Bill Bryson is one of my favorite writers because he can make anything both interesting and funny. I am just about finished with his book At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Loosely wrapped around the design and purchase of a ‘charming’ house in the English countryside, At Home gives Bryson a pallet on which to explore the minutia of just about any subject you can imagine related to home life: refrigeration, the light bulb, inept English architects… you name it. His exploration of the development of indoor plumbing brought me uncomfortably close to a time when muckraking was not a journalistic enterprise, but an actual job for a person who descended into London’s sewer system to ensure that ‘stuff’ kept moving (I think I have said enough about that).
Take something as commonplace as a mattress. Back in Shakespeare’s day, a descent bed could cost as much as half a year’s salary. According to Bryson, Goodholme’s Cyclopedia, a popular nineteenth century publication, divided mattress types into ten levels of comfort. The best was down, then feathers, wool, wool-flock, hair, cotton, wood-shavings, sea-moss, sawdust, and finally straw. A feather mattress began to smell after a few months, and so families who could afford it kept a flock of geese for plucking so that several times during the year the mattress could be restuffed with fresh bedding. Many of the other mattress materials came with their own set of problems. They were havens for bedbugs, fleas, moths, mice, and rats. Sharing a bed with any of these fellows would not add to the prospect of a good night’s sleep.
I read a chapter of Bryon’s book each night before going to sleep. Time and again, I have put it down on my nightstand, turned off the light, and thanked God that I live in America in the twenty-first century. There has never been a better time to be alive nor has there ever been a more satisfying place to make a life. Reading Bryon’s book reminds me that life even a hundred years ago would not have suited my temperament in the slightest. That reality goes up by factors of ten the farther back in history you go. All things considered, we are pretty well off.
I might add to this that there is no better time or place to be a Christian. We can debate if it was better or not to be a Christian in the 1950’s when churches were overflowing and everybody in town – and I mean every body – was expected to go to church. That era has passed, some would say thankfully. Now, those of us who participate in the life of church do so willingly, rather than to conform to social norms.
We are blessed to be able to worship in this place this morning without incurring the scorn of family members, the pressure of the state, or the fear of bodily harm. The same cannot be said of our brothers and sisters in Christ in Egypt or Syria or the Southern Sudan. In fact, there are many places in our world today where the practice of a particular faith can cost you your job, your freedom, and even your life. I read this morning that an Anglican Archbishop in Nigeria was kidnapped overnight and out thoughts and prayers are with him.
In this morning’s Gospel reading we heard Jesus tell a large crowd of followers that they must consider the cost of discipleship before signing on. For some of those folks the cost included estrangement or banishment from their families. For others it led to social ridicule. Some had to endure imprisonment, others beatings, and a fair number faced martyrdom. All of these were commonplace and came over and above the challenge of actually practicing what Jesus preached:
· Turn the other cheek.
· If you have two coats, give one to a person who has none.
· If your hand causes you to sin cut it off.
· Pray for your enemies and forgive those who do you wrong.
Yes, we find it difficult to do what Jesus taught us to do, but at least we living in a society where we are free to try.
Over seventy Coptic Christian churches have been attacked or destroyed during the most recent uprising in Egypt. Countless others have been kept safe because moderate Muslims have formed human shields around Christian churches. In return, many Copts have offered the same protection to Mosques deemed too liberal by radical elements in the society. The stakes are incredibly high, but Coptic Christians and Muslims, aware of the cost, have deemed it worth the sacrifice in order to stand up and to stand together. As a fifty-year-old Egyptian housewife told one reporter, “I know it might not be safe, yet it’s either we live together, or we die together.” None of us here this morning has to face anything like that in order to practice our faith, or merely to live our lives.
Still, to be a participant in this faith community comes at a cost. Unlike a huge mega church, where you can slip in the door, take a seat in a spacious auditorium, and be feed spiritually all the while remaining anonymous, what St. Paul’s has to offer amounts to nothing more than what all of you give and how God blesses it. Being a participant in our common life will cost you time… the time it takes to serve on the Altar Guild or to sing in the choir or to serve on the Vestry or to teach a class. You will be asked to contribute canned goods for the Food Pantry, side dishes at a Pot-Luck, and a casserole for Loaves and Fishes. We have tables to set up and weeds to pull out. There are no worker fairies living in the Undercroft (I know. I have been down there).
As I look around this place this morning I recognize that everyone is doing at least one thing to make this place work. In an era when they say church membership is consumer driven, when people want to know what a church has to offer and what they can get out of it, St. Paul’s swims against the current. What we get out of being a part of this church is directly tied to what we put in. The more we give the more we get.
There is another cost to being a participant in our common life – financial. If you go to a mega church, when they pass the bucket around – yes, I said bucket, not basket – you can drop in a dollar or two and no one will know the difference. Sure, there may be a great emphasis placed on giving money “to do God’s work”, but the ministry isn’t going grind to a halt if you drop in a five spot as opposed to a twenty.
Financial stewardship here at St. Paul’s looks very different. We struggle to fund a bare-bones budget that pays for a priest and several part-time staff while also tending to such non-glamorous necessities as utilities and insurance. The Vestry presents the budget to the congregation at each year’s annual meeting. You know what it costs to run this place and you know that your contributions play a significant part in the financial side of things. In addition, we make regular appeals for the Food Pantry as well as special projects like drums and Godly Play lesson sets.
I don’t try to goad or guilt anyone into doing “God’s work”, rather I emphasize the value of leading a generous life. The biblical measure of generosity is the tithe – giving to God 10% of what you have. Is this 10% of total income, gross income, or disposable income? Does it include other charitable donations and the support of other community institutions, or just the church? These practical questions are good ones to ask. If you ask me, the answer I will give you is that it is good to lead a generous life. I am grateful to be a point where I can be more generous today than yesterday. I hope that tomorrow I can be even more generous than I am today. In the end, leading a generous life is not a cost of being a Christian, it is one of the blessings.
So here is something for which to be grateful: none of us has to go home this afternoon, gather the geese, and pluck away in order to refeather a mattress. When we lie down to sleep we are not getting poked by random pieces of straw nor do we have to wonder if a critter has burrowed into sawdust under the covers. All things considered, we live a pretty sweet life. No ifs, ands, or buts about it, I wouldn’t trade my life for that of a typical person in any other place or time.
And here is something else for which to be grateful: when we gather outside after the service for a cookout celebration the single biggest threat to a good time will be flies. Hostile militants are not threatening to burn down our building. No one is coming after us with guns or clubs or fists. When a faith community faces this kind of threat either it closes its doors or it becomes deeply inspired with a marked sense of vitality and resolve. I guess it has something to do with if you are in, you have to be all in.
I would not want what threatens our brothers and sisters in far too many places around the globe. Still, I recognize that they don’t have to face what most threatens us – complacency. When you have it easy it becomes easy to kick back and relax, to assume that someone else will do what needs to be done, to let your generosity slip to a pittance of what it could be. As we begin the program year of the church I invite you to consider what is costs you to be a part of God’s work in and through this place. I invite you to work, pray, and give so that our ministry and witness will be strong and vital.