Sunday, November 11, 2012

My stewardship—whose business?

Stewardship and the people of God
Exodus 35:4-9; 36:2-7; 2 Cor. 8:1-7; Mark 12:41-44

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I want to be perfectly clear about the purpose of my sermon.
This is a sermon about financial stewardship,
especially as it relates to giving.
Full disclosure.
Last Sunday we distributed the annual Faith Promise letter,
and response cards to indicate your plans for giving in 2013.
Next Sunday, 
we ask you to return those cards in our worship service.
The timing of today’s sermon is not a coincidence.

You know, it shouldn’t be, but it is, a challenge to preach about giving.
One of the classic complaints about church,
from people who don’t go to church,
is that “churches are always begging for money.”
And one of the most sacred values our culture holds about money,
is secrecy—absolute privacy.
Everything about our money—
how much we earn,
how much we spend, 
how much we have—
is my business and nobody else’s business.
And that privacy principle is just as true in the church,
as anywhere else.

So, for understandable reasons,
many preachers balk at preaching about giving.
When it’s time to preach the annual stewardship sermon,
it’s always safer to preach a generic sermon on stewardship,
about the many and various ways we are called to be stewards 
in all aspects of our lives—time, talents, possessions, 
relationships, etc.
In the sermon, they carefully avoid 
any direct appeal for financial generosity.
But the hidden agenda,
is that in the course of the sermon,
people might think in that direction.

I have no hidden agenda this morning.
I want you to be clear that the reason for this sermon
is to help you fill out the Faith Promise cards
you got last Sunday.
It’s to convince you to participate in the process,
and to do so joyfully and sacrificially,
and to come back next Sunday ready to offer your Faith Promise
as an act of worship and praise to God.
I don’t apologize for this agenda,
because is there anything more spiritual,
more faith-driven,
more biblically and theologically sound,
than giving our resources in the worship of God?

Now, I’ve been straight with you.
Do me a favor in return—
lend me your ears, and open minds, for just twenty minutes.
This isn’t this spiel you’ve heard a thousand times.
I’ll say some things this morning that I’ve said before here at PVMC,
but it’s been a while.
So maybe you’ve never heard it said this way.
I want to be provocative, in the best sense of the word.
I want to provoke clear thinking, and good conversation.

If you want to argue with me, that’s great!
Send me an email. Write me a note (signed, please).
Catch me in the hallway.
Or just argue with each other. 
That works just as well.
Because these are important issues worth talking about, 
and arguing about.
I only ask that you listen well,
and argue thoughtfully and respectfully.

Let me point out, to begin with, that not everyone at Park View
participates in the Faith Promise process.
I think participation averages somewhere around 2/3 of households.
There are many different reasons for non-participation,
and I don’t know what they all are.
I have a hunch, though, that some of you don’t participate,
because you accept the notion that privacy about money
is a sacred principle,
that what you give is nobody’s business but your own.
If that is your reason, I don’t condemn you, in the least.
I assume you have integrity in this decision,
and that you are still a generous giver.
But I also suggest that your reason is cultural, 
and not supported biblically.

But, you might object, Jesus said,
“Don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing.”
Jesus wasn’t talking about the tithe.
Jesus was talking about giving alms, 
giving to the poor and hungry.
He didn’t want people to make a public show of charity,
so as to attract attention and praise.

There is a long biblical tradition, spanning Old and New Testament,
of public, visible, and celebrative giving in worship.
And of accountability for that giving.
I just don’t think there is any biblical support
for saying our tithes offered in worship in our faith community
should be purely private and anonymous.
There might be a strong rational and cultural argument.
I just don’t think it can be argued biblically.

Some of you who don’t participate in the Faith Promise process
might have other, legitimate, rational reasons.
I don’t know what they are. 
So I won’t offer any critique or judgement, about your decision.

But putting that aside for now,
let’s think about how we decide what to give.
When we reach into our wallet,
and offer a financial gift to the ministry of the church,
that’s a pretty remarkable act.
Whether or not we submitted a Faith Promise,
how did we get to that point of offering that gift?
How did we discern what we were called to give in worship?

Here’s what I think.
How we decide what to give,
and our mindset going into that process,
is deeply impacted by our identity.
More than what we believe about tithing,
more than what we’ve been taught about good stewardship,
more than what we think about church—
our attitudes, and discernment process around giving
is determined by who we believe we are.

If we identify strongly with the community of Christ,
if we embrace our baptismal identity as part of the people of God
who are called to serve God’s purposes,
as a people,
who join God’s saving and reconciling mission in the world,
as a people,
we will be a different sort of giver
than one with a more individualistic view of Christian faith.

We just celebrated our communal identity, 
this past Tuesday on Election Day,
when we and other churches in our community
took communion together,
and in so doing
proclaimed that our primary citizenship 
is not with this world and its powers,
but with Christ, and the rule of Christ,
and the peoplehood of Christ.

If we identify with the people of God,
a people who know they are beholden to God 
for all they have and all they are,
a people who know that God asks for our allegiance,
above all else,
that means, when it comes time to discern our first-fruits giving,
we don’t just go into our private study,
and take out a calculator,
and mathematically determine how much I need to give to God,
and how much I get to keep.

Rather, we know, from the get-go, that God wants it all.
The whole nine yards . . . ten, if you got ’em.
Every decision we make about the resources we have—
decisions to use, to consume, to invest, to give away—
every decision made in the awareness 
that it’s all borrowed from God, anyway—including life itself.
And every decision is made in the awareness
that we are just one part of a larger community,
who all look at our resources that way.

Now, granted, this way of thinking and being is counter-cultural.
It’s just not normal to view the things we have 
as not belonging to us.
It’s not normal to hold so lightly to our possessions.
The culture we live in tells us to do the exact opposite—
to cling, to acquire, to lock away for safekeeping.

But . . . holding our possessions lightly,
doesn’t mean we don’t take them seriously.
We do, precisely because God has entrusted them to us, 
as stewards, as managers for God.
So it’s a paradox:
we hold our wealth and possessions lightly, willing to let them go,
and we hold them to be sacred and precious gifts of God.

That’s what we saw in Exodus this morning.
These people of Israel out in the wilderness,
were aware of two things—
they were a community of people 
who needed each other to survive,
and they were completely dependent on God.

It was their identity as a people—
knowing they were individuals, in community, under God—
that was directly responsible for their amazing generosity.

They were so overtaken by this identity
that they spontaneously relinquished what they supposedly “owned”
and sacrificed personal good, in favor of communal good,
sacrificed attention to self, in favor of worshiping God.
So much so, that they had to be begged to stop giving.
The community had more than enough.
So the members were told, “Hang on to what you have
until another need comes up.”
That’s what happens when people grasp their true identity
as individuals, in community, under God.

That’s also what was going on 
in the reading we heard from 2 Corinthians.
The Christians in Macedonia,
who themselves were suffering and in poverty,
learned that some of their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem
were suffering even more,
and they begged Paul for the privilege
of participating in the relief efforts.
They gave beyond their means.
They would never have done that, without a strong identity
as individuals, in community, under God.

Most Christians today are not there.
We have personalized and privatized our faith.
And thus, we have personalized and privatized our stewardship.

If we think of our faith as something private between me and God;
If we think of our congregation as simply 
the place we go to get our spiritual and social needs met,
then we’ve already lost the battle on this whole thing 
of Faith Promise giving and First-Fruits living.
We might as well forget it,
and just give in to the pressure to think of church 
as just another charitable organization we donate to.
We might as well fire up the fund-raising machine, 
and go at it head to head with all the other charities 
in this community who want and need our money. 

We could have a sermon on giving every Sunday.
We could hire an associate pastor for development.
If they did their job well, 
they could bring in two or three times their salary,
and we could double our missions giving.
There’s no end to the creative ideas we could come up with. 
We could offer giving incentives, like other charities.
Turn in your Faith Promise, get a $5 gift card to Klines.
Increase your Faith Promise from last year,
get a mug, or a CD of my “greatest hit” sermons.
Give over 5% of your income,
and get a discount card for area restaurants.
Give over 10%, and get a room in the church named after you.
We could get corporate sponsors
for some of the services we provide . . . 
“And now, we invite the choir to come forward
for the DuPont Credit Union Anthem of the Day.”

Now, please, I am not criticizing our charities and church agencies.
This is the way charitable organizations and non-profits work.
People respond better this way.
And more good gets done. Plain and simple.

So why did we laugh,
when I suggested that we, as a local congregation
could do the same thing?
Isn’t it because already think of the church differently than a charity.

But the fact of the matter is, we already have a corporate sponsor.
The United States government.

On April 15 this year, the federal government gave our family 
a huge chunk of money,
because, and only because, 
we gave money to Park View Mennonite.
I know, because on our tax software,
I temporarily deleted our giving to Park View Mennonite,
and the income tax we owed IRS immediately doubled.
Thank you, U.S. of A!
Way better than a mug or gift card!
Am I complaining? 
Well, not really. It’s pretty nice having that deduction.
If the IRS threatened to take away 
the charitable deduction for churches,
you know every denomination, including MCUSA,
would be at the front of the line protesting.

But in my more thoughtful moments,
I wonder whether the IRS deduction
has done the church more harm than good.
It has reinforced this false notion that the church 
is just another public charity.
It sends the message that the giving of our First-Fruits, our tithes,
is an act of charitable giving.
It’s not!
The people of God give, not out of charity,
not because we have discretionary money
that we can afford to be generous with.
We give first-fruits in our worship 
because we are God’s people,
and we owe everything to God.
We give to honor God, the source of all,
we bring in the first and best of what we have,
before taxes,
before food, clothing, and shelter,
before everything,
and worship God with that gift.

That’s a very strange way of looking at things.
The federal government would never understand that.
So we have a system in place,
that, in my humble opinion,
is good for charitable organizations,
but is not good for the church.

I believe in “First-Fruits” giving.
And I believe in charitable giving.
But the two are not the same.
They spring from different rationale.
When we confuse the two, we’re not doing good theology.

Charitable giving can also be an act of faith.
It can, and should, reflect our spiritual values and priorities.
It is a decision to be generous with our discretionary income,
to support those causes we believe in.

First-Fruits is different.
It’s that portion of our income that we prayerfully discern,
within our faith community.
perhaps with the help of our faith community—
that God is calling us to give
as an act of worship and spiritual sacrifice in the coming year.

The tithe is a biblical benchmark.
Scripture assumes ten-percent—off the top, not the bottom—
is reasonable, doable, and faithful.
But our discernment process is not a math equation.
We take many things into consideration.
Some of us are called to give much more in worship.
Some of us are giving ourselves in worship
in other significant ways,
and might give less than a rigid ten percent.
Our modern economy and social fabric is completely different
from the simple, agrarian economy of Bible times,
when people brought the first baskets of wheat and barley.
Our wealth comes in many complex forms—
cash, real estate, stocks and bonds, investments.
And for entrepreneurs,
it’s not easy to separate business and personal wealth.

So we can’t just apply a formula onto every situation.
You won’t hear me saying that.
What you will hear me saying,
is that it takes careful spiritual discernment to come up with 
how much to give, how to give, where to give.
And as part of the people of God,
I believe that discernment somehow
must remain rooted in Christian community.
And the giving of our rightly discerned First-Fruits,
is a central part of our worship of God.
It is not a gift of charity
that needs external incentive or reward.

So . . . you regular attenders at Park View
have been given, or should have been given,
a letter from the Finance Committee,
and a small card to fill out and return.
If you are a newer attender,
or for some reason got missed in the distribution,
there are extras on the table in the foyer,
and I urge you to pick one up this morning.

Here is my hope, and my word of encouragement to you.
I hope the first tool you pull out to use in this discernment,
is not a calculator.
I hope your first tool of choice, is prayerful conversation.
Prayerful . . . because we make this decision 
in the context of a relationship with God,
and conversation . . . because we make this decision
not in isolation, but as a member of God’s people.
Prayerful conversation.

I invite us all to take one step toward greater communal discernment
in this decision you will be making this coming week.
One step.

I don’t expect, and certainly don’t insist,
that we make a radical leap, 
from being totally private about our finances and giving,
to opening up our bank statements and tax returns
to our church family.

But here’s a step I think we all could take,
without great risk,
that would move us toward greater communal discernment,
than we’ve done before.

Can we commit ourselves to have a conversation,
with others in this congregation,
perhaps your small group, 
or a few trusted persons in your smaller circles of support here,
and talk together about how you go about making these decisions.
Don’t talk numbers if you’re aren’t comfortable with that.
Talk process.
How do you, personally, go about deciding 
what you give to your worshiping community,
the local body of believers you are in covenant with,
and, what you give to charities in the community
and around the world.

How do you decide these things?
Talk, pray, talk, decide.
And ask God to open our eyes, our ears, our hearts,
to new ways of living and giving 
in First-Fruits worship of God.

—Phil Kniss, November 11, 2012

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