The Stuff of Life: Getting Real

I really don’t like talking about money.  Mostly because I know it is a sensitive subject for people to talk about.  Finances command a lot of our attention.  Money is one of the most common topics for conflict in marriages.  Then add faith into the mix, and an ugly history of the church using all sorts of measures to squeeze contributions out of their members and, well, is it any wonder I wouldn’t like talking about this?

Today I want to bring this series on The Stuff of Life together, and even add to it some other dimensions of giving – like our time and talent.  But before I do, I want to get some things off my chest and hopefully put you (and me) more at ease.  First off, I hate guilt trips, and have no desire to use guilt or shame to motivate generosity.  The Church has used shame and guilt (as well as coercion) which is just simply counter to the Way of Jesus.  Sometimes the story of the Widow’s Mite is used for this purpose.:

Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins.

Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.” – Luke 21:1-4 (NLT)

This text has been used inappropriately to make those of us who don’t follow suit all feel like selfish losers!  In truth, while the widow deserves honor for her faithfulness, Jesus was not happy about the situation.  The fact that she had to give anything at all was abhorrent to him.  Taking what little this poor woman had to help fund a Temple that at that time was being run by leadership who lived lavishly on such offerings was – and is – disgusting.  If Jesus were in charge at that moment, he would not only tell the vulnerable widow to keep her pennies but would likely pull out a few bucks of his own to give her and advise the rich bystanders to do the same.  If you are like the widow, having barely enough to get food on the table and pay for the most basic expenses – keep your money!  Let us help you if we can with our Food Pantry.  Again, I am instructing you as your Pastor: don’t go hungry because you feel obligated to contribute a few of your limited shekels to CrossWalk – keep it!

Another thing I want you to know is that I think the whole notion of a transactional faith whereby we do our part to get God to do God’s part is false.  I know this challenges part of the heart of Christian orthodoxy, but that’s okay – it needs to be challenged and updated!  The following passage has been used for such coercive thinking:

Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test! – Malachi 3:10 (NLT)

Is it a good idea to support the Temple/Church?  Yes!  Is the point of this text in its full context to do your part of the transaction?  No!  The context of the text is about fostering a healthy relationship with God.  A relationship that has as its foundation a contract of sorts is doomed to be shallow and cold.  No heart, no love required.  That kind of thinking lends itself to a poor relational paradigm for faith – you will always wonder if you’ve done enough to encourage God to do enough for you in return. 

So, where does that lead us, if coercion and guilt and transactional faith are off the table?

I think the whole point of the Good News Jesus came to share was that resurrection now and post-death are a reality.  We can experience a renewed life infused and empowered and directed by the very Spirit of God that is everywhere, all the time.  This invitation to new life is all a gift of grace. All of it.  It is already at work in our lives even if we don’t know it, and it is available in much greater ways if we learn to walk in it.  When we really begin to wake up to this and embrace it, we get a new lease on life.  It is truly transformative.  So much so that Jesus said it is like being born again.  This isn’t meant to be a once-and-done type of experience, either.  I have had many, many milestone moments in my life when I’ve had my eyes opened to new insights about the Way of Jesus.  When that happens, it is a day of renewal, and yet also a deepening of my roots and convictions that this God thing is real.  Living in that Spirit of God, walking to the beat of that Drummer is the point of everything.  Both of which are sometimes very different than that of the world in which we live and the systems that formed us.  As we experience ongoing renewal we realize with greater appreciation, as Paul noted,

…that God will empower you with inner strength through God’s Spirit. Then Christ will make God’s home in your hearts as you trust in God. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep God’s love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. – Ephesians 3:16-19 (NLT)

When we are immersed in that way of life, in that growing insight, all forms of transaction and legalism simply melt away and are replaced by a living relationship with the Divine.  Our motive and logic shifts from wondering what we have to do to what we get to do, from asking what is required to how can we best express our gratitude, from a minimal, guarded offering of select parts of our lives to wondering how we might entrust all of ourselves to God and see where that might lead.  We entrust everything to God and God’s Way of being.  We hold nothing back, confident that the Way of Love works, even if it is counterintuitive.

I honestly think that the more we meditate on the love of God for us that in time our ethics will change as we are changed.  But I think we can also speed up that process by studying the life of Jesus and learning the ethic he embraced, which was, of course, motivated from the same ethos we’re growing into.  Meditating on the love of God is a choice to not meditate on other things.  People worry a lot about money.  Lower-income people, middle income people, and wealthy people all worry.  Lower-income folks worry about having enough.  Wealthy people worry about losing it.  Middle income people worry about making it to the next level.  Worry is a form of meditation.  When we focus our attention on something, that’s a form of meditation.  You may not have realized it, but you meditate a lot, don’t you?  Jesus invited his followers to meditate differently:

I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food to eat or enough clothes to wear. For life is more than food, and your body more than clothing. Look at the ravens. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for God feeds them. And you are far more valuable to him than any birds! Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? And if worry can’t accomplish a little thing like that, what’s the use of worrying over bigger things?

“Look at the lilies and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

“And don’t be concerned about what to eat and what to drink. Don’t worry about such things. These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers all over the world, but your Father already knows your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and he will give you everything you need.

“So don’t be afraid, little flock. For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom.

“Sell your possessions and give to those in need. This will store up treasure for you in heaven! And the purses of heaven never get old or develop holes. Your treasure will be safe; no thief can steal it and no moth can destroy it. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. – Luke 12:22-34 (NLT)

Trust that the Way of God works.  Trust in it.  And, very practically and in response to our holding on so tight, Jesus tells his followers to give to those in need.  We trust and we offer our whole selves to be used in response to the love of God.

So, brass tacks time: if we are in the flow, grateful for the love of God and wanting to express it tangibly through giving, what does that look like?  How much?  There is no one definitive answer that fits every situation.  You are going to have to pray and dream this up for your life.  Here are some ways that have been helpful to people in the past.  I hope they help you.

“Fair” share.  This, in my opinion, is the worst way to think about this subject for a range of reasons.  The idea here is that we take the total budget and divide it by the number of member households to determine what everyone’s fair share should be.  Some of us cannot afford the fair share – it’s not fair at all.  For some of us, the Fair Share is chump change – making that our number surely cannot adequately express generosity.  Besides, it doesn’t account for folks newer to the faith verses longer termers – maturity and generosity likely go hand in hand.  I think the only thing it might be good for is as a mere point of reference to break down a big number and help it become more relatable.

Baseball Diamond.  I learned this metaphor a few years ago.  It’s not too bad.  Think about hitting a single, double, triple, and a home run – what might that look like in terms of financial generosity?  A single is simply getting on base – you’re helping the team in the smallest way possible.  Think of this as just simply giving something.  Very helpful!  But likely not where you might like to be.  A double might be like covering our Fair Share for ourselves.  A triple might be covering Fair Share for our household.  A home run is when we think way beyond ourselves and contribute with people in mind that we don’t even know yet.  If you’re not in the game, you might consider starting with just getting on base.

Percentages.  The biblical percentage that gets tossed around a lot is 10%, which is what the word tithe literally means.  It refers to giving 10% off the top of your earnings to the Temple, which would then use those funds to serve those in need.  Later, the early church adopted the same percentage for the same purpose, except instead of the Temple, it was the community of Jesus followers.  Ten percent for most people seems like way too big a number for their budget.  Especially in the Napa area where housing costs command between 40%-50% of earnings, there isn’t a lot of margin.  I think there is genius in a bigger percentage than we would feel initially comfortable with, however.  For you, the stretch might be 5%.  Do you know what you would do if you decided to contribute that much?  You would watch your money like a hawk because you would be worried about not making it!  Do you know happens when we watch our money closely?  We are usually much better stewards.  We save more, spend less, and spend more wisely.  We feel blessed all around because we’re being smarter with our money because we sort of must.  A challenge for you might be to step up a percentage point or two.  And for some of you, 10% is a cake walk.  Maybe doubling or tripling that makes more sense?  Rick Warren, who was the founding pastor of a mega church in Orange County, had a best-selling book that made him a lot of royalties.  With his new wealth, he paid back the church his salary – for the entire duration he had been serving there!  His goal was to live on 10% and give 90% away.  Be aware that we usually think too low, not too high.  Work hard to stay focused on your ethos – your motive – and see what makes sense.

All In.  We have been focused on financial contributions, but we are not simply ATM’s for God.  While money will always fight to be priority in our culture and is very important to get in line, it’s just a part of us.  You also have time, talents, and prayer to offer.  All of them matter.  I hope you’ll pray a lot for CrossWalk.  Everybody can do that, and it makes a difference.  Some of your time and talent may be suited for some role at CrossWalk.  Very likely your time, talent and prayers can be used outside of CrossWalk to serve your neighbors in the fullest sense of the word.  Sometimes we tell ourselves that since we give time and talent, we can drop treasure off the list.  In most cases I think this is a bad idea.  Because money is such an alluring false God, giving financially is really important to keep its position in check.  And, CrossWalk needs financial support.  But the biggest reason is that when we compartmentalize our lives – allowing God access to some parts but not others – we are choosing to close off a huge part of our lives to the Spirit of God.  The hope is that as we are awakened, we will find ways to open ourselves evermore, not silo certain parts of ourselves off to God.  When we hold that piece back, we hurt ourselves, the church, and the people we are trying to serve.  Your offering matters to you!

Legacy Giving.  Not to be morbid, but we are all going to die someday.  When we do, we will truly discover that “you can’t take it with you.”  Will what you leave behind at death go toward the things you valued in life?  A tragic reality for many faithful people is that they give generously in life, but their kids never really got it for one reason or another.  The faithful folk naturally leave their estate to their kids, who are their top priority (which is wonderful).  But if the kids don’t give a rip about the faith, the faithful giving ends with you.  Why not set aside some portion of your estate to make a final or perpetual gift that embodies your values?  We’ve had this happen in different ways over the years.  Sometimes we get stock before a person dies – you get the full tax credit without taking the capital gains hit because you transfer the stock to us – win-win!  Sometimes we honor a loved one who has passed by making a significant donation toward a need in the church.  Our remodeled Kitchenette was funded in memory of Jay Corley, who founded Monticello Winery.  Our Youth Lounge and Rec Room were remodeled when a woman came into some unexpected money from an estate.  What might you consider dreaming about that could outlive you?

Consistency.  A great gift you can give to CrossWalk is to automate your giving.  I used to set this up on my bank’s side through their bill paying feature.  My bank would send checks every month.  I recently switched over to using the online Realm program we’ve been promoting.  It is really easy to set up.  I can dictate which funds I want to support, and I can use my credit card and build up points for a future vacation.  When you do this, you can rest assured that your values are taken care of – you are supporting your church even if you are not able to be here physically.  It also provides great stability for CrossWalk.  Our contributions can vary significantly month to month – automation helps the cause that helps so many!

I hope this has been helpful – I really want it to be.  Yes, CrossWalk needs support.  As the Pastor, that matters to me very personally (!) and because I am charged with keeping this place vital.  But way more than that, I hope I have helped you recognize that this is a really, really important faith issue.  This presents an opportunity to offer your whole self – and for many of us the most focused-on part – to God as an act of gratitude and faith.  May you get to that space in life where you can echo the Apostle Paul:

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength…

At the moment I have all I need—and more! I am generously supplied with the gifts you sent me… They are a sweet-smelling sacrifice that is acceptable and pleasing to God. And this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:10ff (NLT)