Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost – October 27, 2013
May God spread the feast before the world, may Christ Jesus invite us all to come and may the Spirit join us all into the wonder of human community. Amen.
Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, once said that, when all is said and done, the last freedom we humans have is the freedoms to change our attitudes. The parable Jesus offers us this morning illustrates that well. Here we find an individual who is self-righteous, so self-satisfied with what he has accomplished, that he ridicules and scorns another human being whom he deems an unworthy sinner. His pride is in his wealth and power and ostentatious good deeds. The other, who worked for the Roman government collecting taxes, admittedly adding extra fees for himself, is not satisfied with how he has lived his life and with great humility begs God’s forgiveness and mercy.
This is a story of how two totally different people approached their relationship with God, their relationship with their community, their relationship with money. It is one of many that Jesus told to help us see that we have the freedom to change our attitudes about what we value in our lives, what is really important, and, ultimately, the freedom to be transformed. This parable sets a trap for us—not a trap to catch and condemn us as Pharisees nor one that separates tax collectors and Pharisees. It is a trap that brings us face to face with the reality of our life and our relationship with God.
Stories carry great power and can open our minds and hearts to see things in a new and expanded perspective. Over the past few Sundays, I invited you to have a cup of coffee in the Chtittim-Howell House between services and share your stories about what keeps you coming back to St. Paul’s. Then I have asked some others to give a brief witness about the meaning this community has in their lives. Each story I have heard has touched me deeply and reminded me again of why Jesus was such a storyteller. We all have a story to tell about how we have been connected to God’s grace; how the power of worship, the preaching of God’s word, the care of others in the community, the relationships we have formed, the support we have felt—how all of that has made a difference in our life.
Perhaps your story may go something like this: “St. Paul’s is my place of worship because of its uniqueness as a diverse community of faith. Tradition and ritual are wrapped in radical welcome and acceptance and God is alive here. The invitation to extend the Communion table out the doors into our daily life where a God-hungry world awaits is a constant theme that nourishes and challenges us every Sunday. And people in this community care about one another.”
I’ve been struck by a TV commercial for Vontage cell phone service. The “tag line” or ad mantra is “Crazy Generous.” The idea is that you’ll get a really great deal on your phone service because Vontage is just “crazy generous” with their customers. I’d like to think that St. Paul’s Church is crazy generous as well; crazy generous with our offering of radical hospitality, our invitation to everyone to come to God’s Table to be nourished there, our commitment to beautiful worship, our care of the congregation, our encouragement and support of those who give their time in so many ministries, our efforts to help those in need.
The first reading from Sirach today reminds us that this and all we have received is a blessing from God and that, in gratitude for God’s abundant giving to us, God asks us to give as generously as we can afford in order to advance God’s dream for our world. Each year during these autumn weeks you, we are all invited to consider how we will give back from the resources that God has given us so that St. Paul’s can continue to be here for us and those not yet and empower us to go out and to minister in a world that so desperately needs to know God’s grace and unconditional love.
This week an important envelope will arrive in your household. Please don’t put it aside or leave it unopened. The contents can be life-giving to this church. Inside is a Pledge Card. A pledge is not a onetime gift we make to Public Radio or Unicef. It is a decision to offer a specific amount on a regular weekly or monthly basis from your resources. It is an opportunity for us to honor our personal story about what this community means for us in a very tangible way. This is the way our vestry determines what support we can expect from those who consider St. Paul’s their parish, church home, place of refuge, community of fellowship—or however we describe the meaning of this sacred place in our lives.
I could talk about what your money gets you—the nitty gritty about lights and heat (soon!) and a competent and diligent staff and a beautiful, historic church and complex. You know that. You live with it. You see it in action. If you want to see the numbers, our treasurer will be happy to give you a tour of the budget. At the end of the day, however, it’s not about numbers. It’s about lives; it’s about human beings, and how they are raised up, encouraged, healed, transformed, even saved. It’s about how the lost are found, the marginalized are welcomed, seekers invited to come through our doors to belong before they believe.
The finale at Cabaret this year was that great song “To Dream the Impossible Dream.” As Rod Davis and the Ensemble sang those powerful lyrics, I sat in this place remembering that almost 21 years ago when I came here what we are and have and do today was almost the Impossible Dream. Look where God has brought us. What we offer to the community.
When you open that important envelope this week, think about your own story. What keeps you coming to St. Paul’s? What has it meant for your life? What has it meant for your relationship with God? With others? What would life be like without the worship experience it offers you every week?
Then give life and power and meaning to your story as you prayerfully and generously—maybe even in a crazy generous way—determine how you will invest in all that St. Paul’s is for you and so many others and invest in what we unabashedly stand for: the Gospel imperative of radical hospitality and the Good News of God’s unconditional love for all—no exceptions, no outcasts.
I realize that money can be a taboo topic in church. Even though Jesus talked about money and riches a lot, we don’t. We shy away from it and sometimes grouse when our clergy and lay leaders discuss its importance in our common life. Yet the truth is that money has much to do with the reality of our life and our relationship with God.
Our patron Paul wrote to the early believers about something called “the gifts of the spirit,” among them is the gift of Generosity. When the Spirit takes over our lives we are truly made into new people with a new relationship to God, each other, the earth, our gifts and skills, and our relationship to material abundance.
Generosity can be a scary thing because it opens the door to the Spirit and when the Spirit leads, we may go in a direction that we would never have chosen for ourselves. It may even free us to change our attitude so overwhelmingly that we get, well a little “nuts” and just want to be Crazy Generous because we are crazy in love with what this community is, does, and means for our life. I invite you to join me in my craziness.