By the Rev. Kate Ekrem
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus continues his mission of trying to get the disciples to turn their world upside down. They think that life is measured by honor and privilege, being able to sit at his right hand in some thronelike scenario, but he says they’ve got it all wrong, in God’s kingdom the last shall be first and they should strive not for honor and success, but to serve and to give. That’s the way to true joy, that’s the way to real life.
And it seems like the disciples don’t get it once again. I think that sometimes — a lot of times – those who haven’t experienced that joy firsthand have trouble understanding how that could be, sometimes we are just like John and James, wondering, what the heck is he talking about? Can you really get to inner peace and strength and security and joy by being last, being a servant, giving things away? So today I want to tell you the story about someone I know who this really happened to. Actually, I know a bunch of people that it really happened to, but today, at the beginning of our annual pledge campaign, I want to tell you about Sam.
Sam was the chair of the stewardship committee at a parish where I once worked. Two things to know about Sam. First, he was a huge Patriots fan. Huge. Season tickets, and whenever there was a home game on a Sunday, he was not in church that day. And he was a Colonel in the Army Reserve. I always knew this because when he was the lay reader on Sunday, in the procession, he’d do that military 90 degree turn thing. Now, Sam really got roped into chairing the stewardship committee. It was not his thing, he was not particularly enthusiastic about it. He is just a really nice guy, the kind who can’t say no when his friends on the vestry ask him to do something.
But he took it on, and went to the diocesan stewardship training and came back with some new ideas. There was a book he wanted the committee to read and we read it together, and it was really challenging, we actually got into some arguments about it, we were really grappling with how to even talk about money in our parish community, not everyone was comfortable with all of it, but Sam really pushed us to have the conversation, because he needed to talk it out for his own understanding. Sam also realized that to really be the chair of the stewardship committee, he needed to step up in his own stewardship and I have no idea what exactly he did, but I know that became more and more meaningful to him. The next thing I noticed was that Sam wanted to start all our meetings with prayer, which we hadn’t done before, and he usually led the prayer and they sort of started getting longer and longer. And then, one Sunday, it was actually Easter Sunday, Sam found me just a few minutes before the service, and said, in his very straightforward blunt way, Kate, I think I have a call from God, I want to be a deacon. And I said, I think you have a call, too, and a few years later Sam was ordained as a deacon. Now, I don’t know all the things that happened between Sam and God, but I do know that by really grappling with his financial life and his faith, and probably many other things as well, Sam’s life was transformed. He knew God in a whole new way. He found a lot of joy, and that inner peace and strength.
So, perhaps we don’t normally expect membership on the stewardship committee or pledging to the church to be transformative for people, but I’ve seen it happen so often I’ve stopped being surprised.
So what about you. I want to suggest that there are maybe three ways of thinking about giving. All of them might be right for us at one point in our lives, only you know where you are and which one is right for you.
One is membership. If you would like to belong to the Church of our Redeemer, maybe you are little new here and want to get your feet wet, it’s worth knowing that we can’t count you as a member of this church, according to the official canons of the Episcopal Church, unless you work, pray and give for the Kingdom of God as the prayer book puts it. So you have to be a contributor of record, to have some signed record, like a pledge card, of your giving. This is the time of year we fill out pledge cards, you should get one in your mailbox this week. You may be wondering, why fill out the card, why can’t I just send in my offering each week? Well, pledging really helps your friends on the vestry. We can’t really make a budget for the church for next year if we don’t know how much income we’re going to have, so a pledge is an indication of how much you plan to give. It’s just a plan, you can change it if needed, but it is also a way of making your commitment tangible to those volunteers who organize the church budget and to yourself. So if you think of yourself as a member of this church but haven’t been pledging, or have only been coming a short while and just haven’t thought about it yet, please fill out a pledge card and let us count you as part of this parish family. It could be any amount, don’t worry about the amount, it would just be wonderful if you took the step of becoming a member of this parish.
The second way is to think of it as a fair share. A very good way to think about it. If you take the amount of Redeemer’s budget, about $500,000, and divide it by about a little more than 100 active households, that’s about $4,500 per household. I’m sure some folks on the vestry could give a more accurate number than me, and thankfully the daycare and cell tower rent offset a bit of that, but it’s in that range. Many many people here say I want to do my part and contribute my share because this place, these people, are important to me and what Redeemer does for me and our community is meaningful and has an impact. My kids are in the formation programs, and I feel like I should be financially supporting that, or what have you. Of course some of us can’t give that much for various reasons, so others do a bit more to make it up. Or maybe it’s hard to give a fair share when you’ve got kids in college, so you give a bit less then and a bit more after the tuition payments are done. If this fair share giving describes you, then thank you, thank you thank you. You are making it possible for our church to make a difference in our community and in the lives of our children and others who need us. You make the Food Pantry possible, serve our young people to excellent youth programs, and support all the things we do. I can’t tell you how grateful I am.
But you might be thinking, Kate, those two ways you mentioned so far are pretty institutionally-oriented, about membership and what the church needs. What about me and my relationship with God, my spiritual needs? Thinking about how much the church needs doesn’t always change your life the way Sam’s life was changed. When he went to that stewardship conference, he learned about proportional giving.
In proportional giving, we don’t think at all about church budget is or how much the church needs. That’s not why we’re giving. We’re giving to give back just a small piece of all that God has given us, we’re being generous as God is generous, we’re making our thanksgiving to God, our gratitude for all our blessings, concrete and real. We say, God has given me 100%, and I’m going to give back 10% or 8% or 5% to God’s work and God’s mission. And that is life changing.
Firstly, it’s life-changing because we’re acknowledging, every day in a very concrete way, that all we have comes from God. What stewardship really means is taking care of things that are not our own. And when you get right down to it, what we have is not our own. It’s God’s, it’s all a gift from God. We are just stewards of.. the gifts and skills God has given us, of the people God has put in our lives, of the blessing and chances we’ve had. You know how to tell if something is a gift from God that we are a steward of or something that is really ours? It’s really ours if we get to keep it when we die. Everything else is just passing through, is something we have just for a time as God’s stewards. So it just makes sense to give a portion of it to God, it’s all God’s anyway. And if we don’t give some of it back to God, then we’re in danger of living in the illusion that it’s ours, which can be an unhealthy for us.
I like to think about proportional giving as intentional. It reminds me of how that work is used in meditation practice, having an intention that we focus on and hold in our minds. Our intention in proportional giving is about thanksgiving, about gratitude for all God has given us. Living in that mode all the time changes us, turns us from being inward focused, maybe self-absorbed, to noticing God at work in the world. I saw a sign in a shop window that summed it up perfectly: It’s not that happy people are grateful, it’s that grateful people are happy.
Secondly, it’s life-changing because we’re giving some control over to God, giving God that ultimate symbol of control and mastery and power, money. So in doing that we let go just a little bit of our need to be in charge of things and acknowledge that God is truly the one in charge, we express our trust in God. Giving helps us say, I know God has a better plan than I do, God will make it work out even better than I could on my own. And that helps us learn more and more that we can trust God and have faith in God.
This year your vestry will once again commit to intentional proportional giving to Redeemer. That’s one way they show their tangible support and love for the Redeemer community, and also invite God to be with us in our life together as a vestry and a parish, and take another step on our spiritual journey.
You know, those clueless disciples finally did get it, although really only after Jesus was resurrected, then they were like, OH, now everything he said before makes sense, and they went on to found a church community. And in that early church of the disciples, their goal was to create communities where everyone brought everything they could, so that everyone received everything they needed. We want Redeemer to be a place where everyone can receive what they need. But it can’t be, unless everyone brings what they can. And when we do, that act of generosity and thanksgiving transforms us into people like Jesus, transforms us into people who know God’s hope and God’s promise even in difficult times, who always have the peace, strength, and security that only comes from trusting God.
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