Friday, January 6, 2017

Not a problem of giving but of keeping. . .

The Magi brought to the Christ child gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  For what did the Son of God need gold, frankincense, and myrrh?  He through whom all things came into being, to whom all things belong, and unto whom all things look for their completion does not need gifts or hand outs or charity from people.  The Christ received gifts from the Eastern sages not because He needed them but because their faith and worship compelled them to bring to the Lord of Life born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary those things to honor Him who is prophet, priest, and king.

I recall Harry Wendt saying one time that the financial problems of the Church were not giving problems but keeping ones.  Nothing could be more true.  Money is not the problem, faith is the problem.  Do we truly believe that all things are God's to give and that we are but managers of His resources for His glory?  Do we believe that God daily and richly supplies all things needful for this body and life.  Do we value work as our vocation by His creative act and the fruits of that work His before they are our own?  Do we esteem Him still prophet (Word made flesh), priest (who offers the one all sufficient sacrifice for our salvation) and king (from whom all things come and to whom all things belong)?

My own parish can be extremely generous and yet it is a generosity which can never be presumed.  The Lord must continue to call our hearts to worship and to the tithes and offerings of this worship or we will be worn down by our own sinful flesh and by the great temptations of the world into keeping what is not ours and squandering it for momentary glory.  Stewardship must be continually taught -- from the vocation we have by creation and as the redeemed of the Lord and to the high and holy calling of serving the Lord with labor, gifts, abilities, and money. But the worst thing we can do is turn the Church into a beggar and the cause of the Kingdom of God into a charity.

The problem is not a lack of resources; God has richly supplied us with all needful gifts for His purpose.  As the age old joke goes, the pastor got up in the pulpit to address the congregation on the eve of a major building program.  "The good news, " he said, "is that God has already given us all the money we need for this goal.  The bad news is that it is in your pockets."  The problem is not a giving one but a keeping one.

Our national church budget has remained relatively constant since the 1970s.  Sure, individual gifts (restricted funds) have increased as has personalized mission giving (or there would be no missionaries).  But giving to seminaries, to student aid for church worker vocations, and for non-essential but beneficial programs has stagnated or declined (in the case of colleges and seminaries to the point of almost insignificance).  Guess what.  At the same time the totals received at the parish level have increased exponentially.  And Districts have kept more and more of the money forwarded to them from the congregations.  We believe in missions but we do not fund them as we ought.  We believe in recruiting church workers but we lay the cost of their training largely upon them.  We look to Synod to provide many services for us but we expect them to be "free."

On the parish level our increases in budget are hard fought and giving lags even in the best of times.  We all agree in principle that these things are important but we do not give to make them possible (or at least easy to do).  Pastors must resort to being salesmen for the important works of the congregation (everything from District and Synod support to direct missionary support to fair wages for church workers).  Maintenance gets deferred.  The first things to remain unpaid in times of need are missions and the agencies we use to provide mercy service to our neighbor.  Yet when we get to Church we expect the building to appropriately cool in summer and warm in winter, the restrooms to be clean, a nursery well staffed, free coffee in the Fellowship Hall, free WiFi in the building, and the best of music, preaching, and teaching.

We have forgotten the lesson of the Magi.  We have turned the Church into a beggar and the work of God's kingdom into a charity.  We give to glamorous causes that tug at our heart strings but we don't want our money to go for the mundane of paperclips and copy machines.  When we do not agree with the decisions our church leaders make, we vote with our wallets to teach them a lesson in humility.  It is not pretty but it is real.  Those who serve the Church as pastors and church workers have to sell what they do and convince people to support it as if the money in the people's wallets and bank accounts belonged to them.  Whatever happened to ever, only, all for Thee?  What happened to our best for His glory?  What happened to the sacrificial offerings of a people always in debt to the mercy of God?

St. Paul says that God loves a cheerful giver but nowhere does St. Paul say that you can skip out on giving until you can be cheery doing it.  We do not get to choose if we will care for our spouses and families.  This is our duty and the focus of our vocation as husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers.  We do not choose if we want to pay taxes.  This is our duty and one of the primary ways in which we act as good and faithful citizens for God's greater glory.  We should not force the Church to beg or the church leaders to rally support for the things that God has given His people to do.  Gold, frankincense and myrrh.  This is our bounden duty and our delight.  Or it ought to be.

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