A Stewardship Sermon

The greatest compliment of my pastoral ministry came not as an affirmation but as a politely stated judgment.

Back in 2017, when St. Paul’s church building was being sold, the three congregations meeting there had no idea what to expect. Would the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Quakers, and our congregation be invited to stay, or would we all have to find new places to worship?

Clueless, I reached out to the pastor of the church that had purchased the building and asked him to meet with representatives from our three congregations. He brought one of his key leaders along, and we all made ourselves comfortable in the light-filled sanctuary.

When our conversation failed to move beyond pleasantries, I decided to be direct. “Do you intend to let us stay, or will we need to go?”

The pastor and his lay leader both stiffened slightly. The pastor’s answer was noncommittal. Then the lay leader spoke. “We have looked at all your websites and Facebook pages,” the lay leader began. “While we appreciate you all, we want everything that comes out of this building to be pure.”

I glanced quickly at the three Quakers seated to my left. Quakers are as pure as they come, and it was clear this remark stung.

Then I looked over at the two Seventh-Day Adventists seated just beyond the Quakers. They didn’t seem surprised, causing me to wonder how many times they had been criticized, even condemned, for practicing their faith differently than most.

Finally, I checked in with myself, replaying the lay leader’s words. “We want everything that comes out of this building to be pure.” Rather than feel defensive or misunderstood, I was overcome with joy. Joy that Community Spirit was daring to live into a different vision of faithfulness, one governed not by religious purity but guided by radical compassion.

“Our church is on to something,” I remember thinking, quickly calling to mind something that Marcus Borg, the Jesus scholar, had pointed out years earlier.

To the religious elites of Jesus’ day, Borg had said, the ancient call to be holy as God is holy was understood to mean that we are to be pure as God is pure. But to Jesus, to be holy as God is holy meant that we are to be compassionate as God is compassionate.

Compassion, not purity, is our north star, our compass — not because we say so but because Jesus does.

This tension between purity and compassion is on full display in our lesson today. The religious elites at the Temple come to Jesus with a woman they have caught in the act of adultery. Few behaviors were considered more profane and deserving of punishment.

But Jesus viewed the situation differently. He was not fixated on the woman’s impure actions but rather was concerned about the spiritual health of those who regarded themselves as pure. “Let the one without sin throw the first stone,” Jesus said, not as a judgment but as an invitation to engage in honest self-reflection.

Clearly, compassion was Jesus’ compass.

The gospels overflow with examples of Jesus moving in the world with great compassion. He shows compassion for a hungry crowd. Compassion for terrified disciples caught in a storm. Compassion for those on the fringes of their communities because they were deemed impossibly impure. From the cross, even Jesus shows compassion for those responsible for his death. This consistently compassionate Jesus is the same Jesus you and I follow. This is the same Jesus we serve. This is the same Jesus we carry into our community.

This Jesus is the one who inspires us to ask again and again: “Who else needs to know God cares and is ever with them? Who else deserves to know God has not abandoned them, even when others pull away or worse, harshly judge?”

Jesus’ compass was compassion, not purity. It perpetually pointed him to the excluded, the scorned, the broken, the blamed. His compass, his compassion, is also what got him into trouble.

That day when that lay leader said what he said, that his church wanted everything that came out of it to be pure, I was not the least bit offended. Instead, I was elated.

Community Spirit was four years old then, and radical compassion was clearly guiding our words and ways.

For instance, when Ricardo Perez told us about how sheepherders from Central and South America laboring alone in the high country were being treated, we quickly gathered clothes and gift cards so that some of their needs might be met, and so they might know we cared.

When horrible news on the other side of the country brought several of our less active folks back to worship to find solace, we held them close rather than inquire where they had been all this time.

Our desire to be compassionate as God is compassionate, to be compassionate as Jesus was compassionate, hasn’t always been an easy reach. Sometimes it has stretched us further than we might have wanted.

I think back to 2014 and our first trip to Grand Junction to participate in the second Colorado West Pride parade. Some of us were feeling uneasy about this.

Some worried about what they might be exposed to, perhaps something just as scandalous and unsettling as the sexually transgressing woman in our lesson today.

Others harbored concerns that we could be on the receiving end of judgment from devout Christians who might show up to the parade to curse and condemn.

None of our fears were realized that day. Quite the opposite: we headed home that day with joy. We returned to Montrose filled with gratitude and gladness for having taken a risk in love.

As marvelous and uplifting as it so often is, abundant life is not always a walk in the park. We have learned this many times as a faith community.

Our desire to follow a Jesus of profound compassion has brought us many joys, but it has also sometimes caused our knees to go weak. And still, we have chosen this road over any other.

Which is why I was so proud of our courage and convictions that day in St. Paul’s sanctuary—and why I still am.

But it’s not like we are resting on our laurels or replicating what we’ve done before. When life is as abundant as it so clearly is for us, when compassion is the guiding force that it is, then we cannot help but want to go further than we’ve gone before.

Here’s our most recent example of this. When Leadership gathered on Wednesday, we voted to do something that I believe will have a significant, lasting impact on our community.

As a way to affirm and support efforts to hold a very public, long-overdue Pride event in Montrose next June, on Wednesday, Leadership easily and unanimously voted to underwrite the rental of the venue, Rotary Amphitheatre.

When I emailed Evelyn Greenman-Baird, the event’s principal organizer, to let her know that our church is covering the $1,000 cost of this rental, I ended my message with these words: “Community Spirit is SO excited to be part of a new tradition in Montrose, one that will surely open space for those who haven’t enough felt seen, supported, or safe here.”

When compassion is our compass, many things are possible. Our solidarity with and support of Montrose Pride and the local LGBTQIA+ community is most compelling, especially when we consider that even a few years ago, an event like the one now being planned would have seemed impossible.

As we make our way to Giving Sunday on November 12th, as we each prayerfully discern our financial support of Community Spirit for the coming year, let us all be open to giving more than we previously have. Not so that we might repeat and refine what we have already been able to do but so that we can stretch ourselves to bring even more compassionate solidarity into our neighborhoods, community, and world.

Compassionate solidarity with our LGBTQIA+ siblings and those who love them, but also compassionate solidarity with the earth whose care is urgent and whose life supports our own.

Waiting for us in 2024 will also surely be opportunities to show compassionate solidarity with neighbors whose situations call for caring allies and agents of change.

Before I close with prayer and we welcome our second hymn for the morning, I want to pause to invite you to confer for a few minutes with one or two others.

Ask yourselves this question: who else in our community needs our compassion and compassionate action?

We asked ourselves a similar question last week as we thought about who else in our area might need the kind of caring and belonging that is so abundantly present here.

Once you’re in your breakout rooms, ask each other: Who else in our community needs our compassion and compassionate action? Be as creative and far-reaching as you can!

When folks have come back from their conversations, offer this prayer:

God of abundant life and abundant compassion, we thank you for Jesus’ example. He reached out to the suffering world not from a place of judgment but from his silent center, where he stood in full attentiveness to you. Compassion colored everything Jesus did and said, and we are grateful.

As we discern our financial promises to the church for the coming year, fill us with every confidence that our best, most faithful days are before us and that you will guide our steps. Be with us as we dare to imagine new ways to show compassion and solidarity as we follow the One of unbounded compassion.

It is in his name that we pray. Amen.