Homily for Sunday, October 21, 2018
Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
Of course they did! Of course the disciples in the Mark’s Gospel would ask Jesus to do for them whatever they asked of him! Even after ten chapters, the disciples in Mark still don’t get it. I love that Mark includes this honest, unflattering story about two of Jesus’ ostensibly “best” disciples. Matthew likewise includes this story, but he cleans it up; in Matthew, James’ and John’s mother ask Jesus the favor (thus not besmirching the future saints’ reputations). Image-conscious Luke—ever the one to tidy up and make things look “nice” (the White House press secretary of the New Testament)—does away with the story altogether. But Mark—blunt, honest Mark—includes it: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
One of the reasons I love that Mark includes this unflattering story is because this story is about stewardship: or, rather, the opposite of stewardship. Next Sunday is Consecration Sunday, the day on which we are invited to make a pledge of financial support to Trinity Parish for the coming year, and today I am going to speak about stewardship.
We might think that the opposite of stewardship is indifference, or perhaps ignorance, or failing to see how we are all connected and in this together; or we might think that the opposite of stewardship is selfishness or greed or fear or an attitude of scarcity, or a lack of imagination. And the opposite of stewardship is all those things, but… the exact opposite of stewardship is a lack of freedom. To be a steward is to have, in the innermost depths of our heart, freedom.
Notice how “unfree” James and John are in this morning’s gospel. Not content to be Jesus’ closest friends and in his presence 24/7, not content to witness his ministry and hear his teaching first-hand, they want more. Not content to be two of the three disciples in Jesus’ inner circle, they want to be raised up above their fellows. Not content with all that Jesus has already done for them, they ask Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And notice how unfree the other ten disciples are, too: rather than letting James and John be James and John, and rather than letting Jesus handle the matter himself, the disciples “take the hook,” and become angry, so much so that Jesus confronts them: Look, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” The disciples in today’s gospel are unfree. They are stuck in their concerns about status; they are stuck because they fail to see how much Jesus has already done; they are stuck because they cannot see that Jesus and the kingdom—the very things their hearts desire, whether they know it or not—are right in front of their noses.
Stewardship is at heart a matter of freedom, a freedom that allows ourselves to be ourselves, that allows Jesus to be Jesus, and that allows us to respond to Jesus’ invitation in the way that we, in our heart of hearts, want to respond, which is wholeheartedly and without reservation.
We express stewardship in multiple forms, and we’ve likely heard the jingle of “time, talent and treasure.” Of these, I suspect that treasure is where most of us experience the most unfreedom. Money, like the ring in the nose of the bull, so often leads us around wherever it wants us to go.
I used to worry about not having enough money, and it is Ashley who helped me to greater freedom. She did it by encouraging us to give money away. “Give it away?” I said. “But then we’ll have even less of it and I’ll worry even more!” It made no sense to me, that giving more would somehow free me more, but Ashley prevailed. One Lent Ashley suggested that we give away half of whatever came into our house: money, food, clothing—anything that came into the house. (I must really love her, because I agreed to this…) And, in a way that I can only attribute to grace, by the end of those 40 days I was no longer worried about money. After 40 days it became a joy to give; it became a joy to go without, knowing that by giving up a little we were giving others a lot.
Further—Ashley just told this story at a recent vestry meeting—while in seminary and flat broke and not knowing how to pay the rent or for car repairs, a parishioner in my sponsoring parish, upon hearing our need, sent us a check for $10,000. I’m not sure which was more humbling, to receive such a generous gift, or to hear from Dave and Peg that, if we needed more, to “Just ask.” We were so humbled that we decided, right then and there, to give away 10% of our income to God and God’s work for the rest of our lives, hopefully starting at no less than $10,000 per year. And if we can’t give away 10%, we said, then our standard of living is too high and we needed to make some changes.
We’ve been giving 10% to God and God’s work for years now, and I almost never worry about money. It makes no sense, I know, that in giving money away we actually feel as though we have more of it, but it’s true. Maybe giving money away enables me to be free from it. Or maybe giving exercises a “generosity” muscle that feels good to have strong. Or maybe giving helps me to feel that I am making the world a better place or am part of a bigger whole. But whatever the reason, giving 10% of our income to God and God’s work has freed me from worry about money. We plan, we discuss, we cut down and do with less, and we sometimes argue, but we almost never worry about money. Through generous giving God has given me the grace of freedom in regards to money, and by extension freedom in my life.
Several things we’ve discovered: 1) Giving to God and God’s work is different from giving to other non-profits. As worthy as other non-profits are—and we do give to some non-profits—giving to God and God’s work is different. The bulk of our giving goes to God and God’s work. 2) For us, to think that because we give generously of our time and talent means that we can give less treasure would not feel free. Sure, when we were students and had no income, giving time instead of treasure felt appropriate. But for us to give time and thereby think we can give less treasure… I know that I would still be a “grudging giver,” and I would still worry about money. 3) “Is that 10% before or after taxes?” While commendable to give 10% after taxes, we began to experience abundant freedom when we began to give 10% before taxes. 4) “Do you sometimes regret giving 10%?” Occasionally I might get wistful of the trips to Europe and the great vacations we could take if we didn’t give generously—or, by this point 13 or 14 years in, the house that would be nearly half payed for—but, no, the freedom we experience, I can’t put a price on that. (And sometimes we still get to go to Europe!) 5) The Episcopal Church’s standard for giving is 10% of our income. If you have no income—say, if you’re a student—you need not give of your treasure, and I encourage you yet find ways to give of your time and talent.
This coming week in advance of Consecration Sunday, I invite you to talk to God about what you might give to God and God’s work at Trinity Parish for 2019. I invite you to talk to God about giving 10% of your income, and imagine what it might be like to do so, what it would feel like. (I have never met a 10% giver who did not have joy!) If in your prayer you and God discern that 10% is too big a leap to make this year, I invite you to consider giving 1 or maybe 2% more of your income than you did last year, and—again—imagine how that might feel. And if you are wanting to give more than 10%, I urge you to pray about that, too, as I would want to be sure that all your responsibilities are attended to before you decide to give more. My sense is that 10% of our income—the Episcopal Church’s standard for giving—is all the church can rightly ask. But if you can give more than 10%, I bet there is even more joy to be had.
I want to leave us with a story about freedom, which is at the heart of being a steward. The Rev. Skip Windsor, who will be our guest preacher next week, and I were chatting about our connections to Newton Country Day School of the Sacred Heart; Skip’s daughter attended there, and my daughter attends there now. Skip told me a story that Sister Rogers—the beloved and indomitable(!) sister who is the headmistress—told about the Sacred Heart superiors from all over the world gathering for retreat. The Sister Superior General asked her sisters to go and pray about “What is deepest in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.” When they came back together, the sisters said things like: “Love,” “Hope,” “Faith,” “Joy,” “Compassion,” and so forth are deepest in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Sister Superior General said, “Yes! All those other things are in the Sacred Heart of Jesus… And that which is deepest in the Sacred Heart of Jesus is freedom.”
As you pray and consider this week, may the Sacred Heart of Jesus and his freedom be with you.