Friday, November 15, 2013

“Great Day of Giving” - November 10, 2013

Text: 2 Corinthians 9:6-12

Today is Stewardship Sunday, and we are talking about money.  This is not easy because we aren’t comfortable talking about money.  People will talk about religion and politics and sex and all kinds of sensitive topics – or once-sensitive topics.  People will share all kinds of intimate details of their lives through social media, but we do not tweet our retirement account balance.  We don’t put a photo of our mortgage on Instagram, and we don’t post on Facebook that we may have to declare bankruptcy.

We don’t talk about money in a personal way, especially in church, but the Bible talks about money all the time.  According to Jim Wallis, there are several thousand verses in the Old Testament alone about money or the poor – it is the second most prominent theme, behind idolatry, and the two were often connected.  In the New Testament, one of every sixteen verses is about the poor or the subject of money; in Luke, it is one of seven. 

People complain sometimes that the church talks about money too much.  But if they want Biblical preaching, people should actually complain that we don’t talk about money nearly enough.

Well, today we are talking money.  Being that it is Stewardship Sunday, I thought we might look at some models for doing stewardship.  We have a certain way we have done things around here, but maybe there are some other approaches, some alternate ways, better ways to do it. 

The first idea comes from news reports from last year.  In Germany, the state collects a levy from tax-registered believers and hands it over to three organized faiths.  Registered Catholics, Protestants and Jews pay a surcharge on their income, which is distributed to their church or synagogue.

This is not new, and it’s not just Germany.  What made the news is that the German Roman Catholic bishops' conference announced that not paying taxes for the church is a grave offense, and that sacraments will be withheld from those who do not pay the 9% church tax.  If you don’t pay, you will be denied weddings, funerals, communion, and other sacraments in the church.

Of course, many Catholics in Germany are up in arms over this policy.  Many of those who pay the voluntary church tax are adamantly against this policy.  But you have to admit, this does provide some incentive for giving.

Now, the government is not going to collect our tithes and offerings, but we could institute something like this on our own.  We could only make the church’s services available to those who contribute 9% of earnings.  You don’t give at that level, no weddings, no funerals, no baptisms, and you can’t attend the annual cook-off.

That seems kind of extreme, but maybe we could go to a membership level system, which is more and more common in all kinds of organizations.  We have a regular AAA membership, but you can pay a little more and get a platinum membership with more benefits.

So here’s a proposal: we could institute membership levels.  If you give a smaller percentage of income, you get bronze level services.  You can park in the bronze parking section, sit in the first two rows – you know, where most people really don’t want to sit – and qualify for the economy wedding package.  Give enough for the silver level, say 5%, and we will throw in the newsletter, standard parking and seating, and a Music Camp CD.  And if you tithe, you are in the Gold membership level.  You get access to all church services and benefits, get in line first for pot-lucks, and you are allowed to sit in the back two rows – the really good seats.  Well, it’s an idea.

A related idea is that we require everyone to turn in a copy of their tax return.  We’ll take a look at it and then assign to each member the amount they should contribute.  Jewish synagogues operate on a structure where members are assessed dues based on their income level.  And I have heard of some evangelical churches where to join, you have to show your tax return and then they can monitor whether you are tithing.  We could all bring in our tax returns and net worth statements, and then the stewardship committee could look them over and send everybody a bill for the coming year.  We wouldn’t have to decide what to give, the church would decide for us.  What do you think?

Another possibility is the Public Radio Model.  In this program, we will call you every day for two weeks and talk for an hour.  For 20 minutes of that hour, we will remind you how much we do for you and how unfair it is to receive services you’re not paying for.  The great part about this method is we will continue to call you even after you’ve made your pledge – but of course after pledging, you won’t have to feel guilty about it.

Another method is time proven and very popular.  It is known as the “Pyramid” method, and it has worked very well for some folks on Wall Street.  Here’s how it works:  the very first person to pledge only has to pledge one penny.  That’s right, just one cent for the whole year!

That amount would double for each pledging unit to follow.  The second pledge would be for 2 cents; the third pledge would be 4 cents.  Sounds great, right? 

The really great thing is that this would completely cover our church finances.  As it turns out, the 25th giving unit would contribute $170,000.  If we had 45 pledges, which is a little more than last year, in the neighborhood of what we might expect, our pledge total would be around 17.6 trillion dollars.  This amount would not only allow us to fund all of our ministries and significantly increase our mission giving, we could also build a staff retreat center in the Swiss Alps.  We could pay for the south end zone expansion at Jack Trice Stadium – well, it would be Jack Trice Field at First Baptist Stadium.  We could also provide universal free pre-school, pay off all accumulated student loan debt in America - well, we could do that for the whole world - and we would still have most of the money left to help pay down the national debt.  And oh yeah, we wouldn’t have to have a pledge drive next year.

The other big plus would be that this method would definitely encourage people to get their pledges in early and not wait until the last minute.

Another possibility is the retail model – one size fits all.  Our proposed budget is $238,000 and we have some rental and investment income, so if we need let’s say $190,000 in pledges, we could divide that by 45 giving units and send everybody a bill for $4222.  It would be simple.  If it works for retail, it should work here.  Who sells a car based on what the consumer thinks God wants them to pay?

Finally, we could use the airline model.  You pay a modest fee for getting in the door.  The catch is, we will charge you for all of your baggage – the personal, emotional, and spiritual baggage you bring with you.  You want a seat – ka-ching.  You want some coffee – ka-ching.  You want to use a hymnal – ka-ching.  We’ll charge you for a bulletin.  We will charge per prayer, per choir anthem, per scripture reading, per communion.

Well, I can tell from looking at your faces that while each of these methods definitely has something to recommend it, nobody is very excited about any of them.  So, here is the plan we are using right now:

We have tried to communicate the mission of our church through various means.  We sent a letter and a copy of our proposed budget.  The budget is not so much a financial statement as it is a plan for ministry – a statement of the ministry we feel God is calling us to.  We sent a narrative budget that attempted to go beyond the numbers to what the budget represented, a story of the ministry that we share together as a church.

We have had testimonies in worship around stewardship.  Jere spoke to us about paying it forward – about the way that others have blessed us and we are called to pay those blessings forward to others.  Sometimes we get caught up in details and minutiae, but Katherine really helped me get a sense of the big picture.  She spoke of how this church has blessed her throughout her life, how it gave her a strong foundation as she left Ames to go away to school and how we were here for her as she came back to Ames.  For me it was a powerful reminder that yes, what we do really does matter, it really does make a difference.  And this morning Jeanette challenged us that stewardship is not just something to think about once a year, but it is the way we live each and every day.

So, we have tried to communicate as best we can what our mission is and why this matters.  We have asked everyone to pray about your own contribution – how you will be part of this church’s ministry through your time, your talents, your resources.

We have thought kind of light-heartedly about the way ministry is funded, but this is really not like NPR or Delta Airlines.  We are not paying for services received; we are investing in the future, investing in building God’s kingdom, investing in what we value highly.  We are investing in the kind of world we hope for and long for.  It is an investment we make with our financial gifts, but it is also an investment we make with our lives every day.

I am so impressed with so many of you who day in, day out make a difference – through involvement in the community in many ways, through participation not only in our congregation but in various organizations that are doing vital work in Ames and beyond.  But more than that, I have been impressed with the kindness and concern and compassion and all of the ways that you show love for your neighbor, each and every day.  This is Christian stewardship.

Our theme this last month has been “It’s a Great Day.”  We had our Great Day of Service, as we worked together to make a difference in our community and beyond.  On Reformation Sunday we remembered that we are part of a Great Tradition, called continually to renew the church that we love and through which we serve.  Last Sunday, we looked at the story of Zachaeus and a Great Day of Generosity.  His experience with Jesus changed his life and he was transformed from a life of selfish accumulation to a life of open-handed generosity.

Today we come to make our pledges of support for the year ahead, and it is a Great Day of Giving.  In our text from 2 Corinthians, we read, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. “

Now, compulsion has been tried.  There are a lot of stewardship models based on coercion, but our conviction is that we should all give freely, as we are led.  This is true at a congregational level.  Our budget includes ministries beyond our church that we choose to support – we are not assessed any dues; we do this because we want to.  We strongly support United Mission, the program through which we support American Baptist mission and ministry in this country and around the world.

We are among the leading churches in mission support in our region, and we are proud of that, but the fact is that God has blessed us with the resources to offer that kind of support, and we do so gladly.  We support numerous ministries and agencies that are doing good work, much-needed work, here in Ames.  We are under no compulsion or requirement to support such mission; we do so because we believe it is important and we want to. 

As a congregation, I think that we give cheerfully, gladly, to mission beyond the walls of this church.  The same is true at an individual level.

God does not want us giving out of guilt or compulsion or threat.  We don’t give in order to get brownie points with God or because bad things will happen to us if we don’t give.  I once received a letter from the organization of a big-time TV preacher.  It said that we have been praying for you these past several months, but our finances are tight, we only have so many people and so much time, and unless we hear from you soon with a contribution, we will have to drop your name from our prayer list.  They essentially said, “Our prayers have been protecting you and we can’t be responsible for what happens once we stop praying for you.”  (I’m not making this up.) 

Paul writes, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. “

The invitation to each of us is to give cheerfully, to give gladly, to give as God leads.  There is no tax or bill sent to us; we determine this for ourselves.  Now, the Bible offers some guidance.  The Bible points us to the tithe, or 10% of one’s increase.  The Old Testament idea was that the first-fruits, the first and best, ten percent off the top, belongs to God.

Jesus put a different spin on this.  The New Testament ethic is, it all belongs to God, not just 10%.  The tithe is not so much a law as a standard, a guide.  Depending on where we are in life, a tithe may be too difficult or it may be too little.  If you are starting out in giving, a good way is to choose a percentage and increase the percentage over time, moving towards a tithe.  For some doing very well, a tithe may be too easy.  Rick Warren is pastor of Saddleback Church, the megachurch in California.  He has become a celebrity, he has written best-sellers – he’s doing pretty well financially.  It’s safe to say he earns more than the average pastor.  He and his wife Kay practice a reverse tithe – they give away 90% and live on 10%.  On the other hand, there are those living on fixed incomes, there are folks just scraping by, and the relatively small amount they give may be a much more sacrificial gift than vast amount given by a wealthy person.

Again, Paul says: “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

In a moment, we will receive the offering.  We will offer our tithes, our gifts, our pledges of commitment.  And this is a time of celebration.  The offering is a celebration of God’s gifts, a celebration that we have been blessed, a celebration that we are able to give, a celebration that God’s grace that has found us. 

This morning, we invite you to give generously, we invite you to give joyfully, we invite you to give cheerfully – for God loves a cheerful giver.  Amen.

Thanks to Greg Garland for his thoughts on “creative stewardship models” which spurred this sermon.

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