Here’s a story:
“The other day I saw a nine-pound sparrow in front of my house, walking down the street. So I asked the sparrow, ‘Aren’t you a little heavy?’
The sparrow said, ‘Yes, that’s why I’m out walking, trying to get some of this weight off.’
And I said ‘Why don’t you fly?’
The sparrow looked at me like I was stupid and said, ‘Fly? I’ve never flown. I could get hurt!’
I said, ‘What’s your name?’
And he said, ‘Church.’”
There are many ways in which the Church (or, to put it bluntly, we who are members of the Church) never get round to flying. The season of Lent which we’re just beginning is traditionally a time when we try to put aside our usual pre-occupations and focus on what it means for us to be disciples of Christ, and how that discipleship might be renewed, deepened, injected with fresh vigour.
The Church is meant to be a community of those called to model the kingdom of God on earth, so that the rest of the world might take notice and model its own life accordingly (It might also, of course, take fright and decide what the Church represents is so ludicrously counter-cultural in the 21st century that it wants to have nothing to do with it). Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon around the end of the 1st century, said: “The Church has been planted as paradise in the world”.
There are many ways in which the Church (that is, you and me) could model a counter-cultural community. It could refuse to believe politicians who tell us that poverty is a result of people being lazy, or that we should be afraid of strangers from overseas. The work of Fairtrade provides one modest example. Fairtrade requires that a fair price is paid to the producers of goods. This is likely to be more than supermarkets are willing to pay. So we all have a choice: do we allow ourselves to be swept along by a culture which puts its emphasis on consumers getting everything at the cheapest possible price, or are we prepared to vote with our money for the claims of justice for Third World food producers?
We have now launched our 2014 Stewardship Renewal campaign. Every church member (defined as everyone who has put their name on the church Electoral Roll) is asked – indeed challenged – to consider their pledge of financial giving for the next twelve months.
A church is not, say, a golf club which charges a subscription fee for the use of its services. You can come into church for free, and never pay a penny if you so wish. Except that, if you are a member you have a duty, a responsibility, to make a pledge of your money. That pledge enables the church to keep its doors open, to pay its fixed obligations. People must give according to their means, but pledging is not optional unless anyone considers their church membership optional.
But the Church’s purpose is not just to keep its doors open, to survive, but to engage in mission with the wider world. Virtually all of what is currently given goes to the church’s operating budget, to make sure we do not run a deficit. Yet once the operating budget is met, the real work of mission can only then begin. Mission is what churches do in addition to their basic operating budget, not instead of it. Mission is about transforming the lives of individuals and communities. It is what we are supposed to be here for. Stewardship is a two-stage model: the first is ensuring the church exists as a meeting place to enable our common mission; the second is that engaging in mission which might – in small or large ways – change the face of our wider world. When our money is used not just for survival but to flow out into the community, then people can see the Church for what it is meant to be. So will you pledge this year with a reckless generosity that can enable us to be the Church – that kingdom of God on earth? Are you willing to learn to fly?