If Not Now, When?

10/30/05
Mat. 23:1-12
Pent. 241

In 1970 I was a member of Trinity Episcopal Church here in Stamford. When the annual stewardship/pledge drive began, I was asked to take part in the Every Member Canvas. My wife and I called upon a woman who received us graciously and then proceeded to tell us everything that was wrong with the parish. After listening to her litany of complaints, I said, “Look. You are obviously very unhappy with this parish. If you are so unhappy, why don’t you go to another church? There are over thirty-five churches in Stamford. Find one where you wonÕt be so miserable. Go some where else.” Well, I did not get a pledge out of her. I was politely asked by the rector and sr. warden not to participate any more in any stewardship campaigns.

My story illustrates two points. The first is that I have never met anyone who did not have a complaint or a grudge against some church that he/she was part of at some time. We all seem to have a “reason” why we don’t give more to the church. I once had an old woman in St. Joseph’s Hospital tell me that she stopped giving to the parish because the rector, Gerald Cunningham, didn’t wave to her when as a child she was climbing on the bells before they were hoisted into the belfry! My second point is that I often have to tell people not to be offended by what I say. I do not mean to offend. If I mean to offend, then everyone will know it. Unfortunately I can be blunt, but what you see, is what you get. Leander used to say that I gave the best “Dutch uncle” talks he ever heard.

So today I am giving our stewardship sermon, which is kicking off our pledge drive. First I want to talk about why we are here as a parish. Then I want to talk about why we are here as individuals. Third, I will talk about stewardship as opposed to fundraising. Finally I will address some of the nuts and bolts issues.

St. John’s made the decision in 1975 to stay in its present location. We could have sold the building and we would have a newer building elsewhere in the city and there would be a nice parking lot here. But the parish decided to stay in the center of the city, to proclaim the Gospel in the center of the city and to minister to the whole city. This is consecrated ground. Our sanctuary is holy space. It is filled with the prayers of generations and the memorials to generations. It is where God is praised and worshiped. It is where prayers are given and heard. It is where small miracles occur everyday. This is the place where people find and are found by God. This is holy ground.

I believe that here at St. John’s we present a specific message to ourselves and society that we believe is a valid statement and a valid way of life. In churchspeak: our mission is to save souls by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are not presenting a product. We are not presenting a service. We are presenting a religious way of life. We use the orthodox tradition of the Anglican Communion to express our faith. By proclaiming and teaching we are helping people on their faith journeys. We ask that they join us in worshiping the Triune God and in serving and helping others. St. JohnÕs is a beacon in the midst of a metropolitan community, and we function as a vest-pocket cathedral: here we offer serious teaching, preaching, music, liturgy, worship and pastoral ministries. If we have a goal, it is to praise and serve God in our whole life. This means that we seek to set the standard of excellence in all that we do, whether it is music, worship, outreach, pastoral care, etc. We should seek to be the number one parish in the community, so that when people think of ‘church,’ they think of St. John’s.

Now why do we as individuals come here? The reasons are legion and known only in the heart of each person and in the mind of God. One of the reasons is, I think, to find out how to live. We come to find whatever faith we can and to strengthen whatever faith we have. But most of all we come to find out how to live and to get help in living the best we can. Hence I have been preaching a series this fall on Christian Living Skills. I have talked about having a ministry of presence. Just being there. I spoke about finding God in the margins, or in the problems of our life. I have preached about what Christian responsibility, sacrifice, reconciliation, forgiveness and generosity are. I have called us to see our lives as living in covenant (having a lease on life). We looked at the passage, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” Here we pointed out that for the Jew and for the Christian, all things are God’s. Last week we explored the two commandments, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Today’s Gospel lesson from St. Matthew is really about hypocrisy. The Pharisees are scolded not for keeping the commandments of Moses, but for their lack of authenticity. They seek adulation and praise rather than having humility and true piety. They do not practice what they preach. So all of these things that I have preached about since July, and all of these things that you and I have looked at, are about how we live and how we can as Christians try to be authentic and genuine. In effect, each sermon has been about stewardship.

Now many people in the Church set stewardship over against fund raising. When the time comes to ask people for money, they sugar coat the request by talking about “stewardship as the giving of one’s whole life.Ó Well, yes. For 60 years I have listened to sermons that have basically been veiled embarrassments about asking for money. What normally is called “stewardship” in the Church, and I have done it today, is really what my father used to call “being a Christian.” Hence my sermons have been about “being a Christian.” Being a Christian means being on a faith journey during which you seek to grow and have a better knowledge of and relationship to God as found in Jesus Christ.

When churches have pledge drives they are clearly fund raising. Up front. Right in the center. We can talk about time, talent and treasure, but we need money in order to do the job. And we need a lot of money. To preach the Gospel, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to have holy space, to be a place where we find and are found by God costs money. It is about time, to my way of thinking, to stop dodging the issue, stop being hypocritical, if that is what it is, and to sacrifice, be responsible, be generous, and love God and love neighbor. It is time to look for and to ask for money. When I first came to St. John’s in 1990, I was told by parishioners that clergy should not talk about money. Clergy should have no idea how much anyone gives and should not be involved in financial matters. Well, I can understand that perspective, and I think it is baloney. As a priest I am pastorally concerned about a person’s WHOLE life. I am interested in Christian living skills in regard to prioritizing and finance, as well as child rearing and marriage, etc. The question is, if you and I are going to be serious about how we live, if we are going to give as we ought to give, and for most of us that means some kind of sacrificial giving, when are we going to get around to doing it? If not now, when?

Now for some nuts and bolts. Our projected operating budget deficit for next year is at least $80,000. You as a parish voted last Sunday to keep the rectory and fix it up. That should be at least another $80,000. We depend on Canterbury GreenÕs rent and on money from our endowment to carry the lion’s share of our costs. If we increase our giving this year by fifteen percent per person then we might make $240,000 and we are still $80-160,000 in the hole. We can cut music and staff, but then we aren’t doing our job. We already have one person working 40 hours a week for free!

So I have two suggestions. Frankly I think the only way we will ever get out of the hole is through endowments and bequests. You all have received a blue packet with forms and materials having to do with end of life issues. In it are materials regarding making out a will. Those stained glass windows to your left were the result of a bequest in the will of a spinster lady, who had modest means and worked as a secretary. In addition, she left us over $300,000. Julie Zietlow, our development officer, died two years ago and left us $50,000. Both women set the stand of excellence for Christian financial responsibility. Christ Church, Greenwich, put $20 million in its endowment, not through big bequests, but through small bequests like Julie’s, 20,000, 50,000, 80,000 or more. For fifteen years I have been pushing endowments and bequests. Gradually we are waking up. If you have St. John’s in your will contact Eric Ram or Al Atherton and make sure they know it and can put your name in the Arbor Society. If you do not have a will, when do you plan to make one out, if not now? If you do not have St. John’s in it, when do you plan to put it in your will, if not now?

Endowments and bequests will increase our endowment income and gradually help us turn our fiscal picture around. It is annual giving that that helps us with cash flow and immediate needs. About half of our congregation pledges. Some give regularly but do not pledge. I have found in my life that when I pledge I end up giving more. Not pledging for me was an excuse to trim my giving. Regardless of whether one wants to pledge or not, it is the pledges that enable the vestry and treasurer to budget and manage our finances.

How much should you give? Well, God wants all of your life, and the Church wants all of your money. But that is not possible for the Church. The standard for giving in the Episcopal Church is 10% of your gross income. Ouch! I have gotten sick of hearing that for decades. My parents gave sacrificially to put me through seminary, I gave sacrificially, and my wife and my children have sacrificed in order for me to be ordained. Enough already. Now I’m supposed to tithe! Two Sundays ago I said that, “yes, there is a dress code in the kingdom of heaven.” There is a standard of behavior. Today I am forced to say that, “yes, there is a standard for financial giving.” As you may remember from my sermon, “render on to Caesar the things that are CaesarÕs and unto God the things that are God’s,” there was a temple tax. The Jew nowadays pays a membership fee. We don’t. But our giving should be based not on how much we think we get out of the church, but rather how much we honestly think we should give to profess our faith, to support our faith and to promote our faith.

Years ago my day of epiphany came when I realized I was paying more to the Middlesex Swim Club then I was giving to the Church. I changed that. You might ask yourself, do I pay more for Cablevision per month than I give to St. John’s? Is my car payment more than I give to St. John’s? Yes, you need a car to get around. You also need a faith and church in order to “get around.” It is tempting to say, “but I am on a fixed income,” and “I am poor.” For years one of our biggest givers was both poor and on a fixed income. You might also say, “but I give to other charities.” St. JohnÕs is not a charity. It is the yeast, it is the mother load, and it is the leaven in all of our caring and giving in society. Last Monday I attended the annual meeting of the Red Cross. Nearly everyone there was a member of a faith community. It was their faith community that was causing their community giving. If you do not nourish and strongly support your faith community, St. John’s, where do you think the impulse for good works will come from not only now but down the road? If you are not seriously supporting and giving to St. John’s, to the body of Christ of which you are part, if you are not seriously doing it now, when do you intend to do it? ÊYou and I are called by Jesus to “practice what we teach.” Let us go forth in the name of Christ, if not now, then when? Thanks be to God. Allelujah, Allelujah! Ð Fr. Gage