Monday, November 12, 2012

Partnership with God

A pastor went to visit a new parishioner who had moved into the area and bought a long abandoned house.  After many years of neglect, the property and yard had fallen into disrepair.  When the pastor pulled up he found the owner hard at work in the front yard.  He had transformed what had been an eye-sore into a beautiful, well-maintained lawn and beddings.  The house, from the outside, was immaculate.  “My, my, my,” the pastor said.  “Isn’t it wonderful to see what you and God have been able to do with this place!”  The owner paused, wiped some sweat from his brow, and said, “Well thank you, but you should have seen it when God had it all to himself.”

There is a wonderful saying attributed to St. Augustine that goes without God we cannot, but without us God will not.  It draws on a truth that God operates this world as a joint venture with us.  Christian stewardship is properly understood as everything we do to be in partnership with God.  It is the time we invest in doing God’s work.  It is the way we use our gifts, talents, and abilities to contribute to God’s work.  And it is the money we give to fund God’s work.  Thus, Christian stewardship revolves around how we offer our time, our talent, and our treasure to God.

“To God.”  Notice I did not say “to the church.”  Christian stewardship is not about funding the operation of a parish nor is it about staffing multiple church committees.  It is about being in partnership with God so that this world moves closer to God’s dream for it.  But, in that the church sets out to do the work of God, it is one place where our stewardship is both effective and necessary.  The stewardship of your time, your talent, and your treasure does not begin with St. Paul’s and it certainly does not end with St. Paul’s, still, because St. Paul’s is a place where we come together to work with God, it is an important place for each of us to make investments.

“Our time.”  How many hours do you think goes into planning, preparing, and putting on a Sunday morning at here?  Think about the choir, the altar guild, the bulletins, the cleaning, the Sunday School, the breakfast, the sermon, the music.  I estimate it takes about of 125 hours of work – some of it is paid, but most is volunteered.  Add to this mid-week ministries, maintenance and upkeep, and leadership tasks such as the Vestry and financial oversight.  It takes a lot of people giving a lot of time so that St. Paul’s can be in partnership with God.  Think about all the other ways you use your time in Christian stewardship: listening to a friend, sending a note or e-mail to someone who is sick, praying for others, being a part of any service-oriented organization designed to make someone’s life better, the possibilities are limitless.

Our talents.”  The stewardship of our talent seems to go hand-in-hand with the use of our time.  We give our time to do things we are capable of doing.  Our choir members use their musical talent in concert with God.  Many of our members use their physical strength to set up and take down tables and chairs.  Those who can bake make meals for people who are recovering from illness.  Thriving churches are places where people step forward to offer talents and abilities in service to God and others.  Beyond this, faithful stewards offer their talents in the world.  It may be as a coach or a caregiver, in a civic organization or with a community of neighbors.  Christians use their gifts, talents, and abilities to be in partnership with God.

Our treasure.”  Some people complain that the church is only interested in money.  Well, not true.  It is the world that wants your money.  Advertisers bombard you with demands and requests for what is in your pocketbook.  Often these appeals come with outrageous promises of joy, youth, vitality, and a sense of accomplishment and self-importance.  A doctor requires a co-pay before you get into the examination room.  A lawyer asks for a retainer prior to working for you.  The only way to get a politician’s ear is to make a contribution.  When it comes to money, churches are something all-together unique in our society.  You can attend without contributing.  You can benefit without supporting.  You can make an appointment or request a visit without ever writing a check.  There is absolutely no connection between what you receive from the church and what you contribute to it financially.

That being said, churches do talk about money because the bible talks about money.  Fully one-sixth of Jesus’ teachings deals with money.  His insights are diverse and challenging.  This morning we heard him say that a poor widow who put one penny into the temple treasury gave more than anyone else, even those who gave thousands of dollars, because her meager offering was everything she had.  It was not going to keep the temple up and running, but her offering was heroic none-the-less. 
The bible is clear about what it means financially to be in partnership with God.  It says consistently that we are to give 10% of our income to God’s work.  It calls this amount the tithe and it has many purposes:  It helps us to acknowledge that all we have is from God; It delivers us from living for self alone; It provides a way to care for those in need or want; and it funds and furthers God’s dream for this world. 

Tithing in this day and age is a real challenge.  Most of us are so obligated to mortgages, payments, and expenses that we simply can’t afford to give away 10% of our income.  Tithing raises practical questions: is it based on what you earn before taxes or after, and should all of your tithe go to the church?  Concrete answers to these questions run the risk of legalism – do this and you are OK, don’t do it and you are not measuring up.  I think each of us has to pray through and wrestle with our own individual response.  I have found that the gentle witness of others has always helped my own discernment, so let me share with you my history and practice.

When I was a child my parents always gave me a quarter to put in the Sunday School offering basket.  Sometimes I followed through, other times I pocketed it for myself… a shaky beginning to be sure.  When I was a teenager the church encouraged young people to make a pledge.  I was a paperboy by then and making my own money, so I pledged $1 a week.  In return, the church gave me envelopes with each week marked at the top.  I did well at first, but after a few months started to fall behind.   By the end of the summer there was no way I was going to catch up and being behind felt like a terrible, crushing weight.

After I graduated from seminary and was gainfully employed I made a pledge to the church where I was serving.  I think it was around 2% of my salary.  In addition, I made commitments to my college and seminary, and gave $25 dollars a month to the charity of my choice.  All told, I gave away close to 4% of my income that first year.  The second year I had a better idea of my living expenses so I made a percentage increase in giving to the church while maintaining my other contributions.  Each year I crept closer and closer to the tithe.  But I was on pretty shaky financial ground when my marriage ended in 2002.  I drastically reduced my giving so that I could make ends meet.  With each year that has gone by I have increased my contribution to the church where I have served and have been able to find new ways of being charitable.

I am at a point in life where the expenses of beginning a home and raising children are behind me.  I am able to save more than ever before and I am able to give away more than ever before while still being comfortable.  In 2013 I have committed to give $4,800 to St. Paul’s Church.  That is 6% of my salary.  Other commitments and opportunities will push me very close to the 10% tithe.  I find now that I am not as fixated on the percentage or the amount, but on the joy I receive from living generously because it is a way of acknowledging that I am incredibly blessed.

Without God we cannot, without us God will not.  I suspect that each of us here this morning would like to know God active and at work in our lives.  One way we can make this happen is to partner with God in Christian stewardship.  I want to thank you for all the ways you already do this in and through St. Paul’s.  I am keenly aware that without what you are doing and giving I would not be here.  So let me say thank you. 

And let me close by offering you three challenges.  The first is this: consider making a tithe of your time to be in partnership with God.  What do I mean by this?  Well, assuming that you sleep 8 hours a day, you have 16 waking hours.  Can you give 10% of this time to God?  Some of you may be pretty close already.  Factor in prayer, worship, studying the bible, devotional time and reading, time given to the church, helping others, and so forth.  Start to track a tithe of your time and see where you are. 

Second: Dig up a buried talent and use it in partnership with God.  I don’t know what that talent might be, but if you come to me and tell me what it is I will help you to find a way to use it!  Remember, we are a community that even values the ability to flip a pancake!

And finally, take a step toward the tithe.  If you don’t contribute to St. Paul’s, start – even if it is a dollar a week.  If you haven’t turned in a pledge card, fill one out.  Start with something that feels doable and increase it when you are ready to take on more of a challenge.  If you are comfortable with your giving to St. Paul’s, find another charitable organization or cause to support; perhaps a place where you are already contributing your time and your talent. 

Think back to that dilapidated house and overgrown yard that the new owner worked so hard to set right.  We all want to live in a better world.  We all want to be supportive of those around us, especially those in need.  We all want to pass on something better to the next generation.  We all want to sense God present and real in our lives.  Let’s commit ourselves in full, complete Christian stewardship so that someone might come up to us and say, “Isn’t it amazing what God and you have been able to do with this world!”