Whose Money is It Anyway? An Appeal to Stewardship

The following is a transcript of the homily that was given by Jim Hoecker during the 8:00am and 10:30am services on Sunday, October 22, 2017: 

It is a privilege to give the lay sermon today on behalf of the Vestry and your fellow parishioners. My mother, who would have preferred I join the ministry instead of studying the law, is probably looking down with skepticism as I attempt to achieve some measure of redemption. 

After reviewing my paean to Christian charity this morning , my lovely wife Becky told me that if she were suddenly taken critically ill and had but one hour left in this world, she would want to spend those last precious moments listening to me talk about stewardship. That’s because “it would seem like an eternity.” 

In the end, eternity is our business here at Trinity but I speak to you today with the utmost humility about something closer to home. As I prepared this week, I was haunted by a challenging question: What do we owe God? Whose money is it anyway? 

What is Stewardship all about? Is it merely an obligation? Paying a debt? Is it a sacrificial offering, the more it hurts the better? Or is it just being an example for others? I doubt there’s a single pat answer to those questions but I’m certainly not the first to ask them. 

The best definition of stewardship I have found says that a steward is a manager who administers that which belongs to someone else. A steward has a duty to oversee the assets, finances, relationships that rightly belong to another. In that sense, it is not an overstatement to say we are stewards of the lives we are given, stewards of this church, the outdoor chapel, stewards of the environment, and stewards of our worldly possessions back home. They all belong to God and they’re on loan to us. 

How do we repay that loan? Perhaps by growing in our spiritual lives, which means growing in our lives as stewards of Trinity Church, which is one of God’s many gifts. 

In my letter to the parish last week, I explained the Church’s needs in pretty frank terms. To con-duct all its ministries and activities and continue as a vital part of the community, Trinity’s budget is over $1 million annually. However, in 2017, pledges covered slightly over 50% of that. In fact, we fell well short of some basic operating expenses. But, I hasten to add that we should celebrate that gen-erosity and commitment, because with a little sweat and ingenuity from you and scores of your fel-low Episcopalians as well as some special gifts, we closed the gap. We began work on our organ, un-covered and began addressing some challenging plumbing and electrical problems, and responded in real time to the disastrous hurricanes that hit the country. 

Nevertheless, pledging remains central to our fiscal well-being. Our pledge goal this year is a modest one in light of our total needs -- $675,000. That’s a good deal more (about $100,000) than we col-lected last year. I urge you to meditate positively on those numbers but also to remember that even if Trinity’s budget were fully funded through some miraculous intervention, you would each still be called upon to pledge and to participate fully as a steward of Trinity Church. 

Now I admit, the value I may assign to Trinity Church in Upperville Virginia, financially and otherwise, may be different than how other parishioners see it. We are each finding redemption and purpose here in various ways. For me, one of the bright spots of serving on your Vestry the past year has been our efforts to ask very basic questions about Trinity: what is the purpose of this institution and what are all the things that it does, and should do, for us and the community? We drew on a book called The Purpose-Driven Church, which among other things explains that any single church can play a variety of roles in the lives of its congregation. The Vestry has been considering what this means for our future work to sustain and improve Trinity. Let me explain these different perceptions of the Church’s meaning for its congregants, as the author sees them -- 

1. A church can be primarily about winning souls. In a “Soul-winning church,” words like witnessing, evangelical, or salvation are most important themes. 

2. If the Church is about “Experiencing God,” words like praise, prayer, spirit, worship come to mind. 

3. A Church can be seen as a “Family reunion” with a focus on fellowship. Words like belonging, caring, and relationships are most meaningful – not to mention potluck. 

4. Churches can be “Classrooms” where preaching, Bible study, doctrine, and childrens’ education are the currency of conversation and work. 

5. Finally, Church can be the outward manifestation of “social conscience”. Sharing, service, out-reach, taking a stand – all those are important missions within that view of its value. 

It seems to me that Trinity is (and needs to be) all those things, even if one or two characteristics are especially meaningful for your relationship to Trinity. No matter how you might see this building, this service, or Trinity’s mission, I hope it is speaking to you. I hope you understand how important you are to it and that you are its principal hope and sustaining foundation. 

There is a story about the Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin, Jonathan Swift, the Eighteenth Century di-vine known for his sharp tongue. He was once reprimanded for an exhaustingly long sermon on chari-ty. Determined to make the next one terse, he quoted Proverbs 19: “’He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord, and that which he hath given will he pay him again.’ (The modern transla-tion is “Whomever is kind to the poor, lends to the Lord and will be repaid in full.”) You have heard the terms of the loan,” Swift continued, “and if you like the security, put down your money.” His parishioners responded to “repayment in full” as you might expect. 

Likewise, Jesus promises to repay us yet again – in ways that surpass all other gifts and perhaps all un-derstanding. That is his eternal promise – long sermon or short , good homily or bad. He offers security for the loan he provides – the loan of life, of nature, of our society, our children, our posses-sions, our sustenance and wealth (no matter how meager), even our planet. In other words, he owns all of these things already and we are therefore His stewards here on earth. 

Again, how do we repay that loan? I hope that one important part of that repayment involves your strong support for Trinity. It is an integral part of your Christian life. It is not dues to cover the price of admission. It is not a burden to be endured. And, in truth, the amount of that repayment is not as important as the gift’s relationship to the giver’s heart and his or her desire and ability to give. 

In the next two weeks, you will hear more from Trinity and Father Banse about stewardship. We ask that you bring your 2018 pledge card to church with you on November 5, and that you place it wor-shipfully in the plate. It will make you feel good. After all, even the money you give joyfully to Trinity is something God has entrusted to your care for the purpose of your wise investment. You may, of course, pledge anytime, including today. I am simply saying that a pledge made now and a pledge thereafter kept will also give your Vestry the opportunity to plan wisely for next year and the chal-lenges and uncertainties it will bring. 

After his father died, Joe Scarborough (former Congressman and TV host) turned to his friend Zbig-niew Brzezinski for guidance and support. Brzezinski was a much older man and also a former pub-lic official. “I explained to him,” said Scarborough, “that I was overwhelmed – I had become the parent to 4 children and seemingly a parent to everyone else around me, including my elderly mother. At home and at work, it felt like the burden of everyone else’s well-being was being placed squarely on my shoulders.” In sympathetic response to Scarborough’s plight, Brezinski responded cheerfully, with a twinkle in his eye— “I know. Isn’t it great to be trusted by God with such tremendous respon-sibility?” 

That, my friends, is the real spirit of stewardship. Lord, open our hearts to the spirit of giving and to accepting tremendous responsibility.