Sunday, December 21, 2008

Money, Power, and Giving

(A short talk delivered before the congregation of St. James Episcopal Church December 21st.)

I'm supposed to talk to you about money, but first, I'm going to impart what I've learned from my students about power.

Some of you may never have seen me out of this red robe, and you may not know that I have a day job. I've taught every grade from pre - K to graduate school, but I've specialized in the middle grades, because the kids are so much fun, and they need so much. They feel that they have potential that no one else recognizes. That's the appeal to children of characters like Clark Kent and Harry Potter -- ordinary kids who get no respect, who have secret powers. It's nothing new. Long before them, there was that carpenter's boy who turned water to wine and fed 5000 with a hunk of bread.

In adolescence, I too fantasized about secret powers. I admit that, even now, I get a thrill to read in Scripture that, as a member of the Church, I am part of Christ's body on earth, with his powers to heal and transform.

That's where money comes in. In our society, power is often expressed through money. Kids never feel more powerful than when they have some money to spend. I've taken middle schoolers to museums, to DC, even to London -- but they don't get excited until we go to the gift shop. There, even if they decide to buy nothing; they feel their power to choose whether or not to part with their cash. The more dollars are at stake, the more engaged they are.

This is good news for parents and grandparents: skip the expensive vacation, and just take your kids to the mall.

For adults, too, money has power far beyond what it buys. Several times in my ten years here, someone standing where I stand now, has said what I'm saying, that the church had an urgent need. Whenever I responded by adding more to my pledge, I grew that much more involved with the church, and St. James meant more to me.

So now I feel something like personal pride when I read our parish report. I see that we are indeed the body of Christ on earth: We worship, pray, teach, care for the needy. Every page, there are names of lay leaders eager to involve us in Christ's work. At the back, there's a table that summarizes last year's budget. It shows how, just as Jesus fed 5000, we're meeting needs of people way out of proportion to the bread we have to work with.

For example, there's a line in the budget for "Youth Ministries." All year long, we have volunteers who help our younger members to experience Christ alive in their world. The thoughtful and imaginative programs are designed by two directors who have worked years, full time, for part time pay. That's how a little goes a long way at St. James.

There are lines for "Property" and "Music." Suppose we maintain the same budget we had last year. Our Sexton has kept within his budget, at the cost of putting off repairs that still have to be made, someday. Last year's budget forced our music director to choose between cutting his own pay, or cutting back on part time musicians for special occasions, and routine maintenance for the organ. He took the pay cut.

So far this season, we have many who are pledging for the first time, and many who have increased their pledges, and these encourage us. Then again, some of last year's donors have moved away, several have cut back, and several dozen have not pledged yet. We're on track to reach only the same bottom line we had last year.

Another example from the budget: there's a line here for "Clergy." Preparing this little talk gives me new appreciation for our rector. It took three weeks for me to draft this message, and I was still up early this morning working on it. She prepares messages longer than this for five or six occasions in a typical week, in her spare time between regular eucharists, unscheduled services, committees, business meetings, and counseling sessions. I know from personal experience how she visits shut ins. Our other clergy, full and part time, also take part in all of this work. Yet the amount on the line for "Clergy" hasn't increased for years, and when Joseph moved on in July the duties increased, while the amount on that line decreased.

So we see that money is not what motivates the work of St. James. This report and this church are filled with people who take seriously Paul's charge to be the body of Christ in the world. But, if money has power beyond what it buys, I imagine that holding back money also has a negative effect that ripples from the donor throughout the church.

So please, let us look upon pledging as more than an obligation, a user fee, or a charity. It's power: The more we pledge to St. James above what's expected, the more we empower our church to make a difference in our world, and in our own lives.

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