PRAYER OF INVOCATION: God who is faithful forever, you are our God. We turn to you in praise, for when our hope rests in you, we find rest. We turn to you with our cares, for when we look to you for help, we find strength. We turn our hearts to you in worship, offering love for you and for our neighbor. We wait in hope. We bring our cares. We offer you our love in the name of Christ, who teaches us to love, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, who inspires us to love. Amen.
LET US PRAY: Blessed Lord, who caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
I am indebted in my remarks today to Albert Winn, retired pastor and former president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary whose sermon “Tithing is More Than the Number Ten” was produced for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.
Years ago when I was at Piedmont I was approached by a former President of the College to head up the Foundation Giving Program. Its goal was a million dollars, and the president reasoned that it would be really good publicity for the campaign if every single faculty member gave to the campaign. 100%. I declined for two reasons. First, I didn’t want to ask my colleagues to give, and secondly I frankly resented being paid so little and then being asked to give a proportion of that back to the campaign.
I think we can also have some of those feelings about pledging to the church. Is it really Christian to talk about money? Let me say from the start that you do not have to pledge. But, of course, I’m going to outline the reasons that it makes sense, not just for the Session to plan its budget for next year, but also because it makes good spiritual sense.
We’ve all heard about the tithe, which literally means one tenth. And the literature talks about moving your pledge toward that percentage of your income. This percentage is inescapable in Hebrew Scriptures. When Jacob was striking his bargain with God at the foot of the ladder that led up to heaven, he promised God that he would give God a 1/10 of all he possessed if God would lead him safely to Haran and back again. The tithe is also incorporated into the law in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In the Middle Ages the tithe became the law of the church and if you did not give your 1/10 willingly, the sheriff would make a call upon you.
On the other hand, Jesus, who talks about money incessantly, more than faith and more than prayer, only mentions the tithe twice. Once when he condemned the Pharisees who tithed their herb gardens and neglected justice and the second when he held up the example of the Pharisee who stood and prayed “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men....I give tithes of all that I get.” You remember that the publican who is standing nearby beats his breast and cries out
“God be merciful to me a sinner.” It is the publican, not the Pharisee, that Jesus says goes down to his house justified, according to the Gospel of Luke.
And Paul, that great fundraiser and builder of new churches and fellowship halls, never mentions 10% once. So what does this mean? Is 10% a floor so that no one who gives less is a Christian? Is 10% a ceiling so that when we reach 10% we need never give anymore? Albert C. Winn argues that Jesus seems to be saying that in our freedom we are responsible for fixing our own percentages. We know what our financial obligations are. Some of us have children in college or getting reading to leave the nest for other adventures. Some of us have aging parents and family members to care for. We may never have recovered from the most recent economic downturn, or we may be recovering from heavy medical bills or credit card debt. On the other hand, some of us are relatively free from debt, the children are gone, and we are able to give more generously to the church. It’s not fair to impose the same percentage on everyone.
What is important, according to Dr. Winn, is that giving is regular, proportionate, is a priority, and contains an element of risk. He argues that giving regularly, every week or month, year in and year out, takes the pain and the mood that often accompanies dramatic and sentimental appeals to one thing or another. Winn suggests that you make a decision, as in the pledge, once a year and then you go about honoring that decision regularly and systematically.
There’s the story of the rabbi who was asked which act of charity was higher – giving out of obligation or giving from the heart. “Giving from the heart is a wonderful thing,” the rabbi replied, “It is a very high act and should never be demeaned. But there is something much more important that happens when somebody gives charity out of obligation. Consider who is doing the giving. When somebody gives from the heart, there is a clear sense of one’s self doing something; in other words, heartfelt charity always involves ego gratification. However, when we give out of obligation, when we give at a moment that every part of us is yelling NO! because of one reason or another---perhaps the beneficiary is disgusting, or it is too much money, or any of thousands of reasons we use to avoid giving charity – then we are confronting our own egos, and giving nonetheless. Why” Because we are supposed to. And what this means is that it is not us doing the giving, rather we are vehicles through which God gives.”
Proportional giving means to give in proportion as you have received. Your giving is not a transaction between you and South Plains; it is a transaction between you and God, who gave you everything in the first place. We shouldn’t take the number of people in this church and then divide the church budget by 50 or so giving units, so that everyone carries their fair share. Rather, Winn says, the question we should ask ourselves is this: “What proportion can I return for God’s work in order to signify and symbolize and confess before everyone that all I am and all I have comes from God?”
Listen to the Scripture texts for today: From Isaiah, which is titled The Banquet on the Mountain: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” Our God is a God of abundance. Our God is a God who feeds and sustains us.
There is also the Scriptural concept of first fruits....that’s the principle of priority. Give first to God off the top, not just what’s left over. Before the mortgage, before the telephone bill, the credit card bill, the savings account,,,,,,pay God. This takes tremendous pressure off the giver, because once God has been taken care of, you can look around and see what’s left for you. It reorganizes your life. When you put God first, you are obeying the first commandment. “You shall have no other gods before me.” But, you ask, “I can barely live on 100% of my income, how can I live on 90%?” Here comes the fun part!
Deeply embedded in your tithe is the principle of risk. But it will become the adventure of your life. You begin to live on trust. You begin to see how God will provide for your every need. Winn says that the unanimous testimony of all those who tithe is that it’s fun. Tithing does not mean that you will win the lottery; what it does mean is that you will be free from financial anxiety and be blessed in all the ways that matter.
I know that it’s a lot easier to talk about these things than to live them. But we can begin to do so now; no matter how vulnerable we may feel. God has given us enough for living, for creating a new church, a new people of God. Listen to these words from Revelation: “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said: ”Write this, for these words are trustworthy ad true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
Christian financial stewardship is about our commitment to the God of abundance, the one who has given us everything we have, the one who is the first and the last. You don’t have to pledge next week and you don’t have to tithe, but when you contemplate giving back to God through South Plains Presbyterian Church, pray about those principles of regular giving, giving in proportion to what you have received, paying God first, and especially stepping out in faith and taking a risk. And see what God will do. Amen.