It is pledge season, and not just for National Public Radio stations and PBS television stations. Churches all over the country are putting together their budgets and gathering pledges. In this way, we Mennonites who have been known to say we are “in the world but not of the world,” well, we may be more like the world than we know.
You might have seen the letter from our congregational chair, Wyatt Feeler, that was sent out yesterday. It gives some details about our congregation and pledge process for the coming year and invites you to pledge.
Last year at this pledge time, we were a bit hesitant. We were very aware of all the people that had moved in the past year and we anticipated the moves of even more people. We were scared. Would we be able to meet our pledge goal? Would we be able to meet the budget? Would we have enough – enough money or enough people?
Well, friends, there was enough to meet our pledge goal. Of course we are still waiting to see how we meet the budget with those pledged offerings, 3 1/2 months to go. And now, a year later, more people have moved out of the area.
And more people have joined us here, for which we are grateful. We continue to hover around 100 households that worship with us regularly, however “regularly” might be defined.
Also still hovering in the same area as last year is my comfort level with talking about money in church. Why can’t we all just pay our club dues as the baskets pass by and the treasurer record and deposit the money and we each get marked as paid up for the year?
But we are not a club. We are a constantly changing and growing community of faith and what we are really talking about, when we talk about money in church, are the ways that we are living out our faith in the world. And I can get excited about that.
I could talk all day about the good things we are doing as a congregation: how we just finished hosting Warm Nights, the mobile shelter for families who are homeless, for the second time in two months. How we cooperated with Community House Church and the Centro Internacional de Oración to make it happen. How, with the help of our ministry intern, we served served two meals at the day center over the summer, and a meal at Community Cafe and with a donation, bought a used refrigerator to replace the broken down one at Community Cafe.
I could talk for another day about the ways we reach out to each other in the congregation, when there are health crises or mental health crises or financial crises. About the ways that lives are changed by participation and connection in this congregation. I am so grateful to be part of a congregation that puts faith in action, that shows hospitality and love to people passing through – like Warm Nights guests and our intern, and to each other.
We put our faith in action by giving our time – and food. We also give money. The church budget includes over $25,000 that we give to organizations that do good work in the world.
And one of our budget lines is debt repayment. It is not a very interesting title but dig deeper and it is inspiring.
Formally, “debt repayment” means that 5 years ago we took out a loan so that we could rebuild this building. “Debt repayment” also means that we have space for weekly worship and monthly fellowship meals and Warm Nights and game nights. “Debt repayment” allows us to provide space for Centro Internacional de Oración, a congregation of mostly Central American immigrants, to meet here twice a week for worship. They are building community, and living out their faith in a time that can be quite hostile to their very presence.
“Debt repayment” means we can host classes in English as a Second Language. Last year we joined an experiment with the city of Hyattsville and Prince George’s Community College to host ESL classes that also teach baking. The teachers and students loved our space so much, they asked to have even more classes here. This school year, they will be here 3 mornings a week. “Debt repayment” means that we can connect with the larger DC community once a week through the Washington Women’s Chorale, a growing, multiracial choir. “Debt repayment” means we have space for art exhibits in the foyer. In October, look for an exhibit of art by Iraqi refugees.
This next part gets a bit awkward – but let’s be honest as we talk about our money and the church budget. A big chunk of the church budget goes to pay staff salaries. I will not speak for my dear colleagues, but speaking for myself, it is a huge privilege to work with and for this congregation. I am honored to walk with you in times of difficulty and in times joy, to be part of creating our Sunday worship services that nurture and challenge us to grow as followers of the Jesus way. Mentoring new leaders, being your representative in local justice work and in Mennonite and ecumenical conference gatherings, these are opportunities that keep me humble. Thank you for letting me do this work with you, for encouraging me, and for allowing me, and pushing me, to try new things.
I could go on and on about how we are putting faith into action as a congregation. And don’t even get me started about how you all live out your faith as individuals, through your vocations, as well as other volunteer work, bringing beauty and music and justice into the world.
What I would rather not talk about in terms of our faith in action is this difficult passage from Mark. I would rather not hear Jesus say one more time:
“If you wish to come after me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow in my footsteps.
We read this exact same text during Lent in February – thanks lectionary. Seven months ago, we tried to understand these words of Jesus as calling us to, together, point to the injustice of the cross. I still think that is a valid reading (though a one sentence recap may not capture it.)
It would be easier to understand Jesus’ words as hyperbole. Because, let’s face it, too often male preachers have asked women, who may not have much of a sense of self, to deny themselves. Or we have called on people who are already living at a deficit to lose even more of their lives. Jesus, there are just so many layers of difficulty here. Can we just take a pass, please?
But when I ask for a pass, I can’t help but remember what I heard two weeks ago in meetings with the National Organizing Committee of Faith in Action, which is the parent group of LA RED, the organizing group of our Sanctuary work. (Very confusing. All you really need to know is that LA RED is a new line in the church budget this year, a small way to financially support our sanctuary work.)
Several times in this intense meeting over three days, the leaders of Faith in Action said, “This is going to require sacrifice.” I looked around the room, which was predominantly women, African American and Latinx people, and all I could think was, “Hasn’t there been enough sacrifice already?”
Maybe it is having been raised with the Martyr’s Mirror, that tome that recounts the stories of martyrdom throughout Christian history especially those saints from the 16th century reformation. When I hear sacrifice, I think martyrdom. And I am just so done with martyrdom defining us as an Anabaptist people. It is not healthy to get stuck at that 16th century trauma point and use it as a gauge for religious life for the next 500 years. We have got to move on people!
But maybe sacrifice is not the equivalent of martyrdom. Maybe sacrifice is something different. And since the leaders of that National Organizing Committee never quite defined or elaborated about this sacrifice, I am not sure what they had in mind. Was it financial sacrifice, or sacrifice of time and energy, or sacrificing expectations or sacrificing position or power in their home communities or something else entirely?
It caught my attention: “This is going to require sacrifice” because sacrifice is a word I have almost eliminated from my vocabulary. It just seems too demanding – with an abundance of possibilities for manipulation and abuse and destruction by the one demanding the sacrifice. Think of the “Sacrifice of Isaac” in Genesis. Or the ways that the animal sacrifice required by religious officials kept many in poverty during Jesus’ day. Or the way that some religious leaders today preach that the people in their congregations should make personal financial sacrifices and give the money to the church, which enables the leader to travel in privates jets that cost $25 million.
And what about pain? Must pain be part of sacrifice? For who? And if it isn’t painful, is it even a sacrifice?
What did the Faith in Action leaders mean? Was it something like what Jesus said – “If you would save your life, you’ll lose it but if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll save it.”
Let’s remember that while we may get caught up in all the unjust sacrifices that are demanded by corrupt leaders, the point of sacrifice is to find, or re-encounter, a connection to the Holy. The paradox of sacrifice is that somehow in losing or letting go of this small thing – whatever it might be – you find something much bigger, you find wholeness and peace, you find shalom. Perhaps if our sacrifice does not lead to wholeness, or inner peace or connection, we need to reconsider what and how we are sacrificing.
It is big and scary to think about sacrifice, especially when we are single and have no one to fall back on. Or when we have little kids who depend on us. Or students in college. Or when we are older on a fixed income with limited energy. Or when we are in our prime and there are so many adventures in front of us. Sacrifice seems scary. And that is why we are here, together. It is a pretty big thing to do alone.
When we all sacrifice together, when we choose to let go together, we can experience a connection to each other, and to the holy one in our midst. Is that what is happening when we give our offerings? They aren’t club dues. They are a way to bring us together, to be part of restoring creation to creator, leading us to shalom. That is a pretty high ideal for a monthly check or donation through PayPal. As Jesus puts it – “What can you offer in exchange for your soul?” “What can you give in return for your life?”
Sacrifice is not magic. There is no special formula or one size fits all. Jesus’ paradoxical ideas about winning and losing –win the whole world but lose the self and lose life in order to save it, point us toward the idea that through sacrifice there is a possibility for an encounter with something greater than ourselves. We may experience wholeness or restoration or connection. We may experience the Holy, the Divine.
It is a tall order for a church budget and an offering basket. And it is a small place to start to put our faith into action.