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.”


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.