Sermon: Vision and Stewardship

By The Rev. Bernard W. Poppe, Rector

The Book of Proverbs writes, that "without a vision the people perish." It’s a phrase that is quoted a lot in religious circles because it points urgently to the need we have to hope in the future. A vision becomes a goal that is achievable, if not in specifics, then in concept. Institutions will write vision statements based on the direction they hope to go and the spirit in which they want to get there. A mission statement has specific goals, but a vision statement is wider, it takes in dreams and hopes for the future. It encapsulates what the person or institution is trying to build.

Without a vision of the future and the hopeful possibilities it holds, we just plod along in a survival mode on a treadmill with no particular motivation. We become dry and bitter.
Isaiah’s passage contains something akin to a vision statement for the people of Israel who were held in captivity in a foreign land. It holds a vision for how their lives should and will be in the future when they are released from that captivity. In their past, they worked fields and never knew for sure if some marauders would attack at harvest time and leave them without the fruit of their labor. They might be attacked in their towns and driven out, and the attackers take over the homes that they themselves had built. In Isaiah’s vision, none of that would happen. They would be safe and secure in their homeland and live to ripe old ages. More than that, even the animals would live in peace. The wolf and the lamb, the lion and the ox - all living peacefully. The only one who doesn’t share in the bounty of Isaiah’s vision is the serpent. The serpent’s food shall be dust. They never really forgave the serpents for the whole Adam and Eve thing. Not everyone gets to share the vision!
The vision in the Gospel of Luke is not as rosy. It’s triumphal in an important way, but it isn’t without suffering and anxiety. The early Christians faced hard times. When the Gospel of Luke was written approximately 40 years after the events it describes about Jesus, Christians were persecuted by the Romans and the Jewish leadership. Christians didn’t acknowledge the divinity of the Roman Emperor, or the traditional law of the Jews, and they suffered the rejection and persecution of each. The Gospel of Luke wrote the words of Jesus in the context of a church in distress, much like Isaiah wrote to people in the midst of distress. Whereas Isaiah’s words were poetic and blissful, Luke’s were ominous, because it contained their realities. Family members did turn against each other and turn their Christian members in. If one member of a family was a Christian, the whole family could be punished. Rather than face that, family members publicly turned against each other and remained safe that way. The temple was torn down in 67 AD, so the words of Jesus describing a time when even that would happen was seen as the fulfillment of a prophecy, and the hope of another prophecy that the second coming of Jesus was only a short time away. The early Christians held to the hope that Jesus would appear in their lifetime and bring the faithful to heaven. Both visions kept the people they served hopeful and connected to their faith.
Visions can sometimes backfire, however. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians to get after them for being lazy. Paul had done such a good job of convincing them that the second coming of Jesus was so immanent that some took it as a reason to stop working and wait. Why bother getting up for a job you don’t like if Jesus is right around the corner? Ah, don’t worry, be happy. Paul told them to get back to work and stop being a drain on the folks who did work.
Planning for the future and looking ahead with a vision is easy in one sense and difficult in another. It’s easy to dream up a utopian world and hope for a vague someday. It’s quite another thing to set realistic goals that stretch us but not so far that we despair that the dreams will ever happen.
The workers for abolition, or women’s suffrage, civil rights, and now marriage equality had and have a vision for a better world that at times seemed so far away and yet so close to possibility. In each struggle there were victories and set backs. There was optimism and frustration, the motivation to move ahead and the temptation to give up. The vision of each group was aided by the belief that God was at work in the journey toward justice and equality. The inherent value of each person as a child of God give us all a promise that we matter and that we are just as good as the next person and that the rights of one need to be available to all. If we believe that we are equal in the eyes of God, then we need to fight to be equal in the eyes of the law. In order to achieve these visions, sitting idly by isn’t going to help. Great strides have been made and further strides need to happen.
We have a vision here at St. George’s too. We envision a world in which all people are welcome in the eyes of God and each other; that the gifts and talents of each person are valued and celebrated; that we discern God’s call to us individually and as a community and find the faith and courage to live into it. We have a legacy of the work done so ably by those in past generations who have preceded us in this building. We have done a lot of work in this generation and we are making it possible for those who come after us to meet the challenges of their day. Our stewardship of the buildings and resources of St. George’s speak of our faith and how we believe God is calling us to use them. We reach out and we reach in. We reach out to the local and global community with our physical labor and financial contributions. We respond to global and national crisis. We offer food and shelter. We visit the sick and those in prison. We provide for children and families in need. We witness for justice and equality.
Occasionally at Diocesan and other church functions I’ll receive compliments about St. George’s for the work we do here. At first I’m confused because it’s become so second nature here that I assume all churches do what we, and am often surprised to learn that they don’t. We roll up our sleeves and do a lot of work and raise a lot of money and we still enjoy each other’s company doing it. Apparently this is not the case everywhere.
Yet, as wonderful as that is, we cannot be like the Thessalonians and sit on our past successes. There is still a lot to do. We still have a vision of what can be done for families, and children in particular. Providing an environment of faith takes intention and commitment. It doesn’t happen overnight or without work. Our work in the area of stewardship is a witness to that. In each of the stories told by parishioners this year and in years past, the discovery of God in this place emerged and the desire to be actively engaged as a result has gotten expressed in as many ways as there were stories.
One of the prayers in the Baptismal Covenant is that the person baptized has an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. Stretch in the stewardship of your time, talent and treasure. Engage in the vision of this community in our work and witness to God’s love and live into the baptism of being a disciple of Christ.
Pledges are a personal thing. The stewardship committee and the different levels of church organization often tip toe around the topic hoping not to turn people off or offend. We keep the pledges confidential and it’s important to give that assurance. We will teach about proportionate giving and the tithe. Proportionate giving is taking your salaries or financial resources and deciding on a percentage to pledge to the church. The tithe simply refers to the proportion that is ten percent. Whether before or after taxes is not a conversation we usually get into, except to say that it is up to the individual.
To a newcomer this may seem like a lot, and in a way of speaking it is. But when we look at the growth we’ve received in our lives, it’s generally been after some huge event or huge intentional action. Giving to God’s work in the world is such an intentional action. Your giving may be divided between this church and other places where you feel God’s work is being done. I’ve heard it put that "my money goes where I can’t."
We have a vision for the church that includes an increase in program, involvement of our members and reaching out to people who really want and need to find a spiritual home in which they feel welcomed, challenged and safe. We need to feel the presence of God in our prayer, music and fellowship. That comes from intentional giving, it doesn’t just happen. But we also have a vision for each individual among us. We are at our best when we give outside ourselves. Confidence and generosity are the characteristics of a spiritually healthy person. Fear of scarcity, withdrawing and isolating are signs of trouble. This is a sensitive and touchy area, but one that needs to be looked at in a safe way. We want to grow and be strong physically, spiritually and mentally. It takes intention and commitment. Growth doesn’t happen by chance. Stewardship time is one occasion in which we discuss our need for the contribution of our members to do the ministry that we do here, to keep it going and to help it grow. But it’s also an invitation for each of us to grow individually as well. Our ancestors in the faith overcame amazing odds to spread the Gospel of God’s love and became transformed in the process. We have daunting challenges in our day as well and with their example and the grace of God at our backs, we’ll meet ours as well. Amen.
©2010 St. George's Episcopal Church, Maplewood, NJ