Whenever the bishop visits a congregation,
we renew our baptismal vows.
It’s how we get back to the basics
of what it means to be a Christian.
It’s how we remember that being Christian
is based on God’s giving us life and hope;
but it doesn’t stop there.
Being a Christian is how we respond to God’s gift.
It isn’t just something we are. It’s something we do.
We take vows, solemn vows, vows to Almighty God.
Our spiritual health and well-being
depend on how we live out those vows.
We are blessed this morning
to have this Epistle lesson from St. James.
He is the clearest, strongest voice in the New Testament
teaching us how to live the Christian life.
“You must understand this, my beloved,” he says,
“you must understand this. . . .
Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.
Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.”
Christianity is a way of life – not just something we believe.
It’s something we do.
But what is it?
Some people look at Christianity
in terms of what we don’t do.
They like the 10 Commandments
all of which are negative
-- “Thou shalt not” do this.
-- “Thou shalt not” do that.
But the Jewish law is actually 613 commandments,
most of which are positive.
Jews don’t just refrain from a few things.
Jews do a lot of things.
So do Christians.
What then do Christians actually do?
St. James says in today’s lesson:
“Every generous act of giving, every pure gift,
is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”
Christians who have received God’s gifts
share those gifts with others.
Christians are godly.
As God is generous, Christians are generous.
God gives us life and hope and salvation
– not because we deserve them,
– but just because God is generous.
If we ask him, and if we will allow him,
God will also bless us with the gift of generosity.
That gift will make our joy in Christ complete.
If we receive God’s gifts and do not share them,
they go stale in our hearts.
They are like a seed planted that dies in the soil.
But if we are generous with what we have received,
the seed of joy in our hearts sprouts and grows.
It is like the mustard seed in Jesus’ parable.
It is the smallest seed when it is planted,
but it grows into a great tree
with branches that welcome all the birds.
God’s generosity to us is like that.
If God blesses us and we just take it for granted,
the gift brings little joy. It dies in us.
But if we stop and say “this is a gift of God,
I must acknowledge that gift
by sharing it with others,”
then joy abounds.
That is why the Bible says,
“The Lord loves a cheerful giver.”
How then should we practice generosity?
It is not just generosity to our friends and families.
It’s generosity not just to our brothers and sisters by blood
but to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
James says, Pure religion is this:
“to care for widows and orphans in their distress
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
He is using widows and orphans as examples
of the vulnerable and needy.
In this same letter he takes the Church to task
for disrespecting the poor.
“It was those who were poor according to the world
that God chose to be rich in faith. . . .
You . . . have dishonored the poor. . . .
As soon as you make class distinctions
you are committing sin and are under condemnation. . .”
He goes on:
“If one of the brothers or sisters is
in need of clothes and has not enough food . . . ,
and one of you says, ‘I wish you well’ . . . without giving them
these bare necessities of life,
then what good is that? . . . .
‘ Faith, if good deeds do not go with it, is quite dead.”
We are not talking here about giving as a heavy duty.
We are not talking about guilt.
We are talking about changing the way we relate
to whatever we have.
We learn to hold it lightly, enjoying it as a gift.
We learn the joy of generosity.
So I ask you to reflect on two questions today.
I ask you to reflect on them as you renew your vows.
I ask you to keep reflecting on these two questions tomorrow
and the next day and for the rest of this year.
My first question: how generous are you with your church?
You may ask back: how generous am I supposed to be?
There are two answers: the first is quite specific.
10% of your income.
That is the standard we find in Scripture,
and it has been affirmed by our Church teachings.
But maybe you cannot afford that.
That leads to the second answer.
This answer is not a specific rule with a number.
It is a matter of the heart.
How generous can you be?
Ask yourselves. You alone can answer.
No one can judge you for your answer.
So just be honest with yourself.
It is partly a question of your circumstances.
Do you have children to feed, medical bills to pay?
The church does not want you to ignore your duties.
But it is also a matter of the heart.
What can you give with joy – not grudgingly to ward off guilt
– but gladly in thanksgiving for the blessings
God has given you?
How much do you trust God to provide for you
when you have risked yourself
Search your hearts and do what seems right in your conscience.
Then let no one judge.
Ask yourselves these questions.
Pray over them. Then answer honestly.
If you do these things,
I am confident you will be
a strong independent congregation.
My first question was: how generous are you with your church?
My second question is:
how generous is this church with the poor?
I do not know whether each person can afford
to give 10% of their income to the Church.
But, let God be my witness, I know that each church
can and must give 10% of its income
to the poor.
Unless the church is generous,
we cannot teach our people generosity,
and we betray the gospel of Christ.
The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Nevada
have said repeatedly that each congregation
should give .7% of its income
for the Millennium Development Goals.
These goals are about relieving poverty and disease
around the world.
Malaria is one of the main diseases we are fighting.
Malaria is prevalent in 57 of the 79 provinces in the Philippines.
It impairs individual lives while weakening the whole society
and its economy.
But the Province of Sorsogoon this year became malaria free.
We are well on our way to making the entire Philippines
malaria free in just 11 years.
Episcopal Relief and Development is part of that fight.
Every Episcopal congregation should be part of that fight.
Here in Las Vegas, the root of poverty is our failure in education.
Nevada ranks last in the nation in our high school graduation rate.
Clark County has one of the worst graduation rates in Nevada.
The state’s graduation rate dropped by 10% from 2001 to 2007.
As with malaria in the Philippines, individual lives are diminished.
As with malaria, the whole society suffers
and the economy with it.
When a child fails, everyone loses.
But Communities In Schools Nevada is changing that.
Last year, for the first time in a long time,
the graduation rate in Las Vegas improved.
Communities in Schools supports children with
food, clothing, medical care, and moral support.
But they don’t have any of this to give
unless others in Las Vegas help.
That is why the Episcopal Church at this year’s convention
made it a mission priority for our congregations
to partner with our schools to help all the children.
So I ask: how generous is the church
with the poor?
The futures of children in Las Vegas are at stake.
Brothers and sisters, our own spiritual health is also at stake.
Christians are doers of the word – not just hearers.
Christians support their churches.
Christians fight malaria.
Christians help children through school
to give them a chance in life.
So I beg you, brothers and sisters,
to prayerfully search your hearts.
Search your hearts earnestly
asking what does the Lord require of you.