It was the kick-off Sunday for the annual stewardship campaign at a large evangelical church. Fifteen or twenty minutes into the preacher’s sermon, just as he was getting revved up, the preacher yelled to the congregation, “If this church is going to serve God, first it’s got to get down on its knees and crawl!” And the congregation yelled back “Make it crawl preacher, make it crawl!”
Feeling the positive energy flowing back to him, the preacher then yelled: “And once this church has learned to crawl, it’s got to get up on its feet and walk!” To which the congregation yelled back “Make it walk preacher, make it walk!”
Then the preacher yelled, “And once this church has learned to walk, it’s got to begin to learn to run!” The congregation, now feeling the movement of the Holy Spirit in the room, replied boisterously, “Make it run, preacher, make it run!”
Finally, the preacher hollered with inspired conviction, “And in order to run, this church has got to reach deep down into its pockets and give, give, give!” Upon which there was a pregnant pause before someone in the congregation yelled back, “Make it crawl preacher, make it crawl.”
Another time at another church, during a particularly long stewardship sermon, a frightened little girl leaned over to her father and asked, “Daddy, if we just give him all our money now, do you think he’ll let us go?” There is, indeed, a fine line between a stewardship sermon and a hostage situation.[i]
Why is that, do you think? Well, maybe it’s because of the Gospel passages the sages who created the Revised Common Lectionary always assign during stewardship season. This week, for instance, we have Lazarus and the Rich Man. This story includes the Gospels’ most extended portrait of hell, complete with tormenting flames and bottomless pits, and that hell is populated not by Hitler or the Unabomber, but rather by someone not a whole lot different from many of us: an affluent man with a comfortable lifestyle, who enjoys the finer things in life. His worst crime, it seems, is that he wears nice clothes.
And so, it becomes clear why we have a flight response during stewardship sermons. The focus during stewardship season—whether it’s the emphasis of the sermon or the strategic choice of Gospel text, or both—seems to be on guilt. The idea appears to be that making parishioners feel miserable enough about their material things and guilty enough about what they so far haven’t given to the church is the key to a successful Every Member Canvass.
But here’s the problem: Guilt doesn’t work, at least not in the long run. It doesn’t draw us closer to God. It doesn’t render us more generous. It doesn’t enliven and sustain the work of the church. You know this. Indeed, very many of you who weren’t born and raised in the Episcopal Church found your way here after leaving some prior church community that used guilt as a cudgel. Guilt does not give life. Guilt leaches life, until all joy is replaced by self-loathing. That’s the hellish torment. That’s the bottomless pit. And, in this priest’s humble opinion, as we seek to solicit our contributions for God’s joyous mission for the coming year at the Cathedral, such guilt has no place here.
How, then, do we apply the Gospel story of Lazarus and the Rich Man on this Stewardship Sunday? How might it inspire in us generous hearts instead of wracking us with guilt?
The key, I think, is in the recognition of the rich man’s error. There is no indication that he wished Lazarus ill. There is no inkling that he defrauded Lazarus, or fired Lazarus from a job while taking a huge bonus for himself, or even kicked Lazarus as he walked by. The affluent man in the parable actually could not have done any of these things, because, upon close reading, we sense that the rich man never saw Lazarus at all. That is his error. The rich man has goose stepped his way through life with blinders on, failing to see the evidence of grace and opportunities for goodness all around him. As he passed through his gate day after day, he never saw—really saw—Lazarus sitting there in hunger and pain. The rich man wasn’t evil, he just couldn’t see. Or, more accurately, he chose not to see.
Let me tell you a story. Last summer I led twenty-five Cathedral parishioners on a pilgrimage to Ireland. Halfway through our trip, we were supposed to take a small boat from the southeast Irish coast to Skellig Michael, a steep, rugged island that was home to ancient Irish monks and has recently been made famous by the new Star Wars movie, in which it appears. I’d wanted to visit Skellig Michael for years. I felt certain that, if I could just get there, I would encounter God.
Well, the morning in question the weather was bad and the sea was choppy. The boats couldn’t make the trip. Instead, as a consolation, we took a day-long bus ride around the Ring of Kerry. No one in our group other than my wife Jill knew that my disappointment was really fury. I stewed on the bus all day. Jill did her best, in her gracious way, to keep me from interacting with our fellow pilgrims, because she knew in my extreme irritation at the circumstances I might say or do something I’d regret. And so, I did not see the Ring of Kerry. In my blinding anger, I did not see the beauty of God’s creation or the wonder on the faces of my twenty-five friends as they did gaze out at God’s glorious landscape.
When we arrived back at our hotel in Killarney, Jill suggested that she and I go for a walk so I could cool down. We walked the path for almost a mile, and a cold spitting rain began to fall. “Just great,” I mumbled, as the rain boiled off my steaming ears.
The path ended at the ruins of fifteenth century Muckross Abbey, a creepy and death-haunted ruin that some say inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula.[ii] As we approached, Cathedral parishioner and pilgrim Kay Pieringer emerged from the abbey. “You have to see it!” Kay said, “In the cloister. It’s amazing.”
“One more ruin,” I thought, “Nothing to be all that excited about.” But as we walked through the abbey and into the cloister, I stopped short. There, growing up through the ruins—strong, proud, and emitting life—was an enormous yew tree, one of the largest yew trees, in turns out, in all of Ireland.
The yew tree has been regarded as holy since pre-Christian times. Ancient tales tell of druids’ staffs and wizards’ wands being made from yew wood. And for Christians, the yew is a symbol of resurrection because of the unique way its branches grow down into the ground to form new stems, which then grow up and around the original trunk, giving the tree renewed life. There are yew trees alive in England that were planted when the Normans invaded almost one thousand years ago.
I’ve never seen a tree more glorious. Growing up from the ruins of that dead place, it was as sublime an earthly manifestation of God as I’ve ever encountered. It was as impressive as Skellig Michael. It was holy. In an instant, my mood changed. My hellish anger melted. My eyes opened. There was a twinge of regret—not guilt, but regret—as I realized the glimpses of grace I’d likely missed all day, when I failed to see. And in that moment the chasm that throughout the day had prevented me from meeting God was bridged.
That is what stewardship is about. It’s not about imparting guilt, but about seeing and responding to grace. Eucharistic Prayer C asks God to “Open our eyes to see [God’s] hand at work in the world about us [and] make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in [God’s] name.”
That’s why we pledge our gifts to the Cathedral, because once our eyes are opened to glimpses of God’s grace, we also see where there are opportunities for us to be agents of God’s grace. We see where there are needs we can meet and where there is joy we can share. We see Lazarus sitting at the gate. And we know, once our eyes are opened, that we cannot pass blithely by. Our hearts are too grateful not to give.
On Wednesday of this past week, I filled out my pledge card for 2017. Again this coming year I will tithe, I will give back ten percent of my income to the instruments of the church. It was with eagerness and not hesitation, gratitude and not guilt, that I filled out that card. I pray you will do the same, as we catch glimpses of God’s grace this very day, all around us, and as we empower the grace-filled ministry of the Cathedral for another year.
[i] Both of these jokes come from the internet, where else?