October 20, 2019
I want to start by thanking all of you for not just the opportunity to speak today on stewardship, but also for the warm welcome that my family and I have received here at Grace. When we joined this church just over six years ago, I had no idea that it would become such a big part of my life. I was very involved in the children's Sunday School program at Church of Our Savior in Charlottesville, but at Grace, my service has expanded considerably. In addition to teaching in our Sunday School program, I have also served as both chair and clerk of the Finance Committee, and I have attended more Vestry meetings than I ever thought that I would at this stage in my life.
When it comes to Grace, I seem to say "yes" more than I say "no," which may be why I didn't hesitate when Dennis asked me if I would give the lay stewardship sermon this year. "Yes, I'd be happy to," heard myself say to him, and it was only later that I wondered how such a big ask could fill me with such joy and anticipation.
Why in the world would I be genuinely happy to give a stewardship sermon? After all, Father James has already shared with you how much he dreads giving stewardship sermons, and I suspect that he is not alone in this feeling. Perhaps as an accounting professor I'm somewhat de-sensitized to talking about financial matters, but that still doesn't explain why I would be joyful at this very moment. Joyful.
I've spent the last month thinking and praying about this joy, trying to unpack it, and looking for the right words to describe it so that you might have a sense for what I'm feeling. In all this thinking and praying I've figured out a few things about what stewardship means to me that I want to share with you today. My sincere hope that that these words will strike a chord with at least a few of you and maybe, just maybe, spread a little bit of joy, too.
As I began to focus my attention on my feelings about stewardship, my first big realization was that this joy that I have about giving is not rational. As an accountant, I should not be happy about sharing my hard-earned income with the church, even if you consider the tax benefits. I could invest my money elsewhere and get a more predictable and tangible rate of return. Or, I could spend it on my children or my friends or even myself and not feel very guilty about it - after all, I earned it!
The same is true of my time. Why in the world do I dedicate so much of my time to this church when there are so many other productive ways that I could be spending it? You know what they say - that time is the most precious of all resources today.
All of my thinking and praying this last month helped me to see that my decision to share my time and my talents and my treasure with Grace church was not a rational one. And believe me, I am a highly analytical person not prone to irrational behavior, so this was a pretty tough realization to come to! But it was an important realization to make peace with, because once I accepted that my stewardship was not a rational choice, I could begin to see what was really motivating me.
I used to think that stewardship was a duty, a responsibility, an obligation. Indeed, most of our stewardship teachings whether inside or outside the church focus on these elements. But aren't these notions of stewardship just another appeal to reason? A way of saying that if each of us doesn't give his or her fair share then we can't expect the church to fulfill its mission. Or a way of reminding us of God's math, that all that we have comes from God, so the least that we can do is to give back 10%. But this logic does not resonate with my joy at all. In fact, it makes me feel kind of guilty.
All of my thinking and praying about stewardship helped me realize that my connection with stewardship was coming from a deeper, spiritual level. My joy at saying yes to Grace was of a kind to Mary's saying yes to God. Here I am, Lord. My giving resonates with my heart instead of my mind. It calls forth deep-seated emotions like trust, and empathy, and gratitude, and yes, joy. You see, the joy of giving is a matter of faith and not reason.
Which leads me to my next realization, and hang with me here on this one, because it might be a little bit controversial. I think that it is not just reason that is standing in the way of joy. I want to suggest to you that we stop putting so much emphasis on the consequences of our gifts to the church. Of course, it is important to fund the budget and to raise money for capital improvements, and if calculating your share of these needs motivates you to give, by all means do so! But for me, fixating on the budget or a particular percentage or the notion of a fair share raises a whole host of emotions that are anything but joyful. Such thought patterns make me anxious about our future and angry with my fellow parishioners who are not giving or who I think should give more. Where is the joy in that? And when I start to think too much about the calculus of giving, I find myself filled with lots of unhelpful opinions about which programs are more deserving of MY money. Does anyone else have the same problems?
Only when you give something away expecting nothing at all in return can you feel the true joy of giving. Maybe, like me, you have figured this out the hard way. Perhaps you loaned a friend money and then, before too long, you found yourself judging your friend's behavior more harshly and caring too deeply about what they were (or were not) doing with this loan and things got really awkward. Maybe it even ruined the friendship. Now imagine that you had simply gifted that friend the money and put your trust in God that it would serve the right purpose. You could have avoided all of that tension and truly been there for this person as a friend and stood beside them with hope as God's plan unfolded. What if we all looked to Grace church as that friend?
In closing, I want to suggest to you that the joy of giving is not about who gives and how much and to what end. It is true that everything that we have belongs to God, and all that we are or ever will be is because of His grace. It's all His share. I believe in one simple truth of stewardship, and that is this: The more of our time, talent, and treasure that we give, the closer we are to Him. And that is the only consequence that matters.