SERMON: 23 Pentecost c 11 17 19
A blessed Consecration Sunday to you! Today we consider and commit ourselves in terms of time and talent and treasure, setting apart these offerings for sacred purposes. That is the actual definition of consecration: to set something or someone apart for a sacred purpose. It applies to objects, like buildings and organs and altars and holy vessels; it applies to people, like the young people who will be confirmed next week; it applies to our own offerings this day. It is making holy that which otherwise would be mundane, or ordinary.
There is a difference, you know. When we make a decision to subscribe to a cable channel on tv or to support a political campaign it is not a holy gesture. It is perhaps worthy, perhaps even uplifting. But the difference is that God is not involved. God is involved here today.
We have to be in the right frame of mind to think that our offerings could somehow be made holy. After all, it's just our time and our talents and our money we're talking about. And isn't money the root of all evil? How could it be holy? Well, as if you did, I'm glad you asked. Because in the Bible it is the love of money that is the root of all evil. An important distinction, especially today. Because we are attempting to register in our deepest selves the awareness that what we are giving for is God.
Now here is what I think is an interesting question: does God need our help? Does God need our time, talent and treasure? The simple answer is no. God's time and God's patience are endless, so if we are not going to step up to help provide for God's work in this place, well, God can wait for others to do so. Or not. It's too bad when we decide it's not for us, or not now, but God is both patient and merciful.
But what does need our help is the work of God. The carrying of the message that our neighbors are loved, the providing for God's people a house of worship, the engagement in God's name in this corner of Poughkeepsie.
Since we believe that God wants this church to continue and to thrive we open our hearts and engage our active lives and our monetary resources in helping make that happen. As a result St. Paul's Episcopal Church will occupy this corner of Poughkeepsie for another year. On behalf of the wardens and the vestry and the entire congregation I want you to know that your willingness to engage in this enterprise in our fine old church is a worthy one. Your faithfulness and your generosity are celebrated. I believe together we can depend upon our faith and our unity of purpose and continue to serve the community of Poughkeepsie from this church indefinitely. That's because I believe the third reading at the end of the Evening Prayer service which we read now and again when we conduct an Evening Prayer service in conjunction with one of our monthly meetings:
Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine."
I have seen this prophesy realized in countless situations where God's purposes were being pursued rather than human purposes. It is thrilling to witness, like when the surprise check comes in to help us purchase a food shipment for the food pantry, or a new volunteer shows up to help out when a regular volunteer can't make it, or when visitors appear in church and rave about its beauty and the delights of our liturgy, things we sometimes take for granted.
If we are observant and if we are willing to forego interpreting these things as coincidences and instead attribute them to God we grow in what is known as the knowledge and love of God. That's what our Prayer Book calls it. I call it the experience of God. I don't get goosebumps from coincidences, but I do when I feel that some divine purpose has been fulfilled. And I find that to be the case more and more.
I was baptized in St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Not this one, but the one in Mount Vernon Washington, about 60 miles north of Seattle. I grew up in the Episcopal Church so I figure I've heard as much about the letters--epistles--of St. Paul as anyone. There are times, I must admit, when I find our namesake wordy. There are times when I find him more interested in controlling people's behavior than in developing people's relationship with God. And, truly, there are times when I think Paul understands the relationship between God and Jesus and the people who believe in them that just knocks my socks off. As when he writes, "Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine."
Paul and his acolytes or staff wrote about a third of the New Testament. I attended a talk Monday at which I learned of a new book comparing what the four Gospels say about Jesus and what Paul says. The speaker was Michael Phillips, the former rector from Christ Church here in Poughkeepsie. I will try to get a copy of his talk and share it with anyone interested. What I heard from Father Phillips, however, was both surprising and satisfying. He described Paul's background and his emphasis on sacrifice and salvation and declared that St. Paul--our namesake!--had virtually hijacked the belief system that Jesus spent his three years in earthly ministry trying to reveal to his followers. Jesus was teaching God is love and love your neighbor and Paul was teaching that Jesus died for our sins.
This is not a new idea. Salvation and sacrifice have long been central to the Bible, especially before Christianity. But new scholarship has revealed that Paul did focus only on those aspects of Jesus he was interested in--chiefly that he was the Son of God who died for our sins, the ultimate sacrifice, so we should sacrifice ourselves to his purposes in the hope of eternal life. What Jesus said and what Jesus did was not important to Paul. Father Phillips noted that for centuries --millenia actually--people have argued about these divergent purposes. But today we live in a world where the church is not associated with answers to the existential issues of the day-- political division, climate change, income inequality, marginalization, LGBTQ issues, and so on.
As you can imagine, I am not about to stand before you as the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, and reject Paul's teaching. But neither do I think I need to ignore this other view. Further, the church definitely has a role to play in resolving the big issues on which people think the church has nothing to contribute. However, our denomination especially has important things to say about these issues. I am proud of our denomination and of our diocese which just last weekend took bold steps to acknowledge the sin of slavery in this country and the church's complicity in it, as well as a strong resolution demanding action on climate change and LGBTQ concerns.
As we consider making contributions from our lives of our time and talent and treasure, it is a good idea to recognize there are competing motivations for doing so.
For example, whether you think you should sacrifice because Jesus sacrificed or that you should sacrifice because you're a joyful member of God's team on earth--who cares? The result is the same. Our sense of engagement compared with our sense of debt is an interesting concept, but it is the result that counts. And the result is that whether we follow the dutiful path or the delightfully engaged path, we do what we can with what we have. The difference, the important difference, is that we engage, we participate, we give of ourselves.
Please take the moments in this service when you can reflect to consider what you'd like to see happen here and what you're willing to do in the church. Think big. Pray for insight into what's needed and, perhaps separately, what you'd like to see. Imagine your role, your part in the fulfilling of God's will here, taking on new dimensions. Think again about the difference: this year make your giving with grand and Godly purposes in mind. Dream big on behalf of God and God's desire for creation. You might be the person who comes up with a mission idea for St. Paul's that suddenly makes church matter to the last few generations who have not noticed its relevance.
This is a moment when you can decide to move to the high dive. And dive in. May God bless you for your continued engagement and giving. Amen
A sermon preached Nov. 17, 2019 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY, by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector