Dear People of Saint Timothy’s Parish:
Sometimes, you get more than you bargained for in life.
When I was the young associate rector of St. Michael’s Church here in Raleigh, back in the late 1970s, I once preached a stewardship sermon that found its way onto the desk of then Bishop Fraser–and which resulted in a letter from him informing me of my appointment to the diocesan stewardship commission. (Note to clergy: be careful how you disseminate your sermons; there may well be unexpected consequences.) I no longer have a copy of that sermon because it, along with a year’s worth of my other sermons, was lost when my secretary inadvertently (at least I hope it was inadvertently) threw them away after having delayed typing them up for my files. (Back then, I preached from manuscripts written in longhand, something my eyes would never allow me to do these days.) Sic transit gloria pulpiti. At any rate, the sermon is long gone, but I do remember the one part of it that apparently moved Bishop Fraser to place me on the stewardship commission. In it, I said something to this effect:
I cannot tell you how much to pledge, but I can tell you that there may be some warning signs that your giving is out of whack with your faith. If, for example, your weekly liquor bill is greater than your weekly church pledge, you may be in trouble. And if your monthly country club dues are greater than your monthly church pledge, you may be in trouble.
But then I went on to say, and this is the one that hit the mark the most, I think:
And if your yearly contribution to the Wolf Pack Club, the Rams Club, or the Iron Dukes exceeds your annual church pledge, you are most definitely in trouble.
I was told later that last line caused some people to laugh. I wonder if it also caused anyone to think, because it is that kind of thinking that really needs to be behind any kind of giving–particularly Church giving, which we call stewardship, and which should be the basis for every Christian’s giving of anything, for any purpose, at any time, and in every circumstance. And Christian giving never begins with an amount, but with an appreciation for what that amount represents in terms of our own resources and our sense of how, when, and where God calls us to use our earthly gifts and treasures to glorify him in this world. Look at what you give as a percentage of what you have, not as an absolute dollar amount. A $1,000 gift from someone whose annual income is $50,000 is always more substantial than the same amount from a multimillionaire. God knows the difference. So should you.
Many of us grew up with the concept of the Old Testament “tithe” as the standard for our giving–the concept that we should give ten percent of our resources for God’s work, primarily through God’s Church. Something to that effect has even been recognized by our own Church’s General Convention and adopted as a principle in many of our Church’s dioceses. It’s certainly not a bad standard, and I admit that it’s one that I have as my own; but it can never be the kind of legalistic standard that it was in terms of the Old Testament Law. In fact, there never was a single “tithe.” There were tithes of crops and flocks and herds; there was a Temple tax, a tax on the firstborn son, and any number of other levies that governed the ancient Israelites. They no longer govern us anymore; neither do we any longer live in the kind of closed, agrarian society in which those Israelites lived. More importantly, we no longer live under the Law of Moses, but by grace of God in Christ. It is by grace we are saved through faith, Paul reminds us [Ephesians 2:8]. And it is by grace we must give through faith.
To give by grace through faith requires the kind of trust in God that allows us to relinquish both our insecure need to possess and our impulsive need to control. It is only when we trust God thusly that we know the truth of the Chronicler’s writing, “All things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee” [I Chronicles 29:14]. Nothing that we have comes from anyone other than God, and nothing that we give should glorify anyone other than God.
So take stock of your life before determining your giving. How much, to whom, and for what purpose you give will always describe what you value in life. You may face many demands, and you may have many charitable causes that touch your heart. As long as they glorify God, they are worthy of your giving. There is nothing wrong with that. Do it. But do it within the context of how you also give to God’s Church. And remember that it is the work of God’s Church alone that addresses the entirety of humanity, the totality of human life, and the fullness of the Gospel of Christ. Schools, colleges, hospitals, animal shelters, food pantries, and veteran groups–and missionary societies and other ministries of the Church as well–should all demand your consideration, to the extent that their work is godly and your motive in giving is not self-serving. But remember that it is in your parish church where you find the personal intimacy of Christian living. It is in your parish church that you are baptized and married, and it is from your parish church that you will someday be buried. It is in your parish church that you worship God weekly, and it is from your parish church that you reach out in service to the world around you. It is in your parish church that you learn about the God whom you worship, and it is from that knowledge that you fashion the life you live. And the life you live will always reflect the values you have. Remember that always. Remember it when you save for your children’s education, when you buy a new car, when you plan your vacation. And remember it especially when you make your financial pledge this fall in support of God’s work through this parish church of yours. Remember that where you spend your money will always reflect what you value in your life.