Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sermon for Proper 25 Year C
at Holy Cross Trussville 27-Oct-2013


Beloved sisters and brothers, let us look to the Lord.
May only God’s word be spoken,
May God’s word be heard.
In the name of Jesus, I pray. Amen.

So, who are you, a Pharisee or a tax collector? I think that it is hard to hear this parable proclaimed without wanting to put ourselves in one role or the other, or maybe we want to put ourselves a little bit in both.

Which of us hasn’t at one time or another felt a little satisfied with ourselves on a Sunday morning? “Oh Lord, I give thanks that I’m not like other people: my neighbor who is enjoying a round of golf instead of being in church; my friend in the other political party who doesn’t understand your will for the nation; or even that scruffy looking guy sitting two pews over. I am here, every Sunday morning; I pledge faithfully; I do what needs to be done whenever I’m asked.”

For some of us, it is only when we mess up big time, hitting rock bottom, that we can find the humility of the tax collector. It’s those big mistakes that can help us see our need for God’s grace and forgiveness. Only in those moments do the words of the tax collector become ours “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” How seductive it can be to trust in ourselves that we are righteous, we are in control, and to regard others with contempt.

Reminds me of the story about two pastors who are at church and fall to their knees around the altar, crying out to God, saying, “I have sinned. I am unworthy, I am unworthy.” Just then the janitor walks in, and, observing their display of piety, is inspired to join their cry: “I have sinned. I am not worthy, I am not worthy.” The first pastor turns to the second and snarks, “Now look who thinks he’s unworthy!”

This parable seems to be a simple story that encourages our humility and warns us about spiritual pride. Of course, the challenge is how do we practice humility without risking succumbing to spiritual pride? Pretty tricky little spiritual paradox, this work of cultivating humility.  

Practicing humility, knowing the basic truth that God is present with us at all times and knows all that we think, feel, desire, speak, and do, is an important step in the habit of remembering God in every part of our life. The reason, is so that we can remember who we are, and to whom we belong; to live always in the presence of God, wherever we are, whatever we are doing. This includes a responsible stewardship of all the gifts that God has given us. And yes, that includes what we do with our, what I do with my, money.

So, this may be as good a time as any to admit that, I am a tither. Considering the ‘season,’ I thought that I’d share a bit of my journey with you, and humbly so as to not succumb to spiritual pride … :)

A lot can get projected onto that word ‘tithe’ so, for me, tithing means to give away at least 10 percent of my income. As a stewardship story, mine is one that I grew into. One of my mentors has been Bill Yon, a retired priest of the diocese, who over 20 years ago invited me to consider proportional giving, moving towards tithing, as part of my faith journey. I guess I must like doing it, or I probably would have stopped during the inevitable bumps along the way, including the challenges of the last five years in this economy.

I think that it would be an understatement to suggest that our culture has become very much a “consumer economy.” It is has become a civic virtue to spend money; to spend more money, in fact, than we actually have since “for everything else, there is MasterCard.” We are regularly enticed to need more, to need more, as the Bank of America commercials tempt us to “think what we can do for you”, even as American Express assures us that using their card can “make life more rewarding.”

Tithing keeps me a little less connected to the consumer economy and more connected to a world that is bigger than myself. For me, tithing is giving away 10 percent of my income to do what God wants done in the world outside my own life. So for me, it includes giving to Holy Cross, and to Old Firehouse Shelter, and to Greater Birmingham Ministries, and to a few other groups that attempt to help those who have a lot less than I do.

The Book of Deuteronomy spells out the law of the tithe, calling for 1 part out of 10 of each harvest to be set aside to offer at the temple. The tithe offering was to be used three ways: to maintain the community of faith, to support those who ministered to the community of faith, and to provide for the needs of those who have little — the widows, and the orphans, and the sojourners. That’s pretty much my idea of how a tithe is still to be used.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that in talking about tithing, I have mentioned it as a humble response to God in our lives, but what I’ve not said is that “your church needs more money.”

I don’t know that I have ever run into a church that didn’t need more money. But my stewardship decisions are not about that. My stewardship decisions are about what I have, not about what the church needs. I say, “Here is my 10 percent, or a large chunk of it. Do what you can with it.”

So, this is when I cheerfully invite you to consider joining me, with a humble and happy heart. If you are interested in pursuing the idea a bit further, the first step, is figuring out what percentage of your income you are currently giving away. If you figure out that you are giving away 2 percent, the prospect of jumping to 10 percent all at once will probably seem, as it did to me all those years ago, as being a bit “financially, fiscally, unrealistic.”

But if you decide that giving away 2 percent is not enough to make you happy, you may want to consider increasing that percentage year by year in the direction of the tithe. I know a lot of people, including myself, who have become tithers in just this way.

God always starts with us where we are, so we begin by figuring out where we are now. Can’t think about where you want to go unless you know where y’at.

In sharing with you about part of my stewardship journey, you might have noticed that I have not once used the words “should, ought, or must.” You may expect to hear “should, ought, and must” from persons in authority, but you won’t hear that from me. No, I won’t do that…

But what you will hear from me are the words of St. Paul (2 Corinthians9:7): “Let each person give as he has decided for himself, without reluctance or compulsion. For God loves a cheerful giver.” Each of us decides for him or herself. That’s a fact. Or is it? Are some of us just giving from habit? (“Put me down for the same as last year.”) Or have you given it new thought? Where are you going with your giving? What goals have you set for your giving? Have you made a real decision after prayerful and careful consideration? Paul’s words invite us to be more intentional as each of us decides for himself or herself.

“Let each person give as he has decided for himself, without reluctance...”

Just go on and do it.

Don’t hold back.

“Let each person give as he has decided for himself, without compulsion...”

You don’t have to.

Nobody is making you do this.

That’s one of the fastest one-two punches in the scripture:
     just go ahead and do it... you don’t have to.

How are we remembering God in our lives, and in our work of cultivating grateful and humble hearts? What does it mean for us to follow the Way to the point that we are able to be a cheerful giver?

So, just so we’re clear, if you’re frowning when you write down that number on your pledge card, maybe you are writing down the wrong number.

Maybe you are experiencing some reluctance to turn loose of what you have. 

Maybe something is trying to interfere with your ability to choose.

When our giving stems from the increasingly
     humble and generous heart
          that God is growing within us,

that’s when our giving gets cheerful.

Thanks be to God!
Amen! Alleluia!