three stewardship confessions

Homily for Sept. 11, 2016

Next Saturday St. Andrew’s celebrates its 125th anniversary. 125 multiplied by 52 weeks equals exactly 6,500 Sundays. That means means that today is the 6 thousand five hundredth Sunday gathering of the church of St. Andrew’s. I’m going to hit a button now and 6500 red balloons are going to fall from the retracting ceiling…

6500 Sundays also means 6500 Sabbaths. The Sabbath is the one day a week when we are supposed to put down our work to rest, to be with the ones we love, and to give ourselves wholeheartedly to God. The Sabbath is one day in seven, which means (picking up my church mouse calculator here) that we are supposed to give just under fifteen percent of our time to God. To be with God, really. And that measure of time given to God somehow manages to make all time holy.

I realize that’s a silly calculation. God never asked for 15% of our time; we are directed more poetically to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. But I share that with you because I believe that numbers do matter. Today we begin our annual stewardship campaign, and I want to begin with an invitation to a deeper, more sustaining faith that is grounded in something real and identifiable. I want to talk about numbers today, because numbers are vital if we’re going to speak forthrightly about money. The goal of stewardship at St. Andrew’s though is not to fundraise; the goal of our stewardship ministry is to help you grow in your relationship with God through the generous use of what God has given you. (I have taken this just almost verbatim from Charles R. Lane’s wonderful book Ask, Thank, Tell).

This is not about a budget. It’s about the giver’s need to give.

But can’t do that with integrity without talking about numbers. Numbers mattered in the story of the generous widow, who gave all she has. You know that story. The wealthy members of the synagogue throw some shiny coins into the treasury that in no way ding their own personal wealth, while the widow offers a meager sum that is actually all she has.

I don’t actually think that the point of the story is to get us to give absolutely everything away. No, I think that Jesus’ point is to remind us that God knows what a denominator is.

Stewardship is about giving and generosity, and if we’re going to speak honestly about money then we have to ground-truth it, we have to really talk numbers because this is how transformation actually happens, this is (forgive the cliché) where the rubber meets the road. A life-story of faith is told through generous stewardship, one gift at time, one pledge at a time, one step up at a time, and then taught to the generations that follow.

It’s strange that we have such taboos around speaking of money in church when Jesus spoke of it more than anything else except the Kingdom of God itself. It’s strange and sad that talking about numbers is considered impolite when proportional giving is such a core Christian practice. It’s almost tragic that there is perhaps no greater gift for personal and spiritual transformation than the tithe of 10%, yet hush, we haven’t talked about that for decades and we’d best not start now.

Jesus talked about money in part because people struggle with it so much. It has an emotional hold on us, for so much of our lives. Jesus wants to heal that.

But frankly, there are times when money is just really tight. Over the course of our lives, every one of us will find themselves in really tough circumstances, whether burdened by debt or bills or setbacks caring for loved ones ,or other realities. Some of us are there today. There are moments for all us when “give what you can” is all we can do.

But for most of us, most of the time, that does not describe our situation accurately. I want to offer you a sermon and a story that allows you to look at your whole life as a vehicle for deepening your faith through your giving

No single faith practice has changed my life more than giving generously and proportionally. No practice has strengthened my faith, deepened my relationship with my loved ones, or allowed me to see the blessings of God for what they are as much as growing in what I give. That doesn’t mean I don’t have setbacks, or that I have no stress around money. I’m not promising magic. But this journey has changed my life.

I need to confess something first though. I did not make a pledge to the church until after I was ordained at age 30. I was simply never taught to! Now, growing up we were taught about money. I was taught to be generous, be frugal, to plan for tomorrow, but not to let money rule my life. (I needed the gift of proportional giving to help me make this last one a reality). In fact, I don’t know if I had even heard the word tithe before seminary. So we’re going to give the Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic church an F for teaching lifelong stewardship to children and youth.

My second confession is this: when I started that first ministry job, I didn’t figure out my pledge until after I had bought a townhouse. (This is what ground-truthing looks like). I bought a house for all the reasons someone in their first job does so, and I figured out that after my mortgage, car payment, and student loan payment I could give 5% of my income. Do you see now how I did that one backwards?

Here’s what I said to myself: I’m giving what I can. In fact, if everyone gave 5% then the church would be doing great! God was trying to find me, but I was still letting money get in the way.

(A side point is that I bought that house in 2006 and sold it 3 years later…maybe I should have tithed instead).

Soon afterwards I met Jo and within a few years we got married and started giving more. With our first child on the way and knowing a big move was coming up soon, we tried to find the pledge number that was generous but responsible for us. One friend told me of how she and her spouse disagreed as to whether or not tithing meant before taxes or after taxes. (Ground truth again). And I found myself really liking that after-tax idea.

So my third confession is that the first time I could have tithed I actually gave about 7 or 8 percent because I gave to Caesar first. But I said to myself: I’m giving what I can. In fact if everybody gave at 7 or 8%, then the church would be doing great! God was trying to find me, but I was still letting money get in the way.

You all know me today, you know my life. Kids, home repairs, preschool, the whole deal. But we have made it a goal over the years to grow towards that 10% tithe. There were times we had to step back a bit, and that was ok. God didn’t send a collection agency. In fact, the emotional and spiritual gains that came from growing didn’t go away in those moments. Because I believe that that transformation was real and I’m pretty sure it’s permanent. This year, after what has been a journey of a few years, we have reached that 10% goal.

I’m not going to say we’ve arrived, because arriving is not the point. What I can say, though, is that no faith practice has changed my life as much as this, and I so much want that for you. I want you to grow, whether that means 2%, or 5%, or even 7 or 8, because I know how that can enrich your life.

And perhaps today is the first time the idea of tithing even entered your mind as a fragment of a figment of a possibility, and if so that is ok. The point is to know about what a gift it is to you, to imagine that it is someday possible, and then to get started. What I really want is for you 10, 20 or 30 years down the road, sitting here or in any other church, to look back on this homily or the message of this stewardship ministry and say that this moment, that season, really changed your life.

But it will only change your life if you start. Don’t wait (writes Charles Lane) until you feel like you’ve arrived before you give proportionally, before you let the Holy Spirit guide you, through your giving, to a healthier relationship with God, and with money. In my experience, if you wait for that magic moment, it probably won’t happen. But when you start, or when you step further along that path, I believe that you will begin to see more clearly the blessings that surround you for what they are. And I am sorry to tell you, you will probably want to give even more. So be warned.

Jesus tells two parables in the gospel this morning: the story of the lost sheep, for whom the shepherd leaves the 99 to find, and the story of the lost coin, the one out of 10 that the woman searches the whole house to recover. While these stories are not exactly about giving, they remind us that we are not the owners of the flock; nor are we even the shepherds. We are not the owners of the coins, either. We are the wandering sheep that the shepherd seeks out; we are the coin that the woman drops everything to find.

As always, God is trying to find us. There are so many ways that we let the things of the world get in the way, but by giving it away we deny money its power over us. Indeed, by giving money away we turn something profane in to a vessel for the love of God.

The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, NC, September 11, 2015, C Proper 19

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About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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