“How dear to me is your dwelling, O lord of hosts!” These opening words from our Psalm for this morning are, if not constantly on my lips, at least constantly in my heart. I confess that when it comes to St. James’s, I am, like the Pharisee, a prideful man. I love this place, its history, its beauty, its grandeur, its institutional importance in the city and in the Diocese of Virginia. And it gives me great pleasure to show it off.
When Dan Matthews, the retired rector of Trinity Church , Wall Street was here this week for the Feast of St. James’s, I couldn’t wait to show him our stuff. He may have the 25 story parish office building and the 40 million dollar budget but I knew he wasn’t going to see a prettier church anywhere or a more active congregation then we have right here in this southern capital city. So I showed him and told him about everything – this beautiful sanctuary, our stunning Fisk Organ, our impressive music ministry, the Children’s Center, our full program schedule, the sixty baptisms we do each year, three floors of busy staff members and our impressive outreach ministries. And I puffed up with completely undeserved pride as I told him the story of this parish’s perseverance, determination, visionary thinking and generosity following the fire that destroyed our church. I imagine that if you had seen me as I told this tale you might think that I had dug the hole for the Parkinson Room myself or had the great idea to build the parking deck. To cap it all off as we came outside to go to lunch the chimes in the steeple came on right on cue and began to ring out a well known hymn. I just smiled. Not even the presidential campaign managers could have scripted a better showing! And I am here to tell you that Dr. Matthews was duly impressed because you could feel the pride rise up and fill the Feast when he said that we were indeed a five star operation.
As a result of all of this I could tell you that the reason we hand in our pledge cards today is because we just have to keep a good thing going. We could spend this morning patting ourselves on the back, giving God thanks that we are not like other churches, and turning in our pledges feeling just as smug as a bug in a rug. It would be easy, it would probably be effective, but it would be wrong. Because as St. Augustine once said the three virtues that are vital to being moved by the Holy Spirit and filled with God’s love, the three virtues that are vital to being the body of Christ are – humility, humility, humility. Jesus said it best when he told us that, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Everything we do today we do for God’s glory, not for our own. Every pledge we place on this altar is only as meaningful as we are willing to give that pledge for God’s glory and not for the glory of this place or the glory of our own egos. Dan Matthews said it well. We give because we need to give. We need to be reminded that everything we have or ever will have comes from God and as God gives so freely to all of us so we too, for the sake of our souls, need to give freely to God’s work in the world. We give because in so doing we free ourselves from the threat that if we are not careful what we possess will end up in the end possessing us.
When Marshall was very young, someone gave him his own stuffed velveteen rabbit. As a baby this rabbit was for him just another in a myriad of toys that his family lavished on this oldest child. About five or six years ago I read to him the story of the Velveteen Rabbit. It is a wonderful children’s book and it ought to be read by every adult. As we shared this book, I could see that there was a realization taking place in my little boy. For, as you may remember, in this book the velveteen rabbit learns from the old toy horse that when you are deeply loved, you become real. “Real isn’t how you are made, said the Skin Horse. It’s the thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become real.” I think Marshall realized in that moment that his love had a purpose, a deeper meaning then just how he felt. I think he realized that love gives life, that his love for his velveteen rabbit could indeed make him real.
Since that night, this rabbit has been an inseparable part of our family. He has gone on finer vacations to more places than any rabbit has a right to. He has been Marshall ’s constant companion. It wasn’t until this summer when Marshall went to Camp Seagull for a month that this rabbit ever stayed at home alone. And Marshall has made him real. His love for this stuffed animal has been transformational and it has touched all of us in the family. Just the other morning as I went around turning off all the lights after the kids had gone to school and Melissa had left for chapel, I wandered into Marshall ’s room to discover that not only had Marshall made his bed but he had laid the rabbit on his pillow and tucked him in under the covers. As I turned to leave I heard a forty-one year old priest saying – “Have a good day Rabbi. Get some rest and take good care of the house. We’ll see you tonight.” Quite honestly, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
Love makes real – love gives life. Ultimately, that is the message of the gospel, the message of the cross and the message of the empty tomb. Our job as a church community is to share that love, to be the agents of God’s love in our small corner of the world. And we bring our gifts today in gratitude for the God who has given us life, in the hope that our gifts of love may make life more abundant for others. Today isn’t about our success or our prowess; it isn’t about, “Oh look at me, how good I am to give to the church.” Today is about humbly sharing some of our lives in thanksgiving for the love we have received. In short, we give because we believe that love makes a difference because we believe love gives life.
My thanks to all of you for supporting God’s work in our church and around this city. We will do our best to be good stewards of these gifts. In a few minutes, when you come up to the altar to make your pledge to God, remember that the purpose of life is not to be ministered to, but to minister; not to get, but to give; not to hoard, but to spend. Our job is to love God and our neighbor with all our hearts and souls and minds, with our wallets and our time and our energy, with our hands and our voices, even with our very lives. Amen. As told by H. King Oehmig.  The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams, Freemont and Green, 1995.