A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 14, 2018 (Proper 23B)
A few weeks ago, I was rudely awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call from the Hingham Fire Department. The alarm was going off at the church, and by the time I rolled out of bed and threw on sweats and a hat, the entire parking lot was lit up with emergency vehicles. When the call goes out, they don’t ever just send a single truck, they send the cavalry.
Now, this was a Saturday night because, as I’ve learned over many years working in churches, it’s always a Saturday night. The boiler never dies on, say, a Thursday at noon. Pipes don’t burst on Mondays at 10 am. It is always a Saturday night.
After walking up to the church and letting the guys in, thankful they didn’t splinter the oak doors with their axes, they mercifully shut off the alarm and determined there was a problem with our sprinkler system. The pressure had dropped which set off the alarm. So I spent a good portion of the rest of the night on the phone with the sprinkler company as the technician walked me through how to drain the system. Apparently I slept through that class at seminary. Now, he did warn me that draining the system might set the alarm off again — which it did. But fortunately, they only sent one firefighter the second time.
I’m not sharing this story to complain — I do live next door to the church — or to apologize to our 8 o’clock parishioners for being particularly cranky the next morning. Or to tell you that this happened two other nights the following week before the problem was finally diagnosed and repaired. And I’m not telling you this story because it’s Stewardship Sunday and I’m begging you for money to fix the problem. It’s been resolved.
But I think what happened is an apt metaphor for an important aspect of our spiritual lives. Because as the pressure built up in the clogged pipe, it had nowhere to go. You don’t think of galvanized steel as being particularly brittle but over time, probably years, the pressure built up to the point where it split the pipe. A tiny seam at first but eventually big enough to wreak havoc with the entire system.
I think this is what happens to our souls when we neglect generosity. When we hold on tightly to our money and act like misers, our souls get clogged and the pressure builds. Generosity acts as a release valve, allowing the system of our humanity to run smoothly and efficiently and joyfully. Money itself has the power to do great good and to do great harm. It can build up and it can tear down. It can empower and it can destroy. It can lead to freedom or imprisonment. Our relationship with money, that complicated relationship we all have with the things of this world, can either be life-giving or soul-sucking. Because, at one level, we can never have enough, and at the same time we can never give enough away.
Today we hear the story of the rich young ruler form Mark’s gospel. In many ways this reading is an impossible passage. Unless you’re St. Francis, most of us aren’t taking Jesus’ words about selling everything and giving the money to the poor literally. We can justify this in all sorts of ways: this is just a metaphor, Jesus doesn’t really expect us to sell all our worldly possessions; it’s a hyperbolic rhetorical device used to make a larger point about our attachment to material goods. And that image of a camel going through the eye of a needle? Surely that only applies to really rich people and, since there are always people richer than us — like the family with that giant house at the end of the block — we don’t qualify as Jesus’ target audience.
What was shocking to Jesus’ hearers was partly about giving things away, but the real scandal of his words were that wealth was seen as intricately linked to God’s blessing. The rich were blessed, went the conventional wisdom, while the corollary was also true — the poor were cursed. To give away all your possessions, then, was to spit in the eye of the God who had lavishly bestowed all of these things upon you.
In the modern world, we have a slightly different take. Many don’t see wealth as something bestowed by God but as something we earned all on our own. ‘I worked hard to get where I am. God didn’t give me that big screen TV and Mercedes, I earned them and I deserve them. I am entitled to have as many fancy things as I want because I am self-made.’
So whether from an ancient or modern perspective, Jesus’ words are troubling. And uncomfortable. And we’d prefer to avoid them. And ignore them. What we can’t do is resolve this tension on our own. The tension of what we possess and what we are asked to give away is something we all live with. As Christians, we understand that all we have comes from God and that our faith compels us to share our resources with those who are less fortunate.
And I think most of us want to give more away — to the church, to charities. But then we start thinking about our families and our futures and things we want and vacations we really want to take, and fear grips us and prevents us from being more generous. Our pipes get clogged and the pressure builds, the pressure of fear that we won’t have enough. And we forget to put our faith in the God who loves us and will not forsake us.
But I’m not inviting you to consider a pledge to St. John’s simply because it’s good for your blood pressure. Though it may be. Rather, I’m inviting you to invest in this community because it makes a difference — in your own life but also in the lives of others. This parish impacts people in ways visible and invisible, in ways tangible and intangible. And everyone here plays an integral role in carrying out the life and mission that pulses through these walls and beyond.
The thing is, St. John’s is sacred space set on holy ground. But more to the point, it is your sacred space and your holy ground. It is the place you come to be inspired through liturgy and music and preaching, the place you come when you feel beaten down by events in our world, the place you come when things in your life go sideways, the place you come to laugh with friends in times of joy and shed tears in times of grief, the place you come to mark important moments in your life, and the place you come to know Jesus through the gentle rhythms of the liturgical year.
Granted, it’s sacred space that has some less-than-holy needs. Like sprinkler systems and boilers and insurance and salaries and electric bills. It’s a place that needs your generous financial contributions to continue to thrive as a spiritual center of hope and healing on the South Shore. We are no less than that. A beacon to those in our pews and also to those who have yet to enter our doors.
This is a place I love dearly and a place that I hope you do as well. Your generosity matters. It is good for the soul and it is good for St. John’s. And I remain both grateful and inspired by your passion for this place.
In a few minutes, as you leave the communion rail and go down the hallway to return to your pew, just before you get to the narthex, you’ll notice a light fixture hanging down from the ceiling. It’s a little darker right there, not because we wanted to provide spiritual mood lighting, but because that’s where the sprinkler pipe ruptured. Liquid started oozing through the fixture and down the walls as the leak finally revealed itself. Which was fortuitous, and not just because I could finally start sleeping through the night again.
But until we get that light fixture repaired, which is indeed on the list, I hope you’ll use it to think about what kind of pressure is building in your own soul on the generosity front. I encourage your generosity to this place and I am confident that through it, you will see the very face of God.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018