Sunday, September 28, 2008

Caring For the Community: Stewardship of Our Treasure

Sunday, September 28, 2008: 15th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (1st of Luke)—Tone 6. Ven. Chariton the Confessor, Abbot of Palestine (ca. 350). Synaxis of the Saints of the Kiev Caves (Near Caves). Ven. Kharitón of Syanzhémsk (Vologdá—1509). Ven. Herodion, Abbot, of Iloezérsk (1541). Prophet Baruch (6th c. B.C.). Martyrs Alexander, Alphius, Zosimas, Mark, Nicon, Neon, Heliodorus, and 24 others in Pisidia and Phrygia (4th c.). Martyrdom of St. Wenceslaus (Viacheslav), Prince of the Czechs (935). Schema-monk Kirill and Schema-nun Maria (parents of Ven. Sergius of Rádonezh).

So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon's, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat. When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, "Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch." But Simon answered and said to Him, "Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net." And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!" For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men." So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.

We come now to the third and final element of our consideration of Christian stewardship, treasure or the financial aspect of stewardship. By way of introduction to what is often the most challenging part of stewardship, let me quickly summarize what’s been said to this point.

Christian stewardship is part of the general human vocation to work. We are all of us called to cooperate with God in making the creation a fit and beautiful home for the whole human family. As Christians we are called not only to work, but in Christ to freely and creatively use our time, talent and treasure to redeem human ingenuity, creativity and effort that have all been marred by Adam’s transgression in the Garden. Put another way, we are called not simply to cooperate with God in the work of creation but also the work of redemption. A Christian steward is one who puts his or her time, talent and treasure to the service of caring for the physical, social,
educational and spiritual needs of the human family.

The exact form this stewardship will take in the life of a particular Christian is determined by many factors. Our life circumstances, the needs of those around them, and must fundamentally of all their own personal vocation all shape what it means for each of us to be a steward. It is this last one, the vocational, that we most typically neglect in challenging people to be stewards.
So the first question to ask when discerning my own stewardship commitment is not how much money will I give, but what is my calling? What is my vocation? It is out of these questions that our stewardship emerges.

Unfortunately, and here let me turn to a consideration of the financial aspect of stewardship, we rarely ask these questions either of ourselves or of those in our parishes when we ask people to commit financially to the work of the Church. What we typically do instead is talk to, really at, people about numbers.

Let me explain how we typically have approached stewardship and then contrast that with what I think is a more holistic approach ground in the human and Christian vocations.
In an early time—and for me “earlier” means a parishes I served within the last 10 or 15 years—we asked people to participate in the financial life of the parish by paying dues. For all practical purposes, if one wished to a member of the parish, one paid a set annual amount. While sometimes membership included participation in the sacramental life of the Church, that is, the at least occasional reception of Holy Communion and yearly Confession, the sacraments often fell by the wayside. What mattered instead was that people paid their dues.

(I should add that while the dues system was common, it was neither a universal practice nor was it always practiced a heavy hand way that was indifferent to the spiritual life of the parishioners. But even at its best, the dues system tended to leave people with the impression that the Church was a fraternal organization not unlike the Masons or Shiners rather than the Body of Christ.)

Recently there has been a move away from dues and toward tithing, or giving 10% of your income to the parish. Unlike dues, tithing is usually presented in a way that is sensitive to the spiritual aspects of how we use our money. But, and forgive me if I offend here, tithing is often presented as if it were the biblical model of giving. It isn’t.

As it is usually presented today, tithing is a modern rather than New Testament or patristic practice. The New Testament does not recommend the practice of tithing as. And while there were some Church fathers who preached in favor of tithing, they generally focused neither on giving simply 10% nor on giving what one gave to the parish. St John Chrysostom, for example, argued that since we have received so great a gift from Christ as eternal salvation we ought to give more than 10%. We should give, 20%, 30%, 40% or more—having received all, we should give all. And, he concludes, we should give it to the poor without consideration for how they would use what they are given.

Both the dues system and tithing have their merits. And both are often well-intentioned attempts to meet a real concern, the financial health and stability of the local parish. But both approaches, it seems to me, rely on coercision to do so. In the first case, the dues system, one often found oneself or family members threatened by a lay board with a denial of the sacraments. An infant would not be baptized, a young couple would not married, the dead not buried, because you were not a member. (Even today one finds parishes where one must “join” the parish via a financial commitment in order to be married for example.)

Our practice of tithing is can also often be manipulative. Granted it isn’t coercive in the way the dues system is. But it is no less often an affront to the vocational basis of Christian stewardship for all that it is more gently taught. As I said above, while there is some support for tithing in the Scriptures and the Fathers, there is nothing in either that suggests that one must give 10% of one’s income to the parish. If anything, tithing is offered as the standard for one’s support not of the parish but the poor. This isn’t to say giving a tithe of your income to the parish is wrong. It certainly is not wrong. But, and this is the important part, it is not an obligation. The most one can say about tithing is that it is a rough and ready guideline. It is not a standard.

So what is the standard?

In his second epistle to the Corinthians Saint Paul tells us this:

But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you always having all sufficiency in all things may have in abundance for every good work. (9. 6-9).

When I first heard this passage in St. Paul, the thought I had was that I was supposed to give what God wanted me to give. And do so with a great big smile on my face. In other words, I thought I had to make myself cheerful, whenever I was called upon to make a sacrifice.

But thinking, I have since come to realize, is exactly backwards.

We are not asked to be cheerful about what we give, but rather to give only that which we can give freely and cheerfully. The emphasis here then is not on the giving but on being cheerful.
And so again, God loves a cheerful giver.

So what are we to do if we wish to be wise stewards of our treasure? How do we make use of our money in a manner that honors our own personal vocations?

What I will often tell people is this: Decide how much you can set aside for charitable giving. As a practical matter, 10% is a good base amount—but you are not limited to that amount if your circumstances suggest something different. The important thing here is that you set aside an amount even as you set aside regular times for prayer and hold to a fasting rule based on the tradition of the Church and the circumstances of your own life.

When it comes time to dividing up what you set aside, I usually suggest that half go to the parish and half go for other charitable needs. Let me say right up front, I’m not saying give half to the parish this because I think the parish is more important. Rather, it reflects the fact that we usually can do more as a community than as individuals. Add to this that, as practical matter, outside of the family, the parish is the community with which we are most involved and so it is the community through which we most actively participate in and do the most good.

Money given to Orthodox organizations such as the International Orthodox Christian Charities, The Orthodox Christian Mission Center or non-sectarian agencies such as the Red Cross (and I would encourage you to support one or more of these) is usually spent according to someone else’s idea of what is important. Contributions to the parish are local and are usually spent in a manner that is closest to what God would have from us in our own lives.

Finally, we must keep in reserve at least a small amount for unanticipated charitable giving. It might be a special appeal from the parish, or the Red Cross. It might just as easily be a need within our own family or circle of friends. If, thank God, that need doesn’t arise, well, give the money to the parish or IOCC—but as wise stewards of our treasure, we need to prepare for what we cannot anticipate.

Our charitable giving is giving to help met the needs in the different communities of which we are members. It is important that we not limit our giving to only the parish.

Let me make that stronger: No ethical priest will ask you to simply support the parish with your time, talent and treasure. As I said, we are all of us members of many different communities—our family, the parish, the diocese, the Church, our country, and the human community. The needs of different communities do not the same immediacy for us. But this doesn’t mean that, for example, our commitment to the human family should be less important than our commitment to our own family.

The commitments are different to be sure—but this reflects our ability to more directly influence for good one community rather than another. I can more easily work for the good of my family than I can, say, the Orthodox Church throughout the world.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, our stewardship commitment, our use of time, treasure and talent, is not something that can ever be limited to only one area of our lives or remain as a static percentage of our income. By its very nature, and St Paul alludes to this in the passage I quoted a moment ago, stewardship means that we grow and develop in the use of our gifts. We must not simply do good passively, in response to events and then only when asked. Instead if we are faithful to our own vocations and our call to be stewards of all the good things which God has given us, we will find ourselves increasingly seeking out ways we which we can be of service personally and directly.

May God in His grace and love for mankind make it so for each of us today and forever until we stand before Him in that Kingdom which is to come.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory
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