Monday, November 02, 2015
Do You Love God?
A Stewardship Sermon
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, in the faraway land of Toronto, I was in High School, and my mother, God rest her soul, arranged for me to have a job in the local dry cleaner. I worked after school and on Saturday mornings. I made the princely sum of $12 per week for my labors and spoke one day to Fr. Fred, my priest, with some pride about the fruit of my labors.
His response surprised me. He said; "Do you love God?"
"Of course, you know I do."
"Then," he said, "you must give God 10% of your income."
"Excuse me!" I was, I admit a bit miffed at him.
"Yes," he insisted, "if you really love God, you must give him 10% of everything you earn. I didn't make up the rules, I'm merely telling you what the scripture says.
"What of the widow's mite?" I replied, becoming a bit argumentative; not surprisingly. After all, he was becoming a bit intrusive into what I considered my privacy.
"If you read that story carefully," he said with a perfect calm, "you will notice, her gift was not a tithe, it was 100% of everything she had."
It was then that I began the long journey toward tithing. And I'm not quite there yet, Fr. Fred. And it was you told me then. It was and is because I love God.
We come today to All Saints Day and to the launch of our annual Stewardship Drive.
Let me begin with our sainthood. In my experience of you since I began my time here on November 22 of last year, I have seen your sainthood.
This is not to say that there is always perfect harmony within or among you, but I can tell you that you all care deeply about this church each in your own way. Sometimes your efforts are complementary to one another. Other times, there may be a rub against a somewhat jagged edge of personality. In seminary, we named the phenomenon "warm fuzzies" for those times when we hit it off just right, and "cold pricklies" for those times when we bristled against one another over one issue or another.
As to your sainthood. Let me share what I shared with the vesty on Thursday night; "You are like a diadem or a fine crystal. As we hold one another up to the Light of God, we will see refracted from it the glory of every color of the rainbow, as we might see in the dazzling complexity of a kaleidoscope."
This is who you are. When I sing a song of the saints of God, I am singing of you. Again, this is not to say that you are perfect. God knows, I'm nowhere near trying to say that about you or me. But, as an old friend of mine used to say of the mission of the church; "We are not so much here to make good people better as we are to make real people holy". Or as a fine old priest used to put it; "If God is to make a Saint, God has to begin with a sinner. If that's the case, there's no better place to begin than with me." You are all an amazing collection of characters. There are those who will say the same of me.
But one thing I do know is that we all love God.
The Gospel for the day gives us a snapshot of Jesus and his power over sin and death. In one of the most moving moments of scripture, we read the shortest sentence in the entire Bible. When told of his friend's death, we are told simply; "Jesus wept." Then still deeply disturbed at the loss of his friend, Jesus prays in gratitude to God that this moment had come and declares; "Lazarus, come out." And out he comes still bound in the bandages of all his sins. And Jesus commands them; "Loose him and let him go!"
From the Song of Solomon the Wise we read; "The souls of the righteous are indeed in the hand of God and no torment shall ever touch them". As the saints of God, you and I are always in the hand of God. This I consider to be a perfect segway into this time of Stewardship. Stewardship is about far more than money. You can talk to Cindy if you want to talk about our family budget or about our charitable giving. She is far more practical than I am. Typically while I am praying and journaling in one corner of the room, she is checking our online banking activity in the other corner of the room. I submit to you, both activities are two sides of the same coin of our spirituality! I use the word "coin" advisedly!
Stewardship is about faith as well as funding.
Here is an example of what I mean.
Years ago when I was still a young priest and didn't really have much experience taking folks to the threshold of heaven. One day I received a phone call from the hospital in Euclid, Ohio where I was serving at the time. I was invited to come to the side of a dying woman by a physician on staff at that hospital. As it happened he was a doctor from India, and he and his family were members of the Church of Mar Thoma that is to say, The Church of St. Thomas, a church which is in full communion with the Episcopal Church. I didn't know any of this at the time. But no matter, there was a woman at death's door and I was summoned to her side.
As I arrived at her bedside, I was introduced to the gathered members of her family. The physician explained to me that she and their father spent their whole lives seeing to it that they were well educated so that they could one day come to America and realize their dreams. Many dreams did come true, and then it all came to this moment. They were all professionals. One, the physician who called me, there were several executives in the business world; one from IBM, there was a professor from Case Western University, there was an attorney and on it went. There we gathered. As I went to the woman's side, she gave me a glance that a priest dreads, or at least I did then. She recognized what was happening and she was seized with terror. I really didn't know what to do, but that faithful family knew what to do. They began by reading those parts of scripture she loved the most, the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, all her favorite Psalms. Her lips moved with theirs in something akin to synchonicity. Though greatly weakened, her spirit moved in theirs and they shared the love that was in the moment. And then they sang songs to her. Songs she taught them when she dandled them on her knee when they were children.
As the time went on, one of the children was overcome with spiritual and emotional exhaustion. He left the room and I went with him. He told me that he just couldn't take it any more. And then, my priesthood finally kicked in. I told him take to a break. "Take all the time you need. When you come back, let God be your strength. After all, you are utterly spent. But you and I both know that our strength is not from ourselves, it comes from God and God alone." He returned with me then and there.
The moment then came for me to offer the prayers at the time of death. They are in the Book of Common Prayer on page 462. There is a beautiful Litany there and then finally these words;
Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;
In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;
In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;
In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.
May your rest be this day in peace,
and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.
The final grace of the moment was that as she drew her last breath, her eldest daughter exclaimed, as she looked up; "Look, there goes momee into heaven!"
There was then a paroxysm of grief, embraces of love, an expression of gratitude to me for being there with them to share the moment and then we went on with life.
So why would I tell you this story for the launch of our steawadship campaign? First, I wanted to share with you what I have learned of how to be there with those in extremis. Secondly, it is also because when I got home last Sunday after a good solid weekend of discharging my pastoral responsibilities, I had just put up my feet to watch the last few moments of the Patriots' game and then, by God the phone rang. A nurse told me that Eileen Kittredge was failing fast. I looked at Cindy and said, "You know we've got to go back again." And so we got into the car and made our way back to JML in Falmouth from Lynn. We didn't get back home again until quite late. It was a long day. But God gave us the strength to do was we needed to do.
Why do I tell you these stories? It is because Cindy's mom took a turn for the worse this week as well, and we had to make our way to Exeter NH and work out the particulars of her admission to hospice. It is because I went by to see Louise Velsor and visit with her. She is failing too, but it looks like it will be a while yet for her.
It is because others of us are struggling with our mortality and the mortality of those we love. It is because we are all that close to heaven all the time. Just a heartbeat, just the faintest breath next to heaven.
Cindy and her mom have used a few hasty words through this portion of her journey to heaven. And forgiveness and reconciliation have become a matter of some urgency. I told Cindy that when it came to hasty words, my mother and I were often a maelstrom of hastiness. And the business of forgiveness and reconciliation continues to be an ongoing exercise spirituality.
Which brings me back to Fr. Fred's question. "Do you love God?"
"You know I do."
It's not just 10% of our income that belongs to God, it's 100% of our whole lives that belong to God.
If I tell you my love is about my faith, Cindy will tell you her love is also about the checkbook. If its not about the money what's it about? If its not about our membership in Christ what's it about?
If its not about bringing one another to the Gate of Heaven, what's it about? If its not about recognizing that the Kingdom of Heaven is always at hand as Jesus said it was, what then is it about?
And then on my last visit with Eileen, after all the prayers, all the psalms and favorite bible readings, and just before the final commendation, I leaned over to her and sang into her ear. By the way, the hearing is the last to go so watch what you say around them; I sang in her ear; "Jesus loves me, this I know; for the bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me."
And so dear Fr. Fred question stands;
"Do you love God?"
"Yes, you know that I love God".
And now may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore. Amen.