A sermon preached September 9, 2012
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”
I’ve had two really great and interesting experiences this week and they’ve both touched on the issue of money that is brought up in both the Epistle of James and Proverbs today: the first was the chance to moderate a Google Hangout, which is like a video conference, for a “Faith Based Response” to President Obama’s speech for ABC News between a Sikh, a Muslim, an Evangelical Christian, a Roman Catholic, a Jew, and a Hindu. And what emerged from that for me particularly regarding the Proverbs text was the shared heritage of all the religions in their care for the poor and their acknowledgment that the appropriate response to encountering the divine is generosity. Whether it’s one of the five the pillars of Islam to give to charity, or the Torah’s commandments to give the first fruits of your harvest to God, or the perhaps more pragmatic cultural responsibility of Hindus to care for their elderly family members, every religious tradition records our obligation to care for one another and to share what we have with others.
And the second was a Stewardship Workshop all day yesterday here at Epiphany with most of our Vestry and some other members of this church led by a consultant who guided us through looking at Epiphany’s core values, our aspirations for the future, and teaching us some best practices for stewardship and fundraising in the Church today. Thank you so much to those who were present—you inspired me.
It was clear from our discussion of core values that this precise passage from James is one of the core values of Epiphany: the people present identified that one reason they love Epiphany is because it is so welcoming to everyone; and specifically that they don’t feel judged by the way they dress or how much money they have, or what they do in the same way that some people had experienced at other churches. Put another way, I have seen Christian Louboutin shoes in this church; and I know some of us get our shoes at Payless. We have people here who have very high-powered professional careers; and we have people who are unemployed and having a really tough financial time right now. And both are welcome here—and everyone in between—not just in the pew, but in leadership, on the Vestry, in the Sunday School… our goal is to show no partiality, and to make sure that every personal and every financial commitment at Epiphany is equally honored, whether you are giving out of an abundance or whether you are giving something like the widow’s mite—a gift that is small in dollars but big in significance to you. And I know we’re not perfect in the execution of that, but it’s the value that infuses what we do.
Our consultant had us share stories of “transformational giving” yesterday; and they were wonderful—I’m so grateful for each of the people who were willing to tell a story of a gift they witnessed or gave sometime during their lives. The story I thought about sharing—but didn’t, yesterday, was the story of my first pledge of support to a church. I was 22, and was earning $30,000 per year as a teacher. It seemed like so much money. But I had no idea how much I could pledge—I knew I was supposed to tithe and give 10%, but I realized that wasn’t realistic. We didn’t talk about giving money away in my house growing up. We talked about saving money, and we talked about spending money—especially how you shouldn’t spend money because you should be saving money—but I had no idea how much my parents gave to the church. I still don’t. I think I settled on giving $100 per month. I felt very grown up as I wrote a check each month to the church, and put it in an offering envelope like I remembered my father doing every week when I was growing up. And I remember the next annual meeting seeing breakdown of pledge totals, and realizing that while I thought my pledge was really small, where I fit in a fairly large and affluent parish in terms of giving was near the middle. I didn’t think I had a lot of money, but I was capable of making a difference in that parish. Giving has been one of my ministries since then—just like singing, or teaching, or being a priest.
In terms of our financial Stewardship, two things have to happen at Epiphany for us to be a sustainable church: the people who are already here need to give more. And there’s good news on that front. Our Vestry has pledged to raise their 2012 pledges by an average of 15%. They are putting skin in the game and showing us the way forward by their own transformational and sacrificial giving. A number of you gave your time yesterday to learn more about the different generational giving patterns and different ideas of how to communicate information about our budget and our needs so that we can do this. We need to find that way to talk transparently—and more frequently—about money but not in such a way that people feel harassed and like people are always asking for money. And I think we can do that.
And the second thing we need is to have more people in these pews. We need to actively invite people here—face to face, through signs and flyers, through media online and in print, every way we can think of. And our message must be consistent—my reduction of it would be this: Come to Epiphany and find community, find purpose, find God. We imagined yesterday what this church could be like in 10 years—I see full pews, a thriving Sunday School, even more music, and a stable budget, and a parish that still holds to that core value of welcoming all—of not showing partiality. What do you imagine?
I sometimes feel a mix of frustration and gratitude that it’s comparatively easy to raise money for our Homeless feeding program and Carpenter’s Kids. They’re great programs that directly help people in tangible ways, so it’s good that we highlight them. The challenge before us as a parish is that our whole budget is necessary for our mission. Your gift that keeps the lights on and the heating oil in the tank means we can house the Homeless Feeding Program. Your gift that pays part of my salary ensures that someone who is in the hospital or having a crisis has the pastoral care they deserve. Your gift that pays for our administrative staff ensures that our funds are accounted for and utilized appropriately, and that every person who calls or rings our doorbell is greeted lovingly and welcomed. There is nothing in our budget that is not directly related to our mission of serving God and our neighbor.
Finally, we need to learn two things from the gospel today. The first is to do what the disciples do and completely ignore what Jesus says about not telling anyone about the good things he has done. If you put your light under a bushel basket, what good is it? There is light all over this church—in our children and youth ministries, on our Vestry, in our visits to the hospitals, in the loving friendships and communities here that have grown over years and decades. We aren’t always very good at how we communicate what we do. And part of yesterday was learning some ways to change that.
And the other thing we need to take away from the Gospel today is the word, Ephphtha. Be opened. Not just our ears. Jesus wants us to open our ears and our eyes and our doors and our minds and our hearts and our wallets and our arms. Ephphtha. Be opened. Be opened to the spirit, to faith, to belief, to music, to joy, to gratitude, to the love of your neighbor. Be opened to the love of your priest. Because I do love you. And I do thank you, for being a church that is so easy to love.
We began the stewardship workshop with this beautiful prayer written by our Warden, Helen Goodkin, and I want to close with it today as we kick off the program year at this wonderful parish.
Holy God, who calls us to do your work in the world,
We thank you for this opportunity to gather and to be together,
For the multitude of talents and remarkable wisdom which we each bring.
We give thanks for the entire congregation, the young, the old, the middle aged,
Women and men, girls and boys,
Old timers and new faces,
Married and single,
Singers and non-singers,
Those who feed the homeless and those who teach the children,
Those who care for the altar and those who visit the sick.
8:30 ites, 11:00 ites, and 6 pmers.
Be with us today as we reflect on your call,
Be with us today as we discern and define our mission,
Be with us today as we seek to grow in understanding.
Be in our hearts and minds
For listening and for speaking.
For learning and for teaching.
For working and for laughing.
For hearing and for seeing.
For doing and for sitting still.
Give us openness, respectfulness, and insight.
Give us wisdom to find the path and courage to complete the task.
Give us faith, hope, and love, and
May we always have on our lips the words of your Son. Amen.