Offering

Showdown

For the next few weeks, we’re going to be hearing stories of the prophet Elijah. Before I go much further, it will help if you know a couple of the other main characters.

First, there was Israel’s King Ahab. In the Bible, he comes across as a weak king, in particular because he followed the will of his wife rather than God. His wife was Jezebel, daughter of the king of Tyre. She brought great tension to the land of Israel because she wanted the Israelites to worship the gods she preferred rather than Yahweh. In particular, there was the god Baal, a popular deity throughout the lands surrounding Israel.

All of these stories occurred more than 800 years before Jesus was born.

Today’s story involves a showdown, a “one vs. many” faceoff. Such a story is a staple of westerns; think of The Man with No Name vs. the Rojos in “Fist Full of Dollars” or Marshal Kane vs. the Miller gang in “High Noon.” Those are just modern examples of a kind of story that has been told for millennia. The Bible is full of them, as are other ancient texts.

Blog readers, please take time to read the story, found in 1 Kings 18:17-40. You’ll have a hard time following me if you don’t read the story.

You’ve got to love the title Ahab gives Elijah: “you troubler of Israel.” Hearing this, a prophet hoping to make a difference in a bad situation would at least would know he was being effective. Of course, Elijah was quick to point out the source of the real trouble, the people turning away from God with their leader’s tacit approval.

They were, as he noted, “limping with two different opinions.” How often do we do that—pay lip service to God, but then go against God in the choices we make? “Limping” is a good description. We find ourselves hobbled, unable to move forward in life.

I’m reminded of James’ words delivered in the context of “double mindedness”: “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” In this story, you can see the people struggling with whether to act on what they and their ancestors have heard for generations. When Elijah told them they needed to choose between Yahweh and Baal, they remained silent, unsure what to do. They would need a sign, another in a long list of signs God sent them to draw them back.

By the way, there is humor in this story. With his life on the line, Elijah showed great wit as the priests of Baal tried to call down fire on their offering. Maybe Baal is meditating. Maybe he took a trip. Maybe he is asleep!

Of course, Elijah had created a situation where it was all or nothing. If the slightest part of his challenge to the 450 priests of Baal had gone wrong—if they had some kind of trick, some kind of way to slip and light the fire during the course of the day—Elijah would have been dead, as would have been the worship of Yahweh in Israel. He had to make the priests look laughable, if only to keep the people standing between the angry priests and him laughing.

The priests did finally give up. It was Elijah’s turn. Might as well pour on the water, right? If God is going to answer, God is really going to answer, with smoke and steam! Let there be no doubt.

And there was no doubt; all that was left was for the people to cry out, “The Lord indeed is God! The Lord indeed is God!” It was a creedal statement, an affirmation of their renewed belief.

The killing of the priests was a brutal solution in a brutal time. We flinch at such accounts now, but we are reminded that ultimately, what is not of God’s will cannot continue to exist.

Thank God that he has made our choices easier. Christ is the choice that dictates eternal outcomes for us. As we choose, we have the full story of God before us in Scripture, and we can test what is in our hearts against what is there.

May we look to Jesus and learn to say, “The Lord indeed is God,” in every moment of our lives, regardless of the choices we face.

 

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Giving

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

In terms of money and possessions, just how much should you give? What if I said you should be ready to give it all?

When we think of Old Testament texts on giving, our minds often go to the tithe, the giving of 10 percent of harvest or income to support what would eventually become the work of the temple, work that included care for the poor. Today’s Deuteronomy text really doesn’t take us into the concept of the tithe, however. There’s something deeper going on.

What we hear was a formal recitation, a declaration of what God had done to help his chosen people. From a practical perspective, the offering brought to the altar was a mere token, but theologically it was huge. The head of a family was acknowledging that all he had truly came from God.

In participating in this ritual, the Jewish man who made this token offering on behalf of his family was making a clear statement before all his fellow believers: God, I depend on you and you alone.

We Depend on God, Too

Now, I want to make something clear: I believe in hard work. I believe in the idea that if we are to succeed in life, there is a need to use our bodies and minds to the best of our abilities.

But at the same time, as people who acknowledge we were made by God and saved from sinful brokenness by God, we have to be the first to say we are dependent on God.

If you think about it, we do owe everything to God, even if we’ve worked hard, if we’ve done our best to succeed. If we’re intelligent enough to make the right choices, it’s because God made us so. If we have been able to succeed through hard work, it is because God at some point graced us with strong, healthy bodies. It all goes back to God. If we declare him Creator, who owns everything is a question with an indisputable answer.

And we can never forget that there is tremendous randomness in how well we do or don’t do in life. If you’re not careful, you’ll simply stumble into success and then start thinking you’re brilliant.

The Danger (and Opportunity) of Riches

A good Jew acknowledged these truths with his recitation and offering. We do much the same when we declare ourselves followers of Christ—for example, if we recite the Apostles’ Creed in worship. We declare God Creator. We then re-tell the story of Christ’s life, sacrifice and resurrection, following that with the story of God continuing to work in the world up to this very day through the Holy Spirit.

That true understanding—that perspective regarding who God is and who we are—should shape every nook and cranny of our lives, if it is properly understood. For many, that deepest, hardest to reach cranny is where we store our attitude about income and possessions.

As I said before, this text isn’t really about tithing. Tithing was a powerful Old Testament concept, of course, but a text like we have today shows us that tithing was just a beginning point, a rule designed to lead a person to a right way of relating to income and possessions.

John Wesley had a sermon, “The Danger of Riches,” that explained this line of thinking. He was working from 1 Timothy 6:9, a New Testament take on our Old Testament concept.

In the sermon, Wesley said that God provides for the roof over our heads, food, and other basic needs, allowing us to ensure the well-being of our families and even our businesses, if we are people who operate them. Beyond those provisions, everything we are given counts as riches, and they have been given to us to use “to the glory of God.” Often, this means using our riches to help those who are less blessed materially, playing a role in God’s provision for people’s basic needs.

Even for a tither, this is a concept that requires thought. It forces a reassessment of every decision we make regarding how we handle our income and possessions, simply because we learn to say, “It’s not really ours, anyway.”

If you find this idea a little daunting, be encouraged. Remember how our little scene at the altar closes. There is celebration in the house of God, the kind of joy to be shared even with the disenfranchised people among us.

I wonder what we miss when we fail to embrace such a powerful attitude about income and possessions.

Church Math

Malachi 3:8-12

I should begin with a big word of thanks to all of you who have supported the church financially in any way. Those of us who lead the church don’t say thanks enough to those of you who support the church’s mission with your dollars.

So, thanks be to God for you; thanks, whether you gave a dollar or a thousand dollars or twenty thousand dollars. When you give, you are part of the solution the church offers to the world.

I wanted to start out with words of thanks because today’s text, read without much context, sounds like a mixture of threats and promises tied to whether you tithe¹ and give other offerings. Don’t tithe, and you are robbing God and faced with a curse. Do tithe, and you will receive an overflowing blessing. And I know that preachers often imitate this text, making threats and promises where church giving is concerned.

I will note that Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament in our Christian Bible, so we should expect more legalistic formulas for relating to God. Jesus Christ, the ultimate expression of God’s forgiving grace, is not yet in the picture.

I don’t, however, want to simply write off Malachi’s words about tithes and offerings as somehow irrelevant. In fact, this minor prophet makes a major connection between what he says about tithes and offerings and the reasons for Christ’s entry into the world.

Malachi’s straightforward question, “Will anyone rob God?” comes in the midst of other, more mysterious and far-reaching words. Just before he speaks of tithes and offerings, the prophet has been speaking of a coming messenger, to be followed by the arrival of the Lord. These words long have been associated with the ministry of John the Baptist—the Messiah’s herald—and the coming of Jesus Christ.

After Malachi speaks of tithes and offerings, he raises a new subject, how God will respond to the faithful. That leads ultimately to prophecies about “the great and terrible day of the Lord,” a time when the wicked and righteous are finally sorted, with the righteous entering a glorious new life. These images remind me of Jesus’ more detailed words in Matthew 25:31-46, where he makes clear that he will be the one to do the sorting.

All of that Messiah and End Days imagery, with talk of tithes and offerings sandwiched in between, causes me to reconsider my understanding of tithing. In fact, that big-picture perspective is what drives me to tithe.

Certainly, tithing was part of the Mosaic law, the code the Jews tried to live by to remain in relationship with God. It’s important to note, however, that tithing predates the law—probably the best example is in Genesis 14:17-20, where the future patriarch of God’s chosen people shares a tithe of his possessions with Melchizedek, the mysterious “priest of God Most High.”

Tithing also doesn’t just go away after God’s grace more clearly enters the picture through Christ. Consider this: How did the early church, made up largely of Jews used to tithing, respond to the resurrected Jesus? Rather than shrinking their giving, they gave everything they had, Acts 2:43-47 tells us, having “all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” If we could interview them, I think we would be hard pressed to find an early Christian who would describe tithing as anything more than a starting point in learning to give to support God’s redemptive work.

Scripturally, tithing for thousands of years has served as the baseline for how we participate in God’s effort to move us toward a time when evil is vanquished for good. In the world we live in now, a world where money is the primary driver behind how everything works, we still have to talk frankly about how money gets into church coffers. It gets there because people like you make commitments that the money will be there, and I think the tithe remains the appropriate beginning point for Christian giving.

Frank Buck spoke earlier in worship of how the church budget is designed to reach out to the world with the message of Christ. And I hope you got the point—one way or another, all those wonderful accomplishments that occur through worship, nurture and outreach ministries require money. How much money you give sets the thermostat for how hot our ministries can be.

Here’s a little church math to consider. As best I can tell, the average household in this congregation gave about 4 percent of income to the church’s work in 2011. That’s an average covering every active household at Cassidy UMC, whether a household gave nothing or thousands of dollars.²

If we could raise that average by one percentage point, incredible things would happen. A percentage point doesn’t sound like much, but if we would move from an average of 4 percent per household to an average of 5 percent, our ministry budget would jump by 25 percent—that’s more than $80,000.

And obviously, if we ever were to become a tithing church, with an average near 10 percent, our budget would more than double.

I dive into this church math for one reason. I want you to see there is power in tithing, the kind of power that helps change the world. It’s not about obeying some law; it’s about participating in the work God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ.

With more finances available, we could tell more people about Jesus. We could feed more people and clothe more people in Jesus’ name.  We could do more for our children and youth and our homebound elderly. We could start ministries we have yet to imagine.

Maybe we would minister with more programs and facilities to serve the people we’re trying to reach. Maybe we would reach out to the community with more paid ministry staff to lead the way. However we might minister, lives would be changed, even more so than they are being changed now.

Here’s what I want you to walk away with today: You are not required under some sort of law to tithe, or to give at any level. As grateful recipients of God’s eternal grace, however, you are invited to participate in God’s restorative work, using the financial resources God has given you.


¹I should explain what tithing is; it is only in recent years that I’ve discovered a lot of Christians don’t fully understand the word. Tithing is giving 10 percent of your “harvest” toward God’s church. For most of us, our harvest now amounts to cash income from work or investments. Offerings are what we give beyond this basic commitment.

²This average is a little hard to calculate because I don’t know what each Cassidy UMC household earns, so I have to rely on reports of what the median household income for the 37664 zip code is. And that number varies depending on which agency does the reporting. But 4 percent is a reasonable estimate.