Each Autumn we invite parishioners to make financial commitments for the following year, pledging to give a portion of their income back to God. Some treat this merely as fundraising and see it as a necessary evil. I disagree. Money has a significant pull in our lives, and often that pull is to keep it or spend it on ourselves. But God invites us to do something radical, to see it as a gift and offer it back.
While the specifics are for St. Mark’s Church, I think yo may be able to relate to it as well.
Consecration Sunday Sermon — Based on 1 Samuel 1:4-20
Imagine something you’ve always wanted. Perhaps a cabin up in the woods of New Hampshire, or a cottage out on the Cape. Maybe it’s the job that brings together all your talents and gifts. Or finding peace in your home, or having a relationship restored. It could be that elusive degree or the book you’ve always wanted to write but never had the courage to pursue.
Now imagine being bullied for not realizing your dreams. Family members sitting down over the Thanksgiving table reminding you about the ways you have failed. Each day bringing an unwanted reminder of how your wish hasn’t been fulfilled.
Painful, right? Excruciating. And that’s exactly what Hannah felt. While deeply loved by her husband, Elkanah, she was barren, and her sister wife, Peninnah, had a whole nest full of kids running around. Peninnah was also a bully, always looking for a way to stick the metaphorical knife into Hannah, because in that culture the only thing a woman really had was her ability to produce children. Hannah wanted a child more than anything.
In the portion we heard today, the entire family is worshipping the Lord at Shiloh, offering a yearly sacrifice. Despite getting extra meat, Hannah is unable to eat and makes her way into the temple to pray. She weeps before the Lord, overcome by her grief. She asks God for a son, and declares that if God grants her request she’ll offer the child right back to God, set apart for God’s service. The priest Eli comes up to her, thinking she’s had a few too many when she feasted with her family, and tries to shoo her out. She rebukes him explaining she’s making a plea to the Almighty. Eli quickly backtracks, promising that the Lord God would grant her petition. She leaves holding on to that hope.
They head home, and soon after Hannah conceives and gives birth to a son. She names him Samuel. Once he’s weaned, Hannah presents him to God. She travels back to Shiloh with little Samuel, and he grows up living in the temple with Eli. I don’t know about you, but giving back to God a gift I had wanted for such a long time would be a unthinkable. I’m not sure I could do it.
And that’s the question: What am I willing to do to reach my dreams? Donald Miller reminds us that the basic structure of a great story—and by extension a great life—can be distilled to this: A character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. Hannah wants a child and to overcome the pain she’s had to endure for so long. But if she gave birth to Sam and then didn’t give him back to God, we wouldn’t be reading this story. We wouldn’t have ever heard of Hannah and her barrenness and God’s granting her request. Sure, that’s a good story—a childless woman becoming a mom—but it’s not a great story. The great story has to include the giving back. It’s reaching your dream but realizing that the dream isn’t about you but something much bigger.
As we gather on this Consecration Sunday, I want to say this: we are a really good parish. In the nearly 5 years I’ve been here we’ve made important strides in our life and ministries. We had some 50 children here for our VBS program over the summer. We’ve seen the re-building of a strong youth program with some potential explosive growth just around the corner (all those VBS aged kids). We’ve turned a $50,000 deficit into a projected balanced budget this year as people have increased their gifts to St. Mark’s. We’ve focused significantly more on outreach, giving away our open plate offerings to many worthy organizations and establishing outreach weekend. We’ve had many volunteers give of their time to help in the work of this parish in countless ways. Honestly, it’s a good story. We’ve overcome some difficulties and reached some of those early goals we established together when I first arrived, and for that I and the vestry are very grateful and delighted.
We’re a good parish—that’s something to be proud of—but could we work together to become a great parish? Could we dream big and live into a greater story?
Sometimes I’m asked what my vision for St. Mark’s is. It’s a hard question to answer in one sense—not because I don’t have a vision—but because the vision must be shared; it must grow out of our shared hopes and dreams together because this is our parish, our ministry and our community. No one person can dictate the dreams and hopes of our parish, whether they be a lay person or a clergy person. Yet after many conversations and time spent with you, here is some of our shared vision that has emerged. Imagine this story with me.
I walk over to the parish house from the rectory on a Monday morning to find a group of people sitting in some comfortable furniture in Stephen’s Hall drinking coffee. They’re discussing a whole host of things: from the issues of the day to an upcoming music event. On my voicemail is a call from a parishioner sharing her thanks for the food she received from our parish care team and how much that small thing has made a big difference. I look over the calendar to see that two other events are taking place throughout the day—a steering committee for a new ministry for the people of Marlborough and a homework club this afternoon—in addition to the Cub Scouts regular gathering and the vestry meeting. During the morning I sign letters welcoming a few newcomers, thanking them for their visit. I touch base with our staff to talk about the progress of a discipleship class and hear how people’s lives continue to change and grow. I hear how our Sunday School is truly out of space, and that our youth mission trips for the upcoming summer are both over-subscribed. I grab coffee with a parishioner to hear how he’s doing and catch up. Later, a few people pop in to get things ready for the Community Dinner happening the next day, and I hear from one of them about the most recent event at the DYS facility. I make some notes for our vestry meeting, including the partnership we’ve entered into with a parish in Africa where we’ve begun an email and prayer connection with the people there. Lives on both sides have been greatly impacted. I grab dinner with my family and then head to the vestry meeting. After spending some time praying and studying together, I hear more stories from the vestry, things I had no idea were happening outside our walls. We discuss the tangible things too, the parish house is needing a new coat of paint, and our gifts and ministries report shows good news. I head home that night a bit tired, but grateful to be a part of such a vibrant parish.
You might think that’s not too far off from where we are now, and you’d be right. We’re a good parish. We’ve got good things happening right now. But the difference between where we are and where we could be is just one thing: sacrificial living. It’s in realizing the story isn’t about us, but about someone else. Hannah’s story and all that she overcame would have been good even if she kept Samuel, but giving him back to God and the whole people of Israel? Amazing. Sacrificial living means reevaluating the priorities we have with our time and money and making changes that better reflect our desire to be disciples. It’s hard, of course. We want the easier way most times, we want to be able to keep things as they are, but the story won’t be great that way. It’ll be good, but we could be so much more.
What might sacrificial living mean to you? Let me start with the easier one, our financial pledges. We suggest percentage based giving here at St. Mark’s for two reasons: one it moves pledging from the realm of making a donation to an awareness of its being a part of the whole. We suggest 3% as a starting point in our giving to St. Mark’s because that level is usually beyond a simple onetime contribution for most and becomes sacrificial. Additionally, if everyone not currently giving 3% or more of their income to our parish did so, we’d easily have enough gifts to fund our current ministries and then some. Could you give sacrificially this year, moving up to 3% if you’re not already there, or adding another 1% or more to your current gifts if you already give above that level? 3, 5 or even 10 cents on every dollar you earn doesn’t sound like much, but it could have significant impact on our shared life. If we dreamed big and gave generously, many lives would be changed for Christ’s kingdom.
And then ask yourself what might sacrificial living mean in regards to your time? Many of us cannot really add one more thing, our lives are too full already. And that’s truly where the sacrifice lies. What things might we give up to share in the life-giving work of God? Notice I don’t ask what might you give up to serve here at St. Mark’s. God’s work encompasses so much more than our parish, but it includes looking past our own desires for accolades or recognition and focusing on making someone else’s life better.
This past month we’ve talked about our passions and finding ways to connect and offering those connective points to one another and our wider community as places of restoration. I really believe God’s call for us to engage in that wider mission work lies in those connections, sharing things that bring us life with others. Finding ways to encourage and lift up another person’s life, to look beyond ourselves, that’s where the great story lies. What if we dreamed big and more volunteers committed to doing this work for God in the next 12 months? Imagine what a great story we’d be living.
Neither of those things will be easy. It’ll be a challenge for most of us. But that’s where greatness truly lies, when we give sacrificially in order to uplift the lives of of our neighbors who so critically need the love of Christ.
We can make those dreams a reality beginning this year. We can live into our big dreams with God’s help, because our world is broken—as we have been painfully reminded yet again—and needs Christ’s good news. Will you take the first step and risk living sacrificially? Will you stretch beyond what’s comfortable and into a place of trusting God and give a bit more than you think you can handle? Will we share together in hard, life-giving work so that we can live into a much greater story? We’re on the right path, but there’s a bigger dream wanting to come to life. Will you take part? Will you join in this sacrificial way of life like Hannah, trusting that by doing so the world will be changed? May God give us all the courage to act on those big dreams for the sake of the kingdom, and may we do so with vigor and love. Amen.