Monday, October 23, 2017

You mean it's not about a guy named Stewart?

Preached October 22 at Ascension Lutheran Church, Towson, MD.
Then Jesus said to them, "Give back to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's."
A coin with a picture on it—the Emperor’s. It was required to pay the imperial tax. That’s the one paid to their conquerors for the privilege of being an occupied territory. It was a perverse tax and the Jews resented it. Well, not all of them. There were some who were in cahoots with the Romans, like the Herodians. So, it was a political question, the kind you can’t answer without getting yourself in trouble with someone.

They wanted to trick him, and he tricked them back. In the process, he taught us a concise lesson on stewardship. Give to God the things that are God’s.

The things that are God’s. And what would those things be? The way you answer that question says everything about how you live as a person of faith.

I know that a lot of people hate it when preachers talk about money. I was never crazy about it myself. And that’s forced me to ask, why? In order to answer that, I have to come clean about my relationship with money.

Some of you are really good with money. Me…not so much.

I grew up in a home where I was never taught about money and I didn’t have any good adult role models. I don’t recall any budgeting happening. If it did, I wasn’t aware of it. My parents had no pension plans. They assumed Social Security would get them through old age. No investments. No savings. It worked like this… If you had some money, you spent it. And sometimes you spent it when you didn’t have it.

There was no charitable giving, other than maybe the Salvation Army kettle at Christmas time. We weren’t a church family, so I had no awareness of the fact that somewhere there were people who actually put money into an offering plate on a regular basis.

I had a lot to learn about money, as an adult. Particularly as an adult person of faith. It’s been a journey for me.

When I first heard the word stewardship, I thought people were talking about a guy named Stewart who wanted to take us all on a cruise. Then I learned that stewardship is about faithful management of all that God’s given me—which is everything I have. I have to tell you that learning that hasn’t made it any easier for me.

Once, when my son Ben was 5 years old, for his birthday he got some cash. Actually, a lot of cash for a 5-year-old in 1986. When we counted it, it came to 43 dollars. “What are you going to do with all that money?” I asked him. “I’m going to give it to the church to feed hungry people,” he said.

Without thinking, I responded, “Oh, you don’t want to give it ALL to the church, do you? Don’t you want to spend some of it on yourself?”

Yes, I said that. I’m not proud of it. But it revealed a lot about where I was on my personal stewardship journey. I was not what you what call a cheerful giver. There was little generosity in my heart. When I gave money away, I was always thinking about how I could spend it on myself. I would think about the car I could be driving, or the wonderful vacations I could be taking with the money that I was giving to the church. I gave, but I did it with resentment. I was begrudging in my giving. I gave only what I thought was enough, so that I always had plenty for myself and my family. I confess that I was stingy.

I came to realize that there is a correlation between being stingy with my money, and stingy in other areas, too. I looked at people I knew who had generous spirits. They were generous in their money, in the way they spent their time, in their relationships… Their generosity knew no bounds. They never seemed to worry that they were giving too much of themselves or their possessions. To me, that’s what it looked like to live by God’s grace. I envied them. I longed to be more like them.

And I decided to open myself up so that God could create a more generous spirit within me.

Now one of the secrets of the faith is that if you long to become a person of faith, you don’t just think about it. You don’t just pray about it. You do the things that a person of faith does and eventually, your heart catches up with your actions.

So, I made some changes in my behavior. I changed my spending patterns. Living within my means came to mean, living within my means so that I could share out of my abundance with others. That meant that I was okay with a used car. That I didn’t buy a house with mortgage payments that made it impossible for me to give a portion of my income to the church.

I made a commitment to give off the top. To give my money away first, and then figure out what I had left for myself and not the other way around.

Now, at different times of my life I’ve been in a position to give more money away than I have at other times. Right now, I’m single, my children are grown, I make a decent living, and there’s not much that I need. That hasn’t always been the case, so I haven’t always been able to give as much away as I can now, but it’s not so much the amount given as the longing for a generosity of spirit that’s nudged to give more through the years.

About 25 years ago, I started to pay attention to the percentage of my giving. In the Bible they talk about 10% as a faithful response for all that God has given, and I like that as a goal for myself as a person of faith. I’d never ever really done the math before and was surprised to learn that I was giving about 6% of my income, after taxes, to the church.

I didn’t feel good about that, so I decided to work toward 10%. I would do it by increasing the percentage of my giving by one percent per year. A couple years some things came up, and I just couldn’t swing it, so I did a half percent those years. After 6 years I was at 10%. That was right about when I started using Simply Giving, so the money is automatically taken from my bank account and it’s money that I don’t miss.

I’m living within my means, and my means includes charitable giving.

Then once I reached 10% of my income after taxes, I worked toward 10% before taxes. I decided that the 10% after taxes would go to the church. The additional money, the difference between before taxes and after taxes, that 10% would go to other charities.

One thing that’s new for me over the past few years is that I’ve become more intentional about the organizations I give to beyond the church. This time of year, I receive all kinds of solicitations for money from lots of worthy organizations. I can’t give to everyone who asks. I need a plan for my giving.

At the beginning of the year, I consider my options, and I decide who will receive my money that next year. Sure, something may come up, like Disaster Relief, and I can give to that over and above what I had planned for the year.

I want to give to organizations that I know will use my money wisely, and organizations that I believe in, ones that share my values. I do my homework before I give away the money God’s entrusted to me. This year my extra giving includes micro-loans for women entrepreneurs in developing nations, the Vision for the ELCA Fund, the World Hunger Appeal, ReconcilingWorks, my seminary, ACTC, BRIDGE Maryland, public radio.

I want to be intentional in my giving, just as I’m intentional in my spending.

That’s what stewardship is all about. Being intentional in how I use the gifts God’s given me so that the way I use those gifts reflects my relationship with the one who’s given me everything. Giving to God the things that are God’s.

When it comes to money, that doesn’t only mean stewardship of the money I give away, but it also means the money I spend on everything else, too. I continually ask, how does the way I spend my money reflect my relationship with God? This year, I took a sharpie pen and drew a cross on all my credit cards. That way, every time I use one, I’m reminded that the way I spend my money isn’t all about me; it’s a faith statement. 

I’ve become more generous through the years. That doesn’t mean I still don’t struggle sometimes, and I’m okay with that. God loves a cheerful giver, and that’s certainly true. But I take comfort in the fact that God loves a grumpy giver, too. The important thing is that I’m a giver. And God is helping me grow in generosity.

That’s a lot about me today.

What about you? What’s your personal history with money? How does the way you deal with money reflect your personal values, your relationship with God? Are you open to growing in generosity?