Can you give your money away?
In preparing for this Sunday, I was going through my email from churches where I have belonged through the years. I try and stay on the email lists of many of my former parishes, because they often have good ideas that we can steal for Holy Communion, and by steal, I mean borrow liberally…
I was especially interested in the updates from my former churches because we are starting our Fall pledge campaign this Sunday, and I’m a little nervous. I’ve never had to be the rector through fundraising season before, so I was paying close attention to what my former churches were doing, hoping to maybe steal some ideas and to borrow some courage.
I particularly loved the Campaign letter that came from my church in Washington, DC. A friend, who will remain nameless, is chairing their Stewardship committee. Her letter began “It is once again time…” I found those words refreshingly honest. “It is once again time,” she essentially wrote, “Well friends, it’s that time of year again.”
We have indeed reached “that time of year.” Our Gospel lesson makes clear the season. Back in the times of yore, a group of preachers must have paid off the International committee that comes up with our Bible selections to make sure we had a few weeks of good “give away your money” lessons as the church prepares the budget for the coming year. So when mid-October rolls around, we talk about money in church.
As far as our pledge campaign goes: You will receive pledge cards from the church, either today or in the mail in the coming weeks. If you don’t receive a card, we’d be happy to send one to you, just get in touch with the office. I hope that you will choose to support the life and ministry of Holy Communion. I hope this place means enough to you to figure into your financial giving.
I also hope that Holy Communion is not the only place you are giving your money. I say that, even if the vestry wishes I wouldn’t, because giving is an important spiritual practice, and as much as we talk about the church’s finances this season, I hope we talk more about the spiritual practice of giving. My former rector, The Rev. Luis Leon, used to start this season with the following proverbial statement: Money is a powerful tool. In our society, money is a powerful powerful tool. If you can give away some of your money, you have power over the tool. If you can’t give anything away, money has power over you.
Jesus wasn’t concerned about getting money for his church when he talked to the rich young ruler. He was concerned about the state of man’s soul. After Jesus tells him to sell what he owns, and give the money to the poor, “He walked away grieved, for he had many possessions.” Jesus interacted with a great number of wealthy people. Mary Magdalen, part of his band, was wealthy. Jesus walked with the rich and the poor alike. He didn’t tell all of them to sell all of their possessions. I think this young guy was different. Jesus could tell to challenge his relationship to his wealth.
What is your relationship to money? That question of relationship is key, I think. Too often in our world we are identified by wealth. It’s true today, and it was true in the time of Jesus. We tend to think of people in economic terms: a rich person, a poor person. We forget that people are NOT their money. No matter how rich or how poor, you are not your bank account. In the eyes of God, you are always worth more than your balance statement.
You are not your money, but we all have a relationship to wealth. Sometimes more fraught, sometimes easier, but we all have a relationship. I use that word intentionally, because in the church we often talk about this season as “Stewardship Season.” I think the use of “Stewardship” this way can be problematic, because it can be tempting to think of “Stewardship” as limited to how we give financially to our church. Giving to the church is part of Stewardship, but, as I said before, I hope Stewardship is more than that for you. I hope your sense of Christian stewardship informs more of your relationships.
Tomorrow some of you may have off from work or school for Columbus Day. A professor in seminary used to say, “The day we celebrate the native people’s discovery of Columbus wandering around lost on their shores.” Winona Laduke, the Native American environmentalist’s work “*All Our Relations*” had a profound effect on me in college. I heard her give a lecture my freshmen year about a teaching from the people commonly called the Iroquois, the Haudensaunee who teach
We are a part of everything that is beneath us, above us, and around us. Our past is our present, our present is our future, and our future is seven generations past and present.
LaDuke explained that this teaching informed decisions made by tribal elders, especially concerning the use of resources. If you were going to cut a forest, fish a lake, or hunt in a particular area where the game numbers were getting low, you had to consider the next seven generations. They had to be present in your mind, in your deliberations. How would we use our resources differently if we kept this teaching in mind? How would we build cars and electric generators? How would we build buildings? How would we make financial decisions?
This sense of relationship is at the heart of the question of “Stewardship.” How do you care for that with which you are entrusted? Stewardship is about your relationship to money, yes. Stewardship is also about your relationship to other human beings, other generations, other creatures, your relationship to the land, to plants and animals. Stewardship is about all of our relationships.
When any one relationship over-dominates the landscape, it can cause problems. We have a problem today, culturally, with the way we handle wealth. Our relationship to money has become toxic, literally. For the sake of financial wealth, we are destroying natural wealth. We have to ask if like the young man in today’s story, are their people incapable of seeing the value of their fellow human beings, because they are blinded by their possessions? We’ve lifted up one relationship, our relationship with wealth, to the detriment of other important relationships.
Stewardship is about balance, and balance takes practice. It takes practice to learn how to lived a balanced financial life. We have to make decisions that take discipline, at least at first. But like a piece we learn on a musical instrument, or a technique we learn for a sport, financial practices can become can become habit, muscle memory.
As I said, I hope that Holy Communion is one of the places you give money to this year, but whether or not you choose to give here. I hope you make a practice of giving away money. I think there’s value in the old practice of giving away a percentage of your money every month. Traditionally the church taught that the tithe, ten-percent of your money, was to given away as an act of gratitude for God’s gifts to us. As we say in the liturgy at 8:00 “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Many grandparents also will tell you that putting an additional ten-percent away in savings is a time honored practice. Working these practices into your monthly budget is difficult, but, frankly, it helps you face the numbers.
Right out of college, Paul, one of my best friends went to work at Wells Fargo. We had been involved in Christian groups on campus together. I majored in religion. Paul majored in business. That might make me seem holier on paper, but it was Paul that got me started on the practice of tithing. He told me about what he was doing and then helped me set up a second checking account and set up an auto-deposit equal to one tenth of my take-home pay to move money from my principal account to my “God-account.” I wrote my church pledge check from that account, but I planned to be sure that my church pledge didn’t exhaust that ten-percent. I’ve never given the full ten percent to the church. I’ve always had the sense God had more work to do than could be done by the church alone.
Whenever a friend was walking in the AIDS Walk or shaving their head for leukemia research, I had a little money to throw in the pot. At the end of that first year there was a remainder. At 24, in my first job out of college, earning just $26,000 a year, living in the expensive city of San Diego, it felt really good that December to be able to write an unplanned check for a couple hundred dollars to support an orphanage where I was volunteering.
My friend Paul, the business major, set an example for me to follow. He set up his account first, and explained how his system worked. To be clear ten-percent of Paul’s paycheck meant he could give a lot more money away. But it wasn’t really how much we were giving that mattered. What mattered was the sense of participation it gave us. I could express our solidarity with friends facing cancer. We could show our commitment to a cause or an organization. Planning to give away money meant that we could invest in relationships that made a difference. Planning to give away money changed my relationship with money.
In the years since I first set up that account, I’ve learned at least one principal thing about money: expenses rise to meet income. That term “disposable income,” I’ve never figured out quite what they mean by it. Expenses always seem to rise to meet what we bring home. My financial life seems to be more and more complicated as I get older, especially now that Ellis and I are married. Having a basic practice of giving in place sometimes seems like having a familiar buoy in a turbulent sea of transactions. I’m not a great captain of finance. I’ve got a lot to learn about money, a lot of practice ahead of me. My relationship status with money on Facebook would read: “It’s complicated.” But having this familiar practice helps navigate the waters.
It’s that time of year again. We’re talking about money in church. If that makes you uncomfortable, you are in the good company of the rector of Holy Communion. It’s not easy to talk about money, but I believe we have to talk about money. If we are going to walk with Christ, we have to openly face our relationship with wealth. As you engage that relationship, I encourage you to look at giving as a spiritual practice. Whether you can give away just a few dollars each month, or your giving has a few zero following the integer, giving some of your money away can help transform your relationship with this powerful tool.