living a poor widow, who had almost nothing, but who put in the temple coffers all that she had. On another occasion, Jesus called upon his disciples to give away one coat if they had two and saw someone in need. And the list goes on and on.
      Very simply stated, Jesus knew that the real key to a person’s character, the key to what a person is  really like, lies in how that person uses his or her possessions. Or, to state it another way, the chief sacrament of our souls, the clearest outward and visible sign of our inward and spiritual lives, are our possessions.  The primary values of our lives, the things we really value and cherish the most, will be reflected in  the way we use our possessions. We need only open our checkbooks for supporting evidence. Jesus said it very clearly: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Where we put our treasure is where our hearts will rest. It is as simple as that!
      The approach to Christian stewardship which makes the most sense to me, and the one which I have  advocated over the years, is that of proportionate giving. It is nothing new! Proportionate giving begins with a sense of gratitude for what we have been given, rather than a sense of guilt or obligation over the necessity of supporting the institution. A number of years ago, I came across a quote from a well-known preacher, John Claypool. I used it in the funeral homily for our son seven years ago.  I’m going to mention it here because I think it is worth your hearing. Claypool was an Episcopal priest when he died in 2005. His daughter had died of acute lymphatic  leukemia at the age of 10. After her death he wrote the following: “It came to me that Laura Lou had always been a gift. I had never deserved her for a single day. That I had gotten to be with her for a single hour was incredible, incredible good fortune. I realized that I could spend the rest of my life being angry that she had lived for so short a time, that so much of her promise in history was not fulfilled. Or I could spend the rest of my life being grateful that she had ever been born at all. I could glory in the fact that we did have the years that we had together. I decided to take the road of gratitude out of the valley of sorrow.”  He concluded, “Life is a gift, birth is windfall, and all is grace.” I would suggest to you this morning that the road of gratitude is the best and only way for us to view this mortal existence of ours and all that goes with it.  Life is a  gift, birth is windfall, and  all is grace.  Like John Claypool, our gratitude needs to be expressed. In spite of all that is going on around us in this world, and in our lives, we need to stand up and give thanks with our whole heart and mind and substance, hard as that may be at times. For we are reminded by the cross of Jesus Christ that  God uses all things, the best and the worst, the  weak as well as the strong, to accomplish his purpose, and to bring us closer to him.  Be thankful for the fact that your life is a gift.
        Adolphe Monod, a leading French Protestant pastor and preacher of the 19th century, who died in 1856, expressed it this way: “There is no portion of our time that is our time and the rest God’s; there is no portion of money that is our money and the rest God’s money. It is all His; He made it all, gives it all, and He has simply trusted it to us for His service.” This is the theme that runs throughout  both the Old and New Testaments: God’s ownership and our trusteeship. Whatever we possess: money, skills, opportunities, creative talents, education; brains with which to think, bodies with which to work, raw materials of the earth with which to create, life itself— all these we possess because we have been given them by God’s hand.  Our giving therefore, should be in thankful response to God for all the gifts he has given us.  It is the most direct way we have of expressing our thanksgiving. We give because we have been given to. If everyone gave for that reason alone, we would never have to worry about meeting a parish budget, and thereby supporting the mission and ministry which is the heart of what we do here in this parish. Our pledge to this parish is really a spiritual response to what we have already received.  Now, the exact  portion that we choose to return to God may amount to 3%, 5%, 10%, 15%, or more of our total taxable income. The Bible, by the way, is very clear about the tithe being 10%. If you haven’t done it already, find out what percentage you are giving to God now, and try to increase it for next year. If you are not accustomed to proportionate giving, a gradual increase each  year is the best way to begin, until you arrive at what you consider to be a reasonable proportion. Bear in mind, also, that giving to the church is different from charitable giving: one comes off the top, the other comes after we have taken care of our own necessities. Proportionate giving, then, as I see it, accomplishes two major goals. First, it allows our giving to rise out of our level of income. Secondly, it allows us to enter into a new relationship with our God. For the simple fact of the matter is that we cannot follow Him, and not have our lives change, too. It will affect our money. As someone once said, “You cannot join your life to the Lord, and keep your pocketbook to yourself.”
       At the risk of making all of this sound like an economic request to meet the needs of a parish budget, instead of the spiritual response which it really is, I want to emphasize a few of the statistics of our parish giving, which I think you need to be aware of each year from a practical point of view: Your 2022 pledge dollar will go directly toward supporting the many ongoing programs and ministries of the  Church of the Transfiguration, which are part of our operating budget. The areas covered in this approach include: outreach, Christian education, music, worship, fellowship, Diocesan support, administration, and property. What we do depends directly on the amount we  receive through your pledges and contributions. There is  no magic fund that spins off interest to cover any short-fall. There are no magic fairies either. This past year we had 70 households pledging about $173,000. So far, for 2022, we have $65,675 in pledged income. As you can see, we still have a long way to go. This will be an especially difficult year because without a rector, income traditionally declines until a new  rector is called. Why that is, I am not really sure, because one’s giving to the church should not be based on the how  much you love your rector. It is based instead on how thankful you are for all that life has given you, and your intention to share a portion of what God has given you with others through the ministry of the church. Now I understand that there are always some individuals who do not pledge, but who contribute in some  regular or identifiable fashion through the offering plate or various gifts throughout the year. That is all well and good; however, if everyone gave in this way, we would not be able to plan for the coming year or have a budget at all, and the church would probably come to a grinding halt. Now you know where we stand. There is always room for improvement.
     In his book, The Man Nobody Knows, Bruce Barton gives a description of the two seas in Palestine, the  Sea of Galilee, and the Dead Sea. One sea is fresh and clear and is filled with fish. Splashes of green adorn its banks. Trees abound and children play on its sandy beaches, beside the blue and clean waters. This is the Sea of Galilee. To the north, the Jordan River flows into it, and to the south, the Jordan River flows out of it. Farther to the south, there is another sea. The Jordan River flows into it also. It is called the Dead Sea. But here there is no splash of fish, no green abounding, no trees, and no children playing on its banks. The air hangs heavy over the sea and no one drinks of its acid-like water. And what is the difference between the two seas? The  Sea of Galilee receives, but does not keep the Jordan River; for every drop that flows in, another is given out. But the other sea is different than that. The Jordan River flows in, but it does not flow out; there are no springs flowing out either. Every drop
it gets, it keeps. The Sea of Galilee gives and lives. The other sea gives nothing, and it is dead.  Our lives, your life and mine, and our pledging, very much resemble those two seas. The parallels are
      So, as you consider the pledge that you will make to the Church of the Transfiguration next week, if you  have not done so already, (and you can always revise your pledge), remember that you and I are called to be not just program and budget supporters, but rather the Lord is calling us to be Christian stewards. Consider proportionate giving, and how it enables us to make a conscientious and thankful return to God out of what we have been given. And then, finally, remember those two Palestinian seas. Like the Dead Sea, will we be stagnant and spiritually die? Or like the Sea of Galilee, will we give and live?     

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