The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ
Fort Collins, Colorado
[The sermon was preceded by a “Stewardship Moment” from the Wray family, including three-year-old Faith.] First, thank you so much to Curtis, Jackie, and Faith for your Stewardship family reflection this morning. Truly, my theology tells me that your words were the most important sermon today by the power of testimony. Your story of generosity is the best Word we could receive on giving. This testimony to the power of finding a home in God’s house, especially at Faith’s age, is priceless indeed. Thank you!
As I attempt to add even a small light to the beacon of hope we have already encountered through Jackie and Curtis, will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the offerings of all of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, O God, our rock and the Great Steward of our lives. Amen.
When I was Faith’s age of around three years old, I also remember experiencing my very first lesson on Stewardship and the reason for giving. Having a younger sibling helped one learn early the difference between “mine” and “ours” and “hers”! Ironically, early lessons on giving didn’t come from the Church.
While I do remember church things like rummage sales and coloring pictures of Bible stories in Sunday School at First Presbyterian Church of Manasquan, New Jersey [I was very bad at coloring in the lines even then], Stewardship and the church are not connected in my early memory. My first formation on Stewardship, giving, philanthropy (“philanthropia” a word that literally means "the essence of being human" or "kindness" or "giving for the love of people"), and collective social responsibility didn’t come from a pulpit or Sunday School classroom.
As was the case for most of my generation, early lessons about giving, sharing, and philanthropy came not from church but from PBS and Sesame Street’s The Reverend Big Bird in particular.
Sesame Street in the late 80s and early 90s was at the peak of its success and was part of the daily if not hourly lives and early memories of most of us early American Millennials. Yes, my first memory of Stewardship Sermons came from The Rev. Elmo, The Rev. Big Bird, The Rev. Cookie Monster and The Rev. Grouch. For the record, I did consider dressing-up as Big Bird this morning for the sermon, but then decided against it after looking into copyright laws. Maybe next year.
At the end of every program, after Elmo and Oscar had signed off, PBS had one more word for us, a ritual of sending, a benediction of gratitude that went and still goes like this:
“This program was made possible by the corporation for public broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. [Long Three Second Pause] Thank you!”
You mean that these friends and educators, Oscar, Elmo, Big Bird, The Count, Reading Rainbow, Ken Burns, NOVA, The American Experience were made possible, realized, enabled, brought to life, animated by someone like me? Someone else is out there like little old me? That is such a powerful, political thought. With our powers combined, we can make things like TV or community happen. Really!? The little phrase, “viewers like you,” had two huge effects!
The first was an immediate visualization of all of the viewers “like me” out there. Even as a young gay kid, I remembered this lesson from the fundraising wing of PBS that there are others “like me” out there sitting in front of screens wondering the same thing I was about Bert and Ernie. Are they? Could they be? Viewers like me. The first lesson was that you are not alone as a viewer out there and you are collectively powerful. I believe that subconscious message was probably why this meant so much to so many.
What can the church learn about fundraising from PBS? We can learn the power of reminding you that you are in fact the institution. Viewers, worshipers, prayers, contributors, congregation… it is all you! Viewers like you make this possible. Amen!
The second lesson is the power of thank you and gratitude. There is a full three second silence before the words “Thank you” flashed across the screen. There is so much power in saying thank you well, at the right time, and repeatedly. And, yes, the church like PBS does need to say thank you every week and every day. Nothing is owed to us as an institution from our members as expected. It is all in the category of miracle of philanthropy: for the love of humanity! Everything is given in freedom and love. So, yes, thank you, no matter what you pledge, for making this possible. A Confession: This is why I run our stamp budget way WAY up over the past four years with thank you notes—thank you! I have a compulsion for writing thank you notes. I believe that Thank you is always worthwhile.
“This worship service, FFH and N2N, Habitat, Christian Formation course, sermon, song, organ, choir, building, community, potluck, Open and Affirming lifesaver of a place and theology was made possible by the Holy Spirit, and by contributions to your local church from viewers, people, individuals, faithful few like you. [Long Pause] Thank you!”
I then dug a little deeper. When I did a search for this phrase, “viewers like you,” on Google, the true impact of that campaign and its value on how we give and understand Stewardship became apparent with over 153 MILLION search results and articles about this PBS impact statement alone. Then I dug a little deeper yet finding several YouTube videos consisting of nothing but the original PBS “Viewers Like You” clip that so many of us grew-up with. The one clip alone that I watched had over 300,000 views and many comments. I read the comments and realized that there is a theological lesson for the church for Stewardship (Philanthropy… for the love of the people as they are) here… an important one.
Here are just five of the responses from my generation to this PBS statement:
“Who remembers feeling special as [heck] when they would say, ‘thank you!”
“I had a huge obsession with this funding since I was in 5th grade.”
“I literally looked this up just to watch this. I miss it!”
“Every time I hear or see ‘made possible by’ I always think of this.”
“Grew up on this.”
The Church could be so lucky to have comments like these. Do you hear the sense of belonging, ownership, community, engagement in these quotes? This is about something bigger than Sesame Street. This is what we need for the church!
We must recapture the idea that all of this is made possible by you. Our worship, our community, our work, our vision, our, program, our mission, our radical agenda of LOVE of all people here at Plymouth is made possible by people like you. This is all yours. Stewardship isn’t a trap, or pressure pledge campaign. Imagine if, like PBS or NPR, we sang the first half of the hymns this month then abruptly stopped. We will keep playing the other half of the hymn when we receive ten more pledges! No, we don’t do it that way. Rather, it is the enactment of what we are called to do most in this life—commit to something bigger than ourselves and let go of worry. This is an invitation to living. Philanthropy.
Speaking of loving people as they are, let’s look at verses 21 and 22:
21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money[a] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving.
The man says leading up to verse 21 that he has it all made, but he is still so worried about his possessions. He comes to Jesus and claims that he has already finished God’s Ten Commandments and all other to do lists. Does the Scripture say that Jesus said, as it is often misremembered by some lucrative ministries that you should sell what you own and give all of the money to me…to Jesus? This text has been misused by the church to mean that Jesus wants the man to give his money to Jesus. Really, Jesus is saying that he is inviting the man to follow him and to not worry about his belongings. Jesus’ loving request is an invitation to greater discipleship rather than a demand. Jesus isn’t asking for the man’s money. Jesus is offering a sense of belonging in his movement regardless of material possessions. Jesus looked at him, really saw the man, and he loved him… “you only lack one thing.” If you say you have really done it all already, then here is a challenge.
I don’t know about you, but I am not yet at the spiritual point where that man claims was! He only had one more thing left to do—sell all his possessions and follow Jesus. Boy, I have a long way to go before I claim that I need a bigger to do list from God. Most of us will never get to that point, but we too are invited to be part of the solution, the cause, the movement with Jesus. Viewers like you…wherever you are!
I have one more thing in closing to add as a critique or further wisdom for the church and PBS/ NPR. For years PBS and NPR and the Church liked to use the language of “sustaining gifts.” How many of you have heard an ask for “sustaining gifts?” Most of us, right! The phrase “sustaining” means fundamentally that we have been looking for gifts that are adequate enough to maintain the status quo. By its very definition, sustaining is a conservative, life support, status quo sort of effort. Looking at the world around us today, how many of us want to sustain what we see as the status quo environmentally, economically, socially, politically, or ecclesiastically? [Congregation responds.]
For generations, Stewardship has been done in terms of sustaining gifts—gifts that are offered in the hope of an outcome of the status quo being maintained, managed, or sustained. Two years ago, when Obama was still president, I was invited to spend a Saturday at a regional HUD [Housing and Urban Development] meeting about the direction of housing and urban development around the world, and my entire understanding of what the goal of Stewardship of resources should be for governments, churches, and non-profits changed radically forever. I was offered a new framework.
One of the speakers was the dynamic director of the Department of Local Affairs Office of Resiliency at that time. I remember vividly as she explained the difference between a sustainability framework and a resiliency framework. “The Department of Local Affairs' Colorado Resiliency Office supports and helps empower Colorado communities in building stronger, safer and more resilient in the face of natural disasters and other major challenges. The CRO coordinates overarching recovery and resiliency activities by collaborating with numerous multi-disciplinary local, state, federal, and private partners in setting priorities, leveraging resources, communicating transparently and delivering measurable results to shape an adaptable and vibrant future.”
Isn’t Colorado cool? In the face of the adaptive change in our state and world and climate, our state understands that sustainability and sustaining gifts is no longer the way to problem solve. We must think bigger, reconceptualize what our viewership, participation means. It is only viewers, Plymouth members like us, like you, like we that can make this institution resilient. Cleveland and the National UCC won’t save us. The National Council of Churches won’t do it. Our Association or Conference won’t do it for us. It is up to us to make this place resilient.
Imagine our Stewardship this way: Plymouth Congregational Church coordinates overarching spiritual and community resiliency activities by collaborating with numerous multi-disciplinary local, state, federal, and private partners, non-profits, and members in setting priorities, leveraging resources, communicating transparently and delivering measurable results to shape an adaptable and vibrant future for the sake of God’s Realm on Earth and in peoples’ lives.”
Jesus calls us to not just give to the church but to transform our own lives. This is the same message that my generation received from PBS’ ending to Sesame Street—this is bigger than just you and thank you for being part of it. Philanthropy—the love of people—takes resiliency now.
Resiliency is not about saving what was, as our state has already recognized. It is about creating a future in a time that doesn’t even see or value tomorrow.
It is no longer the time for sustaining gifts, but now is the time for gifts of resiliency. Resiliency gifts are for a vibrant institution that is comprised of none other than us, than you, than me… than we. We are the resilient ones.
It is time for me to return to my Jersey Shore roots and learn to color outside of the lines of traditional sustainability again. Today is the day for us to give and vision a time in need of resilient communities.
I think that would finally make The Rev. Big Bird proud!
This program was made possible by the Holy Spirit, and by contributions to your church from viewers, believers, the faithful like you. Thank you.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
October 1, 2017
Rev. Ron Patterson
This morning, as you heard, we begin our annual Stewardship campaign. This is when we are asked to support our congregation with our dollars and our dedication. I hope you know that Jesus spent more time talking about money and how we use it than any other topic. I need to confess right up front that I used to begin stewardship sermons with an apology, not wanting to offend anyone by talking about money, because in my family and in my mind that was a forbidden topic, private, secret, and off limits.
But Jesus rescued me with his honesty and some good congregations nurtured me with their generosity and dedication and helped me forget my fear. And while I will be speaking again on this topic in a couple of weeks with more specifics, I want to use my sermon time today to tell you a story.
My beloved always says that 'my little kid on the farm' stories are the best ones I tell, because unlike the other stories that help me make sense of life as a person of faith, the 'little kid on the farm' stories come from the time that molded how I look at the world as a child of God.
The farm is gone, the people who touched my life then are gone, but the memories animate my day to day.
When I was seven, I was sent to my great-grandparents dairy farm in rural Ohio to stay and for the next ten years, I spent every summer and almost every school vacation on that farm working and experiencing the rhythms of nature and the life cycle of a working farm with hogs and sheep and chickens and beef cattle and a raft of dairy cows and hay and corn and wheat and oats and gardens and canning and fields and woods and springs of cool clear water and endless chores and just plain hard work. That experience, more than school or college or seminary molded that place on the inside of my heart that I would describe as my soul.
Today, I want to tell you the story of the miraculous peach tree. But to share this story, I need to give you a little farming background. When we made hay on the farm, the hay would be cut and then when it was dry, it would be raked together into windrows so that the hay bailer could pick it up and pack it into bails. This process normally took about three days and as a little kid, since I couldn't drive the tractor yet, I didn't have much to do with it, other than helping collect and stack the bails and bring them into the barn. But sometimes, just when the hay was about dry, there would come a sudden thunder storm and you just can't bail wet hay--and then would come a chore which I hated more than any other.
It involved picking up a three tine hayfork and fluffing up the windrows of hay just enough to permit the breeze to blow in under the hay to dry it so that by afternoon it could be bailed. And I hated that job, because it was hot and it was dusty and it was in the sticky humid sun of an Ohio summer. And once in a while a snake or rabbit or a mouse would be hiding under the hay and as you walked along fluffing the hay they would jump out and for a little kid that was terrifying. And the job was endless in a way that things are often endless for a child.
One summer on a miserable hot day I was alone doing this job way out around the hill from the barn, fluffing the windrow with my hayfork when I came to the end of the field. I was so hot and feeling totally sorry for myself and suddenly I looked up and there was a tiny tree growing in the fencerow that divided our farm from the neighbor’s woods. And as I looked, I noticed that something was growing on the tree.
The tree was loaded with gigantic peaches--the size of small grapefruit, and they were ripe and they were wonderful and I ate a couple and each time I finished fluffing a windrow I stopped and ate another peach and I forgot about the heat and the snakes and the sun. That little tree became my best friend that afternoon and to this day they were the best peaches I have ever tasted.
The next summer, when it came time to work that field again, I looked for that peach tree—and the first time that summer I managed to make it to the end of that field, I was cutting thistles along the edge of the field where corn was now growing. I looked and looked for the peach tree and finally found the same place and there it was—only that year, it was just a nearly dead stump of a thing—uncared for and unplanned, it had pretty much died over the winter. There were no more peaches. It was gone.
And I have thought about that peach tree many times since. Every time I've tasted a good peach and you have great peaches here in Ft. Collins, I've wondered about that peach tree. Where did it come from? How did it get there? Chances are one of my relatives—some cousin or great uncle, had passed that way eating a peach and tossed the peach pit into the fence row. Chances are, by some miracle that peach pit grew—and by another miracle, uncared for and unbidden—that little peach tree had managed to bloom and prosper for a few years, half a mile from no where in the back of the beyond.
And while those peaches were the sweetest ones in the world—something was missing--something important was missing. There was no planning and there was no ongoing care or giving to nurture that little tree and so when the harsh wind blew across those Ohio hills that next winter, the little tree stunted eventually died.
So often in the life of the churches I have known over the years, I have seen the same thing happen to great ideas and even great congregations that did not take to heart the call of Jesus to give and to care. Too often there was this assumption that someone else would do it, or that an individual’s giving did not make a difference. Growth and leaders and mission and our work in this community depend on our enthusiasm and our financial support.
And so I am a believer. I believe in planting trees I will never live to enjoy. I believe in doing what I can to make the dream others gave me come true in a future that will not include my presence. I believe in giving that supports people as they do the love of Jesus in this community and around the world. I believe in giving to maintain this building so that my grandchildren will find the same love I experienced in my home church as a child. I believe in a music and youth program that exists to proclaim God’s love with verve and excellence. I believe in giving to support the cause of peace and justice. I believe that the more we give, the deeper our experience of God’s presence will be.
I wandered in here six weeks ago and what I discovered was a living outpost of the Jesus movement named Plymouth: people working together and loving, thinking and living, people daring and dreaming. The gifts we share and the commitment we make will strengthen this congregation and this community. The lives we live and our giving makes that possible today and for the sake of the future. I thank God for your witness and for the ministry we share. Amen.
The Rev. Ron Patterson came to Plymouth as our interim for the fall of 2017 during the Rev. Hal Chorpenning’s 2017 sabbatical. Ron has served many churches from Ohio to New York City and Naples UCC in Florida, where he was the Senior Minister for many years before retiring. Ron’s daughter-in-law and grandchildren attend Plymouth.
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