Alternate Epistle for the day: Hebrews 3:1 – 6
We are Christ’s house if we hold firm to the confidence and the pride that our hope gives us. (Hebrews 3:6)
In the name of God, who creates, befriends, and inspires. Amen.
I’m not performing in today’s talent show, so I thought I’d start my sermon with a joke. Like most religious jokes, this one is built on stereotypes, so apologies in advance if any are needed.
So: Word has just come down from NASA that a giant meteor is about to hit the earth. No escape is possible and few, if any, survivors are expected. It’s Friday and the meteor will strike on Monday.
In one town, there’s an ecumenical group of three clergy – Baptist, Roman Catholic, and Episcopalian – which has been meeting for years for Friday lunch. They decide to meet as usual. And they get talking about what they plan to preach about on Sunday, given the oncoming end of life on Earth as we know it.
The Baptist says, Well, I’m going to preach that it’s never too late to come to Jesus. Even in the last moment, even as the meteor hurtles to earth and your life flashes before your eyes, if you just turn to Jesus in your heart and repent of your sins and accept Him as your Savior and Lord, you will be safe in His arms. Though your body may die, you will have nothing to fear. That will be my message. What about you?
The Roman Catholic says, Well, I’m going to preach on the Sacraments and remind my people that, having been baptized into our Holy Mother Church and having faithfully received the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Mass, and having confessed their sins and been absolved, they are assured of everlasting life in God and have nothing to fear from the meteor. What about you?
And the Episcopalian says, Well, I’ll probably just preach on whatever is in the lectionary.
I’m leading with that joke today because it’s true – we Episcopalians tend to be lectionary people. The lectionary is our three-year cycle of readings from the Bible for every Sunday. And for most Episcopal priests and preachers I know, it tends to be our starting point, even if we then turn to current events or theological quandaries. Usually what we read and reflect on together on Sunday is what the lectionary offers us. Sometimes we only read two or three of the texts, instead of all four – Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel. Sometimes I shorten a text, to help us focus. Sometimes I lengthen a text, to give us more to sink our teeth into.
But this week, I messed with the lectionary. I swapped out the assigned text from the letter to the Hebrews, which was more of that letter’s long and detailed explanation of Jesus’ divine priesthood, for another passage from the same letter, which isn’t included in the lectionary cycle. I tweaked the lectionary because I wanted to tell you all about a word I discovered earlier this fall – or rather, a family of related words. And it starts with the word “house,” as in, “We are Christ’s house.” The same word can be translated as “house,” “home,” or “household.” Now, we’ve been using that Greek word a little bit around here – who remembers it? …
Great! You get a prize! Yes, Oikos. Like the yoghurt. I’ve been trying out that word here – and some of you are kindly humoring me and trying it out too – as a description of our life together as a church.
Lots of churches and pastors use the phrase “church family.” I do myself, sometimes. But I’ve heard folks make the case that “family” isn’t the best metaphor for our life together as a church, for a number of reasons. Families are hard to join, like we don’t want our church to be. Family can be a painful word for people who come from families with a lot of brokenness or conflict, or people who don’t feel like it applies to them. The “family” metaphor can also carry the implication that what we do is get together to share the occasional meal, be nice to each other, and avoid talking about sex, religion, or politics… just like Thanksgiving, right?
Oikos is an unfamiliar word. But its very unfamiliarity gives us the chance to explore and develop meaning. I talked about this word back in July. Here’s some of what I said back then: “The first-century household, or oikos, was a lot bigger and more complex than our modern nuclear families. You’d have many generations living together, and possibly several branches of the family. You’d have servants and shirttail relations and close friends and apprentices and all sorts of folks, living an ordered and interdependent life together, day by day. This is Christian together-ness visioned as intimacy and complementarity. Living closely, sharing life’s ordinary moments and extraordinary occasions, with a motley crew of people of all sorts, some more like you and some less, some closely related and some less, some beloved and some less, but all living that shared, ordered life as a household, an oikos.”
I like “oikos” better than “family” because it’s bigger, and it’s messier, and it includes the idea that we’re all trying to function together in some way. For a lot of us, our family may be spread across the country or even the world; we only get together once or twice a year, if that.
An oikos is a bunch of people sharing a common life, a big complex unity encompassing various tasks, functions and missions, and people with various stakes and connections and roles. And I think that’s a pretty good description of a church community.
That word “oikos” is all over the New Testament, but you can’t really find a better example than the text from the letter to the Ephesians that I preached on back in July, one of my favorites: “So then you are no longer strangers and guests in the oikos, but you are… members of the oikos of God, an oikos built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ as the capstone. In him the entire oikos, being connected together, is growing into a holy temple to God… In whom you also are being-together-home-builded – that’s the Greek verb! – into an oikos for the spirit of God.”
Okay. Oikos. A wonderful word and image that we’re trying on together, as a way to think about what this thing is that we constitute by gathering week by week, building relationships, sharing our resources, praying and singing and talking and eating together.
Now, there’s another word that shows up in the Greek New Testament that comes from “oikos.” Here it comes: “oikonomia.” We have a common English word that comes directly from this word. Who can guess? Oikonomia…
Yes! YOU get a prize! Oikonomia is the base for our English word “economy.” The root of economics, of all the ways we use our resources and reflect on using our resources – the root is the oikos. How you run your household.
In the oikonomia of your oikos, you would want to provide for the members of the household, making sure people have what they need to eat, and be decently clothed, and go about their business. You’d want to have a reserve against hard times. You’d want some funds for the poor and to contribute to civic needs. You’d want funds for the education of younger members. You’d want funds available in case any members of the household has new endeavors or projects in mind. There might be times when the household needs to expand – maybe to build a new wing, to accommodate a growing family. Those are some of the ways you’d run your oikonomia, using the income and assets of the household to meet the household’s needs.
Our church oikonomia is not really that different. We check on our resource flow, month by month, income and expenses, making sure we’re on solid ground and that our use of resources is what we expect and intend. And we plan our oikonomia every fall when we form a budget. Vestry member and retired businessman Lynn Bybee tells me that a budget is just a kind of plan – a plan for using your resources to accomplish your goals.
Today you’ll receive a little packet that outlines our plans for next year’s budget, here at St. Dunstan’s, and invites you to make a commitment to supporting those plans. We’re beginning our giving campaign – a four-week period in which we are all asked to make a statement, a pledge, of the financial gifts we intend to give to St. Dunstan’s in the next calendar year, 2016.
Pledges in any amount are welcome. Truly. Pledging even a dollar a month tells us that you care, that you’re committed, that you have a stake in the flourishing of this oikos.
That said, your Rector – that’s me – and your Finance Committee and Vestry do have a financial goal this year that we’re placing before you. It involves a bit of a stretch. We would love to increase our pledged giving by 8%.
We’ve balanced our budget for two years now, after several years of steep deficits. And we’ve managed to add members, programs, and energy while living with a tight budget.
But we’ve done so, to an extent, by using funds outside our annual budget: special funds designated for particular purposes, and money from diocesan new ministry grants. A lot of those designated funds are scraping bottom. And we can’t keep getting new ministry grants for ministries that aren’t new anymore, but have become just part of what we do.
We have the opportunity to keep growing – in membership, yes, but also in our capacity for ministry, our vitality, our spiritual depth and engagement with God’s mission. But our tight budget is becoming a constraint. We’ve outgrown it already, really.
Your leadership believes that it’s time to commit to growth by funding a budget that will sustain and expand what we’re developing here. A budget that fully funds some of the engaging and effective things we’re already doing, like our new youth group, Sandbox Worship and our monthly young adult meetups. A budget that supports some of the new ministries we’d love to get underway, like a children’s choir and support for hungry kids in our community. And a budget that helps our lively, busy parish system run more smoothly by adding a few more hours of staff time, to develop our ministries and take some of those “somebody has to do it” type jobs off the shoulders of volunteers.
There’s an outline of that budget, that plan for using our resources to meet our goals, in the pretty little booklet in your Giving Campaign packet. It’s a new practice for us to present a draft budget to the congregation before the Giving Campaign like this. I hope you’ll take time to read and reflect on the possibilities and hopes presented there.
We are committed to responsible use of our shared resources here at St. Dunstan’s, and when we revisit these plans in December and adopt a final budget for 2016, it’ll be a sustainable budget. We won’t aim higher than we can responsibly afford.
But your leadership has been talking about this for months, and we agree, we don’t know what we can do until we tell ourselves what we could do. Our pledges and weekly offerings make up 94% of St. Dunstan’s income in 2015. So it really is up to us.
Here’s the other thing I want to say about that word oikonomia: it’s usually translated in the New Testament as “stewardship.” That word we use in the church to remind ourselves that we are given responsibility by God to use our resources wisely and hopefully. In the first letter of Peter, the author writes, “Like good stewards of God’s diverse gifts, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” I can’t really offer a better stewardship sermon than that call to share in stewardship, to offer the diversity of our gifts to one another for the building-up of the whole and the living out of God’s call.
Speaking of building up, I want to tell you about one more word that’s related to oikos and oikonomia. A verb, oikodomo – to build. Makes sense, right? An oikos is a building, among other things. As in English, the word is used both literally and metaphorically, to mean both building in the real-world sense, and building up, strengthening, encouraging, supporting. In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1). In addition to passages like that, the word also shows up in texts like the Ephesians passage I read you earlier, and in First Peter: “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house” (1 Pet 2:5).
That image is used a lot in early Christian writings – of each believer as a stone in a structure that God is building. I love that picture of each of us, in our distinctness, being picked up by God and assembled together, stone by stone, to create holy and new and capacious. Today’s passage from Hebrews is alluding to that image: “We are Christ’s house – his home, his oikos – if we hold firm to the confidence and the pride that our hope gives us.”
So that’s the family of words and ideas that I wanted to set amongst us today. Oikos – household. Oikonomia – stewardship. Oikodomo – to build up one another; and to be build into something greater than ourselves.
Sisters, brothers, children and elders, uncles and aunts, servants and guests, all who stand together in this oikos today: May we know ourselves and each other as a household of God. May we serve one another, as good stewards of God’s diverse gifts. And may we, full of confidence and hope, be built together into a holy dwelling for God’s spirit, a home for Christ himself. Amen.