Monday, November 1, 2010

What will ensure a future for Two Saints? Gratitude

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 31, 2010: Luke 19:1-10

I don’t think I have ever used a sermon to help make preparation for the visitation of a bishop but, as they say, there’s a first time for everything. For a number of reasons I think this is an important visit, and my prayer is that it be a transforming one, both for us and for him.

What I want to do this morning is to stir up some anticipation, so that next Sunday is sort of like that day when Jesus entered Jericho. A crowd had come out to see him and Luke tells us the story of one man, named Zacchaeus, who was so full of anticipation and the desire to be with Jesus that he climbed a tree, which, being a man of some importance and wealth, is not the kind of thing he would normally have done, but he was short.

And then what happened? Somehow—we’re not told—Jesus knew who he was and noticed him in the tree. The chief tax collector of Jericho! Just the kind of guy Jesus seemed continually to seek out, this Jesus who was known as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Indeed, Jesus says to him right off the bat—I will come and stay at your house today. All the religious people would have raised their eyebrows and stuck up their noses hearing that.

Zacchaeus comes down out of the tree and stands before Jesus. And, despite being in the midst of a now grumpy crowd, hostile to this tax collector they despised, Zacchaeus cannot wait to tell Jesus about his ministry. The text we heard says that Zacchaeus said, “I will give…I will pay back…” as if meeting Jesus has inspired him to do so. But in the Greek text the verbs are actually in the present tense, really “I am giving…I am paying… Something has already changed Zacchaeus’ life and he is eager to tell the Lord about it. And Jesus’ expresses his pleasure, “Salvation today has come to this house.”

My hope for next week is that you will do what Zacchaeus did, and show and tell the bishop your passion for God’s work in and through this community and its ministry. I hope you will tell him how it has changed your life, or how you have watched it change someone else’s life, and found yourself awed and grateful that you have been able to participate in it. There are stories like that in this parish and I want him to hear those stories. And he wants to hear them too. No polite Episcopalian chit chat. It’s not a day for chit chat.

Bishop Prince and I had some good time together on Thursday to plan for this visit. I have said to some of you in the past that it has not been clear to me what he thought about this parish or even, to be perfectly honest, me. I have been afraid that, in terms of me, he has been stuck on my bi-polar illness and, in terms of the parish, he has been unimpressed by how our average attendance and overall number of communicants has dropped the last couple of years, because I know he pays attention to that stuff.

I decided ahead of time that this was a make or break meeting and I was going to put all my cards on the table. I am happy to say he responded well to that kind of honesty. He affirmed my ministry in what I believe were sincere ways and he said he was committed to the future of Two Saints because he believes we are of strategic importance in the Episcopal Church’s ministry in the city.

I was able, then, to testify to him what this place means to me personally. It was an unlikely pairing, you and me; we were both taking a risk and the entry was not easy for either of us. But I have come to feel deeply, deeply loved by you and the feeling is mutual. Despite the challenges that face us, I am deeply committed to the future of this parish, largely because I have experienced the challenging and healing grace of God here and it has changed my life. That is a gift that others deserve to receive.

Those are the kinds of things I hope you will tell Bishop Prince and especially of your life-changing involvement in a ministry here and at St. Stephen’s. He knows the serious challenges of our present. I want him to feel our future.

Now this needs to be a stewardship sermon as well, since I will not be preaching the next two weeks and three weeks from today is our pledge ingathering. In a way, however, this has already been a stewardship sermon because it has been about commitment and gratitude. Stewardship is my commitment to make gratefulness to God the primary attitude by which I chose to see the world and act in it.

What that means is that stewardship is the way I try to live my life. It’s a word for my often feeble but I hope persistent attempt to follow Jesus. Stewardship is not about a pledge card to the church. It is about the choices I make from the time I open my eyes in the morning until the time I close them at night.

One of those decisions is, of course, what I pledge to this church. I make that decision as well as you. I know some of you do not like to pledge. In fact, last year 25% of the active households of this parish did not pledge. It is not one of our healthier numbers. If you don’t pledge, or haven’t for a few years, I ask you with all seriousness to consider doing so.

I ask you not for the sake of the church budget—although we sorely need it to have enough predictability to at least be fair to our employees. But forget about that. Here’s the bottom line: You need—we all need—for the good of our souls, to tell God that we will give to him first and hold ourselves accountable to it. That’s what making a pledge is. It is saying to God, I will not give you what’s left over after I have taken care of myself. That is not how you love me and choose me, so it is not how I am going to love you and choose you.

St. John says in his first letter

We love God, because God first loved us. (1 John 4:19)

I know it’s hard. It is not an easy time. I took a ten percent pay cut last year. I have bills and debts and stresses aplenty. I am not saving for my retirement at the rate I should be. But God and the community through which God comes to me again and again and again is going to keep coming first. It is the least I can do by way of saying thank you.

I have told the bishop and you how much I believe in the future of this parish. If you look at numbers and consider this building it looks very dicey, and, truth to tell, it probably is. What do we have at hand to make a future happen when many signs are to the contrary? Gratitude. Eucharist. Gratitude. That is how we will, in the words of St. Paul, “work out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12).

Next Sunday would be a perfect day for me if I could hear the bishop say as he is walking to the parking lot. “Those people do justice, and they are really grateful. They just might make it.”

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