Preaching about stewardship is kind of like trying to create a Hollywood blockbuster superhero movie, which are the most popular movies there are right now. And here are a few reasons why.
In the first place, if you’re putting out something in a stewardship sermon, it’s not going to appeal to everyone. Just like the superhero movies are not meant for everyone, as popular as they are. I’m guessing that a lot of us have not seen Wakanda Forever or whatever Marvel movie has just been released.
It seems like almost every year on the Sunday we offer and bless our pledge cards and I preach about pledging and stewardship, that there are people visiting the Cathedral who are not members. And it is great to have people visiting the Cathedral who are not members, but I always feel like I want to say to them: you don’t need to pledge, this isn’t necessarily for you. Of course you can pledge, but don’t feel any obligation because we are talking with the members who are the stakeholders who consider this a spiritual home and who want to be invested and involved in the ministries of Jesus Christ right here. So the message is really for that group.
And I try and put in my reflection on these stewardship Sundays something that has broad appeal beyond just asking people to pledge so everyone can feel like they have received a real sermon. And we’ll see how that goes today.
The second way preaching on Stewardship is like trying to create a Hollywood blockbuster movie, is that in both things there are obligatory messages and themes that have to be there. There are a bunch of tropes you find in every superhero movie. You’ve typically got a hero who has a complicated history that he or she may be trying to overcome. You’ve got the classic battle in every superhero movie between good and evil where the stakes are high and the villain is menacing but also someone you can kind of relate to.
And you’ve got the moment in the movie that I love when it looks like the hero is going to lose and they are just about to be defeated, but like Bruce Lee they stand up and wipe themselves off and signal they are ready for more and then they come back to win. And maybe there’s a love interest which is complicated because the hero has a secret identity.
These things I’ve seen a million times, and they have to be included in your movie if you want it to be number one at the box office. And the same is true with a stewardship sermon, I have to include several points in every one.
The first is the fact that our budget is built on our pledges. Our pledges allow us to have heat and light and keep up this building open and pay the staff and make everything possible from pastoral care to hospital visits to Bible Studies to the music to the care we give to those who are hungry and the love we show to those who are in pain. All of that makes us a church where the living presence of Jesus Christ is shaped by your hands. And without your hands putting a pledge in that basket it will be very hard to do all this.
Another important point to include in every stewardship sermon is that it is God who gave us everything. Every thing from the toothbrush we used this morning to the homes we go back to this afternoon, to the loved ones in our lives, to the food we eat and the air we breathe, comes from God, and not as a result of our own efforts. And this is grace. We did not create it.
And Stewardship is giving back to God. When we say “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee,” we acknowledge God’s abundance and God’s blessings and that we are being abundant and blessing others. And our pledges of time and treasure which we put in the basket today are our blessings for God, given in thanksgiving for that toothbrush and our home and our loved ones and our lives.
And a third and important point to make in every stewardship sermon, and this is echoed in the theme of our campaign this year, is that we have enough. Everyone I’m talking to right now, myself included, has enough. Despite what our anxiety says, and despite the fact that prices are going up and despite our fears and financial insecurities, God has still given us more than enough. Thank God.
Recently a couple of families from Venezuela have joined the Cathedral. And if you wonder why so many Venezuelans are trying to come into our country right now, they are I believe are the number one nationality of people trying to enter the United States, it is because the Venezuelans are in a crisis.
Those new members of our congregation have shared about how impossible life is in Venezuela. The Human Rights Watch on their website, details abuses by the Venezuelan government which include torture and killing of innocent people on a major scale. And it is startling to read that millions of people, a third of the population, do not have access to healthcare and do not have access to food.
Here in the US, we complain when gas prices are high or get upset because a carton of eggs costs $8. We complain about so many things but we don’t really have perspective on what we have.
There is one man from Venezuela who has been coming for several months to the Cathedral. And when he arrived in the United States he had nothing. But now he has a job and he is finding stability, and we are blessed that he is getting involved at the Cathedral. And he is grateful to be part of the church.
We have helped him with a few things. I think we gave him some winter boots and a coat. And we have prayed for him his family back in Venezuela. We have given him a community where he can find Jesus Christ and a loving church where he can feel at home.
When we started to talk about pledging a couple weeks ago, he was one of the first to say, Yes. What he said was something like: let me give because you have given me so much. And I thought, well we’ve given you some winter boots and a coat, which is nothing. But to him that was so much.
And as I’ve thought about him, and I’ve thought about us, I have developed this tremendous sense of what we give each other through this place as a place to gather and be part of something bigger than we are.
Being part of something bigger than we are is certainly what calls many of us to go to church. This summer on my sabbatical, I had a chance to see a little of what life is like away from church. This summer I went to Sunday services a handful of times, but most Sundays I did what the rest of the world does – I went to brunch. I got together with family. I sat around on the couch. And for a while it was good.
It was nice to relax and let go of this responsibility I’ve had for more than twenty years of opening the building, greeting the people, leading the worship, saying goodbye, and closing the building. Twenty three years of doing that on Sundays and I wanted to see what life was like out there without church, in that kingdom.
And it was good. But only up to a point. Because at some point I thought, I need to be involved in something. I need a connection. I need a purpose. I need the great mystery of life and death to be framed in a way that gives me a sense of why I’m here and why we’re here. And I didn’t find that in that kingdom out there.
Because as good as brunch is, it doesn’t feed me the way I am fed here at the altar by the presence of Jesus Christ. And as relaxing at home is, it does not feel the same way as I do when I am relaxing in the arms of God here at worship, which is an indescribable feeling. And as inspiring as Sunday morning television is, it is not as inspiring as seeing you.
There is this kingdom out there and I don’t think I’m meant to live in it, at least not completely. Because the kingdom of Brunch and the kingdom of Sunday morning television on the couch, or the Kingdom the New York Times are fine but they leave me with a longing for something more.
And I suspect that many of the people we have not seen on Sundays are dwelling in that Kingdom out there, but that at some point they will realize that their hearts are really with Jesus and that it’s not quite enough just to be out there. That they need something more.
The contrast between the Kingdom of Jesus, which we celebrate today on Christ the King Sunday, and the Kingdom of Brunch or the Kingdom of Sunday morning on the couch, this contrast could not be more clear to me as I think about my experience this summer and as I think about why the Venezuelan man wants to be here and participate, because of what he has found when he participates in church.
And this leads me to the final note I think you need to have in every stewardship sermon, which is that our pledge is our participation. It is our way of being here. Our pledge puts us here and wherever Jesus is because it signifies our membership in this realm which is the kingdom of Christ. So while we live in the world and we love the world and we are deeply and intimately involved in all things of the world, we are members of this.
Putting our pledge in the basket and offering of ourselves to Jesus Christ puts us in this Kingdom which includes everyone from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Desmond Tutu to Mother Teresa to Oscar Romero to Andy Parke who I saw last week, to everyone who built this place and to the countless men and women over the course of years whose lives have been blessed to be part of churches where they preach God, and find Jesus and feed the poor and give out boots and winter coats, and where lives are transformed. They all have pledged. They all have pledged.
And by putting our pledge in the basket we are putting ourselves into that basket with them. We are saying: this is our kingdom, these are our people, these values matter to us, and we are pledging ourselves to this more. More than just living and dying and breathing and consuming, we strive for meaning through Jesus Christ.
I love the prayer we will say in a few moments after we have offered our pledge cards, this prayer of blessing which was, I believe, written by Bishop Greg Rickle of Seattle. And the prayer says this: May we see these pledges as our offering to you, sacred, holy, yet earthly, filled with possibilities. May we hold this image in our hearts and minds so as we watch our offerings each week come to your table, we can see our very selves being part of this offering, it is us on this table, living sacrifices to you.
It is us we are offering through pledging, not money, not time, but a substantial understanding of who we are and of whose we are. We, ourselves, will not lay our lives down on this altar every week. We, ourselves, may not necessarily be the ones to collect clothes and gather boots and give them to those who are in need.
We, ourselves, may not be those who visit hospitals and nursing homes to pray for the sick and to the bless the dying. We ourselves may not be the ones who preach the good news of God’s justice and love from this pulpit on Sundays. And we ourselves may not be the ones who lead Book groups and Bible studies and offer public prayers.
But if we pledge, if we put ourselves in this basket, we will be there. We will be part of every good thing that happens in the year to come. We will be in this Kingdom, where Jesus Christ himself dwells in eternal glory, changeless, and loving, and good, and just and kind. And that’s where I want to put my life, so that’s where I put my pledge.