My sermon today is based on Luke 17:5-10:
* * *
Giving is living
As many of you know, I used to be a newspaper reporter. I spent nearly a quarter-century with pen and notebook in hand, pounding out newspaper stories on daily deadline.
The first newspaper I worked for was in a tough working-class town east of Los Angeles. The paper, the Riverside Press-Enterprise, was the boot camp of newspapers – no nonsense, demanding, get-it-done, do-it-now, and perfect accuracy expected in every story. No excuses.
I bring this up because this gospel story today reminds me of my first managing editor, a drill-sergeant-of-a-guy.
“Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?”
And the correct response? “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”
Whew, what to do with that?
To compound my joy with the assigned readings, today is supposed to be the annual stewardship sermon.
This lesson comes off as “give us your money but don’t expect to be thanked.”
That might be how to run a newspaper but it doesn’t work well in the church. So I want to begin by thanking each of you for your generosity. I want to thank you for your faithfulness in your home, in the classroom, at work and all the places you go beyond these walls, and especially for your generosity with St. Paul’s.
Here at St. Paul’s, we cannot do anything without you. We exist because you give. A thousand thanks to each and every one of you today.
This morning I want to have a little straight talk about our ministry and mission that we share together, and let’s see if these lessons can lead us somewhere.
In the time that I have been here, we’ve talked a great deal about our role with the University of Virginia, creating a place of encouragement for students, faculty and staff.
We’ve talked about being a beacon of hope in the community through IMPACT, PACEM, Habitat for Humanity and other projects that assist the poorest among us.
We’ve talked about being a spiritual home for families and children, where people of all ages can grow in faith and make connections with each other.
We’ve talked about being a place for healing, where people can bind their wounds and find comfort and solace in their grief or hurt.
We’ve talked about a filling our church with prayers that honor and uphold our Christian and Episcopalian traditions, and we hold worship services not only on Sundays but also on weekdays.
All of this describes how and what we do. They are the means; they are our tools of ministry.
But the tools are not the mission.
Our mission, I believe, is to be partners with God in bringing alive God’s dream of healing and wholeness among us, and in the world around us.
Our mission is to be partners with God in bringing alive God’s abundant grace-filled kingdom, God’s peace, God’s shalom.
The mission never changes even if the tools change from time to time.
Our mission requires that we see ourselves not as consumers of religion, but as partners – true participants – in our faith.
Participation, I believe, means reaching deep inside ourselves for the “better angels of our being.”
We can do that by our giving of our time, our talent, and yes, our money, as each of us has portions of each to give.
St. Paul’s is a wonderfully vibrant parish precisely because so many of you give so very much of yourselves, and in so many ways.
Our giving enables us to welcome everyone who walks in our door so that we can share God’s healing grace with them. Others before us lovingly passed this church onto us. Now it’s our turn to give this church to others through our own giving.
As the late- Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once said, the Church is the only institution in the world that exists for people who are not its members.
Yet this giving business is deeper than an institution, as important as that is. We are called to live a life of giving so that others may live fully, and with them, that we may live more fully as human beings.
That’s why we give.
If you are a parent, you already give abundantly to your children; they are transformed by your giving, and so are you. Or maybe you share in the community, or in the workplace or in the classroom. All that giving builds up.
I am continually inspired by how many of you go the extra mile in your giving, not because you have to, but because something deep inside compels you.
Recently I’ve been awestruck by stories I’ve heard from some of you who work at the Haven, the new day shelter for homeless people in downtown Charlottesville.
I’ve heard stories about homeless people who seemingly have nothing at all, and how they give things to each other. If someone needs a sandwich, another gives half of theirs. If someone needs a pair of socks, another gives an extra pair.
Do you want to know where God’s grace – God’s shalom – shines into the open for all of us to see? It is in the giving by people with so little to give.
How much more of God’s grace could shine into the world through the giving of those of us who have so much more to give?
But what to make of these lessons today? Where is the grace? Is there a connection with our giving?
After scratching my head this week, I went to the biblical commentaries, and it was noted that this gospel lesson today ties back to the harsh sounding parable last week of the rich man punished in Hades while Lazarus, the poor man with sores, goes to heaven.
The parable is an allegory about Jesus – Jesus is the poor man with sores – and the rich man hadn’t noticed him while he lived.
The rich man’s stinginess got in his way – his selfishness blocked him from seeing who was living on his doorstep.
The lessons tie together because they are invitations from Jesus to look, to see God’s shalom all around us. He’s telling us we can expect to see it but we have to look.
But to see God’s shalom, we need to see not from the selfish vantage point of the stingy man who expect thanks, but from the vantage point of a giving servant who expects no thanks.
And Jesus beckons us to take what we see and step out in faith, to become partners with him in transforming the world: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
That partnership is the meaning of discipleship.
Yet those first disciples ask a question: How much faith do we need to be disciples? Does it take a lot? Because, really, we don’t have much.
Jesus replies, you don’t need much:
“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
Then he turns the tables by saying, in effect, there’s a better question you haven’t asked: In whom do you have faith?
Faith in the One who finds the lost sheep; the One who invites everyone to the dinner banquet. Faith in the One who will walk with you no matter what happens to you, and goes with you no matter where.
Faith in the One who comes to us as a lowly servant born in a stable, and is sitting on our doorstep even when we don’t notice.
He is the One who expects not even thanks. He is the prince of peace, Christ Jesus, who gives everything to us still. AMEN.