If you are visiting today, I apologize. You are visiting church during the season of stewardship and on a day where our Gospel reading, in particular, lends itself to encouraging a preacher to preach on giving. One of the visitors at the earlier service complained that every church he visits asks for money. I asked how often he visits churches and the timing, pointing out that many Episcopal churches actively engage in budget talks and support during the fall. That got an elbow from his wife. But I can assure you, I do try to work my way through the lectionary discerning which lesson we need to hear, as a parish, and preaching faithfully on it. Truthfully, I had one of those weeks where I wanted to shoe-horn in a good stewardship sermon at the beginning of the week. Vicki, and the rest of the stewardship committee, as you all know, have been working hard to make Adventers aware of the mission and needs of the parish, and to get all of us Adventers to support the burden of those needs, not just financial, but expertise and time as well. Any stewardship committee loves it when the preacher supports their work, so this was my first chance since the fall campaign began.
Like you, I have heard dozens of sermons that called us in the pews to be like the widow, to give faithfully, even if we don’t necessarily trust the leadership making the decisions. When I have preached on the passage, I have really worked hard to avoid the guilting and shaming that goes on in some sermons that points out the widow is far more faith than most of us. My study this week pointed out some great information. For example: did you know that Mark has not used the word devour since his discussions of the messianic temptations by Satan in the wilderness? Knowing Mark’s penchant for connecting words, for whom do you think Mark is alleging that the Scribes and other enemies of Jesus work? Or, how about this: this is only the second time in his Gospel account that Mark speaks of widows. Why is that? And what message does he wish to convey about them? Good tidbits of knowledge, no? Interesting questions to consider, are they not? But they really don’t speak to stewardship or to us.
But, a curious thing happened during my studies and prayers and conversations with Adventers during the week. I found myself in Hebrews preaching a stewardship sermon. Those familiar with the letter, and chapter 9 in particular, may find it a weird place to begin a stewardship sermon. In truth, I did, too. It makes me hope that it is of God and not Brian, even though I may be forcing a sermon on you about stewardship you may not need to hear.
The reason the letter to the Hebrews is a great place to talk about the realities of stewardship and budgeting and all those financial things about which we concern ourselves this season is the simple fact that the letter often speaks to the types and shadows and realities to which our work, our preaching and teaching, our witness, if you will, points. What do I mean by that?
About a decade ago, I had a young girl enter my office in Iowa and ask me where she needed to go to get her show. I’m certain my face looked much like yours does now. So I asked her what she was talking about. This girl, she was 16 I learned in the conversation, has decided she wanted her own show. Actually, she just wanted to be the subject of a show already on television. Those of us of a certain age remember a channel called MTV that played music videos, music videos like the one that was filmed at Advent this week. At some point, MTV gave up music for other programming, some of those programs being “reality” television. Everybody here has some familiarity with the genre of reality television. It is hard to believe it has been around as long as it has. From time to time I get articles now discussing the challenges that reality stars face as parents. Some former reality stars are discovering it to be a challenge to raise children without the kids finding out how mom or dad got their money or fifteen minutes of fame. Go figure. As hard as it was for us to grow up under our parents, remember it could be much worse. Most of us cannot watch our parents doing drunk on a Jersey boardwalk or engaging in sex acts with men or women who are not our other parent!
At the time, MTV had a show called 16 and Pregnant. I hear from the moans that you all know where this conversation went. You are right. The girl was unhappy with her life. I cannot remember all the details. She was having to do without things that she thought were important, and she was, like most teenagers are, chaffing at the rules her mother tried to enforce. She had decided that she wanted to get on MTV’s show. So, like any normal 16 year old girl who understands how the world works in all its intricacies, she had gotten pregnant and was trying to figure out how to get on the show. All her efforts to get on the show had failed, so she had come into my office to get me to help her. She had friends who had told her I was a pretty good guy, for a priest, so she had decided maybe I could help.
At the time, I confess I had never heard of the show. Back in those days, on-demand was not a thing, and I’m fairly certain it was not on Netflix or Hulu, if those were even around—we are talking the dark ages, after all! I had to find out when the show was on next and make sure I was home to watch it. I might have made it through one commercial break. I know I was furious at the producers and MTV after a few minutes. I am sure all the adults who decided to make money off these girls, and sometimes the fathers of their babies, felt they were not glorifying difficult situations. Those of us who have been around teenagers know better. In a culture that was glorifying, hear profiting, off reality stars, this was yet another way. In the months and years that followed, I was more aware of the stars of the program. From time to time I would see them on the cover of magazines in the check-out line at Walmart with difficult headlines. This girl saw the fame, the money, and the opportunity to get out of an, in her mind, oppressive home. She did not understand that the vast majority of those 16 and pregnant were NOT on the show, that babies came with dirty diapers and a lack of sleep, and that young single moms inherited a certain stigma in society, which made the raising of the baby that much more difficult. And if, by chance, the new moms really wanted to give their kids a better chance at life, they were ill-equipped to do that. Many never finish high school. Fewer finish college. And have I mentioned the stigma? The life presented on the “reality” show was anything but real life. 16 year old girls who were pregnant had less of a chance of getting on that show than high school athletes had making it to the NFL or NBA or Hollywood as stars, and that’s saying something.
What does that story have to do with the letter to the Hebrews and stewardship? As I shared last week in my sermon on Hebrews, the author discusses how the things and people who came before were types and shadows of the reality that is presented by and exhorted by Christ. Last week, I focused more on the four-letter word we call atonement and how Christ’s work related to, and, in fact, surpassed that of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. Let’s go back there again, but with a different focus. And if you were not here last week, don’t worry, I’ll catch you up.
The Day of Atonement was a huge day in the life of Israel. Let’s be honest, it was a huge day in the life of those in Israel who tried to be faithful to Yahweh. Like us today, there were varying levels of faithfulness to God. It was the day when they all were reminded that they had been forgiven their sins and that Yahweh was keeping the Covenant. If you think yourself a faithful servant of God, think of it as Christmas and Easter with a bit of New Year’s and All Saints’ tossed in together. Just to remind you how it worked: the faithful High Priest would discern his sins and make the appropriate sacrifices for those sins. Then the high Priest would make sacrifices for those sins that he could not remember or was unaware he had committed. The High Priest would then make sacrifices for the sins of the people and for the sins of which they were unaware. Then, the High Priest would take the blood of the sacrifice and enter the Holy of Holies, the off limit part of the Temple where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. When the priest parted the curtain and entered the Holy of Holies, there was an air of uncertainty in the crowds, and probably more than one clergy. If one entered the Holy of Holies unrighteous, God killed the trespasser. One could not enter the throne room of God in an unrighteous state. The priests wore bells and had a rope tied around them. So long as the bells were tinkling, the priest was alive and working—more significantly, God had accepted the sacrifice. Were the sacrifice not accepted by God, the rope would be used to pull the priest’s body out of the Holy of Holies. I see the squirming. Yes, God takes sin seriously. He takes it so seriously that He sent His Son to die for our sins—that was the only way you and I could ever hope to enter His eternal throne room!
Place yourself in the crowds. Imagine the air of angst, especially among the faithful. What if the priest was not faithful? What if he was a career clergy rather than true pastor? You and I, unfortunately, know clergy who seem more focused on the privileges of serving God than the responsibilities. The same was true back then. The possibility existed that God would not forgive their sins or, even worse, decide to withdraw His protection over the people. At various times in the history, much like you and me, the people of Israel wondered if God had forgotten His people and the promises He made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Think of their enslavement in Egypt, the Exile, or the droughts. It was a real worry. And once a year, they had an opportunity to see, literally to see, into the Holy of Holies and the Mercy Seat of God on the Ark of the Covenant! If God accepted the High Priest’s sacrifices, the curtain would be pulled back and the doors to the Temple flung open for just a few moments, reminding the people they were God’s people and He was their God!
Back to that expectant angst for a moment. Place yourself in the crowds. What would worry you? The sincerity of the High Priest? Certainly. His, for lack of a better word, liturgical training? What if he said the wrong prayer or sacrificed the wrong animal or the animal struggled at an inopportune time? How about your personal devotion? Would you have examined that? Have I made all my necessary sacrifices? Did God accept them? And what if the High Priest was killed? Some would not be surprised to find that the High Priest was judged unrighteous by God, but others would think they had a role in the death of that priest. I forgot I called Nancy the b-word 6 months ago. I forgot to give my tithe 4 months ago. There would be lots of self-blame, rightfully so, because at that time of the year everyone was supposed to be focused on those acts, those sins, which separated them from God.
Look at us, though. Do we have that same anxiety? Should we have any anxiety? The author of the letter to the Hebrews would say “of course, not!” Into what sanctuary did the High Priest enter? The copy of the one in heaven. Into what sanctuary did Christ enter? The real one, where He appears in the presence of God on our behalf! Assuming the High Priest stayed faithful and made the appropriate sacrifices, how often would he have to do that? Right, each and every year on the Day of Atonement. Jesus, by contrast, only had to do it once. Why? Because He was without sin. Because He was killed and sinless, His blood makes Him, and all those who claim Him as Lord, righteous in God’s eyes. He is the new Adam who trusted fully in the mercy and grace and power of God! You and I have sinned and will continue in the hours and days ahead. As such, our blood has no power to redeem ourselves or any others. But Christ’s blood? Ah, His blood sanctifies us and makes it possible for us to enter the eternal embrace of our Lord God!
In short, Christ perfected in His Passion and death that obedient faith to which all humanity is called. And better still, as the author notes, sin has been dealt with once and for all. Sitting here today, each of us has the freedom to accept or reject Christ’s offering on our behalf. Some will, in misguided efforts, place their faith in what we call works’ righteousness. Others, rejecters of the Gospel, will reject the offering. Our assent or rejection has an eternal consequence, as the author notes. When Christ finally returns, it will not be to deal with sin, as sin has already be dealt with completely. Instead, He will come to save those who eagerly wait for Him. The party, the Wedding Feast, will be on!
In part, what the author of the letter to the Hebrews is noting is that the cycle of sin and guilt or sin and shame has been finally broken. Part of the angst that surrounded the Day of Atonement for the faithful was the worry that they or someone else had not done what they were supposed to have done. As a nation, we Americans like to pretend that we are God’s favored nation. Israel had no such pretensions. They really were. But it was an uneasy relationship because they kept failing to live as God instructed them. And when God’s punishment of their sins happened, there was always worry that THIS was the last straw for Him, that He had finally given up on them just as they had given up on Him.
We share this attitude with our forebears of Israel. How many of you came to visit me during the sermons on Job to explain to me why your sin made you irredeemable? I have been here nearly four years now preaching God’s grace and love and still more than a few argued with me that their sins made them particularly unlovable in the eyes of God. Oh, Father, if you only knew. Oh, Father, your sermon sounds nice, but I know it’s not that easy. It’s not easy. Next time you think God forgiving you for your sin was easy, contemplate Jesus’ suffering for you in His passion, Crucifixion, and death! It was hard, hard work atoning for all our sins and for each of us! Just ask Him!
And, I share this now because many of us will experience it and it relates to the why of what we do. I do not care who you are, if you die a lingering death rather than a quick one, you will experience a Gethsemane moment. Every person whom I have had the privilege to sit with, pray with, cry with, laugh with, as they died faced that moment whether they wondered about the truth of the Gospel, and its simplicity. I have buried saints who I know, absolutely know, I will be lucky to be close enough to the throne to see the backs of their heads, who struggled with their faith at the end. It’s why Last Rites are so powerful. It’s why pastoral visits at the time of death are so meaningful and a privilege. We get to remind people of His promise! We get to remind them of the certainty they had in life!
Because He completed the work He was sent to do, because He was obedient even unto undeserved death, that cycle of “did I do enough” and shame and guilt has been broken. Is blood offered on that altar when we gather to give thanks to God week in and week out, or service in and service out? No! We make an offering of what? Thanksgiving and praise! All we can offer Him for this redeemed relationship is thanksgiving and praise. We cannot offer God anything else, and He does not ask for anything else. All that was required to restore us to Him was completed by Jesus!
It is with that understanding that you and I come to that altar every time we gather, or it is with that understanding you and I should come to that altar. It is that understanding which informs all our sacraments and rites in the church. There is no shame in God’s love for us; there is no guilt in His redemption of us. All the shame of our secret sins and all the guilts of our sins, both individually and collectively, were buried in that Tomb with Christ’s broken Body! And were that the end of the story, we would be right to be miserable; we would be right to worry; we would be right to feel shame and guilt. But that we might know, absolutely know, that we are forgiven by His work, God raised Jesus from the dead—breaking that cycle of sin and shame and atonement once and for all!
How does this relate to stewardship? A few minutes ago, I reminded each of us that everything that goes on here should point to that love and mercy and grace of God. That is the reality we are called to proclaim, in both word and deed, in those wildernesses where we live and work and play. All that goes on here, as far as I and the Vestry and the bishop have any say, prepares us to be heralds of the reality that God’s grace and God’s love are freely offered. We have only to grasp what He offers. But that reality is so counter-cultural to the world’s teaching. That voice that convinces Adventers that their sins were too bad or too shameful to be forgiven is not God’s voice. That voice that convinces a young 16 year old girl that the only way she can realize her dreams is to pimp herself out to producers or that she can know love is to have a baby is not God’s voice. The voice that convinces us that members of the other political party are enemies, sub-human, or whatever other descriptor we might like to use, is not God’s voice. That voice that says the evils of the world are too big, too strong and that we are too weak, too feeble, and too stupid to do anything about them is not God’s. And we need to be reminded of THAT reality so that we are more effective heralds in the world around us. That’s why we do what we do! And that’s why stewardship is important.
Over the last couple years, I have had this conversation with some of you in softer words. Those of you who have come into my office to complain that paying to mow the acreage or salaries or upkeep of the facilities is not sexy can speak to your fellow Adventers about those conversations. All of it is important. If the buildings are crumbling or the heat or air does not work as needed, who comes? Right now, this sanctuary space provides a place for Armenians, Southeast Asians, and missionaries to worship. It provides a place for women to find support and healing in a 12-step group, a program that was developed by Episcopalian in New York. It allows fiddlers and banjo players to share their love of what they call music with one another, and, because they play here, me to make a bad musical joke! It allows amateur geologists to show others “what they’ve found” and to marvel at God’s creation. It has provided a space for Adventers to study God’s word and to wrestle with what God has to say on any number of subjects. It has allowed various fellowship groups to meet and explore common interests, some religious and others maybe less so. It has allowed us to invite others in, our neighbors, to share in fellowship and good food and god drinks and even hikes. It has allowed us to care for those less fortunate than ourselves in His name! It may not seem sexy, by the world’s standards, but it is important to God and should be important to us.
The same is true of salaries. I serve in and you attend a denominational expression that values educated clergy. We duke it out with the Lutherans to have the best educated, best trained clergy, or so we claim. There’s a value to that expertise and ability attached—there’s certainly a cost to that training. Usually the minimum value is set by a diocese, but other parishes influence it, too. You may think Tina’s salary unsexy, but how much communication and coordination would be lost were she not here? What value do we place on that work? You may think Waldemar’s salary unsexy, but how much joy do we derive from worship sans music? If we were transported in time and space by liturgy without music, more of us would be at 8am service!
All of this is to say that everything we do around here, whether worship or committee work or hospitality or private rite or whatever, should be done for the purpose of proclaiming the reality that God loves us, that God has redeemed us, and that God has called us to be His heralds, His ambassadors, of that great news, that Gospel news, in this world. That is the reality He has given us to proclaim; that is the reality that He has promised; and that is the reality He has made possible in the obedient work of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord! It is that reality to which the author of Hebrews points us today. That is the reality He has opened to us; that is the reality for which He makes intercessions on our behalf; and that is the reality which we will all one day experience, when He returns to call those eagerly waiting for Him home!
In Christ’s Peace,