There once lived a man who was the stingiest and paranoid guy around. All his life, every time he got paid he cashed his paycheck, took 300 dollars and put it under his mattress. Then he got sick and was about to die. As he was dying, he said to his wife, "I want you to promise me one thing." "Promise what?" she asked. "I want you to promise me that when I’m dead you’ll take my money from under the mattress and put it in my casket so that I can take it all with me.” He died, and his wife kept her promise. She went in and got all that money the day he died, went to the bank, deposited it, and wrote out a check and put it in his casket."
It is said that shrouds do not have pockets and never do we see a u-haul attached to a hearse. The only thing we can take with us is what we give away – or as author Louisa May Alcott puts it: “Love is the only thing that we can carry with us when we go.”
For the past two months we have been following the way of love, and its companions of trust, faith and mercy and service. We have been followed the people of Israel as they have traveled from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. It has been a journey fraught with anxiety and fear of the unknown. The people, used to the confines of slavery, grumbled and complained at the slightest struggle, fearing the lack of water and food. Like a disgarded lover, they were suspicious of God. Yet God was faithful and provided every step of the way. Today, we heard Joshua stand before the people one last time and ask, “Whom shall you serve? Will we remember God’s favors when we are settled in, enjoying our new home and its bounty? By the same token our gospel readings have seen Jesus challenged and questioned by suspicious leaders, every time Jesus has turned the tables, getting people to think more deeply and to root their lives in the love of God and neighbor.
For the next several weeks, leading up to Advent at the end of November, our texts ask us to explore our level of commitment to love God and to put God first in our lives and to love our neighbor as ourselves. It coincides with the season of giving thanks, getting ready for Thanksgiving, and for the gift-giving madness that Christmas has become in many places. In most churches it is stewardship season – a time where congregations and friends are asked to make a pledge for the following year, so budgets can be set, mission giving determined and giving priorities set. Union is a church at a pivotal time in its life so this time of discerning investment is critical to our future.
Today, Joshua asks us: whom shall we serve? Additionally Jesus warns us against becoming like the “foolish bridesmaids” who fail to do what is required; they become actually useless-- according to the original Greek -- they failed to care for their lamps, their light properly. The illustration is stark, the questions direct. Who are we serving? Are we living every day, or are we hoarding life, stuffing it into a mattress for some far off rainy day.
There is enormous potential in Union Church – potential to deepen our love of God, for outreach into Bay Ridge, for serving each other and growing in the faith. Do we want to make this vision real and do we want to be a part of it? This is are ongoing question, a question we will address head on over the next few weeks as we prepare ourselves for Thanksgiving, for Advent, and for the long-anticipated season of Christmas.
Many progressive churches loathe to appear materialistic or overly focused on money. They find stewardship campaigns awkward. We are apologetic about asking for money to pay the bills. It all feels unspiritual. We are not trained to address money matters. I never learned about paying bills, giving away money neither at home or in church. Yet fundraising drives are taking place all around us – I must throw away about 15 requests for everyone I respond to. So today I would like for us to reflect on the spirituality of money.
God doesn’t have a problem with money or in asking people to give of themselves. Scriptures teach us that “Everyone shall give as s/he is able, according to the blessing of the LORD your God which he has given you.”
If we choose to serve God, our commitment must be reflected to a significant degree in local ministry, our church. As unglamorous as it is, we have to pay the heat, the light, the taxes, the repairs, the staffing of this congregation. We pay for worship and pastoral leadership, for mission that we participate in here in this place, locally, city-wide, national and international, in addition to donations of food and clothing. To give you a sense of the challenge we face: out of a budget of almost $226,000, Union receives has so far received $20,000 in pledges and plate offerings. Collectively we give about 10 percent of what it takes to run this church. Even those of us who are numbers-challenged can conclude this is not a healthy long-term situation. It is not healthy for the church to depend on its dividends from its investments. It is not healthy for us to think our investments are there to cover what we each should individually give – especially when there are mission and redevelopment needs. Finally it is unhealthy for us to give nothing or a token amount. Our personal spiritual growth requires that we practice giving. Jesus did not call us to raise our standard of living, but our standard of giving.
Many of our families are squeezed with high rents, high costs of living; others are living on fixed incomes. We all understand this. However, everyone can give. If we were truthful with ourselves, some of us we will acknowledge we could be giving more.
Joshua puts it to us: who will we serve? The questions are clear: Does Union Church make a difference in your life? Does progressive Christianity, as represented by Union Church matter to you? Is this the kind of community you want your children to which you want your children/your neighbor’s children raised? We need to reflect carefully on these questions on these questions for the next several weeks. Jesus is calling us to be wise bridesmaids, bridesmaids who made sure their lamps could shine at midnight. If the church is not making a faith difference then frankly, we need to change, or you need to go somewhere else. If Union, however, does make a difference for you, then if you wish to grow in faith, giving financially, of time and other talents is part of a mature spiritual life to which each of us are called.
We need to shine. We need to bring forth our light, to the glory of God. Over the next several weeks I challenge us to several goals: that we have 100% in giving to our stewardship campaign. Give what you can. When you get your pledge card, pray and challenge yourself to increase it, even if it’s a baby-step. But make a pledge to give. Giving changes our lives and it will change the church.
The second way to shine is to get involved. For Advent, I challenge us to come to church every Sunday. Make church a priority. If for some reason you are away then go to the local church. Stay connected to faith, to a spiritual community, to God. One hour a week is not a lot. So get involved. Bring in food for the hungry. Take the food to the food pantry. Visit a home-bound person. Take on coffee hour. You are needed. There’s a place God has made for you to give and shine. Find it and plug in.
The third challenge during this stewardship season is to invite someone to come to church with you. If Union makes a difference in your life, if God’s love has touched you, why not share it? We live in a mobile society, families and individuals are constantly on the move. So we need to keep building up this family of faith. Let your light shine by bringing someone here to experience God’s love and opportunities for spiritual growth and service. You will be more blessed for it.
Listen to this statement very carefully:
Dedicated to the teachings of Jesus Christ, Union Church is an open, accepting community where people find fellowship and support. Jesus Christ calls us to love our neighbors, enacting faith through service. We believe this service is joyful and done by: working for peace and justice; supporting the needs of individuals in our church, local community, and the world; celebrating people of all ages and abilities in the life of the church and equipping them for service in our world; and sharing of our financial stewardship, resources and time with neighbors in need. We are a warm and diverse congregation who find inspiration in worship through music, art, and the creative gifts that are in each of us.
Do you believe this? Let’s make it happen. So give. Get involved. Invite someone. That’s how we serve. That’s how we keep our lamps burning bright. Amen.