Sunday, August 16, 2015

More Blessed to Give

   Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

The Precepts of the Church
Part IV

The pastor was completely preoccupied
with how he was going to raise enough money
to repair the leaky church roof,
so he didn’t have much time to deal with the fact
that the regular organist was sick and unable to play.
A substitute was brought in at the last minute.
“Here’s the music the regular organist picked,” he said.
“You’ll have to think of something yourself
to play after I make the announcement about the roof.”
As the service progressed, the pastor said,
“My brothers and sisters, we are in great difficulty.
The repairs needed on the roof
will cost twice what we expected—maybe more.
Any of you who can commit to a pledge of $1,000 or more,
please stand up now.”
At that very moment,
the substitute organist started playing, The Star Spangled Banner.
The substitute immediately became the regular organist!

In my 15 years of experience,
there are two topics of preaching
that consistently garner more criticism than the rest: money and sex.
“Father, what could you possibly have to say?
You shouldn’t have very much of the first,
or any of the second!”
And yet, aren’t money and sex
(or variations on these two themes)
what consume a vast amount of our time and attention
when we’re not in church?
And have you ever noticed
how often Jesus himself speaks about these two topics?
Most people are surprised to hear
that Jesus preaches about money more than almost any other subject.
If these two things were so crucial to Christ,
then we need to talk about them—
probably not less, but more.

As I continue in this series of homilies on the Precepts of the Church,
guess where the last two take us?

This Sunday, we look at the precept:

5. To contribute to the support of the Church
    according to your ability

Research confirms again and again
that Catholics are among the worst givers in the United States.
On average, our Protestant neighbors
give 2.9% of their income to their faith community;
in some individual denominations, that rises to between 4% and 8%.
On average, we Catholics give only about 1.5%.
It’s estimated that, among Catholics,
one third give consistently and generously,
one third give only occasionally,
and one third give practically nothing.
This is not because Catholics are poorer than other religious groups.
In fact, surveys show that Catholics, in general, do quite well.
But as people grow richer, they tend to give less.
IRS statistics on charitable giving reveal
Those who earn under $50,000 a year
give 4% of their income to charity—
outpacing everybody except the few
who make $10 million dollars or more.
Sadly, each new generation
seems to become both more materialistic, and more wasteful—
a rather destructive path for the human race,
the environment, and souls.

Why isn’t there a better culture of giving among American Catholics?
A big part of that, I’m sure,
is that most of us priests don’t like to talk about money.
I know it sure makes me uncomfortable!
I feel like I’m often nickel-and-diming you to death,
begging for you to give to this project,
and then support that fundraiser.
Of course, if regular giving were both sustained or sustainable,
that wouldn’t even be an issue.
I also cringe whenever I hear well-intending folks say,
“We’ll do what we can to help you, Father!”
Please know: you’re not doing it for me!
While I might be where the buck stops around here,
the parish account isn’t my personal slush fund.
We’re all in this together,
and the financial state of St. André’s
is your responsibility even more than it’s mine.

Once upon a time, we Catholics did a good bit better at this.
Look at the great cathedrals built in Europe during the Middle Ages—
or even at the beautiful churches our more recent ancestors
constructed right here in the North Country,
all while struggling to simply eek out a living.
This history of sacrifice and generosity is even built right into the Mass.
Notice at the offertory how the basket with the collection
comes up at the same time as the bread and wine
which will soon become the Body and Blood of Christ.
In the early Church, people brought forward in procession
bread they’d baked themselves,
wool they’d sheared from their own sheep,
grain from their fields and eggs from their hens.
People offered the physical fruits of their own labors—
offered for the support of the Church and of the poor.
That’s why the priest started washing his hands
after receiving the gifts:
he often got a bit dirty!
But the modern economy doesn’t so much work that way.
Sure, folks occasionally drop of
actual “goods” from the kitchen or the garden at the rectory—
and for those, we’re most grateful.
But today, the money contributed in the collection
well represents the fruit of our labors and the work of our hands.
And it purposefully comes up at this moment in the Mass
because contributing it is a sacred act:
a duty we have to the Lord; a sacrifice united with Christ's own;
a way of giving God thanks and praise.

In all that he has to say on the matter,
Jesus doesn’t teach that money itself is bad.
But he does teach that we must use it legitimately:
that is, in line with the law—with God’s law.
All we have is a gift from God.
And, like all of God’s gifts,
our material goods come to us with a responsibility.
They’re not given for our personal gain.
We are not so much their owners as their stewards;
we don’t so much possess them as hold them in trust,
to be used for God’s purposes, rather than our own.
And for this stewardship
we will one day have to give an account.
When Jesus raises you up on the last day, as he promised,
how will you answer for all the money
you’ve handled in your lifetime?

What does God’s word, God’s law, have to say about our giving?
From the days of Abraham and Moses, 
God has called his people to titheto give 10% back to God.
Remember: this isn’t my figure, or even the Pope’s figure;
it’s God’s figure!
That means it’s a good bit stronger than a simple suggestion;
I dare say it’s sinful to pay it no mind.
Jesus himself speaks favorably about tithing
on at least a couple of occasions in the Gospels.
And yet…less than 10% of all Christians tithe.

Of course, there are genuine exceptions to tithing.
I’m well aware that times are tough:
many of our older parishioners are on fixed incomes,
and our younger ones are often bearing a lot of debt.
You can’t give what you don’t have.
No one’s expected to put life or limb in danger.
But we must be honest:
in my personal budget,
does my commitment to giving to the Church and to the poor
come ahead of my unnecessary, discretionary spending?
Do I make it a priority at all?
To do otherwise, of course,
would be to rank my desires ahead of God’s.

To put your sacrificial giving at the top of your expense list
is, indeed, risky business.
It calls for a leap of faith.
This is not foolishness, but wisdom
for it is obeying God’s will.
And that makes giving not a burden, but a blessing.
If you haven’t already,
I challenge you to very prayerful consider tithing:
giving 5% of your income to the Church, and 5% to the poor.
As we see in the banquet described in the book of Proverbs:
God will not be outdone in generosity.
Believe in Divine Providence,
trusting that God will provide.
Make the most of the opportunity God has given you
in the good things he’s put at your disposal.
Don’t settle for the temporary wealth of earth
when you were made for the eternal treasures of heaven.

If you don’t now, I ask you to consider using offering envelopes.
They’re more helpful than you think—
not so that anybody can track you gift,
but because they really do encourage regular, planned giving.
Responding to the ways of the modern world,
we’ve just added an option for electronic giving
accepting one-time or monthly contributions
from your checking account or credit card.
And do remember the needs of the church when writing your will.
Everybody wants to leave a legacy for their kids;
be sure part of that legacy is leaving them a strong parish
in which to come to know and love the Lord.

A lot of this has focused on money
since money is a necessary part of life,
and the Church must live and work in the real world.
That being said, our contributions can’t stop with our wallets.
Your time and your talents are also vital.
As your pastor,
I must say that I don’t really need any more advisors;
I have plenty of those—trust me!
But the parish does need more willing workers.
In this Sunday’s bulletin alone,
there’s mention of the coming Holy Harvest Festival,
starting a bereavement team,
and finishing the work of the census.
Your help is needed!

Jesus’ language in this Sunday’s gospel is no metaphor.
In fact, it’s quite startling in its realism.
It looks forward to his redeeming death
and to the Eucharist—which will be the memorial of it.
It is the language of sacrifice.
To give his flesh and blood speaks to his total gift of self.
Jesus holds nothing back in making his offering to the Father,
in making his offering for the life of the world.
To partake of the Eucharist,
to eat the Body and drink the Blood of Christ,
is intended to make us more and more like him.
We are to become what we eat.
We are to give ourselves—all that we have and all that we are—
in union with the perfect sacrifice of Jesus.

When the 18th century Protestant reformer, John Wesley,
visited his congregations to assess their progress in the faith,
he would often ask if their Christianity had yet affected their pockets.
It remains a good test of our true values today.
May we increasingly recognize the link
between our faith and our finances.
It's not that God needs your money;
it's that God needs to be first in your life.

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