As we officially begin our capital campaign, Deep Roots, New Life, I have heard a lot of worrying out loud: the cost; the timing; the possibility of failing. With that in mind, I have been struck by the anxiety inherent in our Gospel story this week. Two men go to worship, and they are both worried. Jesus tells a parable about the intersection of faith and humility.
Consider: What do faith and humility look like and what do they have to do with our life/capital campaigns?
To live a life influenced by faith means we want to live according to divine standards, which may generate some worry when we inevitably fall short. We are supposed to speak truth in a culture that equivocates; to speak of life as we face death; to articulate hope in a world that seems to be descending into despair. We may reflect on how we are doing with the Almighty, as we try to live in the context of a reign of love and justice.
To live a life influenced by spiritual humility is to recognize that God is at the center, not me. It is not about debasing oneself (think Uriah Heep in Dickens with his malicious mock repentance). Humility is not competitive unctuousness. True humility, as a spiritual practice, is to look at oneself honestly, seeing one’s strength as well as faults, and accepting the grace that God is willing to shower upon us.
As a community, we recognize that God has loved and blessed us for nearly two centuries. The ministry of this church is to share the blessing, and we have committed ourselves to supporting that. Any serious self-examination can be unsettling. Add money into that, and it can make us all a wee bit nervous.
It is our anxiety that leads to the human capacity to hide our real selves from other people, and sometimes to even try to hide from God. Often this is driven by fear. Humans fear vulnerability almost as much as we fear death. This is part of our survival instinct, inscribed deep on our hippocampus. We hide our weak spots so we are not at a disadvantage. Instead of actively loving as God commands (as we pray in the collect), often we retreat into posturing in order to dominate or into invisibility to avoid confrontation. We fear trying, lest we fail.
The Pharisee is a faithful and humble man. Amy Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar, reminds us that Pharisees were genuinely devout Jews, recognizable by their devotion. It is not fair to assume that he is guilty of trying to justify himself in the eyes of God. He is stating what he knows: that he is redeemed by the Holy One of Israel. He recognizes the love of God in the Law. He lists everything he does that makes him “good.” I think that he saying this out of his own anxiety: he neither asks God for anything – mercy, grace – nor does he repent of his sins, nor does he pray for those he considers sinners. Christians usually interpret his prayer of thanks as empty and alienated. Levine says that he is sincerely grateful for his relationship with God, acknowledging the blessing. His words sound to me like the Little Engine that Could: I am good, I am good, I am good.
Faith and humility recognize that God can see our hearts. God also knows all the good things we do, all the longing we have in our hearts to be better people, all the secret shame we carry over from our failures. The tax collector is as faithful and humble as the Pharisee. He too knows the Law. Yet a Jew, he has taken advantage of his own people by working for the Romans, and as a human being, he has made his living by padding the bills. His prayer, riddled with anxiety, expresses repentance. He has messed up, and he knows it.
Levine says the surprise in the Christian scriptures is that grace is available to all who come before the Lord, not just the holy or the religious or the elite or those who think they are wise. In a world organized according to rules, this is scandalous. There is no competitive advantage with God. There is showing up, healing, and love. I would say that annual pledge drives and capital campaigns are much the same. All that God wants from us is for us to love back. Not to be perfect, or to keep up appearances, or to fulfill other peoples’ expectations. Just to love back. Harrisburg deserves nice things. And we already have them in Christ.
Our practice of stewardship is connected to our gratitude for God’s generous love for us, our response given back in love as blessed children. All our lives are complicated, and still we all have many reasons for giving thanks this year. Making a pledge – whether one is filling out a little card with one’s projected giving to church for the next year or for the sake of a new organ – is a spiritual commitment between a person/family and God. It is not like signing a promissory note, and we don’t send you to collection if circumstances change. It is not competitive. It is not a vote of approval or disapproval on the rector or staff. It is a reflection of our commitment, as people of God, to continuing the work of God in this place. Stewardship is a gift to God from the people of God, given knowing that we are not perfect and that we want to be part of life with God.
So please do not be afraid. God is Love, and is stronger than Covid, stronger than death, stronger than our fear of failing. Stewardship is not a competitive process. True faith and humility mean that we could worry less. And although we have financial targets, this is not just about the money. This is about our community working toward a future with God, and each of us has some work to do. Please consider this an exercise of faith and humility. Faith, because we never know exactly what will be happening and we trust that God will see us through. Humility, because we know what we need to do and what we can offer, and we can express our gratitude to God without fear or shame.
Resource: Amy Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.