Pray, Worship, Serve, Share – a sermon

The audio of my Christmas 2C sermon is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


As both a parent and a preacher, I really hate to admit this, but I think that Christmas presents are a lot like sermons: most of them are easily forgotten.  I’m almost afraid to ask, but how many of you remember what I preached about on Advent 3?  Truth be told, I had to go back and look up my sermon from three weeks ago, and “The Kingdom of God for Kindergarteners” was a fairly decent sermon.  How many of our children were wandering around bored on December 26th?  I got some really great Christmas gifts this year, but honestly, there are things that got opened, admired, and put away before I processed them into long-term memory.  With the pace of life coming at us all so quickly, and the average human attention span now shorter than that of a goldfish, it is nearly impossible to make lasting memories unless you take a photo or write it down.

Thankfully, we have Matthew’s account of the Magi so we will never forget the first Christmas presents ever given, even if they were really, really late.  Despite what the crèche in the Narthex might show, the Magi didn’t arrive with the Shepherds that first Christmas night.  Given the distance they had to travel, they probably didn’t arrive for months, maybe even years, after the birth of Jesus.  Still, these astrologers from the east knew that the star they saw meant that a new King of Israel had been born and no matter the distance, they would come to pay him homage bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  No matter when they actually arrived, I suspect that Mary was still in the business of pondering things in her heart, and surely she never forgot these amazing, extravagant, and foreboding gifts.  Some say the gold made it possible for Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus to flee to Egypt, protecting Jesus from Herod’s slaughter of every boy under the age of two.  The frankincense was a gift befitting a deity, and anointing a newborn with frankincense oil was one way of dedicating the child’s life to God.  The myrrh was a well-known embalming oil, and a fragrance with which Mary would, in time, become all too familiar.

Mary never forgot the gifts of the Magi, and thanks to Matthew, neither will we. These gifts remind us that the birth of Jesus was an event which impacted not just Israel, but the whole world.  These gifts, and the men who bore them, show us that it is God’s desire for the whole world to see and know the saving love of Jesus.  As Christmas winds down, what gifts might we offer to God to build the kingdom?  As a new year begins, what resolutions might we take on to support the spread of the Gospel and deepen our relationship with God?

For months now, Keith and I have been talking about four practices that will shape our common life in 2016.  We’ve talked them over with the vestry, and they will make up the backbone of our upcoming vestry retreat.  They’ll shape our Lenten conversations and the Great 50 Days of Easter.  They are, we believe, the most important gifts we can offer Jesus.  They certainly aren’t gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but Prayer, Worship, Service, and Sharing might just change the world, or at least our little corner of it here in Foley, Alabama.

The first gift we can offer God is the gift of Prayer.  We’re not asking you to become monks, mind you, we’re just asking for 10 minutes a day.  You might consider reading the four short prayer services called “Daily Devotions for Families and Individuals” that start on page 136 in the Book of Common Prayer.  You could download the Daily Office app from Mission St. Clare, the Forward Day by Day app from Forward Movement, or the Stop and Pray app from my friend Jay Anderson.  You could spend your shower time or workout time or lunch prep time in prayer, quietly listening for God’s will for you.  Maybe you already pray for hours on end, that’s great, keep it up, but if you find prayer to be a hard habit to start, then start small, and deepen your relationship with God by praying for 10 minutes each day.

The second gift we can offer God is our worship.  Worship was the first and most important gift the Magi offered Jesus.  Here again, we aren’t asking for you to come to church three times a day for Morning and Evening Prayer and a daily Eucharist.  Let’s simply shoot for an hour of worship a week.  The easiest way to accomplish this would be to show up here every Sunday, but there are alternatives.  If Sunday is out because of travel, guests, or work, you could come to our service on Wednesday at noon.  Barring that, you might listen to your favorite Christian music channel while you walk the dog, wash the dishes, or mow the lawn.  You’d be surprised at how quickly you’ll find yourself humming those songs throughout the day; praising God all the time.  When life is lived through the lens of worship, contentment and joy are soon to follow.

The third gift we can offer God is service.  Here’s where things get a little more difficult, as we’re upping the ante to five hours a month of service to the Kingdom of God.  Of course, many of you are already doing this and a whole lot more.  Whether it is serving on the altar guild, as a Follow the Word volunteer, driving for meals on wheels, or working on a Habitat for Humanity build, the time of service quickly adds up.  What’s more important than the time given is the impact made, and you’d be amazed by how large an impact a small gesture can have.  After taking two years off from volunteering at Foley Elementary School, I’m back in a kindergarten classroom this year.  Each Thursday at 9am, I join Mrs. Davis and Ms. Debbie for Game Day.  We play simple games like Chutes and Ladders or Hi-Ho Cherry-Oh, and it seems like not much is happening, until you realize that some of these kids have never played a game in their lives, and they are learning life skills by taking turns, counting to ten, and problem solving.  A simple action is opening up a new realm of possibilities for a child, and just like that, through the simple gift of service, the Kingdom of God is growing in new places and new ways.

Finally, the fourth gift we can offer God is sharing, which carries a nice double meaning.  We can share our financial resources with God and we can share the love of God with those who might not know him.  Here again, we’re not asking you to do anything crazy or miraculous.  While I hope that you’ll work toward the biblical model of the tithe, or giving 10% of your income to the Kingdom of God, I realize that the average Episcopalian gives only about 1.5%.  You might not be able to jump to 10% right away, and that’s ok.  Let’s start small, and let God do the big things.  If you’ve never done percentage giving before, try 2 or 3 percent.  If you’re already giving a percentage, consider bumping it up by a percentage point or two.

Even more important than your money is your passion.  If you’re praying daily, worshipping with regularity, serving the community, and giving to the up-building of the Kingdom, then your love for God and neighbor will be palpable.  Others will see the love, joy, and peace that are in your life and want to have it for themselves.  Be ready to share the love of Jesus with those around you.  When people ask what has made the difference in your life, tell them about the love of God.  Who knows, you might offer them a gift they will never forget, a personal relationship with a God who loves them more than they could ever imagine.

Pray – 10 minutes a day.

Worship – an hour a week.

Serve – 5 hours a month.

Share – a percentage of your income and the love of God.

These are gifts that we can all offer God, gifts that will build the kingdom, gifts that will change the world, and will never be forgotten.  I hope you’ll join us in 2016 as we commit to these practices, four simple gifts that each of us can offer Jesus Christ, our newborn king.  Amen.

What the Lord Desires

“We affirm the minimum standard of the tithe is personal giving…”

These words make up the heart of point one of the Stewardship Statement made by the Standing Committee of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast on April 20, 1989, and reaffirmed on January 24, 2004.  With similar words, the General Convention of The Episcopal Church has set forth “a personal spiritual discipline that includes, at a minimum, the holy habits of tithing, daily personal prayer and study, Sabbath time, and weekly corporate worship…” (2003-A135).  Still, it seems there is no better way to get the collective hackles of Episcopalians up then by discussing the tithe as a standard of giving.

The response will typically fall into one of three camps.  The vast majority will gasp at the idea of giving away 10% of their income as they throw a crumpled up $5 bill in the plate.  Others will hold firm to 10% as The Standard of giving to the Kingdom as found in Scripture.  A third group will be very adamant that the tithe is the Minimum Standard of giving.

So what is the right answer?  What does the Lord require of the faithful? In the lessons appointed for this coming Sunday, it seems as though God asks that we trust him enough to offer everything we have back to him.  In the ever popular stewardship story of the Widow’s Mite, Jesus lauds the poor woman who drops her two copper coins in the kettle.  “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”  The Widow trusted God enough to know that she would be taken care of, even in her poverty.

The Widow at Zerephath shows us the same sort of trust.  Surely, she looked at Elijah as if he were crazy when he instructed her to make him a small loaf of bread first, but she did as he asked.  She trusted in the God of Elijah, a God who was not her own, enough that in the midst of a 3 year drought, she gave away the last little bit she had.

I’m not suggesting that we should sign over all our assets to the church.  Nor would I dare to say that the poor should give more than their fair share.  And don’t get me started on the heretical scam that is the “seed offerings” of television preachers.  What I am suggesting is that all the arguments of percentages of giving, before or after taxes, is missing the point of giving back to God.  More than our money, more than our time, more than anything else, God desires our trust.  The giving of our time, talent, and treasure is the sacramental sign of our trust in God.  When we give sacrificially, we show that we trust that God has provided everything that is, was, and ever will be, and the hard truth is that very few of us trust God in that sort of way.

Truth be told, even as my family gives away 11%, there are days, lots of them, that I don’t trust God, and so my offering is as pitiful as the tattered $5 bill.  In the end, it isn’t the money that matters to God, but rather, it is what the money symbolizes – our trust in the Lord’s never-ending provision of everything we have, even down to the air we breathe and the blood in our veins.

God cares about how we spend our money – a sermon

Technical difficulties mean the audio of today’s sermon will be delayed.  In the meantime, you can read it here.  UPDATE – you can now listen to it here.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Mark tells us that the disciples were perplexed by these words. I’m guessing that most of us are as well. In the days of Jesus, wealth was considered a sign of God’s blessing. It was just assumed that those who were well-to-do in this life would also be well-to-do in the age to come. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us probably still feel that way. Surely, we know that some multi-billionaires have made their fortunes by nefarious means, but by and large, we’ve bought into the myth that money is a sign of God’s grace. Jesus won’t let his disciples live with that myth any longer, but he is not the first prophet to suggest that the rich will have a hard time getting into the kingdom of God. Amos was an unlikely candidate for the role of God’s prophet. He lived during the time of the Divided Kingdom. Amos was from Judah, the Southern Kingdom, where he made a modest living as a migrant laborer: working as a herdsman, something like an assistant shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees also known as a fig picker. Somehow, despite his lowly background in Judah, Amos found himself called to the Northern a Kingdom of Israel where he would prophesy to the powerful king, Jeroboam II. King Jeroboam reigned for 40 years of relative peace and prosperity. As the years went by, the rich got richer, and as is often the case in times of great wealth, the poor got poorer. God grew impatient with the economic disparity in Israel and sent Amos to declare a day of judgment. Again and again the prophet speaks of God’s fury over the mistreatment of the poor:

  • They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way… The strong shall not retain their strength, nor shall the mighty save their lives… (2:7, 14)
  • Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy… The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks. (4:1-2)
  • Because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. (5:11)

The message of Amos is clear; God cares what we do with our money, and on the heels of the unlikely prophet’s dramatic prophecy, we hear the story of Jesus’ encounter with a rich young man.

There is a tendency to hear these things with a certain ambivalence. It is easy to hear these stories admonishing the rich and think that they don’t apply to us, but the uncomfortable truth is that, in the grand scheme of things, most Americans would qualify as rich on the global scale. The average minimum wage worker makes $15,800 a year, which places them in the top 7% of wage earners in the world. Whataburger pays its employees $11 an hour, making them one of the wealthiest 2.5%. I make $60,000 a year, which means I’m richer than 99.81% of the world’s population. The desire to always push rich a tax bracket or two higher than our own may be tempting, but the reality is that, if they were around today, Amos, Jesus, and the rest of the prophets would have been speaking to most of us in this room.

At 35, I barely qualify as young anymore, but picture this rich, young man as me or you or your son or grandson. He grew up in a religious home. He’s always been a rule follower, and went to church all through high school. He’s done his best to keep the commandments since he was a youth, but deep down, there has always that nagging feeling that God had something more in store for him. Hearing that Jesus was passing through town, the young man dropped his work and took off sprinting after him. Gasping for breath, he approached Jesus with awe and reverence, knelt down before him, and said, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The man really wants to know the answer to this question. He, like all of us, is seeking after not just eternal life, but abundant life. For all the good he has already done, something is still missing. He knows it, and Jesus knows it, and so Jesus lists the commandments, adding one that isn’t normally in the top 10 – “You shall not defraud.”

In our Old Testament Lesson, we heard Amos decry those who “afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.” The gate was the place where small claims court was held, where the rich would bring the poor before their friends who served as judges in order to extract even what little they had from them. It seems this rich young man, for all the good he had done in his life, had found ways to expand his bottom line through less than honest business practices, which usually come at the expense of the poor. This ill-gotten gain was what stood between him and the abundant life he sought. He knew it, and Jesus knew it, and so Jesus told him that he should give it all away. “Sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor,” Jesus said, “And then you can follow me.” But note the tone in which Jesus spoke to the rich, young man. Mark tells us that before the man made the choice to follow Jesus or not, Jesus loved him.

The same is true in the lesson from Amos. Even as he prophesies of the destruction of Israel, Amos promises that God’s love is never-ending, that the Lord would be gracious to the faithful remnant. The same is true for you and me today. God loves us no matter what, but in that love, God also desires of us the same thing he desired of the rich young man and the same thing he desired of the Disciples, that we drop everything and follow him. More often than not, the one thing that holds us back from giving our whole lives over to Jesus is the money piece. It was true in Amos’ day, in Jesus’ day, and it is true today. Money is the all-time, #1 idol. We worship it in place of God when we fear that we won’t have enough, when we gain it on the backs of the poor, and when we hold onto it even when God invites us to trust him enough to give it away.

It really is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter fully into the kingdom of God. Our economy simply won’t allow for us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor. It is the great irony of the American Dream: we’re stuck in a life that is something less than abundant because of the abundance of stuff in our lives. How can we avoid walking away sad like the rich young man? The answer is simple, we can gain abundant life by entering into relationship with the poor. By volunteering to teach a kindergartener the ABCs, helping bring one of the 80% of Foley Elementary School students who live in poverty one step closer to breaking that cycle. By helping a high school senior buy the clothes and school supplies he needs to be the first member of his family to graduate. By spending the night on a cot in the education building as Family Promise guests work hard to make enough to get back onto the economic ladder. By swinging a hammer on a construction site to help a Habitat family get on sure footing. Wealth tends to isolate, it tends to make us think that we don’t need anyone else and, worst of all, wealth tricks us into thinking that we deserve to be where we are. Jesus invites us to think differently; to remember that everything we have is a gift from God, that first and foremost we were created to be in relationship with all of our neighbors – the rich and the poor alike – and that abundance comes by giving away our resources in love for another. Without Jesus, it is impossible to fit a camel through the eye of a needle, but with Jesus giving up our abundance in order to inherit abundant life means that anything is possible. Amen.

Rich?

Money seems to be everywhere these days.  Whether we’re talking about the net worth of Presidential Candidates, the portion of the BP Settlement that will actually makes it way to the Gulf Coast, reading James in the real-life version of Draughting Theology or studying the lessons for Sunday, it seems like we just can’t get away from money.  In all of these conversations, however, I’ve noticed a theme: rich is always at least one tax bracket above us.

Think about your reaction to the story of the rich, young man from Mark’s Gospel.  Don’t most of us hear Jesus say, “It would be easier to put a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” and think, “well thank God I’m not rich”?  Whether we are on a fixed income with Social Security, make minimum wage, or pull in 30, 60, or even 100 thousand dollars a year, the American economy has made it possible for us to always envision ourselves as poor.  I mean, I can’t buy that 70″ 4K TV, so I must be on the south side of rich.  Right?!?

There’s a website called the Global Rich List, where you can enter your income or net worth to see where it ranks on a global scale.  The average Social Security check is about $1,180 a month.  If that was a retiree’s only income, it would put them in the top 10% of wage earners in the world.  A minimum wage job at McDonald’s places you among the top 7%.  A laborer making $15 an hour, is just outside the top 1%.  Me? My $60,000 stipend, not counting health insurance and pension, puts me in the top 0.20% of wage earners.

Rich is a relative term, but to always put it one or more steps above our pay grade is to act in the same way as the rich young man.  In this story, Jesus invites the man (and by extension, I fear, us) to find solidarity with the poor (another relative term) by entering into relationship with them.  He doesn’t ask the man to write a check to his favorite charity, but to get down and dirty with the down and out.  Truth be told, I think he wants the same from us: to roll up our sleeves and enter into the depths of poverty with those who have no choice but to be there.  It seems that’s where the kingdom of God can be found.

Sin, Healing, Amos, and the Rich Young Man

In yesterday’s post, I argued that Mark 10:17-31 is not about stewardship in the contemporary, “keep the institutional church functioning,” sort of way.  Instead, I suspect that the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man is enlightened by the Old Testament Track 2 lesson from the prophet Amos as it is a story about healing and the forgiveness of sins.

Amos’ prophetic ministry took place during a relatively calm period in the life of Israel and Judah.  For many years, two good kings reigned and there was very little threat from the powerful empires of Egypt and Assyria that surrounded them.  As is often the case, an extended time of peace brought with it a time of great prosperity… for a few… built on the backs of many others.  The sin which Amos decries is not richness, per se, but the lack of concern for the poor that often comes with it.

Which brings us to the rich young man’s encounter with Jesus.  Mark tells us that he approaches Jesus and kneels before him.  David Lose, in his 2012 commentary for WorkingPreacher.org, notes that everyone who kneels before Jesus in Mark’s gospel has come in search of healing.  It would make sense that this man’s motivation is similar.  He comes to Jesus already following the Way of the Torah.  He’s kept the commandments since his youth, and yet he still feels like something is missing.  There is a sin, a sickness, deep within him that he knows needs to be healed, and so he asks Jesus for forgiveness and healing.

Jesus sees that the man is possessed by wealth.  He is in need of the same sort of admonition that Amos gave the ruling class of Israel – to remember to care for and show hospitality to the poor.  Before doing anything, however, Jesus loves him.  The man is already saved by grace through faith, even though, in the end, he will walk away disappointed because his faith wasn’t strong enough to trust God’s abundant provision.

This is a story about money: a story about how money tends to isolate those who have from those who have not. The call to sell all he has and give it to the poor is a call to renewed relationship, or as the Book of Common Prayer calls is, the restoration of unity with God and each other.  It is a story about healing, about Jesus’ desire to set us free from those things that possess us: wealth, pride, envy, anxiety, victimhood, etc.  Over and over again, Jesus tells those he has healed 1) “your sins have been forgiven” and 2) “your faith has made you well.”  For each of us, part 1 is always true, but it takes part 2 to find abundant life. Which makes this ultimately a story about discipleship, about how Jesus calls us to give up everything that keeps us from trusting him fully.  The young man exemplifies many of us who, though we know we are deeply loved, have a hard time following Jesus because it means we’ll have to give up that one thing that we hold most dear.  It’d be easier to shove a camel through the eye of a needle than to give these things up on our own, but thankfully, God loves us even in our sinfulness, and loves us enough not to leave us there.

Why Mark 10:17-31 isn’t a Stewardship Text

Cartoon by the Rev. Jay Sidebotham

With tongues wagging and mouths watering, preachers are attacking this Sunday’s Gospel lesson while pledge cards are flying off the copier and every member canvas schedules are being ironed out.  It is October, which means that it is Stewardship Season in the Church.  Preachers everywhere are looking for preaching material, and here we have a text that is about money that we can allegorize to be about so much more than money, but in the end really is about money.

This text really is about money, but I’m afraid it really isn’t about stewardship, at least not in the common usage of that word.  After a short back and forth, Jesus looked at the man and, loving him, said, “Take all your possessions and sell them.”  Note what Jesus did not say next.  Jesus did not say, “Take the proceeds and hand them over to Judas, our Treasurer, who will use them to facilitate this very important ministry we’re doing.”  Jesus did not invite the man to give generously to his movement or to the institution or even to the disciples personally.  Instead, Jesus told the man to take the proceeds of selling everything and to give them to the poor.

Stop the Copier!

Unless our pledge cards have a line that allows people to indicate that they will give a certain percentage of their income directly to the poor, this text is not about stewardship.  It is tempting to force it into the mold we need, after all, most preachers would be poor if it weren’t for the generosity of their parishioners, but the reality is that this encounter between Jesus and the rich young man is about the cost of discipleship.

If it is true that in the Kingdom of God the first will be last and the last will be first, then it follows that the rich will be compelled by their faith in God to give extravagantly so that the poor might be lifted up (see James 1:9-11).  At its best, the Church can facilitate that redistribution of income, but the reality is that most of our congregations are spending upwards of 70, 80, even 90% of their budgets keeping the lights on, the roof from leaking, and paying professional ministers to teach, preach, and administrate.  My own congregation is very much included in that list.  In some cases, and again I count Saint Paul’s as an example, it is true that those professional ministers spend time reaching out to the poor (spiritually and financially) and the outcast, but when the average Episcopal Priest with a spouse and two kids costs upwards of $100,000, one has to wonder how Jesus might react, which is why, I think, trying to make this text be about giving money to the church is dicey.  Instead, I think our way into Mark 10:17-31 is through Amos, but we’ll have to deal with that tomorrow.

The Rabble Within

Whether reading the Psalm from the Daily Office or Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, the appointed Scriptures invite us to consider the plight of the wandering Hebrews.  Perhaps plight is too strong a word, after all, God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, God had saved them from Pharaoh’s army at the bank of the Red Sea, and God had provided them with water from a rock and manna from heaven.  And yet…

And yet, they complained.  They grumbled.  They gathered as a rabble to grouse about the fact that God had not given them enough, or, barring that, that God had not given them what they wanted.  They subscribed to a theology of scarcity, while God was pouring out abundance in the form of daily bread.

Perhaps I chose the word “plight” because I know the situation in which the Hebrew people found themselves all too well.  While I’m not often the member of a complaining mob, I have, on many an occasion, found myself getting stirred up by the rabble within my own mind.  Scarcity is way too seductive in our modern day and age.  We live in a world that is constantly convincing us to consume.  $20 a month, for the rest of your life, will ensure that you always have the latest and greatest iPhone.  That fancy 60″ HDTV  you bought last year is fine, I guess, but this new 4K TV is way better (even if your eye can’t tell the difference).  Subscribe to our internet service, it’s the fastest!  Buy our razors, they’re the cheapest!  Drink our beer, you’ll be the sexiest!

With a constant barrage of scarcity based advertising, it is no wonder that our minds are a nearly constant rabble in need of satisfaction.  It is not wonder that we work way too much, play way too little, and charge way too much on credit cards.  We’ve lost the ability to be satisfied with our daily bread.  I know because I’m just as guilty.  But what would life look like if we learned to be satisfied with what we have?  How would our lives be different if we chose to be thankful rather than gluttonous?  How might the world be more like the Kingdom of God if we subscribed to a theology of abundance and gave up the scarcity mindset?

Honestly, I’m not sure it is possible in this day and age, but I suspect we should be trying.  Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly, and as long as we refuse to see that abundance, we aren’t fully living into the dream that God has for us and for the kingdom.  I pray that God might pour out the Spirit upon us, might open our eyes to see our overwhelming abundance, and might help us to repent of the scarcity that leads to grumbling rabble within and without.

Excelling in Generosity at #GC78

Today is the Big Day, the one we’ve all been waiting and praying for.  No, not the Presiding Bishop election, though that is a big event.  No, not the House of Deputies 230th Anniversary party, though that will be full of delicious vanity M&Ms.  No, not the first four hour legislative session, though that’ll make your rear end fall asleep.  Today is the Big Day because today is the Program, Budget & Finance (PB&F) Committee’s hearing on expenses.  The day when Deputies, Bishops, and registered guests wait in line for hours to take their part in an awful theology of stewardship and scarcity.

I took part in the event that makes Jesus weep three years ago.

Fat Steve took part in the Event-that-makes-Jesus- weep three years ago.

The Apostle Paul writes to the Church in Corinth imploring them to excel in generosity by giving out of their abundance.  The Episcopal Church has abundant resources, however the vast majority of them are in the wallets of our members.  Despite the inroads made by groups like TENS and the Alabama Plan, the reality is that most Episcopal priests and the congregations they serve have succumb to popular pressure and avoid talking about money like the plague.  Coupled with the fact that our young leaders are members of a third generation of an un-churched, de-churched trend, this means that even those who care deeply about the Church, her ministry, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, don’t have any clue what it means to excel in generosity.  They’ve got no concept that the tithe is the biblical minimum for giving to the building of the Kingdom.

This means that by the time money trickles to the top, there is less and less money to do bigger and bigger things, which leaves us standing in line to beg for the scarce resources, afraid that our favorite thing won’t get funded.  A theology of scarcity is a terrible theology.  It has developed, in part, due to pressures from the wider culture, but the real reason tonight’s PB&F hearing will make Jesus and not a small number of deputies cry is that we’ve gotten here because of a lack of leadership.

Paul encourages the Corinthians to give generously to the needs of others.  He lays before them a vision of what it means to be a member of the body of Christ and asks them to live into it.  He offers them a compelling reason to be generous.  Instead of casting a vision for the Church, our leadership has, over the last, well as long as I’ve been in the Church, allowed 1,000 competing voices to create their own vision to the end that no one knows in which direction the Church is headed and instead we walk in one giant circle every three years.

The time has come for a compelling vision.  The time has come for a Presiding Bishop who will confidently lead us toward that vision.  The time has come for us to fund that vision boldly; to stop competing for line items, but rather to give generously to the glory of God, no matter how it impacts the bottom line of our pet project.  Let’s excel in generosity this triennium, and the rest will take care of itself.

Standby or Fast Pass?

Thanks to the generosity of my Father-in-Law and the willingness of my parents to keep SBC for a week, SHW, FBC, and I recently enjoyed a trip to Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, FL.  There is one other person who needs to be thanked as well, and that is our Disney Travel Consultant, Reynolds.  Without her help, we would have made a trip to Orlando, but there is no way we would have enjoyed it.  It was through her wisdom that we were able to discern the best way through the parks, avoiding, as much as possible ridiculous wait times like this

and this.

The key to unlocking the magic of Disney is knowing how to use the FastPass+ system.  As I’m doing my research for my Advent 2 sermon, I’m beginning to think that maybe Isaiah 40 and Mark 1 invite us to unlock the mystery of the Kingdom of God with our own FastPass system, by engaging in the Kingdom of God.

David Lose, in his weekly column, Dear Partner in Preaching, puts it this way:

“So perhaps, Dear Partner, the question to put to our people this week is what kind of waiting do they want to do?  Sure, they can sit around and wait for Christmas, or Christ’s return, for that matter.  Or they can get in the game, see how they can spend their time, energy, wealth, and lives making a difference right now… God is continuing the story of the good news of Jesus in and through our words and actions and each of us will have a hundred and one opportunities this very week to contribute to that sacred story, to make it come alive, to help God keep God’s promises here and now.”

Do we want to spend 80, 90, or 100 years just sitting around, waiting for God to come and fix the mess humanity has created?  Wouldn’t we rather be about the work of Kingdom building, the work of comfort, the work of restoration, the work of pointing to Jesus as the redeemer of all things?  Do we want to wait standby for the Kingdom or would we rather utilize the FastPass God has given us: skills, abilities, money, and other resources to fulfill the prayer that Jesus taught us and bring the Kingdom to earth as it is in heaven?

Well Done – Saint Paul’s 2015 Plan for Mission – a sermon

Yesterday’s sermon is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

Mark Twain once said, “I can live two months on a good compliment.”  Isn’t that the truth?  It feels good to get a well-deserved pat on the back, but what if I told you that there was one compliment that could guarantee you eternal life?  I’m not saying that if you don’t hear these words, you’re doomed to be thrown into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, but Jesus seems to.  In this morning’s Gospel lesson the Master tells two of his slaves the words that I long to hear one day, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Just think about it.  You’ve just died peacefully in your bed, with your family by your side, when you find yourself standing in front of the Pearly Gates.  As you look up at the grandeur of Heaven that is infinitely more than you could ever even imagine, you see Jesus standing before you, arms outstretched with a wide, toothy smile, saying “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  Oh man, that would be the best.  The good news is that those words are so simple to hear.  All we have to do is be good stewards of the gifts that God has given us.

If we take the parable of the talents at face value, then this is a story about how we use our material wealth.  The landowner had money upon money.  He was Scrooge McDuck rich and he wanted to get richer, so rather than put his money in a safe while he went on his journey, he gave it to three of his servants so that they could continue the work in his absence.  To the first he gave 5 talents, 75 years’ worth of wages.  To the second, he gave two talents, 30 years’ worth.  Finally, the third he have one talent, 15 years’ worth of money.  Upon his return, the first servant gave him back 10 talents, the second had four to give, but the third returned only the one talent.  The third servant’s sin, it seems, was that he was too paralyzed by the fear of scarcity to realize the abundance of the gift of his master.  He had roughly $375,000 at his disposal and was afraid to lose even a penny of it.  Through this parable, Jesus calls us to not hold onto the material things of this world, but to take the risk of sharing them for the up-building of the Kingdom of God.

I can’t tell you how many times in the last seven-plus years, I’ve talked with someone about financial stewardship and heard them say, “I’m just afraid there won’t be enough.”  I get it.  I said that for many years.  Prior to going to seminary, and even through seminary, I subscribed to a left-over model of scarcity giving.  Whatever cash was left over in my pocket on Sunday morning, less what I needed for brunch after the service, was what went into the plate.  My average monthly gift was probably $15.00, and there was never enough money.  When I got ordained, Cassie and I made the decision that if I was going to ask people to give God 10% of their income then as a family, we also needed to tithe.  These days, our donations include 7% to Saint Paul’s, 2% to EduKenya, and 1% to Beckwith.  Roughly $625 a month goes out the door, off the top, to support the work of the Kingdom, and you know what, there is rarely enough money.  Just a few months ago, we had one of those months where the car broke down. Twice.  The kids needed school clothes.  Someone got sick, of course, and the month simply ran longer than the money.  In the midst of feeling sorry for myself, I went through our financials and realized just how much we had given away and do you know what I felt?  I felt the joy of the master.  There may not have been enough money that month, but there was most certainly enough.

I tell you this not to make the Pankeys look good or to make you feel bad, but to tell you that the joy that God promises for those who are faithful stewards of his bounty is real, it is available, and it surpasses anything that money can buy.  The other reason I’m telling you this is that I don’t think this parable is just about an individual or even a family.  I think this story is about Saint Paul’s in Foley.  On Monday evening, your vestry approved a preliminary 2015 Plan for Mission that is all about taking the gifts God has given us and using them for his honor and glory.  For 2014, our budget is $340,000 dollars which includes little, if any outreach.  Outreach happens, of course, but through a $25,000 shadow budget of Valentine’s Dinners, chili sales, and special requests.  For 2015, we plan to take seriously the Master’s call to be about the work of the kingdom by being good stewards of our money, our staff, our buildings, and our people.  Based on the feedback we received during last fall’s Community Conversation meals, we’re planning to continue to grow in education, fellowship, children’s ministry and outreach.  We’re beginning to stock-pile for the new roof that’s five years out.  We’re budgeting for our youth to take a summer mission trip without having to dress up like waters to beg for money.  We’re planning for several fellowship events that will bring the whole family together to simply enjoy one another’s company.  We hope to raise our Diocesan pledge from 4.5% to 6%, with a goal of tithing to the Diocese within 5 years. And because our baptismal covenant calls us to reach out beyond 506 North Pine Street in a big way, we plan to make $40,000 available for mission and outreach within our local community, including half the down payment for a Habitat for Humanity house.  We’ve set aside some money to upgrade the furnishings in the Mission House, formerly known as the Education Building, to better accommodate the 1,000 or so heads in beds each year, funds to repair the ceiling in the AA Building, and the ability to make several significant gifts to other worthy causes.  The lesson that I learned from the Parable of the Talents this week is that we aren’t called simply to exist where we are; we are called to take risks in order to make a difference as the hands and feet of Christ in Foley, Alabama.

In the coming days, you will be invited to make a commitment to the Plan for Mission at Saint Paul’s.  The key to this plan’s success is having pledges toward our goal of raising $438,463.67 in 2015, a 15% increase over this year.  Without the commitment of the whole congregation to make this Mission happen, we simply can’t do it.  We know 100% participation is impossible, but it’s our goal anyway.  By my count, we have approximately 160 families at Saint Paul’s.  In 2014, 30% of those families made a pledge making up 60% of our budget.  This year, it is our hope to reach 100% pledge participation, funding 100% of our Plan for Mission.  Whether you have been pledging for years or have never made a pledge before, I know that it is unreasonable for me to expect you to jump from wherever you might be to giving away 10%.  It took getting ordained for me to finally do it, but I hope that you’ll consider looking at where you are now and investing 15% more in the Plan for Mission.  If you’re giving $10 a month, try $11.15.  If you’re giving $100, shoot for $115.  If you’re giving $1,000 a month, how about $1150?  Together, we can live into the dream that God has for us.

Of course, this parable isn’t just about money; it is also about your skills as a carpenter, computer programmer, photographer, master gardener, grandparent, teacher, butcher, baker, or candlestick maker and how you use them to build up the kingdom of God.  For Saint Paul’s in Foley to live into our Plan for Mission, it’ll take everybody’s talents: financial and otherwise, with a dash of risk and a whole lot of faith in a Master who loves us beyond measure.  In the end, it is the my hope, Keith’s hope, and the hope of your vestry that we’ll look back on 2015 as a year in which God blessed us with a warm embrace and the soothing words, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”  Amen.