Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 22, 2017 (Proper 24A)

Occasionally the weekly cycle of lectionary readings rains down upon the preacher a gift from above; like manna from heaven. Sometimes the synthesis between what’s happening in the world and the texts we’re dealt to preach on is so great, it feels like nothing short of divine intervention. Like, say, in the aftermath of a divisive election when the demonization of the other side reaches great heights and we come to church and hear Jesus’ call to “love our enemies.” Or like when we’re wrestling with a particularly thorny issue of inequality and we get that passage from Galatians that there is “no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Or like this morning on Stewardship Sunday when Jesus talks about…money. Thank you, Jesus!

But before we get into that — and, yes, I’ve asked the ushers to bolt the doors — let’s take g2858a look at this passage. It’s one of my favorites because Jesus just nails it. If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night with the perfect retort to a sticky situation, but six hours too late, you have to admire what Jesus says here. The Pharisees, who have been desperately trying to entrap Jesus, are convinced they finally have him this time.

After sugarcoating their intentions with false flattery, they ask him point blank, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” If Jesus answers “yes” he’s breaking Jewish law since the coin contains the idolatrous image of Caesar with an inscription about the emperor’s divinity. If he answers “no” he is libel to be turned in as a traitor to the state. They have caught Jesus in a verbal check mate – whichever way he answers he’ll either be discredited among his followers or brought up on charges of treason. 

The problem is, they’re messing with the wrong guy. Jesus once again demonstrates that he’s playing an entirely different game. Thus his response: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Well, that’s the well-known King James Version. We get “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And it’s perfect. It flips the entire equation upside down and offers a fresh perspective on the relationship between God and humanity. After Jesus spoke, we hear that the Pharisees “were amazed and they left him and went away.” Foiled again.


But it also flips our entire relationship with money. It creates distance between our money and our identity. If we are to live faithful lives, money should not and cannot define us. Money in itself is not a bad thing, of course; it can be a wonderful thing. Last week Father Noah talked about the idols that can isolate us from God. And money is one of the big ones. When it’s used to build up, it can be a great gift. When it’s used to deny and destroy, it can be a great evil.

On Stewardship Sunday we encourage one another to give money to St. John’s. To render to God what is God’s. When we pledge to support the mission and ministry of this place, our identities become wrapped up in Jesus. We become “imitators of the Lord,” as Paul puts it in his letter to the early Christians in Thessalonika. We are proclaiming that love is what matters most in this world; we are trusting that God’s love for us will see us through any hardship; we are offering our own love to a sinful and broken world.

This time of year I often ask people the question, “Why do you give to St. John’s?” I ask because I’m genuinely curious and am often inspired by the answers. Yet while I talk a lot about the importance of pledging and why the church needs your money and how it’s spent, I’m not sure that I’ve ever answered this question directly myself.

So, why do I give to St. John’s? You may not even know that your clergy pledge to the church. I mean, it’s not like the ushers pass the collection plates our way in the middle of the service. We’re not reaching deep into our robes looking for our wallets (“I know it’s in here somewhere”). And at one level, it’s kind of odd, right? We get paid to be here, why would we give any of it back? That just seems rather…circular.

But I give for several reasons. I give because this is what Christians do to support the community in which they live out their faith. From the earliest days of the church, when being a Christian was illegal and punishable by death, they gave a portion of their income to support those in need. And I love feeling connected to the generations of Christians who have come before me. Faithful Christians who have generously given of themselves to build up the body of Christ. Of course the early church existed in an era before deferred maintenance and staff salaries and ever-rising insurance premiums. But they gave in proportion to their means to make sure people both within their community and beyond were taken care of. So giving to St. John’s reminds me that I am connected to something greater than what I can see with my own eyes. And I find deep meaning in that.

I give because I believe in the mission of St. John’s. I see first-hand the incredible ministry that takes place here and I feel compelled to support it financially. I see Sunday School rooms bursting with joy; I hear music that inspires and delights; I see sacred space that serves as holy ground in a world that desperately craves it; I watch people growing in their spiritual lives through liturgy and prayer and educational offerings; I see teenagers building houses in Appalachia and forging relationships with their peers in South Africa; I watch people opening their hearts to people in need here in America and throughout the world; I hear incredible preaching (just kidding).

I give because I love the people of St. John’s. This community brings me great joy because of all of you. I see the commitment you have to this place and it inspires me to pitch in and do my part. The ways in which you volunteer at events like the Holiday Boutique and our crazy haunted house; and in classrooms and around the altar and in building budgets and in planting bulbs and in bringing finger foods for coffee hour. I see you sharing Christ’s message and values and love with one another and the broader community in ways both seen and unseen. And I want to be a part of that. I want to continue to dream with you about where God is calling us as a community of faith; about where the Spirit may lead us in the years ahead; and this both inspires and excites me.

But mostly I give because it connects me to Jesus. It allows me to render to God what is God’s. And what is God’s is your very life. When you give generously you are giving a piece of yourself back to God. You are rendering to God your identity as a child of God. You are turning your life over to the one who loves you with reckless abandon, the one who is with you through all of life’s ups and downs, the one who never forsakes or abandons you whatever you have done or failed to do, the one whose loving kindness never ends.

I know giving money away can be hard. I’m paying college tuition. I worry about the future. There’s stuff I want. It can be a leap of faith when we so crave certainty and control. But there is such freedom in letting go of the death grip we use to cling to the idols of our lives and putting our trust in God. Freedom that truly is priceless.

This stewardship season, I invite you to join me in rendering your money unto God with joy and generosity. It feels good. It does good. And it is good.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

 

Advertisements

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 26, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 30, 2016 (Proper 26, Year C)

You can’t just invite yourself over to somebody else’s house. I tried that in kindergarten because my friend Michael had a much bigger box of Legos than we had at our house — including a bunch of those rare flat ones that you could build stuff on top of. And I was quickly chastised by my mother for being rude. Maybe I tried to pull this off in front of the grown-ups and my mother wanted to make it very clear to Michael’s mom that she was not raising an ill-mannered cretin.

But isn’t this precisely what Jesus does when he sees Zacchaeus up in that sycamore tree? rf“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Now, Son of God, aside, you just can’t do that. Right?

I mean, that’s intrusive. And rude. And presumptuous. And speaking of intrusive and rude and presumptuous, today I’m talking about money (how’s that for a stellar stewardship segue?). And I’m not just talking about money in general. I’m talking about your money in particular and the church’s need for it. Now, the good news is that St. John’s has all the money it needs to survive and thrive and do the ministry it has been called to do in 2017. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s all in your pockets. Hence the need for the annual stewardship campaign.

Now, it’s easy to take this place for granted. And it’s even easier to make assumptions. It’s easy to think, “Oh, the church doesn’t really need my money. Look at all the people here. Things must be going really well. And this building is so beautiful — that stained glass itself must be worth a mint. In fact from Main Street the church looks like an imposing stone castle — I’m sure they have all the money they need. And anyway, there are a lot of rich people around here. We’re in Hingham after all.”

Just as it’s easy to make assumptions about St. John’s, it was easy to make assumptions about Zacchaeus. Everybody hated this short, rich, tax collector. And, remember, tax collectors in ancient Palestine weren’t the IRS bureaucrats we’ve come to know and love. As a “chief” tax collector, Zacchaeus would have contracted with Roman officials to collect all the taxes and tolls in a given area. He would have then employed others to collect these fees and, by skimming off the top, a chief tax collector like Zacchaeus could end up a very wealthy man.

To his fellow Jews, Zacchaeus was a traitor to his own people; someone who made his money as a collaborator with the despised Gentile oppressors. He may have been rich but he was reviled. But even worse, in the eyes of the religious leaders, tax collectors were viewed as ritually impure. Because his work took him into all sorts of homes and businesses, the tax collector came into contact with all the unclean elements of society. And so religious, upstanding Jews, like the Pharisees, treated tax collectors like lepers. They avoided contact with them and would certainly never eat a meal with them.

So, of all the people Jesus could single out, why mess with this social outcast? Jesus, as he always did, saw beyond the externals and the conventional wisdom and got right to the heart of things. Remember, Jesus was at the height of his popularity as he walked through the streets of Jericho. He had great crowds trailing after him, trying to touch the hem of his garment or maybe shake his hand or simply wanting to catch a quick glimpse. There’s a reason Zacchaeus had to climb a tree to see him — and not just because he was short.

Think Red Sox World Series parade going down Tremont Street, the crowd five and six people deep and all those people climbing up telephone poles to get a glimpse of Big Papi. That’s the scale we’re talking. And imagine Papi looking up, pointing at you, and saying, “Hey, I’m coming over to your house for dinner tonight!” That wouldn’t be intrusive; that would be a huge honor. Imagine the pictures you could post on Facebook!

So it wasn’t so much bad manners as a special invitation to spend time with a superstar. But, to take this silly analogy further, imagine if Papi pointed at someone who was a despised Yankee fan. The only one in your neighborhood. An arrogant, brash New Yorker transplanted into Red Sox Nation. That would just make you cringe, wouldn’t it?

That was basically Zacchaeus’ standing in the community. And this is the one Jesus picked out of the crowd to honor? What kind of lousy judgment is that! But again, appearances can be deceiving. Jesus saw in Zacchaeus someone yearning to change; someone seeking transformation through relationship with the divine; someone hungering for justice and truth.

And the appearance of a flush church without any financial need is deceiving as well. Once you look a bit closer you realize that the annual budget is tight; that costs continue to rise; that we have a $7,000 budget deficit this year; that we don’t have some massive endowment funding our ministry; that we rely on your generosity to do the work we have been given to do in this community and in the wider world; that your financial commitment to St John’s matters; that we, quite literally, couldn’t do this without you. And, frankly, I prefer it that way. Because this is your church, not someone else’s. The worship and ministry that takes place here happens because of you, not someone else. This place survives and thrives only because of your generosity.

Like Zacchaeus, one of my jobs around here is to climb up into the trees and take in the view. To take stock of what’s going on and report back to all of you what I perceive. And it’s a stunning vista. I see Jesus himself working through a thriving, growing, energetic parish with a talented staff and committed volunteers. It’s an exciting time to be at St. John’s. But membership means commitment and we all have a spiritual need to give generously of ourselves in all that we do. That means, among other things, financial generosity, so that we can share this gospel message of love with one another and with those who have not yet learned just how much God loves them. This is important work that you are called to be a part of and to support with generous hearts.

And while the total number of pledged money is at an all-time high, we’re trying to invite more people into partnership with the parish. 198 families or individuals pledged to support St. John’s in 2016. I want us to increase this participation and our goal is 217 pledges in 2017. I think we can do this if everyone here makes a financial pledge to the parish, of whatever amount. If you’ve never pledged before or haven’t pledged in recent years, please consider it this year. Pledging is ultimately an act of faith; an act of discipleship. A way of driving a stake into the ground and saying, “I believe in this community and want to be part of it in a tangible way.” We want you and we need you to be an active member of this parish. And I for one, am exceedingly grateful that you are a part of this community.

The reality is that Jesus is always inviting himself over. Not because he’s ignorant of social convention but because he is urgently and passionately seeking to be in relationship with you. Not just a piece of you. Not just the public persona but the interior soul at the very core of your being. The relationship he so desires transcends the too-often superficial nature of human interaction. And it goes to the depths of your identity; the place where all desires are known and no secrets are hid. So come down from whatever tree you may be sitting in. And allow Jesus to be your guest.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

 

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25, Year B) – Stewardship

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 25, 2015 (Proper 25, Year B)

I love talking about money. And I love talking about it because it’s an important topic, a spiritual topic, a necessary, if challenging, topic. And, frankly, I love talking about money because it takes people out of their comfort zones, which is a place we so often encounter Jesus in new and life-giving ways.

And anyway, Jesus talked about the right use of money more than any other single topic. Of his 39 recorded parables, 11 involve money. Why did Jesus talk about money so much? Well, it wasn’t because he was looking to refinance his house — he didn’t have one. Or consolidate his debt — he didn’t have any. But it was a frequent topic because he was intimately aware of the spiritual dangers and spiritual opportunities presented by our relationship with money. And that is something that doesn’t get lost in 2,000 years of translation.

The reality is that, when it comes to our finances we, like Bartimaeus in this morning’s gospel reading, have some blind spots. And those blind spots keep us from living a life of generosity and freedom. They find us clinging to our possessions and our resources with a death grip, literally holding on for dear life; focusing on our money rather than our relationships; remaining blind to everyone’s needs but our own, until life itself finally passes us by.

And the thing is, when we hoard and amass and accumulate to excess, it’s not that we’re just denying others, we’re denying ourselves. Because when we forget that all that we have and all that we are is a gift from God, we end up killing our souls from the inside out. And that grieves the very heart of God. Jesus doesn’t want this for us, which is why he warns us in no uncertain terms against the love of money.

This doesn’t mean that money in and of itself is evil — that cliche “money is the root of all evil” is not actually in the Bible! In fact, quite the opposite. Jesus knows the potential power of money for doing good. Thus it is to be celebrated as a gift from God and shared freely. For our own spiritual good but also for the good of others. So money is a good thing — it’s the unchecked love of money that causes us to stumble. Which is, again, why Jesus so often addressed the topic.

Here’s the thing about stewardship at St. John’s this year. A couple years ago we engaged in a strategic planning process we called Charting Our Course. Many of you actively participated in this undertaking and we received a tremendous amount of feedback — over 800 comments based on surveys and interviews and focus groups. From this response, the Vestry charted a course for the future; one that emphasized what we were doing well and took into account important areas where we needed to do a better job.

What emerged was a plan to prioritize pastoral care, youth ministry, adult education, and music while maintaining excellence in liturgy, preaching, and outreach. And the Vestry and I made a number of decisions to refocus some mission priorities and restructure some staffing. I am thrilled with how things have turned out as the course has been charted and we are now living into the fruit of our planning and visioning. As I stand up here today, there most definitely seems to be, to quote the old spiritual, a “sweet, sweet spirit in this place.”

I know we are on the right course when I see Buffy working with the children’s choir or hear the adults singing a sublime communion anthem. I know we are on the right course when I see Noah overseeing 25 middle school students learning and then acting out and filming Bible stories. I know we are on the right course when I see Alexis and the church school teachers bringing throngs of children into church after the announcements. I know we are on the right course when I see the Outreach Committee’s new Giving Basket set up in the entryway ready to receive a variety of donations over the coming months. I know we are on the right course when I see people laughing and lingering at Coffee Hour. Tangible signs that we are on the right course abound and it is a joy to behold.

So together we have listened, we have learned, we have implemented. And now we need to pay for this if we want this sweet, sweet spirit to continue for the long term. In concrete terms, we need to annualize these new positions amid ever-rising costs. And that takes money. Not money in general, but your money in particular.

The bottom line is that I invite you to think prayerfully about your 2016 pledge to this, your parish community. We have invested in the dreams set forth in our strategic plan and we need giving to increase by 5% and 10% to avoid running a deficit next year. I know we can do this.

So many of you have been incredibly generous over the years. And we need you to continue to exhibit leadership in this area. Some of you have taken the first steps toward becoming more invested in this community — with your prayers, your presence, your passion, and your money. And some of you have never made a financial pledge to St. John’s. I invite you to do so because not only will it help us plan for the year ahead, it will make you feel better connected to God and this community.

Giving to St. John’s shouldn’t simply come out of your disposable income. Hopefully, your faith means much more than that. I mean, think about the impact it would make if you made a pledge for the very first time or if you increased your pledge for next year — especially if you’ve given at the exact same level for the past decade. And then think about giving to your church in the context of your broader life. If checkbooks are windows into our life’s priorities, how are you doing? For example, think about what you spend per year to eat out or what it costs for your family of four to go skiing for a long weekend. Is your pledge anywhere near that? And if not, what does this say about the priority faith plays in your life?

Last year the average pledge at St. John’s was $2,188. Now I know not everybody can do that — we all have different situations. But that comes to about $180 a month — again, just to put it all in perspective as you think about what this place and all these people sitting here today mean to you.

Jesus’ point when talking about money was never guilt but generosity. He may warn us against the love of money but he also encourages us to embrace a spirit of generosity. In the end, generosity is an act of love, an act of trust, an act of faith. When we take the blinders off, only then are we truly able to follow Jesus as the formerly blind Bartimaeus is able to follow Jesus. As this story shows us, spiritual blindness or sight has nothing to do with actual sight. Those who see physically can remain spiritually blind just as those who cannot see physically can see very clearly when it comes to the life of the spirit. I’m simply inviting you to open your eyes and your heart and your wallet to support St. John’s in ever increasing ways. This community matters; you matter; your faith matters.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on October 20, 2013 (Proper 24, Year C) 

It’s interesting that the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel shows up on Stewardship Sunday. I can’t remember that ever happening before and I’m not sure I like it. The last thing I want stewardship to feel like is the rector wrestling with the congregation. I’m not standing up here until you say “uncle” and fork over your hard-earned money. I don’t want you to leave here feeling beaten and bruised and needing an ice pack.

Slightly uncomfortable, sure. Challenged, yes. Inspired, hopefully. But Stewardship Sunday isn’t meant to be a wrestling match. I won’t be flying off the top rope trying to pin you down to a specific number. The ushers won’t be streaming down the aisles putting you in submission holds. I’m not trying to wrestle your money away from you. There’s nothing adversarial about cultivating a spirit of generosity in our community. We’re all in this together, after all, to build up the Body of Christ that is St. John’s.

But it is true that we all wrestle with our relationship with money. We never think we have enough, we don’t like to part with it, even when we do have enough we irrationally fear that we’ll run out. Sometimes we feel guilty about our spending habits. Perhaps this is why people get uncomfortable whenever the preacher starts talking about money — which he’s doing as we speak. 

The church has often wrestled with how to speak about money. For generations many considered it unseemly to speak about money in church. It was a topic never broached in polite company and Episcopal churches in particular were viewed as the epitome of polite company, places where money, like children, was to be seen but not heard. And clergy played right into this — many priests would no sooner speak about money from the pulpit than sex. I’m actually tempted to pause and take a poll to find out which topic you’d prefer. But that’s a slope I’m not ready to slide down — after being at this for 14 years I’ve learned at least a few lessons along the way. 

Yet money is not only something we all wrestle with, it’s a reality of life, just as it has been since Biblical times. Denial isn’t an effective way to deal with difficult topics nor will it pay the bills. Yes, the church needs money — specifically your money — to drive its mission. As much as St. John’s might look like a castle from the outside with its stone walls and rook-like bell tower, its heart is the people on the inside — you and me. And it is the heart that pumps life into the building, making it a place of worship and welcome and formation and vibrant community pulsing with ministry and spiritual yearning and outreach to those in need. I encourage your generosity because I myself believe in St. John’s and just as my family pledges to the parish I encourage you to do likewise. Because it matters. This community matters, what we do here matters, you matter.

Of course after every stewardship sermon someone will invariably say “I wish he wouldn’t talk about money so much.” I, frankly, don’t think I talk about money nearly enough — not just giving it to the church but our right relationship with money in general. Depending on how you define a parable, Jesus gave us roughly 40 of them as handed down in the gospels and nearly half of them deal with money in one form or another. There are parables dealing with lost coins and silver talents, and pearls of great price. There are parables that speak of inheritance — like the Prodigal Son — or earning wages. There’s the widow’s mite and references to tax collectors and rich men with many possessions and rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. 

If I was to mimic Jesus’ own preaching, I’d have to preach about money nearly every other week. So if this morning’s sermon makes you slightly uncomfortable, just remember to be thankful. Because I should probably be talking about money a lot more than just a few times a year.

Now, it should be stated up front that money is not a bad thing — that was never Jesus’ point. Certainly there were middle class and rich followers of Jesus even in his day. Sometimes we have this image of Jesus’ disciples as a rag-tag group of impoverished, poorly educated fishermen. Of course they could give up all their possessions to follow Jesus because they had precious little. Where’s the sacrifice in that? But then we encounter characters like Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was a man of means who first followed Jesus by cover of darkness because as a leader in the Jewish community he didn’t want to be seen in the company of a radical preacher. After Jesus’ crucifixion he boldly went to Pilate to request Jesus’ body and used his own resources to give his Lord a proper burial in his own unused tomb.

So, much good can be done with money. We see this everyday in this community — many of you have been so generous over the years both here at St. John’s and in the wider community. What Jesus often gets at is the right use of money. Money can be used to build up and it can be used to tear down. Money can be life affirming and it can be soul sucking. It is a powerful commodity and Jesus recognizes and warns against the temptations and the allure. Remember, one of the things satan does when he tempts Jesus in the wilderness is to take him up a high mountain and offer him all the kingdoms of the earth if only he would bow down and worship him. 

Much of Jesus’ concern about money, of course, had to do with people who didn’t have enough — the poor, the downtrodden, the lame. But he also knew human nature — thus his concern for those with financial resources at their disposal. Fear drives us to hoard our resources and self-centeredness compels us to spend only on ourselves. But a lack of generosity causes our souls to shrivel up and wither. And that’s not what Jesus wants for us. He wants our souls to be brimming over with peace and joy and hope and meaning.

Which brings us back to the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel, an episode as well known as it is shrouded in mystery. There’s nothing metaphorical about it in the sense that Jacob leaves the encounter literally limping away with a hip injury. What’s clear is that a very physical interaction has taken place. What’s less clear is who was involved. While the story has been passed down to us as Jacob wrestling with an angel, Scripture refers to the figure as a “man” but then Jacob names the place Peniel saying “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Somehow Jacob has been engaged with the divine. And at the heart of this struggle is a blessing. Jacob refuses to let go of his wrestling partner until he blesses him. He literally fights for a blessing and refuses to disengage until he receives one. 

This story reminds us that faith can indeed be a struggle. Life has its ups and downs, doubt looms, we wrestle with remaining faithful. But being rooted to a faith community helps us stay the course through inspiration and encouragement in Christ. We don’t have to wrestle alone — we have one another to lean on for prayer and support. Pledging isn’t the only way to feel connected to St. John’s but it’s an important one and I hope you’ll join me in either renewing your commitment to this place or committing to it anew. Like Jacob you will leave the encounter blessed. Blessed by God, blessed by this community, and blessed by your own generosity.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28, Year A)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on November 13, 2005. 
Based on Matthew 25:14-15, 19-29 (Proper 28, Year A).

Money. It’s a topic no one wants to hear about from the pulpit. It’s fine if Jesus talks about it, as he does in this morning’s gospel. We just don’t want our clergy to preach about it. Because when we start preaching about money, people get uncomfortable. We start to squirm a bit; maybe start coughing. The pews all of a sudden seem even more uncomfortable than they already are.

Episcopalians are particularly vulnerable to this. Money seems an unseemly topic to discuss from the pulpit. It’s so…undignified. And traditionally we like to talk about money about as much as we like to talk about evangelism. Which is not much. We even refer to our annual pledge campaign as our “stewardship program,” thereby avoiding any reference to money. The danger is that we can talk in lofty language about stewardship while forgetting that this is also about money. I’ve heard stewardship sermons that don’t even say the word. They may include beautifully articulated phrases about the theology of stewardship, but money becomes the giant elephant in the sanctuary. No one dares speak of it. And an opportunity to discuss a critical piece of our relationship with God in Christ is lost.

But I don’t think it’s the topic of money itself that turns us off. Indeed, money is generally one of our favorite topics. We like money, we want money and we enjoy spending money. So it’s not the topic itself that makes us uncomfortable. I think what really makes us squeamish is the topic of giving away our money. And that’s what I want to talk about this morning. (Is it getting hot in here?) 

I just glossed over the word stewardship, but I do think that it’s a critical context in which to look at our pledge program. Because this over-used word isn’t just a way to trick parishioners into talking about money. It’s not just a euphemism to soften the blow. The concept of stewardship is all-encompassing. It’s a recognition that all we are, and all that we have is a gift from God. And that faithful lives are based on the human response to this divine gift. So stewardship is the giving back to God of our selves through service and the sharing of our financial resources. God has made us stewards – caretakers – of this church, this world, and our relationship with one another. Money alone doesn’t fully define stewardship. But one of the ways we act as stewards is by giving money to our church. We can’t ignore this. And Jesus himself never skirted the issue.

This morning we get the parable of the talents. A talent was a sum of money. It has nothing to do with the traditional stewardship “trifecta” of time, talent, and treasure. In fact it was a large sum of money, equivalent to the amount a day laborer would have been paid for fifteen years of work. So rarely would the average person ever have been entrusted with one talent, let alone five. But that’s what happens. A master divides eight talents among three slaves. One gets five, another two, and a third get one. And then the master goes away for what we’re told is “a long time.” Upon his return, the master settles the accounts. The first doubles his return, making five more talents. The second also doubles his return, making two more. And the third returns the single talent he was given.

What’s curious in this parable about God’s kingdom, is the fate of the third slave. The one who buries his talent and then returns the single talent to the master upon his return. He doesn’t seem to do anything wrong. He didn’t lose the money or squander it. Yet his actions are condemned.

In the context of stewardship, this seems to be a warning to those who approach their relationship with money out of fear. Instead of joyfully using our resources, we often bury them. We become hoarders. And along with it we bury our faith; we bury our trust in God. It forces us to keep looking down, worrying about our buried treasure rather than looking up and glorifying Jesus. And many of us have adopted this posture in our relationship with our money. We’re pack rats, living in fear. Waiting for that rainy day that may or may not come. Fearful that if and when it does, God will not be able to provide.

Last month we had an amazing rummage sale. I’ve never seen so much stuff. Rummage was everywhere. This year, I’d like to challenge us all to give as freely of our money as we did of our rummage. It’s easy to give things away that we don’t want or need. We’ll do that by the truckload. Or at least the minivan-full. But what if you were asked to part with things you really cared about? What would you choose to give away? There is grief in giving something away you care deeply about. I’m not asking you to give until it hurts. But I am asking you to give until you at least notice it. We give rummage away out of our abundance. And our pledging habits often follow the same pattern. ‘Only after I have everything I could possibly want or need will I get down to the business of figuring our my pledge to All Saints.’ But unless pledging comes from your heart, unless it comes out of what really matters to you, it’s as easy as giving away the old sporting equipment wasting away in your garage. And Jesus deserves more than that.

Stewardship, like our faith lives, is not always easy. To fully realize our faith, our giving must be a primary part of our relationship with Jesus Christ, not merely a tangential one. Supporting the mission and ministry of All Saints’ as a central piece of your faith identity is crucial to your relationship with Jesus. I can’t be clearer on this. And it’s why I’m standing up here this morning asking you to give money to your parish. Even if it makes us all a bit uncomfortable.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2005

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27, Year B)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on November 9, 2003. 
Based on Mark 12:38-44 (Proper 27, Year B).

An usher passing a collection plate is a scary sight. The collection plate itself is harmless. Actually they’re often quite beautiful. But there’s something about the sight of an usher holding this plate that makes us nervous.

It puts us on the spot. The moment the plate passes in front of us we’re forced to confront our values and our generosity in a very tangible way. So, it’s worthwhile to reflect upon what specifically goes through our minds as the collection plate passes. Sometimes it’s the horrifying realization that you’ve, once again, left the envelope on the kitchen counter. Sometimes, especially when you visit another church, it’s the realization that you’ve forgotten to bring your wallet. All you can do is smile awkwardly and shake your head as the plate passes by. Which wouldn’t be so bad except for the other people in your pew. What will they think? That you’re cheap? Or ungrateful? Or poor? Sometimes when the plate appears you reach confidently into your pocket only to come out with a tissue and a bent paperclip. And for a split second you consider sliding the tissue underneath the other envelopes, hoping no one will notice. Finally there’s the occasion when you realize that all you have is a single dollar bill. Which is good because at least you have something to put in the plate. But you can’t just toss it in without embarrassing yourself at your own cheapness. So you quickly fold it over to make it look like a big wad of cash and fling it into the plate with great bravado. Unfortunately it invariably unfolds and your great secret is exposed.

I would bet that at least one of these experiences resonates with you. Because when it comes to money, we so often focus on our selves and our own emotions. We are self-conscious and self-centered givers. Which is why we don’t always greet the collection plate with a sense of gratitude and joy, but rather with fear and a sense of burden. Our self worth is intrinsically connected with our net worth. And so giving money away is a painful process. We seem to be losing a piece of our identity.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Jesus points us in another direction, a direction that doesn’t negate the importance of financial resources but keeps them in their proper place.

Money is important. But the reason it’s important is in the way we use it. How we spend our resources says a lot about the priorities of our lives. Our checkbooks can be windows into our life’s values. But money itself is not our identity. Money is a part of us but it doesn’t ultimately represent who we are. Our true identity is in our relationship with God.

As we reflect upon our own attitudes toward money this morning, I can’t help but wonder what was going through the poor widow’s mind as she approached the temple treasury. Maybe she had peace and joy in her heart. Maybe she took great pleasure in giving away everything she had to live on. But I’d bet she was absolutely terrified. Imagine cashing out all of your assets and simply giving them away. I don’t care how much of a cheerful giver you are, it would be frightening to walk away from all the security you have ever known. And it’s not as if she could go out and start a business the next day. There weren’t any bootstraps available to impoverished widows in ancient Palestine. Her class were among the most marginalized and vulnerable members of society. There was no prospect for work. Begging would be the only means of survival.

And make no mistake, by praising this woman’s faithfulness Jesus is not affirming poverty as an acceptable condition in which to live. Remember in the previous verses he’s condemning the religious elite who have put in place this system of financial tyranny. The temple treasury enforced taxes upon all Jews, not just the wealthy ones. This widow may have been freely offering her last two coins to God, but she also may not have had a choice. We don’t really know. But Jesus’ point for us is that sacrificial giving is the key to gaining entrance to God’s kingdom. That’s the ideal that he draws us to and that’s the ideal that he holds before us on this stewardship Sunday. We are challenged to give not merely out of our abundance but, like the poor widow, out of our poverty and fear as well.

Sacrificial giving isn’t about giving until it hurts. It’s about giving until the joy starts to come through. It’s about giving through the heart rather than the wallet. It’s about moving past our barriers of self-conscious giving towards a giving of true gratitude for mercies given.

I guess the church itself is partly to blame for our fear of money. Collection plates should really be more consistently called offering plates. Because that’s what they hold – our offerings to God and neighbor. The word ‘collection’ conjures up images of the tax collector. And while Jesus may have eaten with them, no one wants to come to church to pay taxes. It puts the usher in the role of the rector’s henchman. Rob them blind and then get on with the service. The word offering much better captures the essence of what’s going on here.

So as you give prayerful consideration to your pledge this year, reflect upon the message of Jesus. Remember that Christ himself is the one true offering.  His sacrifice upon the cross is the ultimate in sacrificial giving. Through it an abundance of grace has been poured out for us all. And our own offering of time, talent, and treasure to the ministry of the church is a tangible way that we too can pour out the abundance of grace for ourselves and for others.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 23, 2011 (Proper 25, Year A)

When I was a young curate serving a large parish in downtown Baltimore I kept a small yellow post-it note attached to my computer. On it, I had written the words “It’s the Gospel, Stupid.” Whenever I’d sit down to write a sermon, it served as a constant reminder to focus on the essentials (newly minted preachers tend to wander a bit). While I no longer have the post-it note itself, I would like to think that I’ve somehow indelibly attached that message to my heart.

This particular gospel passage can play a similar role for all of us. Jesus distills the whole life of faith down to the basics. And the message is simple enough and short enough to fit onto a post-it note: “Love God and Love Neighbor.” That’s it; the whole thing is narrowed down to four little words. For all of the religious complexities, all the theological debates, all the Scriptural commentaries, faith itself is a pretty straightforward proposition. That’s not to say it’s always easy to live this out in our daily lives but the basics are pretty clear. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all you mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” You could use this as a mission statement and hold it up to your daily calendar. At the end of each day you could look back and ask “In what ways have I loved God and loved neighbor in the past 24 hours?”  And then vow to try a bit harder tomorrow.

I’ve talked to a lot of really stressed out people in the past few weeks. People who find themselves moving from one activity to the next at a frenzied pace; people who have no time to themselves; people juggling work and family and volunteer activities; people who know that the balance is out of whack and yet feel powerless to realign the priorities of their lives; people who feel guilty about slowing down for fear of losing momentum; people who want to attend to their faith lives but just don’t seem to have the time.

Believe me, I can relate to much of this. But at a certain point you have to start wondering what’s the point of living life on a treadmill? Where’s the space to simply be? Where’s the joy?

And that’s when Jesus steps in and says “stop.” ‘It’s not that complicated. Love God, love neighbor and everything else will fall into place. You don’t have to do it all yourself; you’re not as important as you think you are; the world won’t fall to pieces if you don’t get everything done.’ This passage is for everyone who is feeling as if life is living them rather than the other way around. Like a cool drink on a hot day it offers relief. The question is whether we will slow down long enough to drink this message deeply into our souls or just keep marching along to the beat of our own anxiety?

It also offers some much-needed perspective. In this context it’s helpful to take a step back and examine your own life’s priorities. What is most important to you in this life? Family, friends, work, hobbies, sports, music? What is it that gets you out of bed in the morning? What are you most passionate about? What role does faith play in your daily life?

When you consider that which brings you the greatest joy, it’s impossible not to see God’s hand at work in the midst of it. Ultimately everything comes back to the grounding of your faith life. Through faith, joy is more complete; passions are better realized; life itself is fuller. These are all big questions and I think it’s important to ask them in the context of financial stewardship (you knew I’d get there eventually). Last week I talked a bit about the theology of stewardship – and even mentioned ferrets in the process. This week, I’ll be a bit more practical. The good news is that we have all the money we need to grow our church, to strengthen our programs, to continue to make this place the most dynamic parish on the entire South Shore. The bad news is that it’s still in your wallets.

Now I know that not everyone is in a financial position to give as much as they might like to St. John’s. I know that many are affected by the turbulent economic conditions. I know that many are on fixed incomes. But I also know that many people – myself included – can do more to support this place. From my own perspective, I love being here, I love this community, I love what we’ve been able to accomplish together the past two years, and I love the direction in which we’re headed. My own pledge will reflect this.

There are as many reasons to love this community as there are people sitting here this morning, wondering when I’m going to stop talking about money. But I’m talking about it because I care, because I invite you to fully immerse yourself into this community, heart, body, soul, and wallet. As an act of thanksgiving, giving is infectious; generosity leads to a wonderful feeling of freedom and letting go. And it helps to root the priorities of our lives and allow us all to get back to the basics of our faith; to the basics of loving God and loving neighbor.

There is hard work to be done when it comes to raising the financial resources to sustain and build upon the vision that’s taking shape around here. In order to annualize the youth minister position, fund S.W.5 (our new Saturday Worship at 5 pm), expand the many ministries of the church, and keep up with rising costs, we need an additional $85,000 in pledges for 2012. It will take some serious financial commitment from each one of us to realize our dreams for St. John’s but I’m confident that by broadening and deepening our support we can attain this lofty goal. The good news here is that when we take some chances, trust in God, and invest in our future, the possibilities are limitless.

This week you’ll be receiving a stewardship packet that will contain information about annual pledging at St. John’s including a narrative budget and a pledge card. I pray that rather than just fill in an arbitrary number, you will be intentional about your giving. How much does this place mean to you and your family? What is the value (financially and otherwise) that you place upon your faith? Do you believe in what we’re doing and are you willing to deepen your commitment to ensure future and continued success?

If you have never pledged before or if it’s a relatively new concept, you should know that without pledges we quite literally can’t do the ministry to which we are called. Your pledge allows us to proactively plan the upcoming year rather than be reactive and timid in both our spending and ministry. Now I realize that from the outside it probably looks like we don’t need any additional resources – this is a big stone church, it looks like a castle, and it’s set high upon a hill in the middle of Hingham ‘They must be doing fine – my pledge would just be a drop in the bucket.’ But that would be wrong on two counts: first, we do rely on parishioner support to keep this place running at a cost of about $1,600 per day and second, we all have a spiritual need to give. Fostering a spirit of generosity is an important piece of any Christian community. And so I encourage your commitment and generosity.

But it all comes back to the basics of loving God and loving neighbor. That’s what we are called to do; that’s what we are challenged to do; and that’s what we must do to follow Jesus as our Lord. Love God, love neighbor. Four little words that say it all.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2011