Together in Love

What does it take to build our life together? We start our worship series journey at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses, at God’s command, has led the people out of slavery, through the plagues and the Red Sea, out into the wilderness, on their way to their promised freedom. And here, at the relative beginning of that journey, they pause at the foot of a mountain so that Moses can confer with God and receive further instructions.

When he returns, among the words he shares with the people are those in our lesson this morning, which are often referred to as the Ten Commandments. There is more to be said about these rules for living than time permits this morning, so let us keep this in mind: these commandments are meant to shape the life of a people. They are meant to guide a community learning to live together in love.

Whatever instincts they might have had toward building a society are long gone due to the ravages of slavery. And so, God takes special care to lead them by the hand into the land of promise as they build a new and promising life together.

Moments like these, these Sinai moments, are important ones in the life of faith. And over the next few weeks as we journey through this worship series, we will touch on several key ones in our Scriptures. These moments act as markers, reminders of what is at stake and what is expected of us. They act as guideposts, pointing out the path we have trod and reminding us of what it has taken to get us where we are.

At its best, our Stewardship Campaigns should act as such a moment, a time when we gather together at a crossroads, remembering what God has done for us already and envisioning what God has in store for us in the years to come.

I do not, for a moment, claim to be Moses. And while I have had profound experiences of God, I do not pretend to have had the mountaintop “written in stone” kind of experience we have heard this morning. Instead, I hope you hear my thoughts this morning as just that: thoughts from your pastor, steeped in prayer and reflection, as we celebrate our 65th Anniversary as a congregation and look forward to what God has in store.

Every year when we begin our Stewardship Campaign, I am reminded that here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, we hold two important realities in tension. The first is that it takes money to do ministry. All you have to do is look around this Sanctuary to be reminded of that. We have lights, heat, a sound system. We buy paper and equipment to have bulletins every Sunday. Tim, Cheryl, and I are all on staff. You compensate us for our time and work. It takes money to do ministry. And the second reality is this: we give away everything we do. If we truly believe that grace is God’s free gift to us, how in the world could we turn around and charge for it? There are no membership dues, no entrance fees. And if there are, my conviction is that something has gone very wrong.

This is an unworkable economic model. And yet, we make it work. Or should I say, God makes it work. Every year, we ask you to make a prayerful financial commitment to the work of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. And every year, you do. And every year, it more or less works out.

There’s a lot more to the story than that, of course. We have leaders working very hard behind the scenes, keeping costs down, monitoring our books, and thinking through how we ask for your commitment. Your donations and gifts come in weekly, monthly, annually to keep us going. And we make our accounting as transparent as possible. It’s an open book, which we believe is the most faithful way to manage what God has given us.

It’s in that Spirit of openness that I want to spend a few moments looking at numbers. You will have many chances to see these over the course of the next few months, so consider this a first look. I’m hoping that some of you will find this helpful.

For 2015, Session is asking the congregation for a total of $255,000 in pledged giving. We have several sources of income, the largest other one being building usage, but congregational giving is the single largest source of income. The goal this year is to make our ask during Stewardship season only. The past two years we have done an additional mid-year ask in order to fill in the gap, and you all have responded generously. But I get the feeling that we’re all getting a little tired of doing that. So let’s put it all on the table here: $255,000 in pledge giving is what Session projects we will need in order to have enough income to pay all of our expenses in 2015.

If you want to break it down, there are a couple of different ways to do so. For example, we have 131 members on the roles. Per member, that total works out to about $1,950 for the year, or $37.50 per week. Membership is one way to look at this, but there are many who support Oglethorpe with time and energy and finances that are not officially members of the church.

If we break it down by worship attendance, we average about 90 people on a Sunday morning. That works out to $2,850 per person per year, or $55 per person per week. Of course, we have members who give but are unable to attend due to health or work.

One other way to look at it is by income. A few years ago, we surveyed the congregation and learned that our average household income is $117,452. With about seventy pledges coming in, that works out to about 3% of household income, or about $3,650 per pledging household per year, or $70 per week.

I thought he was going to preach today!

Look: the whole reason I share all of these numbers with you today is in hopes that it might be helpful to some of you. These are some of the figures that help paint the financial picture of what it takes to build our life together. None of this is prescriptive. Some of you are able to give above average, and others below. And, above all, I trust you to know what is possible in your own life. All I ask is that you make your consideration steeped in prayer.

The point in all of this is that we make our commitments not as a collection of individuals, but as a community of faith who share life together. Faith is meant to be a shared enterprise. That tends to fly in the face of what our culture teaches us about the centrality of self-reliance and independence. 77% of Americans consider themselves Christians. A third of those attend services less than twice a month. In other words, the number of Americans who self-identify as “Christian” without participating in any kind of church or faith community is staggering.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe for a moment that the Spirit is magically contained by the four walls of a church building, or that somehow Christ can only be present in the lives of those who are on the membership rolls, or that the most important thing to God is your attendance record. That said, what we know – from the stories of Scripture to the way our very bodies and brains are wired – is that the life of faith is meant to be shared together. It’s how we build our life together. It’s how we encourage one another, how we challenge one another, how we teach and learn from one another. It’s how we pool our resources, how we move out into the world, how we become Christ’s hands and feet.

It is, ultimately, how we become partners with God in building God’s beloved kingdom, making mercy and grace something tangible to the world around us! It is how we come together in love and share that love with one another and with the world around us.

We do not charge for God’s free gift of grace. Instead, my prayer today is that it would give us a charge, sending us forward from the foot of this mountain and on into that place of promise that awaits us.