plain talk about money

Amy Butler is the wonderfully gifted pastor
of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, DC,
and member of a lectionary group in which I participate,
now in its tenth year.
This is our fourth year of swapping pulpits
early in the year in honor and celebration
of God’s calling both men and women into the preaching ministry.

So I invited Amy to come preach an epiphany sermon at Woodbrook
or a transfiguration sermon.
I even said she could preach her favorite sermon,
or the sermon she had always wanted to preach.
And she asked me to come talk about money …
which is perilously close to asking me to talk about math …
which is just plain perilous!

But that’s what Amy asked for,
so that’s what you get!

It is so good to be back with you regardless of my assigned topic!
I bring you greetings from Woodbrook Baptist Church,
some of whose members parting words to me were:
“Don’t embarrass us!”
So in the interest of congregational development,
I’m curious, is that how you sent Amy off?

I also bring you greetings from Baltimore.
Did you pull for the Ravens last week?
I think y’all have the most exciting quarterback playing football,
though ours is rumored to be negotiating for $20 million a year!
Ever fantasize about making $20 million a year?
I do.
And in my fantasies, I give $5 million to the church.

The story is told of the first year student
in some first year English literature class
who was asked to identify his or her two most important books.
came the response,
“The family cookbook and the family checkbook.”

“Show me the money,”
was the tag line to a popular movie—
now a while back.
Show me where it is.
Show me where it’s going.
And I’ll tell you a whole lot more about you
than you might want me to!

Our checkbooks and our budgets—
personal and institutional, local and national,
are moral documents—
indicative of our priorities—
indicating what we’re just going to talk about,
and what we’re going to talk about and financially support.

Now there are various ways of thinking about giving
when it comes to church.
The “what’s my fair share?” approach can be helpful
in which you hear the total budget need
and divide that by the number of members,
or regular participants in worship, or “giving units”—
resulting in each person’s fair share.
You go out to eat with friends,
everyone orders the same,
you divide the bill by the number of people, right?
Fair’s fair.

And that’s actually not so different from the biblical idea of the tithe—
as everyone participating in supporting the work of God.
The main difference being
that the “my fair share” approach is a focus on how much is needed,
and the tithe on how much each of us has.
Not an insignificant difference.

Those who support the tithe, traditionally interpret scripture
to suggest everyone should give 10% of their income.
And if you’re of the mind,
you can then discuss whether that’s 10% before or after taxes!
But it’s a voluntary tithe—I choose to give this,
I am not forced to—
based on the idea that God has given us everything,
therefore we give 10% back.
Now you might think that’s a good return on God’s investment in you!
I’d be very happy with 10% returns in so many areas,
but if God’s given you 100% of what you have,
then you honor God, may I suggest,
by using 100% of what you have in ways that honor God—
including financially supporting the institution called to do God’s work.

Now how relevant the typically quoted scriptural references
about tithing are is honestly up for debate.
Some biblical tithes were related specifically to produce of the land
(you tithe 10% of what your land produces),
other biblical tithes related to plunder taken in war.
So someone could legitimately make the argument
that tithing as a means of funding church
was a particular, utilitarian, not to mention cynical,
interpretation of scripture.
Doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea!
I just find it patently unrealistic.

I found out recently
that many years ago,
four families gave 72% of our church’s budget!

Most pastors will tell you it’s safe to count on
20% of the membership providing 80% of the giving.
See how much of this is math?!

So the reality is
that we don’t have tithing congregations.
We may have some tithing individuals—families,
but we don’t have tithing congregations.
And everybody isn’t giving their “fair share” either.
Frankly everybody can’t.
Those approaches to giving in church
are just not reality—
never have been,
and, love to be proven wrong,
don’t think they ever will be.

In fact, to honor the diversity of community—
including economic diversity,
they can’t be.
Giving away 10% assumes discretionary funds some simply don’t have.
So I’m leery of percentages and computed dollar amounts.
Let me suggest another way of thinking about it.

Because what I’m not leery of
is the unequivocal affirmation
that you need to—each of you needs to—
be giving to the church.
And yes, there are lots of ways to give—
not all monetary,
and many very important non-monetary ways,
but each one of you needs to be giving money to this church.
You need to be financially supporting your church.

How much you give
depends on your individual circumstances,
but even if it’s just a few dollars a week, for the time being,
for those with such limited, restricted discretionary funds,
you need that habit.
You need that discipline.
You need that exercise.
You need that commitment.
You need that expression of your priorities.

And if the whole fair share approach is about how much is needed,
and tithing is about how much I’ve got,
here’s another question appropriately raised
in thinking about church giving:
how much do I need?
And the answer is different for us all,
and more subtle than it sounds.

We all need shelter, but how much house do I need?
We all need food, but how much junk do I eat?
Most of us need personal transport,
but how much car do I need? And how many?
You get the idea.

Affording our needs is the currency by which we live—by which we survive.
Exceeding our needs is the currency by which our culture thrives.

“Currency,” by the way, is a word that springs
from the same roots as the word “currents”
from the Latin currere—to run or move quickly.
And money is the current
in which we live and move and have our being.
Like it or not, it sweeps us along
as what we need to survive—
as what we exchange for necessities.

Giving to the church is about supporting
the good and important, counter-current,
counter-cultural work of this community of faith.
And y’all do some amazing things here at Calvary
in Washington DC.
So it’s about ministry,
and fellowship
(encouragement and support in the doing of ministry).
It’s about supporting your staff justly and lovingly.
But more than just supporting what you are doing,
giving to the church is affirmation of what else you could be doing—
what more you could be doing.

And as much as it is about church—
what it allows church to be and do,
it’s also about you—
and not just you as a church member,
but you as a child of God.

Remember, show me where your money is.
Show me where it’s going.
And I’ll tell you a whole lot more about you
than you might want me to!

The word money comes to us, by the way, from the Latin, moneta
either the place for minting coins, or the coins themselves,
also an epithet, or a title of the goddess Juno
in whose temple the coins of ancient Rome were minted.
There is some conjecture that the word moneta
itself goes further back—possibly to the word monere
which was “to advise” or “warn.”

So I have some advice—
and a warning:
the current of our culture will sweep you away.
it will take you where it wants to go—
unless you fight it—
unless you intentionally, mindfully resist it.
For we are called to fight the currents of our world.

That’s where a tithing priority,
or some sense of a fair share comes in—
to give us a tool in our resistance.
And there are families who, looking for a house,
because they have this sense,
factor their gifts to the church into their assessment
of how much house they can afford.
And the how much to give to the church question
isn’t just a how much is left question,
but, yes, a how much do I really need question?

Do you believe in this community of faith?
Do you believe in its integrity?
Do you believe in its mission?
Do you believe in the transformative possibility it represents?
Do you believe in the hope it extends?
Do you believe in the people here?
And yes, that’s the staff, but it’s not only the staff.
Do you believe in the story—
the story of God with us in love
working to redeem all creation?
Is it important to you?

If so, you need to give.
It really is that simple.
Give and give regularly.
Give and come to find you can give more.

Now, as pastor, you always worry
about offending the people who are already giving—
and giving as much as they can.
But as not your pastor I don’t know who you are.
So I’ll just say there are some of you here today
who need to hear this as affirmation—as thank you,
and there are some of you here today who need to hear it as challenge—
give or give more.
And I don’t know which any of you is.

How many of y’all grew up with the old hymns of the Baptist
or the evangelical tradition?
Finish these lines with me.
“My heart, my life, my all I bring to Christ who loves me so”
(B.B. McKinney, “Wherever He Leads I’ll Go).
“All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give”
(Judson W. Van DeVenter, “I Surrender All”).
“Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe”
(Elvina M. Hall, “Jesus Paid It All”).
“Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold”
(Frances R. Havergal, “Take My Life, and Let It Be Consecrated”).

I wrote a hymn a while back that begins:

“Within our hymns so bold,
we raise our standard high—
spend hours in prayer, tithe all our gold—
our sinful selves deny.

The truth revealed is clear:
we sing a faith not ours.”

But that hymn concludes:

“Within the hymns we sing,
the Scripture that we read,
the faith not ours helps ours take wing
in song—in word—in deed.”

So in conclusion, another etymology,
the word “church” (do you know this?) comes through Old English—
through Old English from the Germanic, Kirche in German,
but the German comes from the Greek—
and specifically the Greek word kyrios, lord.

Who you give your money to—
how you dedicate your money
defines who or what lord is for you.
And we all need to be so much more very careful about that.

It doesn’t matter how much you give to the church
in your fantasies
if you were pulling in $20 million a year.
What matters is what you do give.

May we pray together,
God, may the witness of my checkbook
participate in my profession of You as God,
in Jesus’ name. Amen.


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