A stewardship sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on October 17, 2010
Sermon for Pentecost 21 (Proper 24 Year C)
Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
This past Tuesday morning at our staff meeting, we read today’s Gospel, as we always do, and in the discussion that followed, we focused our attention on the persistence of the widow in her appeal to the unjust judge in the story you’ve just heard. Adam was just back from hard duty last weekend in Key West (!) – officiating at the wedding of a friend – and he mentioned that a priest there told him that above the entrance to their diocesan offices is a motto – “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Seemed like an aphorism straight out of Garrison Keillor and Lake Wobegon that someone in Florida must have really liked and thought worthy of the entrance to the church offices. Then Catherine Rosen told us that this motto actually came from a British campaign at the beginning of WWII. It was put up on posters everywhere to raise the morale of the British public in the event that they were invaded by Germany. “Keep Calm and Carry On.” This cast a very different light on what seemed otherwise to be just a pithy little saying. But knowing that it was spoken in a time of national crisis and hardship, when people were fearful and uncertain of their future, it all of a sudden carried more weight. Keep Calm and Carry On, indeed.
I’m not sure the widow in our parable today is keeping very calm, but she certainly is carrying on! She just refuses to let this judge ignore her. She wants justice! She is not a happy camper, and she is determined to wear this guy down. The judge, who we’re told doesn’t care a thing about God and has absolutely no respect for people either, finally gets tired of it and changes his mind. He doesn’t have to, but he does. He figures this woman is not going to leave him alone, so out of self-interest if nothing else, he grants her wish.
Jesus had introduced this parable while teaching his disciples “about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. “ Our need (and theirs) to pray always and not to lose heart.
Losing heart. It’s a curious expression. “We lose heart,” one writer notes, “when we believe that no one cares for us, that no one is on our side taking our needs to heart or loving us for who we are and what we have experienced.” One dictionary says that to lose heart means “to stop believing that you can succeed.”
Wow. That’s really sad, isn’t it?
Some are undoubtedly losing heart in these difficult times in which we are living. Unemployment is high. Prospects for a quick recovery in the economy are dim. Home foreclosures are up. There’s a growing sense that life is going to be more difficult now for the foreseeable future. And if you’re not losing heart yourself, you just might know someone who is.
The Book of Genesis tells us another story of someone who refuses to give up. Jacob, traveling with his family, crossed the ford of the Jabok, and was left alone. From what follows, that seems like an aloneness that was not only about the presence or absence of other people, but about a deep sense of emptiness. There he wrestles all night with an unnamed man until daybreak. After a long struggle, and seeing that Jacob was persistent and would not let him go, this mysterious person hit Jacob on the hip socket and he threw out his hip as they wrestled. But Jacob still would not give up. The man begged Jacob to let go, but Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And finally the man said to him, “Jacob, you shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” When Jacob asked his name, he would not answer, and Jacob knew it was the Lord. He called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
Jacob did not give up. He didn’t come through this ordeal without any wounds, however. He had a limp for the rest of his life. But he received the blessing he sought and for which he fought.
Nikos Kazantzakis, the famous Greek writer, tells a story of an elderly monk he once met on Mount Athos. Kazantzakis was questioning this monk and asked him: “Do you still wrestle with the devil?”
“No,” the old monk said, “I used to, when I was younger, but now I've grown old and tired and the devil has grown old and tired with me.”
“So,” Kazantzakis said, “your life is easy then? No more big struggles.” “Oh, no!” replied the old man, “now it's worse. Now I wrestle with God!”
“You wrestle with God,” replied Kazantzakis, rather surprised, “and you hope to win?” “No,” said the old monk, “I wrestle with God and I hope to lose!”
The wise monk knew that the struggle is often one within ourselves, and when God wins, we’re a whole lot better off, even when we have wounds to show for it.
Yes, there is a real struggle going on for many of us that manifests itself in some very concrete and challenging ways. And when you don’t know where your next paycheck is coming from, the struggle is mighty and the pain is very real. It can be hard to “keep calm and carry on.” Hard not to lose heart. But whether we’ve been personally affected by the difficult economy or not (and it’s hard not to be affected in one way or another), there’s always an internal struggle going on for each and every one of us. And that is the struggle for our desires and our expectations. Is what we’re looking for something of real and lasting value, or is it something elusive and ephemeral? Is it just more of what we have now, or is it something different?
Churches, of course, are not exempt from the difficulty and the pain of these times, or the struggle, both internal and external, that I’m talking about. We wrestle with God, and we sometimes take our lumps. And we always have to be engaging that internal struggle, too, asking ourselves what is really important, and why, and is bigger always better. We have to discern God’s will for our life together and plan how we will bring it to pass.
The struggle for the church tracks pretty closely to the one going on in our homes collectively. If it feels tight at home, you can be pretty sure it does for the church, too.
This time every year we have a group of people who begin the process of setting next year’s budget for the parish. We plan our annual fall stewardship campaign, and someone always comes up with the suggestion that the rector preach a stewardship sermon – a sermon that’s going to say all the right things! All the beautiful words will flow from his lips, and people will suddenly catch a vision, have a conversion experience, and be inspired to open their hearts and then, of course, their checkbooks!
But, I have to say, folks, that asking for money is the last thing I want to do today, partly because of the difficult times we’re in. I know that will come as a surprise to some of you, and a disappointment to those who have to pay the bills around here.
But it’s not just the economy – it’s something else, too. And that is that what we need most is not money. What we really need is for every one of us to care as much about God in our lives as we do about absolutely everything else – our homes, our cars, our vacations, our status in the community. We need for all of us to be… (dare I say it?) passionate about the transforming love of Christ, and convinced that there is nothing else as important in our world or in our individual lives. And then we need to commit ourselves to forming and being part of a community that lives out that way of love in our relationships with one another, and then together to share it with the world around us.
That is the deepest struggle within us all. Do we really love the Lord our God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength? When we do, we don’t need to talk about money, because there will always be enough, no matter how much or how little that is.
Yes, there’s plenty of dire news all around us – including from churches. Some are cutting budgets, laying off staff, slashing programs. Some have resigned themselves to the fact that churches will have to wait “until everything gets back to normal…” and people can once again increase their pledges year by year to meet our ever-increasing budgets.
But rather than hoping that things will “get back to normal” what if in our wrestling with God we, like Jacob, wanted a blessing, or like that angry widow, we wanted justice – which is to “set things right!”
Perhaps when the dust settles, we would find ourselves smaller, leaner, living with more modest expectations about how we run things around here. That’s certainly one possibility. Maybe it would inspire more active lay ministry, too. And if all this meant that people were also choosing to live in smaller homes, taking fewer expensive vacations, going into less debt, living a more sustainable way of life, caring as much for the environment as they do for their personal convenience, then that just might be a really good thing.
But that blessing we seek could also mean that we reorient our priorities, and that we pay more attention than we now do to how we have been blessed, and determine to give back to God in proportion to how we have been blessed. And if we all did that – pick a percentage – 1% or 10% or 50% of your income (how grateful are you?) – we would never have to ask for money around here.
What people give when they are passionate about God’s work will always be enough. We’ll never even have to ask.
Yes, we need money to pay the bills here at Christ Church. But we need something else even more. We need to be a people who reflect the image of God, and that image is one who offers himself for our sakes. That ultimately is the wound we bear – the wounds of Christ, offering himself for the world.
“Walk in love as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.” These are familiar words that we often say at the offertory. That’s not just to get people to dig deeper – that’s what we do at this altar. We’re offering “ourselves, our souls and bodies” as the Eucharistic prayer says, and our money is simply a symbol of that offering.
So today, let’s pray for a blessing, without presuming what that blessing will be. Yes, that our needs will be supplied. But also that we experience the transforming love of Christ to remake and reshape our lives in accordance with God’s purposes. And whatever happens then, we’re going to be just fine.
So then, keep calm and carry on! Or as Jesus told his disciples -- to pray always and not to lose heart.
 Mark Harris, “Do Not Lose Heart,” in The Christian Century, September 26-October 3, 2001, p. 17.
 Fr. Ron Rolheiser, Western Catholic Reporter, Week of September 30, 2002.