My how time flies.
Here we are approaching the end of Lectionary Year B: a whole year of Sunday readings focussed on the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark. It seems like just yesterday that we read about Mark’s Jesus getting all “washed-up” in the river Jordan by his cousin John… of the dove descending, and a heavenly voice claiming Jesus as “Son” and “Beloved.” Over the last twelve months, we’ve come to know Jesus as the Messiah sent from God in fulfillment of Jewish Scriptures, the one chosen by God to bring about his Kingdom on earth. We’ve seen how vigorously he was opposed by the Jewish religious hierarchy for his failure to properly observe the rules of the Sabbath and abide by traditional “purity codes.” Jesus was always more concerned for people than he was for the rules. We’ve come to understand that even his disciples initially failed to understand who he was, even though he specifically chose them to be his followers and spent enormous energy and effort trying to get it through their thick skulls. And when the disciples finally did begin to “get it,” Jesus told them to keep it quiet. Shhhh. He knew that the road ahead must be marked by suffering and Passion in order for him to achieve ultimate vindication through resurrection. Nothing could be allowed to interfere with God’s purposes. But next week’s Gospel lesson from Mark is the last we’ll be hearing from that Evangelist for a while. Year B will give way to Year C on the First Sunday of Advent, just three weeks from today; and it’s going to be “all Luke, all the time” for the next fifty-two weeks, with a little bit of John and Matthew thrown in on special occasions. And if Mark’s Jesus was a particularly Jewish Messiah and “suffering son of God,” Luke sees Jesus as the savior of the world, belonging to all people, both Jews and Gentiles. You’ll see.
So, let’s recalibrate after last week’s side trip to Bethany and Lazarus’ resurrection in John’s Gospel on All Saints’. The last time we saw Mark’s Jesus, he had just met blind Bartimaeus on the side of the road. Bartimaeus called out… and Jesus responded with a word of hope. And immediately, Bartimaeus regained his sight… his faith had made him well. Remember? Now we’ll skip ahead a bit… a lot has happened in the last couple of weeks! Jesus has entered Jerusalem to loud “hosannas” on a road strewn with palms (Mark 11:1-11) and “cleansed the temple” (Mark 11:15-19). The crowd loves him, much to the chagrin of the Temple hierarchy! He has clashed yet again with the chief priests, scribes and elders: warning them about “wicked tenants . . . and God’s plans for the stone which the builders had rejected” (Mark 12:1-12). He has foiled the Pharisees’ latest attempt to trip him up by admonishing them to, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:13-17) and has interpreted, for those with ears to hear, the “two greatest commandments” in Scripture (Mark 12:28-34). But you know these stories.
And today, after excoriating those “religious professionals” who, under the aegis of Temple authority, interpreted God’s word in light of human traditions, spelling out the letter of the Law, while ignoring the spirit behind it, Jesus sat down to watch how people responded to the Temple’s “Stewardship drive.” Sure, there were some who gave generously—even ostentatiously—out of their abundance. Others were probably in-and-out quickly, perfunctorily, “paying their dues” and trying to attract as little attention as possible. Sound familiar? And then came the widow, who gave all she had to the Temple. And when Jesus called his disciples’ attention to her act of piety, I’m pretty sure that he wasn’t lauding her devotion to maintaining the bricks and mortar of the Temple complex. In the following passage (which we’ll read next week) the disciples were “oohing and aahing” over the size of the stones used in its construction, and Jesus pulled them up short saying, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:1-2). Jesus was foretelling the destruction of the Temple and of all the artifices of man-made religion. Any edifice not built upon the “cornerstone” of God’s truth and God’s righteousness (cf. Mark 12:10) would surely crumble. No, Jesus wasn’t extoling the widow’s support of the machinery of religion; he was recognizing her faithful response to God’s call to put her entire life and livelihood in his almighty hands. God would sort out everything else.
So, what are we to make of this story as we continue to grapple with what it means to “be church” in our own little corner of God’s creation? We have been planted here in Cedartown/Polk County, Georgia for a special purpose: to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ . . . through prayer and worship, proclamation of the Gospel, and promotion of justice, peace and love. That’s what the Prayer Book says at any rate (BCP 855). We do that in many ways—through loving God and our neighbor, through open and inclusive worship, through financial stewardship and support of brothers and sisters in need. People who approach financial stewardship from a faith perspective do not view the money they give merely as a way for the Parish to pay its bills. Rather, they see financial support of their worship community’s mission and ministry as a way of helping themselves grow spiritually in their relationship with God—of “paying forward” the blessings they’ve been given. Instead of seeing themselves as members of an elect “club,” who pay dues to receive the benefits of membership, they identify as followers of Jesus Christ, giving unselfishly as an act of discipleship.
And it is “stewardship season” here at St. James’ you know. In the next week or so, you’ll be receiving a day-glo orange colored card in the mail for you to return your pledge of “time, talent and treasure” in support of this worshipping community’s mission and ministry. OR you can grab one off the table at the back of the nave after worship and take it home with you if you’d like to get a head start on the process. You know, the Episcopal Church canons require priests to “instruct all persons in their charge [from time-to-time] about the biblical standard of the tithe for financial stewardship” (III.9.6.b.2.4)… that is, returning to God ten percent of your income to further the mission and ministry of the Church. So y’all can consider yourselves “instructed,” and I’ll check it off of my “to-do” list. Whew, I feel better! How about you?
Several years ago, during a “stewardship season” not unlike this one, my thoughts about pledging got turned (literally) upside down. A fellow parishioner was sharing his thoughts on the subject in front of the congregation one Sunday morning. He said, “When I think about everything God has given me: a decent income, a job that I like, reasonably good health and the love of friends and family, I try to remember that I didn’t really earn any of this… it’s all a gift from God. And, if it’s all a gift from God,” he continued, “then it’s less a question of how much I give back, as it is of how much I keep.” From that moment on, I began to think of my own tithe of time, talent and treasure not as a duty… not as a habit… not as something I did to keep from feeling guilty… but as a joyful opportunity to “pay my blessings forward” and serve God by being church. How much do I keep?
Honestly, I’m really not worried about the money. Y’all are some of the most generous people I know, and all of the budget stuff seems to have a way of working itself out. I do sometimes wonder about the other two aspects of stewardship, though. Many of us are so blessed with work and family responsibilities and a whole host of life-giving daily activities that it’s tempting to simply write a check, dust off our hands, and be done with it. But in order for St. James’ to truly thrive and fulfill its mission, it’s going to need an increased commitment of your time and talent. Yeah, I know… we’re a small Parish and we’re all busy. In fact, many of y’all here today are already giving of yourselves, over and above what you put into the collection plate. And I thank you for that. But there’s more to be done. I’m not talking about “growing the church” or turning it into something it’s not. I’m just talking about being good stewards of what’s been passed down to us by previous generations of Episcopalian Christ-followers who have worshipped and worked… and even died in this space. You see their names on these walls, and windows, and in the memorial garden. We have a legacy to carry on.
When I arrived at St. James’ three-and-a-half years ago, there was a small, dedicated cadre of Parishioners doing the lion’s share of the work to carry on that legacy. And while many of these faithful are still up-to-their-elbows in the work of the Parish, some have moved away… or died… and for others, the spirit might be willing, but the flesh is weak. Three-and-a-half years ago, there were six positions on the Vestry… but we couldn’t recruit enough folks to fill all six, so we learned to work with five. Then we had to make do with four. You see where I’m going with this, right? At present, we have two openings on the Vestry for 2019 and, so far, I’m aware of only one person who has expressed a willingness to step up. Will we have to make do with three? I’m sure one of St. James’ faithful “long-marchers” will step up in a pinch, but it seems to me that that’s just kicking the can down the road, if you’ll excuse the metaphor. The overall health and vitality of the Parish stems in large part from the effectiveness of its Vestry. It’s not just budget and business stuff, it’s ministry and outreach and Parish life and worship… and more. So many of the things that draw us to this holy place stem from the legacy of faith and service of those who have gone before us.
According to the canons of the Church, to serve on the Vestry, one must be a member of the Parish, and have joined in worship and provided financial support to the mission and ministry the Parish regularly for the past year. If you feel called to serve in this leadership role, or have questions about your eligibility, please contact me or any member of the Vestry. It’s not an onerous job. I’ve served on difficult Vestries and this isn’t one of them. You might even enjoy it. But even if it’s not all pony rides and balloons, someone has to do it. I’m reminded of a mishmash quote that began with Reb. Hillel the Elder in the first century AD (c. 110 BCE—10 CE), and was later expanded upon by Robert Kennedy and Ronald Reagan: “If not me, then who? If not now, then when?” My friends, St. James’ needs your time and talent if it is to fulfill its purpose. If you’re not ready to serve as a member of the Vestry, there are plenty of committee and ministry positions that would benefit from your attention and effort. Please come to me or any member of the Vestry if you’re feeling a nudge, or even if you’re just curious. And did I mention we also need a treasurer? Bill Fron, who has served St. James’ faithfully in this capacity for the better part of a decade will be moving, along with his beloved Faye, to Birmingham, Alabama to be closer to his family in the near term. The need is great. Are you willing to serve?
What is God asking you to do? I’m not going to talk to you about “shoulds and oughts.” I’m not going to talk to you about percentages that mean very little in light of God’s overwhelming generosity. I will only say this: I’m pretty sure our God is not a “god of the status quo.” God will use us to help bring about the Kingdom, if we’ll let him. We may not have all the answers to all of the questions. But if we, like the widow in today’s Gospel, step out in faith and put our lives… and everything we have in God’s hands, God will sort out the rest. Pray about it, please.