by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | November 1, 2018Hi friends, I sent out a letter to the congregation this week sharing some of Lucy’s and my practice of pledging. Today, I want to write about that practice more generally. It’s my hope and my expectation that everyone who calls St. Liz home will make a financial pledge for 2019. I hope this because pledging is spiritually good for us. I expect it because it’s consonant with our identity as Christians in the Episcopal Church.
Before continuing, some terminology reminders might be helpful: a tithe is a biblical standard of 10% of one’s income offered to God through the Church. A pledge is a commitment to give a specific amount of one’s household income in the following year. One can pledge without tithing, and one can tithe without pledging. One can also do both.
My hope is that everyone will pledge because as a practice, pledging is good for us spiritually. We are a people of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is a way of saying that the most important aspect of our futures—our redemption as God’s daughters and sons—is already accomplished by God on our behalf. To make a pledge is to practice in the present our security in God’s future. We make pledges each fall for the coming year as a way of offering to God our future in advance, regardless of what that future might contain. To paraphrase Matthew, “where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.” By promising to God the first fruits of our financial futures in the coming year, we also promise to God our hearts for the coming year.
That’s why I hope this for us: because it’s good for us! Now, what about that second word, expectation? I expect that everyone will pledge not only because it’s practically helpful as we plan for 2019, but because the practice of pledging is consonant with our identity as Episcopalians. Christianity is a collection of practices—weekly worship, prayer, care for the needy, pursuing peace and kindness, studying the bible—and those practices form us in a particular direction, so to speak. The Eucharist, for example, is a practice of corporate worship given to us by Jesus. Practicing it forms us into more and more perfect images of God, which is to say it forms us into Christ’s likeness, the perfect image of God (Col. 1:15). We receive Christ’s Body and Blood each week so that we might become more and more like Christ himself.
We are like piano students practicing day in, day out so that we become more like the Master Pianist—people whose native country is the very music we so love to play. And like piano students, we depend on the Master Pianist to teach us the practices that will lead us more deeply into the music.
The practices of Christian discipleship, like the practices of learning the piano, involve a tradition of learning. Those practices—like piano scales and the grammar of sheet music—were here before us. Therefore, just like learning the piano, becoming Christians means becoming conversant in disciplines we would not otherwise choose or could not have invented for ourselves. It’s a bit like learning to spell as a child: we are each befuddled to learn the pterodactyl starts with a P. But the English language was here before we learned to speak it, and if we would be effective communicators, we must learn to practice it with all of its oddities. Sometimes the why of an odd spelling is only revealed after we’ve been doing it for a while—and sometimes never at all!
I say all of this because offering to God of our first fruits is a Christian practice none of us gets to decide is unimportant. Just as piano students do not get to decide but only learn the notes that make an A-major chord, and just like none of us gets to decide but only learn how to spell pterodactyl, certain aspects of being Christian people just aren’t up for grabs. Giving of our first fruits is one.
But we’ve not yet arrived at pledging, which is a specific way of offering to God of our first fruits. So why pledge?
The tradition of Christianity that you and I inhabit is the Episcopal Church. We do not belong to just any room in God’s house, but in this room. Another way of saying this might be to say that learning the trumpet and learning the piano are both musical arts, but each will necessarily enter the world of music a bit differently. Just as the trumpet is not necessarily better or worse than the piano, the Episcopal Church is not better or worse than any other in God’s house. But it does mean that our room has its own particular understanding of Christian practices, our own flavor of common life. We celebrate the Eucharist like this. We understand the authority of the bible like this. We have bishops like her and not only like him. Learning the trumpet and learning the piano have much in common, but they are also distinct.
One of our practices in the Episcopal Room of God’s house is that we take vows: at baptisms, at confirmations, at weddings. We expect our clergy to take vows at their ordinations, promising (amongst other things) to be an “example” for those entrusted to our care. Simply put, pledging is another kind of vow. Pledging is only one kind of giving, but it is an avowed practice of giving that fits with our understanding of Christian culture as Episcopalians. It’s my expectation that we will behave accordingly.
Some of us resist pledging because we fear making a commitment we might break. This is certainly understandable, and this resistance stems from a virtuous place: a conviction that we should keep our word. As Christians, however, we believe that our calling in following Jesus is faithfulness, not perfection. For example, during our bishop’s visit a few weeks ago, each of us reaffirmed our avowed commitment to “respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP, pg 305). Yet none of us would claim to fulfill that vow perfectly. Moreover, I doubt any of us expects to fulfill that vow perfectly in the year to come! But we do expect to get better at it, day in and day out, little bits at a time.
Why? Because we believe that we are finite and fallible creatures, and that our redemption as God’s sons and daughters depends on God’s action, not ours. When we break our baptismal commitments, we ask for God’s forgiveness, and we strive to do a little better. This is why I use this word practice so much—we’re all still working at it.
So, if we don’t think twice about promising to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” why would we hesitate to promise something as simple as money?
The amount of money is for no one to decide but you, your family, and God. Whatever step God is calling you to take this year, however, I hope and expect you’ll give it a try. It may be that the practice brings you a greater sense of abundance in your life. It may be that, by this time next year, you decide you tried a bit too much, or maybe not quite enough. Remember: our goal is faithfulness, not getting it exactly right. We’re all still practicing.
Part of the grace of being people who take vows is that, when we make a vow, we are usually promising an unlimited amount of time, whether to God or to a person or to a community. Our baptismal vows affirmed at Confirmation, for example, don’t have an expiration date: we’re promising to do this for as long as we walk the earth. There’s grace in this because it means that there’s no hard deadline for ‘success.’ Only meet 90% of your pledge this year? That’s okay. Pledging is a lifelong practice we renew each year. Another year is on its way already. Only 25% because of those medical bills, or the house you lost in the storm? That’s also okay. Another year is on its way already. Our whole futures are in God’s hands, and God has promised us an unlimited amount of time, on this side of the grave and beyond, in which to grow into the full stature of Christ, His Son. We have seasons of feast and famine, of rising and falling. We are each of us always starting over on our journey into holiness.
And that’s okay. This is the Church, and St. Liz is your church. We are a community of grace, a community of ordinary people on an extraordinary journey—and a journey worth taking may involve our falling down a time or two. But God doesn’t ask for our perfection, only for our faithfulness. Our best efforts are pleasing to Him, however small or insignificant or imperfect they may seem to us. Everything belongs.