Preface: Five and DimeIf you have some change in your pocket come with me for a minute. We are going into the village green five and ten cent store, to see what we can see. Don’t you love this little store? For fifty years—even more—the shop has somehow survived, meeting the essential impermanent desires of the day. Here you buy pencils and notebooks for school, a scarf in the winter, a squirt gun in the spring, a yo-yo for summer, and come autumn again, something to wear at Halloween. John Wesley said his English people were “a nation of shopkeepers”. So in some regions, the small business, farm, store still provide economic backbone. The same scents and smells linger here, from so long ago: a mixture of newsprint and bubblegum and paint and perfume. The uncovered tongue and groove wooden floor creeks in the same odd placesFor so many years this store was the stage on which its owner performed. He wore a handlebar mustache, bright white hair, a stunning smile, and cackled with a child’s laugh. He looked like the wizard of oz. Years later, when I sat next to him as a fellow, visiting Rotarian, he looked the same—the wizard of oz. His little world of tiny transactions, most of the purchases made by people who had to reach up to the counter, on tiptoe, somehow kept his soul lit. Of all people, I guess, he could have had the most reason to doubt his role. His customers were few and supported only by weekly allowances. The transactions involved pennies and dimes. The days were long, the hours demanding. But the sun streaming through his clean window touched most often a smiling, happy face. I can remember handing over some little coin in exchange for some little trinket. In that little sunlight, over the exchange of impermanent capital for impermanent goods, somehow, there lingered a graceful, mysterious, spirited, permanence, too. Maybe that is what made the wizard so happy. When our son Chris was 6 years old, we went to the same store to buy birthday candles and a fishing pole. Chris also saw some candy. I turned to pick up the NY Times, and saw Chris reach up to the counter with his purchase. The wizard stood gleaming and ready. Then Chris took out his wallet and stared up. He fished in the little pouch, and found his coin. Then the wizard looked at Chris, and Chris looked at the wizard. The old eyes darkened with delighted understanding, and the handlebar mustache twitched and the wrinkled hand reached forward. And Chris held his ground and waited, fingering the coin, for that eternal moment that hangs between childhood and maturity. There they stood, matador and bull, boxer and champion, batter and pitcher, wizard and boy. As he had for decades, the shop-owner patiently paused. At last out came the coin. The deal was struck.
Talents. Talents invested, exchanged, used, given. Well done thou good and faithful servant! You have been faithful over a little. We will set you over much. Enter into the joy of the master.
I count it as a true, holy moment, as is any first experience, and especially any first experience of impermanence. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Once we begin to reckon with the impermanence of this life, so much paper and candy and seasonal needs, there comes another longing. For an experience of God. There arises in the heart, a longing for an experience of God, for the lapping light of the morning to touch the cheek, for the full permanence of …grace, love, heaven…to enter our boyish, girlish, childish, or childlike life.
People come to church for an experience of God. You would be surprised to know how hard, even in the ministry, it can be to keep this truth in view. Men and women come to church, longing for an experience of divine love.
A place where the longing of the heart can be fed, that “desire of the moth for the flame, of the night for the morrow, the devotion to something afar from the sphere of our sorrow.”
1. A Prophetic Approach to Impermanence
The same longing we have tried to witness in the crowded aisles of the village green five and dime also pulses through the deep places of the Scripture. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst. Micah Ben Imlah did hunger and thirst, too. In the pain and tenderness of too much loving, he wondered how, if at all, such an experience could be his.
With what shall I come before the Lord?
What shall I do? Whom should I love? How should I walk?
Amid the piles and aisles of impermanent, seasonal goods, where an experience of lasting love?
A path toward the permanent, this is what Micah desires. In the uses of his resources, Micah believes, there lies hidden the potential for an opening into an experience of God. Underneath that apparently chaotic impermanence, there lies the potential for an opening into the experience of God. Micah advises us not to get too comfortable.
Do. We may learn to use our resources for the making of justice.
Love. We may come to love what cannot be seen, mercy, and then to use what can be seen, money, rather than loving what can be seen and using what cannot be seen.
Walk. Because our transactions, most days, involve bills and not coins, we, unlike the shopkeeper, we are more tempted to take ourselves overly seriously.
2. Paul and Impermanence
In this same vein, the Apostle to the Gentiles teaches us again today about impermanence. Is this not a glorious and a liberating word? In treating a matter of moral discernment among the wayward Corinthians, Paul asserts the impermanence of this world. His blessed words are as strange for us as they are healthy to hear.
Paul advises us not to get too comfortable. Marriage, death, birth, work, life, all—these Paul asserts are themselves impermanent goods, seasonal items in the aisles of life’s five and dime. Good, holy, important, and, at last…impermanent. Let those who buy do so as those who have no goods. Let them recall that first experience, reaching up to the counter, of impermanence. Let us treat our goods not in the form of this world, which is passing away, but in the form of the world to come
Here is a great blessing, for those with ears to hear. Within the land of impermanence, there is the possibility of an experience of God. It is for that experience… that touch of the divine hand upon the hand of the child of God… for which goods and seasonal items and crowded aisles and everything from five and dimes to great corporations exist.
When we give, we open the possibility of experiences of God, not necessarily for ourselves directly, although that may be, but more often indirectly for others. Giving and generosity bless us because they open up the opportunity for an experience of God.
3. Impermanence Today
Now it is the autumn of the year. November 2014. Over six weeks, worthy causes and needy organizations will reach out to donors, generous supporters. Some are here and some are listening this very morning. Women and men are thinking about talents, about the coin in the pocket, and considering year-end giving.
Of course we strongly encourage your ongoing support of Marsh Chapel. But many of you listening on the radio have your own churches. You may be driving home from worship, listening to us. You may be at home or at work this morning, listening. And you have a church home, a church family, a church that needs your support. I think prayerfully about you and your churches today. I think about the good people in those churches. I want to say an encouraging word about your giving to your church.
Every church is an adventurous ride on the tide of generosity. You have no tax base in the church, like those which support schools. You have no product to barter, like those that support businesses. You live and die on the free choices, every fall, that raise a tide of giving. I wonder, sometimes, what would happen if the churches could not fund ministry? What would happen to efforts with children and older folks, mission and outreach, staff and buildings, worship and music?
Every fall the churches wait for the tide, like surfers. They crouch along the board, out beyond the San Diego Bay. The sun is high, the sky is blue, the air is warm, the day is fine. They feel the tide rising, and here it comes! They stand, and put toes out on the board. They hang ten. And the tide rises, every year. Thanks to freely chosen gifts. Thanks to you. Sometimes the tide is low, and we drift a little. Sometimes the tide is high, and we spin. The uncertainty that is the sign of real freedom for the giver and the gift is that warm and vivifying wind that feeds us.
Faithful people year in and year out generously, happily support the work of faith. One is an elderly man, gracious and loving, who learned at an early age to tithe. One is a fiercely able Trustee, who cares for the property and investments of the church, but who has a big heart for the poor in Honduras. One is a woman who has prayed mission into life, and has had the grace to live with surprising answers to prayer, answers other than what she expected. They for and they come from experiences of God.
4. Taught to Give
What is lasting and good in my life has come from the church of Christ. Name and identity in baptism. Faith in confirmation. Community in eucharist. Wife and family in marriage. Work, and vocation, in ordination. Saving forgiveness in moments of pardon. Hope for heaven in the gospel of Christ.
Whatsoever has any permanence for me comes from the church.
So…I guess I would be lost in the fall without a chance to preach a Stewardship sermon.
I am here, really, out of a formation, long before adulthood, in the midst of people who knew that the form of this world was passing away. The superintendents who remembered to bring Christmas gifts, the military chaplainswho sat at the dining room table—they did so with an existential reserve, a freedom from the impermanence of this world, a joyful and sober sense that the form of this world is passing away. “Don’t get too comfortable” they seemed to say in deed as well as word. They modeled an existential itinerancy that is far more important the mechanical one we know too well in which, as we say, Bishops appoint—and disappoint. The ministers who came and sang hymns in our homes, who laughed at and with each other, and who prayed for the salvation of the world—they dealt with the world as if they had no dealings with it. The people in our churches, churches supported then and now by the tithing of retired school teachers, who cared about the world and about the next generation—they knew the impermanence of the world around, and the brevity of our time here. They tithed, and so what remains of our church remains.
Those who raised us, who could have had many more the goods of this passing world, lived with an aplomb, a grace, a savoir faire that better than any sermon interpreted 1 Corinthians 7. Let those who mourn do so as if they were not mourning. The discipline of the Methodists—this is your birthright, your legacy, your history, Marsh Chapel—comes from this presentiment about impermanence.
In our raising, you could have the courage to live on less, to itinerate at the direction, if not the whim of a superintendent, to pull up stakes and make new friends, to know the hurt and the excitement of a gypsie life. How did they do this? Because they believed in their bones that what lasts is not the various goods and seasonal items of the five and dime, but the touch of the wizard’s hand. That gracious experience of God that comes in and through the impermanent cacaphony of life, and is primed by giving.
I wonder if we are ready to open the world up to experiences of God?
People come to church for an experience of God. Giving is one doorway to such an experience.
5. An Experience of God
It is great blessing, that giving opens opportunities for experiences of God. They come in God’s time and they come over time and they come to others. But giving gives the chance for such an experience.
A while ago I had a wedding. It was beautiful autumn day as so many have been this year. The service was wonderful. The organist played a version of “Love Divine” with bells that rounded off the service to perfection. I was proud to be a part of it. Later, in the ready room, a woman who had attended the service asked about my family.
We talked, and I discovered that she was from the North Country, upstate NY, and had been raised with some difficulty by a single mother.
Near Alexandria Bay?
“In Alexandria Bay.”
Did you know Rev. Pennock, who was there in retirement (who is Jan’s grandfather)?
All of sudden her face became red and her eyes filled. I wondered what I had said to upset her. This is the “joy” of the ministry–you enter a room and everyone is uncomfortable! You make small talk and women cry!
“No”, she said, “you don’t understand…When I was a young woman, I barely could go to college. Every semester I received a check from the Alexandria Bay church, money that was to pay for my voice lessons…This kept me going in college, not just the money, which was significant, but more so the thought, the fact that somebody believed in me, could see me with a future, outside of my struggling family and small town, and invested in me….”
By now we were both emotional.
What does that have to do with me?
“I learned a few years ago that your wife’s grandfather is the one who gave the money for those lessons! His gift formed my life!
What are you doing today?
“I am the director of music for a Methodist church near Albany. The bride grew up in my youth choir. Music is my life.”
Over all those years, and so many miles, across such a great existential distance, look what happened: I was given an experience of God, emotion laded and heartfelt and real and good, and even in church or at least almost, as a consequence of a gift made long ago and far away. The hidden blessing of generosity is that giving opens the world to the possibility of experiences of God. Rev. Harold Pennock is long dead. His wife Anstress is long dead. But after a wedding, in the late afternoon, his thoughtful kindness opened the world
Coda: A Midnight Prayer
Sometime later tonight, especially if the sky is clear and if the stars come out, I am going to walk out onto the esplanade. The moonlight glistening on the frosted riverbank, the sound of squirrels scurrying with nuts to store, the smell of the dampened leaves, the taste of crisp autumn—the season of accountability—touching the tongue, hands clasped against the cold—now beneath a gleaming North Star it is time to offer a prayer. I wonder if you would pray this with me sometime later tonight:
Help me to love you this coming year by giving to others this coming year.
I am going to give away 10% of what I earn. I am nervous about doing it. I need your help. I want to tithe, but the coin seems to stick inside the wallet somehow. I want to give but the counter top seems so high up. I want to invest my talent in life by faith with hope but this is something new and I am nervous. So I need your help. Dear God. Help me to love you this coming year by giving to others this coming year.
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