November 14, 2021 - Sermon - Rev. Judy Bagley-Bonner

Sermon Text


Scripture:  Luke 17:11-19 

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus[a] was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers[b] approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’[c] feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”    


     Perhaps you remember Elizabeth Manley, The Canadian figure skater from the 1988 winter olympics.  If I remember correctly, she was sort of a long shot that year. When asked about her performance after the fact, she said something like, “I wasn’t expected to do much, and so I had little to lose.  So I decided to let go of all the stress, and just skate for the love of skating.”  I remember well her performance which was electric and magnificent.  The sportscasters said it was as if she had been cut loose from everything that had previously constricted her, and she soared in a new kind of joyous freedom.  Oh, and by the way, she also won the silver. She, who was not supposed to do much of anything, skated only for the love of skating, and sort of accidentally, won silver


I highlight her experience because I think it gets at the two sides of the spiritual life, and certainly of the spiritual disciplines, things like prayer, meditation, and what our forebearers called almsgiving, and we might call stewardship.  Because, you see, the spiritual disciplines have two sides just like athletics: the joyous, emotional side where we glide with God in spiritual spins and turns just for the love of it, and also, the practical, disciplined side of daily training, without which, those fancy spins and jumps could never happen.   Elizabeth Manley, in other words, could never have cut loose and performed with such freedom and excellence that day unless she had also put in the rink time- hours and hours of disciplined practice and grueling training.  Indeed, in the spiritual life, we are more likely to experience the highs, the mountaintop experiences which come when we least expect them, if we have also lived a daily life of faithfulness to spiritual practice, spiritual discipline like daily prayer, scripture study, meditation, whatever your regimen is, whether we felt like it or not.  Well, the discipline of generosity is no different.  It, too, has two sides.  We might say the heart and the head; the left brain and the right brain; logic and creativity.


   First the fun stuff, the joyful free-skating side of the equation:  just recently it occurred to me that maybe we would be more generous people if we viewed our resources not so much as things we own and must control and grimly maintain, but more as things that pass through our creative influence temporarily.  It made me think about the Big Bang.  If I have it right, every single bit of matter, every resource, every single thing that would ever comprise our universe was all there when that first explosion happened, and over the eons, it all just keeps changing forms.  So our bodies are literally made of star dust.  It all just shape shifts, right?  In one sense, then, if you’ll go ahead and get all cosmic with me, nobody actually OWNS anything,  It all just forms, shifts, evolves, unforms, transforms, and we have the creative opportunity to participate with it for a time.  We are part of what interconnects and shape shifts. 


     If this is true, then maybe we can loosen our grip a bit on things that we “own” because in fact we never really “own” the essence of anything.  We just have the creative opportunity to apply our bit of influence on things and resources for awhile.  In one sense it evokes more of a spirit of “easy come, easy go,”  but not in the irresponsible sense that is often meant by that phrase.  Yes, some people may treat, say, a home that they rent much more carelessly than one they own, or may treat their money irresponsibly if they haven’t had to work for it.  But I mean something different by “easy come easy go.”  What if everybody really understood at a deep level that everything is a gift from the universe, from the life impulse itself, or God, or whatever name you ascribe.  What if it all belongs not to us, because it was all here a looong time before we humans ever came on the scene.  What if it all, really, belongs to life itself, and our role is just to enter the creative process to help shape-shift it for a time, for the good of all?


     Maybe it’s all more like a dance, or a figure skating routine.  The music has been going on since way before humanity entered the dance hall.  And nobody owns the music.  We just get to go in and join the dance for a time, participate in the creative exhilleration for awhile.  Or maybe it is like a river, it is only sparkling and life giving in so far as it is free to keep moving.  The  minute somebody comes along and damns up a corner of it, that corner becomes stagnant, and eventually odorous, dead and mosquito ridden.


     William Blake said this:
 “He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sun rise.”


     If we want to increase our level of joy and aliveness, to live with more creativity, with fresh flowing, sparkling streams or the delight  of stepping into a lovely, English Country Dance for a time, if we want to skate with joy and freedom, we need to loosen our grip on everything, including our stuff and our money; maybe ESPECIALLY our stuff and our money, because it tends to be what we, in this time and place in history, this zeitgeist, most identify with, and if we can loosen our grip on it, we can loosen our grip on everything.  I have heard it said that our checkbook register, (now our online spending register) is actually the best indication of our values.  I think there is powerful truth to that.  If we want to know what we really value, as opposed, too often, to what we SAY we value, we need to look at where we spend our money.  And we need to assess whether we are shapeshifting it in ways we really want to.


     If we don’t, in one sense, own anything, then we don’t have to cling to it or control it in a tight-fisted way.  We can approach it differently, with an eye toward shapeshifting it so as to free its creativity to be useful and beautiful for all as it evolves into its next manifestation.


     That’s what you are doing here.  This Church has existed since before all of us got here.   We have all inherited this creative, life-giving community where freedom of thought, and love as a central ethic, are here for us to enjoy and celebrate and teach and shape-shift for the future with our warm, creative touch.  Doesn’t it excite, enliven and free you to direct your resources toward this, more readily than you might, say to buying more stuff that you will “own” as in put in a cupboard, or dust, or follow as numbers, mere, lifeless digits, on a monthly statement on a screen? 


     Now clearly it’s not an either or.  Having things and some financial security can certainly be approached out of aliveness and creativity, too.  But I think there is something powerful and unique to be said for generosity of spirit that benefits others.  Your mother was right when she told you that giving to, or doing for, somebody else makes you, the giver, feel good.  There has been a lot of research done on the health benefits of altruism and benevolence.  I think it’s because it puts us in the flow of the potent life force, the creative energy of the evolving universe itself.  Generosity keeps the flow open at both ends for an endless, creative cycle of giving and receiving.  If all we do is aquire, and seldom move things along,  we are destroying the winged life, stopping the flow, damming the river.  Giving enlivens and frees us.


      My friend the minimalist, who lives in a lovely, spare home with very little clutter, says “stuff drains chi.”  Chi being life energy.  I think it’s true. Stuff drains Chi and clinging too tightly to our sense of ownership and control damns the river such that we cannot skate.


     Let me ask you this: what if next time someone admired something you had, what if you just up and gave it to them?  What if you took it off your body or your coffee table and said, “Here. This belongs to life itself.  I have been blessed to share time with it, but now I want to set it free, to shape-shift it forward for someone else to enjoy.”  How much joy and delight could we passing along and also receiving on any given day if we touched things more lightly like that…


     We are freed when we open up the flow and direct, or shape-shift our resources into creative, healing new manifestations, like this incredible, loving, transforming community and the potential for transformation that it offers to the wider world.  By directing your resources here, you have a chance to kiss the joy as it flies, to cherish the history and shape the future with all this good, life-giving chi!   


     So I encourage you, as you consider your giving this year, to be an open stream
where living waters flow, not a stagnant pool; to remember that:
The one who binds to self a joy     Does the winged life destroy;
But the one who kisses the joy as it flies      Lives in eternity's sun rise.


     And that brings me to the other side of generosity as a spiritual practice, and that’s the discipline part.  The left brain, or logical part.  In addition to the English Country Dance of giving, there is also the disciplined, ordered, practice of giving.  And the point here is, that we actually have a method: an intentional, serious approach to the support of this spiritual community. Toward that end, I’d like to share a bit of my own experience with stewardship with you. When I was in high school,  I was the only one in my family who was very involved with a church, and it happened to be this one.  That year, Federated was doing an every member canvas, and that included the kids right down to the nursery, who were probably asked to give a nickel. The point was, stewardship was the spiritual responsibility of every one of us! So I filled out my card, and… never thought of it again. I paid zero point nada on that commitment that year.  The next year, they came back and ever so nicely suggested that since I had “not completed my commitment” the year before, (a generous interpretation,) perhaps I would like to stick with the same goal. So that year, to save my dignity, I threw a little money in the plate here and there, frankly, just so I could be seen doing it. I always sat by the stewardship people on those Sundays. I still was far from fulfilling my commitment that year, but I guess I did a little better.


   The next time I even remember thinking about stewardship was in seminary, when Brian and I had joined a funky, spirited, poor, little church in downtown Minneapolis. There, too, we gave haphazardly, throwing in some dollars every week based on whatever we had in our wallets (minus what we had to save for brunch with our friends after church, of course.) Here I was, a seminarian, and that was the extent to which I understood stewardship.  

     But finally, as part of that church’s stewardship campaign, the minister extended a pointed challenge about the discipline side of stewardship. First, he asked us to figure out what we were actually giving. To be really honest, and estimate it as best we could, and then to compare it to our disposable spending, everything we spent beyond food, clothing, and monthly necessities.  What we might call discretionary spending. Wow. were we enlightened. You see we had been living in blissful ignorance, fooling ourselves that we were giving generously. When we looked at the real numbers, we could see that it just wasn’t so.  Then he suggested a different, possible method. He suggested taking that estimate of our actual giving, and figuring out what percentage of our total income it was. By total income, he meant our paychecks, or for the retired folks,  pensions or dividends, or whatever it is you live on.  When we did these calculations, Brian and I realized we were giving at less than one percent of our income, which in one sense wasn’t so bad, because that is the average giving level in mainline churches…(And I would suggest, parenthetically, that this is part of the reason that all of our mainline denominations are dwindling, by the way.) But back to our pastor. What he did then was challenge us to get serious and intentional and disciplined about our giving; first of all, to commit if we weren’t yet doing so, and to pay on that commitment weekly or monthly, or annually for those who could afford it, but to pay it consistently just as we paid the water bill, the electric bill and the mortgage. He also encouraged us, most of us one percent givers, to get ourselves to three percent that year. Then to plan to increase our giving by one percent per year until we finally got ourselves to the Biblical level, the tithe, at ten percent.  Brian and I decided to take up the challenge, and got ourselves to three percent that year. And here is the amazing part: even though we were students living on just a bit more than a shoe string, we barely noticed a difference when it came to our lifestyle.  We did notice a difference at church, because lots of others had taken up the challenge, too, and gradually that church went from its previously subtle, hang-dog, survival mentally, to a robust spiritual community with enlivening programs and outreach, in short, more dynamic ministry. And I can tell you right now that that annual meeting was a lot more fun, too.


   It worked so well, and was so relatively painless for most folks (certainly not all. I fully understand that there are folks here who literally cannot meet that challenge, and I want to say in the clearest terms that if what you have to give is the widow’s mite, then you are being as faithful as the biggest giver here.) But it was so relatively painless and effective for most folks, that I want to offer that challenge here as well.  Take a pencil and do the arithmetic, and compare first your disposable income to your church giving, and next your church giving to your income. And if you are not at at least three percent, I encourage you to get there, at least to give it a try. If you are at three percent, I challenge you to get yourself to five percent, which is half the tithe. If most people in this church got to even five percent, I daresay ministry would burst forth here in a whole new way. Finally, if you are at five percent, let me further challenge you to increase your pledge, perhaps just one percent per year, until you get to ten percent. There are people in this room who do the full tithe. And on behalf of all of us, I say thank you. But in the meantime, again, if most of us could get to five percent, this could be a far more robust and yes, spiritual place. And further, I think Jesus knew we need to give sacrificially because he knew it would take that much for most of us to keep our attention on the fact that as believers, we need to give God first place in our lives. Interestingly, Jesus’ second most frequently discussed topic was money!  The only thing Jesus talked more about than money was the Kingdom of God. He knew that where our money went, there would our heart go also, so our giving needed to be significant in order to keep our heads straight!


     And so today, I challenge you to consider the logical, disciplined side of stewardship, too; to do the intentional work of assessing where you are, then make the commitment to get or head to five percent if you are not already there.  Then make the commitment to pay on your commitment faithfully and consistently, whether you are in town or not, and whether you are mad at the church or not, and whether you have taken on other significant expenditures or not. 


    I’m not saying it will be painless, although I do believe it will be less painful than you might think. But even if there is some pain, we remember the words from Paul, who said, “I press on toward the goal; I strain forward toward the high calling.”  The truth is, following Christ isn’t always supposed to be easy. We, too, are to strain forward in all types of faithfulness, financial as well as in the rest of our lives.


     We need both sides of stewardship: the heart and the head.  We need the disciplined, daily practice and we also need the attitude that kisses the joy as it flies, that runs back to Jesus after being healed in order to say thank you, that free-skates with exhilarating freedom for the pure love of it.  


     Because the one who binds to self a joy     Does the winged life destroy;
But the one who kisses the joy as it flies      Lives in eternity's sun rise.  Amen.