William Stafford has a poem called “The way it is.” It begins: There’s a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change. On any given Sunday, we can look at the lessons and find the thread. Today I would say the thread is God’s presence through thick and thin, choosing us, leading us, being with us in our weakness, restoring us, healing us, seeing us when others don’t.
Obviously, there are many interwoven threads to follow here. Like life. But if we start with an awareness of God’s abiding presence and hold on to that thread, we end up where we need to be.
Each Sunday in the prayers of the people we have given thanks for the calling of your new rector. Last week during the prayers I began to wonder: how long will I be new? Some things will feel new for a very long time. Like moving through the church year together, leading all those services that only happen once a year that we do in our own wonderful way. Like learning all of your names, and learning the pace of things in a new place. All of this will take much longer than a few weeks. And I will always depend upon your prayers. But five weeks is longer than five minutes or five days. And it’s such a joy.
A few weeks ago something happened which made me particularly joyful: I got paid, my first paycheck in several months. I did what people do when they get paid: I bought some groceries, paid some bills, and took myself out for a nice lunch. I have lots to celebrate.
But my favorite thing about getting paid, and the source of all the joy, is what I did before doing all those other things: I wrote a check to St. Paul’s, for exactly ten percent of the amount of my paycheck.
The thread I want to follow this morning is what this means to me.
Before each Sunday mass the servers and clergy gather in the sacristy and pray together a prayer by St. Ignatius of Loyola, which goes like this:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.
The first time I prayed that prayer, it so filled me with emotion that I almost couldn’t get through it. It is a wonderful prayer to pray in preparation for worship in this holy place. It is also a wonderful prayer to pray anywhere, any time.
The prayer by St. Ignatius of Loyola is a perfect expansion of the bible verse that is this year’s stewardship theme: “All things come of you, O God, and of your own have we given you.”
All things come from God. Most of you would agree with that. But what, of that “all,” do we give back? Speaking only for myself, I give ten percent of my paycheck. And I’m a great believer in percentage giving—any percentage—and for me ten percent is the best match with my mathematical abilities. People always want to know: net or gross? I tithe after deductions for retirement and social security, because I’m going to keep tithing on that money later. My check to the church is the first check I write. The church gets the first fruits, not what’s leftover at the end.
Long ago someone said: “Don’t give ‘till it hurts; give ‘till it feels good.” Well, ten percent is where I got to in the quest to feel good. Feeling good is my motivation for all kinds of disciplines. When I started tithing, I was newly divorced and working for a non-profit. I had a lot of debt and a lot of anxiety. I shared this with someone who said: “But Sara, don’t you trust God to take care of you?” Well, honestly, I did and I didn’t. I kept trying to stop tithing, but I kept writing those checks each month. It has become a concrete way of acting out my trust, and my gratitude, even if I’m not feeling it. That is the thread for much of being in relationship with God.
And I love writing that check. It makes me happy. I know I could set up auto-pay and have the bank send the check for me, but it just wouldn’t be the same. And here at St. Paul’s we get paid twice a month, so I get that joy of writing the check twice as often!
Everyone is different. Your results may vary. But I hope that your choice in giving will be based on your love of God, your experience of God’s love for you, and your love of this wonderful place.
Even more joyful than writing my first check to St. Paul’s was what I got to do yesterday. I filled out my first pledge card at this parish. Because of your generosity and God’s grace in bringing us together, after deductions for Caesar and for retirement, I was able to make a pledge of $6500. $6515.40, to be exact.
As a church, we tend to compartmentalize money: worship is spiritual; money is material. We don’t talk about money in worship, we only talk about money when we need to pay the bills. Here we do ourselves a disservice as a faith community. I’m guessing that some of you have concerns about money in your own life, perhaps grave concerns at times. Maybe you’re even thinking about those concerns this morning. Ought not these concerns have a place in church? Ought not you be able to pray to God, in church, for guidance and support in all things, not just spiritual things?
Money is woven all through scripture, in the form of stories and teaching about generosity, hope, wisdom, resilience, and sustenance from unlikely places. All those things are gifts from God, gifts from which we in turn give back.
We talk a lot about our identity as Anglicans being people who value the Incarnation. Yesterday during our Enquirers’ Class I heard the most concise definition of the incarnation I’ve ever heard: matter matters. In other words, the presence of the divine is carried by material realities. How we connect our material realities with our life of faith is perhaps a thread we follow.
I am grateful that here at St. Paul’s we keep the practice of leaving the offering plate with your gifts in it on the altar, to be blessed along with the bread and wine. In the ancient church, worship only happened because people brought bread and wine from their house to share; the priest would ask everyone to present their life and labors to God, and the gifts would be collected and brought forward. Eucharist—thanksgiving—was—and is—all about making ordinary things holy. This includes our money. The money that we put in the offering plate each week is the glue between who we are all week long, and who we are on Sunday.
So this morning I invite you, just for a few moments, to forget about all of the compartments of your life, and give thanks for your whole life that comes from God and that God loves. Pray the question: what is God calling me to give?