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stewardship sermon 2013

Stewardship Sermon - 2013 - The Reverend Sean Ferrell

In an old story handed down among preachers, people in a small village come to the parson to complain that the wife of one of his deacons had been stealing her neighbor’s chickens. “Please,” they appealed to their pastor, “do something about this.”

The next Sunday, he preached on the text, “Thou shalt not steal.” At the close of the service, the deacon himself praised the parson. “Excellent sermon,” he said. But in a few days the people returned. “Pastor, in spite of your sermon, she is still stealing.”

That next Sunday, he got more specific: “Thou shalt not steal thy neighbor’s goods,” he said firmly. Again the deacon himself was the first to praise. “Even better sermon. You’ve really got to speak specifically.”
But as the new week wore on, the people said, “That still didn’t do any good. She is still stealing.”

The minister prayed for courage, mounted the pulpit on Sunday and declared, “Thou shalt not steal thy neighbor’s chickens.” This time the deacon, whose wife was stealing chickens, objected. He asked the pastor, “Who are you, to think you’re an expert on chickens? You’re not supposed to get so specific. That’s not preaching, it’s meddling.” But the Christian faith is precisely about meddling, and muddling, and mixing things together.

“The Word became flesh,” is the enduring phrase that John’s Gospel uses to describe the meddling of God in our very lives. Or as Archbishop William Temple put it in his classic work Nature, Man and God, “Christianity is the world’s most materialistic religion.”

Against that hard truth, we’re surrounded today by loose thinking & comfortable euphemisms. I nominate for the Gold Medal in the Verbal Indirection Olympics the commonly heard dodge: “I’m spiritual but not religious.”

Of course, Christian spirituality is wide and diverse, and we should welcome people who’ve begun the journey by wanting to be more spiritual. But, I think we drain our faith of meaning if we think our spirituality isn’t rooted in the flesh, and in the highly material, even offensively specific world that you and I live in.

Take the subject of money—and don’t bail out on me yet. Money, which stands for work and value and power, is a spiritual concern. Money can enable good and set up the conditions for justice and healing, but it can also rob us of sleep and distort the beauty of human life. And money can come between us, particularly between us and the people we love and care for most.

When we use the word “stewardship,” we evoke the original mandate given to human beings at Creation: Use what you’re given, and use it wisely. Be accountable to yourself and to your Creator for what you do with things of value. But God expects you, I believe, to do more—to use what you have purposefully, for good.

You should care for your own needs and those for whom you’re responsible. But if you want to grow spiritually, widen that circle of responsibility. Invest yourself, your time and the gifts God has given you along with your money to make your parish and your community a better place. Leave this planet a little better, even a little holier, before you leave it.

At The Chapel, I think we’re learning to speak maturely, candidly and helpfully about money. Money is one necessary tool of building a holy community that has the staying power to give our great sacred space, our sense of truth, and our ministry to this University and surrounding community we serve and the fragile earth on which we live. To live healthily with our money, to give money to do God’s work, and to help This great Chapel defy the marginalizing of sane religion in this time, we need to get specific.

Each year we ask every member to prayerfully consider giving to further the work of this corner of the Kingdom of God we call The Chapel of Saint John the Divine. As part of that process, we ask that you make a pledge of financial support for the coming year. This year, we are asking for pledges of time and talent, as well as treasure, because honestly, to be a parish church we need all hands on deck to do the work God is calling us to do.

For many years, this parish has developed a budget, based on the amount pledged. I have talked with your vestry about flipping the script. I think we need to be articulate about where we are headed, and what we want and need to do as a parish.

I have found the parish survey completed in 2012 to be a very helpful guide as your vestry and I plot a course forward. For example, 91% of you articulated in the survey, a need for this parish to be better at administration.

For those who don’t know, before my time as your rector, we had a parish administrator who died last year after several years of failing health. (Remember, we’re talking about chickens here, so I am getting specific.) As I understand it, toward the end of her long tenure, health issues complicated the administration of this parish.

When our former administrator entered larger life, your vestry and wardens picked up the pieces and tried to make sense of a sometimes unintelligible office. Complicating things further, you had not yet called a rector. In the wake of the loss of our last parish administrator, you hired Anna Beach to be part time secretary. When I was called as your rector back in May, Anna and I discovered there was much still to be done in the basic functioning of the parish, as policies and procedures had been swept away.

I have discovered in Anna, a capable, competent, intelligent, and gifted human being, who brings with her, a wealth of knowledge. We quickly discovered that a 20 hr/week Rector’s secretary wouldn’t cut it. We needed more hours and regular office hours. We frankly needed a 30 hr per week parish administrator.

So, I asked, and your vestry approved a bump in her hours, knowing that we need your help and your buy in.
Many of you have told me/you appreciate hearing her voice when you call. Many of you have said you appreciate the clear and consistent hours the office is open.

I’ve been giving Anna the tools and knowledge to exercise best practices for parish administration. Together we’ve made great strides these last 6 months. You should be proud of the excellent work she is doing. I am!

Dear ones, I think you get it. I think you understand that your vestry & I want and need your support in this new initiative of having a parish administrator, and the two other initiatives we mentioned in our stewardship materials.

Much of what we can, or cannot do as a parish, depends on the choices you make regarding your time, attention, and financial support of The Chapel.

In addition to us trying to be clear about the direction we are headed, this year we’re ratcheting it up a degree. We’re getting more specific. We’re naming the chickens.

Our stewardship materials asked you to consider changing the way that you pledge. Specifically, I am asking you to consider proportional giving. In love, repress your urge to pronounce it meddling. (I realize you didn’t know you were going to hear the “Sermon on the Amount,” but bear with me.)

This may be a moment to think and to grow. This may be another word that becomes flesh. Any regular, intentional program of giving a specific amount of money is, in a way, “proportional” giving. The Bible states a specific obligation to “tithe”—that is, to give back to God a tenth of what we have received from God. One-tenth! Ten percent! Holy cow! That’s a lot! The Bible sets the bar very high—maybe far too high for most of us to think about.

If you haven’t ever given to the church before, proportional giving is a great place to start! Whoever you are, I encourage you to begin your commitment with a small step: Promise to give two percent each year, or three. The average pledge to churches nationally is 2.6 percent of income, and maybe that’s a good place to start.

Giving in proportion to what you have—not an idle calculation, but purposeful giving in proportion to your resources—does change your thinking. It can change the way you live. It’s what Jesus meant when he challenged the young man who had more than enough to live on to give it all away, and what Paul meant by “On every Lord’s Day, each of you should put aside some amount of money in relation to what you have earned and save it for this offering”

The important thing is the Biblical notion of proportionality is the ultimately fair way of giving. You pledge and give in proportion to what you have or make. There is no hidden standard, some sort of “dues” structure, though some people mistakenly imagine there is. A senior citizen living on a fixed, modest income who gives 5% is a more faithful proportionate giver than the rich man who dashes off a check for ten grand. Sound suspiciously familiar? Sounds like Jesus.

There’s more. This isn’t just “thou shalt not. . .” This is about chickens. We’re challenging people to move up in their giving. And you can do so, even if you’ve already turned in a pledge card. If you’re at 1%, think about 2, if you’re at 4%, think about 5, and so on.

And as God’s free children, loved and not judged, you can say: “Amazing. I can do it.” Or, “I can do something between here and what you’re asking.” Or, “I’m doing my best.” Whatever your decision, we will love you, and no one will judge you.

This morning, I’ve been specific. I’ve put word on the flesh because I believe that you can take it. Because I believe that we’re grown-ups.

Bishop Tom Shaw recently shared a Haitian peasant proverb meant to answer the eternal question of how a just God could permit great misery: “God gives, but God doesn’t share.” Bishop Shaw quickly added, “God gives us human beings everything we need to flourish. But God is not the one who is supposed to divvy up the loot. That work is left to us.”

So I say in love and respect, and with real hope: listen to the challenge, and then do the work God has left for you to do.

Finally I’ll tell you, after you’ve made that inner transaction to give, why I’m passionate about The Chapel of Saint John the Divine. (Let’s face it, you can give to lots of wonderful and worthy causes.)

Dear ones, we live in a noisy world, a world where most of the religious voices are heard as extreme-dividing the world of meaning into a series of black and white propositions. We don’t stand for that division. I think the world needs a religion of honest passion, that has the patience and control of moderation, that faithfully pushes the boundaries, and humbly embodies the via media.

Years ago, CNN cancelled the show “Crossfire.” It was that show where those two guys sat and yelled at each other for an hour. It was cancelled, you’ll recall, after John Stewart pointed out the harm it caused. Not satisfied without that pithy program, CNN recently brought it back on the air. The world doesn’t need that. And it particularly doesn’t need it in the spiritual and religious realms.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, published a book about heroes of Anglican thought and theology, titled “Anglican Identities.” (No, it wasn’t a best seller.) In the introduction he says this: “The writers discussed here in their different ways are apologists for a theologically informed and spiritually sustained patience.”

That’s a wonderful thing. It doesn’t shout, but it matters. It matters to this world and it matters to God. It matters that you and I be that and pay for that.

Williams continues, “They don’t expect human words to solve their problems rapidly, they don’t expect the Bible to yield up its treasures overnight, they don’t look for the triumphant march of an ecclesiastical institution. They know that as Christians they live among immensities of meaning, live in the wake of a divine action which defies summary explanation. They take it for granted that the believer is always learning, moving in and out of speech and silence in a continuous wonder and a continuous turning inside-out of mind and feeling”

The Chapel of Saint John the Divine has embodied this continuous wonder, on this great campus and in this great community, for generations. We are strong enough that we can offer this continuous wonder to others. That takes our support, and ultimately, it will take us growing in our support.

Stay open. Grow spiritually. Grow in your sense of stewardship. In one holy encounter after another, that will happen. In one holy encounter after another, that will happen. The word will become flesh and the chickens will come home. Amen.