December 16, 2018
The importance of gratitude – J. Barry Vaughn – Advent 3 – Dec. 16, 2018
Last Sunday we the lectionary introduced us once again to John the Baptizer or Baptist by telling us that he was the “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”, and we heard him proclaim again, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” as he predicted the coming of the Messiah.
Today we hear John preach his first sermon, and it is worthy of the most vehement hellfire and brimstone preacher you’ve ever heard:
“John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’”
I wonder if John had ever heard of church growth? The best way of getting people to come back to your church is probably not to begin by calling them vipers and warning them that they are about to be “cut down and thrown into the fire.” What do you think?
Actually, John reminds me of Amos Starkadder, a character in the British novel, Cold Comfort Farm. Starkadder is a lay preacher in the “Church of the Quivering Brethren,” and he outdoes even John the Baptizer:
“Ye miserable, crawlin’ worms. Are ye here again then? . . . out of your doomed houses, to hear what’s comin’ to ye? Have ye come, old and young, sick and well, matrons and virgins, if there be any virgins amongst you, which is not likely, the world being in the wicked state that it is. Have ye come to hear me tell you of the great, crimson, licking flames of hell fire? . . . And what good will it do ye? You’re all damned! Damned! Do you ever stop to think what that word means? No, you don’t. It means endless, horrifying torment! It means your poor, sinful bodies stretched out on red-hot gridirons, in the nethermost, fiery pit of hell . . . You know what it’s like when you burn your hand, taking a cake out of the oven, or lighting one of them godless cigarettes? And it stings with a fearful pain, aye? And you run to clap a bit of butter on it to take the pain away, aye? Well, I’ll tell ye, there’ll be no butter in hell!”
I grew up in the South in a Baptist church, and I heard way too many fire and brimstone sermons. That’s one of the reasons that I became an Episcopalian.
But I have to say that John the Baptizer and even Amos Starkadder have a point. The point they have in common is not that a terrible fate awaits the wicked in the afterlife. The point that they share is that our actions have consequences.
Today I want to talk with you about one of the ways that our actions have consequences, and that is in the way that we use our money.
At this point we are about 35% behind in reaching the figure that we need for our 2019 budget to equal our 2018 budget. Not to surpass it; just to equal it. Last year you pledged $244,000. This year so far only about $160,000 has been pledged. That means that we are behind by about 35%.
I don’t like talking about money. Studies show that one of the biggest complaints that people have about clergy is that they talk about money too much. Well, I have to confess that I believe that I don’t talk about it nearly enough. But I believe that money is an important indicator of our spiritual life. Doctors have stethoscopes, CAT scans, MRIs, and all manner of devices for determining our physical health. But what do we have to determine our spiritual health? The most important instruments we have for determining our spiritual health are our bank statements, our credit card statements, and our calendars. The way we spend our money and our time tells us most of what we need to know about our spiritual health.
My point is not to make you feel guilty. Rather, I want you to think about the kind of church you want this to be.
I want to make three points:
First, I know you want to grow, but growth is not possible without programs. Programs are not possible without staff members, and neither programs or staff members are possible without giving.
From the very beginning you have heard me say that we can’t wait until families show up to create a Sunday school program. We have to have the program in place for the families when they arrive.
There are other programs I’d like to create, but we have to have the staff in place to provide those programs.
Second, (and this is something else you’ve heard me say before) we have an old and large physical plant. It is also an architectural gem. I believe Christ Church is the most beautiful church in Las Vegas. The budget we passed last year included only enough money for upkeep. It did not include enough money to address all our deferred maintenance needs.
At some point next year, I will come to you to ask for additional money to address our most pressing deferred maintenance needs. At this point, I do not have any idea how much that will be.
All I am asking for right now is enough money to buy the duct tape and chewing gum we need to keep the building together.
By the way, I am incredibly grateful to the Herbst family for all the work they did to improve and beautify our courtyard.
Third, (and this is the most important point) stewardship is not really about programs or buildings and grounds; it is about our spiritual lives. If you are giving all that God asks of you, then I can ask for no more than that. But all of us need to ask ourselves if we are hearing and responding to God’s call. I can talk all day about the needs Christ Church has and why we need your contributions. But that is not really what stewardship is about.
Again, (and I cannot emphasize this enough) this is not about guilt. It is about gratitude. As I grow older that I sometimes find myself almost overwhelmed by gratitude. I have a wonderful life. I love this church and cannot tell you how grateful I am to serve as your rector.
As I said before, our bank statements, credit card statements, and calendars are great measures of our spiritual lives. But another barometer of our spiritual lives is gratitude. Everything we have is gift. I don’t mean to imply that you haven’t worked hard for all that you have received, but underlying all our hard work is health. And frankly, a lot of our success is also the result of good luck. But good luck is just another name for grace. We are all the recipients of grace. And for that we should be profoundly grateful.
I am going to let St. Paul have the last word.
In today’s second reading he tells the church at Philippi to rejoice: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Then he says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
In other words, once we have made our requests known to God, we have to let them go. That’s the best we can do. I hope you are praying and letting God know your hopes and dreams for Christ Church. And I hope that you are backing up your prayers with your contributions and your hard work. But once we have done that, all we can do is turn it over to God. And when we do that, then we will know the “peace that surpasses all understanding.” Amen.