RCL Year A, Proper 21
There’s a helpful question that is sometimes asked of churches seeking to renew their mission and ministry: if the church were to burn down tomorrow, would anyone in the community care? In other words, is the church doing enough outside its walls that others in the neighborhood know and respect and appreciate its presence in the community? Or is everything that happens at that church done just for the people in the church itself? It’s a pointed question, because for many congregations, the true answer really has to be, no, no one else would notice. No one outside of the church knows what the church folk are up to, because no one ever really sees them. The church members stay in their silo. They might leave worship every week with the words, go to love and serve – but they don’t do a whole lot to really live that out once they go out the door. Or at least, not in a way that people can see and identify with the church.
Today Jesus tells a parable about two sons: the one who says he’ll go do his father’s work but doesn’t, and the one who says he won’t go, but then does. You religious people, he says to the elders, are the first kind of son. You talk all the time, but you don’t do what you say. The ones you call sinners, on the other hand, when they repent and change their mind and do what God wants them to do, they’re the second kind of son. And in the end, God is much happier with them than with you. Not easy words for the priests then to hear, I’m sure. And not easy for any of us either. Because it’s all too easy to talk the talk, even to have grand intentions about how we’ll walk the walk. But it’s much more difficult to do it.
This week I had the opportunity to meet individually with pastors of two of our neighboring churches – with Fr. Brendan McGuire of Holy Spirit Catholic Church, and Pastor Steve Clifford of Westgate Church, the church that is taking over South Hills next door to us. I was impressed with both of them, for their commitment to their ministries and what they’re trying to do at their churches. And their commitment is bearing fruit: both congregations are actively engaged in serving and giving to others in the community. Holy Spirit gives about 40% of their income away; last year Westgate gave 51% of their income away to the community. But ten years ago when those pastors began their work with them, both congregations were only giving about 2-3% of their income. About as much as the average individual Christian gives, as one of them pointed out.
I don’t know all the details of how that money is given or where it goes. But it means that of the money the churches receive, a vast amount of it is not spent on church buildings, or salaries, or vestments, or programs and dinners for people in the congregation. Instead, it is directed outward – as is a great deal of the time of the people in the church. That money, and that people time, is spent doing things for others around them, not for themselves. Would the community notice if those churches burned down? Ten years ago, probably not really. Now, it would make a difference. I wonder where we would fall in those calculations.
It’s food for thought. And also food for thought for each of us as individuals. What difference does my life make to others? What do I give away, and what do I keep for myself? What is the purpose of my existence, anyway? All of these are questions of stewardship – what we do with what we have been given. If stewardship is everything we do after we say ‘we believe,’ as one writer has it – then what is it we do? Do we say we believe but then refuse to go into the fields? Or do we live out what we say matters to us?
It’s easy to find others who seem to be doing more than us. So it might just make us anxious, this line of thought. 40-50% of our income given to others?? Good grief, how could we do that? Does my life matter to other people beyond my immediate circle? How do I know? And what should I do differently if it doesn’t? And suddenly, there we are, mired in a guilt trip of despair. But other words jumped out at me from the gospel reading: The son who refuses to go into the field changes his mind, and goes. The chief priests and elders, on the other hand, refuse to change their minds. Changing minds is possible. The categories aren’t fixed, in other words. There aren’t some people who can give and others who can’t. Everyone is capable of changing – or of refusing to change. And the opportunities to change are presented over and over again. We have second chances, and third, and fourth, on and on. Sometimes we’re the son who is all talk and no do; sometimes we’re the son who rebels but then regrets it and does the right thing after all. But we’re not stuck in one or the other forever.
God offers us an invitation. Go out and do this thing I need you to do. Take this chance to give to someone else. Try this out. God gives lots of different invitations, each of them tailored to a particular situation, the gifts and resources, and the needs. You have this gift; please do this with it today, the one thing that lies before us. To listen to the call and see if we can bring our resources to bear in responding to it. That’s what stewardship is – and the more we do it, the more we are able to do of it, the more generously we feel able to give, the more directly we are able to respond in useful and helpful ways.
I see the sense of generosity in this congregation growing and widening all the time. Over the last few years, we have come to see our role as more than just taking care of our members. We have reached out in different ways to families and children around us. We have asked good questions about our feeding ministry and whether we can do more to reach those we feel called to serve. We have met with other local institutions, and are beginning to be known and called on by them. We have given of our resources in time and money towards other organizations right here in our valley. We have become more generous givers in our pledging. And new leaders have stepped into leadership and responsibility as they have seen their gifts needed in this place. We are becoming, in other words, more and more like the son who says he’ll go and then goes. We are beginning to see ourselves as stewards of this parish, of this community of Almaden and San Jose – people who need to care for the people here. And we are doing just that, more and more.
God will continue to invite ECA and each one of us into new fields, to give a bit more, to step forward in different ways. Sometimes we might say yes, but fail to act; other times, though, we will give. One way or another, we answer God’s invitation. And when we say yes and go, what we are really saying is yes, this church does matter; yes, our lives do matter; what we do for and give to others makes a difference. May our generosity grow and grow, as we grow in knowing God’s love for us. Amen.