Bold Giving

Ancient Testimony - Luke 19:1-10

October 17, 2010

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

“From the beginning, there has been a compelling need for ceremonial space: uncluttered, peaceful, and accepting space.”
~ In Espacio ceremonial, Merida

The waxing gibbous moon last night was 67% full.  The waxing gibbous moon last night was 33% empty.  It will become full soon, only to go dark and then fill again.  That cycle is a better cycle for stewardship season than an annual one, where you fill up the coffers and declare the campaign a success.  A stewardship campaign is only a success if you empty and fill, fill and empty.  The campaign is only successful if you do something with the money you collect that makes the money worthy of its collection.  Strong reasons, said Shakespeare, make strong actions.

I want you to give boldly to Judson because we hold a beautiful story.  It is the story of Jesus who told us to love our neighbor as we love our self.  He followed the more ancient testimony that we are to seek the welfare of the city, for in its welfare is our welfare.  These two pieces of gold—what some call The Golden Rule—are the very best investment you can ever make.  They will show you how to live.  When you know how to live, you are truly safe, even saved; truly secure, even sure.  Nothing can scare you if you know love as your center.  Everything can scare you if you don’t.  Why give boldly to Judson?  For love.  For Jesus.  For your own good.  Your own welfare is tied in a knot with the welfare of the other, the city, the neighbor.  You may wax and wane, empty and fill, but love will not.  So no matter how gigantic your pledge is to Judson today, it is a bargain.  You couldn’t ever pay what this love is worth to you.  Strong reasons make strong actions.

Consider Zacheus, the rich tax collector who had to climb a tree to see Jesus.  He needed to get above the crowd to see what was going on.  Most of us do.  The crowd has blinders that prohibit our vision.  The crowd is happy to tell you that everything is up to you, that you are worthy only as you are productive; and that you better stay part of the herd, do what the herd likes and says, and if you don’t, the herd has punishments all ready for you.  Here at Judson, we help each other climb trees.  We become one small crowd that challenges the larger crowd.  We gather weekly in this sacred space to remember our intuition that Jesus has something to say.  From the Easter alleluias to the advent lights and back again, the greatest intuition of the church is to see Jesus, the one who had a way of bunking in with sinners.  Zacheus the short became Zacheus the large.  Zacheus the rich became Zacheus the broke.  He knew a bargain when he saw one.

We can’t spend our whole life in a tree or chasing the bargain of love.  We do return to the crowd and its time cards and performance reports.  Then we come back together, climb trees again, and take a longer look.  That longer look is what we call prayer or worship.  There we place a bet on the great promises of almighty God, that if we seek first the welfare of the city, in it we will find our own welfare; that if we love, we will be loved; that if we neighbor, we will be neighbored.  Some of us lay more cash down on these bets than others.  But we do place the wager. 

Some of us place double bets.  A little here, a little there.  A little Jesus, a little humanism, a little crowd-following, a little lottery ticket.  We hedge our bets because we ourselves have been hedged.  Even if you have not been loved, you can love.  That is the wager we make here.

It is the love we initiate that saves us, not the love we receive.  The wager is that we will get what we can give.  I won a bet that I didn’t even know I had lain, this week.  Most of you know Peter, who makes our bulletins.  The cover you see today is something he made after what can only be described as a terrible week, when we were short-staffed and our building was expressing its impatience with us and the heavy demands we place on it by refusing to unlock doors or make buzzers ring or elevators move.  I am surprised we have a bulletin at all, and I would not have been surprised if its cover had been a picture of Peter flipping the bird or of his behind sitting on the photocopier.  Instead, we have the collage of Judson and Judsonites and all the ways we reach out to each other and the world around us.  A view from the trees.

When we have loved our neighbor as our self, we have not always been rewarded.  Sometimes the crowd has yelled at us as much as it yelled at Jesus.  Fox News and Glenn Beck get a megaphone; we get a whisper.  But we come together again, another Sunday, another Wednesday, and climb another tree and look around.  Once again, we invite Jesus into our house and bet that he offers a way to live that is better than other ways to live.

What you all have done here, at Judson, long before I ever knew you, was to create a place—a sanctuary, a cloister, a zone, a beautiful box of air—that would protect the spirits of those who dared to place love of other above the crowd.  You have been tree climbers for a long time.  Today I want you to recommit to that effort and to re-believe that your welfare is the city’s welfare and that the city’s welfare is yours.  The actual word for welfare is shalom; in this story, a peace and a justice shaking hands that means much more than welfare.  Seek ye first the Shalom of the City, for in its shalom you will find your shalom.  Your life is all wrapped up with its life.  That is what Judson has believed, does believe, and will believe.  We are not good at bunkers or caves here.  We live in the open air.  We are tired of those who need enemies, whether these enemies be queer or immigrant or Muslim or Republicans or the rich or the glossy or whoever.  Love doesn’t need enemies; love makes friends.

I overheard my daughter, Katie Emma, introducing me to some of her friends.  “This is my Mom,” she said.  “She works at Judson Memorial Church, the last free space in New York.”  I begged to differ.  We are not here to be the last free space but to be the first free space, to be a model for other congregations to open the doors, lift the shades on the windows, to look in and out at the same time.  People often describe me as the last hippie or an old feminist.  I always correct them.  I think of my feminism as just starting—and as Judson’s freedom as having a better future than it has a past.  A similar correction applies to the word free.  There is very little free about freedom.  Freedom is the most expensive thing in the world because it directly opposes the way people charge for just about everything, including freedom.  Freedom is the capacity to choose your own bondage.  When we choose to be bound to love, we anticipate both luxury and lessons.  Last free space, she said.  Space is the only word I will agree with in Katie’s quip.  We are indeed a space, a sanctuary, an umbrella, and a cloister for creativity.  But we ain’t the last (nor are we free, if by freedom you mean without cost).  Actually our gift is in being early, horizon like, on tiptoes at the top branches of trees, whispering love, love, love.

Yesterday was the memorial service for one of the great saints of Protestantism, Bill Webber, founder of New York Theological Seminary, which was denied accreditation for years because it intuited that mainstream Protestantism was breathing fumes long before mainstream Protestantism wanted to admit it.  He wanted to teach a different group of people how to be leaders of a different kind of church.  He went on to be very successful at that venture after being knocked out of his tree many times.  From there he opened a program at Sing Sing prison that now has 300 graduates.  About 30 of them were at his service yesterday.  When asked to stand, their leader said, Don’t worry, nobody here is going to tell your boss that you used to be inside.  As the men stood, their leader eulogized Bill as someone who understood “that a man is more than his worst moment.”  A man is more than his worst moment.  That is Jesus talk.  You don’t have to be in Sing Sing to understand how that message sings.  Bill also argued that we were not supposed to win the battles for justice so much as to engage them—because in the welfare of the other we find our welfare.  He loved to say that we are valued by the quality of our compromises.

Most of us, no matter how many inches we have, are very short.  We have made some high quality compromises.  So has Judson.  Our bathrooms are not flushing; our lift is broken, again; we promise twice what we can deliver—making this just an excruciating day to preach a sermon about uplift or getting up or climbing.  We often preach a Jesus who is too small.  We wax and wane in spirit and in hope.  Here at Judson, we have great compromises.  We are not perfect, not even great.  I am not asking you to give to our greatness, but instead to give to our promise of love.

I was so glad to get historical permission from one of you for this waxing and waning yesterday.  I was complaining about having to come up with a sermon this morning that asked people who don’t have much to give more.  How was I supposed to do that?  She said, Oh, just ask them; they’ll do what they can.  Then she went on to tell me that for a long time our former ministers rotated the pulpit.  As she put it, “One week Howard would preach a depressing sermon, but at least Howard was ‘stable.’  The next week Al would preach a joyous sermon, but Al was ‘unstable.’”  I thought that was a hilarious thing to say and unlikely to have much truth to it.  The past is usually misspoken, both our personal and our collective past.  But I loved her joy in projected stability and projected joy.  She seemed to like the fact that the last free space knew joy and depression, stability and instability.  By the way, so do I.  Michael, as we go forward, I want to be the stable joyful one, you can have instability and depression.

So, I am not asking you to give to the last free space, nor to our greatness, which may or may not be true.  We are a space for joy and fear, stability and instability.  We are not free, we are actually expensive, a luxury in a land with way too few trees and even fewer people who know how to climb.  There is nothing last about us.  There is a lot early about us.  Give as you can.  Give more than you an.  Give what you can.  As long as you are seeking the Shalom of the City, its shalom will come back to you.  Strong reasons yield strong actions.  Love is the reason to give.  Give boldly.  Amen.

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