The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 11, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Imagine the scene. There we are, clustered around this charismatic teacher, grooving on his telling off the authorities and setting other people straight, and loving all the stuff he says about how God loves us. Up comes a guy who looks sort of like us, and he asks Jesus a question, a really good, earnest question. How do I get in, anyway? What must I do for eternal life? And Jesus engages him in a few questions and responses back and forth, and then gives him an answer. The panic begins immediately. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Ok, people, you heard what the man said.
Oh no! we say. But we have many possessions! And we love them all, every one! He can’t seriously mean that, we mutter.
The man goes away. And us? Will we go away grieving too? What do you suppose the man was grieving over exactly? The possessions he was going to have to give up? or the eternal life that he had decided cost too much?
So here we are in the midst of our season of stewardship and pledging. It’s time to talk frankly about our money. You’ve received mailings from St Michael’s in these last few weeks about pledging for 2016. There was my tell-all letter first, sharing with you what Jim and I are planning to pledge. And then there was the packet from the stewardship committee, with helpful materials that lay out how to calculate giving a percentage of your income, and where your pledge falls in the general distribution of giving in this parish. You’ve heard a few stewardship homilies from parishioners, telling about how they plan to give a little more to St Michael’s because they get so much out of being here. I haven’t heard one peep from any of you about any of it, but I’ve gotta hope that you’re at least thinking about it all. Maybe even talking about it a little bit. Hopefully praying about it.
And maybe you’re starting to get the idea that this isn’t just like the pledge drive on public radio. You know what I mean: the tactic there seems mostly to interrupt and annoy you until you’re guilted into giving. Ok ok, you think, after the tenth time of them breaking into the middle of your favorite news program. I’ll become a contributing member. I’ll give them $10 a month! And so you call or you go online, and then your guilt is assuaged. And the radio sends you a special link so you can stream the broadcast without all the annoying interruptions that those non-pledging people have to hear.
Maybe it feels like that here to you. Oh no, it’s that season again. When the regular flow of the service is interrupted with these earnest petitions for money. When your mailbox and some years your voice mail fill up with those same demands. When someone gets up in front of you and guilts you into giving something, because you know, this all isn’t free, all this stuff you see and hear and participate in here, it costs money to keep it all running, so do your part. So you sit down with that pledge card and scrawl some number on it, respectable but not too big and not a number that you have to think about a whole lot in your budget, and you send it off, and then thank God, you can tune all this stuff out until the pledge drive is over and we go back to our regular programming.
And then Jesus says, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. And he tells the man who asked the question, you lack one thing. You have so much, and so, you are in want.
Here’s the thing. Contrary to what the testimonials and the giving charts and all of that seem to say, I’m not so concerned about what you choose to give to St Michael’s. Oh sure, the church needs your contributions to do its work. It doesn’t have much besides what you give, and we don’t pay for staff and programs and buildings out of thin air. When you are part of a community, you share your resources, and you make it work together. And I think this church does a great job directing the resources you give toward God’s mission and work in the world. It’s a good place to give.
But I’m less concerned about what you choose to give here. What I’m really concerned about is what you choose to keep.
There are three ways I think you can go about giving. One is the public radio pledge drive way. Chances are you’re not going to miss that $10 a month, so you may as well give it to the pledge drive. You do it, and you go on your way, keeping pretty much everything in your life the way it was before. At the opposite extreme is the way of St Francis of Assisi. You get up in church one Sunday, walk forward, hand over all of your assets in a big pile, and go on your way, keeping nothing at all. This may be the way of salvation for some, for whom possessions and wealth have become nothing but a snare. But few are called in this way, so I’m not expecting to see that in these next few weeks.
Somewhere in the middle is the third way, where you sit down with your loved ones and your bank statements and your invoices and you pray over it all, and then you consider what you can let go of. There are two versions of this approach, however. One is to make a pile of all the fixed costs of your life, your rent, your kids’ tuition, your basic food budget, your MTA card, the help you give your aging parents. And then with what is left, to give a percentage away – denying yourself, perhaps, the Starbucks one day a week, or the take-out or the movies once a month, and instead to give that money somewhere it can do someone else some good. That’s a good step in the right direction.
But pause for a minute to consider that version. In essence, this is what you are communicating, to your loved ones and to God: I am prudent and careful, and I know that I have obligations that I must meet. I will first make sure I have met those, and then I will give away some of what I have left over instead of spending it on myself. I am the one who knows best what I need and what I will continue to need; God, you can have some of the rest of it. Because you, God, don’t know what it’s like to live in New York City. You’re not living my life. You are in the realm of the spiritual. I live in the realm of the practical. God helps those who help themselves – isn’t that somewhere in the Bible, that phrase? (No.) Anyway, it makes sense to me.
The man who comes to Jesus and asks his poignant question about eternal life wants God to stay in that spiritual zone too. He is in charge of his life. He is a practical and ethical person. He has done all the right things and been responsible. And Jesus looks at him and loves him, and says, You need to give that all up. Trust God to hold you. Let go of what you’re clinging to, and let God take your whole self.
Is that Jesus telling us to do the St Francis thing? It could be. I think, though, it is Jesus telling us to put God first, before all those other responsibilities and obligations. To put the whole pile in front of God, which is where it all came from in the first place. And then to take from it what we need.
It sounds scary. But funny things happen when we do that. Sometimes the things we thought we absolutely need turn out not to be so important after all – the fixed cost turns out to be discretionary, optional. Our priorities shift just enough that we spend our money differently than before. And very often, what seemed like a limited amount of money somehow magically expands. Not only is there enough left over to meet our needs, but there is extra. Curious how that happens, but it does. Maybe those two things are related.
This is where the whole concept of tithing comes from. The tithe, 10%, is the first fruits of the harvest. It is the first 10% of what we bring in. We’re meant to give it back to God. And yes, practically and responsibly, it really does work.
Now, where you give that money that is God’s, that’s a secondary question. That’s the question for fundraising and pledge drives and appeals and capital campaigns. St Michael’s is a good place to give towards God’s work. So are a lot of other places. You pray about that, and read the materials we’re sending you, and listen to the testimonials, and you think it through.
But do pray about it all. And please don’t go away grieving if this all feels too hard. We are all learning; we are all growing; and we are not used to the idea of anyone but us and the government being entitled to our money. It takes time to let go; it takes time to trust. We don’t do it overnight. And yet, to lean just a little more into it, to relax your grip on just a bit more of what makes you so anxious – that is grace, and blessing indeed. As Jesus tells his worried disciples, with God, all things are possible. All things are possible, even for us.