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