September 26, 2010
Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost
September 26, 2010
The Rev. Bradford A. Rundlett
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
1st Timothy 6:6-18
Well there you have it. Amos, Paul, and Luke have a few choice words for folks like us who have more than we need, and still want more. It’s rudimentary economics; in a finite world, when some people have more than enough, other people have less than enough.
And beyond the horrible suffering that the poor have to endure in this life - the likes of which we see right now in Haiti and Pakistan – the Gospel says there are eternal consequences to human selfishness; the poor in this life will enjoy the splendors of Paradise in the next life; while the stingy in this life will be shut out of the Kingdom of God, forever.
For us in Northern Virginia this is not a pleasant picture. If we want to change it, we have to do something now.
Fortunately for us, the Bible has more to say on the subject of stewardship – how we handle or mishandle money, wealth - than anything else by far. Nothing else even comes close! It appears that God is very concerned about how much we make, how much we keep or spend on ourselves, and how much we share with our destitute neighbors.
In light of this, some folks insist it’s our Christian duty to tithe, to give a tenth of our gross annual income to the Church to distribute to the poor. And there are a lot of Biblical injunctions to validate this. If we – all the people of St. Timothy’s - did tithe (presuming we all make approximately $120,000 a year which is the average annual household income in this community) then each of us – as individuals, as a couple, or as a family - would deposit a little more than $1000.00 a month in the offering basin. And St. Timothy’s annual budget would be (get this!) $4,246,935.00!
I may start preaching about the virtue of tithing!
We could do a lot of good with that much money. If you believe in tithing – if you want to give St. Timothy’s ten percent of your gross annual income - don’t let me dissuade you. I will say a prayer of thanksgiving for you every night.
Proportional giving is another Biblical measure of faithfulness. Proportional givers usually start out small - donating one percent for example - and work their way up to a more significant number like five or even ten percent, even more. Some faithful and brave people just keep increasing the percentage every year with no end in sight. The goal depends on individual circumstances and beliefs. But, to put this in perspective, our Diocese subscribes to proportional giving, and we have the lowest parish to Diocese giving in the entire country . . . really. Of more than one hundred dioceses, we are the worst.
A lot of people like the idea of proportional giving, but clearly don’t get very far with it. And that’s the problem. The average pledge in the Episcopal Church is only two percent of gross annual income. Two percent! To put that in perspective, if all of us in St. Timothy’s were giving even two percent, (again, based on the average annual household income in this area of about $120.000) St. Timothy’s budget for this year would be $849,387.00 – that’s a $100,000.00 more than we collectively are actually giving to the mission and ministries of this Church right now. If each of us pledged, and increased our pledge by even one percent for next year, in 2011 we’d have $1,274,080.50 to do what we believe God wants us to do. Just imagine what we could accomplish in this community; in Dungannon, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in Haiti, and elsewhere! (As Peter Doddema says, “Wow!”).
Here’s some more information on the subject of stewardship.
Sacrificial giving is also a Biblical standard – not embraced by many people, and those who do are generally viewed as being extremely eccentric. On more than one occasion Jesus told his followers they weren’t worthy to be his disciples unless they gave up everything – their money, their homes, their jobs, even their families. On another occasion he told a certain rich young man, a lawyer (who seemed to do everything else right), that to get into God’s Kingdom he had to sell everything he had and give all the money, every last penny, to the poor. The message is “If you want to get to Heaven, it’s all or nothing.”
Now, if we, the people of St. Timothy’s, did give sacrificially, we’d need much bigger basins - and a lot of them! But then we’d have to turn around and give a lot of it back to ourselves, we’d be the poor and destitute.
Jesus said something about it being easier for a camel to saunter through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the Kingdom.
I think the point is, that all of us could do a better job as God’s stewards. We could give more, a lot more - and still not feel the pinch.
But true sacrificial giving is not for everyone. It is a special call, a holy vocation for individuals selected by God to be missionaries, to live in monastic communities, to be holy witnesses to the rest of us. If you think God is calling you to such a life, please speak to me or to Leslie.
As for the tithe, it was an ancient requirement, a Temple tax – part of it went to the priests and scribes, and part of it was distributed to the poor. When people paid it, they generally thought they had fulfilled their duty to God, and to the poor. You remember the story of the Good Samaritan, how one person after another (including a priest) walked right by the wounded man on the side of the road, with not so much as a “Sorry pal; I gave at the office?” I don’t think Jesus cared much for the tithe, and he made that clear on a number of occasions. Recall “The widow’s mite.” The poor woman who put her last pennies, all she had, in the offering, Jesus declared her the paragon of faithfulness. The moral of that story is, it’s not the amount that matters; it’s our attitude. What we have isn’t actually ours; it’s a sacred trust. We hold God’s wealth in our hands.
You may have heard the old stewardship joke - “The treasurer stood up on Sunday morning after the annual pledge drive and announced ‘Good News my sisters and brothers in Christ; we have all we need to do everything God wants us to do, and more! The problem is, it’s in our pockets!’”
And by the way, proportional giving doesn’t cut it either. We carefully measure out only a very small percent of our wealth for God (who gives us everything - life, food, shelter, clothing, skills, jobs, love, forgiveness, Jesus, Heaven, etc.); the statistics on proportional giving demonstrate beyond question that those of us who have the most tend to give the least, while those who have the least tend to give the most. If our goal is to continually give more, then proportional giving may be a helpful tool. Otherwise, we’re just letting ourselves off easy.
So, what is faithful stewardship?
If it is true that “All we are and all we have is a gift from God” then giving is really about gratitude. And what does that amount too: Is fifty dollars a week enough? A hundred? A thousand?
Being a good and faithful steward is about being free . . . free from the consuming fear of not having enough, free from the insatiable lust for more, free from pouring our lives out to acquire more stuff, when we know very well that stuff doesn’t make us happy. The truth is, the more we get, the more we come up empty. Stuff can’t fill our souls; only the love of God can do that. As some wise person once observed, “The true quality of life is not determined by how much we get, but by how much we give.”
Stewardship is not a tenth, a proportion, our fair share, or any scheme that involves numbers. Stewardship is fearless generosity; it is grateful giving.
Paul wrote to Timothy, “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. [Timothy, I urge you to tell the rich] to do good, to be rich in good works, [to be] generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves treasure [in the Kingdom], so they may take hold of the life that really is life” – a life worth living, a life of giving.
With all that the Bible has to say about giving, one thing is very clear. We are called to discover the joy and freedom of fearless generosity, of grateful giving.