Sunday, September 27, 2020

Plain Talk about Pledging


Matthew 21:23-32

Proper 21 / Year A

Which brother did the will of the father? I guess the one who said at first he wouldn’t work, but then did… but for my money, both boys deserve little more than a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking this year! At its heart, Jesus’ parable is a story about responding to God – responding to God’s will, responding to God’s love, responding to God’s mercy and forgiveness. We all know what it is to commit, but fail to follow through. And we all know what it is to resist, but then embrace.

There are many facets to this reality, but I want to focus in on just one of them this morning. I want to speak plainly and practically about personal stewardship and about contributing financially to the work of the church. Now, having called my shot, I can almost hear the clicking of computer mice all over the city as people log off our live-stream, but if you are still with me I hope you will hear some things that encourage you, inform you, surprise you, and challenge you.

I first began giving money to the church when I was a child. Well, to be truthful, my parents gave me a quarter each Sunday to put in the collection basket in our Sunday School room. Back then a quarter was a lot of money to me. It could buy me a comic book and a candy bar… and more than once it did! I engaged early on the struggle of holding on to what I have verses letting go and giving to God.

When I got a little older I was able to make money as a paperboy, so I made my first pledge to the church. I think it was something like a dollar a week. When I got hopelessly behind on my commitment I learned first-hand the experience of despair and defeat. I was not able to follow through on what I said I would do. I grew from that experience, continued to pledge, and in subsequent years did a better job of keeping current on my commitment.

Over the years I have come to believe each of us is called to be good stewards of all God entrusts to us. This involves (as they say) our time, our talent, and our treasure, which is to say, we are called to use our time, our abilities, and our money in good and godly ways. A part of this call and responsibility requires us to give away a part of our financial means to support God’s mission and ministry in the world. How much? Some lift up the biblical example of the tithe – 10%. I like to talk about cultivating generosity because for some, 10% at this point in life is out of the question while for others it is not nearly enough.

While I believe every person baptized into the Christian faith and life is called to be generous, I do not believe anyone is required to give money to St. Paul’s Church. Each of us has to decide how we will use our time, our talent, and our treasure to support God’s work. Most of us recognize the need to do this locally and most of us sense our common life at St. Paul’s is an effective and necessary way for us to do this.

I hope your sense of generosity extends beyond the walls of our parish. The lion’s share of what I give away I give to our church, but I also have minor monthly commitments to my college, my seminary, our diocesan camp and conference center, Episcopal Relief & Development, and a campus missioner. In addition I remain open to supporting various causes and initiatives as they come to me. A few years ago Nora Buttler organized us to volunteer ringing the bell for the Salvation Army. Since then I always have a dollar ready every time I pass a kettle. I call it my “Wal-Mart Tax” and I give it joyfully both to support the cause and to encourage the ringer.

Let me tell you about St. Paul’s finances. Our fixed expenses each year run around $275,000. This includes salaries and benefits, utilities, office supplies, insurance, and our financial commitment to the common life of our diocese. We entered this year with income projected to be 10% short of our fixed needs. As they say, God always seems to provide.

Our income comes from four primary sources: pledges (what members commit in advance to contribute over the course of the year), plate (money received, but not pledged and loose money put in the offering plate), donations from building use (including parking lot rental), and a portion of the income earned by our Endowment Fund (which, depending on how the market performs, usually runs between $25,000-$30,000). As you might imagine, plate and building use income are down dramatically due to the pandemic, but so are some of our fixed expenses.

St. Paul’s is blessed to have an Endowment Fund of about $1,100,000, comprised largely of money people have designated to the church in their wills. The majority of the endowment is dedicated to building upkeep or is undesignated. Under the rules of the fund, the Vestry can use 75% on the yearly income of the undesignated money for whatever purpose it deems good. Over the last several years, the Vestry has used this money to supplement our Operating Budget. Some might look at our endowment and think St. Paul’s has a lot of money. In truth, we are blessed to have a financial asset and we are called to shepherd it with good stewardship so it will remain an asset well into the future.

In a couple of weeks you will receive a pledge card in the mail and a letter asking you to consider making a financial commitment to St. Paul’s in 2021. As I said, while God calls you to be generous, God does not require you to give a single penny to our parish. But most of you value the work we do here and want to support it. More and more I find I don’t open my mail and never seem to get around to following up on what is in it. If you are at all like me in this regard, please do pay special attention to this mailing.

I hope you will give serious consideration to making a pledge to the church. With so much having changed in our world in 2020, it is vital for the Vestry to know how much income we can expect next year in order to respond accordingly. Your pledge helps us to plan. It will help us to be faithful stewards of what you and God provide to us. Given the state of our economy, we suspect some people will not be able to give as much as they have in the past. We understand and no one should feel poorly if you have to cut back.

Perhaps some of you have never considered making a pledge. I hope you will do so this year. Maybe you think St. Paul’s has all the money it needs. We don’t. But even more important than what the church needs is what you need. You need to cultivate a sense of generosity. You need to know the spiritual blessing of you are doing your part in God’s world. You need to let go of a little in order to know you will be OK without it… to know all things come from God. Perhaps consider pledging $25 or $50 a month to the church. For most of us, this sacrifice can be covered by passing on eating out once a month.

If you are pledging and want to push yourself little, figure out your take-home pay, do a little math, and discover the percentage your are giving away. I remember reading somewhere the average church member gives away about 2.2% of their income. If this is where you, consider what it would look like to give away 2.5% of your income in the coming year. The year after that, push it to 3.0% and so on. What I gain by doing this is not that God gives me back ten times what I give away, but that I use more wisely what I retrain. There use to be an old saying: “A penny saved is a good example to the rest of the dollar.” Well, Christian generosity works like this. What you give away has a way of transforming what you do (and don’t do) with what you keep.

Please remember, a pledge is a commitment, not a contract. The church will not send you a bill at the end of the year telling you to pay up. We will not foreclose on your favorite pew if you fall behind. Your pledge helps us to plan. And it shifts your giving from how you feel on any given day (let’s be honest, how often does anyone ‘feel’ like giving away hard earned cash?) to something aspirational (a specific plan to cultivate a generous life-style).

Well, this is just one way we can see ourselves in today’s parable of the two brothers. Each of us is called to work in God’s vineyard. Either we can say yes or we can say no. Either we can actually follow through or we can walk away. The choice is ours to make. How will you respond to the will of the Father?