A Sermon from the Church of
Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 5, 2023 (Epiphany 5A)
One of the things I love to do around here is walk down South County Road at night and see The Breakers all lit up. Every night it’s beautifully illuminated and you can almost feel the spirit of Henry Flagler emanating from those two towers.
But then as I walk back towards Barton Avenue, I’m also keenly aware that the graceful and majestic Bethesda tower is shrouded in darkness. Not only is it not lit up, but unless you’re looking for it, you could easily pass right on by and not even notice it.
One of the things Jesus says in this morning’s gospel passage is, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket.” In other words, light is to be revealed, not concealed. The message of Jesus must be shared widely rather than kept hidden. It must see the light of day, rather than remain in the shadows.
Now, I’d love to see Bethesda all lit up at night. Not just because it would be dramatic, but because it would be tangible evidence that Bethesda stands as a beacon of hope and love for all the world to see. For that is what this place both is and aspires to be. To serve as a light in the darkness, to offer grace and compassion to a broken and hurting world, to inspire us all to love and serve the Lord.
But in order to fully make this happen, we need your help. No, I’m not trolling for a donor for for new exterior lighting. But, hold onto your wallets, because today is Stewardship Sunday, which means I’ll be talking about money.
There’s an old stewardship joke — and, believe me, stewardship jokes are a pretty niche thing — but the preacher gets up into the pulpit and he says, “I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that the church has all the money it needs. It has enough to take care of our buildings, enough to fund our outreach ministries, enough to provide for excellent worship, enough to add some needed staff. That’s the good news. The bad news is that’s it’s all in your pockets.”
Here at Bethesda, as in all Episcopal parishes, we hold an annual campaign that invites people to make a financial pledge to support the ongoing ministries of the parish in the coming year. This is how we keep the lights on and pay staff and maintain our buildings. It’s how we formulate our parish budget. Some of you have pledged for many years — and I’m grateful. Some of you are new to Bethesda and perhaps new to the whole concept of pledging at a church — and so this is an invitation. And some of you, perhaps, used to pledge but either got out of the habit or haven’t been here in a while — and I welcome you back.
But beyond the fact that the church needs financial resources to make a difference in the world, making a pledge — for whatever amount — is a statement of faith. It’s an articulation of your values. It’s a way of driving a stake into the ground and proclaiming that Bethesda matters to you. It’s a tangible declaration that you are an integral part of this vibrant community of faith. It’s an affirmation that you belong here, that you are inspired by what happens here, that this is your spiritual home. And so, I invite you to give generously this year.
You know, sometimes in church we don’t want the preacher to talk about money. But the reality is that Jesus talked about the right use of money more than any other single topic. He knew that we often have complicated relationships with money. When we turn it into an idol, it can have destructive consequences. When we recognize it as a gift from God, sharing our resources can bring us great joy and freedom. Money has the potential to unleash so much good in the world. But its pursuit can also destroy lives — both physically and spiritually. And so in church, it’s essential that we occasionally talk about money. Not just because the church needs it to function and thrive, but because we all have a need to give it away; to live with generous hearts.
Please know that I will always be transparent about the financial needs of this community. Obfuscation has no place here. This year’s budget is lean, and it’s not a sustainable model in the long term, not if we want to build the programs that will allow us to thrive as bearers of the gospel in this community and beyond. We were able to pull a few levers and draw on some untapped funds, but our collective giving needs to increase by a minimum of 20% in order to reach our full ministry potential. Our overall giving number is budgeted at $2.5 million this year. But it really needs to be closer to $3.5 million if we want to really light this church up, illuminate the hearts and minds of those who call Bethesda home, and reach out to those who have not yet found a home here.
As I mentioned at last week’s Annual Meeting, one of my initial observations in my first few months as your rector is that there are several hires we need to make in order to fully live into our potential. We need the right staffing to work with and support our lay leaders in several key areas. One of these is development and engagement, which is non-profit-ese for fundraising and keeping people connected. We need someone to engage with parishioners and build relationships and work with me and our Vestry to lay out a strategy for sustaining Bethesda in the long term.
Another area is children’s ministry — we have some wonderful, committed families at Bethesda. But we need a vibrant program in order to draw in new families. I know that we often shrug our shoulders and talk about “demographics” when we bemoan the lack of families around here, but they’re out there. And they continue to move to this area. We need to invest in the human and programmatic resources to draw them here.
One of the important points in reading this section from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, is that it isn’t addressed to individuals. He’s not telling just you or me to be salt and light in the world. He’s speaking to a community. In the same way, the financial stewardship of this place doesn’t just fall on a few of us, but it is the responsibility of all of us. Collectively, as a community of faith, we can be salt and light in the world at all times. And collectively, we can use our resources to propel Bethesda into a vibrant and faithful future, to be a light in this community and beyond.
Thank you for generously supporting this place, even if that means stretching just a little bit. I get so excited thinking about all that we can accomplish together in Jesus’ name. And I hope you do too. May God bless us all in the year ahead.