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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Traveling Incognito: A Modern Parable on Stewardship

Wherever I've lived, I've always made it a point to wear my clerical clothing around town.

There are a few reasons for that. First, I wanted to be known and clearly identified as one of the "local" clergy. I considered it a form of evangelism.

However, the NE Corridor is heavily populated by the Roman Catholic Church. It seemed important, as a woman, to be clearly identified as an ordained member of the church. See also: evangelism.

Now that I live in Lower, Slower Delaware, I rarely wear my clergy shirt or collar. Oh, it's unavoidable if I'm heading off to a church meeting or service and have to stop into the local convenience store or pick up my mail.

For the most part, however, when I'm in "the hood," I'm usually dressed in "civilian" clothes.

There are benefits, I'm discovering, to traveling incognito.

Just the other day, I was over to Perry's One Stop, the local "mom and pop" convenience store at the top of the street in the community development where I live. I was looking for something . . . don't even remember what it was . . . that might save me the 10 minute drive to the local Harris Teeter's Supermarket.

What I got was a "view from the pew" about Stewardship. It was the kind of stuff they never tell you about in seminary - or in those evangelism workshops.

There's a little luncheonette near the deli which is part of the store. There are three small tables with some chairs, and one picnic table where some of the folk gather to have breakfast or lunch. I think it's called "The Nook".

The tables are near the bank of shelves with coffee, cake mixes, and toiletries, which block off a bank of large refrigerators filled with milk, soda, juice, yogurt, eggs, etc.

I was over in this section when I caught a bit of a conversation being held by three men who were sitting at the picnic table. They don't know who I am and were, in fact, oblivious to my presence.

"I don't know," said one, clearly perplexed "I've always been taught to support the church, but. . . . this year. . . . I don't know . . . ."

"I know," said another, "I mean ten percent. He's talking TEN percent of my income."

A third man chimed in, "Right. And this one wants us to take 10% off the top - before we pay our rent or food or clothing for the kids. I never heard THAT before."

"First fruits!" the two chimed in, their voices dripping with sarcasm.

"What the hell is that?"

"Something about what the Bible says about how it used to be . . . people would bring the 'first fruits' of their crop to the Temple."

"What would happen then?"

"Well, I suppose they would give some of it to the Temple ministers, but most of it to those who were hungry."

"Yeah, right. Like that's going to happen today."

"First of all," said one, "you better believe that the pastor doesn't figure his tithe that way."

"Right," said another, "he doesn't have to pay rent or a mortgage. Or electricity or heat. He lives in the parsonage." They chortled softly.

"Even so, I'm betting that the wife figures out how much they need for food and clothing and insurance and a vacation and THEN figures out the tithe."

"Well, that only makes sense," said the first man, the man who was clearly still trying to figure this out. "I don't think that's what the pastor was saying."

"Yes it was!" his two friends chimed in.

"He said - from the pulpit - that we need to give our FIRST FRUITS to the church. Then, he read from that passage in the bible. Then, he said that we should go home and figure out the first fruits of our budget and give it to the church so the church could take care of those who didn't have as much as we do."

"Well, that may have been the way it was in the days of the Bible, but that's not the way it is today. The church isn't the 'United Way'. It can't provide all the services that the community needs."

"We do our part. We contribute to the Food Pantry. The Men's Group brings scriptures to the prisons with our Bible Study. The Ladies Auxiliary does a wonderful job raising money for various charities. The kids do a yearly Mission Trip. We have Global Mission Sunday where we help people in Africa or Asia. But, that's just the tip of the iceberg of the world's needs."

"He's right, you know," said the other man. "If you look at the budget, most of our money goes to the pastor's salary and benefits, and to running the church, and keeping up with the building. That's not taking care of the world."

"Yeah, and the pastor does pretty good. Drives that Subaru Wagon. Wears fancy suits and always smells of cologne. At least our last pastor drove an American car - that beat up old Chevy - and I used to see him buying his suits at Sears, just were I get mine."

"Why should we sacrifice and keep things from our own families just to support him and his lifestyle? I mean, what does he do all day? No, really. Can you tell me? Just what does he do all day? Except go to committee meetings? Spend time holding hands with old people? Maybe visit a few people in the hospital but when was the last time any one of us was in the hospital? Really, I'd feel better if I knew the man broke an honest sweat once in a while."

"I don't know," said the first man, "he's a real stand-up guy. He's always there whenever we need him. It's like, he's on call 24/7/365. Truth is, we really don't know what he does, do we? I mean, I heard he counsels lots of people. He can't really talk about that. Besides, I heard some of the ladies fussing about his suits, how he needed better ones. Shortly after, he got some nice suits. The wife told me that his in-laws have money and that they help them out some. I mean, the guy really can't win."

"Yeah, well I don't have no in-laws helping me. We're on our own out here. And, if you hadn't noticed, it's rough out there. Where will the church be if I lose my job? Where were they when Harry lost his job? Had to give up their home and move in with his in-laws. Was the church there for them?"

"Well," said one of the men,"I don't know about you, but the most generous thing I can do is keep my tithe the same this year as it was last. That's still going to be a stretch, but I'll do it."

"Not me," said the third,"I'm cutting my tithe. Cost of living has gone up and I know I'm not getting a raise. Lucky to keep my job. I'm going to have to cut mine just so I can break even. We'll make it up in other ways - I'll do some extra "time and talent" and a little less on the treasure."

"I don't know what I'm going to do yet," said the first man, "but whatever I do won't be about the pastor's suit or car and it won't be about what the church does or doesn't do."

"Then, what is it about, if it's not that?"

"I don't know, but I'm going to have to pray about this some more. Bottom line: this is about me and God. That's what it's about for me."

The other guys mumbled something about him being a "really good guy" and "you're a better man than I am" and "that's what I call a real Christians" and "I guess I'm not a very good Christian."

He said, "Hey, this isn't about you. This is about me. I told you, I don't know what I'm going to do yet. I may have to cut my offering to the church just to make ends meet. But, whatever I do, it's going to be about me and God. Then, whatever I do, I can look myself in the mirror in the morning."

I wanted to drop the roll of paper towels I was holding, run over and give that guy a big hug.

But, I couldn't of course. I was traveling incognito. Not to mention, eavesdropping.

I don't know what Stewardship message you've heard in church, or what Stewardship message you've been preaching, but I think his bottom line IS the bottom line of Stewardship.

It's not about keeping the church running - although that's an important benefit. It's certainly not about the clergy - a raise for good performance or a demerit for saying or doing what you don't what to hear or see.

Bottom line: A tithe is a personal covenant between a person and God. It's a reflection of your relationship with God and a mark of your personal character.

Turns out, a tithe does not depend on the size of your wallet but the contents of your soul.  It's not about how you budget, but how you love.

The bottom line for you of the Church Stewardship Campaign may have a dollar sign, but for God, there's a mark of your baptism in Christ sitting right there, staring right back at you.

As Terry Parsons, who used head up the Stewardship and Evangelism Desk for the Episcopal Church, would ask, "What do you do with all that you have after you say, 'I believe'?"

Time to get that question out of the pulpit, beyond the pews, over the deli counter and onto the picnic tables at the local convenience stores in our neighborhoods.

Then, travel incognito and listen to the answers.


Hutch said...

What a powerful statement as I sit with my pledge sheet in front of me and wonder what we will do this year. But, I do believe it is between us and God and I DO believe it is first to God in thanks for all we have - a home, two cars, insurance (though we pay for mine), electricity, water, able to go on an occassional vacation. So, even though the income hasn't gone up, I may have to go up a little more. We are already at 10%, but I also think you do what you can. I also remember being homeless and living in my sister's basement - thankful to have family, add that on there - and living in rectorys that looked like slums - one where pieces of the ceiling hung down on our heads as we walked around - so believe me, the pastor ain't getting rich on anybody's tithe. But - to get to share the message? To get to teach the Sunday School? To get to hold hands and pray with and for someone? Shoot, there's not enough money to pay for that gift.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Hutch. You know, I give more than 10% of my income away, but not all of it goes to the church. There are so many good organizations that are doing so much more than the church can do. They are the church in the world, whether they know it or not.

Money? It really is the root of all evil. The Good News is beyond the price of gold. Being a vehicle of the Good News - even if just holding the hand of a lonely person? Priceless.

MarkBrunson said...

The biggest problem, to me, is that we do tend to regard only money as the "fruits."

Time, talent, learning - all these are fruits of our work, as well. Figure that in.

And not just giving to "the church" - that's the temple model, and we are Christianity, a post-temple Judaic religion. God's moved out beyond "His people" to the whole world. Anywhere you give, you give to God!

Our former priest used to say, "We're not a social service organization - the secular organizations are better run and better operated than we. But that's not an excuse to keep 'our' money, rather a rationale for putting it in places other than just our church offering."

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Well, Elizabeth, as you know, this is the first year in decades I decided to tithe--straight up 10% of my gross on my previous year's tax return. You were in on the conversations.

When I gave my stewardship talk at church, I called it "The year of giving dangerously."

What I will say about that is that it was an incredibly freeing experience. I felt suddenly I was dealing from a deck of abundance rather than one of hoarding and poverty. I grew up with modest poverty (I'd say we were two baby steps past "poor white trash") and I have acted like I was still that poor most of my adult life.

Turns out the "danger" was not the money. It was that my heart started seeing more and more from a place of abundance, and I became painfully aware that I--me--or at least that stoic self-image of me--was not prepared for what all my heart had to tell me.

It made me realize my heart had some growing up to do, to be a more faithful child of God.

That, my dear, is the "danger" of tithing. Not the money.

PseudoPiskie said...

Yesterday I suddenly received a bill for the church's web hosting because the credit card used last year bounced. Now I pay for that and the anti-virus software as well as take care of all the internet stuff? I haven't filled out my pledge card yet and am glad. The increase will be a bit less than I had planned. But I won't bill the church. Ah, the joys of a small parish.

walter said...

The Post Modern Irruption of the Divine into American Real Politik: On Dr. Elizabeth parable of stewardship overcoming absorption in ourselves (ref. .. I wanted to drop the roll of paper towels I was holding, run over and give that guy a big hug) into Incarnation. Have we happened to see recently on Fox News Live the comments of the daughter of the presidential candidate that faced Mr. Obama in the last presidential election and some publicity she did for her book (ref. something about dirt sex and politics)? Well let us reflect on Dr Elizabeth’ parable on stewardship in such context.

Where is the tickness of the things we care most about? Of course in the Living God through all its various forms of individuation-incarnation-gifts. Then let us think again on stewardship: are we willing to share the administration of our good (stewardship) thus making it the Common Good and giving it in Giving Charity to grow personal-Divine Love? If yes thus Purity, Love and the Common Good.

Venom is the ‘nectar’ some of Us feed on to generate ‘honey’: that quality of ‘honey’ that completes a form of Love even though Jesus is the completion of the Torah: Affirmative Mysticism is the irruption of the Divine into history-the mystic has been, is, and forever now will be not a person divorced from history but the One who has the eyes of the heart so acute as to be able to see the presence of the Word of God, even where others would see only the presence of evil and sin (ref. Walter Vitale ed., Holy Reading, Canterbury Press 2007, p.70). In the resurrection there is no more dirt, sex and politic but only Purity, Love and the Common Good textured in Treated Turtle Skin. In the name of the One who keeps us centered and focused and truthful, Jesus the Christ. I love my Little Girl, I love my Girl, I love my Brother.

Buffalo Shepherd