Freedom and the “M” Word

Sermon for October 5th, 2014 ||  Proper 22, Year A ||  Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3: 4b-14; Matthew 21: 33-46 ||  The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

My friend Sarah and I have known each other for 24 years. We both have daughters who are only children and Sarah and I are both Episcopalians, so we went to the same church for many years. I was a television journalist who became an Episcopal priest; Sarah was a law student who became a psychotherapist. Much of Sarah’s practice is doing group work, creating space in which her clients can share things, try on new behaviors, and get feedback in a safe and supportive environment.

So we were talking earlier this week, our nearly weekly gabfest and catch up, and when I expressed my exasperation with what one conference I recently attended referred to as “the conspiracy of silence around money in our churches,” without missing a beat Sarah said, “Margot, I do a lot of groups, and it is consistently easier for my clients to talk about sex than money. ”

Now, if hearing me say S-E-X in church makes you uncomfortable I totally understand. I wasn’t comfortable saying it either. Truth is, I’m a lot more comfortable spelling it than speaking it -– and this despite my theological understanding of human sexuality as a God-given gift! So what my friend Sarah said about money being even harder to talk about than you-know-what really shook me. I honestly thought she had to be exaggerating.

But she wasn’t.

Sarah reminded what a cultural taboo it is to talk about money…how talk of money is fraught with fear, with family of origin issues, with one’s self-identity, and with shame.

So here it is Stewardship Sunday, and I get to talk about money with a newly heightened awareness of how totally uncomfortable most of you probably are hearing it.  I actually thought about getting a guest preacher this year, but the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church say it is the Rector’s duty, “to ensure that all persons in their charge are instructed concerning Christian stewardship, including… generous and consistent offering of time, talent, and treasure for the mission and ministry of the Church…[and] the biblical standard of the tithe for financial stewardship.”

The thing is, I actually enjoy talking about stewardship and money now.   But my conversation with Sarah really got me thinking and remembering. Remembering that I wasn’t always even remotely comfortable talking about money; that I didn’t always see it as a God-given gift; and that I certainly didn’t always feel the kind of freedom I feel today in sharing it with my church.

After talking with my friend, I realized that I’d forgotten about the days when it was nearly impossible for my husband and I to have a conversation about money in which I didn’t get defensive or feel entitled. I’d forgotten about how I used to think there was a direct correlation between how much someone loved me and how much they were willing to spend on me, or between how much an employer appreciated me and how much they paid me, or between my net worth and my worth as a person. It’s all old family-of-origin stuff, but we’ve all got it and it’s powerful. It diminishes us, it binds us, it keeps us un-free.

I’d forgotten about how I used to consider the money I earned mine. It was one thing as a kid to share my allowance with my best friend who didn’t get one, but as a young adult who worked hard for a living, it didn’t take long for me to get a lot more possessive about my resources. I had my money, you had yours.

Married life taught me to think in terms of “we” and “ours,” but that was still defined against you and yours. And “we” weren’t going to give away our money any more freely or generously than “I” had. We’d give every year to this or that charity, but we saw no distinction between donating to a charity or giving to our church; we had no idea that pledging to our public radio station was an act of civic responsibility while pledging to the church we went to was an act of spiritual devotion. And I can assure you I didn’t have any more sense than the wicked tenants in this morning’s gospel reading did that I was but a steward — a trusted caretaker –of what in reality belonged to God.

In fact, it was a very long journey for me to get from putting a little something in the basket every week, to pledging way less than the $2400/yr. average Episcopal pledge, to tithing very begrudgingly because I’d become a priest and my bishop said I had to, and finally to more than tithing — and entirely by the power of God’s grace and absolutely nothing I had anything to do with, doing it freely and joyfully, with a genuinely generous and happy heart.

I’m afraid that in my enthusiasm for the freedom and joy I feel around money now, I forgot that my journey from a mindset of scarcity to abundance, from entitlement to gratitude, from tipping to tithing, and from closed fists to open hands was a very long one—almost 30 years long! I forgot that giving is a spiritual practice that takes practice, and gets easier with practice. I forgot that generosity is both a gift of God’s grace and an intentional response to that grace. I forgot that we’re all walking the Way, each at our own pace.

So go at your own pace. Go at your own pace, but be attentive to the One you follow. Study scripture, pray daily, worship regularly. Practice gratitude, compassion, and kindness. Praise God.

He will lead you and guide you on the Way; He will trust you and teach you as you go; He will challenge you and change you when you’re not even looking; and then get ready—because I promise you, He will fill your heart with the indescribable freedom and joy that comes of giving boldly and generously! Amen.


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