Monday, August 13, 2012

One Hundred Percent of Everything

Oh my. For most congregations, just as the new church year gets started, the fiscal year soon enters its last quarter. How is your congregation set for the big push to “make budget?” Will members give it an Old Testament tithe? Or at least a few thousand dollars?

Money is an issue. Most churches struggle with declining membership and fewer givers. At the same time, churches need more staff than ever because church members don’t have as much time and energy for voluntarism as they used to. Today’s congregations pay people to have great Sunday Schools, delicious coffee, bookkeepers, and so on. Even thriving churches struggle with soaring expenses.

Unfortunately, the economy—and markets—haven’t exactly been thriving, have they? So again, will your church members give it an Old Testament tithe? Or at least a few thousand dollars?

At least, that’s how we normally frame the church budget crunch. But I’d like to put a different spin on the matter. Instead of talking about Old Testament tithing—one of the few Old Testament laws that gets any press on modern pulpits—I’d rather talk about being one-hundred-percent stewards. Rather than make a big push in the last quarter for a few extra big checks, I’d like church members make it their Christian ambition to imagine how they can put everything they have: money, time, talents, visions, and dreams—put everything they have in the service of the good and neighbor.

The one-hundred-percent steward idea also had deep roots in the Old Testament—but more as a blessing than a law. You will remember that, in the creation myth, God tells Adam and Eve that their job is "fill the earth and subdue it." Subdue sounds a bit negative, but it isn't meant to be. What God is saying, actually, is that Adam and Eve were blessed with the responsibility to make all of creation, including themselves, prosper. The fact that this is a blessing, rather than a command, becomes obvious when you contrast the Genesis story to other ancient Near-Eastern creation myths, such as the “Enuma Elish.” In those myths, people were created as slaves to work earthly gardens to provide food for the feast tables of the gods in heaven. In fact, the early parts of Genesis can best be read as a satirical response to these other creation accounts. The point of Genesis, here, is that the Jewish God blesses rather than condemns; he gives the garden to human stewards to care for and enjoy, rather than as a prison farm without an exit.

 So Genesis tells the story of early humans trying to do the amazing things with their lives that God wanted them to do. For example, besides making the garden grow, we read in Genesis 4 that Jabal herded animals, and Jubal learned to make beautiful music with harp and flute. Tubal-Cain figured out how to make tools of bronze and iron--the world's first industrialist. And so on. Filling the earth and subduing it is code for using our human brains and hands and culture to give our lives divine meaning and purpose.

The thing is, we get to do this with our whole lives, all the time. Or, to put it in the words I began with, Genesis portrays humans like us as giving one hundred percent of our lives developing the gifts and opportunities God has given us.

            Modern one-hundred-percent stewards offer their hobbies and pastimes, their authority at work, their spiritual and physical gifts, their education, thinking, emotional intelligence—they offer it all to God and their fellow humans to make both the earth and their lives more, now, what God wants them to be forever.

            One-hundred-percent stewards might be executives who build new factories for profit and for employment. One-hundred-percent stewards might be model-train enthusiasts who share their hobby with kids who need Big Brothers. They are farmers who grow crops that save the soil rather than eat it up. One-hundred-percent stewards include the GM employee who dreams of putting his kids through college while making the best trucks he or she knows how. Oh, and yes, one-hundred-percent stewards give generously out of their financial resources to make sure that the church is a blessing to them and in the world, as well. And this especially happens when the church is a community of people who are into building community where people wear love on their sleeves.

            Genesis is an invitation to put moralistic, rule-bound, if-you-tithe-then-you're-perfect Christianity behind us. Instead, the creation account invites us to freely use our entire life, all our culture and energy, our job and hobbies and church participation—everything we are and have to help make the earth and our neighbors everything they need, thrive.

            It takes wisdom to be a one-hundred-percent steward—wisdom that Adam and Eve seemed to lack. It also takes courage to see all your skills and gifts and money as the total budget God put you on to be the kind of human he hoped for in Eden. But there is also no life like it.

            Especially for congregations full of such hundred-percent stewards coming to the end of their fiscal years!