Church pledge as investment

Here is the layman sermon on stewardship I was asked to give at R.E. Lee Memorial Church. Given Oct. 19.

This is not an interruption in your regular programming.

Brubaker dawnThis is not like the two weeks of fund-raising that intrudes on your National Public Radio listening, your Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Prairie Home Companion and This American Life. I’m not Rick Mattioni with WVTF down in Roanoke or Martha Woodroof with WMRA up in Harrisonburg coming on to talk about these great shows, and how they cost money and if you raise your pledge by so much you’ll get a tot bag or umbrella with R. E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church emblazoned on them. It’s not that at all.

But this idea made me think of the comparison between Episcopal Churches in America and the Anglican Church in the United Kingdom. There is a parallel to the way the British raise money for their public radio and public TV, the BBC. In the UK, the BBC is funded by a tax – technically, an annual television license fee. Every household, business or institution with a telly pays this every year. Currently it’s £145.50 for color and £49.00 for black and white. Here, we have fund-raising weeks to get listeners like you to make your pledge, because Lord knows, Congress isn’t much help with this. This is like the difference between the way an established church of the Crown is supported by a tax on all citizens, but a disestablished church like ours relies on free-will offerings. This is the history of Europe versus our history. Our American churches rely either on free-market appeal, on star power, or a sense of duty and civic obligation . . . or something else. Today, the established Anglican churches in England, or where we were in Ireland in July, don’t get tax money any more. But they are certainly living off of their centuries of establishment. And it’s conventional wisdom here in America that this has something to do with why they are so little attended. Their churches and cathedrals seem more often visited for their beauty than for fellowship with the faithful. Or people drop by for that sad British musing on the past, like in Philip Larkin’s poem Church-Going, not for renewal.

But this isn’t like an NPR fund-raiser. It’s about something else that we call “stewardship.”

Sheep in ConnemaraI’ve been wondering what this is – this stewardship. Peyton Craighill gave me the academic answer recently. This was in one our weekly morning breakfasts we were holding at Sweet Treats up the street from here. He took the word apart and gave the root meanings. Ship is the essence or abstraction of a thing – the “thing-ness” of a thing – like penman-ship, relation-ship. Ward is a keeper, like the warden of a jail, or our senior warden. And stew – S-T-E? Peyton says it is the same Old English word as “sty.” Great. So we are the keepers of our sty.

Last week, I asked our friend Bert about stewardship, since he’s a Lutheran pastor in Maryland and has been preaching a lot about stewardship lately. He gave me that old familiar mantra about gratitude. Stewardship is our response in gratitude for the abundance of what God has done for us, for His Creation and everything we have, which is all from God, as we know. Ok, I thought. But that was my last stewardship sermon. a few years ago, and I talked about my gratitude for things that don’t get talked about much (especially in stewardship sermons) because they’re so close to us and don’t cost anything: Language. Kinfolk. And memories. My theme was that we should take care of these things as precious gifts. Take care of the English tongue, and the memories that we can summon up in amazing sensorial richness, and take care of our relationships with cousins, parents, children . . .especially when these are no longer in residence with us so we have to make the effort to invite or visit. Take care.

Bert could see my eyes glaze over a bit. So he changed his advice. Just tell your story, he said. “Tell your story” is good advice. One of my journalism students in Ireland last summer had that exact phrase tattooed across the back of her neck.

My story. . It’s a story of growing up in an old Georgia family that told stories, played jazz and sang Beatles songs, wrote poetry and musical comedies, and ate meals together. I set out on the world in complete innocence and confidence and ignorance, and picked up a very liberal education with that kind of openness. Looking back on it, I don’t think I was a good steward. I was like the Prodigal Son without the part about the pig sty. Things worked out well for me, mostly.Barna Woods

When I got this assignment on stewardship, a metaphor came to me. Good stewardship is practicing your scales and arpeggios and sustained tones. Growing up, I put aside the clarinet I had been trained on since fifth grade – private lessons, an elementary-school concert band, terrible headaches from stress, a weekly practice record. I put all that down and picked up the tenor saxophone. I was pretty good for an amateur, never having taken a lesson. Twelve years ago, I lived in New Orleans for a year, teaching journalism at Loyola University. In the same building with the communications department was the music department, and on the music faculty was a jazz saxophone player named Tony Degradi. I decided it was finally time, in my middle age, to start taking saxophone lessons. So once a week, for $45 an hour, I would go down to Tony’s office for my lesson. I thought we’d do some jamming. I wanted to learn what goes on in his head and his soul when he’s sailing on a solo. I had the rhythm and I knew the chords, but how do I put those things together better when jazz is just moving along, and everybody’s making it up as it goes?

But we didn’t jam or improvise much. Mostly, he taught me how to practice. You practice scales, all 12, up, then down, 2 ½ octaves. Then intervals. Then arpeggios. Then just one note, sustained, no vibrato, soft, then loud, then soft. This was radical. I began to realize that I had always thought I was practicing when I just played what felt right and sounded good. In fact, practicing for jazz is the opposite. It’s playing what doesn’t feel right or sound good. And you do that until it does sound good – or at least tolerably decent. You get your house in order. And then, it’s amazing how much better your ad libbing gets. Here in Lexington, I’ve taken a few lessons from another fine jazz saxophone player, Tom Artwick. He teaches me the same thing – how to practice right.

A saint

A saint

There’s something about good stewardship in that. We learn the good habits of practice, the habits that don’t feel good or natural at first. But in time, with practice, we find our Christian lives becoming beautiful improvisations. We’re more in the syncopation and uncharted music of grace, because we get dressed up in a dull sort of formality on Sunday mornings and go to a musty old church, and because we’ve made our pledge, and increased it by more than the Cost of Living Index, as we have every year for the past 30 years. It’s practicing scales. That’s my story.

But I’m not sticking to it.

Just taking care of what we have, no matter how grateful we may feel about it, tends to close us off to some things that might be stirring in the church. The inspiration some of us drew from reading and discussing the book People of the Way: Renewing Episcopal Identity. The talks we were having at Sweet Treats about mission in our weekdays’ work and in our community. Or an idea of coordinating outreach with other Lexington churches and in transformational relationships through a model called Love In the Name of Christ, Love INC. These are all new things, still barely visible, transformations that wait for us out there in our future, outside our church. What is God up to? We won’t find out by simply taking care of our sty, merely being good stewards, or shrewd stewards.

Rather than the old concept of stewardship, Libby and I now think of our pledge as an investment. We’re not burying our talents, but putting them to work. At doing what? We don’t know. . .yet. This is the thing. We are investing in a vision that is only just coming into view. I don’t even know what the vision is. I am investing in a vision I can’t even see. But I know it’s there.

Have you ever noticed how the word parish sounds like the word perish? Or how it’s related to the word parochial, which is defined as “narrowly restricted in scope or outlook”? There’s a much-quoted verse out of Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” But this doesn’t refer to our own vision within. The Hebrew word is better translated as revelation, a word from outside ourselves. This is what takes us beyond stewardship, to that place that the book People of the Way talks about, where we enter other people’s homes and lives depending on their hospitality, and listen to their story. A vision as revelation moves us out of the parochial.

I recently had a vision that wasn’t a revelation, but came from my own imagination. It was a brilliant idea, I thought. With an election coming on Nov. 4, I decide to bring applications for absentee ballots to the five or six shut-ins I had just started visiting on Tuesday, bringing them lunches in the “Meals for Shut-Ins” program. I imagined if I could get half my shut-ins to vote, this could be the start of a revolution – tens of thousands of volunteers with Meals on Wheels bringing absentee ballots to a million elderly shut-ins around the country.

The day I set off with five application forms along with the lunches from the hospital, I was feeling strangely vulnerable, open to what God might be up to. That morning I had been with the men’s prayer breakfast group. Our reading from that Scottish Calvinist Oswald Chambers was ferocious, as usual. He said, “If we are ever to be made into wine, we will have to be crushed. . .to be broken bread in his hands.” As I took those absentee forms to each door, I was struck by how ignorant I was of the tragedies and life and death stories brooding within each little bungalow. In one, a chain-smoking old lady struggled to turn off the game show on her little TV. In another, I wait on the porch with a one-eyed cat and rusty junk while the lady inside comes to the door with her yappy dog. On Moore Street, the nephew with the cancer in his neck, which hurts like a toothache, he tells me, hobbles to the door, bent over. In another, the wasted son with lung cancer is helping a nurse aide with his mother, who is suspended midair in a harness for some kind of treatment. And in another, the lady who answers the door looks like a visiting angel; beautiful blue eyes look at me with compassionate serenity, and she tells me they don’t have time for me to fill out the absentee ballot application. “We must get her to the hospital at UVA,” the angel tells me.

In between these visits, I’m back in my little Miata listening to the Diane Rehm show on public radio. The show is on “Single Parenthood and Child Well-Being.” The tragedies that I peek into in each house are multiplied by the millions in what the panelists are talking about on this show. It’s about single moms with jobless boyfriends who desert them, moms struggling with 2 to 3 minimum wage jobs and little hope or vision, perishing. Marriage to this generation just seems like some stupid idea out of the past, out of touch, like the Democratic Party or church bazaars. This rush of experience I barely take in, unable to connect it with the prayer breakfast or church or, certainly, the beautiful bubble of luxury I return to at Washington & Lee.

But I know why Libby and I have upped our pledge to this church. It’s an investment in the mission that comes as vision, like a revelation, when it comes.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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