Neither Height Nor Depth – The Rev. Morgan Allen – Church Building

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Come Holy Spirit, and enkindle in the hearts of your faithful, the fire of your Love. Amen.

So, following Hurricane Harvey, I did not bite on the “gasoline shortage” around town. My aged Ford Expedition holds 26.2 gallons, and, fortunately, I had filled up not long before the panic commenced. Now, I am generally stubborn when it comes to the price of gasoline, so exercising my well-practiced rationing did not feel an inconvenience. While I appreciate the guys at our Texaco across the street, there’s a significant premium to buying there, and, barring catastrophically poor planning, I will not pay it. Rather, I wait for our Randall’s “Remarkable Card” points to accrue up to 25 gallons of discounted gas and allow my tank to reach dangerously low levels to maximize my discount. Alternatively, I plan a Costco visit in companion with other Research Boulevard errands, taking advantage of the warehouse’s lower price without “wasting” the mileage up there and back in the absence of another legitimate need to justify the trip.

Even so, I did eventually need to fill up after the storm, so I plotted a Costco adventure on the day I had to drive our local bishop to a meeting in Round Rock. Though the shortage’s emotional height had climaxed, an army of cars nonetheless awaited Bishop Harrison and me in line at the north store, enough that the warehouse had deployed a second attendant just to direct traffic into the station’s square. Now, I didn’t love that, as I like to pick which lane I believe is going to move most quickly through the queue, and I knew that any wrong move could result in an ecclesiastical judgment from my passenger.

Well, the guy in front of me – in a land barge even larger than my own (the particular identity of which I will not disclose in case it was your car) – he disliked this new process even more than I, and when the employee pointed him to specific bay, he didn’t move. The Costco guy pointed again, and gave one of those point and wave numbers…but this guy did not budge. A car behind me gave a quick beep: a protest acknowledging that he was paying attention and that he realized this dude was clogging the works, but that he still wanted to maintain decorum. However, that one beep perked others around me, and, soon, they took to honking, no longer Emily Post’s toot-toots, but long drags on the horn, like angry tug boats in a shouting match.

As the pleasantries between Bishop Harrison and me thereby became more encumbered –beads of sweat moistening my brow – she looked about and graciously asked, “Morgan, should we pull around him,” proposing a well-intended, but impossible movement given our position…and no sooner had she inquired, a red, Audi sportscar came flying from behind me [and I’m more specific here, because if that was you, then we need to meet in the confessional], peeled out, swerved quick as a cat, and ignoring the attendant and the rebelling land yacht, threaded the needle between two gas queues, and took the forward-most spot ahead of a nine-deep line of a waiting cars.

If you have ever been in line for gas at Costco, you will know that such action is simply unforgiveable, and, brothers and sisters, you know what happened next: all the accumulated frustration and weariness from floods and jerks and every other irritant united in clenched fists and single fingers bursting forth from car windows all around us, and through the peal of horn blasts and shouts of disgust, I could hear palms smacking those horn buttons with the force of grievances long-held and well-nursed.

Each summer, the Episcopal Church Foundation (or ECF) shares information and perspective on the trends that motivated charitable giving in the previous year. Reflecting on 2016, this summer’s webinar first recalled the philanthropic movement beginning in the 1960s, when “uniformity in loyalty” and a strong sense of institutional obligation inspired contributions to the Church. Those Stewardship campaigns emphasized a “Do Your Part” message, and not only can I recall hearing those sermons (and being formed by them), I can remember preaching them not so many years ago.

Of more recent seasons, the webinar noted a shift away from institutional-exclusive contributors, to the “Return-on-Investment” donors: those who looked beyond traditional organizations to support “social entrepreneurs” who, even on a small scale, could deliver significant impact, perhaps with lower overhead. These Stewardship campaigns emphasized a “Make Your Church Contribution a Priority” appeal, acknowledging the many options contributors could now consider when committing their charitable dollar.

Of 2016, however, ECF noted the emergence of new motivations for charitable giving: [would anyone venture a guess as to what the sociologists found? Well, ]research revealed that the top motivators were “catharsis and rage”…catharsis and rage.

During the presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump would tweet a misstep of “Crooked Hillary” and ask his supporters to turn their indignation into campaign contributions, a collective anger he successively cohered into electoral victory. Then, less than a week after that election result, a new website sought to capitalize on the corresponding indignation attendant to his victory. This new site – ragedonate.com… ragedonate.com – presented a series of especially smug-looking photos of President Trump companioned with incendiary quotes and a “RageDonate” button, allowing the site’s visitors to fire their frustration…and then satisfyingly extinguish it with only a click.

Today begins the four weeks of our Stewardship season here at Good Shepherd, and I suspect, according to this new philanthropic wisdom, I should get us all frothy at the mouth about the condition of the world (whatever your particular bend), and pass out Pledge Cards while I do, proposing a pathway for our shared sense of rage and our common need of catharsis…Well, we’re not going to do that. Though I share an experience of powerlessness in response to the movements and momentums in politics and in culture, capitalizing on those emotions feels like little more than smacking my horn in line at the Costco: honking and hollering might make me feel better for a moment, but that moment will pass with nothing consequential having changed in our human condition or my place in the queue. As Christians broadly, and as Good Shepherd specifically, I believe that we are better than that.

See, of Stewardship, I remind you that a “steward” is one who manages what is not one’s own. As Christian Stewards, we recognize that all we have is from God, and so we return to our generous Creator a measure of what has been entrusted to us.

God has chosen the Church as the bearer of Good News and as the primary instrument of salvation, and God has equipped every member of the Body of Christ – every one of us! – with a gift to offer that mission.

During our annual Stewardship season at Good Shepherd, we invite the people of this congregation to make a financial commitment for the upcoming year. We call this commitment a “pledge,” and our pledge is a promise between us and the Lord of all creation, that we will make a priority of our relationship with God. By our pledge, we become partners in God’s saving work.

The standard of our Christian giving should reflect the standard of our Austin living, and, at Good Shepherd, we seek to give God our best, not only what’s leftover or what’s easy. Thanks be to God, Austin is not a city of leftovers. We live in a dynamic, growing community, and, with that blessing, we enjoy extraordinary privileges… that come with important responsibilities.
The biblical standard of giving is the tithe, the first 10% of one’s income. For some, the tithe will be a goal to which one works, while, for others, the tithe will mark a minimum gift.

Significantly, we do not pledge to keep the church lawn mowed or our prayer dues current. We give because God has called us to give, and being made in God’s image, we have been made generous and loving and good.

Now, the tension, of course, is that we must keep the church’s lamps lit and fund the ministries of our parish. As a congregation, every year our budget starts over at $0, requiring us to remain connected and to keep our promises vital: we spend only what we can afford, and we can afford to spend only what has been pledged.

Therefore, our annual Stewardship has two goals: individually, we pray that every member of this congregation will be faithful and give faithfully; and, collectively, we pray that – together! – we will provide for the ministry to which God has called us.

This year’s Stewardship theme of “Neither Height Nor Depth,” draws from Paul’s letter to the Romans, and invites us to consider our connections: our connections to God, our connections to one another, and our connections to our own sense of purpose and identity. As I consider the connections that give me life, I am thankful for my connection to the Church, for I have never been more eager, never felt more grateful for the privilege to make my pledge than I am right now…to give my heart…to give my soul…to give my all to this endeavor of the Holy Spirit, this institution that Christ founded, and that our world so urgently needs:

By my pledge, I resist the pressure to find satisfactory excuses to absolve my responsibility for the way of things these days, and, instead, commit myself to pursue faithful and effective solutions, connecting me to other ways… better ways.

You know, the median ASA – “Average Sunday Attendance” – of Episcopal congregations is sixty…sixty: a threshold our second campus, Good Shepherd on the Hill has passed this fall. Including that congregation we’ve planted, then, Good Shepherd has grown by two median congregations in less than two years, our ASA having increased to 700 since 2015. By my pledge, then, I celebrate that this parish has overcome the trend of shrinking attendances, connecting me to the promise of more righteous oars in our world’s troubled waters.

By my pledge, I invest in the launch of Hillside Early Childhood Center and the provision of affordable, high-quality, early-childhood education for our neighbors on The Hill – Good Shepherd on the Hill, our second campus and its worshipping community – connecting me to the joy-filled possibilities of a new generation.

By my pledge, I sorrow with the grieving, from sickness and burial, to those suffering the ravages of Hurricane Harvey, connecting myself to God’s hope for the world.

And on, and on, and on…when I feel despair clouding my heart, or anger clinching my fists – when I want to scream at the TV or cry in my pillow – I give thanks to God for the Church and for Good Shepherd, by which we proclaim an alternative to “charitable trends.” I give thanks that by our commitments we invest in ideas grander than fleeting internet-clicks…we invest in stories with horizons further back than this empire, and more distantly before us than even our most glorious hopes can dream. I give thanks to God for this imperfect, holy collection of souls who seek the higher road and a cause beyond ourselves.

As you consider your 2018 pledge, I encourage you:

Do not give to rage…give to hope!

Do not give of guilt…give of love!

Do not give to God your life’s leftovers…give to God your first and your best!

Do not give what is familiar, filling out what you did last year…give faithfully, give transformationally!

Give until you depend upon God with all your heart and mind and soul, until you recognize your dependence upon God…for you are worth the sacrifice; the kingdom of God is the only worthwhile pursuit; and our common good – as always – depends upon it.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

(i) Romans 8:37-39
(ii) http://www.ecfvp.org/webinars/211/ecfs-top-10-annual-giving-strategies