Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, rcl yr b, 2021
St. John’s In-Person and Livestream
It is to such as these
that the kingdom of God belongs.
Our focus on this first Sunday of our three-week emphasis on Building, Celebrating, and Strengthening the Community of St. John the Evangelist is the gift of community, the gift of Christian community, and particularly the gift of this Christian community we know as St. John’s, Kitchener.
In his dialogue with the Pharisees in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus’ argument against a husband writing a certificate of divorce for a wife who does not please him is the principle of equality in marriage described in the Creation stories: the two become one flesh. Marriage as envisioned in the Genesis accounts has the properties of a community Jesus says in so many words, a community of value, worthy of support and protection. “What God has joined together,” he instructs, “let no one separate.”
Later in the same reading, we see a disturbance in the community of Jesus’ followers. Children, who occupied the lowest place in first-century Mideastern society, were brought to Jesus by their parents in the hope that Jesus would touch them; bless them, in other words. Jesus’ disciples, we read, spoke sternly to the parents and their children, and would have prevented their access to Jesus. But Jesus intervenes, saying to his disciples, “Do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” – those without status, privilege, power, and influence. Jesus’ teaching is not only a reprimand of his disciples, it is also a rebuke of the proud, a rebuke of hierarchies, a rebuke of maintaining the status quo. And then he embodies what he has just taught, by embracing the children, laying his hands on them, and blessing them.
I am deeply moved by marriages and marriage relationships in which the partners strengthen and support one another, respect one another, love one another.
And I am similarly moved by church communities that are radically inclusive, where all are welcome and incorporated into the community as equals, and where the gospel is always challenging the norms of parish life and being creatively translated into mission and ministry in Jesus’ name; where the Church transcends its identity as an institution and is, rather, a sign of the kingdom of God.
For me, St. John’s, Kitchener, is such a community. Our solidarity with our neighbours who struggle so courageously against poverty, addictions, and homelessness is what got me in the door a year ago. Our willingness to use our church building as a resource for the wider community speaks to our openness, and offers a place apart where people can meet and work and cook much-needed meals, essentially for the cost of the heat and light they use. Now that we are reopening again for worship, St. John’s becomes another kind of place apart – a place to discover and cultivate the interior life, so easily missed, forgotten about and neglected in our frenetic and combative urban and suburban life. And so many of the people of St. John’s, individuals in community, take the community with them wherever they are and build bridges to others and to other communities – bridges of understanding, meaning, acceptance, service, and caring. And at the same time, a large number of our parishioners, not unlike the vision Jesus carried for marriage, strengthen and support one another through visits and prayer, work together on projects, learn and study with one another, sing of their faith, write of their faith, give freely of their time and gifts in the work of the church. In this community, newcomers are welcomed and incorporated, children are blessed and nurtured, and youth are heard and valued. I love this church, this Community of St. John the Evangelist, Kitchener.
And so, I did not hesitate to say yes when Preston asked me some time ago if I would help St. John’s in the area of financial stewardship. I know from a lifetime in the Church how important it is for congregations so engaged in mission and ministry to ask their parishioners once a year to review and renew their weekly or monthly support for their shared mission and ministry, and to take the opportunity as they do so – as we do so – to reflect on this community as a precious gift to us and to others.
It was 11 years ago that the parish I served in Waterloo had its first-ever in-house stewardship program. On one of the Sundays, we handed out a table similar to the Giving by Percentage table we received in our worship bulletins this morning. Later that same week one of our most involved and committed parishioners told me that she and her husband were probably not going to make any changes to their offerings; that they tithed, and giving 10% of their annual income to the church, plus raising a young family with only one parent working, was something they were at peace with. As she was telling me this, I realized that I had never checked my own giving as a percentage. I had been the habit of giving a certain amount to the church each year, which I revised up after each Vestry when I saw the new budget, but I had no idea of what percentage of our household income that represented.
After our conversation, I went back to my study in the church and got out my copy of the Giving by Percentage chart. Increasing my giving by a percentage of what I was already giving, or increasing my giving according to the percentage the church’s budget had increased, was a completely different approach than what is described as the first fruits approach that my parishioner and her family were using – looking at their net income each year, and then setting aside a portion of that income to give to the church.
It didn’t take me long to do the arithmetic and to recognize a rather alarming disconnect. As with almost every other parish priest I knew, the church, the parish, and our life together in mission and ministry was a huge part of my life. I could certainly say of that congregation in Waterloo what I said earlier of St. John’s: “I love this church!” What I discovered that day when I put down my pencil was that I was nowhere near tithing: my annual giving to this community that I cherished was just over 1.5%. At that point I understood that stewardship programs have a significant place in parish life; that I needed to reflect on financial stewardship as much as anyone else in the congregation; and that if even half of our parishioners were able to see things as I had just seen them, it would prove to be a very useful exercise indeed.
When I did renew my commitment, I wasn’t able to come anywhere near tithing, even though the conversation I had had with our parishioner that day a few weeks earlier had certainly started me thinking about it. But I was able to make an increase that year that was a percentage of my annual net income, and then in subsequent years to use the same approach. What was wonderful was that I was not the only one in our parish who realized that the first fruits approach of giving to the church was a much more accurate reflection of the place my faith and my faith community held in my heart.
The Giving by Percentage table and the graph on the reverse side showing our partnership in giving to St. John’s are presented by the Stewardship Working Group for your interest and information. What we are encouraging this Sunday and the two that follow, however, is prayerful reflection on the gift of this community. Whether, as a result of this program, you decide to increase or decrease your support for St. John’s, or to continue with the same amount you give at present is your decision and yours alone. Our hope is that many will be able to consider an increase, but the strength of community is that we all give according to our means, and whatever that contribution is is enough. We are a community: we support and strengthen one another, just by being here. As one of my friends put it years ago, when I am at worship and my mind wanders and I forget the words in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer, you keep praying: you pray for me. That is how Christian community works: we each do what we can, and it is enough.
Next Sunday, we will receive a third document on which we are asked to record our estimate of giving as a result of the studying, reflecting, and praying we are doing together and privately over these first three Sundays of October. The benefit to the church of receiving your commitment on or about October 17 is that it will provide a forecast of our givings beginning on a date of your choosing this year, or in the new year – figures around which we hope to design the 2022 parish budget. And we also hope that by considering in advance how much our parishioners plan to contribute on a weekly or monthly basis, we shall be able to move to regular and systematic offerings over the year, rather than the peaks and troughs in income that are characteristic of most parish financial statements. We are quite fortunate to have about half of our households on pre-authorized giving, also known as DEFT, Direct Electronic Funds Transfer. DEFT does a lot to smooth out those peaks and troughs already. If you are not doing so, perhaps you will consider beginning contributing through pre-authorized giving as part of your commitment. Rest assured, whatever you plan to do, however you participate in Building, Celebrating, and Strengthening the Community of St. John the Evangelist, Kitchener, your information will be kept confidential, seen only by our DEFT and envelope secretary.
In August, the Stewardship Working Group considered a couple of graphics for the material we anticipated distributing in September and October. I thought these black and white handouts needed a little colour; Rebecca, our parish administrator told me it was all about branding. In any event, the working group settled on the graphic that appears in the upper right-hand corner of the Giving by Percentage table and then as a watermark on the Congregational Giving Profile. We looked at other choices, including a community holding hands with Jesus at the centre of the circle. There was, however, consensus on this graphic, not only because it was representative of a community that was radically inclusive, and not only because with arms over shoulders the circle can open at any time to welcome more and more people, but after seeing the Jesus-in-the-middle graphic we realized that this representation indicates Jesus’ presence with us in the circle; Jesus among us, and mystically within us. And so, not just this graphic, but our faith in the presence of the risen Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit suggests that Jesus joins us in this undertaking of building, celebrating, and strengthening the Community of St. John the Evangelist, Kitchener.