This homily contains theological reflection, a story, and a teaching.
The theological reflection
At the end of summer, everything scriptural seems to take a turn toward lessons which are sobering. Jesus asks his followers Which of you does not sit down and estimate the cost? He says this because to choose to follow the way of faith has costs and consequences. Every choice we make can offer us a blessing and will exact from us a price. Every choice demands that we consider our priorities. This teaching sounds harsh, as Jesus demands that we choose where our allegiance lies.
The verb “to hate” used in today’s gospel can be understood in a context of animosity/argumentation. It can also be understood as a rhetorical device in a paradigmatic binary of loving versus hating. Binaries can be simplistic and there is a lot to criticize about their use. That doesn’t stop writers from using them in the psalms and wisdom literature, to point out the absolute necessity of choosing rightly. The sobering significance of this gospel passage is its stark reminder that the reign of God commands our allegiance and our labor, and its importance is even greater than all the earthly relationships that we value and need.
Part of me wants to say yikes. Are we up for this? And a big part of me knows that this is entirely true. We are the church. If we do not make the reign of God a priority, who shall?
Three years ago, our former music director came to the vestry meeting with a proposal for the purchase of a new pipe organ. With many bells, pipes, and whistles, custom built and literally shiny, it really was a fine specimen. And then a warden asked the question: What will this cost? The answer was the instrument had a price tag of $1.3 million. I felt the air go out of the room. The sense of despair and anger had nothing to do with the value of the instrument or the significance of a music program. Simple economics and the complex nature of parish priorities meant that the proposal was out of our reach. It took two years of hard work during the pandemic for the committee appointed to decide what sort of instrument was suitable for the use of the Cathedral. We studied, prayed, we discerned, and we negotiated with organ builders and with one another, before reaching the conclusion that a digital organ would be best for St Stephen’s. Now, as a parish community, we are to the point of raising the money for the project.
As people of faith, we always need to figure out what to do next in light of our realities. And while churches use the word discernment often, deliberating in a spiritual context and as a spiritual practice, it does come down to cautiously figuring out how to accomplish what we need to do. We have known for over a decade that the old organ needed replacement. The question was how to provide suitable music for worship without over-reaching our finances.
I think that Jeremiah and Jesus might be pleased that the organ committee chose not to walk up the false path of worshipping at the altar of “easy” – choosing an inexpensive instrument with a ten year projected lifespan or suboptimal sound quality. We hoped to obtain an instrument that would make possible a sense of the nearness of God while still offering a powerful sound. For all those reasons, the sense of the committee was that an acoustic (pipe) instrument would be optimal. Then we learned that the installation of pipes would use the entire chapel, annual tuning would be around $10K, and the price tag ($1.25 Mil) was still out of reach. (ugh)
The committee was back to Square One. We considered hybrids. We considered digital. We considered refurbishing an historic instrument. We considered medication as our anxiety grew. Our “new” music director Jordan did a lot of driving during pandemic shutdowns to play different instruments. In Wheeling, West Virginia, he experienced an epiphany. (Can any musical good come out of WV?) Jordan called me: There is a digital organ which has a rich sound like a pipe organ! It is online, so remote adjustments are possible. It took more than six months for the group to be able to travel as a committee to hear a Marshall and Ogletree instrument and to talk with the musician who played it weekly. Miraculously, the committee was able to come to consensus, inspired by the state-of-the-art system, the cost savings (500,000 less expensive than a pipe organ), and the wonderful sound of the instrument. The proposal was submitted to the vestry. The vestry approved, and wardens signed the contract with Marshall and Ogletree last year.
Which of you does not sit down and estimate the cost?
Although one might expect that the priest spend time day by day in theological reflection, as a rector I have needed to do a whole lot of prioritizing of resources. Often the theology and the business math co-mingle. During the pandemic, I took coursework in non-profit management at Temple University. One of our assignments was to do the math for development of new programs through cost and benefit ratios. A sobering process, even for a math lover who can rely on our wardens and an excellent finance team.
The prospect of obtaining an organ is daunting in the best of times, and seriously frightening after two years of pandemic disruption. (By the way, No One mentioned the need for a new organ when I was being called here.) Even with a consultant on board, it took a while to complete the feasibility study. Then it took months to organize a capital campaign committee. It has taken additional months to obtain architectural image that we can print and share with our congregation.
We have spent years discerning and preparing. We are at last in the place from which we can move forward. We have already raised over 200K, and will begin raising more money this autumn.
As a parish, we can find all sorts of reasons not to do a capital campaign now:
- we are worried about the economy (aren’t we always?)
- we have lost some members since the shutdown (both through death and moving on)
- we all have lots of things going on
- we are afraid of failing (our most significant obstacle)
As your pastor, I can think of some reasons to get to the task:
- this is a three year campaign – and it is likely that the economy will improve
- we have gained new members and are a growing church
- clearly we have made the work of God at St Stephen’s a priority (and that is our reputation)
- we are the people who believe that with God all things are possible
In the next two months, you will receive information about the capital campaign, named Deep Roots, New Life. You will be asked to support it. Please consider prayerfully how you can contribute to this campaign. What will we give to the next generation to experience Episcopal worship in this place?
Carolyn Sharp. Commentary on Luke 14. Working Preaching Blog. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-23-3/commentary-on-luke-1425-33-5