Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fit To Be Tithed

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Mark 12:38-44:

One Sunday a minister was working on getting his congregation fired up about doing God’s work in the world. “If this church is going to serve God it’s got to get down on its knees and crawl.” And the congregation, being actively engaged in the sermon, yelled back “make it crawl preacher, make it crawl.” And then the minister yelled “and once this church has learned to crawl, it’s got to get up on its feet and learn to walk.” And the congregation yelled back “make it walk preacher, make it walk.” And then the minister said “and once this church has learned how to walk, then it’s got to learn how to run.” And the congregation yelled back “make it run preacher, make it run.” And then he concluded with “and in order for this church to run, its got to reach deep down into its pockets and learn to give.” And then there was a pause, and someone yelled out “make it crawl preacher, make it crawl.”

Today is the third and concluding sermon in our series on money, which is based roughly on a series created by Dave Ramsey entitled Faith, Hope and Money, and it is the day in which we cover everyone’s favorite topic, giving. Now as you have already heard me say, the church makes a terrible mistake when it reduces stewardship to simply being about giving to the church. It is a mistake which hurts the church and it hurts you, because even if you are tithing, which means giving ten percent of your income, then you still have 90% more to worry about, and the church tends to ignore that even though the scriptures have a lot to say about money and possessions, and it’s about a lot more than just the contributions you put into the offering plate. The Bible deals with issues of money more than 800 times, and Jesus talks about more than he talks about just about anything else.

So for the past two weeks we have been looking at how to get our financial houses in order. I have been closing each week with a passage from Proverbs which says, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to want.” The steps we have worked through together are the first steps to lead us to diligence, to financial diligence. In the first sermon we talked about the need to save. Does anyone remember what the three reasons are to save? Emergencies, purchases, and to build wealth particularly for retirement. And in order to make sure you are putting money into savings every single month what are you supposed to do? Pay yourself first. You pay yourself first because if you wait until the end of the month and then take out whatever is left I can assure you it won’t be there. We spend the money we have, but if we never see it then we can’t touch it.

Last week, in part two, we talked about the need to track all of our money, to set financial goals and to create a monthly budget. The median household in America will bring in more than 2 million dollars over forty years. In order to be good stewards of those resources we need to know where all the money is going and then to say what our money is going to do for us. We work hard for our money so our money should be working hard for us. Jesus says that you cannot serve two masters, you cannot serve both God and mammon, so instead of serving our money, which is how most of us operate, when we budget, track all income and expenditures, save, give and create financial goals which give us direction and a target, when we do those things then we are telling our money where it is going and we control it, it does not control us. When we are masters of our money, instead of focusing all of our attention, our energy, our frustrations, our stress, on financial concerns then we can instead focus everything we do and have on our relationship with God and what God is calling us to do. When we are masters of our money, then we can fully make God the master of our lives.

Now many of you have said to me that they wish they had heard this message 50, 60 or even 70 years ago, but as I said in the first sermon, it is never too late to start practicing financial diligence. If you are still alive then you can be doing these things. But even if you think it’s too late for most things, then talk with your children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren about financial matters. You will also probably be one of the few adults in their life who will actually talk with them about money, which will surprise them, because money is one of those things we normally don’t talk about. But you know what will be even more important? Rather than telling them, show them through your own actions. We learn a lot more about how to deal with money and what money means through how we see those who are important interacting with their money. Model this behavior for them and they will follow. If you tell a child about the dangers of credit card debt, but they see you using your credit card all the time, which lesson do you think they are going to follow? We need to learn how to be good stewards and we need to teach others how to be good stewards.

So what does that mean? A steward is an old English term; in feudal Europe a person of wealth would entrust all of his property to his steward to manage on his behalf. The steward did not own the property, it belonged to lord, the steward was merely entrusted to manage it all for its proper owner. So the first step to understanding what it means to be a good steward is to also understand that the resources are not ours to begin with that they belong to God. We are merely entrusted with them, we are God’s stewards. If we are to truly think of ourselves in this way it should change everything we do with our money as well as how we view our money.

The first thing that needs to change is how we view what we have so that we move from a position of scarcity, that we never have enough, instead to a position of abundance, that God has provided what we need. This change does not change how much money we have but it instead changes our entire perspective on our resources. If when we are working with our money we have ever said, “we can’t afford that,” which I’ve certainly said before, then we are working from a position of scarcity. Instead we should say “I am choosing to spend my money differently,” because that is working from a position of abundance. Has the reality changed any? No, but the perspective has changed completely, and if you want to teach a powerful message to your children, this is one of the first places to start.

When we work from a position of scarcity, then we act from a position of fear, and worse we are letting our money control us. When we say ‘we can’t afford this” our money is making our decisions for us, and we are serving another master. But, when we say “we choose to spend our money differently,” then we are now the ones in control. We are the ones saying where our money will and will not go so that our money relies on us we do not rely on our money. God does not work from a position of scarcity, nor does God give from a position of scarcity, and neither should we. We need to realign our thinking to a position of abundance, and when we operate from a position of abundance and when we are in control of our money we will find that we have more than enough.

The second thing that changes when we see everything as belonging to God is our view of giving, and this changes because, as Dave Ramsey says, it’s always much easier to give away someone else’s money than it is to give away your own. In my preparation for this series, I did quite a bit of study, and all of the financial planners I read and listened to said that one of the keys to getting your finances in order and under control was sort of counter-intuitive. In order to get our spending and finances under control we need to be giving some of it away. In addition, they all said that just like with your savings that the amount you give should come out first thing, to give away first. In the church we say that this is giving of your first fruits. We give off the first of the harvest and then we work with what remains. Now some of these financial planners, like Dave Ramsey, are overtly Christian, but most were not, but all of them advocated giving because of the impact it would make on us and the way it would change us.

In today’s passage, typically referred to as the story of the widow’s mite Jesus’ highlights the gift given by the widow. Even though Jesus’ says the other gave out of their abundance, that is they gave because they thought they had enough to give, the widow gives, in Jesus’ words, “out of her poverty.” But I would argue that the woman too gives out of her abundance because she understands that even with little, that she has been blessed by God, and so she is giving back a portion of what God has given. She is in fact giving from abundance. She is not holding tightly onto what she has, saying she doesn’t have enough to give, instead she gives because it is in her to give and she knows and trusts that God will provide. She is giving out of abundance, and she is also giving sacrificially, just as Jesus does. We need to be givers because we are made in the image of God and God is a giver. What does the 16th verse of the 3rd chapter of John say? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son….” God is a giver.

Now in reading about other reasons why we should give, some people will tell you that if you give that you will receive back multiples of your money in return. While I agree in principle with this idea, I fundamentally reject the premise that this is the reason to give. I reject it because that is to turn giving into an investment practice, which is fundamentally the wrong way to view giving, because that makes it all about you. Now that does not mean that we do not receive anything from giving, because we do, but often what we receive is simply the blessings that come from operating in the world with an open hand rather than a closed fist. If you approach a dog with a closed fist, what will it do? A closed fist is a universal sign of anger, and when we are not giving, when we are clinging on to everything we have, when we are hording, then we approach the world with a closed fist. But instead, when we give we have to open up our hand and present just the palm. What happens when you approach a dog with an open hand? The world responds to an open hand exactly the same way. Giving fundamentally changes the way we approach the world and the way the world responds to us.

Now we are told in scripture that we are to be giving and to give of our first fruits, and the amount identified for giving is 10% of your income. This is referred to as a tithe, because tithe is the Greek word for a tenth. These injunctions, to tithe and give our your first fruits, are found throughout the scriptures. Now, my grandfather always said that you needed to give 10% of your income in order to get into heaven, and maybe some of you have heard that as well. But, just like I reject the idea that the reason to give is in order to receive, I also reject the idea that we need to give to get into heaven. I don’t believe that God works that way.

If you believe that in order to get into heaven you have to tithe, then that means that you have to give. But let me tell you what I believe, even though the finance committee doesn’t like to hear such things, I don’t believe that we have to put one single solitary penny into this collection plate in order to get into heaven. Not a single solitary penny is required from us. We are offered eternal life because of the love of God and because of the price that Christ paid on the cross. God’s love, grace and mercy is greater than anything we could ever possible afford even if we were to give everything we have. The price for eternal life has already been paid! This cross is the receipt! This cross represents the cost of eternal life and it has already been paid for for you and for me. We don’t have to give anything to the church.

The church, our faith, our salvation are not mere commodities that can simply be bought or sold. These are not like a can of green beans or a pound of hamburger upon which a price can be set. Only you can decide what the correct level of giving. If you decide that this church is worth $500 a year to you, there is absolutely nothing and no one from stopping you from giving $500. You will still be able to walk through the door, you still get to sing all the same songs, even the ones you don’t know, you can still seek out the services of the minister, you can still attend any of the events the church hosts, and you still get to serve on committees.
Although now that I think about it, maybe we should come up with a plan directly related to committee service. The more money you give the fewer committee meetings you have to sit through. That might definitely get some positive response.

We don’t have to give anything. Instead, and you knew that was coming, we GET to give, and this is a big difference. It may seem like mere semantics, but there is a big difference between being obligated to do something and having the free choice to do it. Giving to the church is a choice, and one that I do think will impact your spiritual life and your relationship with God. In fact, the quickest and easiest way to increase your giving, and the way that every church should advocate, is through deepening your relationship with Jesus Christ. If you’ve been attending for a while you’ve heard me talk a lot about being on fire with the Holy Spirit, and if you are on fire then you can’t help but give.

When you are, as Dave Ramsey says, “a sold out believer,” then you will give naturally because you can’t imagine doing anything else. It will be something that we can’t control and we will give and give generously, we will be like the widow in today’s passage, because we are committed to this church and its mission, and we are committed to the gospel message, that is the good news, and believe that it should continue to be spread so that others can also experience the joy and love that we have felt through our relationship with God.

In the coming weeks you will be receiving in the mail a letter talking about the financial needs of this congregation for the year 2012, along with an estimate of giving card I know that you have not done this in the past, but we as a church are also working on becoming diligent in our financial practices and we need you to help us to do that. So to help us create our budget for next year, to know how much money we have to expend so we can create an accurate budget for the coming year, we are asking you to turn in your estimate of giving card so that we can be good stewards of the money with which we are entrusted. But, as we all begin to think about next year’s giving, here is where I throw down the gauntlet: I would like to challenge us to become a tithing congregation. That would of course mean that we as individuals are tithing to the church, but I would like to extend that to the church proper as well. You are already tithing each week’s offering to pay our mission shares to the conference, and I strongly applaud that, but I would also challenge us to tithe, to give ten percent, of our pledges to mission and outreach in the community as well.

Ultimately what we give to this church is between us and God, we can give nothing or we can begin tithing. The choice is ours. But I do ask that you at least begin the process of evaluating what this congregation, what the greater church and what your relationship with God means to you. If you find that your commitment to God, to this congregation, or your giving is not what you would like it to be I ask you to take this time to begin to change it. If you decide you’re quite happy with the way everything is, then you can also continue keeping the status quo, but I do ask that you take the time to at least consider it.

By giving freely and generously of ourselves we are making both a commitment and a statement about the importance of this church and God in our lives. We are making a commitment and a statement that Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection are meaningful and important to us. We are making a commitment and a statement that we think that the gospel should continue to be spread so that others can also experience the joy and love that we have felt through our relationship with God. And most importantly we are making a commitment and a statement that God is the most important thing in our lives, because we are putting God first before everything else.

I would like to close with a story told by retired Bishop Susan Morrison about an event she witnessed in Zimbabwe. She was preaching in a very poor rural church, but remembers the offering as the high point of her time there. She said the pastor prayed with fervent passion and excitement that God would lead people to give an offering that would be a living expression of the way God loves the world. As the collection plates were passed around the congregation, she noticed that the plate stopped at one of the women who held it and looked at it for a while. She then stood up and walked out into the isle, and placed the collection plate on the ground. Then, said Bishop Morrison, in the most stunning gesture of radical giving she had ever witnessed, the woman stepped into the plate. When you consider what your giving will be to this church for the coming year, I ask you to keep this story in mind and to consider prayerfully and deliberately what your relationship with God and with this congregation means to you, and to make the appropriate response in your giving as well.

We are called to be proper stewards of our resources, or more properly to be proper stewards of God’s resources. Hopefully if you are not already doing so we are now beginning to take the steps towards financial diligence. Dave Ramsey closes his radio program each time by saying, “There is ultimately only one way to financial peace, and that is to walk daily with the Price of Peace, Christ Jesus.” May it be so. Amen.

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