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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Stewardship: Guilt or Generosity?

“...but she out of her poverty has put in everything she has...” Mark 12:38-44

Pentecost XXIII – November 12, 2006
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor


I’m sorry, but that’s what I hear in this morning’s gospel.


In the story of the Widow’s Mite, I hear Jesus sending his disciples on a guilt trip this morning. Ah, look at all the rich people putting large sums into the religious coffers. Now, look at the poor widow, putting in two small copper coins – all she had. And yet, says Jesus, she has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.

See? Get the picture?

I do. And, it has GUILT writ large all over it.

Then again, maybe it’s not guilt. Perhaps I see guilt because I’m so sensitive to it. Motivation by guilt is an old trick my mother used at the drop of a hat.

Don’t want to finish your peas and carrots? Don’t you know that there are children starving in Southeast Asia?

Complaining that you need a new pair of sneakers? Why, my mother would say, when your father and I were children, we were so poor, we didn’t even own a pair of sneakers. In fact, we used to put cardboard in the inside of our shoes to make them last longer. That was because we had to walk 10 miles. Every day. One way. In the blinding snow and rain. Just to get to school. Which we couldn’t finish because of World War II. (Yadda. Yadda. Yadda.)

So, here you are complaining about raggedy sneakers that are pinching your toes? "Hmph," she’d say as she turned her back and return to something on the stove. Then, she’d clench her teeth together and make this “Tsk, tsk,” sound with her tongue that told us that was the end of the conversation.

We kids used to joke that our mother is a certified travel agent in guilt trips. She’s got LOTS of experience. Just the other day she said, “Oh, it’s so nice you called. It’s been, what?, three, four weeks? Never mind. It’s good you called today. I’ve missed you.”

If you want to sign up for one of her special guilt excursions, I’ll give you her number.

Today, we begin the Season of Stewardship. Because we’re Episcopalians, it only lasts two weeks.

We’d much rather argue about sexuality than talk about money. In fact, I’m convinced that’s precisely why we argue about sexuality. As long as we keep that conversation going, we never have to talk about money. Or, for that matter, mission and ministry. It’s like the old story about why airplane food is so bad. It gives you something to complain about so you never have to get down to the real issues, like safety or competence, or . . . . well, you get the message.

But, here we are again, talking about Stewardship.

Well, that’s not exactly true.

The entire Season of Creation is ultimately about Stewardship. We have been called by God, who created everything that lives and moves and has its being, to be good stewards of creation. Ecological justice is the first step in responding to that vocation. My predecessor, your former rector, Skip Vilas was passionately committed to that first step. His is a rich legacy and the footprints of his path are exceedingly large for any one to walk in who follows him. Greenfaith rightly honored him last week, the organization he founded. I am profoundly delighted that so many of us were able to be with him last Sunday.

Stewardship of Creation is the first step. Understanding our co-creative status with God is yet another. We are not only called to care for creation, we are called into the creative process with God – for the renewal of creation and, especially, ourselves. The artistic process – in all of the various mediums of art: music, sculpting, poetry, writing, painting, landscape, architecture, dance, playwriting, movies, performing arts, quilting, etc. – calls us into a deeper relationship with God.

There’s a reason we say that art is “inspirational.” It comes from God.

Indeed, when we are inspired in our work, whether we are doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc., we are creative and even the most menial work becomes creative and satisfying. That comes from God.

Stewardship of Creation is an important first step. So is our co-creative status with God. But, the Season of Creation is about the Season of Stewardship because, ultimately, it is about gratitude. It’s not about guilt.

It’s about gratitude. I think, in truth, that’s what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples in this morning’s passage.

Finally, when all is said and done, it’s about making Eucharist.

Let me tell you a story about making Eucharist that has less to do with church and everything to do with God. If I do this right, you’ll be inspired – and not feel guilty – to consider your Stewardship in this church.

Some of you may know that, after the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center fell on that fateful day we now simply refer to in shorthand as “Nine Eleven,” I went into the City to do whatever I could to help. Perhaps I haven’t told you why.

Our of our daughters lives and works in the City. She lives on the Upper East Side and, at the time, was working on the lower West Side at NYU School of Law. At 9 AM on September 11, 2001, she was taking the train to the South Tower of the World Trade Center where she had a 10:30 appointment with an alumnus of NYU to discuss a potential gift to the school. We had spoken on the phone the night before, so I had this information stored in my head.

Normally, I don’t store that kind of minutia, but that piece of information would loom large that day.

When I first heard the news, I was driving from my home in Maplewood to my office in Newark. I was on Central Avenue in Newark when the word came over the radio. Barbara called me on my cell phone minutes later. My first thoughts were with Julie. So were Barbara’s, and yet we never spoke of it. It was unthinkable, so how could we speak of it? Where was she? Was she safe? Had she gone in late or early? As we later learned, these were the serendipitous decisions which could have meant life or death.

By the time I got to 31 Mulberry Street, everyone was on the roof of the building, which had a clear view of the Twin Towers. In fact, just a few minutes after I got up to the roof, I watched the plane slam into the second tower. It was surreal. Positively surreal. People screamed and cried and fainted. I could only, selfishly, singularly, think of my daughter.

It was 2 PM when she finally got her cell phone to work. She was on that last train into the World Trade Center which stopped at Chambers St. The passengers were kept in the subway car for about 40 minutes before they were all let out and told to go home. She had walked from the lower West Side to the Upper East Side – along with hundreds of thousands of others who formed a human throng in the middle of the street.

“Mom,” she said, weeping, “we looked like something out of a WWII movie.”

I was so relieved to hear her voice, I literally dropped to my knees in thanksgiving. I was filled with gratitude that she was alive. That she was safe. That our daughter was okay.

And, that’s why I went into the City to help in the recovery and relief effort. Not out of guilt, but out of gratitude. Deep, deep gratitude.

When your heart is that filled with gratitude, the first thing that happens is that it drives you to your knees in a prayer of thanksgiving.

Then, you find yourself up on your feet with an unquenchable desire to do something. To make a difference. To give back. To contribute. In any way you can.

And, in that moment, you experience The Holy. Jesus is fully present.

And that, dear friends, is what we call Eucharist – the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had that experience. If you’ve ever been filled with worry about a child or someone you love and then learned that you have been given a reprieve. Suddenly, you come face to face with the fragility of life. You understand something about the mortality of being human and the infinity and eternal nature of God. And, you understand the only humanly possible response is one of gratitude.

During this Season of Creation, we’ve been playing the Missa Gia – The Earth Mass – by the Paul Winter Consort. It was first performed at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Mother’s Day, May 10, 1981. You may know that Paul Winter uses the sounds of the earth and animals in his music.

Of all the compelling pieces of that work, I find the Kyrie hauntingly beautiful. It begins with the sound of a she-wolf, howling across the frozen tundra. She does this a few times and then, suddenly, you are aware of the sound of men’s voices joining her. It sounds like monastic chant, which is no surprise, but you do find yourself amazed at how the monks seem to be imitating her sound, her prayer, as they sing, “Kyrie eleison.”

The liner notes in the CD indicate that perhaps our earliest forms of speech imitated the sound of animals. If that is so then, Winter writes, is it not compelling that one of the first human prayers comes from the heart of creation, and that prayer is “Lord, have mercy”?

When you come to understand your finite place in the cosmos and the eternal magnitude and abundance of God, can there be any other prayer but, “Kyrie eleison”?

“Life is short . . . and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who make this earthly pilgrimage with us. . . .” This congregation loves that blessing I use each week. I think that’s because you know something about gratitude. Perhaps that’s why the track record of your generosity has been so good over the years. Perhaps I’m really ‘preaching to the choir’ as they say – telling you what you already know.

This is not a sermon about guilt. I’ll leave that to another preacher in another church at another time. This is a sermon about gratitude. You’ve heard the old Stewardship Slogan, “Give till it hurts?” I want to put a new spin on that and say, “Give till it feels good.”

This is a sermon about gratitude, not guilt. The kind of gratitude that can inspire a poor widow to give her last two coins to an organization which has pledged to use it rightly, in the name of God, and in the service of others.

The kind of gratitude which flows from the deep well of compassion, which is born of suffering.

The kind of gratitude which risks everything – even criticism or confusion – for the sake of the gospel.

It’s the kind of gratitude which inspires miracles – like the miracle of Elijah and the widow. “The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail.” (1 Kings 17:8-16)

The kind of gratitude which inspired the Psalmist to sing, “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord.” (Psalm 46)

It’s about the miracle of the abundance of God – the abundance of God, not our poverty. It’s the miracle of Eucharist – of falling to your knees and giving thanks, and Jesus is present and all are fed from little bits of bread and small drops of wine.

It’s the kind of gratitude that surprises us with wonder – even at the things we are able to accomplish when we reclaim our co-creative status with God – so that we, along with God, can look at creation and say, “Behold, it is good!”

And not only mean it, but live it.

Not with guilt but with gratitude.


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