26 April 2018

Stewardship Sunday

Sermon by the Rev. Pam Couture
22 April 2018
Photo Credit: Stuart Pike on Flickr.com
2 Chronicles 31:1-10 and Luke 9:10-17
Stewardship Sunday, 2018

         Let’s be clear: I was asked to preach for stewardship Sunday because I opened my mouth at vestry about tithing. I said something like: “St. Luke’s is a tithing congregation. In addition to the monetary donations people give, many people here dedicate much of their time to activities that generate cash that supports our ministry.” So today, I’ve been asked to elaborate. 
         Tithing appears in the Old Testament thirty-eight times. A tithe refers to the first tenth of crops or livestock that is dedicated to God and shared with the community, especially people who need food. Tithes are frequently mentioned in conjunction with first-fruits of the harvest or with “tithes and other donations.” Deuteronomy 14:22-29 specifies that when transporting food long distances would cause it to spoil, the food may be sold and money may be donated. But the purpose of tithing clear: sharing the tithe is primarily a way to be sure that all people in the community can eat.
         Who gets the tithes? Tithes are always dedicated to God, always support the priests and the Levites--people like Stuart, Holly and me, whose full-time work it is to study the word of God on behalf of the community--and always support people who are vulnerable and in need, usually represented in the Old Testament by the widow, the orphan and the sojourner. Beyond that, tithes may be used immediately or warehoused, may be exchanged for services from the priest, and may provide food for community feasts. But the lesson about tithing is this: God is worshipped and the community will be healthy when the community gives and receives. 
         That said, tithing, defined literally as the first 10% of our income, rather than our crops and livestock, is theologically problematic. First, it’s hard to calculate a literal 10% in an economy that is structured very differently than the ancient agrarian world. And, the literal 10% inspires guilt or anger in many people who can’t give a tenth of their income but may contribute in many other ways. But most significantly, the literal 10% implies that if we give 10% to the church, the rest belongs to us. Not so. For a Christian, all of what we do or are belongs to God. Our material belongings, our skills and abilities, even our children are trusts that God gives us for a little while. Our vocation is to care for those trusts. And the money that supports our vocation, even if it is not given to the church, is also given to God. 
         So, recognizing that we give to God in many ways in and beyond the church, let’s return to our stewardship of the ministry of St. Luke’s Parish. Our ministry can be summed up in six words: we feed people, spiritually and physically. That’s what our clergy do, that’s what our lay ministries do, and that’s what our building is used for. 
         What we aspire to at St. Luke’s is found in the Old Testament image in 2 Chronicles 31: 1-10. King Hezekiah shares generously of his wealth, and the people follow suit. They embrace God’s community. They eat of their tithes and offerings, and there is food left over. No one goes hungry, and they are exuberantly happy. That generous giving is at the heart of what we treasure at St. Luke’s and why I call it a tithing church.
          Now, to be honest, generosity is not our only experience here. We also share our economic anxiety. Last year, especially, we were threatened by the fear of scarcity. As we look to the future, the stewardship committee that monitors the “storehouse” of our tithes and offerings knows that the death or relocation of a few dedicated members can rock our economic ark and that their economic commitment may not be replaced by newer members. 
         So each year, the executive projects and the vestry—all of us—approve a budget for operating expenses and mission. The stewardship committee projects our income based on current giving patterns and considering donors who have died. Then, they estimate “the gap” between projected expenses and current income.
         St. Luke’s will ultimately finance “the gap” in three interrelated ways. First, sharing our material wealth through direct giving. This year, the gap between projected expenses and current giving based on last year’s patterns is roughly $30,000. Spread equally among our givers, St. Luke’s needs about $100 more per person to fill the gap. For some, that’s too much; others can give more. As part of your stewardship pledge, can you help close “the gap” by increasing your direct giving?
         Second, we fund the church through multiple other income streams. Every year we depend on earnings from investments, such as the Memorial Fund and the Legacy Society. We depend on income from assets like the building and cemetery. And we depend on income-producing events, where we build relationships, make friends, dispel loneliness, and contribute to the financial support of St. Luke’s ministry. The Christmas Market, the rummage sale, pie sales, Music at St. Luke’s, church suppers, parking during special events—such projects fund about 10% of St. Luke’s budget. As part of your stewardship pledge, do you have a contribution you might not have thought of before to these multiple income streams?
         Third, we have a community-wide responsibility for engaging new members, adherents, and friends. New people come to this congregation for worship, and we are good at identifying and welcoming them. But most people enter St. Luke’s Parish for many other reasons, including touring the historic building; or seeking rituals, such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals; or being invited to social activities. These visitors are often the fringes of St. Luke’s Parish. We are regularly in contact with people whose lives are enriched by St. Luke’s who, if we who are members are genuinely curious about them, might consider a more fulsome or committed relationship. As part of your stewardship pledge, can you make one new friend at St. Luke’s this year? Can you reach out to befriend someone whose ties to this parish are more tenuous than your own?
         All of this work constitutes our tithing. But, we should constantly remind ourselves: Why? Why should we fill the financial gap between the budget and the currently anticipated income? What do we have to offer that sustains us and might attract new people to seek a closer relationship with St. Luke’s?
         At St. Luke’s, we feed the five thousand. If you have known loneliness, or despair, or estrangement, or sought healing, you know the urgency with which the crowd followed Jesus to that deserted place. If you have gone to bed hungry, you know what they needed as the day drew to a close. The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand is in all four gospels. Jesus tells the disciples to feed the crowd that has followed them. They only have five loaves and two fishes. Jesus tells them to divide the people into groups and sit them down on the lawn. And then Jesus “took the bread, blessed the bread, broke the bread, and gave it to them.” This traditional Jewish blessing has become for Christians the words of institution that are always repeated at the Eucharist. The passage anticipates the Last Supper and has spiritual, even mystical overtones. But it’s also very down-to-earth. The five thousand were hungry. I was taught in seminary that the way the five thousand actually ate was that they shared what they had brought. It was one more pot luck supper, one more contribution, not of a tithe, but of the fruit of the earth. It was definitely one more dedication of food to God. And they even had some left over, enough to fill twelve baskets. The passage is filled with symbolism—but most importantly for us today, because the people shared, their bodies, as well as their souls, were fed. And it’s come to be known as a miracle.
         So why help fill the gap between the projected income and the budget at St Luke’s? Because at St. Luke’s we give and receive with one another, and miracles occur. Some of those miracles are dramatic—like the one we celebrated two  weeks ago. It is truly an unimaginable sharing of time and energy that Heather White wrote grants for over $100,000 to upgrade the church’s kitchen and that Roger White supervised ongoing sweat-equity construction crews. And some of us—perhaps many of us—doubted that they could pull it off. But now, the kitchen is there to feed the five thousand: the seniors who attend Phoenix on Wednesday, those who attend community lunches, the families who need food from Food for Life, those of us who take home tourtieres to our own families. It is there for us when we follow the “regulation concerning tithes” in Deuteronomy 14:22-25: “Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed…you may turn it into money…you may spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat it there in the presence of the Lord Your God, you and your household rejoicing together…” Does that sound like Music at St. Luke’s? The new kitchen is a miracle, but not the only one we celebrate. If you doubt that miracles occur at St. Luke’s, ask the children at El Hogar, or the Hajj-Kasem family. 
         And for the dramatic miracles that happen at St. Luke’s, there are many, many significant, life-changing, hidden ones that most people never hear about, that arise from the relationships that are formed here. It was a miracle that when I was halfway around the world in Tanzania, and Jim had chest pains at 4:00 am, he could call Deborah Roberts in our choir and Pam Franks, who sits in our pew, both of whom live in our building, for help. They phoned the paramedics, notified the church, cared for our dog, and, seven hours later, when I, knowing nothing, called Jim by Facetime, Pam answered Jim’s phone in a calm and reassuring manner. I was so grateful for St. Luke’s care of both Jim and then my mother, who were hospitalized simultaneously while I was away. These kinds miracles are stitched into the fabric of the community called St. Luke’s. You can tell your own stories of this type. I take none of them for granted, and I am grateful for your financial and energetic support of St. Luke’s that makes each such miracle possible. Thank you. 

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