Sermon, Oct. 18

Today we are kicking off our fall giving campaign – what many churches call a pledge drive. We invite members and friends of St. Dunstan’s to make a pledge, which is a statement of your intended financial gifts to the parish over the course of the upcoming calendar year. Those pledges allow us to form a budget, since members’ pledged giving makes up the vast majority of our income. We do this every October and November; it’s a standard part of  how St. Dunstan’s, and most other Episcopal churches, function. 

Usually, on the first Sunday of the giving campaign, I preach about it, one way or another. To offer some context… some theological grounding… some reassurance and encouragement. 

There have been years when that felt hard. The year we decided to stop running $30,000 deficits and balance our budget. The year when we had just started a capital campaign – and we really didn’t know how many households were able and willing to do both. 

And then there’s this year. 

I can’t even imagine what October 2019 Miranda would have thought if I’d had the opportunity to tell her about the realities of October 2020. It was hard for me to even start thinking about this year’s giving campaign. It’s hard to imagine asking for your attention amidst the clamor of so many alarms – the pandemic, the election, the environment. Many of us feel chronically distracted and/or overwhelmed, and with good reason. It’s hard to imagine asking for your generosity amidst so much uncertainty and scarcity, when even those of us who are doing OK financially tend to add, “for now.” 

The wilderness journey stories from Exodus have been a strange blessing, over the past six weeks. We’ve listened to the Israelites, our long-ago faith ancestors, struggle with fear and frustration, hunger and thirst, boredom and weariness, uncertainty about where it’s all going and how long it will last, yearning for what they had before, struggling to trust that God is working for good through it all.

And their struggles have been our struggles, and, maybe, made us feel a little less alone – reminding us that humans have walked through many a trackless wilderness before. 

The book of Exodus took its more or less final form about 600 years before Jesus, in a time when the Jewish people had been conquered and dragged from their homeland to live among strangers. During those fifty years of exile, God’s people drew on ancient stories and traditions to create a set of holy books laying out their history and way of life. I’m sure that just as we do, those long-ago editors saw parallels between the wilderness journey and their own circumstances. 

Maybe that context can help us understand God’s sometimes-destructive anger, in these stories. Perhaps it simply reflects ancient memories of how people made sense of the hardships of their journey. And/or – for the exiles, God’s anger may have served as a reminder to stay faithful to their heritage and faith, on their own long journey. 

In today’s Exodus text, God does what every parent whose rage is spiraling out of control should do: God gives Godself a time out. Or tries to, anyway. God tells Moses, Look. You all should continue your journey; but I can’t go with you. For you are a stiff-necked people – a wonderful Hebrew idiom. Pause a moment and feel that in your body, that stiff neck; then release it, let your head fall. To bow your head in humility or to nod in agreement – both begin with releasing that stiff neck. 

God says, If I continue to travel with this people, stiff necks and all, we’re going to keep having these situations…. and one of these days I might actually destroy you all. 

If we think about it, we might find Moses’ and the people’s responses surprising. Why not take this deal? God has gotten them out of Egypt and provided food and water. Surely the onward journey would be easier without this demanding, terrifying Being traveling with them. Please note that by this time they have received the Ten Commandments; they have some idea of God’s expectations about how they’re supposed to live. Why not say, Thanks, God, it’s been great, we can take it from here? 

I don’t know why not. But that’s not what they say. The people’s reaction to the idea that God might leave them is grief. And Moses ARGUES with God –  “Oh no you don’t. These are YOUR people. And you told me that I found favor in your sight! Now you’re going to leave me to handle this on my own?”

And God relents, and agrees to stay with the people, and accompany them and protect them and provide for them as they continue their journey.

It is not all smooth sailing from here on out. Next week we’ll hear about that. But I think this is a really important moment in the long arc of the wilderness journey. It’s a moment of mutual choosing. Moses, and the people, didn’t get a lot of choice at the beginning of all this. But now, presented with an opportunity to shake hands and walk away, they choose God. They choose to keep being God’s people, even though it asks a lot from them. And God chooses to keep being their God. And they continue their holy journey together. 

Our text from 1 Thessalonians talks about choosing, too. This is the beginning of the letter, when Paul usually offers some encouragement and praise. To the church in Thessalonica, he says, Knowing of your choice…  The New Revised Standard Version, our usual Bible translation, renders that as, “knowing that Christ has chosen you.” But the syntax in the original Greek is unclear. It could be Christ’s choosing of these people, this church; or their choosing of Christ. Either – or both. But the choosing matters. 

When I’m preaching a giving campaign sermon, I usually find some thread that ties the Scripture texts to the campaign. Generosity. Commitment. Gratitude. Et cetera. This year, what jumps out at me is the choosing. 

It’s there in the texts, for sure, but maybe it stands out for me because I’ve also heard it from many of you in these months. That this has become, like it or not, a clarifying time, a season of discernment. The enforced limitations of our lives, and perhaps too the pervasive sense of risk and loss, has led to a lot re-evaluation of what matters and what we actually want.

I’ve heard about job changes and relationship changes. Changes in how people organize their time, who we stay in touch with, what commitments we keep, even our deep sense of personal direction and purpose. They are not all comfortable changes, to be clear! Some have brought a lot of anguish… even when it’s the right choice. Some of you are still hanging in the uncomfortable space between the old passing away, and the new taking shape. 

It turns out that we were all on auto-pilot about a lot of stuff. We kept doing it because we’d done it before. And when we had to stop and think, we un-chose some things. And we re-chose some other things. 

If you’re hearing my voice right now, that probably means St. Dunstan’s is one of the things you chose again. Or, in a few cases, chose for the first time – which is just amazing to me; such a blessing. 

The giving campaign is an opportunity to choose, again. To choose this faith community as one of the things that’s worth your time and resources and heart,

in this strange season and beyond. To choose to help St. Dunstan’s keep being here, for us and for others.  

Let me say just a few words about this year’s campaign. In recent years we’ve presented a detailed draft budget as part of the fall giving campaign, explaining why particular budget lines went up or down. That kind of work assumes stability. That next year will look a lot like this year, with some tweaks here and there. 

Well – 2020 blew that kind of thinking out of the water. We didn’t know what 2020 would be like. We don’t know what 2021 will be like. We know we’ve lost some beloved saints this year; we know some folks’ jobs and family circumstances have changed. So this year we’re asking for your pledges first, and then we’ll budget for 2021 when we’ve seen what we can do, together. 

This doesn’t mean your parish leadership bodies are slacking off!The Finance Committee and Vestry folks have looked at our numbers and talked about different possibilities. But it seemed both kinder and more responsible to start with what we are able to give, and build our budget from there. 

I am hopeful, beloved friends. I’m hopeful that we’ll keep broadening and deepening our practices of fellowship and prayer when we’re not in the same physical space. I’m hopeful that advances in understanding, prevention and treatment of Covid will allow us to begin to gather in person again in the coming months, in both familiar and fresh ways.

I’ve looked around at what other churches are doing, and we have done a good job of keeping being St. Dunstan’s. There have been costs to this season – no question. I know we have members who love this parish and just don’t connect with online worship. I ache for them. This long fast from Eucharist, and our beloved building, takes a toll. There have been blessings to this season, too – deepening connections within the parish family, building new habits of praying and reflecting on Scripture together, exploring ways for our kids to plan and lead worship. It has been a heavy lift. It will keep being one. But we’re doing pretty well. I’m proud of us. 

Keeping on keeping being St. Dunstan’s takes financial resources. That’s why we have to have a fall giving campaign, even though it’s hard. If you’ve pledged in the past and you’re able to sustain your pledge, please do. If you’ve pledged before and you’re able to increase your pledge, even a little, I hope you’ll consider it. If you’ve pledged before and things have changed and you can’t pledge at the same level – we understand. No shame, please! So much has changed, for so many people, this year. 

If you haven’t pledged before and you’d like to start, to help St. Dunstan’s plan ahead, that would be a tremendous blessing. New pledges are always cause for celebration – even more so this year. I also want to hold up the folks who pledged for the first time last year and plan to pledge again this year. What a time to join a church. Thanks for sticking around. 

Along with your pledge cards, we’re asking for two other things. First, please share your thoughts about what’s most important to sustain and build, with your Vestry and Finance Committee. This is a season of discernment for St. Dunstan’s, too. Let us know what matters, from where you’re standing.

Second, please share your hopes. Each pledge packet this year includes a couple of index cards. They’ll come with an explanation, but the gist is: Use a card to write or draw a hope you have for 2021. It can be a church hope or a life hope or a world hope. It can be a big hope or a little hope. It can be a general hope or a very specific hope. You can do several if you want – let us know if you need more index cards!

One of our members, Kate, suggested this, because, she said, holding hope together is one of the most important things we do as a church in a difficult and frightening time. I think there’s real wisdom in that. So, share a hope, or two, or five. Send them back with your pledge card. We’ll put them all together and share them at the end of the giving campaign. 

In the wilderness journey in Exodus, God’s people chose to keep being God’s people. God’s people in Thessalonica chose Christ and were chosen by Christ, to continue the work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope.

Beloved friends: I am so grateful that you, each and all, chose St. Dunstan’s and keep choosing St. Dunstan’s.That you chose, and keep choosing, the blessings and challenges of life together as a faith community. That you chose, and keep choosing, to walk this wilderness journey together. May the God who has brought us this far protect us, guide us, and give us wisdom and courage for the road ahead. Amen.