Sunday, February 23, 2020

February 23, 2020 - Quinquagesima



O Father, with the eternal Son, and Holy Spirit, ever one, vouchsafe to bring us by thy grace to see thy glory face to face. Amen.
            A disclaimer before I begin this sermon. Today is Foundation Sunday, and I’ll say more about what the means later. This year, the Foundation has asked me to speak about the work of the Foundation instead of having an outside speaker do so. That means this sermon will be a bit longer as it is both the sermon and the Foundation address.

It is no coincidence that today’s Gospel text takes place on a mountain top, as this event truly is a pinnacle moment in the story of Jesus. Just as when you are on a mountain top you can both see where you have been and where your path will take you, this event on the mountain allows us to look back on the Epiphany and towards Lent which begins this week on Ash Wednesday.
            This vision of Jesus with Moses and Elijah is often called the Transfiguration, because in this encounter Jesus’ figure is transformed into a pure and bright light. When we look over one edge of the mountain we see the path that brought us here. It began on the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, when Jesus met the magi from the east, showing us that he is not only the Messiah of Israel, but the Savior of the entire world. And over the past six Sundays, the Scripture passages that we’ve heard have been giving us insights into who Jesus is – that he is the Lamb of God, he is the fulfillment of God’s promises, and that he calls us to the radical Kingdom of God. This is why, in today’s passage, the divine voice from the cloud says, “This is my Son, listen to him.” Jesus is our teacher.
            We need a teacher because the truths of God are not always obvious, as our vision is damaged by Sin. In his Narnia series, CS Lewis depicts a mountaintop scene where the Christ figure, the lion Aslan, says “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not always do so down there. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned up here will not look at all as you expect them to look when you meet them again down there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearance. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”
            Indeed, there are things that when we hear them in church or read them in the Bible, we know are absolutely true. When we come to the altar, it makes all the sense in the world to claim rich or poor, black or white, conservative or liberal, that none of those things matters. It’s so obviously true when we all stretch our hands to receive the Bread of Life. But once we leave and go back out there, those truths get muddy. You are the light of the world; it is more blessed to give than to receive; the Kingdom belongs to the little children; the Cross is a sign of victory; the least shall be the greatest; death is not final; love is the most important thing in the world. These are the sorts of things that Jesus teaches us because we need to be taught them. If we look around, it’s clear that we easily forget these truths when we aren’t on the mountain.
            On the mountaintops of life, when everything is going well, when stress is low, when problems are few, it’s so very easy to be at peace and find alignment between faith and life. But it’s harder down here where we have to worry about things like aging parents, growing children, health crises, performance reviews, elections, or portfolio gains and losses. And so we need Jesus to be our teacher, to remind us of these truths. There’s a bit of wisdom that comes from leadership development – “in a moment of crisis, you don’t rise to the occasion, you default to your training.” When the going gets tough, we will function as well as we’ve been trained to function. When Aslan says that we have to know these things in our hearts, he means that we need to have them nearby so we can find them quickly. Jesus teaches us his way of love so that grace might be the most natural response to us.
            And this is such an important lesson at this point in the Christian year. What comes next is the season of Lent, which culminates on another mountaintop – the Mount of Golgotha on Good Friday. Things like victory, salvation, and power are things we expect from God, but we don’t expect to see them in a bloodied and beaten Jewish peasant hanging on a cross. Again, Aslan tells us to trust the signs, no matter what they look like. As we are about to descend this mountain and head into the valley of Lent, we remember that Jesus is our teacher and that everything about his life and death have something to teach us about the love of God.
            After we are told to listen to Jesus, Jesus tells us “Get up and do not be afraid.” That’s great advice for the Christian life – get up and do not be afraid. We get up because there is work to do. At the end of our Post-Communion prayers, we pray that God bless us for the work that we have been given to do. In the Rite I language it’s that we “do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in,” and in Rite II it’s “grant us strength and courage to love and serve you.” To paraphrase St. Augustine, “Without God, we cannot; without us, God will not.” It very well could be that God, with divine power and might, could do whatever needs to be done without human interaction. But God has chosen to act in and through time and space. God invites us not merely to watch the drama of salvation unfolding, but God gives us opportunities to participate in salvation and flourish in the abundant life intended for us. And so Jesus tells us to “Get up and do not be afraid.”
            Today at St. Luke’s it is Foundation Sunday. Once a year, we celebrate St. Luke’s Foundation and hold the annual meeting for the Foundation. Some of you may have never heard of the St. Luke’s Foundation or know very little about it. The Foundation was established in 1973 as a separate legal entity from St. Luke’s Parish; the Foundation is its own 501c3. The reason for that separation is the same story we heard earlier – that sometimes once we are off the mountaintop we forget our ideals. Unfortunately, that separate legal status has caused the relationship between the Parish and the Foundation to be murky over the last nearly 50 years. But I’m quite pleased that in the last few years, we’ve worked on reconciling that relationship. Through prayer and conversation, we have come to realize that there is only one mission of the Church and there is only one St. Luke’s Salisbury. And St. Luke’s has two tools by which we pursue that one mission – the Parish, through which we gather people into the Beloved Community of God, and the Foundation, through which we can offer financial support to the mission of the Church around the world.
            A bit more background on the Foundation: the Foundation has $4.9 million dollars under investment. Disbursements are made annually based on the interest earned from these funds, generally 4-5% of the total amount under investment. Because the Foundation is separate legally from the Parish, so, too, are the funds of the Foundation separate from the financial assets of the Parish. What this means is that, as currently practiced, funds from the Foundation cannot support the operating budget of St. Luke’s. Instead, the Foundation has three funds that it uses to supplement the mission of St. Luke’s and the wider church.
Fund A, which has about $30,000 available each year, is used for the maintenance and improvement of our historic campus. As we often say about Fund A – it can pay for light bulbs, as it did when we changed to all LED lights a few years ago, but it cannot pay for the light bill, which is an operating expense.
Fund B is by far the largest of the funds and disburses $200,000 each year to be used for mission and evangelism overseas. When I think about the light of Christ that shines throughout the season after the Epiphany, I think of the work that the Foundation has supported around the world. In the name of St. Luke’s, we have given millions of dollars to ministries, hospitals, churches, orphanages, schools, and disaster relief in places like Guatemala, Russia, Tanzania, Costa Rica, Botswana, Haiti, South Africa, Puerto Rico. We have funded mission trips from Episcopal churches in Durham and Huntersville. Fund B has also allowed us to support the work of other churches in Salisbury, as we’ve often funded projects run out of St. John’s Lutheran Church right next door. With Fund B, we’ve hosted Rise Against Hunger meal packing events and supported the work of Episcopal Relief and Development. The work that God has given us to do is so much bigger than we can accomplish at St. Luke’s, and the Foundation allows us to support that good work being done by others around the world.
Fund C is the smallest of the funds with an annual disbursement of about $14,000 which goes to local ministries such as Rowan Helping Ministries, Meals on Wheels, and Food For Thought.
For too long though, the Parish and the Foundation have been seen as separate entities with separate missions and priorities, sometimes even competing with each other over bequests and donations. And on that point, while contributions to the Foundation are always gratefully received, the Parish struggles to meet our budget every year and that’s where bequests are most impactful in supporting the mission of God through St. Luke’s. But the results of these divisions is that too many of our own church members don’t know the great work that is being done around the world in the name of St. Luke’s and we don’t take pride in the work that we’ve been given to do. I can tell you though, the ministries that we’ve funded don’t care whether or not the money is coming from the Parish or the Foundation, all they know is that their brothers and sisters in Christ at St. Luke’s have been blessed with a large amount of money to support their ministry and they are thankful for it.
 As we heard St. Paul write in his letter to the Corinthian church a few weeks ago, “What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided?” Later, St. Paul will tell us that ours is the ministry of reconciliation. The Foundation and the Vestry have been working towards unity in mission and purpose, not with a goal of erasing the legal separation between the two, but with the goal of living into our Baptismal identity that there is but one Lord, one faith, and one mission. Towards that end, the Foundation has recently adopted a new identity statement that reads: “The St. Luke’s Episcopal Church Foundation, a part of St. Luke’s Parish, is a separate non-profit organization established through a gracious bequest in 1973. The Foundation helps the parish particpate in God's mission through grants made outside the operating budget. The Foundation supports local and global ministries, and the preservation of our historic buildings and grounds.”
It is our prayer that greater alignment between the Parish and the Foundation will allow us to more faithfully respond to the work that we have been given to do in the name of St. Luke’s. We pray that the light of Christ will shine through us more clearly as we are aligned in our mission and identity. It is our hope that this alignment will allow us to respond and adapt faithfully to a rapidly changing world that looks less and less like it did in 1973. We give thanks for the gift of a Foundation, given by those visionary parishioners, people like you and me,  who chose to make a difference beyond their lifetimes. And we intend to celebrate that through Funds B and C, St. Luke’s will support mission work at about $215,000 this year, which is incredible considering that our Parish operating budget is $500,000. That means that the money given in the name of St. Luke’s every year is over 40% of what our operating budget is. Yes, the money is coming from different bank accounts, but it is still something that we ought to celebrate more robustly. The Foundation is a true gift to this Parish that allows us to support the mission of God both in our neighborhood and across God’s world.
It was almost six years ago that I was interviewing to be the Rector of St. Luke’s and the moment that I knew in my soul that this was the place that I wanted to serve was when a member of the Search Committee said, “We know God is going to do great things at St. Luke’s. We want a priest who can help us in that work.” And indeed, God has done great things at St. Luke’s and will continue to do so. We are so incredibly blessed to have two fantastic tools to accomplish those great things – the Foundation and the Parish. I hope that you all will stay for the annual Foundation meeting right after our liturgy this morning. It won’t take long and you’ll have a chance to learn more about the Foundation and elect a new Trustee to serve on the Foundation Board.
Jesus is our teacher, and we need a teacher because the changes, chaos, and busyness of life have a way of making us forget the things that are most true about our faith. Jesus teaches us about love and grace so that, as we go out to do the work that we have been given to do, we might not be overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, but rather that we will be well equipped for the mission. Today, we give thanks for and celebrate St. Luke’s Foundation, a great gift that we have been given to faithfully follow Jesus Christ, our teacher and our Lord.

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