Throughout the month we have received a Minute for Missions from various church committees. These announcements were given to help you consider your financial pledge to the church this year. We run a very low key campaign. I have been instructed by the Stewardship Ministry Group to preach four stewardship sermons a year. I bet you can’t remember the first three. This week I have been asked to be a bit more obvious and so I shall try.
For many of us a stewardship sermon is not necessary. Our families taught us the importance of giving at an early age. I got my first allowance when I was in the fourth grade. Each week my father gave me 60 cents. To be more exact he gave me 12 nickels. At the beginning of each month when my father was paid he would get rolls of nickels. Each Saturday morning my allowance was disbursed. Fifty cents for me and ten cents for Sunday School. Dad also gave me a five dollar bill once a month. That was to be placed in my monthly envelop for the church service. When I reached the seventh grade Dad gave me $2.40 at the beginning of each month. Do the math. It was still 60 cents a week. He wanted to see if I could be responsible with my allowance over a period longer than one week. In other words he wanted to see if I would put ten cents back for each Sunday. When Deb and I got married over thirty eight years ago, I discovered her father had a similar system. So there was never any question concerning the importance of our gift to God. It still remains the first check we write when we pay our bills.
Not all of you had my experience. For many of you giving to the church is something new. Some folks give to the church if all the other bills and expenses are covered. When the purse strings get tight, giving to the church is not a high priority. Since giving to the church is something I have always done, and something I seldom question, I had to go out and find a resource that addresses many of the questions folks have about giving their hard earned money to the church.
Presbytery sent out an e-mail suggesting every minister read a book titled, Not Your Parents Offering Plate, a New Vision for Financial Stewardship by J. Clif Christopher. I purchased it and read it on the plane coming back from Haiti. It had some interesting suggestions. Did you know that in America today there are over 1.8 million non profit organizations, each trying to solicit your dollars? In 1985 religious groups received 55% of all charitable donations. Last year that number was down to 31%. Part of the reason for that is the number of non profits over the past twenty five years has risen by 600,000. There are a lot of folks out there asking for your money and Mr. Christopher says people want to give to something that changes their lives. I could not agree more.
Mr. Christopher gives three reasons why folks give. Number one is that folks have a belief in the mission of the organization. WHAT IS OUR MISSION AT ROCKFISH PRESBYTERIAN? I believe it is to change lives for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let’s quickly look at who we are and how we are known. Last year you adopted a motto that declares Rockfish to be a Light in the Valley. What perfect words for this congregation. No church in this area does more for the folks of Nelson County than Rockfish. No church in this area has a more diverse congregation. No church in this area has a better music program. Like everyone we have room to improve but from the day I arrived nine months ago I was immediately overwhelmed by the caring, the nurturing, the humor, the generosity that defines Rockfish as a church. Believe it or not we are known throughout the Presbytery. Last week, while in Richmond, I told someone I was the minister at Rockfish. The immediate response was, “What a blessing to be there. I hear nothing but good things about your congregation.” Your contributions allow us to continue to feed souls, feed minds, and feed the hungry.
Christopher says a second reason people give is because they have a high regard for the leadership. Truth is you hardly know me. I have been here less than a year so I am going to suggest you give me a pass and wait till next year to make your evaluation. Let’s look at you session. What an honorable group of people. Look at the back of your bulletin and marvel at the folks you have chosen to lead this congregation. Look at the folks who lead our worship through the outpouring of music. Go downstairs and looks at the folks teaching the bible to our children. Go to Senior Citizen lunches, Habitiat, the Food Pantry, BRIM meetings, CASA meetings, The Wood Ministry, or any other activity serving the folks in Nelson County and you will see your fellow church members. Who is the leadership of this county? You are! Who is the leadership of this church? You are. Let me say as someone who has just arrived, you are doing a mighty fine job.
Finally Christopher says people don’t give to sinking ships. According to Nancy Neville, and she should know, our membership has reached an all time high. We have had 17 new folks join us this year. There are a lot of you who attend regularly but still want to hold on to your love of a former church. I admire your loyalty. But I am more thrilled we worship together on Sunday and work together rest of the week. Your membership might be elsewhere, but in heart and spirit you are part of the Rockfish community. Now a lot of ministers would use this time to tell you how bad things are. They would try to make you feel guilty. If I told you something like that I would be lying. Each morning when I drive into our parking lot, I feel the energy that comes from a vibrant, faithful people, who serve God and who serve the folks in this community.
I appreciate these insights made by Christopher. They are excellent points but I have to say Christopher is suggesting nothing new. I have graduated from one college and three graduate schools. About this time each year all of them wants to solicit money by informing me of their mission, their leadership and their success. I fully expect United Way, the Cancer Society, the Heart Fund and a slew of other organizations to send me request for money. They too will brag about their mission, their leadership and their success. The formula suggested by Christopher has a good track record in the private sector. It works for organizations because most folks want to place their money where they know it will be used well. I say AMEN to that. But the church is and has always been more than an organization. In fact I might be so bold to say when the church only views itself as an organization it takes a mighty big risk of losing its heart and soul.
Please pay special attention to this week’s text from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus and the disciples were walking up the road from Jericho. They were surrounded by a large crowd of people, all trying to figure out who this Jesus of Nazareth might be. On the side of the road was a beggar named Bartimaeus. When he heard that Jesus was passing by he exclaimed, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” Folks sternly ordered him to simmer down but he kept crying out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” Jesus stopped turned to the blind man and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus replied, “Teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Your faith has made you well.” Immediately Bartimaeus regained his sight.
There are plenty of miracle stories in the gospels but I think this is my favorite. Thousands of folks, thousands of folks with good eyesight, flocked around Jesus every day. Yet only this man, this blind man, recognized who Jesus was and what Jesus could do. To often the work of the church revolves around programs to run, bills to pay and buildings to maintain. Those things are important, after all we are an institution. When we come to our stewardship campaign we want to impress you with how well we run the programs, pay the bills and maintain the buildings. But Blind Bartimaeus wasn’t interested in any of that stuff. He believed in a power that transcended slogans, leadership and good track records. He wanted, he needed a miracle and the only person capable of giving him sight was standing right in front of him. Bartimaeus recognized God in Christ. He knew, he believed, something was about to happen that was beyond the scope of his human imagination.
A good friend of mine Gary Charles wrote, “What would it mean for the church to trust not in successful stewardship for its future, trust not in the most dynamic preacher for its future, trust not in the most appealing music for its future, trust not even in its spiritual piety for its future but trust first in God, believing God’s mercy and grace will always be with us.”
That trust is what makes us unique from other institutions. That trust is what allows me to willingly participate in our stewardship program. I trust God has plans for us we have not even imagined. We may not see them with our physical eyes but my spiritual vision tells me God is in the process doing the miraculous here in Rockfish Valley. How do I know this? I have witnessed God’s hand in my life for as long as I can remember. I am still that young kid with $2.40 in his hand the first of the month. By the end of the first Saturday, $2.00 was usually spent on useless stuff. But I saved the forty cents, and spent it two nickels at a time, one Sunday at a time, because I believed God works miracles……I still do……I suspect I am not alone. Amen.