Three numbers to frame our conversation today. 1.8, 127, 10.
1.8 is the percentage of their income that Presbyterians give away. According to a survey done in 2010 by the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving which is part of the Lilly Endowment, Mormons do the best at 5.2%, and the Greek/Russian/Eastern Orthodox community gives about 0.8% of their income away. We are close to the middle, at 1.8%, just below the Episcopalians and the Baptists, a little better that Lutherans, Methodists, and Catholics. And that 1.8% is total income. According to the survey we only give 1% away to the church.1 Take a moment and think about what your income looks like, and think about where you are in terms of percentage giving – in total, and to the church… So there’s our first number, 1.8.
BUT, the mathematicians among us are saying. Don’t most averages get skewed downward because of a bunch of people who don’t give at all? Yes. We are a busy and active place – so many of you do so much – yet out of our about 400 households – individuals, couples, families – 127 of US don’t make a pledge.2 We here at WPC are in a strong position relative to many of our neighbors, and many throughout the mainline church. But 127 of us don’t make a pledge. I am sure that a few of us are genuinely struggling through tough times, without a job, in deep debt, throw a health crisis on top of that. Those are people we want to take care of – that’s what communities, covenant people, do. But the rest of us are the folks I can get a little frustrated with. You see us on the edge of this beautiful neighborhood and assume money just appears here at the church without any effort. You don’t get around to it, other things are going on, expenses in the rest of life bring stress. Others don’t pledge because they don’t feel a sense of connection to what is going on. That is a failure for which both those folks and all of us are a part. The same study I cited earlier states that the single biggest factor in giving is church attendance. If you are here on a regular basis, if you feel a part of things, you are more likely to give, and give more. You hear the beautiful music week after week, you have relationships with our wonderful staff. You see how busy the building is every night during the week with classes and meetings and community groups. You packed meals two Sundays ago, hammered nails at a Habitat build, or drove the bus for IHN. That is also the reason we are sending these pledge packets out today – do something a little different from the last few years, packets that will make their way from neighbor to neighbor, person to person, so that we all are connected, so that we all feel a part of the magnificent work that God is doing here. In us and through us and beyond us. I hope that by being connected a good number of those 127 will feel moved to make a pledge, to be a part of the community. That is our second number, 127.
Which brings us to our third number: 10. This is the really difficult one. 10. As in 10 percent. As in a tithe. This is something the mainline church doesn’t talk about a whole lot, but is the clear biblical standard for gratitude. It begins early on – God has called Abram in Genesis 12, and after he comes through Egypt, separates with Lot, wins a battle, he is beginning to sense God’s providential hand in his journey. King Melchizedek, the ruler and high priest, comes out and offers Abram a blessing. In response to that grace, he gives the priest one-tenth of everything. Abram, who we are told in the chapter before is ‘very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold,’ gave one-tenth of everything. His grandson Jacob does the same thing in chapter 28 that Andy/Judy read: after a dream in which he sees a ladder connecting heaven and earth, Jacob gets up, builds an altar, and promises God ten percent.
This standard is formalized in the law on Mount Sinai, structuring the life of the covenant community in the wilderness. Once God freed them from slavery they had been on a 40-year journey for identity. God provides manna to eat and water to drink and leads them, again and again, as they move to the Promised land. We read two of those texts earlier. In the midst of lists about different kind of offerings, about the Sabbath, about how their worship life is to be organized, God reminds Moses again what is required of the people. A tithe, one-tenth of their harvest, belongs to the Lord. I really like this language: "Every tenth one that passes under the shepherd’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord." You get a visual of a shepherd literally counting as the sheep walking. Every ten, one gets pulled out. You are set aside. In Numbers God is clear that the Levites, the tribe that doesn’t get land but acts as priests for everyone else, that the tithe applies to them, too. Even though the gifts are coming to them, they just don’t sit and receive. All of us, ALL of us, even us preachers, are called to respond with a tithe.
So I want to challenge you, as sometime in the next couple of weeks someone will call you and tell you they are bringing the pledge pack by your house. You have brochure, have read the wonderful quotes from staff, the stewardship committee, have seen how much we matter to community organizations. If is a friend you know bringing that packet by, I hope you’ll take a few minutes and catch up. How are you? How is your family? Anything I can remember for you all in my prayers? If you don’t know them well, take the time to. There are a ton of really amazing and faithful people around here. This is a great chance to make a new friend. But, as you get ready for that pack to arrive at your house, please take the time to talk with whoever in your family you need to talk to. And I need you to do something. Don’t start with what you gave last year, and think about how much you want to increase it. Start where the bible says to start, at 10%. Out of all that comes in to you, figure out where a tithe is. Think and pray really seriously about starting there. I know we all have a lot of things that are really expensive. Carrie and I have been talking about our pledge this week, and then our main television in the den died. Then our HVAC folks showed up to do quarterly maintenance and gave us a list of thousands of dollars of stuff that we need to do. Conversations about what we do with the money that comes to us – as life happens and we worry about our kids’ education or taking care of aging parents or wondering about our own health, are about as hard as it gets. They challenge us to really ask what matters. How does your pledge compare to your cable or cellphone bill, or dance class or the country club membership? The bible says 10 percent is where we start. I must confess to you that Carrie and I aren’t there yet. This year we give about 7% to Westminster – you all know how much I make, so do the math if you want to. But we sat down this week and made a plan, and are going up more than a full percentage point this year, and have a plan to be at a tithe in a couple of years. It sure ain’t easy. But we are working to loosen our grip on all of this stuff that binds us. That is our plan. What about yours?
Because God calls us to remember – through Moses’ strong words in Deuteronomy before they cross over into the land. They have nothing, carrying all they have for 40 years. But he knows they are going to move into that land and settle down and build homes and raise families and do well for themselves, like so many of us have done pretty well. But as we do well, the illusion creeps in, that "My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth." That we have done it ourselves. That all we have belongs to US. Moses says, don’t you dare forget. Don’t forget who got you where you are, who created you and formed you and called you by name, who binds you into covenant community, who stands with you when things get hard. Remember that good news, as we are all called to respond in gratitude. And to trust with all of ourselves.
That discernment, that important, internal, spiritual work is tough. But I also wonder. I don’t know what any of you all make, but I suspect more of us are closer to 1.8% than to 10. I wonder what this community could do if every one of us tithed? That is the good news the joy of giving, as God gives us the chance to be a part of something extraordinary among us. You think our budget would triple, quadruple, if we all tithed? Maybe more? What could we do? Even more, what could we do for Durham? Who else could we feed and clothe? How else could we spread God’s good, good news of love?
I really look forward to finding out. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Patrick Rooney, Religious Giving, Edited by David Smith, Indiana university Press, 2010, p 5, in Bill Enright’s presentation entitled, "The Altered Landscape of Religious Giving" given to the PC(USA) Task Force on Special Offerings on August 25, 2010. I have grateful to the Rev. Taylor Lewis Guthrie Hartman for this resource.
2. From our Stewardship Brochure, page 5