A Sermon Preached by the Rector
October 25, 2020
Some years ago, there was a book making the rounds called Blue Like Jazz, the subtitle of which is “Nonreligious thoughts on Christian Spirituality.” In one chapter, the author, Donald Miller, talks about why he didn’t like to go to church. He writes that one of the reasons he didn’t like going to church was because
I felt like people were trying to sell me Jesus. I was a salesman for a while, and we were taught that you are supposed to point out all the benefits of a product when you are selling it. That is how I felt about some of the preachers I heard speak. They were always pointing out the benefits of the Christian faith. That rubbed me wrong. It’s not that there aren’t benefits, there are, but did they have to speak about spirituality like it’s a vacuum cleaner? I never felt like Jesus was a product …. Not only that, but they were always pointing out how great their specific church was. The bulletin read like a brochure for Amway …. I felt like I got bombarded with commercials all week and then went to church and got even more. (p. 131)
I bring this up because October is the time when the clergy and people of this parish reconsider their financial stewardship. In many places, the stewardship sermon does seem like a commercial for the church and its programs. I hope to avoid that. Of course, the Advent cannot function without your financial support, but my goal is to open up the Scriptures and find out what kind of plan God has for us when it comes to wealth and possessions and money.
I made the point last week that our stewardship of time, talent and treasure is sacramental: how we spend our money reflects our inward spiritual disposition. Your checkbook is a moral document. Open it up sometime this week, and take a look—you can clearly see where your priorities lie: Where your treasure is, there is your heart also. Stewardship is a spiritual matter, and that is why the clergy preach about it.
You’ll recall an episode from the life of King David. He’s nearing the end of his life. He’s had a vision of building a temple for God. He has a plan of what the temple will look like, how it will be furnished. And he’s gathered the people of Israel together in a great assembly to receive the offering of what had been given to build this great temple. The people of Israel have dug deep, they have sacrificed, they have given millions and millions of shekels; David himself has made a huge personal contribution. And in a moment of eloquence, David cries out, “All things come of thee [O Lord], and of thine own have we given thee.”
That is the first principle of Christian stewardship. Everything belongs to God: In David’s words, “Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and thou art exalted as head above all.” The earth and everything on it belongs to God. We are his stewards, his managers, his caretakers, and in him we are rich beyond measure.
Here’s a little quiz. You can answer the questions in your head:
- Do you own a pair of shoes?
- Do you have a change of clothes?
- Do you have a roof over your head?
- Do you know where your next meal is coming from?
If you answered “yes” to each of these four questions, you are in the top 2% of the world’s population when it comes to wealth. Everyone in this room is richer than 98% of people in the world. I pray that we—as people and parish—know this.
Before there can be any talk of budgets and pledge cards, we must hammer this truth into our minds and hearts: everything I am, everything I have, my intellect, my skills, my gifts, my ability to make a living, come from God—they are GIFTS. I am but a steward of these gifts that God has given me to use during my very brief time on this planet Earth.
The second principle of stewardship that I spoke about last week was our response: We give back. We don’t give God our time, our talents, our treasure, we give back to him of his time, his talent, his treasure. All the cookies belong to him! We give back joyfully, repeatedly and generously.
Today, I’d like us to consider together the question of how much we give back. You’ve heard of the Sermon on the Mount? This is the Sermon on the Account.
Let me say at the outset that I have good news, and I have bad news. The good news is that we have all the resources, all the money we need, to fund the mission and ministry of this place. The bad news is that it’s in your pockets!
This week, in the mail, each person or family who makes this parish their church home will receive a pledge card. On that card, you’ll be asked to make an estimate of financial giving for the year 2021. So how might we decide what “generous” is? Here are some ways that we might come up with our pledge.
The first is to give what we gave last year. The effects of inflation aside, the problem with habitual giving is that there is no growth. Stasis does not exist; no thing—plant, animal, Christian—can ever stand still. We are either growing or dying. It is normal that Christians should be growing in all areas of their spiritual life, including their giving. So each year we are called to reconsider, in a prayerful and deliberate way, what constitutes “generous.” So habitual giving won’t do.
Or, I suppose the Vestry could charge dues to belong to the Advent, and send out a bill like a club, or a union, or even the Triple A. Based on our pre-pandemic average Sunday attendance, we’d hand out a bill of about $136 per week for every man, woman and child that occupies the pews. It costs about $3.25 per minute to run this parish and to meet our obligations to those beyond our doors. Based on that, this sermon is worth about $40!
The problem is that some people couldn’t afford the admission price. This parish was founded as a “free church,” without pew rents. Our founders thought the whole idea of charging people to worship God deeply offensive, as do I. The Church is meant to be a house of prayer for all people. All are welcome here, prince and pauper alike. So no, we’re not going to charge dues.
My late grandfather homesteaded in the Peace River district of northern Alberta. Before he became too feeble to travel, my father took my grandfather on a road trip back to his old stomping grounds. All across the Prairies, after they’d stopped to eat, my grandfather would say, “that was a great meal,” and plunk down a whole quarter as a tip—you heard me right, 25 cents. My father would then have to quietly leave a little more money on the table so that the waitress didn’t hunt them down in the parking lot. My grandfather’s tip, you see, was just a random amount—it had no connection to anything, it wasn’t grounded in reality.
When you and I have that pledge card in front of us, there can be a temptation to do what my grandfather did—just pick a number out of a hat—$20, $50, $100. The glaring problem with random-dollar giving is that it has no connection to anything. It is not grounded in financial reality. A dollar is of greater significance to a person who is unemployed, or making minimum wage, or on Social Security, than it is to a person who makes $100K a year.
When it comes to giving back to God, there is a better way; a way that is not random, or unconnected. It’s called proportional giving. God calls us to give back not randomly, but in proportion to our income. People have different financial circumstances. In our congregation there are people who are riding a crest of financial prosperity—they are better off now than at any other time in their life. There are also people who are really hurting financially. Most of us are somewhere in between. Because everyone’s circumstances are different, God asks not for equal gifts, but for equal sacrifice. That is what the proportional giving is about: not equal gifts, but equal sacrifice.
You remember the story of the widow’s mite? Jesus was watching people putting money into the temple treasury. He noticed that those who were rich put in much. Then he saw a poor widow putting in her two copper coins—all that she had. If a wealthier woman had dropped those coins, she probably wouldn’t have even bothered to pick them up. But in the widow’s hands, those two coppers sparkled like diamonds. Jesus is telling a story about proportional giving. What the widow gave was much less than that of the wealthy, but proportionately, it was much more.
Like I said, in just a few days, each of us will have an opportunity to give back; not in a habitual way; not in a random or haphazard way; but in a conscious, deliberate way, prayerfully considering what we will offer to God through his Church in the year to come. If you are not already a proportional giver, please consider becoming one this year.
So that’s it.
- One: God is the owner of everything, we are his stewards.
- Two: In response, we give back.
- Three: We give back in proportion to our blessings.
This year, your goal and mine should be to offer a good pledge, a worthy pledge, a pledge that reflects spiritual growth, a pledge that is pleasing to God.
I was joking earlier that I had good news, and I had bad news. Really, though, I only have good news.
The good news is that I know you to be people who take our common life seriously.
The good news is I know you to be committed to the mission and ministry of this place.
The good news is that we have all the money we need to fund the mission and ministry of this parish.
The good news is that it’s in your pocket!
1. Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. Donald Miller. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.