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Woven Together: A Stewardship Sermon

November 4, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Stewardship Commitment – All Saints Sunday, November 4, 2012

 Mark 12: 28- 34

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

The command to love God and our neighbor as ourselves stands at the heart of our faith.

When asked which commandment was first of all, Jesus responds by citing the shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Deut. 6: 4-5) When Jesus says we are to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, he is speaking not to just anyone, but to a particular community of people who life together is shaped by the redemptive acts of God. He is speaking to the people of Israel and, by extension, to the church. This is the community that does not believe abstractly in God, but who trusts the God who creates, redeems and sustains all life; the God who liberates and frees the captive and oppressed; the God who lifts up the poor while bringing down the rich; a God whose way among us is understood most fully as the way of Jesus among us.

And when the scribe hears Jesus answer, he replies “You are right, Teacher, this is much more important than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” He is not condemning the ceremonies, rituals, or practices of religion, only recognizing that they are to be shaped by, and to serve, love. And the love of God and neighbor belong together, as one.

“If you need anything, anytime, you know you are always welcome.” I heard this spoken by one of our deacons yesterday, but it echoes the sentiment I have heard all week long as neighbors sought at first to prepare for, and then to respond to and recover from, Hurricane Sandy. While stores were emptied of batteries and bread, the church office on Monday attempted to check in with homebound or single members, making sure everyone had a plan for Tuesday. Throughout the week members have been calling or checking in with one another, offering everything from meals and warmth to spare rooms or a place to crash. The church building has been a second home for many, with heat, coffee, internet and a place to recharge cell phones.  Many of our members remain without power, my family included, along with almost a third of Con Ed customers in White Plains, but as I have visited members at home I have been touched by how neighbors have been taking care of one another.

Additionally, I was contacted by the city on Friday with a need for a new Freezer at the Salvation Army where they have been feeding 150 people from shelters here in White Plains with hot breakfast, lunch and dinner. So at 6:00 Friday evening I delivered, on your behalf, a new freezer to their kitchen on Post Road, purchased with your mission funds. This is what the love of neighbor will look like for some time to come.  This is what the love of God has looked like this week.

What more can we do? Give, Act, Pray – that is the mantra of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. Already this week, emergency aid was rushed to the Synods of the Mid-Atlantic, Trinity and the North-East, where response teams have been aiding local recovery in areas hit far worse than our own. These are funds from your One Great Hour of Sharing offering this year already at work. Our local mission commission yesterday committed two hundred dollars to PDA, and an opportunity for additional giving is presented to us this morning. One church member has offered to match up to $1000 of your gifts to PDA. Information is in your bulletin.  I encourage you to prayerfully consider what you can give to help our neighbors.

The kind of care we have shown to one another this week is not unique to the church. As I have said, it can be found in neighborhoods, workplaces, and among families. Even when we are not in the midst of disaster, most of us, religious or spiritual or not, want and need the same things. If you sit in Starbuck’s long enough, or the library or one of the bars on Mamaroneck Avenue, or on the train, and listen in on enough conversations, what you will hear is that we search for meaning, we struggle to forgive ourselves and others, we need good friends, we share the desire to be known for who we are, who we truly are, to have honest conversation, and we hope for a better world.

But these hopes and desires take on a particular pattern when we bring them here, to the church. Here, our hope is a prayer, and our prayer helps us hear God. Our struggle to forgive is spoken in the same place our passions for justice and our actions for a better world are offered.  We grieve our losses in the same space we welcome children into the community.  And we offer hospitality to the stranger in the same place our desire to be known is shared by others with whom we break bread. It is the patterning, the weaving together of these practices, and our relating them all to God’s love for us, that makes our lives distinctly Christian.

I am reminded of a conversation I once had with a woman in Starbuck’s. She was a member of the church, and was going through a divorce, and it had been a while since I had seen her. She shared with me how difficult it was to come to worship and look at the place where she and her husband exchanged vows together. But as we talked, we began to see this same worship space as the place where she had received her bible in third grade, where her children were baptized, where she had read scripture on Sunday mornings, and her children had acted in the Christmas pageants. The sanctuary was a place where time and again she had come for memorial services to say goodbye to friends, and meet familiar faces; familiar faces that had seen her laugh, and cry, and hope, and pray; had witnessed her ups and downs, her good times and not so good times. The church was not simply the place where her marriage ceremony had taken place – no different than a hotel or a beach or country club.  This church was where her life was woven together; the beautiful moments, difficult moments, hopeful moments – old and new and growing relationships.  This church was the place she had practiced her faith, alone, with her family, with friends and with strangers.  This was the space where she had prayed, offered hospitality, witnessed for justice, lived forgiveness and offered her resources.  During our conversation, this woman realized that she had chosen to commit herself both to the church and through the church to her family, neighbors and strangers.

Today is Stewardship Commitment Sunday.  This church is only a church because God has brought us together with a vision: a vision of love in service to the world and to each other in the name of Jesus Christ who sustains us and guides us. Our church lives not on money but on hope. We worship each Sunday because it is this community which has become God’s hand upon ours during the week. If we pray for growth it is not so that we will be a mega-church in the midst of the city but so that we have facilities through which this ministry to the world can live.

So, since this is Stewardship Commitment Sunday, and we are preparing to share our financial commitments with the church, let’s first agree that this money will not go to support an institution. Yes it will help pay for the upkeep of this building. Yes, some will help larger denominational mission. Yes, some will go toward paying my salary. But know one thing. This church is not about ritual for the sake of ritual, or an institution for the sake of an institution. We do not want your offering if you decide to give money in place of your heart to God. We are not in the business of soothing guilty souls through exchanges of cash. This is not a place of business, but a temple of God. We do not make large donations a requirement for membership. Nor will we cajole our greatest donors through prestige and attention. We will not refuse communion or Church School or pastoral care to anyone, ever.

And then let us commit to share the love of Christ with integrity and abundance. Let use our spiritual and material resources to spread the love of Christ. Let us also, without shame offer our money to God. Let us give without hesitancy to the activity of God’s Church because we trust this church bear witness to the love of God and neighbor in our community. Recall the faith sharing stories you have heard this past year about how God has moved in this church to transform the life of someone you know. Then remember how God has worked through this community to comfort you, to heal you, to encourage you.

And then come. Come, trusting that God is working through this community once more. Come with a portion of your harvest. Come with a tenth of your income, or another percentage. Come with confidence and hope and lay your gifts and pledges on this same table from which we will receive the sacrament of communion, the sacrament of connection, of world community, the sacrament of peace. The sacrament of our everyday life – our sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – transformed by God’s grace.

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