Dear God, the past seven months have been tough for us. We miss gathering the way we remember, and we’re all grieving a lot of loss. The church roof is leaking again, and a sudden August wind storm blew out one of our clerestory windows. And COVID times, God — we had to close our school. Now it’s time to start our pledge campaign, Lord, and we want to do this right. But we are confused, and there are so many needs. And most of us really are not numbers people. Please sit with us, Lord, as we gather together in your name to plan for the support of our community. Help us to discover your grand abundance as we gather the talents and treasure of this body of Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen
The Best Platform Ever
Our epistle reading today is one of the most beloved in our scripture, teaching us about putting others first and Jesus himself putting himself last, in the role of a servant, instead of first, in the role of a king. Sometimes we don’t remember Paul’s context in writing this letter when we read this passage, but Paul is writing from prison — probably in Rome or in Ephesus, which is Ancient Asian Minor, now modern Turkey.
Paul is writing to the community of believers in Philippi, in Greece from prison, held there because of his work to share the way of Jesus — the way of love. Even though he’s in prison, Paul somehow shifts his perspective, telling the Philippians just the chapter before today’s reading that his imprisonment is his great asset. Being in prison, Paul writes in Philippians 1:12-13, has actually served to spread the Gospel, because it has given him the opportunity to witness to the Roman imperial guards — to teach them about Jesus and the way of love.
Paul probably makes this point to counter any inclination on the part of the Philippian Christians to interpret his imprisonment as evidence that God has abandoned him. But Paul’s alternative interpretation of his imprisonment is also a creative and hopeful posture of abundance and gratitude. Paul continues in today’s reading to urge the Philippians Christians to think expansively — planning not from the perspective of scarcity, and limitation — each one for him or herself.
Paul urges the believers in Philippi to make his joy complete through their unity and accord, thinking of each other and the whole community first, rather than from the limits of each one’s individual resources. In other words, think about what you have as a whole community, not what you don’t have in your own pockets. Don’t rely only on yourself, and what you can do alone, Paul writes:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
Annual Pledge Campaign
Tomorrow — Monday — Emmanuel Church begins its annual pledge campaign. The pledge letters will be mailed out tomorrow to all of you, along with some other materials — some you might expect, and some you might not!
First, there will be the pledge letter, signed by your senior warden, Deb Venancio, and me.
Second, there will be some answers to your frequently asked questions. If you have questions that are different from the answers we’ve anticipated, that’s GREAT!
Please let us know! All questions are good ones, and every chance we have to talk about our community together strengthens us as God’s people.
Third will be your pledge card. But you know to expect that.
Here’s the new thing! In your envelope will be a Spiritual Gifts Inventory. Please complete it. Answer with your heart, not your head. Give it your first impulse, not the answer you wish were true, or that you think would work a little better in certain situations. But how you feel about the questions. Then tally up your answers and list your three highest totals as your spiritual gifts on the reverse of your pledge card.
We’ll bring our pledge cards to church on October 25, our Celebration Sunday. If you’re still more comfortable attending church online, or can’t make it that day, you can mail or email your pledge card before Celebration Sunday. On Celebration Sunday, we’ll gather all of our gifts — our financial gifts and our spiritual gifts — and lay them on the altar and bless them. We’ll give thanks to God for our great abundance, and celebrate God’s extravagant blessings.
Stewardship is one of the most difficult tasks any congregation undertakes in its life together. Often that happens because we plan and give from a sense of scarcity. Money can seem short — not enough — especially in these unprecedented times of global pandemic, with quarantines, business closures, job loss, and great need all around us. So when we begin to budget and plan as a community, gathering up our resources to support our life in community for the coming year — worship, outreach, parish life, music, building operations, clergy and staff salaries — sometimes we focus on what we don’t have.
For example, right now, in COVID times, we have had to close EDS because we did not have enough students to operate the school and pay the teachers. The South Baptist Street apartment was not rented for five more months than we had planned. A number of our planned weddings were cancelled because of COVID, and we didn’t book the number of weddings through the summer and fall season that we have done in the past. So all that can make us feel like we don’t have enough, because we are focusing on what we don’t have — money from weddings, rentals, and EDS tuition — to pay the costs of our shared ministry here at Emmanuel.
When we think and plan from the perspective of scarcity — looking at what we don’t have — we are not standing in a place of hope and creativity. What happens when we turn the image around, like Paul did? Like when he showed the Philippians (AND ALL OF US TODAY) that being in prison was the best platform ever for teaching and preaching the Gospel — instead of being helpless and chained up in a stone basement of a first century government building in Rome? What happens when we begin with what we do have — from a perspective of God’s great abundance — and plan from there?
What are our assets at Emmanuel? Our endowment? — that’s like our savings account, from generous donors in the past. Yes, our endowment is an asset, but a lot of that has been used up in the past, and we shouldn’t give up our own opportunity today to make a difference! Every one of our gifts — and all of our participation — is essential to the health and connection of our community.
So what other assets do we have? What about all of us — we’re kind of amazing! Our very name means God with us! All of you — all of us together, are assets. And our faith. Our faith is an amazing asset. Also our relationships and connections in the community around us — our good will as Emmanuel Church — that is an asset. And our beautiful building and grounds, which give us a home and a way to gather, even during COVIDtide, out here on the lawn.
And the spiritual gifts that all of us bring to our lives together in community. When we think of our assets that way, we start to feel rich! Because we are. When we begin from a place of abundance, and celebrate our gifts before God, we start with a sense of gratitude and fullness. When we gather our gifts together — sharing, rejoicing, and giving thanks — there’s always enough.
How does this look like as we gather and celebrate our gifts in the 2021 pledge campaign? Be like Jesus, Paul writes to us from prison. He’s re-imagined prison as the greatest platform ever for preaching and teaching the way of Christ.
Be like Jesus, Paul tells us — do all you can for others. Every last thing. Gather your gifts, both spiritual and financial, before God and rejoice and give thanks for God’s bounty.
Be like Jesus, and imagine like Paul. If prison for Paul can be the greatest platform ever for preaching and teaching the way of Christ, what is this beautiful building we have — Emmanuel Church? Is it the hungry, expensive consumer of our assets? Or is this beautiful indoor space — acoustically perfect for music and performance, expansive, useful, and versatile in all seasons — the greatest asset we have — the best platform ever for living and sharing the gospel? Is it the greatest asset that we have — not just for the generation of income to support the space itself, but for sharing our space with others to serve the wider community — from all places, at all times, and in all seasons?
Over these next weeks, your Executive Committee and vestry will be working to find nonprofit partners to join us in our space — especially those nonprofits who use space for musical and cultural performance. People are hungry for meaning and transcendence especially in these times, and we have an opportunity to lift spirits and hearts across the wider community — from wherever people stand. While we grieve for EDS, God gives us space in that sadness and loss to use the church in new ways that we could not with a school in the building. And so we begin our stewardship campaign, thinking in a new way, gathering our abundant gifts before God and rejoicing. Amen