St. Patrick’s Stewardship Sermon
November 24, 2019
Rev. Rick Cross, Priest in Charge
“Welcome to Black Sunday”
What a challenge it is to recover the spirit of President Abraham Lincoln’s original national holiday, Thanksgiving! He used the opportunity to raise the minds and hearts of Americans, which had been torn apart by the Civil War, to focus on what was right and good and the overriding values that could unite the “one Nation, under God.” The economy was in shambles and no hyper-marketing of holiday sales could fix it. The President’s leadership suggested that rather than wallowing in the destruction and strife of the war, rising above the pain and destruction, there was a great opportunity facing this Nation: being thankful, looking for what was good, claiming the power of positive thinking, setting minds on the higher things. That was the road to healing and happiness. And it still is.
You will be getting a similar invitation from the Vestry this week. It is an opportunity to reflect on the spirit of Thanksgiving here in our congregation, in your family and community. It is an opportunity to exercise cheerfulness in giving. We have a lot to be thankful for.
“Money is the root of all evil,” you may have heard quoted. There are more stories in the Bible about money than any other single topic. Perhaps we can accept the challenge to change this old adage to “Money is the root of all good.”
The Bible teaches us to follow a discipline of giving a specific percentage of our annual income back to God, which historically has meant the church. As a minimal standard, Jewish scripture taught 10 %. Those who were able were encouraged to give a higher percentage. The premise was that 90% of one’s income ought to be enough to live on.
In an agricultural economy, The Festival of First Fruits made it mandatory to give to the temple the first gathering of whatever fruits and vegetables had been grown: the first and best. Animal offerings were to be the youngest, most tender meat. Our Jewish ancestors set a high bar for our standard of giving to the church.
My parents, who were in a Congregational Church, taught me to make a substantial pledge to the church each year and to write a check each month or week, first to the church, before paying other bills. I spent many years feeling guilty that I could not see my way clear to risk tithing 10% of my family income. My wife and I did not agree about how much to give the church. With a young family and college and seminary loan debts hanging over my head, I would calculate what 10% might be, realize I couldn’t pay it and scale down to a much lower percentage that we thought we could afford. I like the option of starting somewhere, and trying to increase it a little each year. It was always a conflict figuring out some respectable amount and then trying to pay it off. In my early adult years, I was not a cheerful giver!
I heard from somewhere, to look at a person’s budget, and you will see what that person’s values are. Working with couples in pre-marital counseling, I ask them to create a budget together. Typically there is nothing in their budgets for giving away, such as a planned church contribution. I share with them that “giving” is one of the greatest sources of happiness in my life.
I do not give 10% of my total income to this church, but I do give a percentage and I increase it every year. I give to several other churches, people and organizations that I understand to be God’s work outside the church. It’s easy to rationalize that part of the taxes we pay go for welfare programs that didn’t exist in Bible times. The broad view of stewardship teaches us to consider the value of our time and talents as well as our treasure. But my opinion is that since money is the single greatest symbol of power in our society, it is important for everyone to put a line item in the family budget for hard cold cash for the church.
In the Episcopal Church, a portion of your contribution goes to the Diocese for work in the State, and a portion goes on to the National Church for many ministries across the country and world that we could never accomplish alone, but together with the sixty congregations in Maine and thousands across the planet, we can make a difference. Money can become the root of much good.
It may be helpful to compare your pledge to the church with other items in your family budget. It may involve a little sacrifice. Could you do without one-tenth of the non-essential groceries you buy? Run some calculations on the various categories: technology and electronics, coffee and eating out, mortgage and car payments, vacations, the list goes on and on. None of these things are wrong, but in the overall picture of your expenditures and use of resources, where is the church?
Money is a very emotional topic to discuss. It is one of the biggest sources of conflict in marriages and families, along with sex and power. Why do you think religious orders take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience? Money, sex and power all can become distractions from loving God with all your heart, your mind, and your body. The hope of winning the lottery gives many people more faith than we offer in the church. The presidency and major political offices are now for sale to who can raise the most money.
Advertising and the media conditions our brains and subconscious minds to think we want and need more and more stylish things resulting in a credit economy, where giving to the church is from leftovers, not from the true abundance with which we have been blessed.
Denial is not only a river in Egypt! It is a common attitude among Americans toward wealth. You may not think or feel that you are wealthy, but if you are living in this country, and not on the street or in a shelter, you are among the wealthiest percentage of people in the world who have adequate shelter, food, clothing, education and possibly health care. If you own a car, you are in a higher percentage. We are wealthy and denial interferes with our generosity and may preclude cheerful giving.
This is not about guilt or pressure. It is about discovering a pathway to happiness and a peaceful heart through a spiritual discipline. In the words of A.A., Alanon and the recovery movement, it is about “First things first.” It is about taking an honest look at our values and setting priorities. Ask God’s Spirit for guidance as you make decisions about the use of your money. Ask, and it will be given. Knock, and the door of your heart will be opened. AMEN.