Like most of you, I listen to National Public Radio. I really could not begin my day without it. There is something so familiar and reassuring in the voices of Carl Castle and Noah Adams. In the aftermath of September 11th, I haven’t listened to anything else on my radio but N. P. R. I know I can rely on it for the latest news and credible in-depth commentary. All I have to do is tune in. Yet, I must admit that I got annoyed last week with the constant interruptions of its Fall pledge campaign. It was never ending. “Enough already!” I was shouting back at the broadcasters, “For God’s sake, somebody match that pledge so we can hear some real news.” And then I felt a great sense of shame.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, St. James’s is in the throes of its fall pledge campaign. It occurred to me late last week as I was preparing to preach my stewardship sermon what a hypocrite I was. There I was preparing to pitch you on some of the very same reasons. I should have dialed up the switchboard at W.C.V.E. Ouch! I was taking for granted the fact that when I needed it, I expected it to be there, commercial free.
The duration of a church stewardship campaign can be an uneasy, unwelcome time. And for no good reason. You should not think of yourself as Jacob wrestling with God for your dollars. Jacob was wrestling with his fears, his demons; he had a sketchy past to deal with. When God sees that daybreak is near and that he has not been able to prevail in straight-forward wrestling, he strikes Jacob with a hip pointer. At the moment of deepest vulnerability for Jacob, God enters into the very depths of their struggle, a struggle which ultimately attests to God’s graciousness. God had it in his power to summarily smote Jacob, but chose instead to meet him at his own level. Jacob doesn’t become a victim of God; he won’t surrender until God gives him his blessing. Tithing may be your struggle with God, with the church. I don’t know. But I do know that God, in his relationship to you, whether the issue be tithing or anything else, never gives you more than you can take or takes more than you can give.
I don’t say this because as clergy, I know stewardship to be a divinely given program necessary for running a successful parish, but because it is what God calls each of us to do. I tithe as a parishioner and as a Christian who knows that my gift is an extension of all that I have been given. I will never stand before you and ask you to do something I would not do or ask you to give what you do not have. Many of you may just want to know the bare facts. What’s it going to take to make this place work? What kind of money do we need to raise to meet our 2002 budget? These are legitimate concerns, but they are only a small part of the picture. I want to address the intangibility of God in our lives and what that is worth, while conceding in advance that there is no price one can put on it.
At the risk of belaboring the September 11 attacks on our nation, I must share with you a few of my thoughts related to that incident. All across the nation, people gathered at their places of worship—their churches, their synagogues, and their mosques—to pray and grieve and receive solace. There was nowhere else to go. Late that morning the phones here at St. James’s were ringing off the hook with people wanting to know if we were going to hold a prayer service. Would our doors be open to receive the grieving? Of course they would be. Where else would we go? And that Friday, as our nation’s leaders gathered at the National Cathedral to mourn and memorialize the thousands lost, and to heal a beaten and bruised nation, we were here, our doors open wide to receive God’s brokenhearted. There was no place else to go. No one wanted to be alone. People were seeking out one another in solidarity and for protection to give expression to their feelings and to know how to feel. In this time of crisis, we were not meeting in movie theatres or malls. We were limping in here.
I have to ask, what is that worth to you? Last year at this time I was heading up the stewardship drive at my former parish. I asked a certain vestryman named David to give a short stewardship testimony during the announcements. He was a big deal on Wall Street so I knew he would have no qualms asking for money. St. Mary’s was always at the bottom of the pile when it came to receiving respectable pledges. Without fail, the nearby private school received any gravy being doled out. And from there it was alma maters, boarding schools and college endowments. I’ll never forget David’s words. He asked the congregation to ponder this question: If you were aboard a crashing airplane to whom would you pray? Would you scream out, “Save me Dear Harvard!” “Oh, please, U. VA. help me.” “Please Choate take care of my family in my absence.” In the same vein, the comedian Richard Pryor once responded when asked about his religious beliefs, “When you’re running down the street on fire, you don’t pray to the Bank of America.”
There it is folks in black and white. You have expectations that this church, your clergy, your Lord Jesus Christ, will be there for you in your time of crisis. I assure you, we will do all in our power to meet your needs and to help you. Can we not have the same expectation that you will support us in our efforts to love you? You are called to support God’s work within the church and to support God’s work within the community. Remember, talk is cheap. David’s words about prayers in crashing planes are truer now than ever; David worked on the 93rd floor of One World Trade Center, and several weeks ago, Andrew and I attended his memorial service in New York City. No one in his office escaped, save David’s longtime secretary who had taken a personal day.
As I alluded to earlier, our friend was bigger than life—a true Wall Street bull and then some, and his memorial service at St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue followed suit. More than 1200 people crowded into this fortress of Anglicanism. As sad as his service was, I felt blessed to have this sanctuary to retreat to. The final hymn was the Battle Hymn of the Republic. A mystical piece of music, that Battle Hymn. The slower it’s played, the weightier it becomes and the more cavernously it resounds within the listener. The organist took those eighth notes so slow they seemed like a dying heartbeat, and in between them God’s presence was palpable. He was in the stone walls of nave, in the people surrounding me. His presence was so profound that I could no longer hold back my tears. God was there; David was there; I was there. An Anglican snob might say I was experiencing the powerful affects of “good” liturgy. Or perhaps it was St. Thomas’ world famous boys choir. That was not it. Here we were, 1200 disparate people, representing all walks of life, on our knees praying to our common God. Who else, what else, can bring us to our knees in this way? What other situation within our culture brings people together in a way that both exposes and heals them?
One cannot buy what we do here; this church is unique; without us Christendom would be over. No one is doing what we do within our culture. Serving and loving others through Christ is our Gospel mandate. To assert this, and to make it exciting and inviting involves money. It involves a financial commitment from you, from me.