Category Archives: Giving Campaign

Sermon, Jan. 20

Every year, in preparation for Annual Meeting Sunday, I undertake the daring feat of trying to write something that is both a sermon AND a “state of the parish” address, of sorts. It works better some years than others. Last year the Lectionary handed me a terrific Epistle about holding the present lightly, so that we’re more able to welcome the future. That was easy to preach. 

This year… we have these beautiful texts of reassurance. A prophet tells God’s people in exile, You shall no more be called Forsaken or Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight is in Her, and your God shall rejoice over you. The Psalmist sings, How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. Paul writes to the church in Corinth to say: God has gifts for each of you, by the power of the Holy Spirit; and those gifts all work together to help the fellowship of the faithful fulfill God’s intentions. And this Gospel – a story about God’s unlimited bounty. 

These are all wonderful words… But I could not find traction to preach about them. Yes, God loves us, and everything will ultimately be fine. I know all that. Most of the time. But, y’all, those words weren’t meeting me where I was. And I try really hard to start my sermons from the place where the texts are speaking truth to me, so that I can speak to you with authenticity. 

And then I read a sermon on this Gospel – by the Rev. Anne Sutherland Howard – that honed in on one of the emotional notes of this Gospel story: Anxiety. Howard begins, “’They have no wine.’ I hear a question in Mary’s voice as she points out to her son Jesus that the wedding guests have run out of wine. I hear a question that I carry deep within myself, a question familiar to many of us:  Will I have enough? Are we running out? Are we rich enough? Safe enough? Good enough? Will we go over the budget?  Can we put dinner on the table and keep the wolf from the door?” (http://day1.org/1679-finding_wild_space)

Think about the steward – the headwaiter – at the beginning of this story. It’s his job to keep food on the trays and wine in the cups. He’s been watching helplessly as the wine supply gets lower and lower. You can’t just TELL people to go home. Maybe they’re running short because Mary’s oldest brought all his weird scruffy friends with him, and boy, can they put it away. 

Regardless: This is a terrible situation for the steward. Any time you’re offering hospitality, you want there to be enough. More than enough: PLENTY. Both so that the guests feel welcomed and enjoy themselves – and so you come off looking good. There’s honor at stake. You don’t want to come up short. People might talk about what lousy hosts you are. People might not come, next time you invite them. People might even go online and write you a bad review. Worst of all, people who need what you offer might look around and think, There’s nothing for me here – and walk back out the door. 

Anxiety: Is there ENOUGH? In that question, this Gospel finally met me where I am. But before I talk about that, let me lay a little church growth theory on you. If you have ever read a book written by a church growth consultant, you’ll find lots of diagrams and charts and magic numbers. I take all that with a substantial grain of salt. But there is something to the notion that a church with fifty regularly-participating households, functions differently from a church with a hundred regularly-participating households. 

The church growth literature has names for churches of different sizes, based on the ways they tend to function. Churches of about our size or somewhat smaller are called pastoral-sized churches. They are fundamentally pastor-centered. People belong because they like the pastor, and they may leave because they don’t like the pastor. People expect to have a direct relationship with the pastor – and the pastor expects that too, expects to know everybody and more or less know what’s going on with everybody.  The pastor is also the information hub: if you want to know what’s going on or who’s doing what, you ask the pastor. Everybody doesn’t know everybody – that would be a family-sized church, the smallest size category – but everybody knows somebody who knows somebody. 

Churches of about our size or somewhat bigger, on the other hand, are called program-sized churches. They have a diversity of church programs, run by staff or volunteers so committed that they function like staff. Program-sized churches are big enough to have multiple social networks within the church. Alice Mann writes, “[The] larger and more diverse membership will contain a ‘critical mass’ of people from several different age and interest groups… This substantial presence of varied populations stimulates creative ministry.” (The In-Between Church, p. 5) And in a program-sized church, people’s primary connection to the church may be through a program or peer groups – rather than the pastor. The pastor is less central to parish activities, and might not know everybody. 

I don’t know about you, but I see elements of each of those categories in our current common life at St. Dunstan’s. The book I just quoted is called “The In-Between Church,” and I think we’re in an in-between zone. I think we have been for several years. In my annual meeting address for January 2013, when I’d been rector here almost exactly two years, I said that St. Dunstan’s was a pastoral-sized parish. Period. I think that was true at the time. I don’t think it’s true anymore. 

Church growth in the 21st century is tricky because the way we used to measure it doesn’t work very well anymore. The standard metric used to be Average Sunday Attendance – ASA.You knew you were growing because your ASA went up by 10, or 50. ASA still tells us something, but it’s less useful as a core metric, because the ways people participate in churches have changed. This is large-scale stuff, not specific to St. Dunstan’s. For many people, regular attendance now means 2 – 3 times a month, which can tilt ASA downward even as new members tilt it upwards, because math. And people are more likely to connect and participate in non-Sunday morning ways, which ASA does not capture. 

Our ASA has gone up somewhat since 2011. But that number doesn’t really reflect how many new people and households have become part of St. Dunstan’s in the past few years. My first year here, one member told me that she’d been here ten years and was still seen as “new.” That same person definitely counts as a long-time member, now. 

Our capital campaign last year, and the resulting renovation that’s going to dominate our life this year, are symptoms of that growth. We might not have ten kids in a Sunday school class EVERY Sunday, but we have ten kids in a Sunday school class SOME Sundays, and we need space – in our classrooms, our gathering area, our kitchen, all over! 

So here’s the thing: This in-between zone is hard. The consultants say so, and I think they’re spot on, because I’ve lived it, both here and elsewhere. I mentioned that St. Dunstan’s was a pastoral-sized parish in my first years here, but five years earlier, parish leaders were preparing for a possible transition to program size. It’s quite common for congregations to plateau, or go up and down in this in-between zone, for a number of years. Because it’s demanding to break through and develop the necessary new patterns and new culture to become stable at a new size.

The in-between zone is also called the stretch zone, because, well, it’s a stretch. In lots of ways. It demands both rethinking and restructuring. It’s the reason a smart pastor – smarter than me, probably – will be cautious about holding up church growth as an unambiguous good, because growth does not feel good to everybody, or all the time. Growth means real changes, both subtle and obvious, and change is demanding. 

In the stretch zone, some things tend to be stretched thin. Gary McIntosh, who’s written about this, says leadership, facilities, and finances can all be stretched.  We’ve got a plan to address the stretch in our facilities – we start knocking holes in the walls right after Easter! – but those other stretches are real, and we’re feeling them. 

Stretches in congregational and ministry leadership happen because there’s more going on, and more people to engage and incorporate. But newer members may not yet feel read to step into ministry or leadership roles, OR may be looking for something else from church than the opportunity to serve on a committee! We end up with a choice between asking the people in leadership already to serve longer and do more; or letting there be vacancies sometimes and seeing what happens. Here’s what that looks like right now: We have a couple of empty slots for our Vestry, our church board. Thing is, we’ve actually had a great Vestry recruitment season. We’ve had terrific conversations with a bunch of people about what it means to serve on vestry, and what we think they’d bring to that work, and a bunch of people said, That sounds great; ask me next year! So rather than twist arms, we’re sitting with some empty spots. And we are not going to try to fill them today.  Our vestry is an amazing body; it does important work and it does it well; and it’s too important for people to make snap decisions about joining it. I hope that a couple of you out there are thinking, Hey, maybe I should give Vestry a try. We want to hear from you! We do need to fill those slots! But we want that to be a process of conversation and discernment, not just a raised hand and a quick vote. We’re in the stretch zone, and we’re feeling it – but we’ll come through it better if we breathe, and trust. God’s right here with us. 

By the same token, stretches in our finances happen because we’re doing more, with more people. We see that in the parts of our budget that increase as we increase: things like kitchen supplies, youth group budget, and photocopying. This year, we’ll be adding some new expenses as we bring our second building back into use, because we need the space. And our diocesan assessment, the portion we give to the larger church, goes up as our budget goes up, just like income taxes. The upshot of all that is that our 2019 budget shows a small deficit – our first deficit budget since 2013. The deficit is around $6000, less than 2% of our total budget. Now, I hasten to say that the vast majority of our regular pledgers and givers have continued to be incredibly generous and faithful in your financial support. Many of you increased your pledges this year, even as you also made commitments to our capital campaign. Your Vestry and your Finance Committee see this small deficit not as a red flag, but as perhaps a symptom of some factors far outside our control, like new tax laws and stock market instability; and we also see it as a – very predictable! – symptom of being in the stretch zone. 

The good news is that our parish financial situation is not dire; we don’t need to panic or make sharp cuts that might starve growing ministries. We often get pledges during the course of the year, as new members decide they want to commit to helping sustain our common life. We commit to be watchful and transparent about our finances this year – as we always are! – and see how things go. We’re in the stretch zone, and we’re feeling it – but we’ll come through it better if we breathe, and trust. God’s right here with us. 

Anxiety – will there be ENOUGH? Stretched leadership and stretched finances demand my attentiveness and my prayers. But I’m not actually anxious about those things. I’ve seen God, and this church, do much bigger miracles before. Where anxiety gets traction for me is whether there’s enough me. While refreshing my memory of the church growth literature, I opened a blog post that began like this: 

“If you are sole pastor and your congregation [is moving towards program size], you probably already feel pretty stretched by:

  • Keeping up with non-crisis visitation and counseling
  • Tracking visitors and incorporating new members
  • Providing leadership for adult classes, groups, and committees
  • Managing clashing expectations [among members]
  • Stepping up to more complex processes for planning and communication.”

https://alban.org/archive/church-growth-shifting-your-leadership-style/

And I thought, Yeah. Pastoring a pastoral-size church is different from pastoring a program-sized church. We’re a little of both right now, and it’s stretching me. I have some learning and growing to do. And some letting go. Y’all did a terrific job caring for each other and making church and deepening relationships during my sabbatical last fall, a wonderful opportunity to discover that St. Dunstan’s is not as pastor-centered as we thought. It gives me so much joy when someone brings me an idea and says, We’d like to do this. OK? Unless there’s serious clash of calendar or theology, I’m going to say, GREAT! What do you need? 

I’ll probably always do a lot because, guys, I like my job, but over the years I’ve been able to move more and more towards doing stuff that’s exciting and rewarding for me, instead of stuff that has to happen because That’s What Churches Do. I’m overwhelmingly grateful for our staff and for the volunteers that function like staff, whose skill and commitment mean we can offer ministries and opportunities far beyond the limits of our budget or your pastor’s time. But it’s true that my role in the parish has changed, and is changing. It’s good. But it’s a stretch, and sometimes I feel it. 

It’s hard for me to release the idea that I’m going to know everybody. What’s going on with your job and your family and your spiritual life. I never really did, but I thought maybe I could; and these days when I look out at all of your faces, I know we’re not that kind of church anymore. I’m not going to be able to have a meaningful coffee date with everyone in the directory on a regular basis. I’m going to have to trust y’all to have meaningful coffee dates with each other. And you do, and I love that so much! 

If you’ve ever seen my desk, you know I’ve got a lot of quotations and prayers posted around it so that when my eyes wander from my computer screen, they land on something helpful. One of them has these words from a mentor, Dwight Zscheile – “Clergypersons must ask themselves, What am I doing that someone else can do, so that I can be freed up to do what God needs me particularly to do in this place?” (People of the Way, p. 124) It’s a heck of a good question, and one that’s particularly important for me to sit with, in this in-between season, this stretch zone. 

Being in-between is uncomfortable for churches. We have two choices, friends: we can lean into the stretch – trust God, trust each other, and see what happens – OR we could stop growing. Show enough inhospitality that new people stop showing up, and ideally start a big fight about something, so that some folks leave and the church can be a more comfortable size again. That’s actually a pretty common path churches take, friends.But it’s not the one I hope we’ll chose together. I hope that when we’re tempted to ask ourselves or one another that anxious question, “Will there be enough?”, we’ll be able to trust in God’s power and God’s abundance. 180 gallons is a LOT of wine, y’all.

In our Gospel story, the steward’s anxiety is relieved; the party is a resounding success. There is enough. Why? Because somebody shared their gifts. Somebody at the party had a skill that could fix the problem. It’s miraculous, because it’s Jesus – but it also happens all the time. Just like in today’s Epistle – Now, there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are varieties of activities, but one God who activates them in everyone, as manifestations of the Spirit for the common good. I love the awkward syntax there – the Greek word is energeo, energy! There are many energies among us, all energized by the Spirit of God.

Paul lists some possibilities – miracles, prophesies, wisdom, healing – but I’ve seen some others: To one is given the ability to build a whale out of PVC pipe; to another the willingness to bake cookies for the youth group; to another the skill to keep the white robes white; to yet another the capacity to sort the markers – a Herculean task. 

My trust in our future together is founded on God’s faithfulness and your giftedness.You have all kinds of things you’re good at, or enjoy doing – charisms, gifts given for a purpose, with God as the energizing power. Maybe you can’t name yours yet, and need friends to help. Maybe you know your gifts, but haven’t spotted where they could be useful here – or, like Jesus, you’re thinking, “What does this have to do with me?” In the weeks ahead, as part of our lean into what’s already happening among us, I’m inviting us to reflect on our gifts and skills. This box will be in the Gathering Area – it’s empty, so far! 

Next to it will be these slips. One is for sharing something YOU’RE good at or enjoy doing, that you’d be interested in bringing to our common life here. And one is for naming a gift or skill you see in somebody else here, adults or kids.  Because it’s really important to call forth each other’s gifts. I encourage everyone to take at least one of each, and do some thinking and some noticing in the weeks ahead. When you’ve got something to say, fill them out and put them in the box! I PROMISE you that I am not going to go through this box and assign people to ministries. Pinky swear. But these little slips of paper, taken all together, might point us in some new directions in our common life. Some new ways to use the gifts you bring, for the common good. 

For the common good: Symphero, in Greek – a word that can mean, To carry each other; to endure hard things together; to move forward as one. May it be so. 

Let us pray.

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look
favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred
mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry
out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world
see and know that things which were being cast down are being
raised up, and things which had grown old are being made
new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection
by the One through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus
Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity
of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 291)

Sermon, Nov. 12

Note: This sermon is based on Joshua 3:7-17, the Old Testament text for November 5 (Proper 26A), which we did not use last week because we celebrated the Feast of All Saints. 

What do these stones mean to you?

The people Israel, the people God has named and called to be God’s people, are at a turning point in their history. Back on September 17, the lectionary gave us the story of the Exodus, when God and Moses led the people through the Red Sea on dry land, and out of bondage in Egypt. In our schedule of Sunday readings, the Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for about six weeks. But for the Biblical narrative, it’s been FORTY YEARS. People who left Egypt as babies have grown up, married, had children of their own, and could even be grandparents.

Just two weeks ago we shared the story of the death of Moses, at the end of the book of Deuteronomy. Now we’re beginning the book that bears Joshua’s name. This means we’re at the end of the Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, which hold the great origin story of the people Israel and lay out how they are called to live. Moving from the Torah to the books of Joshua and Judges and beyond is a little like moving from the Revolutionary War era into early 19th century national history – if Moses is Washington and Jefferson, then Joshua is more like Monroe and Van Buren.

So Israel has survived years in the harsh, dry wilderness, and their future home lies spread out before them. Awesome. Wow. But it turns out there are people living in the Promised Land. So what comes next? A lot of war. While Moses was a prophet and spiritual leader, Joshua is a general. There’s a lot in this portion of Biblical history that we, rightly, find difficult to swallow – God’s word to Joshua is to kill everyone they meet, while God’s word through Jesus Christ is to love our enemies.

For today, though, let’s focus on this threshold moment. Listen, I’ve been to the Judean desert. It’s an incredibly harsh environment. Hot and dry and rocky, with minimal vegetation and only the most hardy and elusive animal life. And after far too many years out there, sustained only by miraculous manna, the Israelites are standing on the banks of an honest to God river. The Jordan river. Which is just a trickle in the dry season, but right now, it’s the rainy season, and the river is overflowing. The way ahead for Israel lies through a huge stretch of muddy shallow swift-flowing water. And it must have been so beautiful to them. All that water.

But the problem remains: How to get across? Israel’s journey to freedom began with a miraculous journey across a body of water; it’s time for another one. God tells Joshua, I’m going to make sure Israel respects you as the leader I have chosen. Call on the priests of the people, and have them carry the Ark of the Covenant into the Jordan River.

The Ark of the Covenant was the holiest object Israel owned. It was an elaborate golden box that held the Tablets of the Law, the Ten Commandments, written in stone by the very finger of God. It was a powerful symbol of God’s presence and God’s favor.

So the priests take the Ark and walk before the people into the Jordan, into all that muddy mess. And as their feet touch the water, the river… stops. Instead of continuing to flow downstream, the waters begin to pile up, as if a wall of glass were holding them back. The priests carrying the Ark walk ahead, into the center of the river bed, and stand there, on dry ground. And the people Israel follow them and pass them, crossing the Jordan without getting their feet wet.

Let me take the story a little farther than our lectionary text. When everyone has crossed over, God says to Joshua: Choose twelve men from the people, one from each of the twelve tribes. Have each of them find a stone, here in the middle of the Jordan, in the riverbed. Carry the stones out of the river, take them with you. And when you make camp tonight, make a pile of those stones, to help you remember this day. So Joshua summons twelve men, one from each tribe, and tells them what to do. And they take their stones; and then, finally, the priests carry the Ark out of the riverbed, and the waters of the Jordan return to their place, flowing and overflowing as they were before.

When the people made camp,  at a place called Gilgal, the twelve stones were set up as a monument. And Joshua told the Israelites, ‘When your children ask their parents in time to come, “What do these stones mean?” then you shall let your children know, The Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea,* which was dried up for us until we crossed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty… These stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial for ever.’

The Israelites are on brink of a new chapter in their history. They’re uncertain what lies ahead, what they’ll be able to carry forward from their past into a new way of life, whether they are really many enough and strong enough and bold enough and faithful enough to go where God is leading. And in this moment, God gives them a saving act – that miraculous crossing of the Jordan – and says, Remember this. And build yourselves a nice pile of rocks, to make sure you remember it.

What do these stones mean to you?

There are several times in the Old Testament when people raise stones to commemorate important events. Later in the Book of Joshua, Joshua will ask the people, As you settle in this new land, are you going to stay faithful to God, or start worshipping the gods of other nations? And Israel says, We will serve our God! And Joshua raises a stone to remind them of their decision, their commitment, saying, ‘This stone shall be a witness against us, if you are unfaithful to God.’ Much earlier, in Genesis 28, Jacob raises a stone at the place where he had the dream-vision of angels going up and down a ladder from heaven – a vision of the active presence of the Divine on earth. Several generations after Joshua, the prophet Samuel raises a stone as a monument to celebrate a victory against Israel’s neighbors and perennial enemies, the Philistines. This stone is given a name, Ebenezer, meaning “Rock of Help,” for as Samuel says, Thus far has God helped us.

This practice of raising stones has several purposes. It marks a moment as significant. You don’t raise a stone for just any old thing. Raising a stone says, What has just happened, or what we have just done, is important. It matters. And raising a stone, creating a physical landmark linked to an event or moment – it proclaims something to the future. It says to the people, Remember this day. In Joshua 4, that’s made explicit: Joshua tells the people, When your children ask you, What do these stones mean?, tell them. Tell them how God stopped the river so that we could end our long wandering, and enter a new land and a new life. Raising a stone is both celebration and commitment. The stones raised in Scripture mark victory, revelation, covenant, deliverance. The stones say, Remember – and live accordingly.

The stone monument in Joshua 4 is all this, and a little more. Because unlike those other stones, this isn’t one large stone but a pile of stones, a cairn. A representative of each of the twelve tribes contributed to the cairn, choosing a rock from the riverbed and carrying it to Gilgal. The monument represents both a significant moment in salvation history, and the people’s unity in experiencing and responding to that moment.

Our Gospel story today is a provocative parable that a lot of people have questions about. I preached about it in 2014 and when I looked back at that sermon, I didn’t have much to add; if you’re worried about the girls who didn’t get to go to the party, I’d love to hand you a copy of that sermon, or point you to some other great commentaries on that text.

But I’m preaching on Joshua today because this text is speaking to me. I’m laying this story before us today – spending perhaps a surprising amount of time talking about rocks – because I feel like this year this story is a little bit about us.

What do these stones mean to you?

This story makes me think about our stones – the literal ones. Having this year’s fall giving campaign happen within the frame of our parish conversation about a capital campaign has made me particularly aware of the history inscribed in the buildings and land around us. The rocks of our walls – piled up in 1964 as the church was built – they’re rough blocky golden native stone of Wisconsin. These granite boulders – one, two, three – they’re glacial erratics, brought to Wisconsin from somewhere farther north by the Great Ice, and left when the ice melted away, about 10,000 years ago. I don’t know whether the one outside sits where the glacier left it. The two that form our altar base and our baptismal font were moved here from Turville Point, over on Lake Monona, the home of one of the founding members of this congregation. Visible signs of the generosity and commitment of Henry Turville and of all that first generation of Dunstanites, who piled stones together, both literally and metaphorically, in this place, to say, God gave us this beautiful place. God called us to be a church together here. Thanks be to God.

And this story makes me think about our metaphorical stones too. All the ways we each bring contributions and pile them up to build something together. Our pledges of financial support, sure, in this giving campaign season. We’re still in the middle of our campaign – hoping to gather in all pledges by next Sunday – but so far a whopping 68% of you have increased your pledges. I’m just staggered by that, and really hopeful about what that means for our budget and our ministries next year.

But there are so many other ways we pile our stones together, friends: All the people who will bake and decorate and set up and clean up for our much-anticipated Pie Brunch next Sunday. All the time and energy and art supplies and warmheartedness and commitment – on the part of teachers, parents, kids – that allows us to have Sunday school. All the voices of people and instruments raised in beauty and praise in our worship today. All the hopes and ideas and intentions and observations that have gone into our discernment and visioning work towards a possible capital campaign to improve our property. In so many ways, we become greater than the sum of our parts, by the alchemy of God’s grace.

I’ve said it before: In some ways this is just another year at St. Dunstan’s, and in other ways it’s a very unusual year. We’ve been growing slowly for a while but suddenly we’re at the point where some Sundays, we actually have to sit next to each other – and we might even have to start sitting in the front row! And we’re thinking big thoughts together about our identity and our future and our mission. This is a really exciting time to be rector of St. Dunstan’s. And also, a little nerve-racking.

What do these stones mean to you? We stand on the brink of a new chapter, uncertain what lies ahead, what we can carry forward from our past and what new gifts and new challenges we’ll encounter, wondering whether we are really many enough and strong enough and bold enough and faithful enough to follow where God is leading. The stones piled up by those who built this place, stone by stone, year by year, tell me, We have come this far by God’s help. And we’re still building – and building anew: piling together our contributions, literal and figurative, to mark this strange, holy, joyful moment of celebration and commitment. To remind ourselves to remember, and to tell the story of this time. And to be a sign to us that God keeps making a way.

Sermon, Oct. 16

Two men went up to the temple to pray. One of them was a Pharisee, a member of a movement within Judaism that was restoring the ancient practices of worship and piety described in the books of the Law. And the other was a tax collector – someone who worked for the occupying Roman government to collect punishing levels of tax from his fellow citizens. The Pharisee was standing by himself, and praying like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ Jesus said, “I tell you, this man, not the Pharisee, went down to his home that day justified. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Today we begin our annual Giving Campaign, the month in which members offer their pledges – statements of how much we plan to give during the coming year – to enable the church to develop its budget for 2017. At first glance, this is a TERRIBLE Gospel reading for the occasion. The Pharisee, who’s giving a tenth of his income to the Temple, comes out of this story looking like a jerk. His piety is held up as a mistake, not a model. So let’s talk about the Pharisee. Because it’s not his giving that’s the problem.

What’s wrong with the Pharisee? Well, Luke tells us that this story was directed at those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and regarded others with contempt. That’s what’s broken about the Pharisee’s faith, in a nutshell. He trusts in himself that he is righteous. He fasts, abstaining from certain foods as the religious laws demand; he gives a tenth of his income to the Temple; you can bet he follows all the other rules of his faith too. There is nothing wrong with those practices – in fact, there’s a lot right about them! Fasting and giving and praying, and all the other daily acts of faith, are ways we turn belief into action, into habit.

The practices aren’t the problem. The mindset is the problem. If you think you can get right with God by simply checking a set of boxes, then you don’t actually need God. Being a good person becomes a lot like acing a test, and God becomes irrelevant. The apostle Paul talks about this mindset a lot, because before he became a Christian, he was right there with this Pharisee – righteous under the Law, meeting all its requirements. And then he met Jesus, and realized how inadequate and empty it all was.

So, the Pharisee trusts in himself that he is righteous; and he regards others with contempt. His sense of his own righteousness is based to a significant degree on being better than other people. This is one of my favorite parables because it gives us a glimpse of Jesus’ keen sense of humor. Did you notice the trap he sets here, with this simple little story? You hear the Pharisee saying, Thank God I am not like that tax collector! And the immediate, natural thing to think is, Thank God I am not like that Pharisee!

Let’s call that the Pharisee Trap: the tendency to find our righteousness in being better than others. The Pharisee Trap can be a real risk for Episcopalians. I’ve heard too many church leaders who should know better say that what’s great about the Episcopal Church is that we’re not judgmental like the fundamentalists, or manipulative like the evangelicals, or rigid like the Roman Catholics. I’m sure I slip into the Pharisee Trap now and then myself. We love our church, and we find grace in its particular balance of Scripture, tradition, and reason. It’s great when we talk about that, when we proclaim it.

But we need to be intentional in talking about why we love our church and our way of faith in terms of our strengths, more than in terms of other churches’ weaknesses. I have the privilege of having pretty regular conversations with people who are coming to the Episcopal Church from other ways of faith. And I always try to ask, What was hard about what you’re leaving, what didn’t fit? And, what was good about it? what will you miss? And I try to say, Here are things I love about the Anglican and Episcopal way of faith. Here’s what’s earned my loyalty and my joy. And here are the things we’re not so great at. Because we’re not perfect, not the pinnacle of Christianity.

So that’s what’s wrong with the Pharisee: self-satisfaction grounded in the conviction that he’s got this God thing all figured out, unlike SOME. And if you think that smug spiritual arrogance doesn’t sound very Episcopalian – well, then you haven’t been to all the same meetings I have… Okay. Let’s turn to the Tax Collector. He comes out of this parable smelling like roses. He humbles himself, lowers himself, before God, and God exalts him, lifts him up, sets him right.

What’s right with the Tax Collector? Jesus describes this character in the parable in a way that invites us to notice his grief and guilt: the man is standing far off, off to the side, alone; he would not even look up to heaven; and he is beating his breast, a gesture of self-abasement. And then there are the words of his prayer: God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

Jesus paints a vivid picture with a few simple details. He wants his hearers to understand the intensity of the tax collector’s guilt and longing for mercy. However – I want to be clear that I don’t think Jesus wants us all to approach God this way. A lot of his preaching and teaching is focused on encouraging people to approach God with more boldness, trust, and love. To take one key example, when Jesus’s friends ask him how to pray, he teaches them to call God, Father. Or even, Daddy or Papa – the word Abba that Jesus uses, in the Lord’s Prayer, is one that a child would use at home. Jesus calls his followers to greater intimacy with God, and away from a distant and fearful piety. He doesn’t want us to stand off to the side, to be afraid to look up at God, even in our deepest sins and darkest moments. So those details he tells us about the Tax Collector, I think, are meant not to give us an example we ought to follow, but instead to tell us something about the depth and quality of this man’s spirituality.

So what are we to notice about the tax collector? He’s open to God. Both in telling the truth about himself, his brokenness and his need; and in expecting God to respond. Look back at our friend the Pharisee: his words are technically a prayer, because he starts with “God.” But it he’s basically talking to himself about what a great guy he is. The tax collector’s prayer is far simpler – and far more honest. He doesn’t have a list of what he’s done wrong, or right. He simply names himself as a sinner, as having fallen short of God’s intentions for him. And he asks for God’s mercy. For God to receive him with love and save him from his own weaknesses and failures. While the Pharisee thinks he’s fine already, and has no need to be open to God, the tax collector’s burdened conscience drives him to seek God, in pain, in truth, in hope.

And that leads me to the second thing I think Jesus wants us to notice about the tax collector: He leaves different than he came. Jesus says, He went home that day justified. Set right with God – forgiven – exonerated – his burden lifted. Imagine him walking out of the Temple feeling … lighter. Feeling hope, once more, that there is good in the world and that he has a chance to be part of it. The tax collector leaves the Temple changed by what happened there – by his own prayer, and by God’s grace.

And that, friends, is why maybe this is a pretty good parable for the beginning of a Giving Campaign, after all. Because let’s face it: the real question of a Giving Campaign is, why have a church? You could get together for meals without church. You could give money to charity without church. You could study Scripture without church. Why commit your resources and time and skills and care to helping this place be and become and endure?

A couple of months ago, Scott Gunn, Episcopal priest and writer, wrote a blog post that caught my eye, responding to a statement he’d heard several times: The church should be out in the world. The implication being that we might be indulging ourselves by making sure we have a safe, warm, and lovely place to gather for worship and fellowship. Here’s what Scott says about that idea:

“Sometimes you hear people saying something along the lines that the church shouldn’t be focused on worship when there are so many needs in the world. And I fully agree that any church which turns its back on the needs of the world is no church…. [But] there is not a zero sum… here. A focus on worship does not reduce our focus on the world. Rather, a focus on worship is the church’s work, and … worship rightly done sends us out into the world. I think we confuse the work of the church and the work of disciples… When the church is doing its work, it will be forming disciples of Jesus Christ who find the needs of the world irresistible and who find themselves called to respond. Worship is not a distraction from the world, but rather it is the thin place that opens our eyes to the glory of God and thus to the possibility of glory in our world.”

Scott is saying, in essence, that the purpose of church is to be a place apart. The word Holy, in all the languages of the Bible, basically means: Dedicated. Set apart. And set apart for a purpose. At church we gather from our daily lives, into this holy place, this holy time; and then we go forth as disciples into the world. And like the tax collector, we go forth different.

When we held focus groups last year to talk about why you all make church part of your lives, a lot of you said something like that: that church was a place of solace, of restoration, of re-orientation. A place to bring your thirsty soul and receive the water of life. A place to sit and breathe, and remember the big picture, the long arc, the great story. A place to get re-grounded to face the challenges of daily living. A place to leave different.

Now, in all honesty and humility, I’m sure there are many weeks for you when it’s just church. I know there are for me. Maybe it’s a bit much to expect transformation every week. But at the same time, I’ve learned – mostly from all y’all – that there are a lot of ways in which gathering here, spending this intentional time with God and fellow Christians, does change us. Does send us forth different than we came. Even in small ways.

Because in the face of today’s perplexities, Scripture reminds us of the long history of God’s people struggling and shouting and grieving and journeying and surviving and rebuilding. Because in a divided world, here we share faith and friendship with people of different backgrounds and different views – yes, however homogenous we may look, believe me, we contain multitudes! – and those conversations bless and challenge us by making us remember our shared humanity. Because in an everything-is-fine world, sometimes, here, we are able to name what’s really on our minds and hearts, in prayer and conversation.

Because we can do small, real things together here about the world’s woes, coordinating our efforts and getting diapers or notebooks or a jar of applesauce or the price of a new muffler to those who need them. Because griefs or concerns that feel big and new and strange to us are wrapped up in the capacious and experienced arms of the church’s prayer, to which no human pains are unfamiliar. Because there’s room here to offer the things we’re good at and the things we love to do; and when a community recognizes and receives and acknowledges our gifts, we feel seen, and blessed.

Because despite weariness or despair that can weigh us down, here the bright energy of children and the soaring notes of our hymns and the color of the leaves in the sunlight can lift our hearts and restore some sense of hope and meaning. Because our liturgy invites us to lay down our burdens, offer up our prayers, and be fed by God’s unconditional, unshakable, unending love.

Now, I’m in danger, here, of sounding like the Pharisee. Of saying, God, thank you that our church is such a great place! We welcome everybody, we have beautiful worship and vital ministries, and we’re WAY nicer than Some Other Churches We Could Name. It’s a fine line to walk… I want to celebrate what we do well. I am proud of St. Dunstan’s and I take delight in many aspects of our life together. But I can’t, I don’t ask you, to commit financial support and time and ideas and skills to the life of this body because we’re perfect. We’re not.

I ask for your presence and participation and support because we’re building a good thing here, and I very much want to continue that work together. To follow through on where God is leading us. I ask you to stand with me before God, as we look towards another year in our shared life of faith, with the heart of the tax collector: open to God, in honesty, humility, and hope, and ready to be made new and sent forth.

Scott Gunn’s blog post may be read in full here: http://www.sevenwholedays.org/2016/08/17/where-does-the-church-belong/

Sermon, Jan. 24

Today is Annual Meeting Sunday, the Sunday in January when we pause to take stock of what we’ve accomplished in the previous year, and where we’re feeling led to growth in the year ahead. It’s my custom, as it is for many Episcopal clergy, to have my sermon also be my Annual Meeting address – my reflection on where we’ve been and where we’re going. It’s always a bit of an awkward hybrid, this thing that is both sermon and State of the Parish address; but I do really value the way the exercise keeps me grounded in Scripture. This year, the struggle was, WHICH Scripture? The lectionary hands us a bunch of powerful and relevant texts, today. They each have a word or two for us, I think, at this moment in the life of St. Dunstan’s.

The first word is… Time. The year of the Lord’s favor. Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. In our Gospel today, Jesus is talking about time – about a particular kind of time. The Greek used in the New Testament has two different words for time. The first is Chronos, which is clock time, calendar time, linear, predictable, orderly, ordinary. It’s the kind of time that tells you when to leave for work, or when your car will be paid off.

The second kind of time is Kairos. The word points to a special kind of time – often translated as “the opportune time.” It means the right moment, the moment that fizzes with potential, when everything falls into place or when new possibilities emerge. The time when things are brought to crisis; the decisive moment we’ve all been waiting for. In today’s text from the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is talking about kairos-time as he quotes chapter 61 of the book of the prophet Isaiah, and then says, This is the moment; and I am the man. Jesus doesn’t use the word “kairos” here, but he uses it elsewhere, all over the Gospels. It’s one of themes of his teaching, really: recognizing, discerning the right time. Reading the moment and knowing, This is it. The moment to act, to step up, to respond, to make a change. It’s almost as if this were one of the gifts, one of the challenges he offers to those who follow him… reading the signs, recognizing the moment, carpe-ing the diem.

I started to get the feeling that maybe a particular kind of kairos moment had arrived at St. Dunstan’s sometime last summer. Let me back up and offer just a little bit of history. When I came to St. Dunstan’s, we were running some pretty substantial budget deficits – between $40 and $70,000. It made my stomach knot up just to look back at it all, preparing these remarks. In 2013 we used $52k of our reserves to meet our expenses. That was what we needed to do – and we had the funds to do it.

But that year we also decided it was time to make a change. Our reserve funds were getting low and it just didn’t make sense to go on like that.  We called a Budget Repair Task Force to make sure we were using our financial resources as wisely and effectively as possible. We did some hard, hard work, and were able to present, adopt, and, though your pledges, achieve a balanced budget for 2014, and again in 2015.

I’ve been rector of St. Dunstan’s for five years – five years and 21 days, to be exact – and for basically all of that time, I’ve been caught in the tension of wanting to keep expenses tight and live within our means, and wanting to build, add, develop, enhance – which often requires some investment. We’ve done pretty well – we’ve been creative, resourceful, and patient; and diocesan grants and special funds within the parish have allowed us to invest in Christian formation, youth and young adult ministry, a new worship service, and more.

And then, this past summer, I started to get this feeling. This feeling that maybe we were entering a new chapter. That maybe it was time to ask the parish to commit to a budget that would sustain and expand all the good things that have been developing here.

I am – you are – so blessed in our parish leadership. Your wardens and treasurers and vestry are, without exception, open-hearted, thoughtful, committed, both wise and smart, both compassionate and playful. I asked the Wardens and Treasurers: What if we presented a budget for 2016 that asks for more – not just because we think we could do more, but because we’re already doing more, and need the parish’s support to keep it up? And the Wardens and Treasurer said, Yeah. It’s time.

So we took it to the Finance Committee – I’m so grateful for our Finance Committee, for those smart, skilled people who oversee the financial life of our parish. And the Finance Committee said, Yeah, it’s time. And we took it to the Vestry, and the Vestry said, Yeah, it’s time.

And so, friends, we took it to you, in the fall Giving Campaign. We asked you to raise our pledged giving by almost 10%. It felt audacious and terrifying. And you said, Yeah, it’s time. You did it. Our pledged income in our 2016 budget is fifty thousand dollars more than it was in our 2011 budget.  A 25% increase. I don’t even have words for that. I’m just staggeringly grateful – and humbled, and hopeful.

We’re not going to run out and buy a Porsche. We’re going to be just as watchful and mindful in a season of growth as we were in the seasons of scarcity. We’ll keep a close eye on our budget this year, make sure we haven’t overcommitted ourselves, and strive to plan wisely for the future. But I think it’s OK to take a moment here to just … exhale, and smile.

That kairos moment of Jesus, that moment in the synagogue, was of cosmic importance; but he teaches us that we should expect kairos moments in our lives and our institutions and communities, too. Moments when God’s will is fulfilled in our hearing, before our eyes. Moments when God’s purposes take hold, when human impossibilities give way to God’s possibilities.

I want to be clear that, while I’m talking about money, I’m absolutely not just talking about money. Money stands for something. You absolutely wouldn’t have stepped up the way you did if your parish leadership had just said, Hey, guys, we’d like some more money, please. You give, and many of you have increased your giving, because you believe in our common life, in what we’re doing and building here together. And I want to be clear, too, that while I’m talking about money, I’m absolutely not just talking about money, because there is no way we would be where we are without your contributions of time, energy, skill, food and art supplies, and so, so much more. We couldn’t be St. Dunstan’s if all we had was the money.

So, I keep talking about doing more; what more? Our 2016 budget doesn’t include big dramatic changes. It’s a budget that invests in the body. That’s the second word for today, from our second reading, Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth: Body.  Paul uses this wonderful metaphor of the body to explain to the church in Corinth, the way you might explain it to a four-year-old, that their church is a body, that all the parts matter for the body’s healthy functioning, and that they really need to work together to get anything done.

The increases in our 2016 budget are investments in areas of our common life that will bind the body more closely together, and serve some of its assorted parts. We’ve increased the hours – not a lot, but some – for our Organist & Choir Director, an investment in developing our life together as a people of song, one of the deep and formative ways we experience ourselves as a body. We’ve increased the hours for our Office Coordinator – not a lot, but some – an investment in developing our parish communication systems, the ways we know what’s going on in the body, and hear about ways to participate, contribute, and be nurtured; and ways that that those who are not yet part of the body may find, and be found by, St. Dunstan’s.

We’ve taken several ministries that had been launched with the support of grants or designated funds, and made them part of our budget, because they’re not experiments anymore – they’re part of who we are. Our Sandbox Thursday evening service, our monthly young adult nights at the Vintage, our Middle High youth program – all serve different parts of this body, and help to sustain and connect those who participate.

We’ve boosted our budget lines for a couple of key areas that help hold the whole body together. Think about what it feels like to be hungry: low-energy, headachy, cranky. We don’t want to be Hangry Church. We want this body well-fed. Sharing meals is powerful; we learn that from Jesus himself. Eating together isn’t just pleasant and practical – it’s a sacrament of sorts. It builds community, helps people gather and focus, and makes it easier to integrate church into daily life. Many of our best and deepest conversations take place over shared meals. And while the occasional “potluck” is wonderful, often people just need to come get fed – in every sense. Our Fellowship budget line provides the funds to make sure we can keep table fellowship central to our common life.

Also this year, we’ve funded a budget line for Welcome and Integration ministry. The people who’ve become part of St. Dunstan’s over the past few years are really amazing, interesting, gifted folks. We’ve got two of them standing for election to vestry right now. It is a tremendous sign of health to have people actively involved in the life of this parish whose time at St. Dunstan’s ranges from fifty years to less than one. And to be a body that is able to incorporate – that word literally means, to make part of the body! – the needs and interests and gifts of newer members. Funding that Welcome & Integration line in our budget ensures that we have resources to do that work well, but it’s also a statement to ourselves that this work matters.

Finally, this year’s budget inches up our investment in Outreach, the ways we support service and advocacy work in our city, our state, and the world. This year we raised the percentage of your giving that we pass on to others to 6%. Of course, monetary gifts are only one way we contribute; we’re seeing broader hands-on participation in some of our Outreach ministries, too. Watch this space! It’s my conviction and hope that, the stronger and better-connected the Body grows, the more we’re able to act together to serve our neighbors and join in God’s work of healing and transforming a broken world.

One last word on the church as Body: It’s important to keep asking, Are any of the parts neglected? Is there an ear or a pinky toe that’s not feeling connected, or getting what it needs? Let’s keep striving to be a Body in which all the parts respect and care for one another, and work together.

One more Scripture passage, with two words for us, church. The passage is this scene from the Old Testament book Nehemiah. And the words are, Celebrate and share.

This story needs a little context. A century and a half earlier, Babylonian armies had conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the great Temple, and taken most of the people away from their homeland, into exile. Fifty years later, the Persian empire conquered Babylon, and the Persion emperor, Cyrus, gave the Jews permission to go home. But being allowed to go home is not the same as having a home to go to. Jerusalem was in ruins, and other tribes and peoples had taken over the surrounding territory. Many Jews stayed in exile, where they had built lives for themselves, waiting to see whether they would someday have a homeland again.

Now, Nehemiah was one of the Jewish people living in Persia. He served in the court of King Artaxerxes, who was king after Cyrus. He was grieved by word from Jerusalem about how bad things were, and he asked the King for permission to go and help rebuild.  So Artaxerxes sent Nehemiah to Jerusalem to be its governor, with wood and other resources to support the project. The Bible tells us that Nehemiah and his people rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem in 56 days.

The scene in our reading today is a moment of rebirth, a true kairos moment. Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest have called together all the people of Israel who have returned to begin life again in their homeland – men and women and even children old enough to understand. Ezra reads aloud from the books of the Law, the Torah, that tells them how to live as the holy people of a holy God, the customs and practices of their faith that had been largely forgotten during their time of exile. And the priests and Levites walk among the people, helping them understand, explaining, interpreting. And the people are weeping and mourning, because they have been so far from God, so far from the ways of their people and their faith.

But their leaders tell them, It’s okay. Don’t weep, don’t grieve. You’ve lost many years, and suffered much, but we’re home now, and we’re beginning again. This is a holy day, a kairos time, and God is with us. Celebrate! Go on your way rejoicing, eat rich foods and drink wine, and share from your bounty with those who have nothing.

Our thin years here hardly compare with the great exile. But this Body has been through some hard and anxious times, and we’ve arrived with hope and humility at the threshhold of a new chapter, a koinos time. Let’s take this day, and this season, to celebrate – and to share from our blessedness, in every way we can.

Sermon, November 15

This Sunday finds us deep in our fall Giving Campaign. St. Dunstan’s, like most Episcopal churches, gets the overwhelming majority of its financial support from its own members – from our giving, week by week, year by year. Every fall we take a few weeks to ask people to make a statement, a pledge, of how much you intend to give to the church in the coming calendar year – 2016. Those pledges allow your Finance Committee and Vestry to plan for the next year’s programs and expenditures with some realistic sense of our income. Response has been great so far – I’m pleased and excited. We’re hoping to have most or, ideally, all! our pledges gathered in no later than next Sunday, our Giving Campaign Victory Celebration. If you’ve pledged in the past and you haven’t turned one in yet this year, you may be getting a gentle nudge this week, to see if you have any questions, if you need a new card mailed to you, that sort of thing…

In conjunction with our Giving Campaign, I’ve worked closely with the Finance Committee to make sure that anyone who’s interested in our church finances can find answers to their questions. We’ve explained our income and expenses, where our money comes from and where it goes, by displaying it in tables and pie charts and glass cylinders full of marbles… Anyone with more detailed questions – how much does Miranda’s health insurance cost? How much do we pay for snow plowing? – you just have to ask. Our finances are open to our members.

Anyway – if you’ve taken a moment to peruse those pie charts and tables, you might have noticed that our Buildings and Grounds are a pretty big expense.  Tied for second largest area of expense with our diocesan assessment, the funds we give to our church jurisdiction to help support the Bishop’s office, diocesan programs like Camp Webb, aid to other parishes, and more. Our buildings and grounds expenses have totaled around $42,000 in recent years – around 16% of our budgeted expenses. Now, a lot of different budget lines are included there – snow plowing, grass mowing, cleaning, maintenance and repair, utility bills, our property and liability insurance, city assessments. But all taken together, that $42,000 is what it costs us to have a place. To have a physical location that we own, and to keep it safe, clean, functional and accessible. (And believe me, that number could be even higher if some of you didn’t pitch in as volunteers to help out with some of that work!)

You don’t have to have a place, to be a church. The mission parish Phil and I helped start in North Carolina rented worship space from a Jewish community. It worked fine. But we, St. Dunstan’s – we have a place. And we spend over $40,000 a year taking care of it.

When I first looked at this Sunday’s Scripture lessons – look, I am going to talk about Scripture! This really is a sermon! – I thought, Well, that’s a mess, what will I do with that? Then I began to notice that all of these texts say something about having holy places. The pros and cons of having a particular place that is the focus of a people’s relationship with God.

We know that God is everywhere. A prayer here is no more valid than a prayer from a back alley, or a speeding vehicle, or a hospital room, or a bathtub. And yet: we like having places… places to come where we feel close to the Divine, places to bring our gifts, offer our prayers, receive blessing. Google “Gobekli Tepi” sometime – it’s one of most interesting archeological discoveries of our time. It’s a carved stone complex on a hilltop in Turkey, about twelve thousand years old – which means it predates pottery, metal-working, writing, the wheel, and agriculture – and yet those people, Paleolithic nomads, built this amazing site, consisting of circular enclosures of finely-carved stones decorated with realistic stone animals. It’s amazing – and it’s a testimony to the fact that, as soon as humans developed the skills and organization to build stuff, we started building holy stuff. Churches, temples, henges. It’s a deep-seated and ancient impulse.

One reason we like having holy places is that they give us a place to go. Sure, we know that God is everywhere, but only young children and saints actually seem to remember that. Most of us need the cue, the intention, the routine, of going to a particular place, to help us focus and open our minds and hearts and spirits to approach and receive the Divine.  We see that in our Old Testament lesson for today, a portion of the story of Elkanah and Hannah, who become the parents of Samuel, the prophet and kingmaker, who anoints first Saul, then David, kings over Israel. In the time of this story, Jerusalem is not yet the capital city of God’s people, and it will be David’s son Solomon who builds the great Temple there. But there is a temple to the God of Israel at Shiloh, tended by a priest, Eli, and his sons.

Elkanah expresses his faith in God and his gratitude for God’s blessings by going to that temple every year, and offering animal sacrifices there. It’s not our thing but in early Old Testament Judaism, sacrificing animals was one of the central ways for people to honor God and express their devotion. Now, Elkahah and his family have done this for years, but this particular year, Hannah finally breaks. She is barren, childless, and that grief and grievance overwhelms her. And it drives her away from the family party and to the temple, where she feels herself to be in the presence of God; and there she pours out her distress, her bitterness, her heartfelt longings, to God in prayer. She is so moved, so worked up, that Eli the priest thinks she’s drunk. But they get that misunderstanding straightened out, and Eli blesses her and sends her away. And she leaves the temple with a new sense of peace and hope – “her countenance was sad no longer.” A few months later Hannah finally gets pregnant – but note, please, that she finds relief from her anguish long before her prayer is answered. Coming before God and releasing the passionate prayers of her heart in that holy place helped her. Eased her mind and heart.

That holy place – church, temple, sacred grove – can be especially important when we’re walking the road of grief, anger, anxiety or struggle. People tell me regularly, “I’m holding it together OK most of the time, but when I come to church, the tears just come out.” And I say, That’s OK. That’s good. It’s safe here. This is a place where you can unlock your heart. Weep and rage before the altar, like Hannah, if you need to. I’ll try to be like Eli, honoring your pain and joining you in prayer.

So that’s one thing about our holy places. They give us a place to practice our piety and pour out our prayers. We could do those things anywhere, and some of us do – I do a lot of praying in my car. But it seems to help us to have a defined place.  And it helps us to have a place to gather with other people of faith. This was assumed, in Old Testament Judaism – that people will gather, learn, and pass on faith to their children. In the New Testament, and especially the Epistles, our Scriptures begin to call us clearly and consistently to gather regularly as a community of faith. Christians were a minority, often despised, sometimes persecuted. Their ways of faith and life were very different from those of the surrounding society. They needed to come together, for solidarity and strength, for mutual support and sharing of prayers and resources.

Listen again to these verses from the letter to the Hebrews (10:24-25): “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, but encouraging one another.” The author goes on to remind the Christian community of the struggles they’ve already been through, and how well they endured, caring for one another even through imprisonment and loss, holding confidently and courageously to their faith. They’ve stuck it out because they stuck together, holding each other up, encouraging each other, reminding each other of God’s steadfast love in the best possible way: by showing steadfast love for each other, even in the worst of times. Holy places are places for God’s people to gather, to meet together, encourage one another, learn and live more deeply into the teachings of our faith, and provoke – I love that verb! – provoke one another to love and good deeds.

So. Our holy places – churches, temples, henges and groves – they provide a place for us to practice our piety. A place to bring our deep yearnings, struggles, and joys, in prayer. A place to gather with others, to be made and re-made as God’s people.

But here’s where it gets interesting. The people to whom the letter to the Hebrews is speaking – they didn’t have a church. They were meeting in somebody’s house. Maybe, when times were especially bad, they were meeting in underground tunnels or other hidden locations. When this author talks about entering the sanctuary, passing through the curtain into the holy of holies, he is using imagery from the Great Temple, from the practices of Old Testament Judaism, to describe a new way of worship, of approaching God, in heart and soul, without a temple or any other special holy place to visit. Because the Temple was gone.

In today’s Gospel, the disciples marvel at the great stones, the majesty and beauty, of the Temple in Jerusalem – the heart of Jewish faith and identity, the Second Temple, rebuilt even greater and grander than the first, Solomon’s temple, destroyed by the Babylonians. And Jesus says, Soon, not one stone will be left upon another. All of them will be thrown down.  Jesus is absolutely right in predicting the destruction of the Temple, but with all due respect, it’s not his most visionary moment. Probably lots of people could have seen that coming. Imperial occupation is an inherently unstable political situation. The Romans were unpopular and the Jews were restless. There was going to be a revolt, eventually. And it would probably be a religious revolt. And the Romans would win, because they were the greatest military power of the age by a long shot. And the Temple would be torn apart, to make it very plain to the Jewish people that they should not let their funny little God encourage them to revolt against Rome any more. It happened maybe forty years after the conversation in our Gospel, in the year 70.

So early Christianity – and our sister faith, rabbinic Judaism – took shape in circumstances that were not favorable for big fancy religious edifices. Eventually those first house-churches started to get a little fancier – altars, baptismal pools, religious mosaics. But the first churches, per se, don’t appear till the fourth century.  I think that’s why the image of Christians as stones in a spiritual temple is so dominant in early Christian literature – early Christians didn’t have special buildings in which to practice their faith, so they developed the idea that they, the community, were the building, the temple, the holy home for God’s spirit.

But. The fourth century rolls around. The Emperor Constantine smiles upon Christianity. No longer persecuted, Christians start to build churches. And then they start to build really big churches. The great churches and cathedrals start to be concrete manifestations of the power, wealth, and glory of religion, just as the Jerusalem Temple was before them. Christians had holy places, to gather, and honor God, practice their faith, and offer up their struggles and their thanksgivings. And that was good in many ways. But it wasn’t all good. Like the Temple, the great cathedrals could carry the message that God lived here and not elsewhere – and that the religious functionaries of that place controlled access to God’s attention and favors. Like the Temple, the great cathedrals demanded resources for their construction and upkeep. They shone with wealth, while most of God’s people lived in grinding poverty.

In last week’s Gospel, the passage just before today’s text, Jesus praises a poor widow for her gift to the Temple. But I just didn’t have the heart to turn that into a stewardship sermon. I believe that Jesus honors the widow’s generosity and, more, her radical trust that if she does what is right and honors God, then it doesn’t matter what happens to her. But the context for that little vignette is Jesus’ teaching about the hypocrisy and greed of the Temple elites. He doesn’t believe that what the widow is giving to, is worthy of her. Two chapters earlier, he was in the Temple court, knocking over the tables of the moneychangers, outraged at profit-seeking in his Father’s house.

Our holy places can become drains and distractions. They can suck up more than their fair share of resources and energy. Every time I visit a fine old church and admire its beautiful stained glass or historic stone walls, I remind myself that stained glass windows can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain, that historic stone walls crumble and let in moisture and have to be repaired or replaced. There are things I don’t love about this building. But I would choose it over most of the other church buildings I know. It’s in pretty good shape, and it serves us pretty well.

But of course that $42,000 isn’t just this building. It’s the grounds and gardens. It’s the parking lot. It’s the 19th-century farmhouse that used to serve as the rectory. It’s that boxy but functional edifice we call the Parish Center, currently home to our neighbor church Foundry414. And it’s the woods – how many of you have ever been in the woods? Ask one of the older kids to take you sometime. They all know their way around down there. Taking care of all of that responsibly, keeping it safe, clean, functional and accessible, that’s what costs us $42,000 a year.

Could we do church, could we be church, the way Foundry414 does, or that mission parish in North Carolina, or like the little gathering that became St. Dunstan’s, in the early years when they met in a soda bottling plant? Making the best of borrowed space, with expenses for our holy place at 5 or 10 or 15 thousand dollars, instead of 40-plus? Sure. If we were starting fresh, or if we had to start over, we could do that.

But we won’t, because we have this place. Built with love and purpose, bequeathed to us by the founders of this church, most of whom are now long gone. We have it, so we take care of it. To honor the past, to maintain and improve for the future – and because we love it.  I won’t claim that we have a clear sense of purpose in how we’re using every part of our property. With the woods, with the rectory, there’s an element of just muddling along in how we’re using them right now. Maybe we’ll do that work, in the next few years – developing a clear sense of how to integrate those assets into our life, our mission as a parish. Make them part of what we are, instead of just part of what we have.

There are pros and cons to having a place. Scripture, history, and our own experiences tell us that. There are risks and downsides, to be sure.  The risk of usual wear and tear or some sudden catastrophe costing more than we can readily afford. The risk that we’ll let some failure of our physical plant – shabby carpet, torn chairs – either matter less, or more, than it really should. The risk that choices made fifty or twenty years ago, about the steps around an altar or the shape of a kitchen, will constrain what we’re able to do today. The risk that, in making this a safe and comfortable place for those of us already here, we’ll create stumbling blocks at the threshold for those who aren’t here yet. The risk of thinking that the building is what makes us a church. The risk of letting this place and what we do here be the fulness of our faith, forgetting that we are sent into the world as witnesses of God’s love – sent to Galilee, as our new Presiding Bishop likes to say.

But I think we’re reasonably mindful of those risks, here. And there are blessings, too. This is a holy place – our holy place. This space made holy – hallowed, in the beautiful old word – by the intentions and hopes of its founders, by artists and architects, by the pure beauty of wood and glass, by the presence and prayers and songs of fifty years of our predecessors here. This ground made holy – hallowed – by the shaping and tending of humans and by the urgent and beautiful grace of the life of the planet, manifest in trees and flowers and birds and squirrels and stones and sand. I met up for lunch with a friend who was then on staff at Asbury Methodist, right next door, a couple of years ago. She walked over to wait for me in our parking lot – and she remarked on how different it feels here from their property, all of a hundred yards away. There’s a kind of peace on our grounds that’s hard to explain without resorting to the supernatural.

This is our holy place. We love it, and we take it for granted. We use it, and care for it, and sometimes neglect it a little. We draw on the walls and spill things on the floor and leave messes for other people to clean up, just like home, because it is home, a kind of home. And we come here like Elkanah to give thanks and honor God, and to find comfort and hope in the familiar practices of our faith. We come here like Hannah, a woman deeply troubled, to pour out the desires and fears and bitter griefs of our hearts. We come here like the first Christians, to learn and teach, encourage and exhort and, yes, provoke.  That sixteen percent of our budget that it asks from us isn’t so much, really, when we look at all the ways it blesses us. With shelter and comfort, space to use and space to share, flowers in the spring, berries in the summer and the beauty of snow-laden pines in the winter, and most of all, simply being a holy home for our fellowship of faith.