Why Are We Here?

Psalm 119:1-5, John 15:7-17, October 27, 2013

Wednesday two people told me that their dining room tables are over flowing with letters asking for money from charities. It's getting late in the year and a lot of families make charitable donations toward the end of the year, so that makes sense. As I thought about what a hassle it is to deal with junk mail and the huge number of return address labels and wildflower stickers that have passed through the Willadsen mailbox in the past year, I overlooked one important fact: I sent a letter just like those letters that are so annoying on Tuesday. One of these people lamenting the stack of mail seeking money for worthy causes had gotten that very thing from me that day! I hope all of you got a letter like that on Wednesday. And I hope you read your letter.

Here's reality: Charities rely on donations from people like us to do important work. When I take the time to read the material that these organizations send I realize that they all do important work—often taking on projects and issues that no one else is addressing. A really effective mailing makes me see not only how important the work is, but also how a contribution from my family will help them do more and better things.

The effective letters tell stories.

The effective letters make me want to give.

The effective letters make me feel good about giving.

The effective letters make it easy for me to respond—here's a pre-addressed, post-paid envelope, just make out a check drop it in the mail.

And the really savvy operations make it possible to give on-line through their websites. I don't even have to get up from my computer with a few key strokes and mouse clicks I can support a worthy cause and I will feel good about what I have done. I need to repeat that: I will feel good. Maybe I'll smile and think about the difference I have made—a good pitch will have that effect. I saved a whale, fed a child, supported the arts, I made a difference. I might even smile. And then if someone asked me, "Tom, why are you smiling?" I can say, "I feel good because I made the world a better place."

Imagine that you've just made a donation to an organization whose mission, purpose and work you believe in. Imagine that your donation has made a difference. You should be smiling now. I want you all to smile now. I mean it.  OK, now look at each other.  You're all smiling, or trying to.  Good. Thank you.

Now imagine...you just paid the water bill. Anyone smiling? Anyone getting a surge of joy? Anyone ready to do the Lambeau Leap? Did you know that your water bill also covers sewage charges in Oshkosh? Where's the joy? Exactly, I didn't think so.

You've heard we're taking a different approach to stewardship this year.  If you read the letter you saw a real difference. Here's why we're making this change, and why we're going to keep approaching the topic of giving to this congregation this way: In 1988, 60% of charitable giving in the United States went to religious organizations and causes. In 2008, 33% of charitable giving went to religious organizations and causes. The fact is, the church is competing with lots and lots and lots of other charities for money. And in the past generation, the church has gotten a dramatically smaller portion of the charitable giving pie. Everyone else got better at telling their stories while churches just assumed that people knew what they needed to continue doing what the church is supposed to do: tell the Good News of Jesus Christ in a hurting, broken world. We didn't talk about it, because we thought everyone already knew. That was a mistake—a strategic error. We made supporting the church about as enjoyable as paying the water bill.

A few years ago I attended a stewardship training event and someone pointed out that we put pledge cards in everyone's hands and assume they know what to do. Sort of like this..."Fill this out, bring it to church and then we won't ask you for or talk about money again for another year, deal? Oh, and would you mind giving a little more?"

So that year the Mission Interpretation Committee asked a few people to talk about the process their households go through to decide how to fill out their pledge card. It was eye-opening. The honesty and the recognition that it's hard to think about money, it's hard to talk about money and it's really, really hard to talk about money outloud in church! I knew all that, what surprised me was that the people who spoke were grateful for the opportunity to reflect on this practice. It was hard, but also rewarding. It was rewarding because it was hard. It was a challenge and it was a new experience.

Last week I preached as honestly and clearly as I know how about some of the ways this congregation, I mean you, change people's lives and offer people hope when you support the church.  We embrace questions here, rather than answering them. We leave people room to struggle with faith; we struggle along side them, rather than giving pat, simple answers. One of our members who grew up here and is a "graduate" of our Sunday school and confirmation class sang a song about the difference between faith—that is a relationship with the Living Christ, and religion—ritual that may become empty or meaningless. Faith is dynamic, but religion can be just going through the motions.

We open our doors and heat the building and keep the lights on for clients of the Samaritan Counseling Center, and people struggling together with addiction at Narcotics Anonymous meetings here twice a week. We send young people to camp and last summer to the national Triennium. Prayer shawls make God's love tangible to people who are hurting, grieving and scared.  We are so used to doing this that we don't even see it. We need to hear these stories. We need to share these stories. We need to recognize that lives are changed because we are able to respond to the love the Lord revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

Here's something Jesus never said, "Go out into the world and balance the church budget!" We used to think like that. But when we say it outloud it sounds silly. Jesus said, "Go, make disciples...teach them to do everything I've told you. And remember I am with you to the end of the age." [Matthew 28:19 & 20, NRSV]

That bit of silliness made me stop to think about the church's future. What are we supposed to go out into the world and do? Live our faith in Christ. Live...faith. Those two words reminded me of this church at its best. I'll tell the story again, because it tells us who we are and why we're here. In December of 2007, one of the funeral directors who used to work next door stopped into my office. He asked if I knew why he was there. I didn't...but I was pretty sure it was about the walnut trees!  It wasn't. He was hoping that this church would buy their building, because they were going to build a new facility on the west side. I remember telling him that the church is very interested, and it would probably take us a year to make a decision--we're Presbyterian.

Originally the Session, your Session was split in thirds, some wanting to purchase the property, some unsure, and the other opposed to making the purchase. We talked about it, held meetings about it, prayed about it and my March of 2008, the Session had reached a consensus to proceed with an offer to purchase the property. There was no clear, obvious plan for the land, and we soon found out that it would be prohibitively expensive modernize the building. The Session and then the congregation realized that buying the funeral home and the land was an investment in the church's future. Fifty years from now people who are not even born yet, will be grateful to the foresight that we showed in 2007. We recognized that the church of Jesus Christ does not exist just for our own private enjoyment—we stepped out in faith because we understood that we do not exist just for ourselves. It was like purchasing a blank canvas, one that we have now begun to paint on. We got award-winning landscaping along Church Street now. We've held two PresFests. The youth group and Sunday school and preschool use The Green Space. We have the Corn Roast there. And we'll find other ways that we can use the new land to offer ministry from the Heart of Oshkosh.

The psalmist wrote, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path."  I chose that verse because it says to me that God's word offers a little guidance; it provides enough light to see the next step, enough so you can see the path and not trip or stumble. God's word shows us the next faithful step to take.  That's a word that leads us into the future. No one saw PresFest in 2007; I'm pretty sure we didn't start calling it "The Green Space" until after the funeral home was torn down and the grass started growing.  We didn't know what the future would be like, "unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see."  We'll sing that line in our last hymn this morning. You saw potential, you saw an opportunity and you responded in faith and trust. I was so proud of this congregation when it hit me that we were looking to the welfare of people we didn't even know when we decided to purchase the land.

When Jesus was giving his disciples their final instructions in John's gospel he commanded them to love. And they knew what love feels like, because he had loved them. That's a really important point to John—we love because God first loved us. God started it. Christ embodied and shared and instructed his followers in love. And the greatest love is to sacrifice for someone else. The greatest joy is in loving others. It's like this Chinese proverb says, "If you want happiness for an hour -- take a nap. If you want happiness for a day -- go fishing. If you want happiness for a year -- inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime -- help someone else." Happiness for a lifetime. Anyone want that? Jesus said it slightly differently, "make my joy complete," but it gets at the same idea.  True happiness is living for other people. True happiness is supporting the life-changing work this congregation does every day. In a few minutes you'll be invited to place your pledge card for the 2014 church budget in one of the baskets up front. We'll sing "Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart," your financial support to this congregation changes people lives. The church needs money, my hope is that you will know joy and satisfaction in knowing what God is doing with and through us. Every day. Amen.