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.