October 19, 2014 - The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sharon L. Rodgers
Pledge Campaign Sermon #2    

Whatever else we might say about Paul, the man certainly knew how to pay a compliment. Just take this morning’s opening of his letter to the Thessalonians. “We give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Wow. Your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope - I’d like to be remembered like that. I’d like to belong to a community like that. Happily, I believe I do. I didn’t always feel that way, though. When I first found my way to St. Mary’s in 1973 I was deeply wary of Episcopalians. During my first six years here, which I refer to nowadays as my anonymous period, Dolores Dye was the only person who knew my name, I never wrote a check or filled out a form that included my address, and yet I still made it a point to leave the state on the weekend every year when the every member canvas was carried out, just in case someone from St. Mary’s might have found out where I lived and would dare to call on me. In addition to this visceral fear of the stewardship process let me also share that still earlier in life, during my three years as a Girl Scout, I only sold cookies to my mother and the kind lady next door because I couldn’t imagine going house to house asking people to spend money on cookies, or anything else for that matter. Put those two tantalizing tidbits together and then reflect on the fact that I stand before you today as the preacher on one of our Stewardship Sundays, charged with convincing you not only of the importance of pledging to support the ministry of St. Mary’s, but that you should give more money than you ever have before. I can hear God laughing. 

For thirteen years after my father left parochial ministry under very unfortunate circumstances, I was determined that Episcopalians were never going to hurt me again. Church became a place I went to. It was very important to me, but it was outside of me. We were separate, the church and I. Dropping some money in the plate each week seemed the decent thing to do. After all, I paid to go to the movies, and church, even on the most ordinary Sunday morning, had a far more significant impact on me than the most spectacular Hollywood production. It’s impossible to know how long I might have gone on in that manner. What changed it all, if I were to name a single transforming moment, was the Sunday morning that Dorothy Bergquist came up the aisle as the crucifer. From the time I was a little girl I had wanted to be an acolyte, but in my day girls weren’t allowed, and by the time they let girls participate, I was all grown up. I waited until Dorothy came up the aisle a second time, just to be sure it wasn’t a fluke. Then, convinced that it must be true, adult women really were allowed to be acolytes, I summoned all the courage I had in me, went to one of the priests on the staff, and expressed my desire to serve. Quite simply, my longing to be an acolyte won out over my fear, and my life was never the same again. 

One of the first revelations I experienced from the point at which I stepped out of my pew if you will, is that church isn’t a place, it’s who gathers in a place. This isn’t St. Mary’s. WE are St. Mary’s. We are the church in this place. We hire the clergy. We’re responsible for keeping the roof from leaking and the electric bill paid. It’s up to us to welcome, or not, those who come to our door. Just as we strive to make our homes comfortable for ourselves and hospitable places for our guests, we take it upon ourselves to make St. Mary’s comfortable and hospitable for all who enter here. This is our spiritual home. What sort of home it is depends on us. The impact that St. Mary’s has in our community and in our diocese is our responsibility. As critical as our time and energy are to the vitality of this congregation, in today’s world ministry also requires money. This church operates on a budget. That budget is developed a year in advance, and money is spent within the constraints of that budget. For this reason, while contributing the extra cash in our wallets on Sunday is certainly better than not giving at all, it’s a rather haphazard approach which is not very helpful to those charged with managing our corporate financial affairs. They need us to be responsible enough and committed enough to make a pledge, so that they can know how much money will be at their disposal as they make financial plans for the coming year. 

Entering into any sort of financial agreement is an act of faith. Unlike a mortgage or a credit card agreement, however, making a pledge is not a legally binding contract, but rather a good faith agreement we make with St. Mary’s, a personal covenant we make with God. Because it is not legally binding, we have to renew our commitment to pay it every month, or every week, however often we decide to make payments, because no one else is going to make us do so. Pledging is a wonderful example of the work of faith that Paul refers to in today’s Epistle. More than that, though, pledging is a labor of love. 

I truly believe everything I have in life comes from God. I don’t just mean my material possessions, for which I am sincerely grateful, but my relationships, my teaching career, my successes, and my failures. All of these have been gifts from a loving God. I believe the reflection process we go through in deciding whether to pledge and then how much, should involve thinking about not only how much we have, but how much we are loved. Call to mind the people in your life who mean the most to you. Focus for a moment on how much you love them, and on how much they love you. That love, passionate, profound, life-changing, is at once a gift from God, as well as the human manifestation of the love that is God. Just as we can’t buy love, though countless people throughout history have tried, we can’t exactly repay God for it either. It just isn’t possible. So making a pledge isn’t about repayment, any more than it’s about guilt or obligation or corporate responsibility. Pledging is about gratitude. 

The wonderful thing about gratitude is that it is a mindset that engenders a sense of abundance. It is the mindset that led to the first Thanksgiving feast. The pilgrims, who had survived an inconceivably difficult first year in the new world, invited their native American neighbors, who had been critical to their survival, to share the fruits of their first harvest. They knew another winter was coming, and they could have simply stockpiled every bit of food they brought in. But like the ancient Hebrews, who understood that one aspect of tithing is giving away the “first fruits,” the best of the harvest, as the only fitting acknowledgement of what God had given them, the pilgrims also believed they were meant to share what they had with others. 

Indeed, the concept of the tithe as presented in the Bible has two aspects to it. One is to give back to God a tenth of our income, since most of us don’t bring in a harvest. Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to do that, while others, at this point in their lives, simply cannot. The other aspect, of giving to God our first fruits, or in today’s terms, of paying God first, is something that everyone of us can choose to do. I’ve talked to many people over the years who have told me that when they make it a habit to pay their pledge at the beginning of a pay period, they always make it to their next check still able to meet their financial obligations. Whereas, if they leave their pledge payment until later, the money seems to somehow seep away, so that often as not, they find themselves falling behind in their financial commitment to the church.

Well this is all lovely, dear, the more genteel of you are thinking by now, but we’ve got three kids to put through college, or I’m still trying to pay off my own student loans, or my pension is only a fraction of what I was making when I was working, or you fill in the blank - we’re barely making it! How do you expect us to make a significant financial commitment to... God?! Well...... I’m not the one who expects it. I’m just one of those who will benefit from it. We minister together, you and I, every time we come to this place, and everywhere we go when we leave here. By giving to the church we are paradoxically giving to ourselves, because we are empowering ourselves to minister more effectively. Oh, but I don’t minister, some of you will say, I just come to church on Sunday morning. Ah, but simply by being here you minister to me, because I come here needing to be part of something larger than who and what I am alone. I need to hear a church full of voices singing praise to God; it’s the only way I can dare to sing out loud myself. I need to hear a church full of people say amen with me. So when you just come to church on Sunday morning, you minister to me, and to everyone else in this place simply by your presence among us. 

Just as I need your voices and your presence, this church needs your money. I’m not a fool. I know how easy it is for me to stand here and talk about tithing. I’m a single woman with no dependents. I earned two college degrees without costing my parents or myself a penny - scholarships and fellowships paid for it all. I have been extraordinarily blessed. You too have been blessed, but that’s not to say that your financial obligations aren’t real. They are. What I am asking you to do is to reflect on how much you really can afford to give to the work of the church. Are you giving that much? If you are I commend you, and God thanks you. If you’re not, consider how much you gave this year. How much more could you afford to give next year? If every one of us who can afford to increase our pledge does so it’ll add up. It will make a difference. If tithing is truly out of the question at this point in your life, make that standard your goal, and develop a time line for getting there. If it needs to take three years, or five years, or ten years, make a commitment to get there. It will change you in ways you cannot even imagine. I know.    

Fifty-five years ago my eighth grade music teacher assigned us the task of composing a melody. I don’t remember how long it was supposed to be - six or eight measures I suppose. I just knew then as I know now that Trudy is the musician in our family, I was the student-athlete. But being the student I of course completed the assignment. After we had submitted our efforts, Mr. Boyd selected two or three each class period in the weeks thereafter and played them. I still remember when he played mine. I can tell you where I was sitting that day. He played my melody through note by note, and it wasn’t awful. But then he played it again, with chords, with harmony. He played it several times, changing the harmony each time through. It was lovely. That was the only moment in my whole life that I’ve ever felt like I had any musical ability. What Mr. Boyd did for my melody is what we do for each other here at St. Mary’s. We come through the door as our own individual melody lines, and the people we minister with, on the altar guild, the Sunday school staff, the Saturday morning breakfast crew, in the choir, the men’s club, with the sextons guild, the office volunteers, whomever, they write the harmony to our melody line as we write the harmony for theirs. I am asking you this morning to write your financial melody line. I am asking you to do the very best that you can. If we all do that, if we all write something and do our very best, with God’s help, we will write a symphony. Amen.