They are good questions, and important questions. The first one, about finances is one I have been asked for years. At first it surprised me, but that was before I understood that some faith communities do require a specific financial commitment, like an assessment by the finance committee, usually based upon gross income.
We do not engage in this type of practice at St. Nicholas; though we do ask for people to pledge, if possible, to help us better plan for the coming budget year.
This is why there are inserts for 2018 included in the bulletin this morning.
We do not expect or require a specific amount of anyone’s income or assets, which means we depend upon the prayerful decisions each of us make to support this community.
At this time in our 2017 budget year, St. Nicholas is about 2000.00 in the red. But this is good news, considering we had anticipated to be running about a 4000.00 deficit according to the most basic budget we could plan. This means we have been able to pay most of our expenses, support our conference ministry and missions, and engage in local community ministries as well.
Sometimes it becomes difficult to talk about finances in the church at all. I rarely do, unless it is a special project like U.M.C.O.R. or a local ministry program like Wellspring; or, of course, an unexpected financial need, e.g. a major repair.
This is why:
A Colorado pastor colleague told me of being in a grocery store one day and encountering a woman she had not seen in worship for quite some time. “It was awkward for both of us,” my colleague said, “as she had suddenly stopped attending church and we never learned why.”
After the two made social exchanges, the pastor said, “We miss you. Is there anything that our church can do for you?”
The woman replied, “Yes, there is. You could stop asking for money all the time.”
I do not know how my friend responded at the time, but I know my colleague continued to think about this conversation, and she eventually presented her response to the congregation in the form of a sermon, which she shared with me.
She began by acknowledging that the church is always asking for money, but she went on unapologetically to defend that practice by enumerating all the ministries and missions in which churches engage.
The pastor acknowledged that some people grow weary of being asked to give but said that perhaps they would prefer the sort of church she’d read about recently where the members aren’t asked for money. Instead, they take turns doing everything in the church, including cleaning the building, providing the music, preparing the bulletin, doing the preaching and teaching, and spending a year each on the mission field (because they have no money to give to missions). In winter, they dress very warmly for worship because they don’t run the furnace. They offer no child care, no children’s church and no opportunities for youth. The pastor concluded that example by saying, “A church that needs no money wouldn’t be much of a church at all. I’m glad to be part of a church that always needs money. It means we’re doing something, going somewhere, making a difference.”
My colleague made some additional points in her sermon and then concluded by saying, “It’s a good thing the church is asking for money. What kind of church would the church be if it was not always reaching out to help others in need? And the local church is unarguably the best place to open our pocketbooks.”
It was a good message and response to the complaint that the church is always asking for money.
However, that it isn’t the whole response. The argument that the church should be asking for money because of all the good stuff it does has merit, but any charity can make that case. And the church is not simply a charity with a religious veneer.
In fact, doing good for others, often expressed biblically as “love your neighbor as yourself,” is the second of the two great summary commandments Jesus spoke. The first of them is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). For followers of Jesus, giving out of what we have has as much to do with the first great commandment as with the second one.
To say it another way, we give not only to do good for others but also because it is essential for our spiritual well-being. It is part of the way we love God with all our heart, soul and mind.
2. The second question: Why join the church? Is just as scripturally based, and just as critical for our spiritual well-being.
Next week when we celebrate and receive new members, we will all recommit and renew our vows of membership. We will make and renew a covenant.
A covenant is a mutual promise, a commitment, and it is very different in meaning and spiritual depth from simply attending a program or a service- like going to a movie or a play.
This covenant is grounded in the covenant made between God and humans, first through Moses, and later through Jesus.
It signifies a belonging to a set of values, a path by which to live, and spiritual strength with which to live in times of joy or suffering.
It means we will support one another and values one another, listening to and respecting our common and diverse life experiences, our faith stories, and our common humanity as children of God.
The vows we make are based upon our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus; and how to be stewards of the gospel: pledging to faithfully live that out by participating in this community through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service.
As both the Hebrew scriptures and the gospel declare, everything I have today comes from God. I own nothing. According to tradition, David said that "the world and everything in it" belongs to God (Psalm 89:11). I am not the owner of the things in my life; as a steward, I am merely the manager, the vessel, the clay.
Like the story of the 10 virgins, it is important and up to me to maintain enough energy for this journey. This includes understanding my place in community as a steward; because good stewardship is one of the sources of spiritual “oil”- necessary to keep going over time.
If I believe that I am the owner, then I am constantly going to be in conflict with God over what I do with the things that I have, including my time. But when I look at my life with God as the source, and that I am given this life and all of its gifts both to enjoy and to recognize as tools of God’s love and mercy, then the conflict disappears, and a real freedom overtakes life.
This freedom allows us both to challenge and to lean upon God and one another as we live together in this community, this particular expression of what it means to be the body of Christ.
Sometimes we lean into a headwind so strong that in a photograph it appears that we're defying gravity. We lean toward one decision as opposed to another.
We are 'leaning' toward such-and-such a candidate in the upcoming election. Our interest in music 'tilts' toward electroclash rather than classical (or, visa versa!).
The point is, as human beings, we have leanings, inclinations, proclivities, predilections and preferences, and God says that it would be very nice if our leanings, inclinations, proclivities, predilections and preferences were centered on the divine and the sacred.
This is the essential reason I understand in answering the question “why church”.
Do you, are you ready to lean toward God; do you long to be in a deep, meaningful relationship with God? Do you want to know more about Jesus, and what the gospel says and calls us to do? Are you ready for community?
This is a key and critical question these days, when so many around me are talking about the divisiveness, the conflict, and the despair of isolation.
I was reminded of this at the Veteran’s Day Celebration in Hull yesterday morning when a young man, a high school student, the winner of an essay contest about hope and freedom, read his essay to those of us gathered to remember and honor Veterans living and gone.
In his essay this young man stressed over and over again his despair about the polarization he sees and experiences everywhere- in politics, among races, genders, sexual orientations, Democrats and Republicans. He expressed anguish that we cannot get anything done, and how dangerously divided and conflicted he believes we are as a nation; he spoke about all the “isms” that divide us, and how we make it worse by avoiding anyone not like us, watching only the news that already supports our views, socializing only with the friends and colleagues who think just like we do. He spoke of the future perils he fears if we do not learn how to be “united”, to become “We the people.”
Where better to begin this process, these conversations, these spiritual practices of honest communication and mutual support than in a community dedicated to learning how to follow Jesus together?
I can think of no better place.
Evelyn Underhill once said that the saints she knew personally were so generous that they were often unable to keep anything for themselves.
In the church, we often refer to certain practices as important for our growth in the Spirit. They include prayer, Bible study, worship, justice ministries, financial stewardship, and service to others: we sometimes refer to these as “spiritual disciplines.”
Jesus taught about the essential importance of spiritual practices through parables like the story of the 10 maidens. These disciplines help us avoid superficiality in our faith, which Richard J. Foster, who has written several books on spiritual practices, has called “the curse of our age.”
Foster adds, “the doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem.” He explains that the spiritual disciplines “call us to move beyond surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm.”
I invite you to move beyond surface living, and to risk the depths of community in Christ. As a global community, as a nation, as the town of Hull, for the sake of every generation, may we continue to explore what it means to live in Christ and explore these spiritual gifts together.