Spirituality Pages

I would like to begin with this prayer from Hildegard of Bingen. Please join me in the spirit of prayer.

Holy Spirit,
giving life to all life,
moving all creatures,
root of all things,
washing them clean,
wiping out their mistakes,
healing their wounds,

you are our true life,
luminous, wonderful,
awakening the heart
from its ancient sleep.

And I would like to add:
God, please awaken our hearts
From their ancient sleep.
May we arise radiating a spirit of generosity
That allows your light to shine
In and through us.

My presence up here should serve as a lesson to us all to be a bit more guarded about the things we say. I made an off-hand comment a couple of months ago about being willing to speak in public on behalf of the Stewardship drive, figuring that would be easier than making phone calls. Then at last month's Stewardship meeting, I was asked how my "sermon" was coming along. I thought they were joking. In the middle of this week, I discovered that they weren't joking after all. Oops, I should have been more circumspect. Oh well, to my way of thinking this still beats making phone calls.

My purpose in being up here today is to be irritating. That's right; I'm going to talk about something that makes a lot of church people mad: money. Ok, now, take a deep breath ... and let's move on.

Why am I talking about the "M" word in church? My favorite quotation from my college years is, "no one can be a hero, a lover, or a poet unless he or she has recently had something to eat". I believe this also applies to churches. If they're not fed, they wither and die. They cease being a force for good. Now perhaps you don't believe churches are much good for anything except baptisms, weddings and funerals. I don't happen to agree with that point of view.

The theme of the Stewardship drive this year is "inspiring generosity", so I have collected several scriptural references that relate, in my mind, to the topic of generosity. In selecting these, I have studiously ignored all advice given me by our pastors. Thus if you find what I am about to say profoundly annoying or vapid, don't blame the pastors. Don't take it out on them either. It was not their idea that I be here. Apparently, it was my idea when I made that off-hand remark several months ago which has now come back to bite me.

Now before I begin, I should answer the question in some of your minds, "didn't we already have a Stewardship drive? How come we have to do this again?" The answer is that yes, we did have such a drive only a few short months ago. The reason we need another one, is not because of mean spiritedness on the part of the Stewardship committee. Nor is it because we think we might get a better return with a second drive. It is because we, that is all of us, voted to change the church's fiscal year. So now, the new budget year begins in July, and to make that happen, we need to know if we'll have any money to budget come July. Rest assured that we will NOT be back in the fall with yet another Stewardship drive. By then, the change over to the new fiscal year will have happened and we'll behave accordingly.

Now the first bit of scripture relates to generosity in that it tells us what to do with the "yeah buts" that flood our brains whenever the church's budgetary process comes up, or almost anything else for that matter. It comes from Lk 6:36-38:

Jesus said to his disciples:
"Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

"Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
Give, and gifts will be given to you;
a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing,
will be poured into your lap.
For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you."

How does this relate to generosity? Spending your time being judgmental keeps you from being able to exercise your generous nature, and such natures, like most other things, need proper exercise to flourish. Now what do I mean by being judgmental? Most often it comes up in the form of immediate pre-conclusions to which we jump before we have taken an appropriate number of deep breaths to allow ourselves to asses a situation. Some of these preconclusions might include statements like the following: "Yeah, but talking about money in church is wrong; it detracts from our spirituality"; "Yeah, but all teenagers are hedonistic and amoral; special programs for them would just be a waste"; "Yeah, but that guy has a beard; guys with beards aren't to be trusted"; "Yeah, but those admin people can't be trusted to show fiscal restraint at budget time. Upping my pledge would just be a case of casting pearls before swine".

If we approach these statements with a generous nature, i.e. withhold judgment until we know a bit more about the situation, we might think about them a bit differently. "Well, if no one contributed anything, we wouldn't have a church would we?" "Those kids up there in the leper colony1 don't seem so bad. They haven't mugged anyone at church, and a whole bunch of them are going on a mission trip next month." "Perhaps I could join Admin and and find out where the money actually goes. Maybe I could even show them how to exercise fiscal restraint." Sorry, I can't help with the beard thing. I'm not sure I trust such people either.

The second bit of scripture comes from the Old Testament, which I think we're now supposed to be calling the Hebrew Bible.

Is 58:1-9a

Thus says the Lord God:
Cry out full-throated and unsparingly,
lift up your voice like a trumpet blast;
Tell my people their wickedness,
and the house of Jacob their sins.

They seek me day after day,
and desire to know my ways,
Like a nation that has done what is just
and not abandoned the law of their God;
They ask me to declare what is due them,
pleased to gain access to God.
"Why do we fast, and you do not see it?
afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?"

Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits,
and drive all your laborers.
Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting,
striking with wicked claw.
Would that today you might fast
so as to make your voice heard on high!
Is this the manner of fasting I wish,
of keeping a day of penance:
That a man bow his head like a reed
and lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!

So, here we have the age-old struggle between actions and intentions. The people in Isaiah's time offered sacrifices at the temple. It was, in essence, their way of "going to church". They figured that offering up these birds and goats and whatnot to the altar automatically made them good people.

But no. God said He didn't much care for their rituals when they weren't done with proper intent. Proper intent meant things like dealing with less fortunate people with generosity. He didn't say anything about asking people first why they were hungry before sharing food with them. No, just share your bread with the hungry. A generous spirit doesn't say, "it's probably an oppressed or homeless person's fault they're that way". When it comes to helping them, God doesn't care how they got that way. And neither should we. God just wants us to provide such people with shelter. Or at least that's Isaiah's take on the situation.

And, according to Isaiah, God says there's a benefit to all this generosity. You do these things, clothe the naked, free those unjustly imprisoned, shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, etc.: "Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed. ... you shall cry for help, and He [that is, God] will say: Here I am!"

Now how do we go about all this generosity? Unless we have money like Bill Gates, we can't do it alone. We gather in community, in churches such as this, to pool our resources. That way, we collectively can do so much more than any of us could do as individuals. The key word in all this is "resources". If we deny the church a portion of our resources, we can't possibly go about doing the work God sets out for us. Our light is snuffed; our wounds continue to fester; and we find ourselves alone.

"Well", you say, "who cares about the Old Testament? What would Jesus have us do?" Thanks for asking. This brings me to the third of my scriptural passages. Basically it carries the same message as Isaiah.

Mt 25:31-46

Jesus said to his disciples:
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the king will say to those on his right,
'Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.'

Then the righteous will answer him and say,
'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?'
And the king will say to them in reply,
'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'

Then he will say to those on his left,
'Depart from me, you accursed,
into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing,
ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.'

Then they will answer and say,
'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?'

He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.'
And these will go off to eternal punishment,
but the righteous to eternal life."

Here again, we have a group of people, those hard-headed, pragmatic goats, who are very self-contained and who think they are doing just fine. They are not, however, doing the work God set before them. Boy, are they surprised when they get shunted off to the goat pen.

The sheep, on the other hand, have lived out their lives being cheerful, generous and cuddly and are surprised that it's such a big deal. That's because their generous nature is focused on "doing the right thing" and not on "counting the cost". They are better off for it. Their minds are free from the worries and anxieties that come with being overly attached to temporal things.

Now, we come to the really annoying part in all this, the part where I get into the nitty gritty of the pledge issues. Now you get to exercise your sense of Christian forbearance. The average pledge in our congregation is something like 1.1 % of annual income. In the UCC as a whole, that number is more like 2%. When you get to groups like the Southern Baptists and Mormons, the fraction becomes significantly larger. In 1933, at the height of the Depression, the number for all people, nationwide, was 3.3%.

Now, I understand that what one can afford is related to one's discretionary income, that is the amount you have left over after you have covered the essentials. Of course, we all have differing views as to what is and is not essential. Much of the time, however, we don't much think about our spending patterns. The purpose of my being here is to ask you to think about it. After you think about it, do as you see fit, but at least think about it. Better yet, pray about it. Examine, with God, your sense of generosity. Is it really as tepid as the figures above would indicate?

What I am talking about is that we spend a lot of money without ever thinking about it, and then, when it comes to the church, we suddenly decide it's time to put on the brakes. Why not hold back on some other kinds of spending? Or at least become aware what we are doing? In 1996, the average American spent 20 times more money on soda pop that they spent on world missions. Almost 25 times more on booze, and ten times more on eating out. Now I'm not saying that we shouldn't eat out or have a beer now and again. The issue is that we spend money on such things without thinking about it. "Oh, I'm thirsty and here's a coke machine". "Oh, it's Saturday, time to head off to the beer store". "Ah, it's spring, time for some lawn fertilizer" [ten times more spent on gardening than on world missions -- and yes, I do realize that gardening is a spiritual exercise]. Over time, these little things, obviously, add up. They are not exactly necessities like, say peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But we don't think about them. Then when church comes around, it's "oops, I'm out of dough, sorry". So please think about it. Is the church a necessity, or just something to do when there's nothing much else going on? Personally, if the day ever comes that I have to choose between beer and choir or support of the leper colony, beer will lose ignominiously.

So please think about it. Think about setting a percentage goal. Don't haggle over whether it is gross or net income. Pick the income base that makes sense to you. Then pick a percentage goal, 2% (the UCC norm), 3% (to keep up with the Southern Baptists), 5% (what the Presbyterians were saying when I was young), the 10% tithe from Old testament tradition, etc. You might find your current percentage falls far short of your goal. Making the jump all at once might seem Herculean. Don't despair and give up. Look for a way to work toward that goal. For example, every year, increase your pledge by a tenth. If it's $100 this year, go for $110 the next, $121 the year after that, then $133 and so forth. In a few years, 7 to be exact, you'll find your pledge has doubled, and unless your income also doubled, you'll be giving a larger fraction of your income to the church. That's a good thing.

Finally, I expect that some of you are asking, "what do we get out of all this stewardship stuff?" That of course differs from one individual to the next. For some, pledging is "the right thing to do". For others, pledging is just a ruse to get the pastor and the Stewardship people off our backs. Let me revisit an earlier point, "no one can be a hero, a lover, or a poet, unless he or she has recently had something to eat". It is also true that churches can't exist without sustenance.

Personally, I think a world in which there are churches is a better place than a world in which there are no churches. Being able to interact with 8-year olds and 80-year olds at the same time is a blessing. The only place I know where that can be done is in church. Supporting a youth program, in essence giving our church a future, is a good thing. If we nurture that leper colony up there, twenty years from now, those kids will be paying our bills. If we don't, no one will.

Then, I think, there is an intangible benefit. You'll only know if it exists for you by trying it out for a few years. I believe that generosity of heart and basic niceness go hand in hand. When we work at cultivating our generosity, we become nicer people. This makes it easier for other people to live with us, and also easier for us to live with ourselves.

1 Rev. Eric pointed out in one of her sermons that lepers were considered people who were untouchable. In this day and age, many folks view teenagers that way. The kids in the confirmation class sit together in the church balcony. Hence that location has become known as the "leper colony". return

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Last update: Wednesday, July 11, 2007