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What do you, Lord, want me to give?
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sermon for Pentecost 21 (24B)
Christ Church Andover
October 21, 2012

 

Gospel:  Mark 10:35-45

The disciples, once again, just don’t seem to get it.  James and John must have had quite an old man, that Zebedee.  From the sound of it, he had taught them to be ambitious, look out for themselves, look for every opportunity to succeed (not unlike the way some of us have raised our own children).  I say that because these two guys were very clear about what they wanted.  They wanted to be the best.  They wanted to be right up there at the top of the hierarchy with Jesus when his kingdom was established – one of them on the right hand and one on the left. 

In the discourse that follows, things get turned around in what must have been a very deflating conclusion for our ambitious uber-disciples.  Jesus says to them, “whoever wishes to become great must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

End of conversation.

In this exchange it became apparent that what was on James’ and John’s minds was what was in it for them.  And in thinking only of what was in it for them, they were missing the whole point.  They were like modern consumers who want the best deal for the lowest price, right?!  The greatest return for the least investment.  The biggest bang for the buck.  The highest reward for the lowest commitment.

In these two disciples we see a mirror being held up to our own consumerist way of life.  And it’s a way of life that (just like for them) often bleeds right over into our relationship with God, and our participation in the body of Christ.  We want the best that God has for us, but we want it on our own terms, with as little sacrifice as possible. 

We hear some of this consumerist rhetoric when people talk about “shopping for a church,” right?  And why do we “shop?”  To get the best deal!   And so we look for the church that has the best Sunday school program, or the best music, or most beautiful building, or the nicest classrooms, the best staff, the best opportunities for our kids, or the best whatever else is important to us – and we have to ask ourselves whether along with that, we’re thinking “for the least effort” or “for as little sacrifice as possible.” 

James and John, I think, should be made the patron saints of 21st century American consumerism for their bold honesty about what THEY wanted out of this relationship with Jesus – and without thinking too much of what they could give or how they could serve.

“But it is not so among you [Jesus said];  whoever wishes to become great… must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first… must be slave of all.”

If Jesus’ life meant anything to us at all, it was in showing us that sacrifice is a way of life for those who would follow him.

Now you knew when you came to church this morning that you’d be hearing something about giving, didn’t you?  It is that time of year, after all, when we begin to plan for next year’s budget, and you’ve come to expect that we will talk about giving in that context.  And we set that up nicely with that great stewardship sermon by Helen Pickard last week, and the “stewardship chats” after each service. 

But stewardship is about so much more than parish budgets.  If we were doing our job really well, we’d talk about it so much more, because it goes to the heart of what it means to be a Christian, how we live our lives in relation to what we have, and what it means for us to offer ourselves – all that we are and all that we have – to God for the sake of God’s kingdom.  What else could be more important?

So this morning, I’d like to talk for a few minutes about the transformation Jesus sought to bring about in James and John and in us, from a consumer mentality that seeks something for ourselves to one of service and sacrifice. 
 

I’ve noticed over the years that there are at least seven different ways people think about giving – and probably some others, too.   But perhaps you’ll recognize yourself in one or more of these.

  1. “I don’t give money, I give my time.” – We love the time you give, and we depend on it.  There are lots of people who offer a LOT of time, and it we couldn’t do what we do without them.  But it’s only part of what we’re asked to share.  Yes, it’s inconvenient, but money is the medium of exchange by which so much of what we do takes place, and we could not exist if we all gave time but no money.  Everybody can give something.
  2.  “I give what’s comfortable for me.” – What this usually means is that after everything else is taken care of, the mortgage is paid, the new car is bought, the tuition bills are paid, the vacation has been taken, entertainment costs have been set aside, I see what’s left over, and that is what I give to God.  It’s money I wouldn’t miss anyway, and I can continue to live my life pretty much the same way as if I didn’t give anything.   Think about that.
  3. “I give exactly what I have been giving for the last 25 years.”   Yes, and I wonder if you’ve noticed that the value of that keeps going down and down every year.  Basic economics.  If you gave $1000 a year in 1987, its value is $500.  If you wanted to keep the value of what you give the same (not even increasing it) you would now be giving just over $2000 a year.
  4. “I give based on how much we participate.”  This is an interesting way to calculate one’s giving – kind of a fee for service approach.  It has a built-in incentive to come to church less and less, to participate less and less, because if you came and participated more frequently, you’d feel obliged to give more than you do.  We want you to be here, even if you don’t give anything!
  5. “I give my fair share.” – Kind of like paying dues.  While this seems like an inherently fair thing to do, it presumes several things:  that everyone can do the same; and that if we all gave the average amount that it costs per person to run the church everything would be fine.  But that’s based on a status quo approach to maintaining what is, not on a mission-drive approach to what might be. 
  6. “I give a percentage of my income.”  Now we’re getting closer to the spirit of Christian giving – as an act of gratitude for what we have, and for how we have been blessed.  The nice thing about it, too, is that it is not a one-size fits all approach.  There’s freedom in it, to say exactly WHAT percentage of my income I will give – one, three, five percent, ten percent, or more!  And one can grow in what percent one chooses to give. 
  7. “I tithe ten percent of my income.” – This is the biblical tithe, and the standard for giving in the Episcopal Church.  Not many of us actually practice it.  But some do.  And yes, we can quibble about the details – whether it’s before taxes or after; and we can argue that it is a regressive tax that hurts the poor more than the rich.  I think you can base it on whatever line in your income tax return you choose, but choose one, even after your deductions if you like.  It’s more the spirit than the letter of the law that matters.  But what’s important is that as with any form of proportional giving, it is based on the idea of giving “off the top” – the “first fruits of our labor” – and not on what’s left over after I have done everything else I want or “need” to do.  It is a way of saying, yes, God has given me everything that I have, and the first thing I will do is give thanks, and do that by sharing the first ten percent for God’s work in the world.  Tithing is also a way of holding us accountable for the lifestyle we live, since the giving comes first – and then we fit our lifestyle to the part we get to keep – not the other way around.

There are probably many more different kinds of calculations we make when deciding what we will give.  Some of you have spouses who don’t share your commitments, and that can make this a very hard conversation.  And there can be many other extenuating circumstances that make our decisions about giving complicated.  Today’s gospel is a challenge to us, however, not to begin by thinking about the benefits to us, but to begin from an attitude of service and sacrifice.  

There are those who give truly sacrificially.  They probably would never tell you they do.  The amount or even the percentage are not necessarily at play in this approach.  Remember the story of the rich man pouring his bags of money into the treasury, and then the widow who gave two mites?  Jesus asked who had given more.   It was the one who gave all she had who had given more. 

Where is the sacrifice in what we do when we give?

What we give to Christ Church is a symbol of our life of mutual service – that is, of how we serve one another.  When you give to Christ Church, you’re giving to many, many things:

  • You’re helping to build new generations of loving, generous people
  • You’re providing services at area retirement communities and nursing homes
  • Offering Pastoral care for the sick and homebound
  • Helping kids in Lawrence have a brighter future
  • Feeding the hungry in our community and beyond
  • Helping the poorest of the poor in Haiti and Rwanda
  • You’re helping to maintain our buildings so that they’re here for those who come after us
  • And hundreds of programs to benefit local parishes and ministries around the world through our diocesan assessment and our connections to the wider church
  • You are literally serving the world in Christ’s name.

So, what is the right amount for me to give?  How do we decide? 

It’s not an easy question to answer, but if you’d like a benchmark, here’s what I can say about what we’re now doing.  If we assume that Christ Church members are representative of Andover residents in income, our pledging households currently give at the level of approximately 1.5% of average household income to Christ Church.  Some give more, and some give less.  And I know there are individual circumstances that make even that seem like a lot.  But on the whole, we can do better.

With a little bit of sacrifice, if that average increased to just 2%, we would have a 33% increase in our income and in our ability to carry on God’s work here Christ Church.  If we increased it to just 3%, we could do oh so much more.  We’d have no problem keeping up our buildings, keeping our staff strong, funding our programs adequately, and engaging in new strategic ministries for a strong 21st century church.

With a little bit of sacrifice we can make that happen.  I’d like to challenge all of us as we think about our commitment for next year to think not just about our commitment to Christ Church, but think of it as your commitment to God.  And as we make our decisions about what we will give, I invite you to spend some time in prayer, checking your motivations, asking whether what you will give is truly a sacrifice to God, and one that represents the heart of the servant we are all called to be.

Our only question should be not what am I getting for what I give, but “What do you, Lord, want me to give?”

Last Published: October 29, 2012 12:57 PM