Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 1, 2017
“A Mother’s Example”
Matthew 21: 28-32
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father[a] went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
I want to say thank you to everyone who reached out to me on Facebook, by text, email, or with a card to offer condolences upon the death of my mother. To the announcement of her death on Facebook, I received 250 comments. I read and appreciated every one of them. I felt surrounded by a community of love. I know that many of you know personally that even when death can be expected, especially of a woman nearly 91 years old, at the moment it becomes reality, it is a shock. You can rationalize all you want about gratitude that your loved one went peacefully and quickly, but it still hurts. It shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did.
The hardest moment was during church on Sunday morning – not at the funeral. Our whole family of her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren went to church together – filling 4 pews. Every time we began to sing, I couldn’t. I was too choked up. Plus, it was like they chose hymns intentionally to cut into my heart. Great is Thy Faithfulness, My Hope is Built on Nothing Less… Even the Doxology. But it was cleansing. Through the tears I felt healed by the music of the faith she and my father instilled in us. And by the community surrounding us. Worship triggered my grief and transformed it into gratefulness. When we got to the actual funeral a few days later and the burial a few days after that, I was in gratitude mode. The ritual of church provided a path for my grief.
At the funeral I spoke of my parent’s love of the church, including their approach to stewardship. I told the story of a moment in my childhood that was indelibly etched into my heart. And I realized it’s interesting timing as we enter our own stewardship month today.
Our home church in North Dakota is cut into the corner of a wheat field at the intersection of two gravel roads. It couldn’t be more country, complete with a cemetery out back, filled with the saints of the church dating back well more than 100 years. At the time it was a church almost exclusively of farmers, which affected how we raised money. We had an annual Harvest Festival. After the crops were sold, each family would write out a check to the church for the year. The plate was still passed every Sunday, but the vast majority of money was collected at the end of every harvest. Not surprisingly, some years were pretty lean. One year there would be crop failures from hail or drought or too much rain, the next, low prices because the harvest was too good. I don’t know how people stayed sane in the midst of so much uncertainty, except for their faith in God’s ultimate provision of all they would need, even if not necessarily all we might want.
So, my memory. One year at Harvest Festival time, I watched my parents sit at the kitchen table to determine the amount they would give to the church for the upcoming year. It had been an awful year for everyone in the community – worse than most. I listened to them discuss their fear that if too many people held back, the church would really suffer. They decided they needed to sacrifice for the greater good. I selfishly wondered how that would affect me, but wisely, I didn’t say anything. Instead I marveled at their conversation which has stayed with me over 40 years.
At the lunch following the funeral at her church in Montana I lamented with her pastor their loss of a major donor – money she didn’t give out of wealth but out of her deep faith that God would provide. I knew it had already been a hard year for them. It’s a United Methodist Church. When an out lesbian had been named a bishop last year, some people left the church, including a couple that gave over $40,000 a year. But the real problem had started some years before. Every time a long-time faithful member of the church died, they faced a deficit due to the loss of their contributions. This couple generously stepped forward to fill the gap – every time. It was a lovely gesture but it didn’t address a long-term solution and contributed to a crisis at their sudden departure. The church’s first response was to consider making the pastor part-time. Or to share a pastor with another church 75 miles away.
I knew that part of the story but I didn’t know what they ultimately decided to do. He said the congregation spoke honestly with each other that too few people were doing too much and they could only continue to be the church if they became the church together. Sufficiently awakened to their reality, members stepped forward and not only filled the gap but went over it. The capacity had been there all along but no one had wanted to be so honest about the need before their crisis.
Their story convinced me that I should be honest about our reality too. We are far from a crisis. That’s not our story. But our reality is that, like many churches, a significant number of our contributions come from our older members. And with every death we face bigger pressures. Last year we received 11 new pledges, which is amazing, but the collective amount was less than that of two people who died and a couple of others whose life circumstances changed. Thanks to our solar panels and other energy efficiencies, we have been able to keep things steady. But this next year makes me nervous. Between more of our faithful members who died this year plus a few people who have moved away, we have a big hill to climb. We could face some really difficult decisions. That is, if we weren’t honest with each other about it. The irony of this is that we have more people but the reality is that in every church, members with histories of 30, 40, 50 years and more have sacrificed for the rest of us. That’s not a judgment. It’s gratitude for our elders and ancestors in the faith. But it’s also an invitation for all us to embrace that we are the church today. And we must be in it – each of us, and all of us together.
I debated whether this would be too much of a Debbie-Downer sermon – I mean, my goodness, a sermon about death and money, but with inspiration from my mother who was very stoic about faith and money through hardships, I realized I probably haven’t been as clear about this as I should have been for years.
But why not be? We have a great church. God has blessed us with a powerful legacy and an even more powerful mission – to be an unapologetic witness to an open, inclusive, just and compassionate world. We’re here because we are hungry for justice, we thirst for love in a cruel world. We’re a voice of the Christian left with bold actions to back it up. Among our important ministries is shaping the lives of children and youth to be Open and Affirming to LGBTQ people. Unlike the churches some of us grew up in, they are being taught the unconditional love of Jesus Christ – for others, and for themselves. How wonderful it would be to grow up without the wounding words of judgmental Christians.
I could keep going on and on but the bottom line is I believe in the power of a church like ours. My mother believed in it too, which is why she was so generous to us. You may be sitting on one of the chairs she purchased. We kept trying to constrain her generosity, knowing she was on pace to outlive her money. And yet, among her last contributions were ones to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center and for her church’s disaster relief efforts. All after she had first tithed to her church. How can you argue with her about that?!
Today’s gospel text is a story in which Jesus asked the chief priests and elders of the people, “Which would you rather?” “A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I’ll go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” Which would you rather?
The answer is so obvious, it shouldn’t need much more comment. Which would you rather? Someone to say, “Sure,” and not do it? Or someone who says “No,” and then does. Who among us hasn’t been disappointed like this. Maybe by a teenager – “Cut the grass.” “No.” But later does. Or a co-worker with a deadline looming. “I’ll get it done.” But from experience, you know, never does. A family member, a friend. Promises made, not always kept. Which would you rather? Maybe you’ve done it or maybe you’ve experienced it with someone we serve with on a school community or a neighborhood group or even in the church. The one whose response every month is “I’m still working on it.” We may think “Just say no in the first place,” while at the same time pleading, “please say yes.” Clearly it is a quirk of human nature – and often born of a desire to please. It’s hard for people-pleasers to say no.
But which would you rather? A church where all of us are in it together or one in which a few provide for the rest of us? I thank those of you who sacrifice and have sacrificed for decades. And I invite all of us to turn this gratitude into the affirmation that We are the Church – but it has to be Together. We must be the church of together. Along with the cloud of faithful witnesses from whom we received this inheritance on behalf of the generations that will follow us. We are the Church.
I invite you to pray about this, to sit down at your own kitchen table and discuss, and then prepare your response on Stewardship Commitment Sunday – October 22.