Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 20, 2020
There’s a little country church called St. George’s, in the village of Morebath, England. There’s nothing too remarkable about the church, it looks exactly like what you would expect a small English village church to look like. And there’s nothing too remarkable about the village of Morebath and its estimated population of 318 people. In fact, it probably has more sheep than people. But by a quirk of fate, St. George’s church in Morebath, England is of immense historical importance.
See, for fifty four years, from 1520 to 1574, the Rev. Christopher Trychay served as the priest of St. George’s. “Sir Trychay,” as he was known, kept meticulous records about everything that happened in the church. How many candles were used in a year. The cost of vestments. And most importantly, how many sheep the church owned.
See, the good parishioners of Morebath had a curious way of raising money for the church. The church had its own flock of sheep and would collect the profits off those sheep when they were sheared. But the church didn’t have its own appointed shepherd. Instead, the church’s flock was divvied up among all the shepherds of the parish and each shepherd added some of the church’s sheep to their own flock. The shepherd was to care for their own sheep and the church’s sheep equally. They all grazed together, slept together – church sheep and shepherd’s sheep just one big hunky dory flock. Until shearing time. Of course, the shepherds earned the profits of the wool from their own sheep and the profits of the wool from the church sheep went directly to the church. Even though the shepherds had cared for those church sheep, nursed them through bad health, guided them to pasture, kept them from predators – the shepherds understood that they were simply stewards, caretakers, not owners of the church sheep.
Not unlike this tough little passage from the Gospel of Matthew, the good people of St. George’s, Morebath understood the radical equality of the gospel. Everybody bears some of the load, but no one receives more than anybody else. Some laborers worked longer than others, some had to sweat through the hot sun and the long afternoon shift, others showed up at quitting time, but all are paid equally. God’s grace is equal for everybody.
As we kickoff our annual pledge campaign, this is the image that I want to start with. I think it’s the best way to think about being stewards of our money. Like the shepherds of St. George’s, Morebath, there is a portion of your money, given to you by God, that you are to tend, to care for, and then return to God at shearing time, if you will. We are not giving out of our wealth, we are not giving our money – we are simply returning to God what God has given us. To me, when I first read about this little church and their way of doing things, it completely changed the way I thought about money and stewardship. I came to see that not all the money in my bank account is mine. Some is given to me for my daily needs. Some is given to me to save for the future. And some of that money is for God. It’s all there in the same bank account, in one flock if you will, but it’s not all mine. For a time, I am simply a steward of God’s money that I am to care for, to tend wisely, and to return.
Now, living as good stewards of our money first means that we have to live within our means. Those shepherds didn’t shear the church sheep and then spend that money at the pub, or use it to fix up their own sheepfold, though they had worked hard caring for those sheep. They saw that a part of their work was set aside for God. They knew that not all of it was for them. There is real spiritual work here to be done. This is not just some financial literacy workshop, there is theological meat to this. This is the journey of discipleship. When we live beyond our means, everybody is negatively affected. Paying off bad debt takes years, the emotional and spiritual toll of those worries are real, our children and families are impacted for years, maybe even generations to come. Being a good steward, realizing that the money given to us has different purposes, is a step to a deeper life with Jesus. This is the journey toward gratitude.
It’s what the laborers in the vineyard didn’t get. That the path toward a deeper life with God is to be grateful for what God has given us. As this passage so plainly says, God is generous. And when I meditate upon all that has been given to me – when I meditate upon the saving grace of Jesus Christ upon the cross – then all I can do is to be grateful. Sure, I could grumble that other people have more than me, that some get paid more than me, that their house is bigger, and their car is nicer. But none of that matters compared to the surpassing love of Jesus Christ. And that’s what I’m grateful for. And that’s why I give back to God.
And I know, I know it can sound strange coming from me, the priest, who is paid by the church. But as the shepherds of Morebath understood, it’s not just the priest who works for the church – everybody does. Because a part of everybody’s work is for the church. A portion of your work is holy. And I take stewardship and money seriously, not because of how I am paid – but because it’s one way that I have grown spiritually. I am still learning more and more about gratitude, how to live with thanksgiving instead of scarcity. How to live with abundance instead of fear. So, my family puts aside 10% of our annual income for church and charity. That has not been easy, but it has been good. It means that we have to live within our means. It means that we have to be good stewards of what has been given to us. It’s God’s sheep, it’s God’s money, and my family gives because it’s shearing time. It’s because we are grateful to the Lord God who sustains us in hard times and rejoices with us in good times. And compared to having tend a bunch of sheep for a whole year, signing a pledge card is awfully easy.
Remember, you are not in this alone, and as the gospel passage tells us, we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. Back in Morebath, some folks had bigger flocks, meaning they they had to take on more church sheep. Some folks had small flocks, meaning they took on fewer church sheep. Some laborers work longer, some work shorter – but what matters is that we are all committed to the same thing. That we all play a part.
And of course as we ask each of you to make a pledge, to sign up for the number of sheep you will care for next year, I know that each of us will give different amounts, just as the laborers worked different hours; just as each shepherd of St. George’s parish divvied up the flock each year. But that’s not what I’m concerned about. Because it’s not like you get extra grace or less grace because of what you give or don’t give. The laborers are all rewarded equally.
See, the most important thing here is that we grow closer to Jesus through our relationship with money by becoming good stewards. By learning how to be grateful. Don’t think of this as giving away what is yours. And don’t compare your work with the other laborers. I ask you to dig deeper in your spiritual journey and see yourself as a steward, as a shepherd, as a caretaker rather than as an owner. Take that next step and practice gratitude, gratitude that you were hired for the day; gratitude for a parish family that you are part of; gratitude that the Lord God loves you enough to die for you.
Note: For further reference, see “The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village” by Eamon Duffy