Summit Presbyterian Church
October 10, 2010
Luke 12: 22-34
The Right Amount
By now I hope you've all received the letter from the Renewal Campaign Committee asking you to prayerfully consider increasing your stewardship pledge for 2011 by 1% of your household income; and to prayerfully consider giving 4% of your household income each year, for three years, to the capital campaign for the restoration of our buildings.
It may be the first letter you've received from Summit asking you to consider giving a specific percentage of your income to the church. I'd like you to know that the letter you received was the not first draft. The first draft was different. I helped to write it back in August -- both because we trying to get a lot done at once, and because I thought I could lend just the right pastoral touch. So the first draft didn't start out asking for money in the first sentence. We asked about your summer. We hope it was relaxing. We talked about how wonderful it was to see the Sunday School starting up again. We thanked all who brought in goodies for the delicious reception that launched the capital campaign. And what about those Phillies, we said . . . . even I know that Mark Halliday pitched a no-hitter the other day . . . . . although that's only because I was sitting next to Sean Forman at a Trustees meeting when the news came in.
Then, about halfway down the page or so, we came round to the subject of your pledge - and our pledge. We asked that for the 2011 stewardship pledge, please consider giving 10-15% more than what you gave last year, so we could make the budget. And, we said, we've been told that in a capital campaign like ours we should ask you to consider giving 4% of your income each year for three years. But really, we said, the idea is to give a percentage of your income so 4%, 6%, or 3%, 2%, 1%, .008%, - whatever you give is fine. All gifts are gratefully received. We loaded on some more spiritual sounding phrases before signing off halfway down the second page. OK, I'm exaggerating. We didn't really talk about the Phillies. It was a very nice letter.
But before we sent it out we remembered our capital campaign consultant - the Reverend Nancy Muth. She suggested we have her look over any letters we sent out. So we e-mailed it to her, thinking she might have some helpful tweaks, a magic phrase or two. And she emailed back in bold, capital letters, STOP THE PRESSES!!!!! First of all, she said, no one is going to wade through all that verbiage, especially if you have a brochure in there. Second, stop apologizing! As soon as you say it's just fine to give 1% of your income to the capital campaign, no one's going to consider 4% -- would you? It's biblical, she said, to encourage people to give 10% of their income overall. It's the right thing to do to ask people to give a percentage of their income, in proportion to what they've been given. So get it down to one page and be direct! I'm exaggerating again. She was much more diplomatic. But the Renewal Committee followed her advice, so the letter you got from Don and Mary was purified of my pastoral interference -- and as I've reflected on it, that's a good thing. I'm going to talk about why.
I'll start with numbers, including that word I'm sure you've heard before -- the tithe. Tithe is another word for 10%, or one-tenth. Now, you've heard it said that the Bible mandates we should give 10% of our income back to God -- presumably through the church. You can passages in the Bible to support that. When Abraham won a victory over his foes, he promised to give God, through the priest, one-tenth of everything. In the books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers there are several references to tithes - of grain, sheep and cattle as well as other offerings. It seems tithing was the practice - or at least the theory - in ancient Israel, and it's been a teaching of the church for centuries. But I"m not convinced it's a biblical mandate, and I'm not a strict preacher of the tithe. First, I'm not a biblical literalist. In Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy - as well as in Paul's letters and the gospels -- there are plenty of instructions we don't and shouldn't take at face value, instructions shaped by the time and place in which they were given. There's no reason the tithe should be exempt, especially since it's not a clear, repeated, instruction -- it didn't make the 10 commandments. I'm also not a strict preacher of the tithe because Jesus never told his disciples to tithe - at least as far as we know. He said they should give away all their possessions. Several times. On time (in Luke) he emphasizes the all (14); other times, it's implied. In the book of Acts, it says the early believers held all things in common, and gave to each as they had need. Indeed, when one of them sold property and tried to hold back some of the money -only some - he got in big trouble. Like fall down dead trouble. It's true that when Zeccheus the tax colletor told Jesus he would sell half of his possessions and give the money to the poor Jesus was happy -- but Zeccheus also promised, to pay back 4x whatever he had defrauded of anyone. Going back to the prophets doesn't help. They didn't preach the tithe, or some moderate portion. Isaiah didn't say if you bring a few extra cans of food on Sunday to the food pantry or cook a dinner for homeless families twice a year you're good -- he said to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless into your house. No, I'm not convinced that tithing is a biblical mandate -- but given what could be interpreted as the biblical mandate - I'll take it! And for most American Christians, tithing is a challenging but realistic goal. Challenging because most of us give much less: Presbyterians, on average, give about 2% of their income to charity, about half to the church and half to their colleges or the Red Cross or other groups (Passing the Plate) Of course, some give much more but others give nothing at all. So tithing is a challenge, but - we have so much - it's doable! Perhaps not right away. Most people who tithe - or more - say that it took time to get there, maybe years of increasing their giving and re-arranging their spending. And losing a job or a medical emergency can get in the way of our best intentions. I'll also admit that tithing is not asking the same of everyone. It's more equitable than simply asking people to increase their pledge, because those who gave very little won't give much more; it's certainly better then everyone giving a flat amount. But it's what economists would call regressive: Someone who gives $20,000 out of a $200,000 income still has plenty; whereas a family giving $2,000 out of a $20,000 income may have to really struggle. But these reservations aside, 10% is a good number: a benchmark to keep in mind for our overall giving as we prayerfully consider increasing our 2011 stewardship pledge by 1% of our household income and as we prayerfully consider giving 4% of our income each year to the capital campaign. (By the way, Deborah Merritt. Also, you may be receiving a call . . . please accept!
But now I want to stop talking about numbers and look at today's scripture. Jesus is talking to his disciples about money, greed and possessions -- and he's just told a parable about a greedy, rich fool. But Jesus is truly pastoral - not just afraid to ask for money. He knows that his disciples aren't holding on to their money simply because they're greedy. He knows they're not holding onto their stuff because they love luxury or could care less about anyone else. They're holding on to what they have because they're worried. They're afraid. Afraid that one day they won't have enough to eat or enough clothes to wear. We know about that worry and that fear. And once that fear starts taking hold it seems like we can never accumulate too much because anything could happen: illness, tornadoes, terrorists, the collapse of the stock market. So Jesus encourages the disciples - and us - to trust in God. Do not worry about your life, he says - and do not be afraid: : consider the ravens. Consider the lilies of the field. He's not promising that God will simply send money from heaven. He's not promising that God will make us prosperous. I also don't think Jesus is saying, "forget about your emergency fund!" or "stop saving for retirement!" But he is saying: Trust that if you seek to follow God, you will be OK. You can let go. So sell your possesions. Give alms. I would add, consider the tithe.
And then he makes a promise about that giving: for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. That may seem more like a fact than a promise - I'm sure you've observed that in your our life. When we invest a lot of money in something we care about it and often take better care of it -- we become attached as our hearts follow our money. This happens with cars, houses, education, all kinds of things - and Jesus assures us it's the same thing with giving alms. Putting our treasure where we believe God wants it to be will lead our hearts there, too. It's a spiritual discipline. When we give money to the church, we become invested in the mission and ministry of the church, we care about it more. The same is true for other gifts: It's very hard for me to say this, but not all of your giving should be in your pledge to Summit. I encourage you to make it a priority , but the people of Haiti and Pakistan and the Gulf Coast need our help -- so please also give to the One Great Hour of Sharing. A portion of what you pledge also goes to mission beyond the church, but it's also OK to give directly to groups working for peace, environmental justice, or education -- all working towards God's purposes. And this is the promise that Jesus makes: when we give more generously, according to what we've received and what we're able to do, we lead more joyful lives. We lead more joyful lives because we are putting them in service to God. I'm convinced of that and I've seen it in my life. The invitation to give is an invitation to joy. An invitation to center our lives where they belong.
In the capital campaign we've been saying that our buildings are a tool for ministry, and I would add that our money is a tool of conversion: first, and foremost, of our own, as we seek to follow God more closely; but also for the world, as we hope and pray that our offerings may help bring about a world that more closely resembles the kingdom of God, a kingdom of peace, and justice and love. Please join me in prayer: