Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fit To Be Tithed

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 19:1-10:

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, it’s 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 we complete our sermon series on money, with the one topic I know you all have been looking forward to giving.  But even though many people, including preachers dread these messages, as you’ve already learned, I don’t particularly have a problem talking about money or about stewardship, and in fact I think some of my best sermons have been on giving.  Those who think of messages on giving as me begging for money, or asking you to pay my salary for another year, I believe fundamentally don’t understand giving or stewardship, which is about a lot more than just giving.  The Bible has a lot to say about money, including the passage we just heard from Luke about Zacchaeus, and really only a portion of that is about giving, although it is a part.  And that’s because even if you were to be giving a tithe, which means giving 10%, which is biblical, and we’ll get to that in a moment, you would still have 90% of your money to deal with, and the Bible has something to say about this.  This stuff matters to us.

I also want to talk about it to bring it out into the open, because most people relate to their money more out of fear than any other emotion, and when we hide our money concerns, issues and questions, that fear only becomes worse.  Darkness increases those emotions, but light will dispel them, and so I want to bring light to our financial situation.  I want you to have your financial life in order.  I want you to know where you money is going, and I want you to be controlling your money, rather than your money controlling you, not only because we are called by God to be diligent with our money, to be good stewards, but also because I know that if you don’t know how you are going to pay your bills this month that you will not be able to be giving at the level that is appropriate, not just through the church, but to all the charities that you might support, and  probably the number one fundamental misunderstanding about money and finances, and its committed not just by us, but also by the churches is what it means to be a steward.

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 understand that the resources are not ours to begin with that they belong to God.  In the 50th Psalm we hear God saying "For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.  I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine.”  And we might add, not just the cattle on a thousand hills, but the hills themselves.  We do not own what we have; we are merely entrusted with it, that’s what it means to be a good steward.  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.  When we understand this idea of stewardship at its core, that is when we begin to come into right relationship with our money.

Last week after worship, in which I talked about saving money, someone said to me, “what about Jesus telling the man to sell everything he had and give it to the poor?”  My response was that that was because of how the man was relating to his treasures, and indeed we are told that the man went away sad, why?  Because he had many possessions, and that was what he wanted to put his reliance and faith in, he was also going against Jesus’ statement that we are not to store up our treasure on earth where rust and moth can devour it, but instead to store up our treasure in heaven.  In that case, though, the man’s treasure was here on earth, it was in the things he had, and he was unable to let go of them, he was more concerned with his horizontal relationships rather than his vertical relationship and therefore he was not serving God because he had another master.  But all these things, in and of themselves they are value neutral, they are neither good nor bad, we give them their value, and we get a different perspective in today’s story.

In today’s passage, we are told that Zacchaeus is a chief-tax collector and is wealthy.  While we might have our own thoughts about the IRS and those who work for them, they do not compare to how tax collectors were viewed at the time of Jesus.  The Roman Empire would open up bids to collect the empires taxes, and whoever pledged to bring in the most amount of money would win the contract.  But, to make any profit at it, you then had to bring in more than what you had promised to give over to the Romans, through whatever means you thought appropriate.  Tax collectors were seen as traitors to their faith, and to be the chief tax collector was to be the worst of the worst.  And the fact that Zacchaeus is rich means that he was really good at extorting people out of their funds.  But even though this is who Zacchaeus is, Jesus tells him that he must stay at his home.  And although the passage we just heard said that Zacchaeus is happy, that is really a mistranslation of the Greek.  A better translation is to say that Zacchaeus rejoiced.  He wasn’t just happy that Jesus came to his home, but he rejoiced, and then he pledges to give half of what he has to the poor, and anyone he has defrauded he will give them restitution of four times the amount taken.  In response to this, Jesus tells Zacchaeus that salvation has come to his home.

Now some people have interpreted this to mean that Zacchaeus is saved because he gave away his money, but that is not correct, and we know it’s not correct for one simple reason.  It is impossible for Zacchaeus to do what he has pledged to do.  He can’t give back to those he defrauded four times what he took from them, because he doesn’t have that much money.  Nearly all of his wealth has been attained in defrauding people, so he cannot possible give back four times what he has.  Salvation comes to Zacchaeus’ home not because of what he gives away; salvation comes to Zacchaeus’ home because Jesus has come to Zacchaeus’ home.  Unlike the man who is told to sell everything but can’t because his life, identity and value are tied up in his possessions, Zacchaeus demonstrates that he is not tied to his money, that he does not serve his money, for as Jesus says you cannot serve two masters, you cannot serve both God and money, and so Zacchaeus proves that he does not serve his money, that he is willing to pick up his cross, how often? Daily, and deny himself and follow Christ.  That’s the difference between these two.

Now my grandfather always said that you needed to tithe to the church in order to get into heaven.  Maybe that’s something that you heard as well, or maybe you even believe it.  But here’s the simple truth.  You don’t have to give anything in order to get into heaven.  Not one single dime, and you can even call the Bishop and tell him I told you that, and hopefully he’ll agree with me.  Salvation comes not because of what Zacchaeus gives, our salvation comes not because of what we give, salvation comes because of Christ.  When we invite Christ into our homes, when we invite Christ into our lives, when we invite Christ into our hearts and minds, and do so joyfully, then salvation has come.  Our salvation is not dependent upon our giving.  We don’t have to give anything.  Instead and you had to know that was coming, we get to give.  Giving should not be done out of compulsion or as a requirement, it should be done freely, joyfully, cheerfully.

We give to God because God has first given to us, and this is not a quid pro quo situation either.  Giving to God’s mission is not just another economic exercise.  This is not a way to buy your way into heaven, or to get rich, or to get other benefits.  There are tremendous benefits that come from giving, but if we give to receive these things then we are not giving with a true heart or with right intentions.  Instead giving is a spiritual discipline, the same way that praying and reading scripture every day are spiritual disciplines.  These disciplines are about living intentionally with God, and besides, God’s love, grace and mercy are far greater than anything we could ever possibly afford.  This cross represents the cost of eternal life, and you know what, it has already been paid for you and for me.

Giving is not about what it can get for us.  Giving is about saying that we care enough about God and our relationship with God and with God’s mission for the world as carried out by this church that we are willing to support it financially, even up to the point of it hurting.  If we claim that the good things in our lives come from God, then why are we afraid to return back to God what is therefore rightfully God’s?  Someone once said, show me a person’s checkbook and I’ll be able to tell you who their God is.  Is the church and its mission the first thing we think about when we pay our bills?  The second?  Third?  Fourth?  How far down on our list is God?  We are called by scriptural witness to be giving of our first fruits, to be giving a tithe, that is ten percent of our income, to God’s ministry and mission, and yes that is true even in the New Testament, and that is what I will push us towards while I am here.  I want us to be a tithing congregation, and not only us tithing as individuals, but tithing as a congregation as well.

Now I say all that also letting you know that I am not someone who is tithing.  Linda and I made a pledge early in our marriage that we were going to be tithers, and we stepped up our giving each year.  Our last year in Massachusetts we would have giving a little more than 9%.  But then we moved to New Mexico and took a more than $25,000 pay cut, and yet none of our bills went down with the salary, and so we had to cut back on when we contributed to the church.  Not because we wanted to but because we do have other obligations which we are working to eliminate.  Now giving is the first line in our budget, it comes right off the top and we trust that God is going to provide, and God does.  And I consider it only fair for you to know not only that, but also what I give.  I can’t be asking you to give without you knowing where I am.  My salary and housing, which is voted upon by you every year, is a little more than $64000.  This year Linda and I will be turning in an estimate of giving of $3000.  That represent 7% of my net income, and 3% of our net income as a couple.  Next year we will be increasing that to take the next step to move towards tithing, which is what I am asking you to do as well.  And because we are providing an estimate, if we are able to pay more than that, that we will, for we know that when we are faithful that God is always faithful in return.

Now you might have noticed that I said that we give to the mission and ministry of God, not of the church, and I said that for a very specific reason.  I don’t want you to give to the church, I want you to give to the mission of the church and what God is calling us to do and who God is calling us to be.  We don’t give so that we can maintain these structures, we give because these structures allow us to do some of the ministry that we are called to do, and our giving allows us to do that as well.  While money might not be the root of all evil, as it is the love of money, money is the root of paying all bills, or as the Very Reverend Nathan D. Baxter, dean of the National Cathedral, once said, “the water of salvation is free, but it costs for the plumbing.”

We don’t give to the church, we give through the church on behalf of God’s mission, and when we are doing what God is calling us to do, when we are being faithful, then money won’t be an issue because God will provide the funds to accomplish that mission.  This is not about survival.  If we give simply to keep the building open, we will always struggle and we will close, because God does not provide for survival.  God provides for us to do the work that God is calling us to do, and when we are doing that, when we are being faithful then money won’t be the issue.  I am constantly amazed that when we are faithful that God is faithful in return.

Rev.  Chuck Bader, who was the founding pastor of this church, told me a story this week that at one time this had been a tithing congregation, to be giving 10% of every offering to pay for their missions shares to the annual conference, and when they made that decision the treasurer of the church quit.  He said he didn’t know how he was going to be able to pay the bills while giving the top 10% away, and so he refused to do it anymore.  But do you know what happened?  Within one month of making that commitment, of making that leap of faith, they received $50,000 from two different totally unexpected sources, that more than made up for the amount that they had pledged to tithe to the conference.  When we are faithful, God is faithful in return.

Now that does not mean that when we are unfaithful, that God is also unfaithful.  Instead, the opposite is true as we heard just two weeks ago in a passage from 2 timothy, that even when we are faithless that God is faithful, the difference is that we cannot receive when we are being unfaithful.  We cannot receive because we are not in a position to receive, even if God’s hands are extended to us, but when we turn, when we return to God then we are told, in the parable of the prodigal son, that God is waiting for us ready to provide for us.  When we are faithful, then God is faithful in return, and salvation has come to our door.

Did you know that aspen trees are not a singular entity.  When we look at them we just see a bunch of trees, but in fact they are all connected through their root systems so that it is impossible to tell where one tree ends and another begins.  And so they grow and are intertwined together, dependent upon and supportive of every other tree in the grove.  If you are to go into most synagogues, in the entry way you will normally find a tree in one shape or another.  The synagogue is called the etz chaim, or the tree of life, and that tree represents the congregation.  This is an image with deep scriptural roots.  It is one of the trees found in the Garden of Eden, it is found in Proverbs, and at the end of the Book of Revelation when the new creation is revealed it is there again bearing twelve different fruits.

This congregation too is our etz chaim, our tree of life, and in order to grow and produce strong roots to allow it to grow and thrive, to become bigger and stronger, to produce the fruits that God is calling for us, this tree is dependent upon every one of us.  To do what God is calling us to do, we must be faithful to that vision and give to that mission.  St. Augustine is reported to have said that without God we cannot, and without us God will not.  If we are not faithful to God’s vision for this congregation, then we will always be lacking, and God won’t water the tree without us here to be faithful in our giving and do the legwork, and if we are unwilling to do God’s work, then we will be moved aside and God will put someone else here who will do that work.

But you want to know the primary reason why we give, and why we need to give?  We give because we are made in the image of God and God is a giver, “for God so loved the world,” the Gospel of John says that he did what?  He gave the world his only son.  We give because when we give we are changed, because it can place us in proper alignment not only with our things, but also with God, and it can indicate whether we are joyful or fearful, whether we give from abundance or if we give from scarcity.  Mark Twain said that he was always amazed at people who were unwilling to go out on a limb, because that is where we find the fruit.  To produce the fruit that God is calling for us to produce, we must be willing to go out on a limb and trust that God will help us and trust in the belief that when we are faithful that God is always faithful in return.

Bishop Bill Hutchinson said that one of the things he remembers being taught in Sunday school that stayed with him throughout his life, was to give from a sense of JOY, that is giving by putting Jesus first, others second and yourself last.   If you feel at home here, if you feel that this is your family, that this is your etz chaim, then you know what this church and its mission means to you and you know that they are all dependent upon your gifts to help water and support it and help us to do what God has called us to do, and so I ask you to prayerfully consider what this congregation means to you and what you mean to it, and to make your gifts this year and in the coming year based on that prayerful consideration.

We give because we are made in the image of God, and God is a giver, he gave us Jesus who came that we might have life, not just any life, but life abundantly, and salvation has come to our house today.  May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

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