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The Top Ten (Stewardship)

October 19, 2012

A sermon preached by The Rev. Susan R. Andrews, General Presbytery of the Hudson River Presbytery, at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 14, 2012

Mark 10:17-27

Two weeks ago, my husband and I spent the weekend at a simple country inn in northeastern Connecticut. As is our custom when we are away, we found the closest Protestant church to worship in on Sunday morning. When we walked into the New Preston Congregational Church, it felt very familiar – like the 60 percent of our congregations here in Hudson River that have fewer than 100 members. There were about 35 people in the pews, with an average age of at least 70. But they were very warm and the simple service was very nourishing.

When it came to the offering, I was fascinated to learn about this congregation’s special initiative called Pay it Forward. Each week the lay leader pulls a name from a big jar. That person is then invited forward to receive a $50 bill. Their assignment is to spend that money to help someone else within the next week, and then come back and report their decision during the following week’s worship service.

You could sense the whole congregation perk up at this point in the service. It was announced that during the previous week, the $50 had been given to a young single mother in the community whose kitchen had caught on fire – and the money helped her buy a new microwave. In previous weeks the money had gone to buy postage for care packages for soldiers in Afghanistan, to the local food bank, to camp scholarships for poor children. Clearly the joy and energy this congregation has found in this new way of giving has turned them outward in meaningful ways, which has only strengthened their ties with one another. And all of it is second mile giving, on top of and not instead of the regular offerings that are given. Two or three “angels” provide the pot of money out of which the $50 comes, but the whole congregation has learned the wonder of giving generously – not because somebody deserves it, but because generosity and grace is simply the heartbeat of life for those of us who follow Jesus.

Jeff has intentionally asked me to preach during your fall stewardship season, and yes, he encouraged me to talk about money. I know that you have already heard a lot of talk about money these past couple of years.  But because Jesus talks about money and possessions five times more than he talks about prayer, I think we are in pretty good company. And you are growing and stretching in your love of money – money used to build God’s kingdom of justice peace and abundance on earth. Last year, you experienced a 20% growth in giving with 28 new pledging units. And 10 of you have stepped up to the plate as tithers, giving away at least the top ten percent of your income. I hope you have experienced the joy I have felt these last 40 years. One of the most satisfying moments in the month for me is when I write my tithing check to the presbytery. Because I don’t belong to a particular congregation, I have chosen to give 8% of my gross income to the presbytery mission budget, and then another 4% to the educational, cultural, and justice causes that I care about. Thank goodness, I married a man who agrees with me, so even years ago when we shared one modest income, even when our children attended private liberal arts colleges, even during the recent recession, our giving has always come off the top – the top ten given all to the glory of God.

Now, I know that giving – in the broader sense – is a huge part of who you have been – and even more who you are becoming.  Jeff has told me wonderful stories about the good things that are happening around here as you claim your neighbors as friends and partners in the work of grace and justice.  The creative project you have started with local elementary students to honor Wangari Maathai – engaging young hearts through books and storytelling, and then carrying on Wangari’s environmental passion by planting trees. And then there is the Church Garden and the way in which it has engaged and fed your children, giving them a concrete experience of God’s growing abundance in our lives. All of this in addition to a growing engagement with Muslims and Jews, an embrace of cross cultural experiences in worship and fellowship, your initiative to partner with the Historical Society to honor and restore your cemetery. My friends, when it comes to sharing the abundance of your energy and your time and your faith with others, you are stewards of the first order.

But brothers and sisters, when it comes to the stewardship of money, you have a way to go. One day last week, I spent the evening pouring over the 2011 comparative statistics for the 87 congregations in this presbytery. In this congregation, the average gift of money is  $778 per member per year. Which ranks you 43rd out of our 87 churches, and is one third lower than the average for Presbyterian congregations across this nation.. You know, the average income  in the zip code right around the church is $63,000 – a bit below the national median, where the average income. Based on 75% of this median income, if just half of you decided to tithe your income – give 10% of your income – do you know how much money you would have to share God’s love in your neighborhood if every one of you tithed? An extra half a million dollars a year!

I don’t know what your individual reasons may be for this financial stewardship dilemma. But I do know that you and I are caught in a much larger social dilemma. We, as 21st century Americans, have been seduced by the insatiable hunger of a materialistic world.

Doug Oldenburg is the former President of Columbia Seminary in Atlanta, and a seasoned pastor and lover of Christ’s church. In a stunning set of sermons preached a few years ago, he lays out the biblical and theological foundation for Presbyterian stewardship. And he grounds it in the basic tension of our lives. You and I, he says, are caught between two powerful stories – and which one of these stories becomes our heart story makes all the difference in the quality of our living. One is the Culture Story, and the other is the Faith Story. One is the Money Story and other is the Gospel Story. One story grounds us in consumerism, and the other story grounds us in Christ. And the choice is ever before us.

The Culture Story – the Money Story – is the plot reflected on TV 24 hours a day. It is the story that is told in those two or three visa applications we all get in the mail each year. It is the story that has caused the rate of personal bankruptcy to escalate in the last few years. And it is the story fueling the ambition of college students, 75% of whom say getting rich is the main reason they go to college – up from 50% just 25 years ago. This Money Story is the basis of capitalism, and it is what makes our economic system hum right along. And its motto is MORE IS ALWAYS BETTER – “more goods, more influence, more clothes, more stock, more power, more trips to Europe, more capital gains, more money, more cars, more houses.” It is a story that insists that no matter how much we have, it is simply never enough.

As much philanthropic good that has come out of the Culture Story, there is also is a down side to this narrative.. One social researcher has discovered that in the last 40 years – as our material prosperity has sky-rocketed, much of our social fabric has been torn asunder. “The divorce rate has doubled, the teen suicide rate has tripled…and the individual depression rate has increased ten times.” My friends, when money becomes an obsession in our lives, we begin to suffer from a disease that some have called “affluenza” – a painful, contagious, socially transmitted disease that is a combination of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of money. In the last 40 years, income has doubled in this country, but the percentage of us who say that we are “very happy” has fallen from 35% to 30%. Something is wrong with this picture.

All of which leads us to the second story – the faith Story – the Gospel Story that also shapes our Christian lives. The Gospel Story reminds us that all of life is a gift – being generous is the nature of God and also our best human nature – because we are created in the image of God. The Gospel Story is the story that Jesus tells this morning when he gently confronts the Rich Ruler. In this all too familiar passage in Mark, we meet a seeker who has come to Jesus because he is unhappy. And because there is a nagging hunch in his heart that Jesus can help him figure out why. Despite his life of obedience to the commandments, what Jesus suggests to him is that the Money story has shaped his rich ruler life in ways that inevitably leads to an unhappy ending. Contrary to much of Hebrew scripture wisdom, this ruler’s wealth in not a blessing from God given to him in order to reward him for good behavior. Instead his wealth is a gift – an opportunity from God to use his blessings to bless the world. But in reality this man’s wealth has become for him a stumbling block, a false god that has gradually sapped his energy and diverted his life. And it has left him sad, very, very sad. Jesus, in his pastoral role, knows that until the idol of wealth is removed, this precious child of God will not find the joy and purpose he is looking for.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would liquidate every endowment in every congregation in this presbytery and match it with presbytery funds coming from the buildings we are selling when congregations close – but only if the congregation uses  most of that money to invest in transforming the communities and neighborhoods outside the church.  I would challenge every congregation to step up the use of their building to 75% of capacity at least 6 days a week – with partnerships and ministries to serve the poor, the young, the stranger. And I would encourage very member of Hudson River Presbytery to tithe ten hours a week of time to share the Good News of the Gospel in concrete ways in the board rooms and class rooms and living rooms where we live their lives. In other words, I would want to see a Feast of Stewardship emerge – a feast of time and money and talent extravagantly poured out to the Glory of God – stewardship that is not about budgets and buildings and burdens – but instead a stewardship that is all about blessings.

But this kind of stewardship takes risk and vision – risk and vision that can be scary and hard.

My friends, all of us are captive to the Culture Story – the Money Story – so woven into the world in which we live. But we need to know that we do have a choice. We can safely live the money script of the world. Or, we can enthusiastically and counter culturally live the gospel script of our Living Lord. We can turn away from Jesus’ radical call with sadness, or we can risk extravagance – and find the deep joy of blessing the world with our blessings.

White Plains saints, what choice will you make this year?

May it be to the glory of God! Amen .

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