The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 28, 2014
Strike the Rock
Every February, the Episcopal Diocese of Texas gathers for our annual council. At this annual council we worship together, we meet Episcopalians from across the state, and we vote on stuff. We vote on people to fill slots for diocesan roles. In all their wisdom, our four delegates from Holy Comforter, with many more Episcopalians across the diocese, elected me to serve on the Executive Board. That’s like the Vestry for the Bishop. Now, before you think it’s all that and a bag of chips, let me tell you what we did at our last Executive Board meeting. For two and a half hours we read through seventy nine pages of revisions to our constitution and canons. In the amount of time you could have driven from Houston to Austin, I was listening to conversations about the difference between the words, “remit” and “forgive.” When you are first ordained as a priest, everybody talks about the sacrifices you make – the late night phone calls from the hospital or the life of prayer. No, no, no. The sacrifice of ordained ministry is when, after two and a half hours of seventy nine pages of constitutional and canonical revisions, the guy in charge of the meeting says, “well, that takes care of the all the easy stuff. At our next meeting we’ll get down to the nitty gritty.”
To make a long story short, I’ve been re-reading our canons and constitution. And I have to share with you one phrase that grabbed me – yes, even the canons, our church laws, can sometimes be exciting. Canon 13.2 talks about the finances of the diocese. It says that it is a “sacred duty” for all members of the Church to contribute financially to the diocese, the bishop, and through those entities, the parish. It is our “sacred duty.”
I know what you’re thinking. “Oh great. Here it is. The annual sermon in which the priest strong arms us into giving money to the church.” I know how you feel, you grumble that the Church asks you for money, you sort of harumph and wish that you had slept in today. You start complaining that your leaders are asking you to do things you would rather not do.
Huh, what a funny coincidence then that our Old Testament lesson today is precisely the same thing. The Israelites have made it out of Egypt, God has given them bread and meat, but now they’re thirsty. And they start complaining. They start quarreling with Moses, “why did you bring us out of Egypt,” they ask, “to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”
The natural human inclination, when asked to do something we don’t like, is to grumble, and murmur, and complain; whether it’s the Israelites at Rephidim or Episcopalians during a pledge campaign. But look, we’re not going down that road.
Because I think that the pledge campaign is actually one of the greatest times of the church year. Because we dream big dreams about our ministries, and think about what is possible in the year to come. We talk openly about money. Yes, I believe that we can and should talk openly and joyfully about money. Jesus did. In fact, Jesus talks about “money” and “treasure” more than twice as often as he talks about “hell.” So let’s talk about money.
The Bible teaches that we give 10% of our wealth to God for ministry and mission. And that’s important. So that God can use our money for ministry. This is not obligation or compulsion, this is about ministry. Even the money you give that goes to pay the electric bill is for ministry. We can’t teach Bible study in the dark. We can’t house homeless people for the Interfaith Hospitality Network if the water isn’t running. Vacation Bible School wouldn’t happen without air conditioning. We can’t have the Holy Communion if somebody doesn’t buy the bread and wine. God uses our money for ministry. We don’t give money because the Church has a budget – we give money because the Church has a mission.
I know, 10% seems like a lot. But let’s look at it another way. God has given us our lives, our families, our friends, and this wonderful church family that we love so dearly. Because if there is one word to describe Holy Comforter, it’s “family.” God has given us all of this. Everything we own. And God doesn’t even ask for all of it back. God gives us our lives and wants us to keep 90% of what we have. That is a generous God who would do such a thing.
So returning to the Old Testament story, I am here to strike the rock. And to watch the water flow out. The instant we start giving money back to God, without strings attached, is the moment when our life opens up, and love and grace come flooding out. We become more grateful and generous. Because God has already been generous to us. Of course, God will bless us if we give money to the church or not. That’s irrelevant. This is not about earning God’s love. Giving money to the church is about us becoming more faithful disciples, it’s about us learning how to be generous followers of this already generous God.
But still we ask, why give money to the Church? Don’t other charitable organizations do good things too? Of course. But here’s the deal. If everybody in the Church came together and actually gave 10% of our wealth every year, then the Church would have food pantries, clinics, and homeless shelters on every street corner. And we could do it in the name of Jesus. For Holy Comforter, we could build a church, redevelop our campus, and open a clinic or homeless shelter in five years. And we wouldn’t have to have anymore pledge campaigns. In our effort to build God’s Kingdom on earth, 10% is a small sacrifice. And if you’ve never tried giving 10%, I dare you to try it for a year. And I bet you’ll have a freer, happier, more generous year. And if you can’t make 10%, I understand; start at a lower percentage that is going to push you. Start with a percentage that will challenge you, and make some risks for God’s Kingdom. What matters is that you have skin in the game.
And finally, why Holy Comforter? Why go out into the wilderness with this community? Why make a financial sacrifice for this place? Because what is happening at Holy Comforter is unique. Our growth, our innovation, our vitality, and our undaunted hope for the future is palpable. Just this week, I received an invitation to fly to the Episcopal seminary in Sewanee, Tennessee, to give a presentation to a national gathering of priests and bishops about what God is doing at Holy Comforter. People from across the national Episcopal Church want to know how it is we are doing the amazing things that we are doing. I go on your behalf, as your ambassador, to tell the good news of our church.
In short, that’s why Maggie and I give to Holy Comforter. Because we believe in this place. The grace and the love we receive from God here, is something that cannot be found anywhere else. Season tickets for your football team, or a new flatscreen TV, or a new car will not fill the space for God in your life. When Maggie and I sit down, look at what we plan on earning for next year, and then take 10% out for the Church, I get a lump in my throat. Because I could buy a lot of diapers with that money. I pray that you get a the lump in your throat when your make this financial sacrifice. But here’s the deal, that lump will disappear with joy, and that anxiety about your money will go away. Because is in the end, it’s not your money, it’s God’s money. And this is God’s church.
So we are going to spend the next month doing our pledge campaign. And you know what? It’s going to be joyful. It’s going to be awesome. We’re going to pray. We’re going to see pictures of all the wonderful people here in our church family. But most of all, we are going to remember that God is an incredibly generous God. God gave water to the Israelites in the desert, even when they were complaining. And God will give us the grace, and the courage, and faith we need for our journey.