Sunday, November 8, 2009

23 Pentecost

Pledge Sunday
November 8, 2009

1 Kings 17.8-16; Mark 12. 38-44

Today is, of course, Pledge Sunday. It is one of those Sundays I think many of us kind of dread. We sort roll our eyes and think—great, it’s time for the priest to get up and talk about money again.

Yes, sadly, it is time for me to get up and talk about that issue of money. But not just money and pledging our money to the church. It is also a time to talk about stewardship and giving in general. And although we might not want to hear these things, sometimes it is good to be reminded of how important stewardship and giving is.

Last week our Senior Warden, Laura Nylander and I met to discuss some of the details of this Pledge Sunday. I commended her, at that time, for the wonderful comments she made during Announcements last week about the difference between Stewardship and Pledging—how Stewardship is an issue of our Time and Talents and Pledging is an issue of money (she discussed it so much better in her teacher voice). But her sharing last week inspired me, and I hope inspired all of us, to consider these issues Stewardship and Pledging. And on this Pledge Sunday, we do need to at least address it.

Our time in church, as all of us know, is not just a time for us to receive. It is also a time to give. And we all have plenty to give. We all have certain talents and it is good when we can give back to the church form our talents. And many of us have, even in these uncertain financial times, a certain level of monetary sustenance from which to give. And we know that in giving of ourselves and from what we have, we are doing good. But I think, on this Pledge Sunday, it is good for us to remind ourselves once again WHY we give.

I have been reading a wonderful book called Gifts of the Desert by a wonderful writer, Kyriacos Markides. Markides is an Eastern Orthodox Christian from Maine who has written extensively about his relationship with Father Maximos, a Greek Orthodox priest from Mount Athos in Greece who is currently the Orthodox Bishop of Cyprus. This is one of those books that I have had to read slowly and reflectively because when I read it too quickly I find myself backtracking and, in doing so, finding a little spiritual gem I missed. In this book, Father Maximos explains that in the church there are three levels of spiritual growth:

The first stage he calls “the “Slaves of God.” He says that this is the stage where people are very devout, very holy, go to church, but they do all of these things out of fear of God. They are afraid of God. They are afraid of God’s perceived anger. They are afraid that they will be punished for any thing wrong they might do. And they fear hell.

The second stage he called the “Employees of God.” At this stage, people have moved beyond their fear, but they now feel that are to be rewarded for all the good things they do. If they give to the poor, they do so believing they are stocking up “treasures in heaven.”

As Father Maximos puts it: “In exchange for good works a person expects to be rewarded by God in this life and in the life to come.”

The third stage Father Maximos shares is “the Children of God” or the “Lovers of God.” This stage, according to Father Maximos, is the highest stage—the one to which we all should be working. Father Maximos says: “They act and do what they do not because they are afraid that God might send them to hell or because they want to gain a ticket to paradise but because they love God.” He then shared a very sobering story that he heard from one of the monks on Mount Athos by the name of Paisios.

Paisios told Maximos to imagine the second coming Christ. Now in the second coming, some miscalculations were made and as more and more people entered paradise, there was no more room for some of those who were waiting. Christ then came and told the people that were waiting, “I’m sorry but unfortunately paradise has filled up. Find somewhere else to accommodate yourselves.” Some people began to wail and complain.

“Why didn’t you tell us before? Isn’t there a chance that we can go back so that we can do all the things we wanted to do? We sacrificed the pleasures of the world for the sake of heaven and yet we lost paradise as well.”

But the others—the Children and Lovers of God—said, ”It’s all right that paradise is full. Don’t feel bad, dear God. It is good that paradise is full and you are happy. We will find a way to take care of ourselves.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find this story very disturbing. I do so because I am not certain I wouldn’t be one of those people mourning and complaining, at least a bit, outside paradise. Which shows that maybe I haven’t made it to that third level yet in my life (though I am trying).

I think this story is an especially important one for us on Pledge Sunday. It challenges all of us to ask ourselves very important questions about why we do what we do as Christians. It is important for us to ask ourselves occasionally what motivates us to serve others and to serve God. And when we are challenged in such a way, then how do we continue to do what we do?

The message for us is this: we do what we do out of love. We do what we do because we love God, and we love one another. That is why we do what we do. We don’t give of ourselves and from our monetary means because we want to gain heaven. Of course, we want to gain heaven. But we don’t do these things simply because we think that in doing so we will gain paradise.

Rather, we do the things we do—we give, of ourselves and of our money—because we know that doing so improves all of us, as Christians. What we give helps each other. It helps to maintain and keep vital what we hold dear. It helps us here at St. Stephen’s. And here, at St. Stephen’s, there are many great reasons to be giving of our talents and from our material wealth.

Good and wonderful things are happening here. As one of person form another Episcopal congregation in town told me recently: “Things are popping at St. Stephen’s!” And they are. There is a vitality here that many people are noticing and rejoicing in. Things are popping at St. Stephen’s because of us. They are happening because we all give from what we have. These things that are happening are not happening just because of the priest (as much as I’d like to take credit for it), or even because of one or two leaders in the church. St. Stephen’s is definitely not a place for top-down management.

The great things happening at St. Stephens are happening because we love God and we love one another. And when we love God and love one another, God’s Spirit moves among us. When that Spirits moves, we find ourselves wanting to serve God and one another. When we look around, we see the fruits of this kind of love. We see a vital congregation full of people who are giving of themselves and their means so that this church can continue to “pop”—so that it can continue to do what it does.

We find people giving of their musical talents and in doing so, enriching all of us. We find people giving of their artistic talents, and all of us are better off for it. We find people giving of their practical knowledge and we all benefit from that shared knowledge. We find people giving of their basic know-how in maintenance and the physical church building in which we gather is improved. We find people volunteering of their time and energy to serve at Churches United, or the Salvation Army, or on Medical Missions to Guatemala, or to help build schools in East Africa. And we find people who give from the gifts they have been given so that the grass is mowed, or the snow is removed or the windows are replaced, or the trees are trimmed. And we find people who give from what they have so that day-today-maintenance can be continued.

It is all of us working together and giving from our own places, from our own blessings and talents, out of love for God and of one another. That is what is so wonderful about St. Stephen’s. We do these things very well here. It’s important, occasionally, to recognize ourselves and each others for these contributions and to be thankful for them.

Pledge Sunday is not just a time to ask. It is also a time to give thanks. It is a time to thank each other for what we do for each other and for God.

As most of you have probably figured out by this time, liturgy is one of my favorite aspects of the Church. And what I love about our liturgy is that, in so many ways we might not even fully appreciate, it gives voice to what we believe. Certainly, that is what we believe as Episcopalians.

Over the years, I have heard some very strange views regarding liturgy. One was the strangest I’ve heard is an apprehension of some clergy about placing money on the altar at the offertory. Some felt that by placing money in the altar we are worshipping money, or taking something ritually unclean like money and profaning the altar with it. But, although you might not have noticed it, in our prayer book, the rubrics—those italicized instructions, are quite emphatic about issues like this. On page 361 in the Prayer Book, the rubric for the Offertory is this:

Representatives of the congregation bring the people’s offering of bread and wine, and money or other gifts, to…the celebrant. The people stand while the offerings are presented and placed on the Altar.

Charles Price and Louis Weil wrote a definitive book on our Liturgy for the Church’s teaching Series back in 1979 called Liturgy for Living. In it, they explained this action this way:

“In placing on the altar money and bread and wine, the congregation offers itself and its world. Money represents the work of the congregation. As in every sacrificial act from time immemorial, a part stands for the whole. We give part of what we make. That part stands for ‘ourselves, our souls and bodies’…the underlying reality of the action is that we offer our lives, individually and corporately, to become [Christ’s] body in this world. We acknowledge that what we offer to God is, in a certain sense, not ours but [God’s] all along, given to us in trust as [God’s] stewards of creation.”

We are Christ’s body in this world. And, as Christ’s body, we do what we do out of love. We give, as the widow we encounter in today’s Gospel gave. We give not because we have a lot to give. We give because we know that in giving, we are enriched by our giving. We give because we know that in giving, God and each other have been served. We give from what we have because in doing so we give ourselves. This is why we give. And this is why we need to be reminded on days like Pledge Sunday.

On this Pledge Sunday, we are reminded of how important giving is, as the widow who gives in our reading from First Kings gives to the prophet Elijah. And today we offer thanks for those who do give from what they have. Most vitally, we know that, as we give, like that widow in First Kings, what we give will never be emptied, nor will it ever fail.

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