September 24 Sermon by Harry Anderson

Sermon 9-24-17


Good morning.  For those who don’t know me, I’m Harry Anderson.  I am a member of our parish and serve on our Vestry.  And I am pleased to be speaking with you.


I’m also stewardship chair at St. Stephen’s this year, and today is the kickoff of our pledge campaign for 2018.  This morning, my topic is how – together – we will support our church community and our budget in the year ahead. 


I already hear you thinking, given that subject matter, it may be time to tune out, turn down your hearing aids and start checking emails and texts on your phones.  Please don’t do that just yet!  


In a few minutes, as you leave the sanctuary and head for the fabulous stewardship brunch that awaits us in the parish hall, a couple of us will personally hand you a stewardship packet.  Don’t even think about leaving here without it!  Your packet has a letter telling why we pledge in the Episcopal Church, a pledge commitment card for you to fill out, an explanation of where and how we spend money at St. Stephen’s . . . and some good things we’ll be able to do if we have more pledge income next year.


Please take some time to prayerfully reflect on what being part of our St. Stephen’s community means to you.  Then fill out the pledge commitment card and join us in Miller Hall on Tuesday October 24 for our pledge ingathering and Harvest Potluck Dinner. 


There is a sign-up sheet for that in the hall this morning.  Please let us know you’re coming.  After we enjoy a meal together that evening, we’ll gather our pledges in the sanctuary and share a Taizé service of quiet prayer and meditation.  And we’ll also “fill the jar.”  More about that a little later.


            Our stewardship theme this year is “nurturing God’s beloved community.”   But what exactly does that mean?  Most of you know I love words and have spent my life working with them.  So let’s begin by examining three particular words:  stewardship, beloved and community.  Then let’s talk about our beloved community here at St. Stephen’s:  What it is, what it isn’t and how together we nurture it.


In our modern world, “stewardship” at church is too often associated just with pledge campaigns and raising money.  It is that, but it’s so much more.  It is a core Christian value. In medieval times, the king or lord of the manor assigned the management of all his assets to his trusted stewards. In the centuries since, Christians have used stewardship to explain our responsibility to care for each other and creation with love and respect.  In today’s Wall Street vernacular, I’d call us God’s asset managers. 


“Beloved” is our English translation of the Greek word “agapetos,” which is found 42 times in the Old Testament and 110 times in the New Testament.  It’s an adjective form of the verb agape, which is love for others based on compassion and respect.  It’s the love God has for every one of us.  Agape is also how we describe the affection we have in our community of life in Christ.  Paul and the other epistle writers in Scripture used “Beloved in Christ” over and over throughout their letters as an encouragement to early Christian communities. 


And the word “community” comes from three Latin roots:  Com, meaning together; Munis, meaning chained or linked; and Tatis, meaning intimate or local.  Community . . . . . . . . . .Intimately linked together.


OK, so now you’ve endured my agape for words yet again.  But how do stewardship, beloved and community go together to support our 2018 pledge campaign right here at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Oak Harbor, Washington, USA?


Let’s start with what we proclaim is our mission at St. Stephen’s.  It’s printed right there at the top of your bulletin:  “To worship, love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ, welcoming everyone, deepening our faith, helping our neighbor and caring for creation.”  We call that the common purpose of our community of faith.  Without that common purpose, would we even be a community?


In Paul’s letter to the early but fragmented Christians who met in small houses scattered across Rome, he called on them to live in harmony so that they might glorify God with one voice.  Paul said community, or being members of one body, is God’s desire for us because as we grow in relationship with others we grow in relationship with God.  And in the Book of Acts, the early Christians learned this lesson as they grew, prayed and ate together “praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”


            So how do we know if we at St. Stephen’s are truly a beloved community of faith?  As I mentioned, the most important hallmark is that we have a common purpose, and we do.  But there are other necessary hallmarks. 


Let’s do a short checklist.  One, do we encourage each other – does everybody have something to teach and to learn from the rest of us?  Two, do we have fun together?  We’re serious about our worship, love and service.  But do we really enjoy being together?  Do we laugh out loud?  Three, does the Holy Spirit join us in all we do?  Jesus said he’d be wherever two or three are gathered in his name.  But does he hang around St. Stephen’s all the time?  Even, dare I ask, at Vestry meetings?  The Lord be with us!  Four, do we foster love and respect among ourselves?  How do we show it?   Do our conversations, hugs and handshakes feel genuine?  And five, are we life-giving and affirming?  Are we better together than we are apart?


            I bet all of you were answering “Yes! Sure! You bet!” to all those questions. And if you didn’t, well, I suggest you talk to Rilla at coffee hour. 


But here’s the rub.  Does being in a beloved community at St. Stephen’s mean we think alike, vote like, have the same hobbies, read the same books, watch the same TV shows, cheer the same sports teams, enjoy the same movies and music?  Uh, I don’t think so.  Not even close.  We’re a pretty diverse bunch of folks with a lot of opinions.


But, we are bound in community by our common purpose to worship, love and serve Jesus Christ.  And when we squabble, argue, disagree – which we do, and will – we must remember and return to our common purpose.  As Jesus showed us in this morning’s Gospel reading in his parable about the landowner who paid the same wage to two workers who did vastly different amounts of work, God’s in charge here.  We are the stewards.  We have responsibilities.  But in God’s beloved community, it’s not how much work we do individually, but rather how well we work together for the good of all.   

So then . . . if we are a beloved community at St. Stephen’s, as I believe we are, how do we keep us healthy and growing?  That’s where the nurturing part comes in.    


As I mentioned, the word “beloved” appears in the Bible dozens of times.  But the term “beloved community” does not.  Most of us have come to know it because Martin Luther King Jr. used it frequently to describe the healthy society he believed would emerge from the long struggle for civil rights – a society built on justice, mercy, compassion and inclusion.  He saw the beloved community as being the entire human family. 


To me, Dr. King is a true prophet of God who lived in my own time.  So many of his words have even more meaning today than when he wrote or spoke them a half century or more ago. 


In 1967, just a few months before he was murdered, Dr. King withdrew from his busy life and went to Jamaica alone.  There, he prayed and meditated about what was happening in America at the time – riots in our cities, racial tension, economic inequality, worsening political divisions, the war in Vietnam, the alienation of young people.  He wrote a book that came out late that year; it was entitled “Where Do We Go From Here:  Chaos or Community.”  It didn’t receive enough attention at that time because he was killed right after it came out.  But his words are prophetic for us today.  Here’s an example:


“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”  And then he added, “Enlarged material powers spell peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul.”


Let those words of Dr. King from 50 years ago sink in for moment.  To have a beloved community, we must have a good purpose.  And our community must be supported by faith in God, strong values, truth telling, loving relationships and, perhaps most importantly, the nurturing of our souls.


Dear friends, I do believe we meet Dr. King’s test to be a beloved community here at St. Stephen’s.  I see it every week when Rilla asks our children what they learned in Sunday School. 


I see it in our unswerving commitment to tithe ten percent of pledge income every year to help our most vulnerable neighbors – the hungry, the homeless and needy families with children.


I see it after coffee hour every Sunday when those angels we call the Altar Guild clean up after us, carry out the garbage and vacuum the rug.


I saw it in how we came together to help and support the Howes family when they moved back home . . .and aren’t we blessed to have them here!


And I saw it just last weekend during our Treasure Sale.  So many of us working together for a good purpose to help those affected by the hurricanes.  Encouraging each other, having fun, laughing out loud.  Showing love and respect to everyone.  Being better together than apart. 


And I felt the Holy Spirit among us the whole time – perhaps never more than as the sale ended.  All of us were exhausted and we dreaded the task of packing up the leftovers so we could have coffee hour on Sunday morning and a public meeting that afternoon.  None of us had much energy left.  But somehow it happened, and quickly.  The Holy Spirit helped us.   


As God’s stewards in this time and place, we must continue to do good works like those and to nurture our beloved community . . . and our souls. 


So I ask you to join Terry and I, and make a generous pledge to St. Stephen’s for 2018.  If you have made one in the past, you know the drill.  If you haven’t pledged before, please put up a packet and give it prayerful consideration. 


Then please join us on Oct. 24 as we eat and pray together, and offer our pledges to God.  And, as we place our pledge commitments right here on this table, each of us will also see a glass jar partially filled with small stones.  Each of us will then will pick up a stone and add it to the jar. 


And as we fill that jar together, we will create a tangible sign of our own commitment to nurturing the beloved community here at St. Stephen’s.