Ingathering Sermon

Lay Observations on Stewardship at Trinity Episcopal Church
James Hoecker, Stewardship Chairman & Senior Warden
November 11, 2018

Once again, let me express my gratitude to Reverend Banse and you, the parishioners of Trinity Church, for the privilege of addressing both services today on behalf of the Vestry and your fellow parishioners. This is a moment of transition as well as tradition for this Church and for the world beyond. As Christians, as citizens, as flawed but striving human beings, we always need something to hang onto in times like these. It is a basic human desire, to want to feel safe, secure, and certain about what’s to come. We all invest in and cling to family, friends, and to the institutions and beliefs that help us make sense of an environment so often in a state of change, if not chaos.

For that reason, I want to share a somewhat personal perspective. Among other things, I practice law, most often working in the area of energy law and with companies and entrepreneurs that find energy re-sources, produce energy in all its forms, market it, and deliver it. But even I don’t stay awake nights dwelling on the infrastructure that enables me to drive to Upperville or Washington, lights my house, warms my granddaughter’s school. In other words, I assume that the material foundations upon which the economy or my life are built will always work reliably. As energy users, we all have a vague notion that there are pipes, wires, tanks, digital technologies out there somewhere doing important things and that there are machines that change the sun’s rays, the wind, and methane in the ground into energy to do work, to transport us, to light up the world. By its very nature, these infrastructures are seldom seen; they are under-appreciated perhaps, but they are the essential foundation of our modern standard of liv-ing. Physical infrastructure is a critical foundation; when it fails, the consequences can be dramatic. Yet, they are taken for granted, even though we’d prefer to take these systems on faith. But, on reflection we know they require strategic investment.

Thinking about stewardship this year has forced me confront the whole idea of infrastructure in a differ-ent way. There’s one kind of infrastructure the importance of which we all (even Congress) tend to understand, primarily because we use it most often and are willing to pay for because its benefits and the consequences of a failure to plan are so obvious. I’m referring to roads and bridges; that is, highways. Something biblical always comes to my mind in thinking about highways. I learned but have long since for-gotten many of the things I studied as an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college in northern Wisconsin (called Northland College). But I have never forgotten the school’s motto --“A Highway Shall Be There.” This is a scriptural reference that is redolent with the kind of things that fire the minds and fuel the ambitions of young people starting out in life. But, in addition to being apropos as an identifier for a school in the chilly far Northwoods, I realize now that there’s more to the motto than that. It comes from one of the prettiest passages in the book of Isaiah 35:6-8:

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,

and streams in the desert;

The burning sand shall become a pool,

and the thirsty ground springs of water;

The haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,

the grass shall become reeds and rushes;

A highway shall be there.

And it shall be called the Holy Way . . .

Isaiah 35:6-8

At the risk of revealing my amateur status as a Biblical scholar, I think that infrastructure, in the sense meant by Isaiah, is sustaining and transformative. It is a gift from God. “Life is made of highways built by human hands” – so begins our college song. In fact, highways are emblematic of the foundation upon which our lives rest. When you get on a highway, you have a direction. A highway implies a destination, even a destiny, without which we might be aimless and in the wilderness. You don’t get on one unless you’re going somewhere in particular. Similarly, this marvelous edifice in which we worship today is a highway; it is the very infrastructure of our lives as followers of Christ. Our families are also our high-ways; our professions, our jobs, and our friends are another highway, each with its direction and obstacles. Most important, our faith is a highway.

Trinity Church in Upperville Virginia, as an institution, is part of our shared sustaining infrastructure. It is that infrastructure that has a lot to do with who we are and what decisions we make. Like any infrastructure, it supports us; everything should rest on it. And we in turn must support it. Trinity provides us with direction and we should therefore be most happy when we are providing for and sustaining it. Trinity Church is taking us forward, to our destination – however differently God might define that destination for each of us or we might define it for ourselves and others. Individually and as a community of Christians, we are builders of these highways upon which we travel. As such, you and I are the stewards of God’s creation, as we move down life’s highways and give of ourselves to build families and communities – those human infrastructures that come from the physical, intellectual, and spiritual human energy we devote to living our lives.

Let me just say that stewardship is not an obligation or the price of admission or a sacrificial offering. A pledge to Trinity Church is nothing more and nothing less than a paving stone on the highway we must all travel. We’re all doing the best we can as we manage something that ultimately belongs to someone else, namely God; whether it is our assets, finances, or relationships, the natural environment, or our domes-tic lives and children, we are custodians. It’s important work. That is the stewardship we are called upon to provide. The reason I am up here this morning is simply to remind everyone that we are stewards of this Church, the outdoor chapel, its outreach to the community, the Christmas auction, our Rector and his legacy. We must even be stewards of the stable tour – remember, it was Mary and Joseph who took history’s most important stable tour.

In my letter to the parish last week, I explained the Church’s needs. For Trinity to conduct all its ministries and activities and continue as a vital part of the community, it requires a budget of over $1 million each year. Annual pledges cover slightly over 50% of that. I celebrate your generosity but it is not sufficient. Building highways is not easy. Highways are not without obstacles. Recognizing that, we have once again established an ambitious goal this year of just under $700,000. My letter to you may be just another one of those “highway signs” but I urge you to meditate on it. Hopefully it will provide direction about how to measure the value of Trinity Church in your life.

Last summer, we were visited by Ms. Julie Simonton, Director of Congregational Development and Stewardship at the Diocese in Richmond. I thought we were going to talk about how churches do fundraising and which strategies appeal best to various communities for support. What we ended up discussing was Why Trinity Church? What does it mean to us? Where is it going? Those existential questions are simply unavoidable and Julie was not about to let us chat just about money. Whether she knew it or not, she was helping us think about what direction to take on this particular highway.

At this time of mixed emotion, as we prepare to say farewell to Rob and Janie Banse – as members of this Church, but certainly not as faithful friends – it may be tempting to pull off to the side of the road and wait to see what happens, and maybe dis-invest in Trinity Church until the Lord calls you or the road ahead becomes clearer. Don’t yield to that temptation, I urge you. Trinity Church needs your stewardship today more than ever – your dollars, to be sure, but also your time, effort, creativity, and your prayers. Rob Banse has laid many a paving stone here at Trinity during his tenure. The highway that we built together with him has been inspiring and fulfilling. We must continue his good work.

In the next few weeks, you will hear more from Trinity about stewardship. We ask that you bring your 2018 pledge card to church with you on November 18, and that you place it worshipfully in the plate. Of course, you may pledge anytime, including today. In the final analysis, I am only asking that a pledge made is thereafter a pledge kept. Your Vestry thanks you for the opportunity that your annual pledge gives us to plan wisely for the coming year and to meet the challenges and uncertainties that 2019 will bring. Let us therefore go forth and forge new directions, build new roads and bridges, and illuminate the darkness.

Lord, we pray that you open our hearts to the spirit of giving. Help us to prayerfully work on the infrastructure of a life of good deeds for ourselves and for others on the road to our destination.

Surely, “a highway shall be there. And it shall be called the Holy Way.”