“We Connect Through Giving”

Today is stewardship Sunday. At first glance, stewardship brings to mind the image of the pledge card and making our financial goal. But it is not limited to making our goal. Stewardship is an approach to life that encompasses the idea that God has given us everything that we own. Celebrating the fact that we act as stewards, or managers, of what God has given us is what stewardship is all about. In the campaign brochure you will see the names of the congregation printed lightly in the background. Maybe you recognize some of the names in our church family, or you see your own name. This shows how we are connected in the life of the church. It symbolizes that you, our church family, support everything that happens in the church. You are the power and presence behind every act of worship, service, outreach, fellowship, and caring. Celebrating this connection is the rest of stewardship. It is what stewardship is all about.

We need this connection more than ever before. We are part of a trend in American society that isolates the individual and keeps connections weak. The book, The Lonely American, Drifting Apart in the 21st Century, makes several claims about this. One claim is the irony of new technologies that seem to connect us to each other, yet they tend to isolate us even more. Even though we can connect with someone on the other side of the world instantly, we may never make a connection with our neighbor next door. This has led to an increased isolation of our thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Duke University researchers used data from the General Social Survey to analyze a window of almost twenty years, beginning in 1985. The study showed that during that time the number of people who discussed important matters with another person dropped from three to two. What was even more alarming than that finding was that the number of people that discussed no important matters with anyone else tripled.

People are losing connections in life, and being disconnected can have disastrous consequences, both emotionally, it can lead to depression, and physically, leading to poor health. The church provides an opportunity for a powerful, meaningful connection that no other organization can match. During stewardship season we celebrate this connection and thank God for the gift of connecting in the church, reminding our members of the connections available in the church. The church recognizes the tendency to pull away into cold, isolationist mode and tries actively to pull people back into the warmth of connected community.

A church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, reached out to its membership during the stewardship drive. One of the responses came back as “Disconnected.” What a shame! God created us to be connection to one another. Jesus used the metaphor of the vine and the branches to describe the church. Even though time alone with God is vital to the Christian life, the relationship with God should naturally include relationships with others. The Bible gives so many analogies of how these relationships connect within the church. It tells us that the church is like an army, a family, vines and branches, an athletic team, a flock, a servant, a rower, a building, a royal priesthood, an embassy, a bride, a pillar, a sanctuary, a pilgrim, and the way. Other images are a masterpiece of art, the light of the world, the salt of the earth, an inheritance, and a fishery. The image that I like the most is the body, because the Apostle Paul writes that one part of the body cannot say to the other, “I don’t need you.” Each part must cooperate and perform its function in order for the body to be whole.

Which of those images of the church’s connective character resonates with you? Kenilworth Union Church could be categorized as any one of them because of our collection of different political, religious, and social perspectives. Our nondenominational nature and open mindedness respects an individual’s faith journey, no matter where he or she is on that journey. That enables us to connect with an unbelievably broad range of help.

One of our members who attended the recent Haiti mission trip gave me an example of this fact in action. When our group arrived no one was really sure exactly what their job would be. The objective was to build a school. Two of the men began to haul sand in wheelbarrows to the worksite. That became their job for the whole time there. Other members formed a water brigade, passing buckets of water to the worksite from the reservoir. There were some artists on the trip and they painted beautiful murals on the blank plywood for the interior and exterior of the school. Someone knew French and was able to communicate better with the Haitians whose dialect is based on French. And some of our members were able to be present with the children, giving them affection, attention, and love. It was a living example of how our church worksdiverse gifts work for the whole.

If you have experienced the rummage sale during the summer, you have seen this connectivity in action, too. Some donate goods from their homes, others sort collectibles and antiques, others welcome and greet, some price items or count money. And the same thing happens in our music program. Think about how many different types of voices there are in our choirs, young, experienced, soprano, alto, bass, tenor- all coming together to make music. And there are many more examples of how we connect through giving.

The connections are made and sustained through the power of the Holy Spirit. That is the difference between the Kenilworth Union Church and a non-profit or volunteer organization. Groups like our Haiti mission team, or rummage workers, or our Stephen Ministers ask, “How does this group provide us a sense of hopefulness, both in the short-term sense and the eternal sense?” Such a pattern of growing hopefulness develops over a longer period of life together. Sustained and growing hope emerges from a deep sense of connectedness to Christ and to one another. Groups need to take time to share with one another about how hopeful they are about life and about how their group has helped them develop more hope.

This hope forms patterns or structures of interrelationship between individuals because their relational structures function to improve society in the name of God. These patterns feed the soul, the part of life that needs nourishment more than any other. Thomas More, a former priest and psychotherapist, wrote Care of the Soul. Our community at Kenilworth Union fits right into his framework:

“One of the strongest needs of the soul is for community, but a community from the soul point of view is a little different from its social forms. Soul yearns for attachment, for variety in personality, for intimacy and particularity. So it is these qualities in community that the soul seeks out, and not like-mindedness and uniformity….A community is not a family. It is a group of people held together by feelings of belonging, and those feelings are not a birthright. “Belonging” is an active verb, something we do positively. In one of his letters Ficino makes the remark, “The one guardian of life is love, but to be loved you must love.” A person oppressed by loneliness can go out into the world and simply start belonging to it, not by joining organizations, but by living through feelings of relatedness–to other people, to nature, to society, to the world as a whole. Relatedness is a signal of the soul. By allowing the sometimes vulnerable feelings of relatedness, soul pours into life and doesn’t have to insist on itself symptomatically.”

We are connected like many pieces of a puzzle, all forming an amazing image. And we don’t see the pieces form that image until the puzzle is all complete. Lisa Bond, our Director of Music, enjoys saying how we are connected like the little pieces of colored glass that connect to form a stunning stained glass window of inspirational beauty. Look around at the windows of our church. They are beautiful  reminders. But another reminder is the way that we care about each other with such genuine compassion.

A story from Guidepost magazine about Tommy Dorsey, the African American blues bandleader illustrates how this care keeps us connected. Once while playing a gospel event, “…a messenger boy ran up with a Western Union telegram. I ripped open the envelope. Pasted on the yellow sheet were the words, “Your wife just died.” People were happily singing and clapping around me, but I could hardly keep from crying out. I rushed to the phone and called home. All I could hear on the other end was, “Nettie is dead. Nettie is dead.” When I got back, I learned that Nettie had given birth to a boy. I swung between grief and joy. Yet that night, the baby died. I buried Nettie and our little boy together, in the same casket. Then I fell apart. For days I closeted myself. I felt that God had done me an injustice. I didn’t want to serve Him any more or write gospel songs….I was lost in grief…A friend, Professor Frye…took me up to Madam Malone’s Poro College, a neighborhood music school. It was quiet. The late evening sun crept through the curtained windows. I sat down at the piano, and my hands began to browse the keys. Something happened to me then, I felt at peace. I felt as though I could reach out and touch God. I found myself playing a melody, one I’d never heard or played before, and the words into my head- they just seemed to fall into place.

“Precious Lord, take my hand, Lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light, take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home.”

The Lord gave me those words and melody. He also healed my spirit. I learned that when we are in our deepest grief, when we feel farthest from God, this is when He is closest, and when we are most open to His restoring power. And so I go on living for God willingly and joyfully, until that day comes when He will take me and gently lead me home.”

Precious Lord, Take My Hand has been translated into more than 40 languages, and has been sung by some of the biggest names in Gospel music, including Mahalia Jackson and Elvis Presley, it was sung at President Johnson’s funeral, and it was Dr. Martin Luther King’s favorite hymn.

That friend brought Dorsey back into the connection of the community of faith, just as we watch over one another in our connectivity. Because our connections are made at the soul level, we are connected through God’s power and able to lift others and bring them into our community of faith with genuine hospitality. This is stewardship Sunday, but it is more than meeting a fundraising goal, it is about the rest of stewardship, we connect through giving. Whether you are a tenor in the choir, a sorter at rummage, a Stephen Minister or care receiver, A Sunday School teacher, a confirmation youth mentor, a liaison to an agency, a wheel barrow worker, a pray‐er, whatever part you play in the church, it is being connected in this community of faith that brings real joy into life. You are connected to every person in this room, to each person served by our mission efforts, and to God. Today, celebrate your connection here at Kenilworth Union Church, and stay connected! Amen.