Category Archives: Stewardship

Sermon, Jan. 21

This is what I’m saying, friends: Our time is short. From now on, married people should not be preoccupied with their partner, family and home. Those who are sad should look beyond their sadness, and those who are happy should look beyond their happiness. Everyone should not be so concerned with how they make or spend money. Those who make use of the world and its opportunities should be like people who are detached from the world. Because this world in its present form is passing away.

That’s today’s Epistle, from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. (1 Cor 7:29-31) A few verses earlier, leading up to this passage, Paul writes, “In view of the impending crisis…”

Those are words you really don’t want to hear from the rector of your church in her annual meeting address: “In view of the impending crisis…”

In preparing sermons, I often use a wonderful webpage called The Text This Week. It compiles and presents commentaries and reflections and sermons and liturgical resources for every reading on every Sunday, following the Revised Common Lectionary. The Text This Week has a long list of commentaries and articles on this text – but not a single sermon. So apparently people have LOTS to say about this passage, but nobody cares to preach on it.

Well. Here goes.

One of the reasons it’s a difficult text to preach is that Paul seems to expect, in this passage, that Jesus will return soon – like, next week soon – so Christians really can detach from this world, because there’s no point in saving for college or setting up autopay on your mortgage.  And we shrug off the passage because, well, Paul was wrong. We’re all still here.

But Biblical theologian Alastair Roberts says that’s missing the point. What Paul says here isn’t that the world is passing away, but that the present form of this world is passing away. The Greek word is “schema”, the shape or appearance of the world as it is. Paul wrote this letter perhaps a decade before the first Jewish revolt against Roman rule, which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the great Temple. It was a world-changing event for early Christians – and Paul may well have seen it coming; Jesus certainly did. So: Paul wasn’t wrong. When we stop being 21st-century observers and put ourselves in the shoes of 1st-century Christians experiencing the upheavals of that time: Yeah. The schema was passing away, bigtime. As many, many schemas have passed away in the two millennia since then.

Furthermore, Roberts says, Paul’s point here isn’t just about historical changes and endings. It’s also about theology – how we see the world in light of our understanding of God. You don’t have to believe that the world is literally going to end soon, to see the world through the lens of the expected fulfillment of God’s promise to transform and renew the whole cosmos.

Roberts says that the New Testament expresses the first Christians’ sense of eschatological imminence – the sense that God’s Kingdom is just over the horizon. And that sense arises from the Church’s experience of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The first Christians understood that reality had already been fundamentally transformed by the events of Good Friday and Easter. Roberts writes: “Life after these events is characterized by a radical relativization of the current world order and an intensified sense of its penultimacy.”

Let me try to rephrase that. Christians living after Easter and before the Second Coming should believe and know that the way things are is not the way they are meant to be – or the way they will be when God brings God’s purposes to fulfillment. “Relativization” means being able to see whatever is most familiar and seems most natural to us, as only one option among many, and not necessarily the best.

And the world as it is – even in its best and grandest moments – is not yet what it will be. Penultimate means, Next-to-last. Not final, complete, or ultimate, but whatever comes before the final, the complete, the ultimate. So: Life in the time of the church – 2000 years and counting – is marked by a sense of relativization and penultimacy: a recognition that things are not as God would have them; that we live and die, work and pray, hope and strive, in the crepuscular glimmer of God’s future, just beyond the horizon of our limited sight.

Bringing that lens to this text, Paul’s guidance to the Christians of Corinth doesn’t sound like the rantings of a prophet whose doomsday predictions missed the mark. Paul is reminding the Corinthians not to take the world-as-it-is for granted. To hold it lightly. Everything is provisional, everything is temporary – both the things you hate and the things you love. Don’t take anything too seriously; don’t lose yourself in the preoccupations of everyday life in the here-and-now.

Read in this light, Paul’s words don’t feel distant and irrelevant. They feel like good advice that I don’t really want to take,either as Miranda, a wife and mother and friend and citizen who wants a safe, stable, predictable future for those I love, or as Rev. Miranda, Rector of St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church.

Across mainline Christian denominations right now, the ethos is anxiety bordering on panic. Membership numbers have fallen sharply since their high point in the 1950s – for a variety of big, sweeping historical reasons. Mainline Protestantism’s position of cultural and institutional centrality in American life is long gone. Churches and denominations are struggling to adjust to the changed religious, economic and social landscape, making tough choices about how to use decreasing resources to maintain what they have or to cut their losses and try something new. Look up the current struggle over the Episcopal Church’s budget for a lively case in point. We all know – in our best moments – that the Church and the Gospel will outlive the forms of institutional church that took shape in the mid-20th century. But we live in those forms, and love them, so there is grief and fear and struggle in this season, across American Christianity. A schema is passing away.

But St. Dunstan’s is growing. Slowly, but surely. I don’t know why. I don’t understand it. I’m grateful, and puzzled, and sometimes overwhelmed. But here we are.

During my seven years here, the treasured, committed, active, long-time members of the church have been joined by many treasured, committed, active new members. We’ve reached the point where we actually need to bring some energy and intention to making sure people know each other – that’s the impetus behind the Neighbor Dinners you’ll hear more about later. And though we’ve lost some folks to jobs in other cities or to the nearer presence of God, there continue to be enough of us to sustain this fellowship of faith, with the needed resources of time and skill and heart and, yes, money. For each of the past three years, we’ve modestly expanded our budget, to accommodate needs and areas of growth. The Vestry and the Finance Committee ask for what we think we need, and the congregation steps up. It’s amazing. Sometimes, honestly, it’s a little hard to talk with my clergy colleagues, when my challenges are things like too-small Sunday school classrooms and improving our capacity to integrate new members.

BUT, but, but: Growth doesn’t mean we’re exempt from the changing times. That we get to keep the schema of the present world. At best our current flourishing is a temporary reprieve from having to reckon with the tectonic shifts in American religion;  at worst it may prevent us from seeing and adapting to the ways in which those tremors have already shifted our foundations.

I’m going to resist diving headlong into the sociology of 21st century American Christianity, but here’s an incomplete list of some of the ways that epochal shifts in the cultural and economic landscape have an impact on how we do church.

Let’s start with committees! In 1960 – the boom years for American mainline churches – 70% of American households had a man who worked, and a woman who stayed home. Our images and memories of churches busy day in and day out with committees and guilds and service projects and craft sales reflect that era. Most women didn’t work outside the home; they were, let’s face it, bored and lonely; church was one place to take their energy and skill. Today, over 60% of American households are dual-income households, in which both adults work. What that means for churches is that people have fewer hours to offer to church committees and ministries. People still want to commit their time and skill – but often in more specific, targeted ways.

And people are, simply, tired on the weekends. What’s more, the loss of cultural centrality for Christianity means that sports and other events happen on Sunday mornings now. For folks with kids at home, Saturday and Sunday are a jumble of activities, laundry, and trying to snatch a little rest and togetherness. I get it. I’ve become pretty protective of my Saturdays, because during the school year it is my only day home with my family. So when people whom I know are committed to this church, and love God and love this community, are not here every Sunday – I miss you, but I sympathize. Life is really full, and pretty exhausting.

And that shift in work patterns is just one factor among many. The rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s began an era in which Christianity increasingly associated with hard-line moral conservatism. I know we have members who struggle with toxic Christianity, in its public manifestations or in their own past. Being church in the 21st century means both being inevitably tainted by Christianity’s brand issues, and continuously having to remind ourselves and each other that we follow Jesus, but not in that direction.

Another big shift is in patterns of institutional loyalty and giving. People don’t join and give as a normal, default behavior anymore; a church or nonprofit has to earn peoples’ loyalty and generosity. I think that’s a good change, but it is a change.

And outside of evangelical Christianity – which is having its own struggles right now! – church has really shifted from the center of American life. Many people not only don’t belong to a church, but honestly have no idea what it’s all about, or why anyone would want that.  There’s a tendency to pin that shift on GenX or the Millennials, but it actually started with the Boomers, with the freedom they felt to walk away from inherited norms – including church attendance – and chart their own path in life. The result is that for a huge swath of the American public, we are quaint and peculiar. I recently ate lunch at a restaurant that seemed to be a re-purposed church building – a cute little white country church. You could still see organ pipes up in the loft. You see that a lot – churches that have closed being turned into cafes or condos. But my friend told me, This building is new. This is not a former church; this is a hip restaurant built to look like a former church. That’s where we are in the life of American Christianity, friends.

OH, and ALSO, the fundamental epistemological shift from modernity to postmodernity means that people are no longer certain that there’s any such thing as truth! ….

“In view of the impending crisis…”

We do church – we gather, pray, and sing, welcome, share, and nurture, feed and work and serve – we do church in a new time. In a changed and changing schema. We do church in the shadow of profound change, and profound loss, in the faith landscape of our nation. We are growing here – but even the growth comes with the ache and uncertainty of change. New members bring ideas and energy and heart; but they don’t necessarily want to put their efforts towards maintaining existing structures and habits, extending the past into the future. They didn’t come here to help us maintain the schema. They came here to find a community with whom to follow Jesus.

The gist of it all, friends, is that even though St. Dunstan’s is flourishing right now, if we are wise, we still hear Paul’s call to hold it all lightly. We still live with a sense of relativization and penultimacy. Even the most familiar or most sacred of our acts are experiments, approximations, rough drafts of God’s future. Everything we do is provisional – the things we’ve been doing for decades, or centuries, as much as the things we try for the first time.

This is a terrible Annual Meeting message. Especially for a year when we’re actively talking about a capital campaign. I am supposed to be telling you that this church could be your everlasting monument. That if you endow a brass candlestick, your grandchildren will be able to visit St. Dunstan’s in fifty years and read your name on the plaque. I’m supposed to be telling you that if you commit your time and treasure to this church, it will keep being the exact thing you love right now, forever. This sermon I’m preaching, about how everything is changing and the future is unknowable: this is opposite of the sermon I’m supposed to preach today.

I’m preaching it anyway because I think it’s true, and I don’t want to lie to you. The past half-century has brought epochal changes in American culture, society, economy, and faith. Big stuff has changed, and is changing, and will yet change.

And I’m preaching it anyway because I actually find some freedom and grace in remembering that both the church and the future belong to God. Not to us. There are choices and challenges before us at St. Dunstan’s – the good kind. The choices and challenges of growth; of wisely and lovingly integrating old and new, received and emerging; of having, for the moment, enough, and discerning how to best to use what we have to further God’s purposes among and around us.

This past week at our Vestry meeting, our senior warden Shirley Laedlein read us a prayer which says, in part, “Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us… We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.” I like that image of planting seeds, as a metaphor for the work of the church – but, friends, the seed packet is NOT labeled. We do not know what’s going to grow, nor what ecology the young plants will become part of, nor what they’ll have to withstand, nor what they will produce when they mature.  But we ARE planting seeds. And providing light, and water, and good soil. I believe that. And God gives the growth, and blesses the harvest. I believe that too.

May we have the courage and faith to experience provisionality as freedom, and uncertainty as opportunity. To commit our resources and our efforts towards God’s future with hope and trust. And when we witness the schemas of this world passing away, may we lift our eyes to the horizon, to see what holy possibilities are dawning.

Alastair Roberts’ post about this 1 Corinthians text: 

http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-eschatological-imminence-1-corinthians-729-31/

The full prayer that is the source of the excerpt about seeds:

http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers-and-devotions/prayers/prophets-of-a-future-not-our-own.cfm

Sermon, January 22

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a pastor. She’s also an author and a celebrity, at least the closest thing to a real celebrity we have in mainline Protestantism. Her books and writing and conference talks have made her beloved by many, and her church, the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, sounds like truly remarkable place. As you might guess from all that, they get a lot of visitors and new members. I mean, really a lot. People who think maybe this church, this spiritual leader, is finally the Right Thing for them, home after a long journey, solace after a long struggle.

So Nadia has developed a little talk she gives to those seekers, those new members. She tells them, Look, we’re not perfect. Churches are made of human beings. Someday, we will disappoint you or hurt you. Someday, I will disappoint you or hurt you. It’s a matter of when, not if. The church, this church, WILL let you down. And then she says, Please decide, right now, right up front, that you’ll stick around when that happens, and let God’s grace do its work in the cracks left by the brokenness of human communities.

I admire the honesty of that approach. And it seems to me that it neatly captures the tension between our New Testament readings this morning. In Matthew, we see the enthusiastic, ready response of the newly-called: Immediately they left their nets and followed him! And in 1 Corinthians we get a glimpse of a church community, a group of people who know each other well – maybe too well – who are in conflict. Divided. Forming factions and judging each other. Not a compelling witness to the gospel of Christ.

At first glance those readings seem to grate against each other, a mismatch; but really they’re just different moments in the lifetime of faith. There’s the moment of call, claim, curiosity or conversion, the moment when we first say, Yes. Yes to Jesus, God, and/or church. When we say, This is for me. I want to be part of this. And then there’s the ongoing life of discipleship and community, which gets messy. Even within a broadly unified and loving fellowship of faith, people have different understandings and priorities. They always have.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul is writing a letter to a community that’s struggling with conflict. Those of us who make a vocation of tending a church are often encouraged to reflect on the ways in which a church functions as a system, and we would name this as disequilibrium.

Equilibrium is a scientific term. It refers to a state in which the forces acting on something – an object or a system – are balanced. The thing isn’t static or still, there’s stuff happening inside and/or around it, but the stuff all adds up to keep the the thing pretty much the same. A push this way is balanced by another push that way, and so the thing stays in a kind of dynamic stability. Make sense? Okay.

So, disequilibrium is – not that. It’s when one of the forces in or around the thing gets stronger or weaker, or a new dynamic enters the system, and the system is no longer in equilibrium. No longer settled, balanced. That doesn’t mean that the new factor, whatever it is, is going to win – is going to shift the system in its direction. Systems are complex; the other forces acting on and in the system will respond to the change; you’d have to understand the system very thoroughly indeed to be able to accurately predict the eventual outcome. But the point is, there was equilibrium, and now there isn’t. Instead, there’s change.

Paul is addressing a situation of factionalism and conflict. But conflict is only one kind of disequilibrium. There are others. And many of them are things we think we want. Growth causes disequilibrium. Stretching ourselves to be and do more causes disequilibrium. Positive change is still disequilibrium. It unsettles our stability, our balance. Even though it’s a good thing in the abstract, it’s uncomfortable, stressful. It creates anxiety in the system. It can lead to conflict, which is often a symptom, rather than a cause, of disequilibrium.

That’s why your vestry spent several meetings last year developing our Community Covenant document, a statement of how we want to treat one another when we disagree, or when conversations get intense. We didn’t do that work because we were in conflict, or because there was conflict in the parish. We did it because when you shake up a system, anxiety can erupt in surprising ways, and it’s best to be ready for that, instead of being blindsided.

And we are shaking up our system, friends. We are talking about a capital campaign. We are choosing disequilibrium, taking it on intentionally, by asking ourselves what calls and charisms – remember, a charism is a gift given for a purpose – what calls and charisms God has bestowed upon us, and in what ways our building and our property reflect and accommodate all that, and in what ways they don’t.

I believe we are ready. I believe we can handle this. I believe that because I trust God, and I trust you. And because we have really taken our time getting here, talking and listening and noticing. Waiting for the moment to ripen, for the opportune time. I have literally been thinking about a capital campaign here for five years. Not because I came here as your new rector thinking, Boy, I can’t wait to lead a capital campaign!… Yeah, no. But because within my first year here, I already heard and felt – from you, among you – the places where the building chafed, didn’t fit who we are and what we do.

Your Vestry, your elected board, has literally been talking and thinking and praying about a capital campaign for two solid years. It took us eight months to choose a consulting firm to lead us through this work. I’m sure there are folks here who feel like this has come out of nowhere; I ask you believe me: we have really, really taken our time, letting this possibility emerge and mature. We have not taken a single step forward without a unanimous Yes among your leaders – the Vestry and Finance Committee. And we’ve floated the idea out to the congregation, and listened, as part that discernment, too. And so far, those Yeses have come, easily, and clearly. Yes, let’s take the next step down this road. Let’s keep exploring. Let’s keep wondering. Let’s see where this leads. We may still come to a No, or a Not yet. But so far, the Spirit among and within us has led us to Yes.

All those Yeses make me hopeful, and excited, for the prayerful conversations and work ahead. But I’m also bracing myself to deal with the stresses of disequilibrium. To take an example deliberately chosen for its triviality: The microwave in our church kitchen, built-in over the stove, is TERRIBLE. It’s so old it doesn’t even have a turntable; you end up with one lukewarm spot in your bowl of food…. We either use it and curse it, or avoid it. It’s easy to limp along with this inadequate piece of equipment. Replacing it is another whole story. That means assessing our needs; looking at how the whole kitchen functions; who uses it, and when, and for what; while we’re replacing the built-in, should we do something about the cabinets, which are also starting to fall apart; you get the idea.

Tolerating something less than ideal is easier than making it better. It just is.

I feel some anxiety in our parish system already. Not about the microwave, but about the possibility of a capital campaign. It’s not a lot of anxiety, it’s not intense, but it’s there. It’s there because money worries people. It’s there because we have both amazing, gifted, engaged newer members and amazing, gifted, engaged long-time members participating in this work, and not everybody knows and trusts each other yet. It’s there because the congregation’s memory of the last big building project here, in the 1990s, is that decisions were made from the top, without truly taking the parish’s needs and desires into account.

There’s anxiety about transparency – will everyone be heard? will decisions be made fairly and collaboratively? There’s anxiety about scale – are we going to set overly ambitious goals, and either end up disappointing ourselves, or overreaching our capacity? There’s anxiety about how to plan and design for the future, which is always and inevitably unknown. There’s anxiety about doing this NOW, when things seem so right in the life of our parish, but so uncertain in the life of our community, nation and world.

One of the things that happens in an anxious system is that the thing is never just the thing. Small issues take on disproportionate emotional energy. That conversation about the microwave is a conversation about how we gather; the conversation about how we gather is a conversation about who we are; the conversation about who we are is a conversation about whether we are who we’re supposed to be, and whether there’s room in that “we” for others who need to be here; the conversation about whether there’s room for others – and which others? – is a conversation about the survival of mainline Protestantism in the 21st century. So the microwave can become a big deal, fast.

How do we handle the anxiety? Well: your leaders can offer some assurances. We WILL give everyone a chance to be heard. We WILL do our utmost to make reasonable and sustainable decisions. We WILL do our best to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we discern our path forward into the unknowable future. I absolutely mean all of that. But I also know I could say those things till I’m blue in the face and folks will still be anxious, because the system will still be anxious. Unsettled, both literally and figuratively.

Then there’s prayer. You could do worse than today’s Psalm, Psalm 27, a psalm of trust and assurance. “God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” “Your face, Lord, will I seek.” “Surely I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” “Wait for the Lord. Be strong, and let your heart take courage.” I spent some time this week collecting some prayers about seeking God’s will and trusting God in a time of uncertainty. I posted a few on our parish website; take a look sometime, if that would be helpful to you.

Another way to handle the anxiety is remind ourselves and each other of the touchstone of who we are, together. That’s the approach taken by the Apostle Paul, addressing the conflicted Corinthians: Be united in the same mind and the same purpose. In a way Paul is calling the Corinthians to think back to that first Yes moment. He asks them to step back from the tangled messy present and remember the fresh joyful urgency of the initial call. To remind themselves why they became part of a community that strives to follows Jesus together.

Be united in the same mind and the same purpose. What’s the mind, the purpose, the intention, that unites us? Recently I happened to look back at a document from 2012 – five years ago! How many of you weren’t even here yet? – A document about who we are, at St. Dunstan’s, and what we’re good at, gathered from the congregation. And what astonished and honestly delighted me is how familiar it felt. The things we named back then were things that we’ve grown into even more, in the intervening five years.

We love music, and singing together. We love drama, and a good story well told. We love to make stuff, to craft, tinker, build, and fix. We love our grounds, and we’re continually working to care for them and learn from them more faithfully. We love to do things for others, together. We love to feed each other and to eat together. We love to learn and wonder and reflect together. We love our kids. In fact, that sentence doesn’t even work, because at St. Dunstan’s, kids are part of the We. Not some separate group that we do things for, but full members of this household of faith. We love the holy moments when we’re able to be companions for one another in times of pain or struggle; when we’re able to sing and pray and preach courage in the face of the world’s hurt. We love being a place of welcome, of safety, for those who’ve been bruised or battered by other churches, or by the world; and we’re committed to maintaining and broadening that welcome. We love it when people can offer the things they’re good at and the things they love to do as their ministries here, and we trust that the capacities and enthusiasms of our members are leading us somewhere together – are indeed charisms, gifts given for a purpose.

Be united in the same mind and the same purpose. Well: I’m not sure we’re ever all going to be of the same mind, here, exactly. Too many opinions! But the same purpose, the same intention, the same heart, the same sense of direction, the same love and longings for this place, this fellowship – I think we really do share a lot, there. I think there’s a core that will hold us together, and lead us forward. Help us manage the anxiety of disequilibrium, and keep loving and striving and building together, even when we don’t see eye to eye.

Remember Nadia Bolz-Weber’s speech to new members? Well, most of you aren’t brand-new here – though a few are. The newness in our midst is a project – this project of discerning possibilities, and then, perhaps, of actually following through to make it so.

But I’d like to say what Nadia says. Right now, this new thing among us is kind of exciting. So far it’s all possibility, and no reality; what’s not to like? But. But. You will be disappointed or hurt, at some point in this process. There will be moments when people’s priorities or preferences are at odds. Someone will think your pet project is unimportant, or flat-out stupid. (Though I think we’d get a LOT of use out of a climbing wall!) Cruel financial realities will kill a possibility that you’d built hopes around. This work will – at some point – piss you off.

I am asking you: Decide, now, to stick around. Decide, now, to bear with it. To bear with us. To bear with God, in what God is doing here among us. To remind yourself why you’re here to begin with, and of the common purpose and heart that unites us, even if we sometimes feel divided. To trust in God’s good and gracious intentions for this outpost of the Kingdom here at the corner of University and Allen. And to let the Holy Spirit work through the spaces left by our inadequacy, short-sightedness, and anxiety, to accomplish God’s purposes on earth.

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, Oct. 25

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.

Sermon, Oct. 4

Today we celebrate the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis turned from his life as a wealthy young man, living in Italy in the early 13th century, to found a monastic order devoted to living simply and prayerfully, and serving the poor. We’ll honor Francis’ memory later at our Blessing of the Animal service, but I’d like to tell you a story about Francis right now.

This is the story of Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. The earliest version was recorded not long after Francis’ death. This version comes from the Taming the Wolf Institute, which teaches conflict resolution.

[Read the story here: http://tamingthewolf.com/saint-francis-and-the-wolf/ ]

… I use that story to introduce or re-introduce a word:  stewardship. It’s a word that gets used out there in the world, but we use in the church in some particular ways. In a lot of churches, “stewardship” is kind of a euphemism for asking for money. There are some good reasons for that – it frames the church’s need for financial support from its members in terms of our mindful use of the resources God has given us. But it’s not so good to talk about stewardship as if was only about money, or to use that word to mask our discomfort with talking about money.

When I came here, we had a stewardship committee that ran the annual pledge drive every fall.  And right away, they told me, We don’t like that name. We don’t like the way our church is using “stewardship” as if all it means is people’s financial support for the church. People’s giving to the church is tremendously important – more on that in a few weeks! – but it is absolutely not the only thing we mean by “stewardship.” So we renamed the committee – today we have a Finance Committee and a Giving Campaign Committee.

AND we re-introduced the idea of Stewardship to the congregation. Instead of talking about stewardship only in October and November, when we’re asking for people to pledge their financial support, we should talk about stewardship year round. And instead of only talking about stewardship of money, we started talking about stewardship of all kinds of things. Of our members, your time and skill. Of our grounds and buildings.  Of our own spirits and energy. And more.

We developed a cycle of Stewardship Seasons: in the fall, starting in October, a season of Stewardship of Resources, when we reflect on how we use our material resources – including, but not limited to, money. This is the season for pledging and budgeting; it’s also a time of giving, for our church and for individuals in the holiday season. Come February, we’ll begin the season of Stewardship of Spirit and Space. And the months of June through September are our season of Stewardship of Time and Talent.

So what do we mean by that word?… Stewardship? Stewardship is the understanding that what we do with what we have, matters.  In the Bible, a steward is a high-ranking servant of the household

who manages and oversees things on behalf of the master. Somebody trusted and competent, who can keep things running, meet everyone’s needs, deal with crises. In the second chapter of today’s Epistle, the author of the second letter to the Hebrews points out the authority and power given to human beings… quoting somebody somewhere (I love that – it’s actually Psalm 8)… We are made just a little lower than the angels, and all things on earth are placed under our authority.

And then, before we can get too chuffed about that, the author goes on to hold up Jesus as our model,  who calls into the same kind of wise, loving, self-sacrificial authority by naming us as his brothers and sisters. Stewardship has to do with power, authority, control; but it’s a particular way of exercising power and control,  shaped by Holy Wisdom, driven by holy longing for the flourishing of humanity and creation, and for the reconciliation and restoration of all.

The word reminds us that we are stewards – caretakers, managers – of gifts and assets that come from God and belong to God, who gives them to us in trust, to use and enjoy. The stewardship mindset reminds me that what I casually think of as “mine,” in my personal life as well as my work as rector of a parish, is really ours, and God’s. I’m blessed and privileged to have a role in what it becomes or how it is used.

I think the story of Francis and the wolf is a good story about stewardship because Francis is balancing needs and resources, and finding a healing and sustainable solution for everyone involved.  The people in Gubbio had a problem: a destructive, dangerous, hungry wolf. They had tried using the resources of weaponry, force, and manpower to solve the problem, but that approach had failed. Instead, Francis suggested that they use different resources: their plentiful food, and the resources of community and relationship, to meet the wolf’s needs and change its behavior. It was a fresh approach that took some work to put into place, but the ultimate outcome was much better for everyone than killing the wolf would have been.

If that sounds like a bit of a stretch, maybe it should. I’m trying to stretch our concept of stewardship, our capacity to look at challenges and difficulties as issues of resource use and resource allocation, and to help us think of innovative ways to use our resources to move into fresh and lifegiving ways of being.

So, today, the first Sunday in October, we begin the season of Stewardship of Resources. At the end of the month, on Sunday the 25th, we’ll kick off our Giving Campaign, four weeks in which we are all invited to make a pledge of financial support to the church for next calendar year. Those pledges, taken together, allow your Finance Committee and Vestry to finalize a budget – which is a statement of how we plan to steward the church’s financial resources, in accordance with its needs and its mission.

But these first three weeks of the month we’ll think about stewardship together in a different way, through three weeks of shared reflection on hunger, in our community and beyond.

This Sunday we’ll make our customary first Sunday offering to MOM, Middleton Outreach Ministry. Half of all cash offerings given today, and any checks with MOM on the memo line, will go to MOM’s food pantry, which truly does amazing work addressing hunger in Middleton and far west Madison. And over Coffee Hour, Judy and Sharon will lead folks in packing our Backpack Snack Packs, little bags of kid-friendly food that go home with kids who depend on school food programs, to help prevent hunger on the weekends.

Next Sunday, the 11th, Percy Brown, the Director of Equity and Student Achievement for the Middleton/Cross Plains School System, will be with us to talk about poverty and equity issues in Middleton. On Sunday the 18th, we’ll be invited, as a partner church of the organization Bread for the World, to use the resource of our voices and votes to contact our elected officials to urge budgeting and policies that address the epidemic of child hunger in our nation. And we’ll send out a team of walkers to the Madison-area CROP Walk, to raise awareness and funds for fighting hunger locally and worldwide.

So for these three weeks, our stewardship focus is on how to help support our neighbors who live with need and uncertainty as daily companions – and not just to help meet their needs in the moment, but how to commit our time and voices and resources to building a world – or at least a city – in which no child goes hungry.

And of course today is also our Fall Clean-up Day. We honor St. Francis by blessing our pets later this afternoon; we also honor Francis by tending our grounds. Weeding and pruning, preparing our grounds to sleep for the winter and flourish in the spring. Francis saw God’s grace powerfully present in the natural world and all living things, and felt deeply our kinship, as humans, with all God’s creatures. Pulling a weed, or picking up beer bottles along the road edge, or piling up sticks, might not feel like a profound act of environmental stewardship. But we are living out our mission of creation care in these small acts. We are serving as stewards of this place God has given us. And, as we always do when we get outside and pay attention to the natural world, we rediscover the beauty and integrity of the natural world; we tune in to its patterns and rhythms; and we find fulfillment and delight in working for the health and flourishing of this little garden of God.(And it is ALL a garden of God – even the woods, even the weeds!)

So in this season – in every season, really – we’ll be trying on that idea that one of the things we are called to be, in Christ, is good stewards. Trusted servants who’ve been given authority over certain resources, in our own lives and in our life together as the people of St. Dunstan’s – who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to use those resources well – to keep the household running, meet everyone’s needs, deal with crises, and cultivate peace and well-being among humans, plants, bunnies and birds, and even ravenous wolves.