We, as Christians (followers of Jesus Christ), know that Christ Himself is our treasure. There is pure joy in following Him. He promises us a place in Heaven. He encourages us to store up our treasures in Heaven. He also gives us treasures for our stay on Earth but these are far below the other two. Through being Stewards of our resources we put back into God’s hands an investment in His Kingdom. By leaving behind your Earthly treasures through a Planned Gift, you are sowing into the faithful worship and ministry of future generations.
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by the Rev. Daniel Stroud
Assistant Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
On Sunday, October 25, 2015
I had initially planned on preaching mostly on today’s Gospel reading, but there was something in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews that jumped out at me, and in keeping with our somewhat educational theme of the month, I thought I would address that a bit.
As you all no doubt know, the Episcopal Church generally has a very traditional worship experience. If you didn’t know that already, I hate to be the one that springs that on you, but welcome to the party. This is frequently the one place that we can reach back through the centuries and grab hold of something that has true and deep meaning. In short, it is through traditions, preserved in places like this, that we keep from becoming unmoored from our truest identity, that we prevent ourselves from drifting away from the people we were created to be.
We see this traditional bent expressed in a variety of ways. Firstly, we experience it visually. When you walk into this place, you see simple architecture, stained glass telling stories, a stone altar at one end of the room. You’ll also see several people up at that same end wearing the clothing worn by late Roman Christians, clothing that has changed little over the past 1600 or 1700 or so years. What you won’t see, and God forbid you ever see it, is me standing up here in a graphic t-shirt, skinny jeans, and Toms, with a soul patch, some thick rimmed tortoiseshell glasses, and a fair trade mocha latte frappichino. By the way, I hope that’s a thing, I don’t actually drink coffee. Not that there is anything wrong with those things at all, they have their place and their time, it just happens not to be in here at 8 or 10 AM on Sunday morning.
You’ll hear a choir and organ singing, mostly, very traditional music. There will be, however, nary an electric guitar, drum kit, or bassist, also in skinny jeans and a graphic tee, and since our hymns are printed in either the book or the bulletin, there’s no need for a large, bare, white projector screen to cover over the beauty of the Marianne Sloan murals on the walls of the chancel.
And while we do have a brand new, lighting system, you’ll notice a distinct lack of disco balls, lasers, and fog machines, though we do occasionally use incense to make the place a little smoky.
To that same end, you’ll notice that we’re all actively engaged in worship here. Our worship is not something where you sit passively as an audience and allow the band and the preacher to be the focus while what they say and play washes over you, the inactive, totally passive congregation. Instead, there are times in the service where a priest prays on behalf of the congregation, but we also stand, sit, and kneel together, we sing and pray corporately, we all participate in the worship of God. Someone once nicely summed up that in modern evangelical worship the understanding is that God is the director, the band and preacher are the performers, and the congregation is the audience. For us, the celebrant is the director, we all are the performers, and God is the audience.
Traditional also, then, are the titles we use. We don’t have a brother, prophet, pastor, elder, apostle or something else. We have Priests.
Priests are pastors, etc, but not all pastors or ministers are priests. The difference is what we hear about today in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews. A priest is someone who offers sacrifice to God on behalf of a congregation.
In ancient Israel, before the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 AD, there were priests and there was a High Priest. The High Priest was the chief religious official in all of Judaism, he held the responsibility of going alone into the Holy of Holies, the presence of God, to make atonement for the people of Israel. While regular priests would take part only during the week they were assigned, the High Priest could offer sacrifice whenever.
Now St. Paul, who was a devout Jew, looked at the sacrifice being offered, he noticed there was a problem. The sacrifices were ongoing. Sin continued, and so day after day, sacrifice was offered to help take away the sins of the people. More troubling to Paul, the priests and even the High Priest had sacrifices offered for their own sins. And most troublesome, the priests all died.
Now to be totally fair, so did Jesus. But unlike the priests in the temple, he was resurrected from the dead and lives still. Also unlike them, Christ hadn’t offered an imperfect offering, but rather offered up himself as a perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. And rather than going back to the temple, to the priests who continually offer imperfect sacrifices, we go to Christ, whose perfect sacrifice serves to cover over all of our sins. When we become members of the body of Christ, when we take upon ourselves the death and resurrection of Christ, when we become aware of the ways in which sin rules our lives and we turn to Christ for help, his offering up of himself becomes our perfect offering as well.
And so, one may ask, why do we still have priests?
It’s a fair question, but in the interest of job security, allow me to respond.
We have priests because we continue to offer our own sacrifices of bread and wine, of praise and thanksgiving in the memory of the sacrifice that was done for us. In the offering of this sacrament, the command of Christ to “do this in remembrance of me” is followed and the body and blood of Christ are made present on the altar as Jesus’ sacrifice is “re-presented.” This doesn’t mean that we re-sacrifice or repeat the sacrifice of Christ, but that what we do is a re-presenation of what happened upon Calvary Hill.
Now this is, in my own not so humble opinion, a delightful lecture on liturgical theology, but I would imagine many of you are curious as to where I may be headed with this.
I wanted to talk a bit about the nature of priesthood because Marek, Lara, and I are not the only priests here. We may be the only ones who have been ordained as priests by a Bishop and authorized to celebrate and administer the sacraments of the church, but part of what Paul is pointing out is that Christ is the new great high priest. And if you’ll remember, his job is to offer sacrifice on behalf of the priests. And truly we are all a kingdom of priests, as John writes in Revelation (5:10). Each and every one of us participates in the priesthood of all believers, and with the ordination of our baptism, we accepted certain responsibilities, including the responsibility to make sacrifices to God.
We all have the ability to offer our own sacrifices to God and to God’s church. Not necessarily the sacrifice of the mass, but sacrifices nonetheless; our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, our sacrifice of mortification, when we strive to better ourselves so that we can draw nearer to God, and the sacrifice of our time, talent, and treasure.
Over the summer I went back for a now discontinued program offered by my seminary called “Second Three Years.” It was designed to help support new graduates as they embarked on first calls after the three years of graduate study in order to help shepherd them through the next three years of ministry. On the first day, as those from my class were sitting in a room, one of our professors asked folks to volunteer what they thought the best part of their job was.
To a person, everyone said celebrating the Holy Eucharist, even those who said they hadn’t expected that to be their favorite thing. Imagine that. New priests, from a generation frequently described as “Godless” fresh out of graduate school, most of whom have had to move far away from family and friends, into new communities, into new cities and towns, moving into a organization media tells us is “dying”, and every single one said the most gratifying thing we do is to offer up a sacrifice to God.
If that’s unexpected, I can’t help but think it shouldn’t be.
What else could be our natural response? We’ve been given the gift of life. We all awoke this morning, rays of light were cast 93 million miles out of a gigantic and perpetually exploding nuclear bomb to fall upon our face and warm us in the brisk fall air. Our tiny rock spins though the vast darkness of outer space and here we sit, in the company of those we love and who love us back, in a beautiful space built more than a century ago on a site used for over three hundred years, lovingly maintained by those who sleep in the ground outside, long dead, those who prepared this site for no reason other than for you and me to be standing here this morning doing exactly this.
Even when, as Fr. Marek discussed last week, bad things befall us, even when the struggle is overwhelming, even when we face challenges, how can we not be grateful for the chance to face them? How can we not be grateful that in spite of all the odds against stacked against our very existence, here we sit?
And I’m equally sure that when you look around you, when you look at the blessings of living where we live; of families that love you, whether biological or chosen families; of a community to uphold and support you, that you also feel a sense of gratitude.
And as members of that Kingdom of Priests, we are all called out of our gratitude to offer our sacrifices to God.
Next week we will collect in pledges for the upcoming year. We will also give thanks for all those who have provided exemplary witness to the love of God in life, and we commemorate to blessed memory all of the faithfully departed, that unnumbered multitude of souls who have delivered to us the world in which we live and the faith that we share.
These days are a major feast of the church, and I can’t think of a better time to offer back to God and God’s church a token of our gratitude, and a token it must be, since no matter how much we give it would pale in comparison to what we’ve been given.
As something to consider: when the temple stood in Jerusalem, it was required of Jews to give to the temple 10% of what they had. According to the interpreters of the law, this meant 10% of everything. 10% of your income, of your crops… if you were going to use mint or dill, you had to set aside 1/10th of what you used to go to the Temple. This was used for the administration of the religious life of the community and for the care of widows, orphans, and those in need. The word they used for this was tzedakah which is usually translated as charity, but in reality means something closer to fairness or justice.
In addition to this, other gifts were made to those who had need throughout the year.
While the coming of Christ freed us from the law and we are no longer commanded to give 10%, that doesn’t mean it is not something to which we can aspire.
In fact, out of gratitude for the work of God in our lives and in this place, Lara and I take 10% of our paycheck before taxes and donate it back to the mission of God in this place. In addition to that pledge, donations are also made to support missions of the larger church, community organizations, non-profits, and educational institutions.
I can’t say that this hasn’t led to a change in the way we live our lives. Rather than living life concerned with finding ways to make more money, what we’ve found is that even after rather effusive giving, our needs are provided and we are able to enjoy some luxuries. In spite of giving that I may not have thought of as possible even just a few years ago, we don’t feel the sting of deprivation. Instead, what I’ve found is that I have a healthier relationship with wealth.
Putting my treasure where my heart is has helped me personally to break out of the idolatry that seems to have so completely pervaded our society. Instead of being caught up in the competition over income statements and quarterly returns, I’m better able to view money as a tool, as a means to an end rather than having the accumulation of treasure serving as an end in and of itself.
None of that is to say that money is evil, there’s nothing wrong with money at all, but there is something wrong with us when love the wrong things or love the right things in the wrong ways.
Having just spoken rather favorably about tithing to the church, I do offer one particular caveat. In spite of what Creflo Dollar, or even Joel Osteen might say, giving to the church isn’t going to bring that money back to you 10 fold or 100 fold or any fold. The church isn’t a security wherein if you deposit money God will send you winning lottery tickets for your return, or even your dividends back into your account quarterly.
That isn’t to say our pledge doesn’t bring us any returns, St. Thomas’ is, after all, a significant agent of good in the community and the world, with pledges going to cover more than 65 ministries that contribute to the physical, emotional, and spiritual well being of thousands of people in Whitemarsh, greater Philadelphia, and around the world, helping us to offer educational programming, grants, Bible studies, discovery hour, mission work and community and international outreach.
But in the end our pledge isn’t really given because of the returns we get.
Through the sacrifice offered by Christ, he has become our great high priest, offering up his own life as a perfect sacrifice for us. Through that sacrifice, we also have joined his royal priesthood and are called to offer our own sacrifices to God.
Just as it was when the Temple stood, your pledge goes to support the widows and orphans, the marginalized and needy, the sick and the suffering, as well as the religious life of our community. Now as then our offerings should be made with a glad heart in thanksgiving for the breath in our lungs, the spark in our minds, the love in our hearts and the spirit in our bodies.
During the coming week, I ask you to take the time to pray together, seriously pray together, even it it’s just for a few minutes, and consider what sort of gift you may be able to offer. I’d ask you to consider what sort of gift would be a sacrifice to bring to God, rather than a gift made from unneeded scraps. Finally, I’d ask you to allow your gift, whatever it may be, to reflect the gratitude you feel for the blessings in your life and the blessing of your life.
And next week, we will gather together and celebrate our rite of initiation as we baptize new members into the body of Christ and into St. Thomas’ parish just like we’ve been doing for the last 317 years, or for that matter, the last 2000; we’ll celebrate all those martyrs and witnesses who made an offering of their whole life, and together, we’ll offer our own sacrifice for the coming year to the one who created us, who sustains us, and who himself sacrificed immeasurably for us.
So may we ascribe to the Lord the honor due his name, bring offering and come into his courts.