Timmy didn’t want to put his money in the offering plate Sunday morning, so his mother decided to use some hurried creative reasoning with him.
“You don’t want that money, honey,” she whispered in his ear. “Quick! Drop it in the plate. It’s tainted!”
Horrified, the little boy obeyed.
After a few seconds he whispered, “But, mommy, why was the money tainted? Was it dirty?
“Oh, no dear,” she replied. “It’s not really dirty. It just ‘taint yours, and it ‘taint mine,” she replied. “It’s God’s.”
Today is Stewardship Sunday, probably everyone’s least favorite Sunday of the year. And I want to let you in on a secret: it’s most pastors’ least favorite Sunday of the year too. Stewardship tends to be the one Sunday of the year when we talk about money. We are uneasy talking about money, it feels like a taboo subject in many ways and each year we have to have this uncomfortable conversation. But, as Rev. Michael Piazza points out, stewardship really should be a year round conversation. As he puts it, “(The real issues is)…how we change the culture. Because the church has talked about money only when we wanted some, we have abandoned our greater responsibility to shape the value system of a culture in which people are systematically and relentlessly metamorphosized from Human Ones into consummate consumers.”
He continues, “We pious types can rant and rave about greed, and pollution, and poverty, and income inequality, and all the other evils that arise from "the love of money," but what we really need to do is repent. The church has treated money the same way we, for decades, have treated sex. We never talked about (it) unless we were ranting against it is some form, and we never talk about money unless we want some of it. In both these areas, the church has utterly failed to inspire transforming values. …money… (is a) powerful gift.. from God, and the church should have taught us how to be better stewards of (that gift). … people come wanting to know how to raise more money. Frankly, fundraising is easy compared to teaching society how to be better stewards of all the gifts that come from God.
“Another reason for our impotency around this issue is the third topic the church avoids: death. Oh, we talk plenty about resurrection, but we seldom have the courage to remind us that we all are going to die. If we lack a powerful sense of our own mortality, we can pretend that we earned what we have and that it is ours to keep. It isn't. You ARE going to die and leave it all behind. That is why it is called ‘stewardship.’”
His points are really good ones: the money that we have been entrusted with is exactly that: money that we have been entrusted with. We haven’t earned it. I want to say that again: we haven’t earned it. We may have worked for it, but we know that the amounts people are paid have very little to do with how hard they work. For example, some of the hardest workers in our culture are wait staff. They are also some of the least paid. In contrast, most of our wealthiest people have inherited at least a good portion of their wealth, and we know they play much harder than they work. We have different amounts of wealth, not because some are better people and certainly not because God loves those folk more or cares for them more. But we all have at our disposal some resources, and no matter how we’ve come by them, they aren’t ours. They are Gods, and we’ve been entrusted with our wealth to use for the work of God and God’s people in this world.
So, with that information, what are we really called to do with our resources? Well, as I’ve said before and will no doubt say again, the way we spend our time, money and talents is a clear indication of what we value. So I invite you to think for a minute about what you value, truly and deeply. If it is God, then the question remains, what is the best use of your resources? What is the best way to serve God with those resources? I realize that there are many areas that each of us care about. Housing, the hungry, immigrants, children, refugees, racism, LGBTQ+ rights, the environment… there are many, many ways that we help God’s creation and that we serve God. Church is only one of those and I recognize that. While we do a great deal of mission through this church and in this church, sharing your resources here is only one way in which we act as stewards of God’s church.
At the same time, to be real and honest about what that means in this place: our budget this last year was about $285,000. With that money we provide worship, education, care for one another, counseling for some, and give a great deal to mission both through our time, talents and our money. We have about 100 members. What that works out to is about $2850 per member per year. Or, $240 per month per person, not per family. Not everyone can pay that, so that means some are paying significantly more. Our Old Testament encourages giving (to all the causes you give to) by a tithe of 10% of your income: that’s gross, not net, by the way. The New Testament goes further, and suggests that if we are giving out of our abundance rather than to the point at which we feel it, we are missing the point of giving. But I give you these numbers in the hope that it helps us all to be realistic about what it costs to keep our programs and our church community the way it has been. I also give you these numbers because I think it is easy sometimes to not realize the cost of what we do in this place.
All that being said, my intention this morning and every Stewardship Sunday is not to guilt trip folk into giving more.
As Michael Piazza said, giving, stewardship, should be a way of life. It is not about just paying those who deserve to be paid, or paying your dues, or about being giving people. It isn’t about trying to assuage guilt, or it shouldn’t be. It is about remembering, at all times and in all things that all we have is not “ours” at all. And that out of gratitude for what we have been entrusted with, we are called to use those resources for the good of God and God’s people. But that is a pretty foreign mindset in this culture. When I read financial pages, they all encourage saving: but saving for what? They encourage saving for our future, for retirement, for our children’s education. They encourage delaying gratification of “now” in exchange for gratification later. Never have I read a financial site that encourages generosity of giving, that acknowledges that with privilege comes responsibility, and that with resources comes the gift of being able to contribute to the world in a real and meaningful way.
Changing our mindset, converting our thinking from “this is mine and if I give any of it away it is because I am being generous” into “this is God’s and I’ve been entrusted to use this money, this talent, and this gift for the highest good for all people,” is not an easy thing to do in a culture that says otherwise. I sometimes wonder, actually, if so many of our problems as a society don’t stem from this basic confusion over what is really ours. What is yours and really yours is only that which you take with you when you die. And that does not include any of the resources of this world at all. So what do we want to leave behind? Do we want to die known as successful by cultural standards, having raised the bar of what it meant to be wealthy, that we collected so much of the world’s resources to ourselves? Or do we want to leave behind a legacy of caring for others, making the world better, contributing what we have for the good of the world? How would we want our loved ones to describe us after we have passed on? Who do you want to be in the world?
But perhaps even more, a deeper question to ask ourselves, who do we want God to see us as? I’ve asked you at times to think of what gifts God has given you: what are your talents, what are the things God has blessed you with that God gave you to use for the good of God’s people and God’s creation? But now I’m asking you, if God were to write a sentence describing who you are, what would you want that sentence to be? What would you want God to say about how you have been and who you are in the world? Do those desires match your actions? Do they match how you walk and how you act and how you move on this planet? What could you do to be more the person God calls you to be? What could you do to be more the person you want God to see you being? What is the best way for you to serve God in this world?
When 9/11 happened, money came pouring in to the Red Cross in order to help. Apparently, they received a total of about $547 Million in response. But at first, Red Cross put all the money into their general fund and weren’t going to designate that money for the purpose of helping the 9/11 survivors. The public outrage at this decision, however, forced the Red Cross to change its mind and they decided that every penny given towards that cause would go towards that cause.
In the same way, perhaps, God calls us to use the money, talents, time and resources with which we have been entrusted to serve and help God’s creation. Not easy, and God doesn’t take away in the same way that those who donated to the Red Cross could take back their resources. But God is putting a sacred trust in us and calling us to live that out.
As I wrote this sermon I found myself thinking about J.K. Rowling, a woman who was hugely successful not only because she wrote wonderful books but because she intentionally gave up being a billionaire by giving so much of her wealth to charity especially to the Multiple Sclerosis society and to a group called “Volant” that supports women, children and young people at risk in Scotland. She has chosen to use her resources in service to other people. That is a legacy worth leaving behind.
None of this is just about money. Caryl Aukerman and her husband felt called to work with the very poor in Albania. They took with them into Albania their three young children, who were sad because in living in such poverty, they found they could not continue to do the things that they loved the most: art, music, and dance, especially. They felt cheated and the Aukerman’s began to be concerned that they were depriving their children of the opportunity to live into and use the talents that God had given them. As they found ways to help their children still use those talents, they discovered that the neighboring kids also yearned for these kinds of experiences. So they began classes out of their homes: they found a way to not only teach their own kids, to allow their own kids to live into their gifts, but to share those gifts with other children as they taught art, music and dance at home. The children they served were still poor, and their work was still focused mostly on creating ways for these families to have enough. But they also brought the arts alive into this community and enriched the neighborhood children far beyond the meeting of basic needs. There are things all of us can do with the gifts God has given us. It may take time to figure out how to use those gifts, but they are there to be shared, they are entrusted to you to be used for the good of all.
Studies show that most people feel they would be fine if they only had twice what they currently have. It doesn’t actually matter how much a person has: even billionaires feel that they would be fine if they only had twice what they have now. Humans “needs” seem to expand with what we have. At the same time, those studies also show that having more does not equal being happier. We think we will feel more content, more at peace, more okay when we have more. But the reality is something else. What DOES increase happiness is helping other people, and feeling gratitude. These can make a huge difference in how we feel in the world. So I wonder if, instead of feeling poor and focusing on getting more for ourselves, we focus on the gratitude of what we have and explore how we can give more to those around us. Again, I’m not just thinking monetarily. I’m also thinking in terms of our time, our talents, and our other our resources.
Stewardship is about all of these things. But the bottom line is that stewardship is actually about your well-being, your wholeness. We are happier, we are more whole, we are more connected to God when we can remember that we are stewards of what we have and that we are called to use God’s resources to help those around us who have little, who have less, who are in need. We will feel more content and more full when we are generous with what is not even ours to begin with. Stewardship is an invitation to remember that all we have and are come from God, are God’s and will return to God in the end. Thanks be to God.
The church council met to discuss the pastor’s compensation package for the coming year. After the meeting the chair of council told the pastor: “We are very sorry, Pastor, but we decided that we cannot give you a raise next year.”
“But you must give me a raise,” said the pastor. “I am but a poor preacher!”
“l know,” the council chair said. “We hear you every Sunday.”