5 February 2017—
In the name of the one, holy and undivided Trinity: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
“And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” I think these words from today’s reading from First Corinthians are an especially good beginning for a sermon about money. I jest, of course, but the fact remains that nobody likes to talk about money, and especially preachers. It is certainly not an easy topic to preach about, and I will gladly admit that I feel somewhat inadequate to the task. We often think it’s impolite, or vulgar, or simply in bad taste to talk about money. Jesus even warned us about its dangers: “You cannot serve two masters.” Yet money, as that song from the film Cabaret tells it, “makes the world go ‘round.” We may call it a necessary evil, but necessary it certainly is. It is hard to live our lives without it, as some of us may have experienced at certain points. Churches also have a hard time living and growing without money. And so, I come to you today “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” because I come to remind us all of God’s generosity and of the need for our own response in turn. But really, why should I or anyone be fearful of talking about how God’s generosity calls us to be generous? Perhaps we need to think differently. Perhaps we need to think about money in spiritual terms. It’s certainly not something to which we are accustomed. Let us think of financial giving as a form of ministry.
Some years ago, the well-known and highly-respected author and spiritual director, Henri Nouwen, wrote a small brochure that is still very influential and is often quoted when people talk about responsible church stewardship. Its title is The Spirituality of Fund-raising. Though it was meant specifically for those who raise money for churches, many of its ideas have a much broader appeal. The true wisdom of Nouwen is how he helps us to think theologically about money and our relationship to it. The sentence most often quoted is the following: “As a form of ministry, fund-raising is as spiritual as giving a sermon, entering a time of prayer, visiting the sick, or feeding the hungry.” Substitute “financial giving”—or the more traditional tithing, if you prefer—for fund-raising. Nouwen is making a fairly bold claim here: giving of our worldly resources to the Christian community to which we belong is both a way of ministering to God’s world and a spiritual activity, one that is on a par with prayer or a work of Christian mercy. Your financial support of this Cathedral community is as ministerial in its significance as my standing up here and preaching this sermon. We need to ponder that, because it shifts our perspective. It reminds us of the multiple ways in which each one of us, given our talents and resources, contributes to the build-up of God’s kingdom.
We know money is a sensitive topic. I’m sure we’ve all seen or experienced conversations about money that can easily degenerate into shouting matches. But we need to confront our fears about money. Here is what Henri Nouwen has to say about this: “…money has something to do with that intimate place in our heart where we need security, and we do not want to reveal our need or give away our security to someone who, maybe only accidentally, might betray us.” When I was a student, especially during my doctoral studies, there were times when I lived a fairly precarious existence, financially speaking. Perhaps that is the natural lot of students, you might say. But I remember feeling doubly insecure: on the one hand, I didn’t have much money, and, on the other, the little that I did have kept me much too closed in on myself. I felt disconnected from others, unwilling to share the vagaries of my situation. Having too little money, or even too much of it, can make us feel vulnerable, but it can also isolate us from others. And I would even add: isolate us from any sense of appreciation for the wonder of God’s boundless generosity. We need to acknowledge our uneasy rapport with money, and then move beyond it. We need to shift our security base to God.
Again I quote Henri Nouwen. Again, please substitute financial giving for fund-raising. Here are the fundamental questions he asks: “How do we become people whose security base is God and God alone? How can we stand confidently with rich and poor alike on the common ground of God’s love? How can we ask for money without pleading, and call people to a new communion without coercing? How can we express not only in our way of speaking but also in our way of being with others the joy, vitality, and promise of our mission and vision? In short, how do we move from perceiving fund-raising [financial giving] as an unpleasant but unavoidable activity to recognizing fund-raising [financial giving] as a life-giving, hope-filled expression of ministry?” These core questions are addressed to both you and me—not because I’m the one preaching and you are the ones doing the listening—but rather because, together, we are the Christ Church Cathedral community, and together we are called to share in God’s generosity by actively supporting each other with the rich multiplicity of our gifts and resources. Definitely, one of those important gifts and resources is our money.
In today’s gospel from Matthew, Jesus calls us “salt of the earth” and “light of the world.” Then he instructs us: “…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” The injunction here is to be exemplary for others, so that God’s goodness and glory might be reflected in what we do. When we give generously, it reflects God’s own generosity. When we commit part of our hard-earned material resources to the work of building up God’s kingdom, it reflects God’s incessant bountifulness. When we contribute a fixed portion of our income, regardless of whether we are here every single Sunday, we are saying that we value this community and believe in what it does and what it stands for, and that we trust that God will provide every time. Tithing is an expression of trust. Tithing is also a requirement of our lives as committed Christians. Giving to the mission, and for the welfare, of this Christ Church community is a necessary way to express our solidarity with each other, and it sends a powerful message of hope and trust in our collective future. One way to understanding tithing is to see it as a form of spiritual discipline, as Henri Nouwen suggests, much like prayer, or fasting, or the regular reading of scripture. Giving of our money—and yes, also of our time—makes us more conscientious and committed Christians. It bespeaks our confidence in God’s work among us.
Some say it should be 10% of your gross income; others say it’s 5% of your net income. Regardless of how one calculates it (and there is no hard-and-fast rule here; it’s a matter of circumstances and discernment), tithing—that is, giving a fixed portion of your income to the Church—is a duty incumbent on all of us. It is a ministry to which we are all called, and which we share jointly as followers of Jesus. His church, this church, cannot effectively survive, or grow, or fulfill its mission, at this time and in this place, without the human and financial resources necessary to make it happen. And as we all know, this is becoming more and more difficult and demanding at a time when so many churches are facing some hard choices. At Christ Church Cathedral, you have blessed us with your generosity, and we continue to serve God wonderfully in all our various ministries. This should not make us complacent, however. We still need to ensure our survival, on an ongoing basis, as an open, active, and witnessing Christian community. If we give generously, and make God our secure foundation, all will be well. Amen.