Livestreamed service

2 Samuel 24:18-25
John 1:1-14, 16

        If you are unfamiliar with the ancient story of King David, the prophet Gad, a landowner named Araunah, and something called a threshing floor, you are not alone.

        Though I know I have read this passage before, it apparently made no impression on me, and so I had no memory of it whatsoever.

        But when I was on retreat at the Iona Abbey in Scotland, worshipping twice a day in that thin and holy place, there was a line in the liturgy that kept bringing me up short, even as I spoke it in unison with other worshippers. It’s printed there on the first page of your bulletin, and it goes like this:

        We will not offer to God offerings that cost us nothing.

        We will not offer to God offerings that cost us nothing.

        It’s quite a statement, isn’t it? Every time I said it in worship at Iona, I thought to myself, Do my offerings to God cost me anything? Does my commitment to Jesus cost me anything? Is it supposed to? What does that even mean?

        And so it was that when the time approached for me to not only preach a stewardship sermon but also to make my pledge to First Church Amherst for 2023, I couldn’t stop thinking about that phrase. So I Googled it, of course. And I’m a little embarrassed to tell you that I was somewhat surprised to learn that it comes straight from the Bible.

        As you know, I read the study Bible footnotes and the biblical commentaries so you don’t have to. In this case I also read the multiple references to other stories and passages in the Hebrew Bible. And in this case, I’m fairly confident in saying that the background and details of the story don’t matter (and, if you’re at all interested, just ask me).

        What matters—to me, at least—is hearing a king say to a subject wanting to give him something to support his commitment to God, “Thank you, but no. I will not make offerings to God that cost me nothing, especially if my offerings would then cost you something. This is between me and God, and what is needed for the welfare of God’s people.”

        What matters, I think—to our own spiritual health, the vitality of our church, and perhaps even to God—is how each of us responds to the invitation to give of what we have. We often ask whether our giving brings us joy, but we rarely ask or consider what, if anything, our offerings cost us—or whether they should cost us something.

        It seems to me that we as a church are not very good at talking about money or at asking you—and ourselves—to give to the church. And let me be clear that I include myself in that proverbial “we.”

        It’s not that we don’t have the skills to ask you very directly and seriously to pledge your treasure, talents, and time to the church; as with so many things for all of us, it’s primarily because we don’t have the will to do it. And even that unwillingness is a mix of good intentions, understandable hesitation, and honorable motives.

        We love you and respect you, after all; we know without a doubt that you are generous people. And so, instead of asking you directly to give more than you think you can, instead of asking you to be strategic in your charitable giving, we talk about gratitude and generosity and the joy and fulfillment that come from living a grateful and generous life. That’s absolutely true, and still … it allows us to dance around and even avoid the direct “ask.”

        Add to that the important reality that we are seeking and, I hope, constantly working toward, a way of thinking and being that is alternative to the dominant ways of our culture. And so we work hard to avoid operating from a mode of scarcity, which is constantly reinforced by our capitalist system. Whatever you have, it tells us, whoever you are, it screams in ubiquitous advertising and subtle storytelling, it is not enough. Forget other people and the rest of the world, our culture tells us, you need more.

Well, that’s a lie, to put it bluntly, and we don’t want to be a party to that. Nor do we want to be a party to fear. We don’t want to focus on our needs, we don’t want to highlight our budget shortfall, and we don’t want to guilt anyone into giving.

        Unfortunately, all that sometimes leaves us dancing around an issue that is central not only to our vitality as a church but also to our individual spiritual health. Because giving and living generously are spiritual issues.

        Yes, we want everyone to be freed from fear and scarcity-thinking, and to know the joy and freedom of generous living. At the same time, we want our church to continue to be able to offer our beautiful and broken world the hope, peace, joy, love, and justice of our faith tradition.

        And that takes money. Money to pay our staff, money to do ministry, money to maintain this big old building that serves so many, money to facilitate hybrid worship and meetings, money to buy everything from choir music and Sunday School curricula to communion elements, office and cleaning supplies, coffee hour snacks, and advertising, and money to give away to the wider church and to the ministries of peace, justice, and compassion carried out by other organizations here in the Valley and around the world.

        That money comes almost entirely from us—current members and friends of this church. Which is to say that how much our church can do as God’s hands and feet in loving, healing, and transforming ourselves and the world depends on how much we give in pledges and bequests and how much we are willing to draw from our relatively modest endowment.

        This has always been true, but when the stakes are higher and more challenging than ever, the value and purpose of our giving are cast in even sharper relief. I want to be clear here: I am not speaking primarily of keeping our church alive as an institution for the primary purpose of our ongoing existence.

        What I’m talking about is nothing less than the healing, transformation, and well-being of all creation. History has brought all of us—here in Amherst, across our divided land, and around our burning world—to a frightening precipice: Will our nation continue to devolve into ever-more-hateful, ever-more-isolationist and individualist factions caring for nothing beyond their own needs and seeing little beyond their own perspectives? Will the gaps between rich and poor, white and people of color, native-born and not continue to grow? Will the various streams of authoritarianism in our nation and around the world continue to gain in strength and even converge? Will our planet continue to burn?

        Yes, these are some of the questions we’re voting on in Tuesday’s elections. (They are also the questions facing us as we reconsider our purpose as church in this time and place.)

        And, as important as our votes are, they are not enough. If I have learned anything from the past five years of Trumpism, sanctuary, the Covid pandemic, and climate catastrophe, it is that government action and social-political-climate activism are not enough. They’re not enough to heal and transform all the racism, fear, and greed that divide us. They’re not enough to provide justice and dignity for the marginalized. They’re not enough to save our democracy. They’re not enough to save the planet. They’re not enough to stop war and all forms of violence. And they’re certainly not enough to respond to the grief, anger, cynicism, fatalism, and fear of our young people.

        To fully address both the causes and impacts of those realities, we need spiritual communities that recognize the fundamental kinship of all people and all creation and are committed to our common thriving. We need spiritual communities that are committed to the holy work of understanding, grace, forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, reparation, justice, peace, care, and community-building.

        We need spiritual communities to show the deceitful, extremist, manipulative powers and all the people held in their grip that there is another way to be in this world. We need a church committed to living out the extravagant grace of God and the upside-down, all-inclusive love of Jesus.

        We need, and the world needs, First Church Amherst—not the institution, but the caring, generous, community-building, risk-taking, neighbor-loving, peace-and-justice-making, Jesus-following body of Christ.

        That is why I have made the decision to forgo my cost-of-living salary adjustment for next year—so that my colleagues on staff could get much-needed salary increases without totally breaking the church’s bank. That is why, even though the price of almost everything continues to go up and the actual value of my salary has gone down by roughly 9 percent, I have decided to increase my pledge.

        God’s grace is a free gift, and . . . I am called to love God, my neighbor, and this beautiful but really messed-up world. I have decided that, while I have always been a generous giver to First Church Amherst, in this critical time—when we and the world need our church more than ever—I cannot make offerings that cost me nothing. I must give more.

        The stakes are simply too high, the world’s need for God’s reconciling love is too great, the blessings I have received too many to count, and the joy that awaits a cheerful giver too deep to fathom.

        Now you may already be giving to First Church at a level that costs you something. If so, thank you. Our you may not be in a position to give more; and that’s okay, too. We all have different financial circumstances. And I know some of you have already returned your pledge cards; please know that you can always revise your pledge—up or down.

        I simply want to ask you this morning to consider again what you can give to the body of Christ in this place. I challenge you to pray about what it would mean to give to the point that it costs you something—not primarily to keep our church alive, but to keep love alive, to keep hope alive, to show the world and one another what love can do.

        Next week, on Consecration Sunday, we will be invited to bring our pledge cards forward, and then we will call forth God’s blessing upon them. May we all find joy and purpose in our giving, and though our gifts may cost us something, may we rejoice together in the grace upon grace we have already received and the grace that is yet to come.