Uggh, It’s Commitment Sunday
This week was commitment Sunday at Church of the Incarnation, the week we make our financial pledges for the New Year. I suspect some see Commitment Sunday as a kind of necessary evil. After all, it takes money to run a church.
But, truth be told, it can be annoying. Does the church really need our money? So, let’s talk about money this one Sunday, but, please, let’s not bring this up again during the year. Let’s preach the important things – love, justice and mercy – and leave the “ordinary” things of life for another time and place. I suspect many of us have at least had these thoughts.
Like many, I blew off church for a number of years. But, my wife and I eventually decided we should come back. And, the first thing our church did was to encourage us to attend a small Bible study with eight other people on the topic of money. I was totally blown away by what I learned in that study and my life has never been the same since.
I learned that there are more verses in the Bible on money than on any other topic besides love – 2,350 of them. In fact, 1/6 of everything that Jesus says deals with money, largely because a full 1/3 of his parables deal directly with money. Even more remarkably, there are more verses in the Bible on money than on heaven and hell combined. From this, I realized that God really cared about how we think about money.
I find it interesting that this idea rarely makes it into books or talks on Christian spirituality. It’s as if our spiritual lives are supposed to be otherworldly and mystical and not touch the mundane realities that present themselves to us. But, to me, a spiritual life divorced from the real world is no genuine spiritual life at all because it’s not real. As Christians, we’re not trying to escape this world; we’re trying to bring light to it. A saint is more authentically human than others, not less. If our goal as humans is to unite with Christ, then a saint most perfectly fulfills what humans are designed to do.
I think one of the reasons we struggle to see the connection between spirituality and money comes from the very nature of Protestantism itself. Remember that Protestantism got started with a critique against financial corruption in the Church. In Germany, the Church was busy selling indulgences (declarations from the Pope that would lessen one’s time in Purgatory).
This was undoubtedly a corrupt practice since Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz was selling them primarily to pay off the huge loans he had taken out to purchase his office. The Pope had granted the right to sell indulgences in Albrecht’s diocese primarily so he could take some of the proceeds and build what we know today as St. Peter’s in Rome.
When Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, he was arguing directly against the corruptions of this practice. Yet, Luther was an unknown Augustinian monk at a backwater University. The Pope almost immediately found out what Luther was saying, but just ignored him since he seemed so irrelevant.
But one of the key reasons Luther’s critique caught fire was the laity. Luther perfectly crystalized the laity’s complaints against the church. Although the laity loved their church, they were tired of corrupt Bishops, of uneducated clergy saying a Latin Mass when they didn’t know Latin and of a Church that wasn’t meeting their spiritual needs. Believe it or not, this was actually a vibrant time for the laity because they stopped relying on others for their spiritual lives and took responsibility for it themselves.
As needed as Luther’s critique was, I think something important was lost as the church split into Protestant and Catholic wings. In many quarters, Protestants lost any notion of the sacramental character of giving.
What do I mean by the sacramental character of giving?
At the Eucharist, we, as a congregation, offer up a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God and receive back Christ himself in the consecrated elements of the Eucharist. The Eucharist, and the grace that flows from it, becomes the central part of our spiritual lives. The Eucharist literally enables us to lead the Christian life, which is why it is the central part of our services.
Although the following texts have often been misused (both in history and in our day), God seems to offer a blessing to those who are generous givers. To give to the poor or to the church is like making a loan to God. Instead of being embarrassed by this, perhaps we should take it seriously since this has been the church’s teaching from the beginning. Consider the following texts:
“Honor the lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty and your vats will be bursting with wine.” (Prov 3.9-10)
“Give and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luk 6.38)
“The point is this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” (2 Cor 9.6)
Does this mean God is promising to make us rich if we tithe? No, of course not. Should we go borrow a bunch of money, give it to the church and wait for the inevitable windfall to come our way? Not at all. What our Lord blesses is the generous heart that realizes everything belongs to God because he created all things.
God is trying to teach us that our everyday work shouldn’t be separated from our spiritual lives. Our financial lives and our spiritual lives work together. Thus maybe we should start seeing commitment Sunday as one of the most important feasts of the church year.
If we have our theology right, our pledges are not just a necessary evil. They may play a central role in our spiritual lives. To be right with God is to recognize his ownership over everything and to participate in his work by being generous with the financial resources God owns.
God’s the owner; we’re simply the stewards. If you want a vibrant spiritual life, giving sacrificially, and understanding it sacramentally, might just be a key component of it.
Kevin Dodge is the author of several books on the spiritual life, including Confessions of a Bishop: A Guide to Augustine’s Confessions and Reading Dante: A Theological Paraphrase of the Inferno. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a ThM with Highest Honors from Dallas Theological Seminary.