Wednesday, October 3, 2018

A sermon on stewardship given by Steven Nordstrom on Sept. 30, 2018

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer. Amen.
Many of us likely had a spark of memory this morning as we spoke the words of the Psalm together, the same words I just repeated. Each week for the last six years, I heard our former priest-in-charge Peter Van Hook intone that prayer before each of his sermons, and that each time he spoke it in earnestness and humility. This short but powerful prayer sets the tone that helps protect us from the less honorable human temptations to honors, glory, power, or domination. Sometimes we succeed; sometimes we fall short of this ideal. But we gather together and attempt to remember the way of humility and love taught by Jesus, and somehow that yields strength and redemption. That’s good news, thanks be to God.

Today I come to you with a bit of an odd sermon of sorts. We’ll pay attention to today’s readings, of course, because they have some application to what I’ve come before you to discuss. We’ll be getting into the weeds for a bit, though, so hopefully you’ll come along with me and trust that we’ll bring it back full circle. I promise.

This morning kicks off a month-long pledge drive for St. Mary’s Church, and as the Senior Warden charged with keeping the church moving forward in this period of transition, I’m going address some details about St. Mary’s operating budget. You might exclaim, “What good news is there in talking about numeric figures and administrative details?” This might sound similar to the wry question posed by the “guileless” apostle Nathanael, who asked “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, and by Nazareth I’m guessing he meant “talking about money in church”. Can anything good come from talking about money in Church? Isn’t it best left unspoken because of the potential for discord? Everyone already understands that it takes money to run a church, right? Seriously, it is sort of like inviting the Thanksgiving dinner from hell, because we will break two major topic taboos at family gatherings: speaking about money and religion. At the same time.

Yet, my invitation to you is the same one Jesus gave as he met Nathanael on the way. “Come and see!”, he said, followed by—and I’m using the functional translation of the Greek here--“You ain’t seen nothing yet!”

And yet, as I’m sure Jesus also understood, and counter to the colloquialism, seeing isn’t, in fact, believing, unless one also has an open heart and mind to experience what the Spirit is saying to God’s people. That invitation to come and see requires more than just an agreement to observe. I invite you to incline your hearts, turn on your minds, and engage with your soul’s desires as we talk today about the why and the how of who we are and what we do here at St. Mary’s Church.

I begin by talking about the most expensive aspect of our operating budget, which is salary for our clergy. Some of you are unfamiliar with a religious tradition that pays its ordained ministers. That’s alright. For some context from the perspective of one who came from such a tradition, some of the reasons I see why we pay our ministers in this faith tradition has to do with what is expected of them. The Episcopal Church requires a priest or deacon receive three years of advanced theological study and pastoral training before ordination, and in continuing their education and professional development throughout their lifelong ministry. For many priests, their work in the church is as laborious and time-consuming as a professional career, and the hours can be exhausting, stressful, and unrelenting. They are literally on-call 24/7, 365 days a year.

But is the laborer worthy of his or her hire? The answer to that question lies in how well a clergyperson inspires, teaches, encourages and enables their congregation to live together in love, doing God’s work in the ways that are meaningful. When the clergy are doing their jobs well, they enhance our congregation’s ability to live into all of our affirming values. We need to understand together just how much money it takes to be blessed with a priest-in-charge and our deacon.

Regarding the deacon, this position is oddly relatively inexpensive because vocational deacons like our Deacon Sandra do not receive a salary for their efforts with our congregation. We do provide continuing education dollars for her, as well as a discretionary fund she can use on projects that support her important ministry with us. We also commit to supporting her in a sabbatical every fifth year of her service, which will be coming in 2020 and will require some funding to help her have time to enhance her spiritual and intellectual skills to be even better at ministering to our congregation.

The larger expense for clergy will be in support of a part-time priest-in-charge, which is much more expensive. Not only must we pay salary for 20 hours of work per week, but also pension, healthcare, continuing education, discretionary funds, and for licenses.

I estimate that it in a normal year with a full year’s worth of clergy salary, benefits and professional development funding, our budget needs to include between $44,000 and $48,000. This is a fairly large amount of money. But when we think about how our clergy enhances our ability to enact every one of our five affirmed values, who bless our lives—literally!—by creating contexts for meaningful personal and community spiritual growth opportunities, and about how their years of training and experience help inform the administration of our congregational life.

Our Facility is the next largest chunk of our operating budget. We use this facility as the platform for enacting our mission and living into our values. Most of the costs associated with the facility are non-optional: these are our utility payments, our supplies for cleaning the facility, lawn care, our paper goods, our routine maintenance, our property insurance, and our wages for our facilities manager, who takes care of the building.

The facility is a sanctuary for those in trouble or crisis. It is the place of welcoming. It is where we show our love and esteem for one another in worship and social gatherings. It contains the symbols of our traditions and history, and it reflects the care and love we have for one another, and for God. The facility makes theological statements about the nature of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Its inspiring and inviting beauty and is a place not just for us, but for our local community. We are proud of this space, built brick by brick over 100 years ago with significant sacrifice, devotion, and hope for the future.

Maintaining the building alone costs $42,000 per year, not including exceptional capital expenses like replacing the boiler, resurfacing the parking lot, or whatever. That’s a lot. We often do not realize how expensive maintaining a church can be, especially one that is more than 100 years old. To keep our doors open and lights on—literally!—we must invest in the facility.

Closely related in importance to the facility is our office and administrative expenses. We need to responsibly keep track of communications and finances of the parish, and that takes equipment like copy machines and computers, as well as personnel, like a bookkeeper and a secretary. Our office and admin staff make sure our bills our paid, our finances are in order, that our orders of worship and announcements are printed and set up each week, and that the various activities of our organization and all the other groups that meet here are scheduled appropriately. It costs us $25,000 per year.

Sunday worship is the core ministry of St. Mary’s church. Our worship is the deepest reflection of our theology. You may have heard of the phrase Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi—As we worship, so we believe, so we live. Our greatest expression of faith is seen in action as we read holy scripture together, as we encourage and exhort one another, as we repent together, as we pray for one another, and for the world, and as we celebrate the memory of the Lord’s Supper through the Eucharist. There are many components that go into every one of our beautiful, inspiring, motivating services.

The Altar Guild lovingly prepares the table and decorations with all the appropriate elements for the important sacramental ritual each week, and they work hard to beautify the church for festive occasions, especially during Advent, Christmas, and Holy Week.

Additionally, the music we enjoy each week is an indispensable part of our worship. The tradition of congregational singing and choral music is rich within the Anglican tradition, and quality music requires investment, which we and our St. Mary’s forbears have made. The organ is unique and central to our worship, as well as the beautiful grand piano used both in our Sunday services as well as for professional-level performances by members of our local community.

That level of music quality requires professional-level musicians that have worked for a lifetime to build the skills needed to perform at that level, and it is the right and ethical thing to compensate those musicians for their efforts. We have been the beneficiaries of fantastic music thanks to a long line of great organists and music directors at St. Mary’s, including Dallin Baldwin, who holds a bachelor’s degree in organ performance and is currently working toward a master’s degree in choral conducting. The costs of music and supplies for our worship come to $12,000 each year.

Educating and caring for our church family is an important ministry in Christian formation and fellowship.
We support one another and welcome newcomers and visitors by offering various groups and classes each year. We learn and grow spiritually as we teach one another the Good News.
We gather for another holy meal of sorts after the service each Sunday in fellowship, where we model the patterns of service and sharing modeled by Jesus in that upper room Passover celebration with his disciples the night before his crucifixion.
We also enjoy social events to celebrate important moments to our congregation.
Our annual picnic BBQ coincides with the anniversary of the founding of our church and celebrates our patron saint, St. Mary the mother of Jesus.
Events like the upcoming Blessing of the Animals, and the important annual Parish Meeting are important ways we gather and affirm one another and our work together.
We also invest in the training of future lay leaders in the congregation by providing funds for course, conferences, and workshop attendance.
Supporting these groups, activities, meals, and learning opportunities costs around $2,800 per year.

Finally, we reach out to serve the broader community around us.
In 2016 we inaugurated the Community Music Outreach Program to provide a mid-sized performance venue for dramatic and musical works in this space to support the arts and invite members of our local community into our worship space.
This is not a missionary program, but is meant to raise awareness of St. Mary’s as a place that the community can use to enrich one another’s lives in all kinds of contexts.
We also have a long-standing Food and Care Ministry where we seek to serve the poor and hungry in our community. We prepare meals and donate hygiene and clothing items each month, and have even started a Community Garden with a unique mission to provide from the harvest fresh vegetables for the Food and Care Coalition, which has been a great success these past three seasons.
We accept donations to support the efforts of Episcopal Relief and Development, which provides humanitarian aid worldwide for disaster relief, as well as to alleviate difficulties related to poverty. All of these ministries and programs have about $8,200 in expenses each year, which are offset directly by the income received from offerings for these designated funds.
One additional ministry of St. Mary’s related to serving the broader community is how we open our facility to provide space for scores of support groups. AA, NA, Alanon, PFLAG, and many others donate around $10,500 each year to St. Mary’s in thanks for the use of the facility.

The total expenses of our operation, including a full year of a priest’s salary, comes to between $134-138K per year. That’s quite a lot of money!
We think our mission and values are well-represented by our ministries and programs, and that the expenses for our activities are frugal and justified. We hope you agree. Our income consists of five main sources:
1) a diocesan grant that in 2019 will be $55,000 (which will be 10% less than 2018’s grant);
2) support group donations of $10,500 as mentioned previously;
3) designated funds donations of $8,200 that are used exclusively for Food and Care, ERD, Community Garden, and the Community Music Outreach Program;
4) Open plate offerings of cash in the plate that gets passed around during the Offertory each Sunday, which average at about $3,400 per year; and
5) Pledge offerings by members of St. Mary’s Church who have committed to support our congregation through regular and generous donations.

Currently, we’re on track to have about $33,000 in pledge offerings in 2018.
For 2019, we’ll need a minimum of $37,000 in pledge to cover all our bases in our operational budget and make up for that 10% reduction in diocesan grant. But that 2019 budget assumes only about a half year of a new priest-in-charge salary. We have no idea how quickly we’ll be able to find a replacement priest, but if we use Canon Mary June Nestler’s assessment that it could take around a year, our 2019 budget works with a $37,000 pledge goal if that new priest-in-charge begins working around July 1st.
To fund our church and provide for a full year of salary for a priest-in-charge, we will need to have significantly more in pledge than $37,000. We can get there, especially if we continue to attract more and more people to our church.
But we need to continue to work hard to ensure that we continue to be an inviting place of unequivocal welcome and care, a place people will feel prompted into which to plant roots and develop life-long relationships. We need to communicate just how helpful and impactful our shared life together at St. Mary’s has been. We need to share our hope for a better way as the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, as our Presiding Bishop says. We need to express sacrificial and covenantal love in word and deed, both within these safe walls and out in our broader community.

This is the first week of our four-week annual pledge drive. And if you’ve been here long enough, you’ll know that we actually haven’t done a pledge drive in the last couple years. Why? Well, just as I’ve mentioned previously, it is because it feels risky and difficult talking about money concerns.
It’s true: a 2014 survey by Wells Fargo showed that 44% of Americans say the most challenging topic to discuss with others is personal finances, higher than death, politics, religion, taxes, and personal health issues. There’s also that uncomfortable worry that many of us feel about whether we are giving “enough”, as if the amount we gave was indicative of the quality or quantity of our faith, our wealth, or our worth.

In the context of talking about how members of a church can support their congregation’s finances, it can feel like we’re telling one another what each of us “should” do, which risks us descending into the squabbles that arose in our readings today. Think of the Children of Israel in the Desert complaining to Moses from our Reading from the Hebrew Bible, or Jesus’ own disciples in the gospel of Mark chapter 9, who were busy trying to distinguish who was favored and who was cursed, who was in and who was out, who was holy, and who was ritually impure. But these disciples entirely were missing the point Jesus was trying to make. “Have Salt in yourselves! And be at peace with one another,” says Jesus. I imagine he said that exasperatedly, throwing his hands up in the air dramatically and walking away to punctuate the lesson of Mark chapter 9.

What does that odd phrase mean, by the way—have salt in yourselves? That salt Jesus is talking about is a purifying, sanctifying component, a sprinkling of the vision of a life connected and made holy by the Divine One. When we start arguing over who is right and who is wrong, who is saved and who is damned, we lose that salt. When we give in to worries and doubts because the challenges we see in the world both near and far, we lose that salt. That salt that Jesus wants us to remember is that divine Spirit that has moved within you and made you holy, that motivation to seek after the good, the true, and the beautiful. That salt is that righteous desire within you prompting you to participate in making real God’s dream, God’s vision for us all—that is to make a heaven here on earth. Don’t lose that salt! It seasons the whole world, it enlivens the senses and is the germ of hope that transcends the cynicism, the self-centeredness, the pessimism that can easily overtake us and cause us to descend into disagreement, disgust, dissolution, and disarray.

All of this is done together, in community with one another. As Moses says in today’s reading, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” And James says in today’s reading, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”
Notice that both of these exhortations have an underlying concept of a life lived striving in community to do the work of God. And what work is that? The salvation of the human family! And how is that accomplished? One interaction at a time, over an entire lifetime. Little by little, striving and working and pausing for thanksgiving, and continuing on.

We live in a state of perpetual salvation and grace through regular, sustained, nourishing interactions made possible because we bless one another’s lives with our gifts and our salt. Separate ourselves from that blessed community, and we feel the vibrancy of the light, the savor of the salt, fade. And the world starts to creep in. The normalcy of civilization, which entropies to cynicism, domination, retribution, and violence, threatens to overwhelm us and leads to despair that it could ever be better than it is, and will likely get worse. Our life in community is our guard against that. Salvation isn’t out there alone in the desert or on the mountaintop. Those spaces might be useful for enlightenment and for short visits, but we then return to our communities to both bless and be blessed, to love and be loved, to serve and be served. By the way, go read the beginning of Mark chapter 9 when you get home for insight about mountaintops.

Thinking back on James’ exhortation to confess our sins to one another, I have a confession to make to you. As the senior warden and a leader in this community, I feel the need to repent of an oversight, a shirking of my duty and the duty of our congregational leadership. We have not had the will or the courage to come before you very often to articulate the specific needs of this congregation to sustain its important work. I think we do a great job of praising and giving thanks for one another. But because of fear or worry, we have feared asking often enough for you to pay attention to that salt within you, that holy spark that guides you to give time, talent, and treasure in support of our shared life in community at St. Mary’s Church. We shouldn’t be ashamed or afraid to ask—there is so much to be proud of, so much to rejoice in.

So I invite you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, to spend the next few weeks in prayer and contemplation, in planning and in hope, to consider your monetary donation to support God’s work together here at St. Mary’s.
For some, committing to the biblical principle of the tithe (or one tenth of one’s increase) may stir your soul as the appropriate expression; for others, the parable of the widow’s mite may be more applicable.
Still others may have been looking for some time for a worthy cause to become the beneficiary of a larger gift you wish to make.
 Each of us knows best what amounts constitute an appropriate sacrifice for ourselves, one that stretches and inspires us. Take time to listen to what God is calling you to do in your pledge offerings for the coming year, and see how it can bless all our lives and help us sustain our important work here.
As a congregation, we seek commitments—pledges—to donate $37-58,000 as a group in 2019. Those figures sound large, but together—and with God’s help—we can do surprising, wonderful things. Over the next few weeks we’ll ask directly for pledges from our members, and we’ll be tracking our progress toward our pledge goal.

May we have Salt in ourselves. May we be at peace with one another. May we strive to bless one another. May the Lord put his spirit upon us all. May we see the abundance in our lives and live with gratitude from moment to moment, and may we give generously out of that abundance. May we have courage to trust a vision of what could be, and use Jesus’ example of sacrificial, sacramental love to motivate us to do hard things is my prayer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Steven Nordstrom, Bishop’s Warden
Address to St. Mary’s Church
30 September 2018

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