A couple weeks ago, I told all of you that my employer had been purchased by a larger company. And I gave thanks to God in front of this congregation that this enables me to make an extra donation to St James’s this year above and beyond my pledge.
I said this first and foremost because it’s true. I am giving an extra couple thousand dollars toward this community’s capital expenses. This is an occasion for which I thank the Lord who makes all things possible.
But I also said this publicly because I believe that we are too reluctant to talk concretely about the ways our faith informs the stewardship of our personal resources. In this culture, we tend to delegate our conversations about money to a select group of leaders who we expect to focus their comments on their organization’s funding needs. I hope my comments today won’t lead you to write me off as one of those select few who are responsible for asking you for your money. I’m here because I believe we all have a stewardship story worth sharing, and I’ve been asked to share mine.
When John Wesley preached about “The Use of Money”, he gave simple instructions: Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. I don’t think this is the only authentic response to the Gospel, but over time I have gradually adopted this same framework for my own resources.
When I was younger, my parents gave me some money each week as an allowance. Initially, they gave me $1.50 per week. But that money came with a couple of conditions. I had to save 50¢ each week for future needs (also known as college). I also had to give away 50¢ each week to our church. The remaining 50¢ could be spent however I wanted.
My parents maintained similar practices with their own money. Obviously they had a bigger budget with more demands to balance — but they did consistently save for the future while giving a sizable portion of their income to the church and other charities.
And so I learned from example at an early age that a person’s budget (or lack thereof) is an important expression of their values. Remembering Christ’s call for the rich man to sell all his possessions and give his proceeds to the poor, I aim to give all I can. I also see that I fail to give as Jesus gives, and thus I am called to trust in his unconditional love for my own salvation.
When Wesley suggested that Christians “save all you can”, he wasn’t calling for people to hoard their wealth. Rather, he was encouraging his listeners to minimize their spending on themselves, so that they would have more to give to the poor, the sick, and the suffering.
After college, I spent three years working for a non-profit in Maine, two of those years as an AmeriCorps member. Of course, the AmeriCorps stipend isn’t particularly big — I received less than $1000 per month for that work. During that period, I learned to be thrifty, and I managed to tithe 10% of the stipend while paying down my car loan a little ahead of schedule. (Thank God for good health!)
And yet, I’m not immune to greed. I have begun to spend more on myself as my income rises. My rent here in Cambridge is 5 times what I paid for a share of an apartment during my AmeriCorps term. I don’t mean to suggest that such a low rent was necessarily sustainable over the long term — but all things considered, my current expenses do seem extravagant in comparison to those who have more responsibilities and earnings at or near the minimum wage. Once again, I hope for salvation not from my works, but from Christ’s all-consuming grace.
During my third year in Maine, I started to think more seriously about my longer-term career possibilities. I began to think economically about the ways in which I could help reduce human suffering in this world through each of my potential career paths.
I could continue to work in the non-profit sector, doing good work and donating a share of my earnings. Thanks to the current job market for my technology skills, I could also double my salary if I worked for a for-profit company. Looking at the value of my time together with the value of my wealth, I realized that I was likely to be a better steward of my resources by earning more and giving more away. And so I shifted my goal to maximizing my earnings over the long-term horizon of my career, and I committed myself to giving away a higher and higher proportion of my earnings as my income grows.
Also thinking economically, I realized that most people strongly value stability in their earnings. It’s usually hard to manage your finances if you earn more in one year than you do in the next. But I only care about stability for the money I need to support myself — it’s easy to give more money when I earn more, and less money when I earn less, and there are enough ways we need to help the poor that the amount of money I give over the long term seems more important than the stability of giving the same amount every year.
And so I aim to gain all I can, looking to maximize my charitable gifts over my career rather than increasing my giving in any single year. To this end, I have given away 25-30% of my salary, and I am now giving away most of the money I’m receiving from my stock options.
Yet I am not altogether certain that I am striking the correct balance between earning and giving more and doing work that furthers (rather than hinders) God’s vision for this world. I continue to grapple with this issue, trusting in God to guide me.
It seems I’ve been talking a lot about money, and I don’t want you to think that stewardship is just about money. I’m not here to suggest that everyone should try to earn as much money as possible. We are stewards of all the gifts God has given to us. Time and energy. Creativity and relationships. Money and the claim it represents on the abundance of God’s creation. For “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”
Our call as Christians is for each person to make the best use of the gifts God has given us, so that collectively we might draw all the world into his blessed kingdom.