Sunday, November 22, 2015

Faithful family finances

What if the church managed resources like a family?
Genesis 1:26-31; Matthew 25:14-30

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Every year on this Sunday before Thanksgiving—Fall harvest Sunday—
    the Sunday we (not coincidentally)
        return our financial Faith Promises,
        and (not coincidentally) drop them in a big basket,
            a la Deuteronomy 26 where the Israelites
                put the first of their harvest in a big basket
                and gave it to God in worship . . .
    on this Sunday you have come to expect (not coincidentally)
        a stewardship sermon,
        crafted to invite you to generously share your resources.

It’s an easy Sunday for me to fall into the role
    of institutional cheerleader.
    Let’s go, PVMC!
        God is at work in us!
        So take a step of faith, and give cheerfully.
        When you give to Park View,
            you give to the Kingdom of God itself.

    Sure, it looks like you’re paying for a $12,000
        high-efficiency heat-pump in the office wing
            (after our old one gave out),
        so our pastors can stay cool in the summer
            and warm in the winter . . .
        and it looks like a big chunk of your offering
            goes to keep the electric and gas bill paid,
            and buy cases of paper for the office,
            and keep four pianos and an organ in tune,
            and push snow off the parking lot this winter,
            and (oh by the way) pay my salary thank-you-very-much
                and pay our other pastors and music leaders
                and administrative and custodial staff,
        but don’t think about that, because really,
            this is the work of the Kingdom of God we’re doing,
            so giving generously is spiritual work,
                and God will bless you for it, Amen!

Now, in a way, everything I just said is true.
    But we have a congregation of pretty smart people.
        You can see right through the spiritual you-know-what.
        You can see the spin—
            when saying it straight doesn’t sound good,
            so we say it slant.
                Not falsely. Not deceitfully.
                We say it from an angle.

    Well, since I can’t get anything past you, anyway,
        Let me tell you now, this sermon has some angles.
        I’ll be straight about my angles, so to speak.

I have two angles.
    First is the institutional angle.

    Park View Mennonite does good and important work,
        in the world, and the community.
    I won’t run down the list,
        but I’ll give details to anyone who wants them.
        Our annual spending plan deserves your generous support,
            so our good work can continue and thrive.
        Much of the good work we do
            can’t happen without institutional backing.
            So I won’t apologize for making that known.
        Heat pumps, and paper, and salaries,
            and clean parking lots, and even well-tuned instruments,
            do play a part in the kingdom work we are about.

    And institutions face huge challenges today,
        as younger wage-earners are often skeptical of institutions,
        and older loyal ones, mostly retired, have fewer resources.

    Furthermore, when a lot of attention and energy
        gets invested in church conflict and church politics,
        and anxiety goes up as people and groups leave,
            some people distance themselves and hold back resources.

    Now the kingdom of God certainly will not rise or fall
        on whether Park View keeps our institutional machinery running,
        but the machinery, in fact, operates a lot of good ministry.
    So I hope those who believe in the kingdom work we do,
        will step up and support it even more, in tough times.

But here’s my other angle.
    You won’t be shocked.
        I’ve been talking about this angle for two months.
            Church as family. As household. As oikos.
        How does seeing the church as family impact
            how we think about our material resources?
            how we make decisions about money?
            how we give?

Let me tell you my family money story.
    I wish our high school youth could hear me this morning,
        but they’re away on retreat.
        They’re probably glad not to hear this.
        And they’d be glad if their parents didn’t either.

But . . . when I was a teenager—
    starting to earn money mowing yards, doing chores,
    and even getting my first “real paycheck,”
        as a busboy at the Arcadia Drugstore diner—
    my parents always took half my wages,
        and put it in the family money pot.
    I kept the other half,
        and of course, gave 10% of that to the church.
        So just 45% was actually mine to spend or save.

Now, I didn’t jump for joy at that family rule.
    But today, I publicly thank my parents,
        Dave and Esther Kniss, for doing that.
        They did an honorable thing,
            and it taught me something important.

    It taught me what it meant to belong to a family.
    Folding my personal earnings into the family economy,
        assured me, without words, of four important truths.

    One, it assured me I was fully a part of this family.
        I belonged.
        I was not external to the family.
        I was not a hanger-on, or a parasite.
    Two, it taught me I have a responsibility as part of the family.
    Three, it showed me my gifts had real value for the family.
    Four, it taught me that proportional sharing of resources
        is a normal thing that families to do.

Those four lessons gave me healthy perspective on family,
    which persists to this day.
    So thanks, Mom and Dad, for taking my money.
    And cementing my place in the family.

I think the church, when it comes to money,
    has not done as well as my parents,
    in helping its members feel fully a part of the family.

A lot of factors contribute to that.
A lot of blame to go around.
    I’d like to point at least one finger of blame at the U.S. Government.
        Everyone’s doing that now, so let me join in the fun.
    The government tells the church—and even wrote it into law—
        that we are a charity.
        And we believe them.

    In the eyes of the law, we’re not a family,
        we’re a civic organization doing charitable deeds.
    We’re an organization requiring donors.
        And volunteers.
        Persons willing—
            on their own accord, not out of obligation—
            to donate their time,
            donate their money,
            donate their resources.
    We’re an organization relying on public good will,
        that needs people to voluntarily “buy in”,
            and get personally involved,
            or even become “members.”
    But by the government’s definition, the church is still its own entity,
        entirely separate from its donors and volunteers.
        The law requires separation between donor and recipient.
        You can’t give to your own family and get a tax deduction.

Now, is that good for the church?
    Of course it is, if I see it from my first angle—
        as a promoter of the institution.
        Tax law has a net positive impact
            on donations flowing into our institution.
            That keeps ministry going.
        So I’m not quite ready to get on my soapbox and say—
            at least not very loudly—
            that the church ought to give up our charitable tax benefits.

    But it takes work to look past that,
        and focus on church as the household of God,
            faithfully managing household resources.

    Part of that work is changing our language.
        We are not donors.
        We are not volunteers.
        We who support our church family
            with the first-fruits of our lives,
            are integral members of this body.
        I suggest to you, members of this body,
            it is just as strange to talk about any of us
                as donors or volunteers . . .
            as it is to talk about my eye donating its vision to my body,
            or my hand volunteering to help get food into my mouth.

        No, my hand is not a volunteer and my eye is not a donor.
            They do what they were created to do—
                faithfully, reliably, without fanfare.
            When I stop to think about them,
                I sure am thankful for their gifts to my body,
                    and I show my gratitude
                    by respecting my body
                    and taking good care of each part.
        But never do I think about them as
            independent and voluntary and self-sufficient entities.
            I can’t even think about them apart from my body.

I think we need a different mindset
    when we make decisions about giving.
    I’ll not dare to tell you how you should think.
        You examine your own thoughts and beliefs,
            and act in accord with your convictions.

    But about my convictions and thought processes,
        let me say it straight.
        And let me say “us” and “our,” to include Irene.
        Because in this regard,
            our families, and church, shaped us in similar ways.

    When we give to charities, we look at three things—
        the degree to which that charity has a mission
            we’re passionate about,
        how dependent they are on our support,
        and how much we have in discretionary funds.
        So, weighing all those things—
            their needs, our values, our funds—
            we essentially vote with our money.
        Not every good organization gets our support.

    But those with the highest level of need,
        and highest correspondence with our values,
        get the largest portion of our available funds.
    We might even sacrifice in order to give.
    And when we give to a charity,
        we gladly accept the label of “donor” or “volunteer.”
        We take the perks that come with it.
        We don’t mind WMRA thanking us, by name, on air,
            or sending us restaurant discount cards.
        And we gladly accept an annual invitation
            to EMU’s donor banquet.
            We know we’ll get a nice dinner out,
                and a freebie to take home.
            Thank you, Phil Helmuth!

    But . . . it’s another thought process altogether,
        when we consider first-fruits giving to our church family.
    We must think differently, because we’re not giving to a charity.
        You are our family.
            We are part of you.
            You are part of us.
            We are not donors.
        We cannot, in good conscience,
            vote with our money at our church.
        We do not decide our giving to Park View based on
            how well we think the church reflects our priorities,
            or how much discretionary money we have this year,
            or how much we think the church needs our share.
        We are either part of this body, or we’re not.
        We’re either all in, or we’re looking in from the outside.
        And if we’re part of the body, we will act like part of the body,
            and give our share,
            which, for us, is a percentage of our income,
                based on the biblical practice of the tithe.
        We will not adjust our giving up or down,
            based on how happy we are with the church.
            That would violate our conscience.
            It would violate our understanding of family.

        I gave half my paycheck to my family when I was a kid,
            with little complaint, and little thought,
            because I knew I was a full part of the family,
            and that’s what members of the Kniss family did.
        We now practice tithing to our local church,
            with no complaint, and frankly, little thought,
            because doing so says we are part of this family.
            So we do what family members do.
        We give proportionately.

    I think that’s what our epistle reading today was about,
        from 2 Corinthians 9.
        Paul wrote to the church in Corinth on various topics,
            including a financial appeal for the saints in Jerusalem
            who were suffering terribly.
        He didn’t asking them to pray
            and listen for a word from the Lord about what to give.
        He didn’t lay a legalistic demand on them.
        He didn’t propose a mathematical formula.
        He just said, be reasonable.
            These brothers and sisters in Jerusalem are your family.
                They have need.
                You have abundance.
                It’s about proportion.
                You have a reasonable obligation to show generosity.
                The result of your generosity is not that you get
                    a mug or discount card or tax deduction.
                The reward for your generosity to your family,
                    is that it produces thanksgiving and praise to God,
                    and their bond with you, as family members,
                        will grow stronger.

    That’s also the case today,
        if we consider that we are giving to God’s household,
            the oikos, our extended family of faith.
        It’s not rocket science.
        It’s not a mystical spiritual quest.
        We start by assuming that in an oikos,
            proportionate giving is a reasonable spiritual discipline.
            No need to sit in prayer and meditation
                until we get a word from the Lord.
            What we need is a calculator.
            Or just knowing how to move a decimal point.

        Now, sorry if I sound flip. I’m not knocking prayer.
            This is a serious, and joyful, matter.
                So by all means, pray.
            But prayer need not be for discernment
                on what God wants you to give to the church,
                based on its relative value
                    alongside all the other charities you support.
            Pray for clarity.
                And let the clarifying question in your prayer be,
                    “Is this my family? Is this my oikos?”
                And if the answer is yes,
                    then you ask, as a member of this household,
                    what is the reasonable proportion of my income
                        to set aside for the household economy?

        This is not about a spiritual benefit that kicks in at 10%.
        This is not about legalism or about math.
        But it is reasonable for a family
            to share resources with each other,
            and to do it systematically and justly,
                to ensure that needs get met, consistently.

        The biblical tithe was how the whole Israelite family
            ensured a just sharing.
            Part of their family, the Levites, worked full-time
                to help people worship God
                and to feed orphans and widows.
            Consequently, had no time and no land to raise their own food.
            Again, not rocket science. Not a spiritual mystery.
            Just a reasonable communal practice
                of disciplined sharing.

        The result was, family needs were met.
            Hungry neighbors were fed.
            Foreigners were provided for.
            God was properly worshiped.
            Their mission was fulfilled.
        Proportionate giving was a measure of their trust in God,
            and their sense of belonging to each other.
            And it was a practice that worked.

—Phil Kniss, November 22, 2015

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