Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32
Psalm 25:1-8
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

 

One of the things that unites Episcopalians across the country – that unites those who prefer incense and bells with those who want as much liturgical minimalism as possible, that unites conservatives with liberals, that unites a parish like this one with a tiny parish in a Midwest farming community and then with a massive and old and endowed parish in an Eastern Seaboard city – is our shared commitment to not talking about money.

Episcopalians would sooner talk about almost anything else.

And so I guess it shouldn’t be a shocker that one of the hornets nests that I accidentally kicked (I don’t know if anyone ever kicks a hornets nest on purpose) early on in my time at Grace was a monetary hornets nest. You see, throughout our marriage, when Phoebe and I have given money away to a not-for-profit, we’ve gotten a letter back from the not-for-profit that says something like “Thank you for supporting OPB with you monthly gift of $25” or “Thank you for supporting the Sorrento Retreat Centre with your donation of $1000” or “Thank you for supporting the Parish with your annual pledge of $4000.” And that letter would be signed by the Head of Fundraising at OPB or the Director of the Retreat Centre or our Priest.

Insofar as Phoebe and I thought about that practice at all – and we didn’t think about it much – we thought that it was a good one. It was nice to have a piece of documentation confirming that the not-for-profit had understood our instructions, and it was good to hear directly from an individual at the not-for-profit, often an individual, such as our Priest, whom we knew.

And so when I came to Grace, I brought that practice with me. When you pledged in my first fall here, I sent you a letter that said “Thanks for your gift of X” and added my signature and a little handwritten note at the bottom.

In doing so, I ended up making a change without even guessing that I was making a change. (As an aside, that wasn’t the only time I changed something without knowing it!)

I was caught off guard, therefore, when a parishioner came to visit me and to tell me that they felt pretty distressed that I was aware of the amount of their pledge. And then, over the subsequent year and a half (I wrote similar notes last fall), I received an email that expressed much the same sentiment and I got a small amount of indirect feedback (indirectly is how I receive a lot of my feedback, by the way – I have huge sympathy for the Pastor who wrote an article a few years back in which he said that the sentence that puts him on edge more than any other is the one that begins, “People are saying…”) that indicated that there were at least a couple of others who felt funny that I was aware of how much they had pledged.

Through these conversations, I learned that it had not previously been the practice at Grace for the Priest to sign a thank-you note with the amount of the pledge written right on it. It had not previously been the practice for the Priest to know what a given parishioner pledged.

Accident though it may have been, I had changed something. And as is the case almost always with change, that change brought with it some anxiety.

And so I started to think and to pray about this subject. What should we do? One possibility would be to just “go back to normal” for the parish. I’ll stop writing thank-you cards that have an amount on them and tell Jackie that I don’t want to know parishioners’ pledges. A second possibility would be the opposite, to stick to the normal that I know and just keep on acknowledging the amount of your gifts.

Neither option felt great to me. That’s not because either decision is necessarily wrong, but because both decisions would be based on the reason “We’ve always done it that way”; the only difference would be whose “always” we went with. And as Corbet said in his marvellous sermon two weeks ago, “We’ve always done it that way” or “That’s just how it is” or “It was like that when I got here” is actually a pretty poor rationale for engaging in a given practice.

Besides, the more that I live, the more that I am convinced that when there is anxiety around a subject, as there is anxiety around this one, that there is something interesting happening, maybe something holy happening, something that is worthy of our curiosity. When you combine that with my inarticulate sense, with my gut sense, that it was not merely appropriate for me to know what a given parishioner pledged, but that it was my responsibility to know what a given parishioner pledged, I felt a call to do some exploring.

And so I started phoning up colleagues, folks who are serving as Priests across this country and across Canada and asking: Do you know how much people in your parish pledge? The results of my thoroughly unscientific study were fascinating. First the Priests to whom I spoke overwhelmingly do know what people in their parish pledge; if my friends and colleagues are at all representative, it is typical for an Episcopal or Anglican Priest to know what a given parishioner pledges.

Second – and this is what really caught my attention – most of the Priests had strong opinions on this subject. None were stronger than Greg Rickel, the Bishop of Olympia, the Diocese immediately to our North, who told me:

A Priest who does not know what a given parishioner is pledging is engaging in spiritual malpractice.

Holy shmokes.

And while I wouldn’t phrase things quite as strongly as Bishop Greg, while I think that a Priest can choose not to know what their parishioners pledge and still be doing a really good job – my friend Sylvia, a Priest whom I like and admire and respect more than just about anyone else in this business, doesn’t know what her parishioners pledge – I do think Bishop Greg is broadly right. I think that talking out loud with parishioners about how and why and how much we pledge to our worshipping home is a core part of a Priest’s vocation.

Here are five reasons why.

One. It’s a Priest’s job to know people. And there are few better ways of knowing someone than finding out how they spend their time and their money, finding out how they engage in the stewardship of the gifts that God has given to them. I don’t know who first said, “Show my your calendar and your financial statements, and I’ll tell you what’s important to you” but that person nailed it. Money and time are two of the huge ways that we embody our faith and our values. They are an outward and visible sign of our faith and our values.

And that leads me to Two. It’s a Priest’s job to remind us that Jesus talks about money more than anything else. Jesus talks about the dangers of wealth – it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich guy to get into heaven. Jesus talks about economic systems – remember last week’s parable about the workers in the vineyard all getting paid the same. And Jesus says:

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The order of that sentence fascinates me, because you’d think that Jesus would say, “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be also”: you’ll give your money to what you love. But Jesus tells us it’s the other way around. Our heart follows our money. So what we are engaging in through a financial stewardship campaign is a profound exercise in spiritual discernment. We are deciding where are hearts are going to be next year.

Three. It’s a Priest’s job to be prayer partners with people as they make big decisions. Sometimes, being a prayer partner doesn’t mean saying anything – it can just mean prayerfully listening, just being there. And as part of this ministry, one of the difficult gifts (is that a turn of phrase that makes sense?) that a Priest is called to give to people is to listen as folks make a prayerful decision about their financial stewardship of their worshipping home.

In our family’s experience, we’ve discovered that it is really important to know that someone is listening when Phoebe and I discern how much to pledge, it is really important for us to share the amount of that pledge, to borrow a phrase from the 12-Step tradition, with God and with one other person. Phoebe and I have talked about this a lot over the years, and we’ve concluded that when we don’t share our pledge with at least one other person, we’re usually not all that honest. Virtually always, when we have uttered the words, “We can’t afford that,” what we really meant was, “We choose not to prioritise that.” Virtually always, when we have uttered the words, “We don’t have time for that,” what we really meant was, “We choose not to prioritise that.”

To paraphrase my old boss, Bill, you and I are allowed to spend more on lunch after the service than we give to the church. You and I are allowed to spend ten times as much on a vacation as we give to the church. God won’t love you less if you do that. (By the way, and I hope that this is not a disappointment to anyone here, God won’t love you more if you become the biggest pledger at Grace.) What is morally and spiritually unhealthy is not to name those choices out loud. If that’s our choice, it’s healthy to say to ourselves and to God and to at least one other person, “I am choosing to spend more on lunch than I give to church.”

Four. It’s a Priest’s job to help celebrate the joy that comes from having a generous heart. We’re beginning our annual financial campaign today – you’ll be getting a letter from me in not so long – and part of our goal, absolutely, is to fund the ministries of this parish. Sue’s amazing leadership of the choir? You made that happen with your gifts. A warm parish hall where people can come on Friday nights and find food and friendship? You made that happen with your gifts. A vibrant Youth Group where adolescents can meet Jesus within community? You made that happen with your gifts. Every visit that I make and that my colleagues on the pastoral care team make to home or a hospital room or a hospice? You made that happen with your gifts.

But financial stewardship isn’t just about what happens outside of ourselves. It is also internal. It is also about living in a way that mirrors the staggering generosity of God, the radical self-giving of God. God has given us everything, everything, everything. And in financial stewardship, we have an opportunity to give some of that back.

Five, and last of all, it is a Priest’s job to remind us that money isn’t God. That deep reluctance I mentioned early on for Episcopalians to talk about money? It’s a mirror of the deep reluctance to talk about money in our wider culture. When the bill comes at the restaurant, it’s placed facedown on the table. This is a secret, it’s private. Maybe it’s dirty.

In our culture, money is almost more intimate than sex. If you were to go to a party with the goal of shocking as many people as possible, and you had your choice between telling people specific details of your sex life and telling people how much money you made, you’d need to give your decision some thought.

In the church, this monetary coyness manifests in our habit of carving out money from the rest of stewardship. Remember that we define “stewardship” as everything that we do with (does anyone remember – there are three “T’s”?) our time, talent, and treasure. And within a week of arriving at Grace, I knew who the biggest pledgers of time and talent were. You know who they are as well: you just need to around look in the garden and in our offices and in the kitchen and in the sacristy and in the Vestry meeting and in the choir. So our question is not actually, “Should a Priest know how much parishioners pledge?” Because two-thirds of how much people pledge at Grace is already parish-wide knowledge. Our question is confined to that final “T,” about Treasure.

And I want to suggest that there is something unbalanced happening, maybe even something dangerous happening, when we make that last “T” into a secret. There is something dangerous happening when you can come to my office or I can come to your home and you and I can have the most intimate conversations – I will listen and pray with you when you tell me that the cancer is back, when you tell me that the one you love is making the move to hospice, when you tell me that you are expecting another child, when you tell me that you have doubts about your marriage, when you tell me that you are in love anew – but we cannot talk about money. This is a scenario in which your financial pledge and mine has become the Holy Name of God, the thing which we cannot speak aloud.

That sets the stage for money becoming a subject of shame and a subject of obsession.

I am unwilling to give money that kind of power. I am unwilling to make it into something other or more than what it is, which is a tool.

My thank you note to you this fall will name the amount of your gift. (Maybe this is the last sermon that I will give at Grace, but I’ve prayed hard about this subject and talked to a lot of folks, I’ve spoken to Vestry, and I am convinced that this is a decision to which I am called and to which we are called as a community.)

I want you to know a few things. I want you to know that nobody other than Jackie and me knows what you pledge. I regret our decision a year ago to electronically insert the signatures of the Senior Warden and the Treasurer into the thank-you letter, thus giving the impression that they know the amount that you and I pledge. They do not. The amounts of individual parishioners’ pledges are not and have never been a subject of discussion at Vestry meetings or elsewhere.

I want you to know that it is my conviction that you and I are called to make a prayerfully considered gift to the work of God as it is made manifest in this worshipping community but that, unlike in secular fundraising, that doesn’t mean shooting for a particular amount. I believe that the lowest dollar amount of a pledge that we received in 2016 was $2.50 a week. And we honour and celebrate and say thanks for that gift.

I want you to know that I am glad to have a conversation with you about this subject or about any subject. If this sermon has raised questions or concerns for you, let’s get together and talk. I believe that feedback from people who want me to succeed and want Grace to succeed is a gift.

And I want you to know that is a core leadership principle for me that I will not ask you to do anything that I am unwilling to do myself. I ought not to know your pledge if you don’t know mine. You already know how much money I make – my opportunity for a shocking reveal at the dinner party is ruined – you just need to look at the annual report. My pre-tax salary is about $80,000 a year, a figure that we arrived at because it is the statistically typical income for a family of five in Portland. And our family’s pledge is based upon the tithe, a guide that is Biblical in nature and that the Episcopal Church has affirmed for years. So our pledge is $8,000 a year, or $670 a month. Phoebe has income as well, and our family tithes that too, but to the work of God through other church organisations and not-for-profits whom we support.

It took Phoebe and me a number of years to work our way up to a tithe – I don’t think that we could’ve pulled it off when I was a student, and 10% is still a stretch for us. But now that we have become tithers, I wouldn’t go back. In a funny way, the fact that the tithe stretches us is part of its strength. The tithe makes sure that we are genuinely sacrificing for God and for this parish which we love so much. Tithing has become a core part of our family’s spiritual practice: it’s a huge part of the way that we put God first in our lives. Our tithe is our first expenditure of the month. Giving that money to God’s work through Grace is a kind of prayer.

Over the coming month, as you listen to reflections on financial stewardship, as you get letters from Grace, I invite you to prayerfully consider who Jesus is in your life, and what this beloved community is in your life. I invite you think about becoming a tither or taking a step closer to tithing. Doing so will be a big gift to Grace. And my experience is that it will be an even bigger gift to you.