The earth is the LORD's and all that is in it, * the world and all who dwell therein.
Sermon for December 6, 2009
St James Episcopal Church
When I was a 12 year old acolyte, I remember one particular sermon with special clarity. When everyone was seated and settled, Fr Bott paused for a moment in the pulpit gathering his strength, drew in a deep breath, and spoke the word “stewardship”. I remember what happened next. It was like a shock wave of anxiety swept through the congregation... you could see it as it moved from the pulpit through the pews all the way to the back. Men shuffled in their seats and looked down at their feet... four or five gloved hands went up to their mouths... there were audible gasps in the choir... it just wasn’t a word one used on polite Episcopal company. Well... I’m sure we’re a little beyond that problem here at St. James, but I do want to ask you to do something next week on Stewardship Sunday, that is just as radical. So draw a deep breath with me....
I ask you to pledge the tithe; 10% of what you earn next year. Now, I know that some of you already tithe, and I simply (and gratefully) ask that you continue. A few of you are hanging on for dear life in this economy, and its nearly impossible to find two cents for the plate, much less to tithe 10%... that’s understandable. But for everyone else, I ask you to join others who will pledge the tithe next year, including Roxanne and me.
Rather than to list the reasons why St. James needs this level of generosity, I would rather do what Bishop Smith has suggested we do with regard to stewardship: return to the roots of our faith. I want to talk you through three visions of God’s generosity and love for us.
In Genesis 28, Jacob spends the night with a stone for a pillow and dreams about a ladder between heaven and earth with angels ascending and descending on it. In his dream, the Lord stands beside him, affirms the covenant made with both Isaac and Abraham, and says “Know that I am with you...” When Jacob awakes, he realizes that he is in one of those “thin places”... a place where heaven and earth are near to one another... where they intersect and come together. He exclaims “How awesome is this place!.” And, Jacob makes a vow to keep his side of this covenant: “... Of all that you give me”, he says, “I will surely give one-tenth to you.” Now just keep that vision in mind.
The second vision is from John’s Gospel, chapter 19. I think its the highlight of John’s whole story; the point where everything hangs in the balance. Here, Christ is brought back before Pilate after being flogged and dressed with a purple robe and a crown of thorns. Pilate is dithering at this point in the story since he finds no case against Jesus. Sensing that Pilate might not seal the deal, someone in the crowd raises the stakes: “If you release this man you are no friend of the Emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the Emperor”. Pilate, I’m sure, plays this mental motion-picture of himself testifying before the Senate Subcommittee for Un-Roman Activities... it doesn’t have a happy ending. “Shall I crucify your king?” he asks (ironically). Then, to add insult to injury, the chief priest... the representative of the chosen people of God... the people who have claimed throughout their history to have no king but God... answered cynically “We have no king but the Emperor”.....
John says that it was about noon on the day of preparation for Passover. In the silence of that awful moment, as Pilate ponders what to do, you could probably hear the the distant sounds of lambs being slaughtered for Passover.
Where does St. James stand in that moment? Do we stand with the powers of the world; with Caesar? Do we stand with the Chief Priest, the symbol of Israeli society, who colluded with that power and sold out Israel's inheritance? Or do we stand with Jesus? I think I know where St. James stands:
- The Caesars on Wall Street tell us that wealth offers peace and security in our time. St. James answers by opening our doors for AA meetings where people who have neither peace nor security help one another out of despondency and addiction.
- McDonalds, an icon of our society, offers us “Happy Meals” full of fat and sugar. St. James answers with a healthy community meal and hospitality for more and more people whose usual meals are anything but happy.
- K-Mart offers us “blue light specials” during an Advent season in which society has pushed Christ into the fabric softener aisle. St James answers with the Jumble Shoppe where people, for whom blue lights are not usually the symbol for a good deal, can get what they need at a fair price and with a helping hand.
- Our Society shrieks at people to “get a job” and “throw the bums out of town”. St James answers by providing shelter for our most vulnerable neighbors, and a hand-made quilt for a child who does not have a bed to call her own.
In these ways, and a thousand others, we stand with Christ against the Caesars and society of our own day. That’s not to say that we aren’t also part of the problem... we are. In fact, that’s the whole biblical narrative from Genesis to Amen; God’s commitment... his covenant with humanity to set the world to rights through people like us, who are also part of the problem.
That brings us to the third vision. In Revelations 21 and 22, the last chapters of the Bible, we read of the new Jerusalem coming down to earth. There is an especially poignant description of the river of the water of life flowing through the middle of the street of the city, with the tree of life on either side of the river, “and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations”. Paul writes about how it will be at the resurrection. How we will have new bodies on earth...more alive... more human than we have today. And it looks like there will be work to do here on earth... maybe the healing of the nations. Paul says that the good that is being worked into us today by the Spirit will carry forward with us into that new time. I’m sure there will be Bach then... with luck, maybe even Mozart! I’m also sure there will be benevolence like you see in our kitchen... reverence like you see on the Altar Guild... leadership like you see at Vestry meetings... and joy like you hear behind me. All these manifestations of love that we see at St James. That’s a hopeful vision!
So why should we tithe?
We tithe in anticipation of that day when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” For that time when we will be alive again on earth in new resurrected bodies, full of the goodness the Spirit has worked in us already and made whole, and with work to do for the Glory of God.
We tithe because Christ is with us today, and as he was in Jacob’s dream, working through us to build for that hopeful Kingdom when creation will at last be put to rights:
- He stands in line at the Community Meal and knocks on our shelter door,
- He gets helped with a jacket in the Jumble Shoppe, and sleeps under a hand-made quilt at Covenant Shelter,
- He grieves at AA meetings over lives destroyed by addiction,
- He takes our hands in his and pours healing prayers into broken bodies,
- He gives us his body and blood at the Altar rail,
- He may be sitting in a pew near you now!
We tithe, as Jacob did, because this is the root of our faith... because heaven and earth come together at St James ... because there is a ladder from here to heaven on which the angels ascend and descend... into this thin place... into this awesome place.... Amen.