You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. Two months ago we started this worship series, looking back over Oglethorpe Presbyterian’s 65 year history. We have looked at music and Sunday School, at our traditional of engagement in mission and contemporary issues. And most importantly, we have meditated on what it means to be church, and what it is that is essential to our DNA as a congregation.
Here are some of the words that have popped up over and over again: Honest. Faithful. Welcoming. Selfless. Transparent. Brave. Open. Compassionate. Creative. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that our history is perfect. No one’s is. But what is important is the character that moves through that history, both in times of success and in times of challenge.
And I’m convinced that, looking back at where we’ve been, we also look forward to know where we’re going.
In a sense, that’s a key part of what we do today in our Stewardship Dedication. We are asking for your pledges as partners in our shared ministry at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. We are asking for your commitments of your money, your gifts, and your time, and our pledge cards have room for all of those categories. In other words, we are inviting you to be a part of where we go from here as we continue that honest, faithful, welcoming, selfless, transparent, brave, open, compassionate, creative legacy we have inherited here at the corner of Lanier and Woodrow.
And it’s no accident that we do all of this today of all days. Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar as we move into Advent next week. As we celebrate Reign of Christ Sunday, we remember the central place that God ought to have in our lives. Our love for God is more powerful than any tribal boundaries we might construct. But it is God’s love for us that transcends those barriers first.
What would it look like to give that kind of priority to God? Our two Scripture lessons this morning give some indication. The prophet Jeremiah casts his vision of God’s love as that of a shepherd reclaiming the scattered sheep. Remember that Jeremiah is speaking to a defeated people who have been taken into exile. And so he pronounces judgment on the unjust rulers who have treated the people so poorly. At the same time, he never lets the people off the hook for allowing injustice to flourish. But it is hope that wins out. A new day is coming when a righteous ruler will lead the people. They will flourish, and peace will reign supreme.
Christians have usually read this Jeremiah text as prophecy about Jesus. It was he, the descendant of King David, the Prince of Peace, the righteous one, who came to preach and practice justice. And when we follow Christ, when we reflect Christ’s character of merciful healing, that’s when we become builders of the righteous kingdom that Jeremiah promised. In other words, when we focus on the things of God, we make the world a better, fairer place, just as God desires.
I want to be cautious not to link building the kingdom with giving to stewardship, because I know that churches are not the only way that God is at work in the world. At the same time, I know that we are more likely to see our way forward when we work in community than when we work alone.
I was reminded of this yesterday morning. The Sanders family took to our yard to clear away some of autumn’s magic. I was up on the roof, where I’ve been a hundred times before, sweeping away the leaves and clearing out the gutters. When I finished, I started carefully down the ladder. No sooner had I put my full weight on it than it slid out from under me, crashing to the driveway. Not surprisingly, I was not far behind. Fortunately, the fall was only about six feet, and somehow I managed to land on my feet. So other than being a little sore and scratched up today, and possibly a few inches shorter, I’m absolutely fine. It was a perfect reminder as to why I never go up on the roof unless someone else is home with me. To do so by myself is simply a risk I’m not willing to take.
Living in community has its challenges. And yet, we are always better together than we ever are alone. I have seen this truth time and time again here, perhaps nowhere more so than working with our session (or, for those of you not accustomed to Presby-speak, our church leadership). Every year, you elect our elders and promise to trust their leadership. And every year, we have seen how well-founded that trust is. The weightier the issue, the more seriously session takes it. And in that prayerful process of consideration, we have always come out of it with a clearer vision of what lies ahead and of what God has in store for us.
It was a little over a year ago that we launched our Capital Campaign. And as we did, it took serious consideration and conversation. It was brave, and it was faithful. Because of it, we have made significant improvements to our facilities with more to come. We have also begun to invest in outreach and evangelism. And I can see a renewed energy and sense of purpose in us as a result of that work. We took a chance, stepped out in faith, and it paid off.
And five months ago, we came face to face with the reality of our dwindling savings. Our projected deficit for this year was on the order of $54,000. If that happened, by January of next year we would have been down to some three weeks of operating reserves. At the end of last month, we had narrowed our gap to $6,000. And that gap looks very likely to close by the end of the year. We were honest and transparent, and it bore fruit. In short, the more we lean into that character with which God has blessed us, the more we are able to look forward in faith.
I don’t want us to get too caught up in the financial issues here. There is much more to supporting our ministry than money. And yet, I want to be clear that we cannot isolate money from the conversation. If God is truly sovereign, if Jesus is really Lord, then money must be a part of the conversation. The question is not if we talk about it, but how we talk about it.
And that’s the point I want to leave you with today. How much you give is less important than that you give. The richer we are in blessings, the more is expected of us. At the same time, it is the poor widow that Jesus commends as the exemplar of generosity, giving her two small coins as a sign of her faith.
Yesterday I overheard a conversation at a coffee shop that reminded me what a skewed view of money we have in our society. A young man was talking to his friends and said, “I need to get a job. Seriously. I am so broke it’s not even funny. So I’m thinking of getting this $150 case for my phone. Is that stupid?”
His friend answered with the following wisdom: “Yeah, it is, but…you know…”
“Right,” he said. “I’m gonna get it.” [smh]
It’s easy enough to judge someone else for their stupid decisions. But what would your financial values sound like to the nosy person at the next table? The question is not whether your household budget is a moral document. The question is what your household budget says about your moral values.
I say this all to you not as someone who has figured it out, but as a fellow struggler. And so I want to close by sharing with you what I share with every new members’ class about giving and money and stewardship:
We do not require financial giving to be a part of our community. There are no membership fees or dues. After all, we believe that God’s grace is a gift freely received; how in the world could we turn around and charge for it? At the same time, we ask every person here to consider prayerfully what you might give. Your decision, ultimately, is between you and God, because no one knows your situation better than the two of you.
For some of you, it might be helpful to aim for the traditional tithe, or ten percent of income – maybe not this year, but to build toward it. For others, it might be enough simply to know how much you give compared to what you receive and to track that from year to year so you can begin to get a picture of what your budget says about your values.
Whatever the case, the truth is that we are better when we share in community than when we carry the burden alone. It is in our sharing that God is able multiply.
That’s the gift of the communion table. Many of you will gather around other tables this week, tables creaking under the weight of a massive feast. You will eat and you will be full. You will fall asleep in front of the TV. But the table we gather around today is a different kind of table.
This table reminds us of our call to generosity. What we receive from this table we receive freely. And we receive it because in the very act of coming forward, we acknowledge how much it is that God gives us to feed and sustain us. Our bellies may not be filled here, but the promise is that our souls will find nourishment. And so fed, may we go forth to feed the world.