We gather around our heavenly parent and hear of God’s incredible generosity and grace. All it can make me think of is how to respond as a grace-filled giver. Let us pray.
One May evening in my final year of college I decided to stop by a campus building called Dwight Hall on my way home from dinner. Dwight Hall had classrooms but also housed a college social service agency and helped organize the community service activities on campus. With its help, the priest who lived in my dorm had gotten me involved in local soup kitchen ministries. For three years, several mornings a month, I would go to the different dining halls and collect extra food and distribute it to homeless shelters. Dwight Hall was also a worship space, used for vespers, meditation groups and the worship services I went to on Wednesday evenings.
That evening, I was there to pray. Pray in the midst of the anxiety of graduation. For worship spaces have always been places of calm and clarity for me during significant changes. I had sat on the steps of my home church in Ohio praying for help before a significant competition once. I sat in the pews of a church in New Jersey my senior year of high school trying to decide where to go to college. I would sit in the grass outside a worship space in 1994 trying to decide whether and where to go to grad school. During this time of transition I leaned on God as well.
And I will never forget, that evening for some reason I prayed I would return to that room someday and preach. Preach, of all things! That won’t surprise you now as you hear me preach it, but if you knew me then it would have. I had considered, but definitely ruled out ministry after graduation. I had a good job, headed to Cincinnati to begin a career in marketing and advertising that summer, and had been thinking about sports and rock music, not God, at that time. But a few weeks before graduation, I had heard a sermon there about the importance of following God’s calling when we leave school. And so that evening I thought about my calling and, even though I had no plans to be a minister, I found myself praying that I would be back in that space someday preaching.
I thought that night that after four years, that space had become a home to me – home to my worship, my learning and my service activities of the past. Home to my comfort and support in the present – home to my aspirations for the future. It was home.
The World Series has begun this week; what a game last night. I won’t take any position on Cards or Red Sox. I will say that essays by great baseball writers like George Will and Peter Gammons help me appreciate why baseball has such a hold on so many as the national pastime. They, and others, write that baseball is metaphorically and fundamentally about the human instinct to “head home.” Venturing out in life, trying to get a hit in life and then running around until we return home.
This idea is at the center of the well-known parable of the prodigal son from Luke’s Gospel. One might find it ironic on stewardship Sunday to focus on a passage about someone who fundamentally mismanages his finances. But this passage is not about mistakes, it’s about grace. In theologian William Barclay’s analysis, the passage should be called the parable of the loving father, not the lost son. For its really about the grace and generosity of the father, not only in forgiving and welcoming his lost son home, but in sharing all that he had with the son who had stayed.
What is most interesting to me is the prodigal son’s decision to come home in the first place. He could have been so embarrassed at his loss, afraid of his brother’s scorn or terrified of his father’s wrath that he stayed away. In baseball, as with great literary tales from Homer to Lord of the Rings and Narnia, things often end when characters head home after they hit a home run or slay a dragon. But when we strike out, sometimes home is the last place we want to be.
Barclay points out that Abraham Lincoln was once asked how he was going to treat the rebellious southerners when they finally returned to the Union of the United States. Rather than taking vengeance, Lincoln answered, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.” The father in our parable goes even further in celebrating his son’s return. The parable of the lost son is part of a section of Luke’s Gospel that includes the parables of the lost coin and lost sheep, where each time a lost item or person is found, the God figure in the story, in this case the father, rejoices. The father here is caring towards both the irresponsibility of his lost son, and the frustration of his more responsible one. That is what God is like. No matter our anxiety, transition or pain, we can return home to God.
Princeton Seminary President Craig Barnes writes in his book Searching for Home that the Christian journey is essentially one of returning home. Our mistakes make us spiritual nomads, so we are always searching for the path home again to God. It can be tempting to believe that the better job, the nicer house, or the more exiting life will finally make us feel “at home.” But our only great comfort and hope, we soon realize, is that we are never lost to God. Christ’s sacrifice and example become our path home. The role of the church, Barnes explains, is to be the threshold to our home. The entrance. The first step in. The place we go to help us arrive there.
Our threshold, Bradley Hills, is a home to many of us here. It’s the place we raised our children or were married. Its columbarium represents memories of someone we loved or the presence of someone we still rely on. In this building we gather each week to learn about and worship the God who has given all that we have. This is where we serve those in need and make spiritual friends.
Others here are new to Bradley Hills, but we can see the potential for this to be a special spiritual home for their family, as it has been to mine, to help us pass on the traditions of our faith or ground our children in Christianity, and to help us grow over the years.
You realize how special this community is when you need care. We have had a number of pastoral care concerns and hospitalizations this week and you have communicated with, cared for and visited each other in very special ways.
This is stewardship Sunday. The day we focus on our opportunity to invest in the well-being of our church home. Our recent growth in new members, worship attendance, children’s programs, and member involvement has put us in a good place. This fall is the first season in many years when we have a full time Director of Christian Education for our children, full time Associate Pastor and full time Director of Music again.
Part of our responsibility as Christians is to support the body of Christ, our threshold, our church. The vast majority of our annual operating budget depends on your and my yearly pledges. Bradley Hills had its most successful pledge year ever last year. 68 families joined ours in raising their pledge by 10% or more. Inspired by the visions of our lay ministries, our family plans to increase our pledge again for 2014. Join us. I hope that on or around November 10, Dedication Sunday, every member might pledge something, of whatever amount, for 2014.
I had a mentor joke once that the church’s best stewardship idea would be to bring back indulgences—the medieval idea that money could be given to the church to reduce our time is purgatory and get us other advantages. Well, we can’t do that, not on what is often called Reformation Sunday. Our spiritual ancestors, the Reformers, took responsibility for their faith and for stewarding their gifts of time, talent and treasure as the right thing to do.
Our tradition teaches us to give. Our first lesson comes from Paul’s writings to the church at Corinth. The Corinthians were known for rebellious and riotous living. To be called a Corinthians in a Greek play in the centuries after Christ was to be a party animal known for irresponsibility. Corinthians were stereotypically a lot like the prodigal son.
Paul wrote to the church at Corinth about their responsibility to come home to the church, for they would only have the kind of church they would commit to having. Paul writes, “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly. The one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” That is, if members of the church gave generously, they would see results.
Our church is no different. If we sow a committed pledge to God, to the church, we will reap bountifully the fun, the contentment, and even the joy when we see what God does with our gift.
When Paul finished his third missionary journey from Ephesus to Corinth, he spent some time in the city of Tyre, which is in what today is modern Lebanon. Now today that Biblically important city is undergoing challenges and its needs for renovation and historic preservation are greater than its resources. True story: one of its advocates successfully convinced an heir and relative of Pablo Picasso to donate a painting to help raise funds for the city. You can buy a raffle ticket for $135 and on December 18 of this year at Sotheby’s in Paris they are raffling off the Picasso painting. Selling these raffle tickets is proving to be a way of raising lots of money for the Biblically important town of Tyre. So if anyone here today has a Picasso painting they are interested in donating to the church for the stewardship campaign . . . !
What is amazing to me about this institution is that no matter what season of involvement we are in, as a child or young adult or as a parent raising children or a grandparent enjoying life, the church is here for us. And even when things seem hard we can come home to it.
The investments we make it in it are not for chance, they pay off. No other institution can give us what our church home can, because none has the presence of the Holy Spirit as it does.
I have not been back to Dwight Hall to preach. Maybe I will someday. But the calling I prayed about that evening long ago after four years on campus did lead me to the ministry. After four years here at Bradley Hills, I can say that this is home. Home to my worship, learning and service activities. Home to my comfort and support. Home to my aspirations for the future. This is where my family and I are supported when we need help, comforted when we are hurting, counseled when we need direction, visited when we need attention, and are inspired by music and prayer. Where our children are educated, where we volunteer to care for others and where we learn to use our gifts of time, talent and treasure to help in God’s world. Bradley Hills is home for our family and we want to take care of it. We believe we all are on the threshold of something special here.
For ultimately our home is with God. When it comes to our relationship with God, we are all prodigals, all in need of direction. The prodigal son learned that what the father, representing God, celebrates most is a generous spirit. When the son admits his failure and is willing to take his punishment, the father celebrates. Because the son, while he had a ways to go, had finally demonstrated the gracious and generous spirit of the father, something his brother had yet to learn. A gracious and generous spirit was what the father, who was the source of all the children had to begin with, was ultimately interested in.
We give because like our God, we are grace-filled givers. God has blessed us with life and relationships and a community to care for us and our families. Our spiritual home was entrusted to us by the many people whocame before us and for those who come after. Our spiritual home needs us now.
Friends, God has given us a spirit of generosity and grace. Let us come home to that calling. And celebrate it.