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