I had to eat crow two weeks ago, because I’ve been telling people ever since Charlie, Frances and Jean passed over Polk County in one unprecedented hurricane season, that we wouldn’t take a direct hit again in our lifetime. Well, I was wrong. Irma looked us straight in the eye, with devastating consequences for some of us, and therefore, to a lesser degree, to all of us who call Lake Wales, Polk County and Florida our home.
Like Jonah and the vineyard workers who signed on for the usual wage at the beginning of the day, I have been grumbling to God about the apparent injustice of it all, especially for our citrus industry with all their other challenges. I was reminded this week of another period of grumbling that hit closer to home when Anna and I had to endure the Housing Market hurricane over ten years ago which wiped out our equity, leaving us under water on our mortgage, and Anna losing her job as a teacher because of the loss of state sales tax revenue.
If we’re not careful, we can get the wrong idea about God when we suffer, that God is unfair or primarily punitive or even worse, perversely arbitrary and capricious in his dealings with you and me, like the gods of ancient Greece and Rome.
That’s why the story of Jonah and the parable of the landowner and the workers in his vineyard is so important, especially when we are tempted to lose faith in God’s loving providence. God’s character is essentially generous. He gives to those who are lazy, who work only one hour when they know there is so much to be done, and even to those, like the Ninevites with their uncultivated brutality who respond to God’s warning about the consequences of their behavior the same as he gives to people like you and me who have agreed to a lifetime of service, namely a place in his eternal kingdom as a beloved child of God and a recipient of the Holy Spirit to guide us and sustain us through all the ups and downs of this mortal life.
This understanding and appreciation for God as essentially gracious, as giving to us what we neither deserve nor have earned, has been the hallmark of my ministry because it is the gospel I have needed to hear and to believe about God as someone who is still inclined to grumble when he sees others or himself suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
You and I have been called to manage the essential generosity of God, even in the face of real and significant loss, by learning to be generous like God.
So, for the next three weeks, I want to remind you of the ways in which I have tried to inculcate a mature understanding of our role as God’s stewards of the riches of his creation.
With that in mind, please turn with me to the sheet in your bulletin that has “IMPORTANT” printed at the top. The key concept I was taught at the beginning of my ministry originating in the Diocese of Alabama, was the idea of proportionate giving, that the Bible teaches us to share a portion of what God has given us as a means of becoming more and more like the one who has given us everything in the first place. The Biblical standard of the tithe, or ten percent, is one that very few of us can embrace right away, both because of financial commitments we have already made as well as our lingering doubts about God’s loving providence, especially in the face of a natural or economic hurricane. That’s why proportionate giving is so helpful, because it allows us to enter into the spirit of the tithe by investing a portion of the resources under our management to the larger work of God that we can only accomplish in partnership with one another, with those who share the same faith in God’s essential graciousness to every human being.
This is why Paul loves the Philippians so much, because they were the only congregation who remembered him in his imprisonment, who sent someone from their congregation to deliver a gift to him during his incarceration. As he tells them today, their gift is evidence that they are striving side by side with him with one mind for the faith of the gospel.
And that is why I have such affection for you, because you, too, have been true partners with me in striving for the faith of the gospel in so many ways. And even though I will have to stay away from you for your sake as well as for my own for at least a year following my retirement, so that you can become partners with your new rector, I intend to be your silent partner, making a substantial pledge to your mission and ministry, as well as to the rebuilding and renovation of Camp Wingmann, which was clobbered by Hurricane Irma, but which will get back on its feet, thanks to partners like John Motis and his nephew Todd, and to Craig Merson, Meredith McKenna, Adam Putnam and others who are clearing away the destruction and the debris.
So, the first step is to figure out what portion of our income we are currently giving to the church and to the other work of God so that we can decide where we want to go in the future and how we plan to get there. In my case, I started at 3% and slowly but surely got to where I wanted to go, to 10% and beyond. And when Anna lost her job, we trusted that we could maintain our pledge and even dare to increase it a little, which had the effect of increasing the portion of our giving much more significantly than the slight increase might have indicated, because it was based on lower family income. So for some of you, just maintaining your pledge next year might not look like an increase, but actually it is, because it will represent a larger proportion of your total income.
The other sheet in your bulletin is a financial analysis of our congregation that Experian generated based on the occupations and residences of our members. It lists all the demographic groups that comprise our congregation and an estimate of their median income. In our case, together we have over twelve million dollars to manage as God’s stewards. And just to our parish alone, we have entrusted 3% of that total to the management of our vestry for our mission and ministry, not to mention the other places we have invested to advance God’s kingdom. That is a very respectable number. I doubt any other congregation in Lake Wales exceeds it or even matches it, but it also reminds us that to the extent we remain faithful to our calling to follow Christ, we will want to be even more generous, to imitate Christ’s pouring out his life so that we might receive the riches of his grace.
Let me conclude by reminding you of a few more stewardship facts. Last year, when someone had to adjust their pledge because they were unemployed, I reminded them that ten percent of nothing is nothing, just as ten percent of more is ten percent more. Proportionate giving treats everyone equally. The other fact is this. It only takes 20 tithing households to have a viable congregation: ten to support the ministry of the church and ten to support the mission of the church to the wider community God has called them to serve. I pray every year that one more household will embrace the journey toward the tithe and beyond because I know that our parish and our community will be blessed in ways we can’t even begin to imagine when this happens.
So, let us thank God today that he is gracious to the lazy and the brutal who repent at five o’clock as well as to those who repent at nine, because it is only when we receive that kind of unearned and undeserved love, whatever time of day it may be, that we are able to change more and more into the likeness of his Son. AMEN.