I didn’t post last month’s article from our church newsletters since it really didn’t have much broader inference beyond the structure of our own congregation, but for those who follow these things, here’s my article for our newsletter this month:
The Church’s Least Favorite Word: Money
Of all the topics we discuss and avoid in the Church, few of them are more controversial than money. It isn’t that we don’t talk about difficult realities, we do. Over the years, the church has learned how not to avoid any number of remarkably complex and controversial issues. No longer do we naïvely skirt around conversations about divorce, end of life arrangements, and even gender. They aren’t always easy conversations, of course, but we’ve learned how important they are, so we have them. Yet the topic of money often remains taboo.
It isn’t that the Bible ignores the subject. Indeed, quite the opposite; by some counts the Bible talks about money and our relationship with it over 800 times – always with two basic themes: (1) everything belongs to God, and when God gives us resources it is our job to use them wisely, generously, and for the advancement of divine priorities, and (2) money has a unique ability to “get under our skin;” we are drawn to it like moths to a flame, and while it can be used for good, it can also be deeply destructive.
In other words: money, like so many things, can be very, very good and very, very bad.
So we avoid it. We try not to talk about it any more than we have to, and we pretend that – if we ignore it – everything will work out fine.
Except, of course, it doesn’t.
At home, we have bills and loans; at work, we balance expenditures and incomes; at church we struggle over receipts and benevolences. In each case, ignoring the realities only makes them worse, and yet facing them can be difficult.
How do we use what we have? What should we give (and to whom)? Should we have savings or investments? If so, how do we balance the desire for growth with responsible ethics? The questions are innumerable!
The Old Testament legal system had a complex (but fairly straight forward) system of expectations. All of God’s people were expected to start by giving a tithe (10%) of each year’s returns (often livestock, grain, and liquids like wine and oil, but also money). That was just the beginning! Tithes went to supporting the temple and the priesthood. On top of the tithes, there were also other sacrifices, offerings, gifts, benevolences and the expectation that people – living in community – would tend to one another’s needs and concerns. Anything left after tithes, sacrifices, offerings, gifts, benevolences and general care of one another in the community was considered fair game for personal goods (food, housing, etc.) and investment in the future (livestock, land, savings, etc.)
Jesus grew up under the laws described throughout the Hebrew scriptures and, we believe, completely fulfilled each and every one of them. Although we risk oversimplifying things when we try to boil down what Jesus accomplished throughout his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, we can at least say that because of Jesus, Christianity has very different daily expectations than Judaism had. We no longer keep kosher kitchens. We plant fields with multiple grains and wear clothing of mixed fibers. We don’t maintain a genetic priesthood, nor do we rely on a cycle of lament and prophecy to interact with God. It isn’t that purity and order in life have become unimportant, it’s that the Christian reckoning of them is based on grace rather than law. We no longer determine what to do in our lives by simply asking “what does the Bible say?” Instead, we are face with the more complex question of “what best reflects God’s grace and priorities?”
The problem with applying the standard of “divine grace and kingdom priorities” is that it can be difficult to nail down. Fortunately, Jesus gives us a wonderfully clear description of how we apply that standard to our financial lives in two words: sacrificially generous.
What “sacrificially generous” mean in your life? I don’t know. I have enough trouble trying to figure out what it means in mine. I do know this, though: (1) everything belongs to God, and when God gives us resources it is our job to use them wisely, generously, and for the advancement of divine priorities, and (2) money has a unique ability to “get under our skin;” we are drawn to it like moths to a flame, and while it can be used for good, it can also be deeply destructive.
The Consistory discussed whether or not to provide financial “pledge cards” for the congregation this year and we were of mixed opinions. In recent years, only a few have been returned – making them unhelpful for budget planning. Yet, we do believe it’s important for each of us to take the time to look at our giving and think intentionally about the relationship between our faith and our finances. So here’s the middle ground: attached to this article is a “pledge card.” We would love for you to use it and drop it in the offering plate sometime in December.
If you return your card, it will help in two ways: it will give us a glimpse at the resources this congregation can expect throughout 2014, and perhaps even more importantly it will enable our financial secretary to update you on your giving throughout the year.
Of course, you don’t have to return it. Even more importantly than that, we hope you’ll take the time to fill it out. What does it look like for you to be “sacrificially generous?” How do you understand the relationship between faith and finances?
Whatever your decision, remember that I’m always eager to be in conversation with you. If you want to discuss these questions (or others) with someone, you know where to find me!
Grace and peace,
(Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Don’t worry! We haven’t forgotten about the non-financial aspects of stewardship: time, gifts, skills, etc. – we’ll be focusing on them throughout December as we roll out the Ministry Pools described in last month’s article!)