(A sermon for Stewardship Sunday March 6, 2011 Matthew 6:19-24)
Where is your heart today?
This morning my heart is still a little bit on a cruise ship, somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. I returned Thursday night from spending six days with 37 of my closest friends, both studying a very good book and having a very good time. It’s the fourth year we’ve met together in some combination, and the biggest group we’ve ever had, with attendees from as far away as Scotland and Alaska.
We began our time together with a Meet and Greet, and each of us brought an item to represent something about ourselves, an item that would become a gift for someone else. It might be something that described where we are from, or it might be something that we made or showed something we like to do. There were a few items that were just funny, but in most cases the piece of swag, as we called it, said something about what we love, about what we treasure.
I treasure that community, formed online almost six years ago. At the time, those of us who began it had no idea what it might become. We just wanted to link our blogs together, those online journals that formed our connection to one another. And while technically it started with a joke about how we needed to have a t-shirt, it really goes deeper. In July of 2005, a hurricane—not Katrina—threatened the Gulf Coast. A blogger called St. Casserole, a Presbyterian pastor, wrote about preparing for the storm’s arrival. Many people read her stories of Southern life every day, but none of us knew for sure where she lived. Alabama? Mississippi? Louisiana? As Hurricane Dennis approached that weekend, she told us about deciding with her husband not to evacuate, meeting neighbors in the grocery store and catching up as they laid in supplies that didn’t need refrigeration, then driving around the neighborhood to see if others were boarding up their windows. St. Casserole baked a Texas sheet cake (but she didn’t live there) and her kids ate the whole thing, and since the power was still on, she made another.
That Sunday I prayed for her family in church, and then I went home and baked a cake, too. All over the country and even as far away as England, friends prayed for her and baked cakes in solidarity with her preparations. We didn’t know each other in person, but she felt real to many, many new friends. When the big storm hit six weeks later, we all prayed again. You see, we treasured this bright, funny woman with the quirky Internet nickname. We cared about what had happened to her family.
We had become a community of love and care without ever meeting in person.
Over the years our little band of a few dozen has become more than 300 bloggers around the world. I’ve met dozens of them in person now. You’ve met some of them, too, when they came to stand by my side in a time of painful transition, and you’ve now heard two of them preach from this pulpit, MaineCelt last week and Kathrynzj at my Installation last month. Over the past six years, we have embodied God’s love with handmade baby gifts, with letters written just so another person will know she matters, with visits to each other’s homes and funny gifts sent to cheer someone who needed it.
My heart is still with them today, and it will be even after the rest of the world stops undulating as if we were all on an enormous cruise ship.
Sometimes someone will start to describe that community of love and care and healing as a church, and it meets many of the requirements for that definition. The one way it isn’t like a church is that it requires almost no money for its day-to-day operations.
Oh, it takes a lot of effort to keep it going! There’s a blog page with daily features, and a schedule of contributors to remind and comments to oversee and new members to welcome and an associated non-profit organization that puts on these Continuing Education events. I’ve worked on all the aspects of the group’s life; I’ve given my time and, I hope, my talent, in large measures. That group has my heart.
But we haven’t been asked to give our money. We don’t employ anyone. We don’t have walls to paint or a roof to mend or a furnace to feed with oil or elevators and fire extinguishers that require maintenance and regular inspections.
And I think that makes it easier for us to live in a purely caring community together, because no one really wants to talk about money, and in this economy we surely don’t want to ask people to start giving to a group that never needed money before. Yet it’s becoming clear that if we want to expand our ministry to ordained women and women considering entering ministry, we may need skills and time that volunteers alone cannot provide.
When that day comes, we’ll really be a church, in the modern sense of the word, with a budget and a pledge campaign and the added worries that come with having to make one set of numbers match up with the other.
Jesus, about midway through the Sermon on the Mount, was not envisioning a church the way we think of them now. I think he had something more like our virtual community in mind, a loosely connected body of believers each striving to spread the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness. In this message about the tension between relating to God and relating to material things, Jesus spoke of the challenges for an individual to be faithful. He laid it down for them: you can’t serve two masters. You have to decide what your orientation will be. Is it God’s pleasure or is it the world’s standards?
In recent years, the mega-church movement made churches like ours look and feel small. Pastors, including the bloggers I love, read books and articles that suggested we were doing something wrong if we couldn’t start with 50 friends and become 2000 people with a worship band and images on screens and smoke machines and a drive-through coffee bar for later. And in reality, those churches are having a hard time now, too, because many of them were built on debt with no deep foundation in their communities. We have our struggles, too, in a smaller church in a fairly small community. Are we big enough to do all the things that we think define a church?
I guess it depends on where the heart is.
My heart is not in a gymnasium or an arena, because that’s not the way I experience the community of God’s care. It’s not the place I find healing. It’s not the place I have found love. I’ve found it in the places where people actually know one another as individuals.
I’ve found it right here.
I see it in your faces when you speak to one another after worship. I hear it in your voices when you ask about the person who is missing, and I know you will follow up with a phone call or a card. I feel it when we light the candles together and pray. I felt it when so many of you rose to speak words of commitment to me, as I had to you, at my Installation.
I experience it when we break the bread and share the cup, the light of God’s love shining in our eyes.
Inconveniently, if you want to have that love in a building in Maine with a beautiful meeting space and a nice kitchen, with a trained pastor and a wonderful organist, and with the heat turned on, you have to find a way to pay for it. So every year, we go through the uncomfortable exercise we call Stewardship. We ask people to think ahead about what they are going to give in the coming fiscal year, which for us is May 1-April 30. We ask people to consider giving a little more, even though the difference in the gas prices just in the week I was away was enough to make this Starbucks-drinking pastor consider giving up mochas for Lent.
But that? Won’t happen. I’ll make some other adjustment. Most of us will, somehow.
Where is your heart? Jesus says that where your treasure is, there will your heart be also, but I know I always want to say that phrase the other way around. Where your heart is, there will your treasure be; that’s the way I always disarrange it. And maybe it doesn’t matter which way we say it. What he wanted us to understand is that we need to be clear about what we value.
For us, today, the question is what value we place on this particular church on Gray Road in North Yarmouth, Maine. In a world that thinks bigger is better, is this family of faith the right size for us? Will we use our resources to show God’s goodness in our town and the wider world? I believe this church is a treasure, a community-owned chest of God’s treasure represented in your gifts and talents. Our chest is full of possibilities for growth in the Spirit, especially through the sharing of God’s care through service to others. Our chest is safe from the ravages of time or thieves, because it is made of love, our love for God and one another.
Our treasure is where the heart is. Amen.