Monday, September 9, 2013

Sermon in which I get pretty shirty about tithing

This is more or less the sermon I preached yesterday because I actually wrote this sucker out. The poor 8:00'ers got a longer version that caused all of them to politely say, "Good to see you" at the end of the service, which is how I knew it totally bombed. The later services got something much more edited, off-book, and streamlined, and seemed to really like it. This, however, is the manuscript version with just a couple of tweaks. Because I am lazy.

This week, I attended a conference called SOCAP, which is a bit hard to explain. SOCAP stands for Social Capital Markets and the conference is (to quote the website) “dedicated to increasing the flow of capital towards social good.” To put it another way, we spent a lot of time talking about money.

I went as part of a specially invited “faith cohort” and I felt a bit out of place in the midst of a bunch of people talking about social impact investing, and entrepreneurship, and the global economy, and the double bottom line, and ROI (which was the only acronym I understood when the week started of the many, many acronyms bandied about).

But one of the reasons I wanted to go to this conference is because I hate the way we in the church talk about money. We are, if you will forgive my language, really half-assed about it. I get the sense that we’re not comfortable with it so we poke it with a stick at a distance, or try to keep it separate from the “real” things that we do.

It kind of reminds me about how I feel about electricity. I’m completely dependent upon it for everything that I do, but I don’t know how to handle it. I know it’s powerful and I’m afraid to get shocked. So I avoid it as best I can, let other people handle it when I can’t, and don’t even want to learn about it because it seems too complicated and too scary.

I think there’s a way in which we in the church – not everyone, but many of us – see money as the electrical system, with the added problem that the system has been given a moral overlay. So this week was like attending a conference of electricians, people who were comfortable with the power of money, and who also respected the danger it might pose. They didn’t see money as moral or immoral in itself, but only in how it was used. As one of the founders who herself is an Episcopal priest said at the opening plenary, “Using our capital to change the world for good is part of who we are.” And, coming from the world of the church where money so often seems to be viewed as a necessary evil, it was amazing to see how these people who felt at home around money operated.

One of those people was a woman from Mercy Housing named Sr. Lillian Murphy. Mercy Housing provides low income housing throughout the United States. As the CEO, Sr. Lillian oversees a budget of approximately 200 million dollars per year, with assets worth more than $1 billion. It was such a pleasure to hear her talk because she sounded like a person who knew very well how to handle electricity. She told us “Very little good can be accomplished or evil avoided without the use of money.” And then went on to recount exactly how many millions of dollars it took for Mercy Housing to accomplish their mission, absolutely at ease with the numbers she threw around.

Sitting next to her on the panel was a banker who had a much more philosophical approach to the topic of money. He told us two things: one, that “money is the store of your values and an agent of change”; and, two, “Do you know where your money spends the night?”

So I’ve been thinking about this idea of money being the store of our values. Because I suspect this is one of the things Jesus is getting at when he tells us to give up all of our possessions. But first, I have a little rant.

One of the ways in which the church has done us a great disservice regarding money is our emphasis on tithing. Because I've got to tell you, I think tithing is antithetical to the gospel.

Tithing is simply transactional. All it requires is a little math, and if you can make the numbers work, you’re done. It requires no thought beyond a little long division. But since when has the Christian life been about “making the numbers work”? Jesus was never interested in ensuring that his followers conformed to a simple external framework. Jesus was interested in seeing people’s lives transformed, and seeing them exhibit love for one another regardless of what the law or custom said. And that is far more challenging than dividing your income by 10 and writing a check.

Here’s another thing about tithing: it assumes that you are not the church. “Give 10 percent of your money to the church,” we’ve blithely announced in stewardship campaigns year after year, not recognizing that you as the church are representing the church in 100 percent of your money, no matter who you give it to. Is that clear? You are the church. The church is not some separate entity.You represent the church through the mission of this parish and your giving towards that. And you represent the church in the money you spend and save and share and invest every day. Because you are the church. You cannot help but represent the church with your money.

And I think that's what Jesus is getting at in the gospel for today. If you are a disciple, then you don't get to set apart some of your friends and family as holy and some as not; you don't get to choose some of your possessions as set apart for God and some not; and you don't get to say that 10 percent of your money goes to good works and the rest is yours to deal with.

Which brings me back to the banker. His words challenge me, and maybe you as well: If money is the store of our values and an agent of change, what values does our money represent? What do we want it to represent? What do we want it to change? Do you know where your money spends the night?

Tithing sounds easy in comparison, doesn’t it? But there is no better time than the present than to sit down and count the cost of true discipleship. May we do so, trusting in God’s everlasting grace and mercy and confident in God's neverfailing love. Amen.


Bridget said...

So giving ten percent somewhere, is what he meant?

LTD said...

I doubt it. Jesus never talks about tithing -- except to criticize how it is used in a legalistic sense. The early church in Acts and in Paul's letters never talk about tithing.

As I read Scripture, tithing is an Old Testament agricultural practice that has been wrenched out of context and poorly applied to church finances. It's a shortcut we've used for fundraising, but it is not Biblically, theologically, pastorally, or practically sound.

I really think Jesus meant that every possession we have and all the money we earn needs to be directed toward the end of expressing love of God and neighbor. And by "neighbor," he means everyone, not just kin and kind.

So that's my 2 cents!

jared bartholomew said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head with tithing. "Tithing is simply transactional. All it requires is a little math, and if you can make the numbers work, you’re done." when explaining the deficiency of tithing, this is a simple explanation. I don't know why some have a hard time understanding concept you've so clearly stated. i gues it's because of the urgent needs of financial pressure cause others to overlook the pitfalls of tithing. The ends justify the means is good enough when financing a church i guess