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