Sermon: All Saints’ Sunday A
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
Bishop Frank Gray, retired bishop of this diocese, always says: “Stewardship is everything we do after we’ve said ‘yes’ to Jesus.” That bears repeating: “Stewardship is everything we do after we’ve said ‘yes’ to Jesus.”
And that means that stewardship really is much bigger than this stewardship season. It’s much bigger than what you put on your Planned Giving Cards. The Planned Giving Cards and how you follow through is a part of stewardship (and as priest of this parish who would rather that we keep going for another 175 years, it feels like a pretty important part to me)—but it’s just a part. Your lives should be lives of stewardship. Our lives should be lives of stewardship.
And that means that it is perfectly appropriate to look at the saints in our lives—both those Saints with a capital “S,” the giants of the faith the superstar Christians, and the saints with a lowercase “s,” all believers across time and space—as examples of how to live lives of true stewardship.
So, we’re going to do that today. This sermon is a sermon written in three Acts, with a wrap up afterward. So here we go.
Act 1 is entitled “Time.”
There are times when I feel as though Jackson Kemper is following me around. Which is a weird concept, since Jackson Kemper has been dead for 147 years, so perhaps I’m following him around? At any rate, I cannot seem to escape from Jackson Kemper.
Jackson Kemper was an Episcopal priest, until 1835, when General Convention decided to consecrate missionary bishops to preach the gospel west of the settled areas of this nation. Kemper was the first chosen. He became known as the bishop of the “Whole Northwest,” which includes Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Nebraska. I have spent a good part of my life in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and so I cannot seem to escape from Jackson Kemper.
In Kenosha, Wisconsin, where I grew up, Kemper Hall was one of THE buildings in town. Kemper Hall was originally an Episcopal school for girls that shut down in 1974, when I was three. But the campus and some of the adjacent mansions eventually became Kemper Center. Big charitable events were always held there, and Kemper Center became the center for the arts in Kenosha. Neither of these were exactly my scene growing up, but one did not live in Kenosha without knowing the name Jackson Kemper.
So it was with some interest that I learned that my seminary, Nashotah House, was founded by Bishop Kemper.
And it was with a rather amused interest that three years ago I learned that on December 29, 1843, Bishop Kemper sanctified this plot of ground and laid the cornerstone for this church.
I’m telling you, this member of the Communion of Saints won’t leave me alone.
One of the things that amazes me is how much of his time would have been spent in travel as the Bishop of the Whole Northwest. I know, kind of, because I travel around to these same places all the time: to Kenosha to visit my family, to Nashotah for study and reunion events, and to here. It’s a lot of time in the car. And Kemper wouldn’t have traveled by car. The time he must have spent just traveling for the good of God and God’s mission is astounding.
Truth be told, there are days when I romanticize this a bit, because you see, this diocese has pointed out many times how the membership of this parish is pretty far-flung. Our vestry alone lives in Middlebury, Mishawaka, Bristol, Elkhart, and Michigan. Our members also hail from Goshen, Ligonier, Osceola, and Wakarusa. And then the diocesan events! They take me regularly to Donaldson, South Bend, Warsaw, and more. Some days I feel like I spend an awful lot of my time in the car.
And when I get sick of it, I picture Jackson Kemper on a horse (did he ride a horse around? I don’t know, but I like to picture it that way), riding around the whole northwest, doing God’s work. And it inspires me to keep driving, to keep doing God’s work myself.
Jackson Kemper is embedded in the DNA of this parish. Jackson Kemper is a part of your history as well.
How might Jackson Kemper and the Communion of Saints inform your use of time—your attitude towards it—your understanding of how God might use it?
Act 2: Talent
My Dad is the best lector I’ve ever heard, hands down.
“Lector” is simply the word that St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Kenosha, Wisconsin used for those who read at church on a Sunday. And I know that I’m a bit biased, but my Dad is the best.
At this parish that was big enough and wealthy enough to pay three full-time priests and have 8 Masses each weekend, my Dad was the head lector. He was the one that the priests always looked for if the scheduled lector didn’t show up. He was, and probably still is, the best.
And this was at a time in this parish that the lectors were honored. There was one lector per Mass, and that lector read both readings, the petitions (what we call the Prayers of the People) and the announcements. The lector was a member of the altar party, processing in and out with the lectern book held aloft, sitting at the altar with the priest and the altar servers. Reading into a microphone that carried one’s voice across this massive space—the lector was an honored position.
And every time I sat in Mass and watched and listened to my Dad, I near ‘bout burst with pride.
He spent most of my childhood out of work, collecting unemployment, trying like crazy to keep our family afloat, and I discovered later that all those years out of work left him struggling with depression. But I didn’t even know that some might consider my Dad as lesser-than. Never even occurred to me. Because my Dad was a lector. And a darned good one. He was entrusted with God’s word. And he knew that it was a sacred trust.
Every Christmas Eve, our parish’s Midnight Mass began with the church sitting in total darkness, and in that darkness, my Dad would find his way to the lectern and the microphone, and would proclaim the words of Isaiah from memory: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. . . For a child has been born for us, a son given to us . . . and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” And in those moments I would know the light of Christ, would feel myself bathed in it, even as I sat in darkness. It shone through my father’s voice.
I was in the 6th grade when he began to train me. He taught me how to process in. How to speak into a microphone. How to sit up at the altar still and modestly. How to be graceful when I messed up. But more than that, he taught me how to read Scripture for the sense of it—how to know when Paul was saying the really important thing that needed rhetorical emphasis. How to tell an Old Testament story in a way that made the point clear. How to proclaim like a prophet. He taught me that it was no small thing, being entrusted with God’s word. And while I would go on to fight it, he taught me that this was part of my call—to dare to proclaim, to help people to really hear God’s voice in their lives.
Neither of us knew at the time, of course, that it would lead me here, to this place.
But there is absolutely no doubt that my Dad’s use of his talent, and his encouragement of mine, resulted in this.
What are your talents, and how might you surrender them to God, for God’s use, more completely?
Act 3: Treasure
December of my 5th grade year, my mother sat down and had a talk with me and my sister. My Dad had been laid off for 3 years. In a town where everyone was laid off, work was hard to come by. His unemployment benefits were about to run out. And my Mom needed us to know that this would not be a normal Christmas. We were already used to our Christmases being more humble affairs than the Christmases of our friends, but this Christmas would be different, even for us.
We would go to church like always, she said. We would each get one present from them. Christmas dinner would be boxed spaghetti and canned sauce. Something we could afford.
My little sister cried. I didn’t, because I was a big girl, after all. But I felt like crying.
It turns out that there was no need for tears, or anxiety.
Because on Christmas morning, our parish came through. That morning, we had 4 turkeys and 6 hams sitting on our doorstep. We had boxes and boxes of non-perishable food. We had presents. We had gift certificates to grocery stores and department stores and restaurants. We had more than we could possibly use. My Mom put one turkey and one ham in the oven, and fit what she could in the freezer. And then my Dad and I drove around town, delivering turkeys and hams to his out-of-work buddies from American Motors and Snap-On Tools.
And that morning, we went to church, and I knelt in my pew in thanksgiving, and promised God that I would pay it all back someday. Of course, God doesn’t need me to pay it back—I knew that even at the time. I just didn’t have the words I needed to say that I would live the rest of my life doing my best to spread God’s love around.
What’s funny is that I can see now how that Christmas was a pretty big fail from a church administrator’s viewpoint. Someone should have overseen the charitable giving at our parish to make sure that we didn’t get more than we needed, more than we could use. Someone should have assured that the wealth was spread around a bit more. Someone should have coordinated the communication of members’ intentions.
But I didn’t see any of that at the time. What I knew that Christmas morning, was that through God and through God’s church, my cup overflowed. I knew something of God’s radical abundance. When I close my eyes and think back, I can still feel how that felt.
And gosh darn it, I want to pay it back, with interest. I want to spend the rest of my life spreading God’s love around, and helping others know that their cups also overflow, that our God is a God of abundance.
The things that our treasure makes possible . . . It’s truly astounding.
That, my friends, is the end of the three Acts. Now we begin the part where I try to bring it all home.
So here goes.
I want to make two things perfectly clear. First, God does not love you because you are useful. God does not love you because you are productive or because you are generous. God does not love you for your time, talent, and treasure. And neither do we. God loves you, and we love you, because you are God’s beloved son, beloved daughter. Pure and simple.
Second, God does not need your money. God does not need your time or your talent. God’s Kingdom will come in its fullness, even if we all hoard it all.
But once we’ve said “yes” to Jesus, our lives take on a different shape, a different meaning. Jesus transforms us into better versions of ourselves. And that means that we are called to give of our time, talent, and treasure. For our own sakes. For the sake of others. For the sake of the Church. For the sake of the Kingdom.
And that—that being good stewards, that giving of ourselves—knows no season. That’s a lifelong endeavor. But we do have seasons in the church, and we have seasons in this parish. We have bazaar season. We have Angel Tree and food basket season. We have backpack season. We have Strawberry Social season. We have building maintenance seasons. We have Sunday mornings. We have Wednesday evenings. We have preparing the budget season.
And all of these things—all of these things that keep our doors open and our lights lit and our worship going and our outreach happening and our fellowship flourishing—they require your time, talent, and treasure. And don’t think, for even a moment, that when you give of yourself to this parish that it just does what you mean it to do. Jackson Kemper, my Dad, the people who gave my family turkeys and hams and nonperishables and gift certificates and presents—none of them knew how their time, talent, and treasure would lead me here. To this place. Doing the things I do. And we don’t know, not really, how the things we do together will impact God’s people. Because God has this marvelous way of using what we do in unpredictable and crazy ways.
So let’s think crazy for just a moment.
We cannot imagine what God would do if every one of us lived our lives in the realization that our time is not our own—that God can use it all. That doesn’t mean that we don’t take care of ourselves—God needs and wants us to take care of ourselves. But even that time is not our own. We cannot imagine what God would do with this church if we all showed up for church every Sunday, and we dedicated the rest of our lives to God.
We cannot even begin to imagine what God would do if every one of us used our talents fully, and for God’s glory and the good of others.
We cannot even begin to imagine what God would do, and what this parish would look like, if we all tithed 10% of our income—the biblical standard. Or if we’re not there yet, if we gave proportionally of our income, working our way towards a tithe, with that as our goal.
God doesn’t need any of this. And God loves us regardless, and we love you regardless. But man alive, what might God do with our time, our talent, our treasure?
Stewardship is everything you do after you’ve said “yes” to Jesus. Stewardship is what the Communion of Saints does through God and with one another. And you’re a part of that.
How will you respond?