Sermon for Sunday, October 24, 2010 || Proper 25 Year C RCL || Sirach 35:12-17; Luke 18: 9-14
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
“Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford.” Sirach 35: 12
Yes, it is indeed Stewardship Sunday—although we have the lectionary, not me, to thank for the reading. After much thought and prayer, I decided that for this year’s stewardship sermon, it was time I shared with you the story of my own journey along the annual giving path. It seems to me that you have a right to know the giving-history of your spiritual leader—as inglorious as it may be–so I offer it in the spirit of full disclosure, with the hope that you will find it helpful, or at least of some interest.
Most of you know that before I was ordained almost ten years ago, I was for many years a television journalist. Don and I were basically what I call “CEO” churchgoers—meaning Christmas and Easter Only. Other than when we were married, Christmas and Easter were the only times we darkened the doors of our local Episcopal church. I never thought about giving to the church then, much less about pledging. When the collection plate got passed around I’d just rummage around in my purse and drop in whatever I could find at the time.
Some of you also know that just before our first wedding anniversary our sweet little three-day old baby girl—named Faith because Don said we were going to need a lot of it– died of multiple heart defects. The ensuing grief, anguish and unbridled anger at God over the next year really marked the beginning of my adult faith journey –and ultimately, my return to regular church attendance for the first time since I was confirmed in the sixth grade. I crawled back to church on my hands and knees, still furious at God, but spiritually desperate.
That was in 1989, and it would be another six full years before I would pledge for the first time. Now, it’s not that I wasn’t grateful to God or to my church during those years. In fact, I was quite overwhelmed with gratitude to both. Through the worship, fellowship, pastoral care and spiritual formation at that church, God had worked what felt like some really miraculous healing in my life—and then topped it all off with the birth of a beautiful, healthy, little girl and a new way of life in 12-step recovery—both of which gave me an entirely new understanding of the word, “Grace.” Truly, I was grateful beyond measure. Before long I was leading book groups and Bible studies, serving as a pastoral visitor and a healing minister, and participating with love and joy in the regular worship and life of this amazing church community I called home.
Yet still I didn’t pledge. I like to imagine that when that collection plate rolled around each Sunday, I dropped something in. And I probably did. But there was a fundamental disconnect for me between God and money—even at this point in my spiritual journey, when I was among the most committed and active members of our church.
I mention that in particular, because the experts in church stewardship circles say that the generosity of one’s giving increases in proportion to the depth of one’s commitment to the church and the maturity of one’s faith. A lot of us assume that the more money someone has, the more they’re likely to give. But apparently that’s not true—that a better predictor of a person’s giving is the maturity of their faith and the depth of their commitment to the church. Yet here I was, deeply committed to my church, and with a powerful faith refined and matured by personal crisis and loss. And just for the record, I was earning twice as much as an overpaid television producer twenty years ago as I do now. And none of that made any difference. I didn’t pledge.
What seems so curious to me in retrospect is that I don’t think it ever even occurred to me that my church needed my money to do all the things I had come to love about it so much. And it certainly never occurred to me that God—the epitome of the Sacred and the Holy– might use something so material or profane as money for sacred purposes. It never occurred to me that money could in any way be used as an appropriate expression of gratitude for God’s patient and persistent presence in my life. I just never connected the dots between God’s ministries at our church—the priests, the pastoral care givers, the worship, the programs, the music, the beautiful building and grounds—with the money it took to make it all possible. I’m sure that like everyone else, we got the annual letters and pledge packets, but somehow I never connected my checkbook in any way, shape, or form with God.
Until 1995. Now, I must admit that I have no memory of pledging at all until I got out of seminary in 2001. But after I’d written my cover article for next month’s Carillon, Don went back and checked our records and it turns out we pledged for the first time in 1995. We pledged $1200 that year. It was less than 1% of our income, but I have no doubt it felt like a big chunk of change to us at the time. The next year we did the same thing. By the following year, in response to another personal crisis that forced me to take seriously what felt like a call to ordained ministry, I had entered the discernment process, and a little over a year later I was at seminary. Our pledge doubled to $2400. Again, I have no memory of this. I wish I could boast, or at least explain, why our pledge doubled when our income was cut in half. I wish I could wax eloquent to you about how grateful I was to God and to my beloved church family that was now sending me off to seminary—and I certainly was: I loved that church more than I can tell you. I was married there, Faith was buried there, Grace was baptized there, and my entire adult faith journey had taken place there. Yet sadly, I don’t remember ever consciously connecting my love of God or my gratitude to our church with my giving. So it doesn’t really count. I mean, I don’t even remember it, so how meaningful could it have been?
Then I went to seminary and learned all about stewardship, the “theology of abundance,” we often here about on Stewardship Sunday, and the financial nuts and bolts of church budgets. Yet even so—and I am ashamed to admit this–when I learned that clergy were expected not only to pledge but to set an example to their parishioners by tithing—that is, by giving a minimum of ten percent of their income to the church—I was not a happy camper! In fact, I was rather outraged….despite my love of God, despite my gratitude to His Church, and despite my support for the mission and ministry of the local church I was serving.
But I did it anyway. I tithed. I understand that most people who choose to tithe work up to it gradually. They ease their way into it by increasing their pledge proportionally by one or two percent each year until they reach 10%. That’s what the experts advise. For me that felt like peeling off a band-aid excruciatingly slowly and I just wanted to get the pain over with. So I just gritted my teeth and tithed, very begrudgingly, and grumbling about it all the while. But at least it was done: Ten percent of my income went back to the church that was giving it to me.
Today it still does. Only now, thanks be to God, I can honestly stand before you and say that I tithe joyfully—not like the Pharisee in this morning’s gospel out of a sense of duty, or guilt, or pride—but joyfully—and only, I am convinced, because of God’s grace. I’m not sure when it happened, but somehow over the past few years my heart has literally been transformed by the very act of tithing itself. And now instead of being resentful, I am actually grateful to be a tither. I’m one of those people who’s always loved buying presents for people I love, and now my tithe feels like one big present for God and for St Stephen’s. I love doing it! And isn’t it astonishing that by acting generously toward God’s church, I have actually become generous towards God’s church? That, to me, is the miracle. That, to me, is the real grace. I could never have changed my own heart anymore than I can change yours. But God could. And did. And will.
So here’s the nitty-gritty of it: There’s nothing secret about my salary—it’s published in the annual budget and in the Diocesan Journal every year for all the world to see. So I’m not revealing anything especially personal or private when I tell you that last year I pledged $7,000—ten percent of my income–to St. Stephen’s. This year I’ll be able to pledge a little more than 10%, and I can’t even believe it: It feels like some kind of loaves and fishes sort of thing—but there you have it!
God knows, it’s a lot of money for us. God knows, it’s a big leap of faith. But God also makes it possible. And God knows that what I get back is so much more than what I give that it’s laughable—if not downright ludicrous–to compare the two.
So while I used to give 10% begrudgingly because I “had” to, now I give it happily and joyfully because I choose to and because, by the grace of God, I can. I give because I believe in a God who is excessively generous to me and because I believe with all my heart in His mission and ministry at St. Stephen’s. I give because of all that God has done for me and because of all I want St. Stephen’s to be able to do for you. I give because by acting generously towards God’s church, I actually become generous towards God’s church. And I tithe my 10% because I want to lead by example, and I hope that some of you, by God’s grace, will choose to follow.
Because tithing has actually changed me in spite of myself. Tithing has totally transformed my heart. It’s transformed me. And that, after all, is what I came to church for in the first place.
May God grace us all with the will to give to the Most High as He has given to us, and as generously as we can afford. Amen.