Today is Commitment Sunday at St. James. Today at all our services, we will be presenting our written pledges as an offering of praise and thanksgiving to God.
Our pledges not only express our gratitude for all that God has done for us. They also express our trust in God, the trust we have in God’s promise of faithfulness. We have this incredible trust that God will continue to provide, in God’s own way, and in God’s own time, the things we need to fulfill our mission on earth.
A couple of weeks ago, Father Luis Leon, a retired Episcopal priest from the Diocese of Washington, preached to us about stewardship at our 9:00 and 11:15 services. Father Luis shared a story about how he counseled couples before they got married. He always asked them to work up a household budget. Most of the time, the couples he worked with would bring back a budget that didn’t include any giving. My guess is that the couples thought the point of the exercise was to assure the priest who was marrying them that they had shared everything they needed to share about their finances, and that they would be able to make ends meet. But that was only part of it. The point of the exercise was to help the couple learn what we all need to learn, at some point in our journey, and that is that money will end up running our lives if we don’t give some of it away.
Father Leon said he didn’t care if the couples he was marrying filled out a pledge card to St. John’s Lafayette Square, where he was serving, (even though he did!) He’d knew he’d get into trouble with his Stewardship Committee because he would tell people, if you don’t see God doing anything at St. John’s, don’t give them a dollar. But still give something, somewhere, where you see God’s work being done.
As we have gone through this season of discernment around our stewardship, we’ve heard from a number of our how they have seen God’s hand at work in them and in our church family at St. James. I don’t think any of us doubt that God’s work is being done here.
The question most of us have been mulling over is not whether to give, but how much to give, and whether to commit to a pledge, especially if we haven’t pledged before. Some of us, I know, are uncomfortable committing ourselves to what we will give over the course of the next year. I want to share a little of my own stewardship story. My parents taught me from an early age to give part of my allowance to the Catholic Church we attended. I remember putting a nickel or a dime into my little envelope every week, even though my allowance was only a quarter.
We didn’t use words like “tithe”— which was and still is considered the standard of giving to the church. In the Old Testament, tithe meant taking the first and best part of the harvest (the “first fruits”) and offering it to God in gratitude for that year’s gain. Today’s reading from Sirach alludes to the tithe. Tithing is mentioned in the verses just before our reading. In those verses, Sirach says, remember the tithe, and don’t hold back.
One of the interesting footnotes about the Book of Sirach is that it was written after a time of great dislocation, when the rules and rituals of the ancient religion did not align with the realities of the life of God’s people. At every such juncture in the history of religion two questions arise: How do we hold on to the faith, when so much has changed? How do we understand and adapt the old rules and standards—like the tithe—so they still make sense? Sirach’s answer is to remind God’s people of the need to give. He uses the word “tithe” but it’s not clear whether he is stipulating an amount or leaving it up to his audience to judge what an appropriate offering would be. Certainly, he wants them to give their best, their first fruits. In the part we hear today, Sirach says, “Give generously and don’t hold back,” and “don’t try to bribe God” either. Our intent is as important as the amount we give. Whatever we give, we should give with an open, generous heart.
It’s hard to have an open, generous heart when you are anxious or afraid. It’s hard to have an open and generous heart when there are too many bills and not enough income to pay them, and you don’t know what you are going to do. It’s hard to have an open and generous heart and not feel like you can give what you want to give, and still take care of your other responsibilities. In the early part of my career, when I was loaded down with debt and not making enough to pay my bills, I gave of my time and talent, and prayed for a day when I could give of my treasure.
That day eventually came, but now, as I look back on those years when I was too poor and too embarrassed to put in even a small pledge, I wish someone from my faith community had told me, it’s okay, Carol. What you put down on your card this year will be your tithe. You are part of our church family. What you give is part of what we offer to God every week. It’s God’s grace that makes our offering pleasing and acceptable in God’s sight. Put your card in, Carol. You are part of this church family. Every time we raise up our offering, we are lifting each of us, and all of us, up to God, together.
How much should we give? It’s a question that invites us to go ever deeper into the well of our faith, and to look again at our relationship with money. Might my experience with money be keeping me from being open to the love God has for me? After years of struggling to make ends meet, I have to confess that one of my persistent fears is not having enough. My faith tells me that if I can trust God just a little more, I can give more, and if I give more, I will be that much freer.
Freedom is one of the rewards of giving with an open and generous heart. When we give with an open and generous heart, we are freed from the demands of a society that keeps telling us that there is no such thing as enough; we must always have more—what we have and what we do—and what we have saved-- is never enough. When we give with an open and generous heart, we are also freed from the anger and resentment that can build up in us when we are told that another person’s gain, whether it be financial or social, is our loss; and we are no longer susceptible to the argument that sharing our wealth makes us poorer in any way.
Giving with an open and generous heart is its own reward, not because it makes us better than anyone else, but because it brings us together, as children of a most generous God, joined in this time, and on this walk, to witness to God’s goodness, and to stay true to our mission here at St. James--“to welcome all, love all, and serve all, through Christ.”
Thank you for your open and generous hearts. Thank you for trusting God even when it is hard to do. Thank you for praying for one another and for St. James. Thank you for being who God made you to be, and for staying open to God’s call as we continue our journey through this interim time.