Blessing of the Animals, The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Sept. 30, 2018

Lessons:

Jeremiah 22:13–16
Galatians 6:14–18
Matthew 11:25–30
Psalm 148:7–14

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.

For I am gentle and humble in heart,

and you will find rest for your souls.

Why do we like Saint Francis?

Probably the most obvious answer, especially on a day like this one, is that Francis loves animals and so do most of the rest of us. Francis is the thirteenth century’s answer to Ace Ventura, Pet Detective: a bird perched on his shoulder, a mouse in his hand, wolves and dogs and cats curling around his legs.

And that’s beautiful stuff. To have a dog look at you in tail-wagging adoration is amazing, it is a foretaste of heaven. When a member of our family would return home after a few days away, our late dog, Bodhi, would run jubilant laps around the living room. In those moments Bodhi looked like he had won the lottery or, possibly, the Super Bowl.

There really is something to the old bumper-sticker prayer:

Lord, help me to be the person that my dog thinks that I am.

And so we are kind of going to be drawn to a saint who embodies our love of animals, who gets that love.

But I suspect there’s more, that Francis’ connection with animals is not the only reason that, in a time when most of us do not keep feast days, we keep Francis’ feast. My guess is that we are drawn to this human being because, almost 800 years later, we have the sense that Francis, in imitation of Christ, was and is deeply free, that he was possessed of a profound freedom.

Now before we go any further, let’s acknowledge that, in America, in October of 2019, freedom is a complicated word. We have neighbours for whom, somehow, wandering around a Walmart with an assault rifle is freedom; for whom the frantic consumption of the earth’s resources is freedom; for whom indifference to the suffering of the least of these is freedom; for whom celebrating war is freedom.

If that is what freedom is, may I be in chains.

I’d like to make the suggestion that real freedom, the freedom of Francis, the freedom of Jesus, is not like that stuff at all. Here’s the definition of freedom that I would like us to try out this morning:

Freedom is living with deep trust.

Freedom is living with the deep trust that God made us to be good; that our lives have meaning; that we, as individuals and communities, have the agency and ability to respond to God, to live into that goodness. It is to trust that there is enough, that God has given us a world of beauty and abundance, and that if we want, if we choose, there is enough for absolutely all of God’s children to thrive. It is to trust that no one and nothing owns us. And maybe this is more difficult – or maybe it’s the best part, I’m not sure – it is to trust that we don’t own anything, that everything we have, our very bodies included, are fleeting gifts.

Here’s the thing about freedom, about the freedom of Francis and of Jesus before him. Here’s what makes it kind of dangerous. Francis’ freedom is glorious, it is holy, it might be the best thing. But boy, is it hard.

Because Francis took Jesus totally literally when Jesus said Sell what you have and give the money to the poor. Francis chose to live in poverty; he chose to beg for his food; notwithstanding being disabled and what today we would call being chronically ill, he lived a lot of his life outdoors. He spoke Brother Sun and Sister Moon and, amazingly in our death-denying culture, even Sister Death.

And not many of us live that way. I certainly don’t. I like living indoors; I like knowing with something pretty close to certainty that I will have plenty of food for tonight’s dinner and for every dinner this week and every dinner this year; I like being able to travel; I like being able to save for retirement and for my children’s college education; I like having a computer and watching Netflix on it.

I am probably not going to be selling everything I have and giving it to the poor or to anyone else. And I don’t think all that many other Christians are going to do so either.

And yet I long – dare I say we long – for Francis’ freedom. Because as much as I like all of that stuff, all of the goods and services and privileges that I have, this stuff also troubles me, it is also something like a burden, something like a yoke that is heavy.

What does it mean that, by my own standards at age twenty, I am fabulously wealthy, and yet I am still worried that I won’t have enough, that my money will run out? If anything, I might be more worried than I was at twenty, more stuck in a place of scarcity than I was then. That suggests that I could have a hundred million dollars or a billion dollars or a gazillion dollars, I could have enough to pay off the national debt and still go yachting every weekend, and I would still be worried about running out.

And let’s be clear, my worry – and if this in any way sounds familiar to you, your worry – is not a character flaw or a failing or even a mistake. Rather, it is the consequence of careful design: constantly being worried about running out is how consumerism trains us to live. Consumerism tells me and you that we cannot join Francis in participating in the abundance of Jesus, in the feast where everyone gets fed, where the loaves and fishes never run out, because if we pass on the dish with the fish and the bread on it to the next person, there might not be enough for us.

So.

In addition to being St. Francis’ feast day, today is the first day of our fall financial stewardship campaign, that season of the year in which all of us who love this place that we call Grace Memorial are invited to prayerfully consider making a pledge towards God’s work through our parish. And when I realised that these two things were going to coincide on the calendar, St. Francis and money, I thought to myself:

Well, that sucks.

What a bummer that something as joyous as remembering Francis and blessing animals is intersecting with the annual chore that is a pledge campaign.

But then I thought some more and I prayed some more and I said:

Why am I acting and talking about giving to God’s church as though it were a chore? Because my experience actually hasn’t been that way at all. My experience – much to my surprise – is that financial stewardship is kind of a joy. That giving intentionally and prayerfully to church is a tiny taste of the freedom that Francis had.

This is a testimonial.

I don’t know if we are allowed to give testimonials in the Episcopal church. But here we go.

When I first started going to church on a regular basis some fifteen years ago, I encountered this idea called pledging. I’d never really heard of pledging before, it wasn’t part of my life anywhere else, anywhere in the so-called secular world. And so Phoebe and I had to encounter this question:

We love this church; how much are supposed to give? How much do we want to give? How much can we afford to give?

Both of us were working in the performing arts which, as you perhaps know, is the opposite of lucrative. We weren’t wealthy.

Rather than tossing a dart at a board or rolling dice or whatever, we took the advice of our priest, Peter, who said, Why don’t you try out giving twenty-five dollars a week? (Indexed for inflation, maybe that’s $32 or $33 a week now.) We did, and our family’s adventure with pledging began.

Over the ensuing years, we were lucky enough or blessed enough or privileged enough to increase our giving. It wasn’t a linear increase, like an escalator going up: when I went to seminary and our income got dramatically reduced at the same time that we started paying tuition, our giving reduced dramatically as well, and then it resumed its increase as we entered the workforce.

Now, here’s the problem with hanging out with people who have gotten serious about following Jesus. They challenge you. Their challenge is loving, but the challenge is real nonetheless. People who have gotten serious about following Jesus challenge you to see the dignity of every human being, even the human beings whom you don’t particularly like or respect. People who have gotten serious about following Jesus challenge you to understand the earth as something holy, as something pretty close to God’s body, and therefore as deserving of our reverence. And people who have gotten serious about following Jesus challenge you to have a day planner and financial statements that both proclaim how big a deal the Gospel is in your life.

Some of these people even challenge you to consider tithing.

Let me pause here to say that I am aware that I am walking out into a little bit of a minefield here, that there is more than one person in this room for whom the subject of tithing is a catalyst for annoyance or even resentment. And I get that: like so many things that the institutional church has gotten its hands on, the tithe has been used in a screwed-up way a lot of times, it has been a weapon for guilt trips and shame.

But I want to suggest that, like other churchy words that so many of us are suspicious of – words such as evangelism or ministry or even religious itself – we are allowed and maybe even called to take back the word tithe, to claim it, to allow the possibility that it is something good and holy. That the ancient, Biblical practice of setting aside 10% of what God had given us and giving that 10% back to God just might be wonderful.

A few years ago, Phoebe and I started to wonder about the tithe. We were drawn somehow to this practice – like a lot of the things the Holy Spirit does, She kept on gently and persistently suggesting to us that we take on this practice. Phoebe and I looked at each other and said: Is there any way that we could pull that off?

I have a gross salary of just over $80,000 a year. Is there any way that we could possibly give just over $8,000 a year to Grace?

But starting a few years ago, we tried it out.

And friends, the tithe has become one of the most rewarding aspects of our family’s shared spiritual practice.

For our family, the tithe has been the end of wondering whether we were giving enough, whether we were making a sacrificial gift to our church. It has been the end of being conflicted about our giving. It has been a choice to live with generous hearts, to know that our finances match up with our values. It has been a choice to trust that we have enough, that God’s abundance includes us. It has been a declaration that our money doesn’t own us. It has been a choice to loosen our grip on our money.

It has been a little taste of St. Francis’ freedom.

I know, from speaking to other folks who tithe, that our experience is not unique. That for those who are able to adopt this spiritual practice, it is liberating. And so I will invite you to talk about tithing with your loved ones, to pray about it, and if you haven’t done so before, to consider whether tithing might be a spiritual practice that you would like to try.

I reckon that we love Francis because, like Jesus before him, he was so deeply free. He took Jesus’ yoke and he learned from Jesus. And in doing so, he found rest for his soul.

May you and I find that kind of freedom that Francis had.

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Corbet Clark

Sept. 16, 2018

Lessons:

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-8
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

I’m feeling a little strange so far this Fall, because this is the first Fall in thirty-five years that I haven’t been working in a school. I’m so used to the rhythm of school – of the school year and the school day. I realize that much of my identity is bound up in being a teacher. So now that I’m officially retired from teaching high school I’ve been doing a lot of reflection about teaching and learning, and what it means for me to be an educator at this point in my life.
It’s been discouraging in recent years to read about the various ways that the status of
teaching in this country has declined, which includes the low compensation that many teachers receive. Good education is expensive, but bad education is even more expensive, in terms of its negative impact on the potential of our young people.

But I suspect I don’t need to convince all of you of this – there are so many educators among us. What I’d like to do is to consider teaching and learning from a divine perspective and to suggest that education, the activity of teaching and learning, is essentially a divine activity and something that both reveals God’s nature and that draws us closer to God.

I’ve been thinking I would like to talk about education, so I was pleased that this week’s readings are all about teaching – did you notice that? Isaiah talking about the powerful gift of teaching that God has given him, and James talking about the powerful responsibility of teaching, since it can be used for both good and evil. And in the gospel lesson today we have a perfect example of Jesus as teacher – I want to come back to this.

The themes of teaching and learning are everywhere in the Hebrew scriptures and Jewish tradition. Torah, the Jewish law, is not law in the simple sense of “do this, don’t do this.” It’s really a guide for how people are meant to live their lives, in order that they, and the whole community, can come closer to God and understand God’s nature. At its heart is a process of dialogue, both with God and with one another, that leads to understanding and right action. The Jewish tradition of Wisdom (or Sophia) builds on this idea and focuses not so much on wisdom as an intellectual concept as on the everyday practices of life that draw one closer to God.

The ancient Greeks had a parallel understanding of education which, though it’s secular
rather than religious, has much the same goal. The Greeks called this paideia 1, and it meant the education of young people to be good citizens of society, focusing not just on intellectual growth but on all aspects of life (including, for example, the athletic). It was practical and community-oriented, as in the Jewish Wisdom tradition.

If there is a Christian Paideia, a divine education, what does it look like? In the first place, it is fundamentally relational – based on the relationship between teacher and learner, a relationship that reflect that between God and believer. If you think about your own education and teachers who had the greatest influence on you, they were probably those you had a strong, positive relationship with, built over time. Learning in the Jewish tradition is a process of dialogue, of conversation, of give and take among people who are searching for the truth together and are open to new understandings.

This divine education is also fundamentally challenging: it challenges our easy assumptions, our prejudices and narrow preconceptions in order to draw us to a broader vision of reality. It draws us out of our focus on self and opens us to seeing in new ways. In this way it aims to be transformative, to invite us to grow into the people that God wants us to become, and to help the community grow and change in the process.

And in this process, divine education is liberating: in freeing us from self-absorption, opening our eyes to a broader vision of things, helping us overcome our prejudices, it strengths our identity and gives us courage to undertake new challenges.

We can see this at work in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus’ engagement with his disciples is
built on friendship and trust. Most of the stories of Jesus teaching are not about him lecturing but telling stories and then inviting people to ponder what he says. In this episode, he draws his friends into conversation and asks questions. “Who do people say that I am,” he asks, and they respond – it’s clear they have been thinking about this. Then, in response to “Who do you say that I am,” they answer “the Messiah.” They have drawn their own conclusion, but they still don’t understand fully.

He challenges what seems like an obvious answer and points them to a more difficult truth: the path that lies ahead entails suffering and death. They don’t want to hear it, but he demands that they listen. This invites the process of transformation, of them becoming more the disciples that God is calling them to be. And we know they were transformed, to become a community of visionaries who could carry on the work of the Kingdom.

Okay, you’re thinking, that sounds great, but I’m not an educator. But if teaching and
learning is really a divine process, that leads us closer to God, then it’s something we should all be engaged in, one way or another.

There are those who are formally engaged in Christian Paideia – church school teachers and youth group leaders and Bible study teachers – but all of us have the opportunity to engage others in conversation, to help others reflect on their experience, or to introduce them to new practices we find helpful, or to help newcomers feel at home in the community. And each of us has the opportunity to take on the challenge of learning, of broadening our own understanding and being willing to try new practices, even when they are hard. God is calling us to continuous growth and transformation.

I’m not sure how I will continue to be an educator now that I’m retired from teaching, but I hope I will be open to new possibilities, to continue to deepen my own conversation with God.

The Rev. D. Corbet Clark

1 “ Training of the physical and mental faculties in such a way as to produce a broad enlightened mature outlook harmoniously combined with maximum cultural development.” (Merriam-Webster)

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32
Psalm 25:1-8
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

 

One of the things that unites Episcopalians across the country – that unites those who prefer incense and bells with those who want as much liturgical minimalism as possible, that unites conservatives with liberals, that unites a parish like this one with a tiny parish in a Midwest farming community and then with a massive and old and endowed parish in an Eastern Seaboard city – is our shared commitment to not talking about money.

Episcopalians would sooner talk about almost anything else.

And so I guess it shouldn’t be a shocker that one of the hornets nests that I accidentally kicked (I don’t know if anyone ever kicks a hornets nest on purpose) early on in my time at Grace was a monetary hornets nest. You see, throughout our marriage, when Phoebe and I have given money away to a not-for-profit, we’ve gotten a letter back from the not-for-profit that says something like “Thank you for supporting OPB with you monthly gift of $25” or “Thank you for supporting the Sorrento Retreat Centre with your donation of $1000” or “Thank you for supporting the Parish with your annual pledge of $4000.” And that letter would be signed by the Head of Fundraising at OPB or the Director of the Retreat Centre or our Priest.

Insofar as Phoebe and I thought about that practice at all – and we didn’t think about it much – we thought that it was a good one. It was nice to have a piece of documentation confirming that the not-for-profit had understood our instructions, and it was good to hear directly from an individual at the not-for-profit, often an individual, such as our Priest, whom we knew.

And so when I came to Grace, I brought that practice with me. When you pledged in my first fall here, I sent you a letter that said “Thanks for your gift of X” and added my signature and a little handwritten note at the bottom.

In doing so, I ended up making a change without even guessing that I was making a change. (As an aside, that wasn’t the only time I changed something without knowing it!)

I was caught off guard, therefore, when a parishioner came to visit me and to tell me that they felt pretty distressed that I was aware of the amount of their pledge. And then, over the subsequent year and a half (I wrote similar notes last fall), I received an email that expressed much the same sentiment and I got a small amount of indirect feedback (indirectly is how I receive a lot of my feedback, by the way – I have huge sympathy for the Pastor who wrote an article a few years back in which he said that the sentence that puts him on edge more than any other is the one that begins, “People are saying…”) that indicated that there were at least a couple of others who felt funny that I was aware of how much they had pledged.

Through these conversations, I learned that it had not previously been the practice at Grace for the Priest to sign a thank-you note with the amount of the pledge written right on it. It had not previously been the practice for the Priest to know what a given parishioner pledged.

Accident though it may have been, I had changed something. And as is the case almost always with change, that change brought with it some anxiety.

And so I started to think and to pray about this subject. What should we do? One possibility would be to just “go back to normal” for the parish. I’ll stop writing thank-you cards that have an amount on them and tell Jackie that I don’t want to know parishioners’ pledges. A second possibility would be the opposite, to stick to the normal that I know and just keep on acknowledging the amount of your gifts.

Neither option felt great to me. That’s not because either decision is necessarily wrong, but because both decisions would be based on the reason “We’ve always done it that way”; the only difference would be whose “always” we went with. And as Corbet said in his marvellous sermon two weeks ago, “We’ve always done it that way” or “That’s just how it is” or “It was like that when I got here” is actually a pretty poor rationale for engaging in a given practice.

Besides, the more that I live, the more that I am convinced that when there is anxiety around a subject, as there is anxiety around this one, that there is something interesting happening, maybe something holy happening, something that is worthy of our curiosity. When you combine that with my inarticulate sense, with my gut sense, that it was not merely appropriate for me to know what a given parishioner pledged, but that it was my responsibility to know what a given parishioner pledged, I felt a call to do some exploring.

And so I started phoning up colleagues, folks who are serving as Priests across this country and across Canada and asking: Do you know how much people in your parish pledge? The results of my thoroughly unscientific study were fascinating. First the Priests to whom I spoke overwhelmingly do know what people in their parish pledge; if my friends and colleagues are at all representative, it is typical for an Episcopal or Anglican Priest to know what a given parishioner pledges.

Second – and this is what really caught my attention – most of the Priests had strong opinions on this subject. None were stronger than Greg Rickel, the Bishop of Olympia, the Diocese immediately to our North, who told me:

A Priest who does not know what a given parishioner is pledging is engaging in spiritual malpractice.

Holy shmokes.

And while I wouldn’t phrase things quite as strongly as Bishop Greg, while I think that a Priest can choose not to know what their parishioners pledge and still be doing a really good job – my friend Sylvia, a Priest whom I like and admire and respect more than just about anyone else in this business, doesn’t know what her parishioners pledge – I do think Bishop Greg is broadly right. I think that talking out loud with parishioners about how and why and how much we pledge to our worshipping home is a core part of a Priest’s vocation.

Here are five reasons why.

One. It’s a Priest’s job to know people. And there are few better ways of knowing someone than finding out how they spend their time and their money, finding out how they engage in the stewardship of the gifts that God has given to them. I don’t know who first said, “Show my your calendar and your financial statements, and I’ll tell you what’s important to you” but that person nailed it. Money and time are two of the huge ways that we embody our faith and our values. They are an outward and visible sign of our faith and our values.

And that leads me to Two. It’s a Priest’s job to remind us that Jesus talks about money more than anything else. Jesus talks about the dangers of wealth – it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich guy to get into heaven. Jesus talks about economic systems – remember last week’s parable about the workers in the vineyard all getting paid the same. And Jesus says:

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The order of that sentence fascinates me, because you’d think that Jesus would say, “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be also”: you’ll give your money to what you love. But Jesus tells us it’s the other way around. Our heart follows our money. So what we are engaging in through a financial stewardship campaign is a profound exercise in spiritual discernment. We are deciding where are hearts are going to be next year.

Three. It’s a Priest’s job to be prayer partners with people as they make big decisions. Sometimes, being a prayer partner doesn’t mean saying anything – it can just mean prayerfully listening, just being there. And as part of this ministry, one of the difficult gifts (is that a turn of phrase that makes sense?) that a Priest is called to give to people is to listen as folks make a prayerful decision about their financial stewardship of their worshipping home.

In our family’s experience, we’ve discovered that it is really important to know that someone is listening when Phoebe and I discern how much to pledge, it is really important for us to share the amount of that pledge, to borrow a phrase from the 12-Step tradition, with God and with one other person. Phoebe and I have talked about this a lot over the years, and we’ve concluded that when we don’t share our pledge with at least one other person, we’re usually not all that honest. Virtually always, when we have uttered the words, “We can’t afford that,” what we really meant was, “We choose not to prioritise that.” Virtually always, when we have uttered the words, “We don’t have time for that,” what we really meant was, “We choose not to prioritise that.”

To paraphrase my old boss, Bill, you and I are allowed to spend more on lunch after the service than we give to the church. You and I are allowed to spend ten times as much on a vacation as we give to the church. God won’t love you less if you do that. (By the way, and I hope that this is not a disappointment to anyone here, God won’t love you more if you become the biggest pledger at Grace.) What is morally and spiritually unhealthy is not to name those choices out loud. If that’s our choice, it’s healthy to say to ourselves and to God and to at least one other person, “I am choosing to spend more on lunch than I give to church.”

Four. It’s a Priest’s job to help celebrate the joy that comes from having a generous heart. We’re beginning our annual financial campaign today – you’ll be getting a letter from me in not so long – and part of our goal, absolutely, is to fund the ministries of this parish. Sue’s amazing leadership of the choir? You made that happen with your gifts. A warm parish hall where people can come on Friday nights and find food and friendship? You made that happen with your gifts. A vibrant Youth Group where adolescents can meet Jesus within community? You made that happen with your gifts. Every visit that I make and that my colleagues on the pastoral care team make to home or a hospital room or a hospice? You made that happen with your gifts.

But financial stewardship isn’t just about what happens outside of ourselves. It is also internal. It is also about living in a way that mirrors the staggering generosity of God, the radical self-giving of God. God has given us everything, everything, everything. And in financial stewardship, we have an opportunity to give some of that back.

Five, and last of all, it is a Priest’s job to remind us that money isn’t God. That deep reluctance I mentioned early on for Episcopalians to talk about money? It’s a mirror of the deep reluctance to talk about money in our wider culture. When the bill comes at the restaurant, it’s placed facedown on the table. This is a secret, it’s private. Maybe it’s dirty.

In our culture, money is almost more intimate than sex. If you were to go to a party with the goal of shocking as many people as possible, and you had your choice between telling people specific details of your sex life and telling people how much money you made, you’d need to give your decision some thought.

In the church, this monetary coyness manifests in our habit of carving out money from the rest of stewardship. Remember that we define “stewardship” as everything that we do with (does anyone remember – there are three “T’s”?) our time, talent, and treasure. And within a week of arriving at Grace, I knew who the biggest pledgers of time and talent were. You know who they are as well: you just need to around look in the garden and in our offices and in the kitchen and in the sacristy and in the Vestry meeting and in the choir. So our question is not actually, “Should a Priest know how much parishioners pledge?” Because two-thirds of how much people pledge at Grace is already parish-wide knowledge. Our question is confined to that final “T,” about Treasure.

And I want to suggest that there is something unbalanced happening, maybe even something dangerous happening, when we make that last “T” into a secret. There is something dangerous happening when you can come to my office or I can come to your home and you and I can have the most intimate conversations – I will listen and pray with you when you tell me that the cancer is back, when you tell me that the one you love is making the move to hospice, when you tell me that you are expecting another child, when you tell me that you have doubts about your marriage, when you tell me that you are in love anew – but we cannot talk about money. This is a scenario in which your financial pledge and mine has become the Holy Name of God, the thing which we cannot speak aloud.

That sets the stage for money becoming a subject of shame and a subject of obsession.

I am unwilling to give money that kind of power. I am unwilling to make it into something other or more than what it is, which is a tool.

My thank you note to you this fall will name the amount of your gift. (Maybe this is the last sermon that I will give at Grace, but I’ve prayed hard about this subject and talked to a lot of folks, I’ve spoken to Vestry, and I am convinced that this is a decision to which I am called and to which we are called as a community.)

I want you to know a few things. I want you to know that nobody other than Jackie and me knows what you pledge. I regret our decision a year ago to electronically insert the signatures of the Senior Warden and the Treasurer into the thank-you letter, thus giving the impression that they know the amount that you and I pledge. They do not. The amounts of individual parishioners’ pledges are not and have never been a subject of discussion at Vestry meetings or elsewhere.

I want you to know that it is my conviction that you and I are called to make a prayerfully considered gift to the work of God as it is made manifest in this worshipping community but that, unlike in secular fundraising, that doesn’t mean shooting for a particular amount. I believe that the lowest dollar amount of a pledge that we received in 2016 was $2.50 a week. And we honour and celebrate and say thanks for that gift.

I want you to know that I am glad to have a conversation with you about this subject or about any subject. If this sermon has raised questions or concerns for you, let’s get together and talk. I believe that feedback from people who want me to succeed and want Grace to succeed is a gift.

And I want you to know that is a core leadership principle for me that I will not ask you to do anything that I am unwilling to do myself. I ought not to know your pledge if you don’t know mine. You already know how much money I make – my opportunity for a shocking reveal at the dinner party is ruined – you just need to look at the annual report. My pre-tax salary is about $80,000 a year, a figure that we arrived at because it is the statistically typical income for a family of five in Portland. And our family’s pledge is based upon the tithe, a guide that is Biblical in nature and that the Episcopal Church has affirmed for years. So our pledge is $8,000 a year, or $670 a month. Phoebe has income as well, and our family tithes that too, but to the work of God through other church organisations and not-for-profits whom we support.

It took Phoebe and me a number of years to work our way up to a tithe – I don’t think that we could’ve pulled it off when I was a student, and 10% is still a stretch for us. But now that we have become tithers, I wouldn’t go back. In a funny way, the fact that the tithe stretches us is part of its strength. The tithe makes sure that we are genuinely sacrificing for God and for this parish which we love so much. Tithing has become a core part of our family’s spiritual practice: it’s a huge part of the way that we put God first in our lives. Our tithe is our first expenditure of the month. Giving that money to God’s work through Grace is a kind of prayer.

Over the coming month, as you listen to reflections on financial stewardship, as you get letters from Grace, I invite you to prayerfully consider who Jesus is in your life, and what this beloved community is in your life. I invite you think about becoming a tither or taking a step closer to tithing. Doing so will be a big gift to Grace. And my experience is that it will be an even bigger gift to you.

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Richard Toll

Lessons:

Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-11
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

 

Part of being a human being is to be lost.  It is part of our DNA.  It is part of our experience in life.  It is a part of us that we do not even know we are lost.

I am not talking about being lost in the woods, or getting lost with your GPS.  That certainly is another part of being lost.

I am talking about being lost as to losing one’s way on the pathway of life.  And, we may not even be aware of it.  Our experiences, our decisions, our loss of focus, our lack of meaning, all may suddenly be defined in a moment of clarity.  We suddenly wake up and realize we have lost our way.  Relationships shattered, jobs in shambles, people hurt, we have lost our way.

I can remember one of the important moments of my teenage years as a moment of being lost and found. 

I was a part of a Boy Scout group that traveled four times to the Big Bend National Park in Texas for a week of camping.  The Big Bend National Park has a wild beauty to it that is overwhelming as one experiences nature in all of its rawness.

One night while 12 of us were camping out our horses broke loose from their tethers, scattered and ran away.  Our wrangler was able to catch them and return them to our camp.  The next morning we learned that a mountain lion had come close to our camp and our horses heard them, smelled them and panicked. 

I can remember it happening as if it was yesterday.  Why?  Because as a teenager I was growing up.  I was  confused with life.  I did not know what I wanted to do with my life.  I did not know I was lost but I know now that I was.  I was shaken by the horses panicking and stampeding.  I walked out into the desert to be by myself under a full moon.  I looked up at the full moon lighting the desert mountains.  I experienced what can only be defined as a spiritual bath.  For a moment in time, I was connected to the Creator, Universe, myself, my presence on earth, and I remember putting a foot print in the sand wondering how my life would eventually reflect into the larger world.  What imprint would I make in life?  At that moment I knew I had a purpose in life.  I just did not know what it was but I was on a path to discover it.  My encounter with the God of Creation under a full moon in the desert of West Texas has given me a knowledge of being found.  Whatever was happening to me in those teenage years of growing up I can barely remember.  What happened on the desert was a sense of adventure of what life means and opening up of the future.

I was growing up.  I was beginning to face life.  I was looking forward.  I was grounded in time and space with a footprint firmly implanted in the desert.

My life at that point had little to do with the Church or the Bible but I do remember starting to read the New Testament and attempting to read about Jesus.  He spoke to me out of the scriptures.  Passages like today’s Gospel were important. 

From the Gospel of Luke:  So he told them this parable:  “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?  When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ’Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’  Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

A simple but profound story about the human condition.

A simple but profound story about a God who is always welcoming us especially when we are lost. 

Fast forward to September 11, 2001.  I was the Rector at St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukie, OR.  I finished my 7:00 a.m. communion service and went to breakfast at Libby’s restaurant around the corner from the church in downtown Milwaukie.  The television was on and the news was saying something about a plane crashing into the Twin Towers and the waitress and I talked about the terrible accident.  Then we watched as a second plane hit the tower and you know the rest of the story.

Ed Browning, our Presiding Bishop from 1986 to 1998 for the Episcopal Church in the United States had retired to Hood River, Oregon in 1998.  I had known him and his wife, Patti, and had been with them in Jerusalem in 1998 in his visit to the region prior to his retirement.  In July 2001, he had invited me to his home in Hood River.  He was the founding President of Friends of Sabeel in North American in 1996.  Sabeel is an ecumenical libration theology center in Jerusalem and works with the indigenous Palestine Christians in the Holy Land.   In July, 2001, Ed Browning asked me to take on the voluntary role of Director of Friends of Sabeel in North America.   Six weeks after Ed Browning appointed me as Director of Friends of Sabeel North American, September 11, 2001, I was sitting watching the television of what was happening in New York.  I had an 8:30 appointment with Ed Browning.  I drove my car and picked him in the parking lot here at Grace Memorial.  He and Patti have a condominium a few blocks from here.  We left at 8:30 to go to Seattle, WA.  Why?  To meet for a noon luncheon with Priscilla Collins, the owner and president of KING TV in Seattle at the time who was very instrumental in my own learning about the concerns of Palestine.  She had spent a lot of time with me prior to my first visit to Jerusalem in 1983.  We were scheduled to meet at her apartment for lunch at noon to ask for a major gift to continue the work of Sabeel in the United States.

All the way from Portland to Seattle we listened to the horrible news of the attacks on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the plane crash in Pennsylvania.  Ed Browning had lived in New York in 1986 to 1998 as Presiding Bishop and periodically we would shut off the radio so he could voice his concerns regarding people who worked at the church center or Trinity Parish or friends in New York.

We met with Priscilla Collins at her apartment and had a very meaningful meal all the time listening on and off to the horrific news from New York.

At 3:00 p.m. on September 11, 2001, Ed Browning and I returned to my car and drove back to Portland having received a generous gift to continue our work for Sabeel.  We continued to be heartbroken as we listened to the radio.

Ed Browning died this past July and his service at Trinity Cathedral in Portland two months ago was a glorious celebration including his family and Church leadership.

My memory of 9/11 will always include the full day with one of the most influential Christian leaders of our century.  And for these past years since then I have worked with him as my mentor and friend.

I almost did not make it to be with you today.  And I will tell you why.  Two weeks ago while driving to our cabin on the Long Beach Peninsula in WA with my wife, Elaine, and two of our grandchildren from Seattle we almost had a very serious wreck. 

I was driving towards Astoria on a beautiful day and suddenly realized the car in front of me had stopped.  It is your worst nightmare.  I slammed on the breaks and smoke came from my tires.  In a split second, I saw the pickup behind me put on his breaks and begin to slide sideways.  I could tell I was going to crash into the back of the car stopped ahead of me and fearful the car behind would crash into me.  I made a quick decision within a split second to pass the car ahead of me.  I prayed there was no car or truck coming toward me and quickly passed the stopped car ahead of me.  As I passed the stopped car, I saw a dead deer in the road, the reason for the road crisis.  A crash did not occur and I continued on.  As I pulled around the stopped car, I experienced that moment of realizing how my life might have ended or changed dramatically if a crash had occurred.

I was in shock and also thankful that nothing had happened.

We were not lost in the conventional sense, but we were very much involved in a world that life comes and goes and for a brief moment life and death were being defined for my loved ones and me.

I thought back to my desert experience in the Big Bend as I pulled ahead of the dead deer.  Somehow in the scheme of Gods presence I still have something to offer in a continuing way.  The future is still there to claim.  Life is still to be defined.  The parable in Luke was being acted out.  I was on the shoulders of the one who remains a mystery.  Doors are open into a future that is there for us to look forward to.

Somehow in the mystery of creation we are all lost and being found at all times and in all places.

To acknowledge this is to sing along with the words from Amazing Grace.  “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see”.

Amen

Keep your Eye on the Child + Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons: 

Proverbs 31:10-31

Psalm 1

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Mark 9:30-37

 

 

The child whom Jesus invites into the midst of his disciples today is not a symbol. The child whom Jesus holds in his arms as he teaches is a child – she is a human being.

Forgive me if what I have just said is obvious. But I think that this is where we need to begin this morning. Because the Christian tradition has often been guilty of forgetting the humanity of children, of either being indifferent to them or, when we do remember the very young, of reducing them to roadside signs whose whole purpose is to point grown ups at spiritual opportunities and dangers.

Jerome Berryman, the creator of Godly Play, that marvelous method of Biblical storytelling which we sometimes employ during Children’s Church, recently wrote a book detailing the frequently superficial way in which children have been featured in Christian thought. Berryman’s book is called Children and the Theologians. In it, Berryman makes the case that Christian thinkers, from Augustine to Calvin to Luther, have often erred by understanding children not as participants in theology but, rather, as objects for theology, as a stand ins for some vice or some virtue.

The first choice – the child as icon for error – is what Berryman calls a low view of children. A low view understands the very young as being stuck in a place of pitiful foolishness or confusion. Childishness, therefore, is what we are called to reject, to outgrow as mature Christians. The contrasting choice – the child who is an icon for all that is holy – is a high view. Here we find the child as total innocent, as blank slate, as Adam and Eve before the fall. Both are examples of bigotry, although perhaps it is clearer to us that the low view is bigoted than the high, it is so much more actively spiteful. But much as insisting that everyone of a given skin colour is happy and friendly and good at dancing is still plain old racism, insisting that all children are blessed innocents is still an act prejudice. (As a sidebar, it is notable that a great many of theologians who made it into print over the centuries were men who were either celibate or else who outsourced the raising of their children to women. No one who actually lives with and cares for children could seriously make the case for the child who is totally depraved or totally good.)

Berryman invites us to set aside both the low and the high view of the child. He suggests, instead, a third way: a graceful view of the very young.  In order to help us find that grace, he introduces a turn of phrase which he will return to repeatedly throughout his book: Keep your eye on the child.

In inviting us to keep our eyes on the child, Berryman is referring to the children who appear in a passage such as the one that Mark gives us today. So, the children of scripture. But, lest we become too theoretical, lest we encounter children who exist today only as ink on paper and, thereby, fall back into high and low thinking, he also entreats us to keep our eyes also on the flesh and blood children of right now. These are the children who come to church with us, who live next door to us, whom we see at the Supermarket and at the park. I’d like to spend some time with children in each category this morning – the child of scripture and the child who is our neighbour – and see what, working together, they might have to teach us about God, about creation, and about ourselves.

To begin with, what do we notice when keep our eye on the child who sits in Jesus’ arms in the Gospel of Mark? What do we know about her? Well, we know that her hair and eyes are brown and her skin is olive coloured – just like Jesus. We know that she is under twelve years old, both because in the Ancient Near East, twelve was the age at which one became an adult and because she is small enough to sit in Jesus’ lap. And we know that she is silent.

It is the silence which particularly captivates me, which gets the gears of my imagination turning. Jesus holds this unspeaking girl as he sits before his friends. And he tells them that she is possessed of deep wisdom and holiness. When you invite her in, you invite me. Matthew ups the ante still further – in his telling of this encounter, Jesus tells his disciples that they must become like this child if they are to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

I suppose the silence of this child catches my attention so much because I remember those times when I, too, was very young and very silent. Maybe I was shy, maybe I hadn’t developed the capacity to formulate my thoughts. (My inner monologue has changed very little since I was five or six. It is my ability to articulate it, to speak it out loud, which has developed.) Or, maybe, I simply didn’t feel the need to speak. The child has not yet developed that adult tendency to fill every quiet moment with sound. Stop talking and pay attention, the child says through her silence. You may be surprised by what you hear in this majestic and wondrous creation if you just listen.

And what about the children who are in our midst, today? The children who, in a few minutes, will join us at the Peace and for the remainder of our service? Some of them are silent. And some can scarcely contain their words and songs and ideas and their enthusiasm. What do you see when you keep your eye on them? I’d like to suggest three things, in particular, that our young neighbours have to teach those of us who are older. Just like the lesson offered by the silent child in Jesus’ arms, these three things are all about growth.

First, the child says that if you are going to grow, it is not only okay to make mistakes, it is necessary. Grown ups tend to want to do things at an elite level on our first try – we get frustrated when we take guitar or French lessons because we want to play Stairway to Heaven or discuss philosophy right after the first lesson. And when good progress turns out to mean playing a halting version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or laboriously asking how to get to the library, we get discouraged, we want to give up before we even start. By contrast, children get that you have to do things in a flawed way to learn, they actually find delight in the mistakes: it is wondrous to build the Lego tower as high as you can, to ride your bike in a way not intended by the manufacturer.

What might that have to teach us? What if we gave ourselves permission to say, “that was a really fascinating and good mistake”? As we design liturgy, as we craft outreach, as we devise education, as we visit sick friends, as we console a loved one in a time grief, what if we said, I am at peace with making mistakes, I am at peace with this being imperfect, I believe that God will find a way to work with and through my mistakes.

Second, the child says that, if you are going to grow, it is necessary to engage to play. We sure have internalised this message that church is terribly solemn business, that Jesus was this humourless guy, that God spends his days being angry about stuff. We ignore the fun elements in scripture. We tend to not even notice when Jesus cracks a joke or when he does something playful like teaching a lesson with a child sitting in his lap. And we ignore, as often, the fun elements in creation. (Thank goodness the blessing of the animals is coming up soon. Nothing reassures me that God has a sense of humour like a goldfish sitting beside a terrier in a pew.)

That is not to say that we should take our tradition frivolously– to the contrary, the child insists that play is terribly serious stuff. Play is where the real learning happens. I have watched a number of children during the great play that we call the Eucharist, and I have been in awe of the reverence with which he or she came forward for communion. Watch her as she extends her hands in this marvelously childish gesture to receive Jesus’ body and blood. What if we all brought that kind of wonder to the sacrament

Finally, the very young say that, if you are going to grow, you are also going to change. A while back a church survey revealed that, when most churched called a new pastor they were looking for two things: they wanted the pastor to grow the church. And they wanted the pastor to change nothing. The child knows that growth doesn’t work that way. It changes you to go to a new school. It changes you to be taller than you were a six months ago. It changes you to make new friends. Children understand that, while change is hard (sometimes right after a growth spurt you aren’t so sure where your legs are) it is also joyous and good.

Four lessons, all told, from the child, one from Mark and three from the children around us. Be silent and notice what you hear. Be willing to make mistakes and notice what you learn. Be willing to play and notice what you discover. Be willing to change and notice how you grow.

Here is the child in Jesus’ arms, here is the child who is our neighbour. They are not symbols: they are human beings. They are not “the future of the church”: they are the church right now. Sometimes children are our students, sometimes children are our teachers. Always they are our partners in this journey of faith. Keep your eye on the child.