Consecration Sunday: Make a Choice (3/3)
Other sermons in this series
“Generosity: the Core of Creation”
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Hey, do you remember back in about 7th, 8th grade, in the schoolyard, there would be a conversation that went something like this:
- “I bet I can beat you at the quarter mile run…Bet you can’t.”
- “I can chug this coke down faster than you can…Not a chance.”
- “I can do more push-ups than you…Prove it.”
- “I’ll bet you a buck you can’t…You’re on..Here’s my dollar. Put your money where your mouth is.”
Remember those kinds of dialogue? Some of those I wouldn’t even waste a dollar on today because I wouldn’t be able to do it.
That reminds me of a story about a man who came home one day from work. He’d been working extremely hard. He was greeted by his wife and then his little girl. He picked up his little girl and he said, “How about a kiss for daddy? He’s had a hard day.” And she looked back and fired back at him, “No!” Mom was a bit upset and disappointed, and she said to her, “Janelle, your daddy has worked hard all day to bring home money, and you behave like that? So again, dad turned to the little girl and said, “Okay, honey, come on, where’s the kiss?” And that three-year old looked him square in the eyes and said, “Where’s the money?”
Now, if our Heavenly Father wasn’t such a gracious God, God might respond to us in the same way that one spouse responded to her husband when he presented to her a minimally priced gift for her birthday. It had an attached note, which simply read, “It isn’t how much you spend, but it’s the thought that counts.” On opening the gift, she responded, “Now, it’s not that I don’t appreciate your gift, honey, but do you have to fight inflation all by yourself?”
You see, the expression of love requires both an attitude and an action. Both of those are needed. It’s easy for us to give thanks to God, to pray a table grace, something like this–and you’ve all prayed this—“For these bountiful blessings we receive, we thank thee, O generous God.” It’s easy for us to say that. It’s harder for us to give thanks, to genuinely pay tribute, to generously act out our gratitude. It’s easier to rehearse our blessings than it is to release our blessings, and to reply verbally than it is to respond very visibly. We need both: attitude, that’s the heart; and we need action, that’s the hands. They need to be in sync.
Now, at times our attitudes result in a change of behavior. This is usually true. Other times, the opposite is what takes place. We begin by doing, and then our behavior leads to believing. It isn’t always the case, but often. Often, we act our way into believing more frequently than we believe our way into acting.
That’s why the heart and the hand really need to be in sync. The business of a saving relationship with Jesus Christ is not just a head trip. Not at all. Maybe it’s crass, but until our salary has been evangelized, our soul isn’t totally converted. Jesus was very, very clear where a person’s treasure is: it’s where we invest our money. That is where our heart, our soul, is also. That’s why a stewardship emphasis each year what it tries to get across to us. It’s not exclusively about the money. It’s about our life. It’s not merely about the church’s collection. It’s about the Christian’s character. It’s not just about dollars, but about devotion. The dedicating of our life, your life and mine, to Jesus Christ. Stewardship is about demonstrating our devotion. It’s about making a choice in the way that we plan to follow Jesus in the months ahead.
This morning, there are two questions that you need to ask yourself, and they need answering.
- How should I give?
- How much should I give?
Concerning the “How should I give?” question, there are three models. Some give to their conscience; some give to their church; and some give to their Christ. Those are the three models.
Giving to conscience is kind of a guilt response. It wants to know how much one is required to give. The giving to the church is a governed response, and the giving to Christ is a grateful response. One is, how much must I give? the second, how much should I give? The third, how much am I able to give?
So, we’re not talking about just paying the bills, or pledging to the budget. We’re really talking about passing on blessings that have been passed on to us. It’s not a matter of drudgery, I have to, or duty, or I ought to do this, right? But rather, a delight. I want to do this. Giving can be either seen as a kind of a tax, a tip, or a tithe. For 2024, which model will you use in determining what you plan to give? According to your conscience, according to just the church’s needs, or according to your love for Jesus?
The second question is, How much should I give?
For the past many years, I have been trying to share with people what I firmly believe is God’s plan for financing the work of God in this world. I believe in the Christian concept of the tithe. That is, Christians setting aside and giving 10 percent of what God has given to them, which is really a meaningful percentage of our income to the work of Christ’s ministry here on earth. Tithing is truly thanksgiving. It’s kind of an appreciative acknowledgement of Almighty God and all that God has given to us, all that God has entrusted with us. It is saying thanks in a very tangible way.
[Turning to the liturgist] Ellen, I didn’t ask you to read from the Old Testament, but had I, you would have also read from 1 Chronicles where King David stands before the whole congregation and praises the Lord. This is how his prayer goes. He says, “O Lord God, we give you thanks and praise for your glorious name. O Lord, all that we have provided for building you a house for, is for your holy name’s sake. And it comes, in all honesty, from your hand. It’s yours already. I know you search the heart and are pleased with people of integrity. I willingly have given my offerings to you, and have seen how your people, those gathered here, are joyfully bringing their offerings to you.”
Now, the history of giving in the Church has been like that. Through the years, it really has. In the Old Testament, it was a kind of a rigid mandate. In the New Testament, the early Christians went the opposite way. They just seemed to out-give themselves. Little was mentioned about a particular proportion to be given. Now, as the church developed across the centuries, tithing once again became the norm. However, by the 4th century, tithing became a church law. In fact, by the 8th century, it became a civil law. The Reformers, seeing its abuse, criticized required tithes because it was not specifically mandated in the New Testament. But in order to support the work of the church, the state had to pick up the load with an imposed church tax.
Now, even in colonial America, many of the early churches in this country were funded with a public taxation. Early on, in the state of Virginia, taxes were paid in tobacco. But the early settlers, as you can imagine, were angered by the whole idea of taxation, so eventually that was ruled out. And the churches then were left to devise new methods of financing ministry. So, pew rentals were charged. By the way, the biggest rental were the church’s seats and pews up front. And then they got cheaper as they went back. And the poor folk, they sat in the balcony. Now, any of you know about the Free Methodist Church? The Free Methodist Church, in part, got its name because they would not charge pew rental. You could sit anywhere you wanted for “free.”
I was at a church conference at a very small Free Methodist Church in Rushford, New York, and had been helping that church just a little bit during college with their youth ministry. Their sanctuary had lots of pews, and at the church conference, the last three rows were jam packed with people. And the superintendent gets up front and said, “You know, we came out of the Methodist Episcopal Church over the idea of pew rental, and where do you all choose to seat? In the cheap seats, in the back!” But that’s not the intent, you know. Pew rentals. Then lotteries were set up in churches for the construction of new buildings.
And sadly, to this day, hundreds of churches across the country have to support their ministry with dinners and bingo and carnivals in order to support the ministry of Jesus Christ. A while back, one of our pastors said to me, “One of my churches has become a restaurant in order to pay its bills.” This has happened because we’ve lost the Christian concept of tithing, God’s magnificent faith formula for funding the work of Christ’s church.
Now, here are some thoughts about the “criteria” for the Christian tithe.
First and foremost, tithing is voluntary giving. It’s not a rule that is enforced by somebody out of compulsion. It’s to be a joyful privilege. Literally, a practice of faith, a covenant between you and your Lord. It’s a voluntary exercise in disciplined giving. The Apostle Paul says that it’s not to be given grudgingly or because someone has put you on a guilt trip. Why? Because God loves a cheerful giver. If you tithe because someone has compelled you to do it, or you give out of fear of breaking God’s law, your giving ceases of gratefulness and joyfulness. If that doesn’t accompany the gift, the chief value is lost.
So, the biblical understanding of tithing is not to get the tithe, but the tither. See, it’s not about the gift, but the giver. It’s not about the money as much as it’s about the man, the woman. The reason I’m calling you to tithing today is not as a means of funding the budget for 2024 at First United Methodist of Port Huron. It’s a means of fulfilling your life. It really is.
Tithing is an adventure. First of all, it’s an adventure in trust and faith. Tithing invests your daily work with divine meaning and divests your daily life from the tyranny of things. We really have become captives of a consumer consciousness. We spend, but we fail to invest. That’s a tragedy. Yet we spend as though we are stockpiling for eternity, rather than giving as though we are investing in eternity.
You know the old adage we can’t take it with us? Have you ever seen a U-Haul trailer behind a hearse? Many years ago, the mother of Arloa Jennings, a member of our congregation, passed away. Arloa grew up in Frankenmuth. So, she asked me if I’d be willing to travel up to Frankenmuth and lead the graveside service service for mom? I said, “Yeah, I’ll do that.” As it was, my wife, Linda, and I had been talking about moving her mother from New York to Michigan, where she could live with us. Moving her would require us getting a hitch put on our car so that we could transport her belongings in a U-Haul trailer. So, I talked with the funeral director in Arbor, who happened to be the grandson of the woman who had died, and asked I could get a ride to Frankenmuth in the hearse. He said that would be fine. So, I made arrangements for the local U-Haul place to put a hitch on my car during the time I would be in Frankenmuth. I asked the funeral director to pick me up at the U-Haul place. So, I got there early, got it all set up, and in pulls this hearse. You never would imagine the expressions on the people driving up and down State Street in Ann Arbor, looking at this hearse coming in to the U-Haul place. Ah! Do you think, friends, it’s time to release some of what we will ultimately not be able to keep anyway in order that we might receive what we will never lose?
So, tithing needs to be voluntary giving.
Second, tithing is worshipful giving. It’s an act of worship. I know we’re all doing this now. We’re putting offering boxes in the narthex. We started that during COVID. But sometimes I wonder if something is missing when we’re not able to give during the worship service. Because tithing really has to do with a confession of faith, not a merely a contribution to a fund.
The Bible says, in Leviticus, “the tithe is holy unto the Lord.” Now, how can giving money be holy? When we think of this sanctuary, don’t we think of it as a holy place? And why do we dedicate sanctuaries to God? Why do we say the Lord is in His holy sanctuary? Is God confined to this place in just a few minutes as we leave? Is God stuck here as we go out? No, no, no, no. This is dedicated as a holy place with the intent that the very presence of this place will have a hallowing effect, not only on our lives, but on the lives of the community.
We also say that Sunday is a holy day. Are we more holy on Sunday than we are to be on Monday through Saturday? No, of course not. This day is set apart, it’s holy to the Lord, with the intent that our day of worship and rest will have a hallowing effect upon the other hectic days of your life and mine.
Why does the Bible call the tithe holy unto the Lord? Is it because God just wants to get his cut? And then He doesn’t give a rip when I order about how we spend the rest? No, no, no, no, no. We dedicate the tithe to the Lord with the resolve that giving it first will affect how we spend the balance of our income.
Tithing is a worshipful giving.
Third, tithing is thankful giving. Paul wrote that the gift given by the Christians living in Macedonia not only contributed to the needs of God’s people, but more than that, it overflowed in the flood of thanksgiving to God. Our tithing throughout this coming year, it’s primarily not a means of paying bills. Yes, it has to do that, but it’s primarily a way of giving thanks to God. Our tithing is an attempt to give our life to the God who gave His life for us.
Andi Dillard wrote a book years ago called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Neat little book to read. But she made an observation about the Christian at his or her death. She wrote this: “I think that the dying pray at the last not ‘please’ but ‘thank you.’” Just as a guest thanks his or her host at the door. Our consistent giving week after week is a way of saying thanks; said not just at the door, when we move from this life to the next, but all through the course of the evening, the entirety of our lives. Tithing says, thank you, God.
So, Paul’s writing about giving money for the support of the cause of Christ. He specifically writes, “I am putting your love to the test.” He’s telling us that the authenticity of our stewardship will determine the authenticity of our love for Christ. And it shows what priorities we have. What we do outwardly truly authenticates what we feel and believe inwardly.
Over the years, I’ve seen lots of wonderful, fun cars. Oh, fun cars. They have an annual event in downtown Ann Arbor called “Rolling Stock.” And these people have restored some gorgeous cars. I always try to go down and walk around and look at these things, and I’ve always wanted a classic Mercedes-Benz, maybe a diesel. There have been a couple of times that I’ve heard of one of these for sale. And I went, I looked at it, and once or twice I even went to the bank about what were the loan costs to get this car. And then I would sit, and I’d try to estimate the payments. And then I’d try to estimate the maintenance costs on a Mercedes. But when it came down to signing the contract, every time I backed away. You see, I had talked and talked about driving such a car someday, but I wasn’t willing to put my money where my mouth was. I wasn’t. And when the opportunity came, I wasn’t willing to make that choice.
I told this story one time about six years ago at the Saline church, and this guy came into my office the next week, and he had this little Mercedes [model]. It was this Forge Coupe. The doors opened. It was cute. He bought it somewhere, and he plunked it down on my office and said, “This is as close as you’re ever going to get!” Because it required a choice. What we say and what we do are not always identical.
This is also true of the religious words that we say and the actions that we take. The prophet Isaiah announced the words of God to the people of Israel. He said, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” It sounds crass, but God isn’t interested in lip service. Our God is interested in life service.
Every once in a while, before she died, Pauline Ladd, who was a financial secretary in one of my churches, would call me to share about was happening in her life and family. During one of these conversations, she told a wonderful story about a time she was babysitting her grandson. At some point in the afternoon, he obviously wanted some assurance of his grandmother’s love. So, he turned to her and said, “Gram, let’s pretend you’re leaving to go home.” She looked at him and surmised what he was thinking, but she asked him anyway. “What’s so special about when I go home?” He responded, “Because you always give me a hug before you leave.” In essence, her grandson was saying, Grandma, I know you love me, but I really like it when you make your love visible.
How do we really know that God loves us? Is it only because of God’s “spoken” words to us, the printed words in Scripture? Or is it because of what he did? 2000+ years ago God sent His only begotten Son, who gave His life for us, so that we might have eternal life.
How does God know that we love him? Is it only the words that we say on Sunday morning or sing in our hymns? Or is it also when we choose to give ourselves to God through faith in Jesus Christ, and when we choose to make an investment in the work of God through the Church of Christ?
You all received one of these [pledge card] either in the mail or in today’s bulletin. Today’s an opportunity for you to come, if you are prepared to do that today, and place it in this basket.
Giving is a tangible expression of an intangible emotion. So, I’m going to ask you to make your faith visible today. To make a choice.