Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Inspired generosity

A Sermon Preached at 
The Episcopal Church of St Phillip, Laurel, DE
Pentecost XXV - Proper 27 B

I seriously loves me some Jesus, but sometimes – not always, but sometimes – Jesus pulls my last, poor, tired nerve.

Like in this Gospel story. Jesus is in the Temple, sitting across from where people are putting money in the Treasury. Rich people were putting in large sums but he watched as a widow came in and put in a few small coins, worth about a penny.

Jesus calls to his disciples and says look at this poor widow! Even though she’s only contributed about a penny, she’s actually given more than all those rich people.

I want to say, “Wait! Stop! And, what is YOUR contribution, Jesus? For goodness sake, get up, man, and do what SHE did! How about putting into practice what you preach?”

In fairness, maybe he did and that part just didn’t get written into the story. I don’t want my temporary annoyance with Jesus in this particular story to detract from his larger point: There is a difference between giving out of your abundance and giving out of the same generosity with which God gives to us.

I’m privileged to be a guest here so I don’t know when you start your Stewardship Season but I’m of a mind that Stewardship Season lasts all year. As your leadership – laity and ordained – begin to consider the 2019 Budget, I hope you are at least beginning to consider your pledge to this work and ministry of this church, especially as you face the uncertainty and challenges of this time of interim leadership and transition.

So, I want to underscore the point Jesus makes in this gospel story with a story of my own. I want to underscore the point he made about the difference between giving out of your abundance as opposed to striving to be as generous as God is with us. I also want to underscore my own point about leading by example.

I clearly remember the first time I started to earn an allowance. I got fifty cents a week in the form of two shiny quarters delivered to me by my father every Saturday night. Right after we had taken our weekly baths, washed out our white gloves and polished our shoes for Church the next day.

My father would remind me, every week, that one quarter was to go into my piggy bank and one quarter was to go to into the Church collection basket on Sunday.

I can still feel my teeth clench with resentment as I tried to smile and say, “Yes, Daddy.” Sort of the same way my teeth sometimes clench when Jesus annoys me. It didn’t take me long, however, to figure out a way to beat my father at his game.

The collection baskets in the church of my youth were literally baskets with long, smooth handles that the ushers would glide skillfully and smoothly through their hands as you placed your pledge envelope or coins into them. There were three collections in my church: one for the Adults to put their paper money or pledge envelopes, and one for ‘the work of missions’ - usually an order of priests or nuns who were working with people in far off places like Cambodia or Guatemala or someplace in Africa.

The children’s basket was always the last basket to be passed. Since we normally sat in the back of the church, it was filled with shiny coins – dimes, nickels and quarters – rendered with the same resentment I always felt in my heart. The best part, however, before listening for the ‘clink’ of your coin as it went into the basket, was to first move your hand across the cool top of the coins. To a kid, you could almost see the dream of how many ice cream cones or comic books you could buy with that great stash dancing above their heads like the caption balloons of the cartoon characters we watched every Saturday morning.

What was God going to do with all that money, anyway? I was quite certain that God would have been much happier knowing that His children were happy with their mouths full of jaw-breakers or gummy worms we could purchase with those quarters.

That’s when I got the idea. Ready? It’s brilliant. Truly brilliant.

I discovered that if you put your hand over the coins, you could simultaneously drop your quarter in while very discretely picking up one or two more. Then, you would fidget in your seat, pretend to cough into the hand with your ill gotten gain, and then, as your mother gave you the ‘evil eye’ for making noise in church, you simply leaned over and slipped the quarter(s) into your sock or shoe.

Brilliant! It was a positively brilliant scheme which went on for weeks without anyone noticing what I was doing. My parents did get a bit suspicious when I stopped being resentful of giving one half of my hard earned allowance money to the church, so to cover my tracks, I began having conversations with them about how I might have a vocation to become a nun.

I have to tell you, this was my first run as a thief, and I was pure genius! I was being a scoundrel and they thought I was trying to be a saint! How cool is THAT?

Well, because God is God and we are not, all good – and bad – things come to an end. Eventually. Eventually, I got found out.

Turns out, one of the nuns had turned to give me the stink eye when I coughed and saw me slipping the coin into my shoe. Over the next few Sundays, she watched and realized that I always coughed at the same time and always made the same move down to my shoes. She reported me to the priest and, before I knew it, my parents and I were called into the parish office where the nun told my parents exactly what she had seen.

My parents were furious. I was humiliated. The priest, a kind, gentle man, came over to me and gently put his arm around me as he asked why I had done it.

Through heavy sobs and copious tears, I blurted out the real reason: I was afraid. I was afraid because, after I went to bed, when my parents thought we kids were all asleep, I was awake. And, I could hear them argue.

Their arguments were always the same. It was always about the family budget. My brother was very ill and she had to pay Dr. Rudolph for the office visits and she still had a $70 balance with Mr. Rexall at his Drug Store for my brother’s penicillin. Now, $70 may not seem like a lot these days but at that time, for my family, that was a fortune.

My mother was concerned that my father’s good friend, Mr. Johnnie Walker, was taking more money than she was able to pay either Dr. Rudolph or Mr. Rexall. My father said that a man needed something at the end of the day when he worked so hard at the factory. They would go back and forth, their voices getting louder and more angry, and I would fall asleep with the pillow over my head to block out the sounds of their argument.

I thought that I could save up enough money to help my parents pay off the doctor and the pharmacist, let my father keep his friend, Mr. Walker, happy, and still buy candy and comic books for myself and my siblings and friends.

I’m not really sure what happened next. I do remember the priest asking the nun to take me out of the office and to the kitchen where he invited her to share a slice of cake and a glass of milk with me while he talked to my parents.

I do remember that my parents stopped arguing late at night and that Mr. Walker’s name was no longer  a line item on my parent’s budget.

And, I will never forget that this priest’s decision to err on the side of generosity changed my life. Actually, his generosity inspired the generosity of my parents and has inspired me to err on the side of generosity. 

Oh, and he also inspired me to stay away from a life of crime. 

I am inspired, like the widow in this gospel story, to contribute more than mere money. I am inspired not to just ‘go through the motions’ like the scribes in the first part of the story.

I am inspired to be as generous as I know how to be, even though sometimes – not always, but sometimes – the institutional church, the Body of Christ, pulls my last, poor tired nerve.

I hope you are inspired to do the same, because generosity is always inspiring. Your generosity can and will inspire others. Just as God's generosity inspires us.


No comments: