Scripture Readings: Genesis 1:1-2, 26-28, 31; Psalm 23; 2 Timothy 4:5-13; Luke 18:9-14
Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today is a full day. We began with a wonderful opening anthem by our Novice Choir, we begin our stewardship efforts today, it is the feast of our patron saint, and this afternoon we’ll come together as a parish to Stop Hunger Now. I don’t know about you all, but I actually really enjoy the work of stewardship. A few weeks ago, we had clergy conference for the Diocese of North Carolina and there was an optional workshop on stewardship. I attended, and we were all asked to share why we decided to come to the session. I said, “Because stewardship is a passion of mine and I really enjoy it.” Several priests mentioned how odd that is.
How did you feel when you opened your mail earlier this week and found the pledge card waiting for you? How about when you opened your bulletin this morning and saw a pledge card in there? Anxious? Guilty? Did you roll your eyes? Were you excited about the opportunity to join in supporting the ministry of this parish?
The reason why I enjoy stewardship so much isn’t because I like asking people for money; I don’t. The reason why I am passionate about doing stewardship is because I believe it is central to the salvation given to us in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When Jesus begins his public ministry in Luke, he says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Central to what Jesus’ Good News is all about is liberation: freedom from the forces that seek to enslave us, whether it be a tyrannical government such as Rome, our own self-doubt, our economic systems which do harm to the poor, or our religious systems which can often limit the boundaries of God’s grace. But another really important part of our liberation is from enslavement to money.
What is your relationship with money? Is your first emotion that of fear, that there might not be enough? Or is your first emotion gratitude, that you have enough, even if you don’t have as much as you might like? Is money something that you are enslaved to, or is it something that you use to express your values? A really good barometer that you can use to measure your relationship with money is to sit down and calculate how much money you are giving to the church and charities that you support.
The issue at hand is that money is a very powerful tool in our society. Money is how we value time and effort. Money is how we are compensated for the time that we spend away from our family and our children. Money is how we value things like art, healthcare, and education. While you certainly can’t buy happiness, money can certainly cause disagreements and sleepless nights. And so the question of stewardship is this: do you control your money or does your money control you? If you want to know, try to give your money away. If you can’t, then I’d suggest that your money has more control over you than you might want to admit. Generosity is an indicator of spiritual health.
Now, of course, life happens and things can get in the way of our giving. With two children in daycare, I get it. Unexpectedly, plumbing breaks, transmissions fail, stocks crash, and prescriptions need to be filled, and so sometimes we’re not able to be as generous as we might want to be. But the question remains, are you able to give anything away or not? If you are not able to part with any of your money, then you haven’t found the salvation and liberation of stewardship which Jesus offers us. This isn’t about fundraising for St. Luke’s. If you don’t believe that this place is worthy of your generosity, then don’t give here. But for the sake of your soul, give your money away and exercise your power over money so that it doesn’t exercise power over you. Stewardship is a part of our salvation because it helps us to be in a right relationship with money.
And this generous posture is exactly the one we were created to have. As our reading from Genesis tells us, humanity is created in the image of God. And the very first image that we get of God in the Bible is a generative and generous one. As you can hear, the words “generate” and “generous” are related. God creates all that is as a supreme act of generation. All things have come into being through God’s generative actions. And God’s creation is an act of generosity. God didn’t need to create the world or humanity. But God chose to freely give so that the love and grace of God might be more widely known and spread. What Genesis tells us is that God generates all of Creation through an act of generosity.
This is the image that we are created in. Just as God is generative, so are we. We are gifted with the ability to procreate, to build societies, and construct ideas. And we are also gifted with the ability to be generous. Generosity is a part of our divine DNA. We are created by and fashioned into the image of a generous God.
And so that’s why it feels so good to be generous, because it is natural. It’s why, even when finances are tight, sometimes the most liberating thing is to give away some money. Even if it doesn’t make financial sense, it makes sense to your soul. There is a video you can find online called “The Generosity Experiment,” and in it the speaker tells the story of living in New York and being constantly barraged with requests for money from charities, street musicians, and beggars. He often said “no,” and realized it was making him closed to other people. So for one month, he resolved to say “yes” to absolutely every single request that he got. And for him, it was saving. It changed his outlook. It changed his relationship to people. It made him more generous.
In a sense, that’s what the parable that Jesus offers us this morning is pointing to as well. There is the Pharisee who is inwardly focused. He prays about the ways that God has blessed him with privilege, status, and wealth. But his prayer isn’t about the other. It’s absolutely wonderful that he gives a tenth of his income, but that doesn’t make him generous. At least in this snippet, he doesn’t appear to be concerned with how his giving impacts others; it’s more about duty than generosity.
Meanwhile, the tax collector seems to be outwardly focused, realizing that he needs mercy because he is a sinner. Perhaps you’re familiar with the prayer “Dear Lord, so far I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped, haven’t lost my temper, haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or overindulgent. I’m really glad about that. But in a few minutes, God, I’m going to get out of bed, and I’m going to need a lot more help.” The thing is, while not impossible, it’s a lot harder to be a sinner when you’re not around people. The tax collector is aware of the ways in which he’s fallen short in his relationships, the ways in which he hasn’t been as generous in spirit or charitable in action as he could have been, and so he comes and asks for mercy. Generosity is about being open to God and others.
As today’s Psalm proclaims “You have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” These verses will be our refrain for this stewardship campaign. What will your response be to the ways in which God makes your cup overflow with goodness and mercy? Will we keep these blessings for ourselves? Or will we be true to our created nature, to be generous and share these blessings with others?
As we celebrate the Feast of St. Luke today, I think about this parish, and I encourage you to do the same as you fill out your pledge card. I think about the fellowship and bonds of affection of this place. I think of way that the church was overflowing with people at Seth Tinsley’s funeral earlier this year. I think of the couples that have been married here this year. I think of the babies, including my own daughter, that have been Baptized into the Body of Christ here. I think of the backpacks that we collected for Communities in Schools, I think of the Sundays that we presented produce from our Community Garden and the Little Red Wagon at Communion, I think of the relief supplies that we are currently collecting for the victims of Hurricane Matthew, and I think of the 15,000 meals that we will pack later today for Stop Hunger Now. I think of the fun of Purely Socials, the grace of the Eucharist, a spiritually-deep Holy Week. I think of a gorgeous church with beautiful music and liturgy. I think of the great staff and wonderful people of St. Luke’s whom I am truly thankful for and privileged to serve. And lest you think that I have a selective memory, I also think of the healthy ways in which we’ve dealt with conflict, the ways in which we strive for reconciliation in times of disagreement. For all these things, I thank God.
When I think of all those things, I realize how important it is for St. Luke’s to not only survive, but to thrive. I want there to be a place where Christian community can exist in the Anglican tradition. I want there to be a place for babies to be Baptized, loved ones to be buried, and couples to be married. I need there to be a place where the Sacraments are celebrated. Sometimes I just need the doors of this church to be open so I can come in and sit and be still and know that God is God.
And so I look forward to filling out our pledge card. I look forward to being able to be generous, as God has made me to be. I look forward to supporting the ministries of St. Luke’s because I am so grateful for this place, and I want others to come to know it. I give God thanks for the opportunity to be generous and to find the liberation and salvation of the Gospel in practices of stewardship.
This Sunday and for the following two Sundays, you are invited and encouraged to think about St. Luke’s, to be generous, and to fill out a pledge card so that we can plan to be the best St. Luke’s that we can be. As you approach the altar to receive the generosity of God’s grace in the Eucharist, you can put your completed pledge card in the designated alms plate as a show of your gratitude for God’s blessings and of your generous pledge. And as you make that pledge, know that your generosity is also generative because it will continue to build up this wonderful community of faith, hope, and love. Amen.