A Message from Bishop +Francis C. Gray
Once upon a time, a young man with a troubled heart came to Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “what must I do to inherit the kingdom?” “Follow the commandments,” Jesus told him. The young man had done this, and told Jesus so. Jesus looked at this well dressed, yet troubled young man and liked what he saw. The man was respectful and well mannered, and his eyes showed a deep questing for truth, but the man seemed to be missing something. “One thing you lack,” Jesus said, “Go, sell what you have, give to the poor, and come and follow me.” The young man could not do this, and went away. This saddened Jesus, for he loved the young man.
There are resources in our congregation to do anything we choose to do, yet there are people who go away from us sorrowing, angry, or frustrated, because they cannot, or will not, give. I have seen parishioners spend hundreds of hours working at bazaars and fairs, trying to coax money from the community, when their own tithes would garner much more money than a bake sale ever could, and would do so with much less effort. The fact that it seems easier to let someone else pay to keep our congregation going leads me to believe that we, like the rich young ruler in the gospel, suffer from a spiritual disease.
Until we can deal with our possessions, we never can reach out to others. Evangelism and stewardship are intimately joined. We must be willing to share our faith with others, and it is our privilege to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God. But, perhaps we should work on stewardship first, for until we can understand ourselves and our relationship with God, we will have nothing to share with others.
I define stewardship as everything we do after we have said yes to God. Three concepts are key to stewardship: creation, mystery, and redemption.
Stewardship and creation-
For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the caverns of the earth
and the heights of the hills are his also.
The sea is his for he made it,
and his hands have molded the dry land.
Stewardship must be seen first in terms of creation. God made all things, holds all things in being at all moments in time, and God will call for the return of all things. We are the caretakers of matter, which belongs to God. The paper on which I write, the pen I use, the money I spend, the children who live with my wife and me, all come from God, belong to God, and return to God. I need to be very careful with my use of the possessive pronoun. All things, all people, and indeed, the air we breathe is on loan from God.
I am a steward of the air I breathe, and of the space I occupy on this planet. Therefore, my judicious use of the resources at my disposal is the act of a caretaker. The molecules of air I breathe will continue to be recycled and rearranged long after I am dead. I have not created a speck of air; all of it has been loaned to me. I am a steward, and God is the giver of all that I have.
Stewardship is a mystery.
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God ~I Cor. 4:1
All of life is a mystery. It is mysterious that someone could love me and commit herself to me in marriage for life. It is a mystery that genes and chromosomes are reproduced and passed from generation to generation. It is a mystery that God became a human in Jesus, and is represented to us continually in bread and wine, in word and sacrament. It is a mystery that people continue to find comfort in tired liturgies, ill prepared sermons, half-hearted sung music. It is a tragic mystery that people kill each other; that people persist in the use of drugs; that we persist in thinking that more money, clothes, gadgets, and weapons will bring us inner peace.
Mystery is a reality which is inexhaustible and unpredictable. A culture of utility, which seeks to define, measure, use and manipulate matter will find mystery difficult to live with. Our culture thinks in terms of problems to be solved, tasks to be accomplished, not relationships to be nurtured. “If the Church needs money, then let’s have a bake sale. It is easier than exploring the sacramental relationship between myself and my checkbook.”
Stewardship is redemptive.
Only a fool would not give away that which he cannot keep in order to gain something he cannot lose.
~Nate Saint, martyr
God promises me life eternal. That promise was pledged at my baptism and is lived out by God’s grace given each day. The life of grace which I am called to live is my response to God’s gift. I cannot pay God back, nor can I bribe God to give me more of what was given. God’s gift is full and complete. I return my gifts to God not because God needs them, but because I need to give. As a child gives unneeded dandelions to a parent, I give my tithes to God; not out of duty, but out of love. It is the least I can do, because God has given me all things.
At the very heart of my redemptive offering to God is money, for my heart and treasure are in the same place. Most people will offer time and talent gladly, because bake sales, rummage sales, raffles, and the like don’t get to the heart of the matter. With these activities, I see a return on my investment. But when I give money without strings attached, I lose control. It is a mystery beyond my control.
As with every mystery, God gives an outward sign to help us appropriate the inward grace. As bread and wine signify the reality of the presence of the risen Christ in our midst, the tithe is an outward sign of the mystery of giving. The mystery is that God continues to love me no matter what I give back or keep to myself. The mystery is that I keep on struggling with this love affair I have with God even though I know the stakes are high and the worldly advantages are not the best.
Tithing puts flesh on my commitment. It shows that I attempt to believe that all things are owned by God. It shows that I attempt to live into the mystery of my relationship with God. And tithing shows that I will not allow others to pay for my faith through their purchase of my leftover junk at the garage sale. To pay for missionaries in Honduras, to keep the lights on in the parish, or to make sure that the rector gets a living wage, I have to tithe. This I must do, because our Lord had me in mind when he said, “Where your treasure is, there will be your heart be also.” I have been purchased with a price, the price of Calvary, and nothing I give can increase the value of that gift. But I do know that my sacrificial gift to God is a sign that God has gotten to my heart.
Peace to you in your prayers and reflection on the bounty the Lord has showered upon you,
The Rt. Rev. +Francis C. Gray
Assisting Bishop of the Diocese of Virginia (retired)