by Pastor Sarah Stadler
In my family, my parents had one annual fight, a fight that long ago ended, so now acceptable for public consumption. As a child, I knew it was church stewardship season when I heard their raised voices seeping through their bedroom door. Finally, my parents would emerge, my father stern, my mother tearful. You see, my dad is a pastor, and every year when our church had its stewardship drive, my parents would discuss: to tithe or not to tithe. The stewardship drive or the stewardship emphasis as we call it here is usually a month-long period during the fall during which we consider how we will give monetarily and otherwise to the church in the coming year. While the fall, month-long period of the stewardship emphasis or stewardship drive may be unique to Lutherans, the question of whether to tithe or not to tithe cuts across all Christian traditions. To tithe is to give 10 percent of our income in any given year back to the mission of God in the world. Commands to tithe appear in both the Old and New Testaments; God desires those who worship God to give back to God in thanksgiving for all that God has done for us. Though scripture clearly instructs the people of God to tithe, few of us do. Within the ELCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the church body of which Grace is a part, the average percentage of giving is 2-3%. And this, this caused my parents’ annual fight. Because my father wanted to tithe, wanted to give 10%, wanted to lead by example in the congregation where he served as pastor. But my mom, practical, thrifty, and in charge of all financial activity in our household, saw the numbers and couldn’t figure out how to make tithing work.
And so it is for many of us. The conflict may be between us and our partner, or it may lay within ourselves, that struggle of wanting to give and yet not knowing how, on a practical level, to make it work. We may want to tithe, but we may want other things more. We may need other things more. To make matters more complex, Jesus speaks of money and possessions more often than any other topic, more often than he speaks even of the kingdom of God. And when Jesus talks about money and possessions, he doesn’t prescribe an annual gift of 10%. He teaches his disciples to give all of their monetary resources, all of their time, all of their gifts back to the mission of God in the world. Jesus takes tithing to the next level because, as he says today, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
So, I’m sorry. It’s a hard sermon today. But we can’t avoid Jesus. And, honestly, we don’t want to, right?
I think most of us in the world, certainly all of us in this room, have good intentions. We intend to live our values. We intend to give back to God’s mission in the world. We intend to make ethically thoughtful choices about how we distribute or use all the gifts of God, including our money. But at this point in human culture, the economy is incredibly complex. How money functions in the world is beyond my complete understanding. What impact does purchasing a particular product at store down the street make on actual trees being cut down in an actual rainforest somewhere? How does working in particular factories making particular products affect, for good or ill, actual humans? And are the messages we’re sending about the necessity of these products even truthful? My head spins to consider these and many other questions. To be honest, I sometimes just keep my head down, purchase from Amazon, and stop myself from laboring under the questions of where and how the minerals for this product were mined, who and at what hourly wage the person packaging this product and driving this product to my door was paid, and hardest question of all: do I really need this thing, whatever it is. Sometimes, I do that, and sometimes, I go to the farmer’s market and purchase directly from people who grew their own vegetables or created their own products. (Even they often have to purchase containers and tools from someone else…it just never ends inside my head…)
I ask these questions because, when Jesus speaks of money both in this passage and throughout the gospel of Luke, he commands us to sell our possessions, give away all we have, not just a part of what God has given us. And logically, it doesn’t make sense to me that we would give away all we have for, then, we would also be in need. In fact, when we are truly in a difficult financial place where we are making choices between food and medication, for instance, when we have steadfastly budgeted and practiced wisdom in regards to extraneous material possessions, I do not believe that Jesus would command us to give 10% when doing so would endanger our health and life. Jesus calls us, instead, to give and to use all our monetary resources in a way that brings life and life abundant to us and all creation. Even if I give 10% of my income back to Grace, it makes a difference how I spend the other 90%. For where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.
I invite us today to consider how we invest our treasure, how we use the monetary resources God has given us. Jesus teaches that, when we take an honest look at how we invest or use those resources, we will see reflected the values of our hearts. It might be a little scary; we might feel a bit ashamed. I am not all that eager to do it myself. Actually, what percentage of my income do I give to organizations whose mission I support? Is that the percentage of my net income or my gross income, meaning my after-taxes income or my before-taxes income? Whatever percentage I keep for my own needs and desires, how much am I saving or investing and in what bank or credit union or stocks? Of the money I spend, what are the gaps between the undeniable truth found in my checking account or my wallet and the values I articulate?
While evaluating our financial-spiritual wellness might exhaust us, the good news is, as Jesus says, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Even as we let go of that which wears out, God freely gives us the kingdom. No thief can steal this kingdom nor can moth destroy. God does not leave us bereft. Letting go of excess material possessions frees us to accept the kingdom of God, a gift that goes beyond the material, a gift we might miss if we were looking only for the material. Instead, in the kingdom of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we live with joy and wonder, peace and hope, courage and faith. Even as we let go, we can say: Thanks be to God! Amen.