Begging to Give

2 Corinthians 8:1-15

Yes, this is a giving sermon. In many churches, that often means a moment where the preacher either begs or lectures. But today we celebrate giving, looking at what has been done and what I believe will be done through this church known as Luminary.

In our Bible text, Paul tells the church at Corinth how to understand giving, in the process enlightening us a little about the Christians in Macedonia, a group he holds out as a standard for other churches. The Corinthians would have found Paul’s words difficult to hear. Corinth and Macedonia were political rivals in Paul’s day, and the apostle is trying to inspire a touch of jealousy, shame or some similar emotion in the Corinthians, who need to be doing more for God’s kingdom.

Paul’s writings raise a question for any church: When it comes to giving hearts, are we more like Macedonians or Corinthians?

The church in Corinth was relatively affluent, it would seem. We don’t know a lot about the situation of the churches in Macedonia—Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea—but it is clear from Paul’s letter they had fallen on hard times, despite being in a relatively prosperous region. Some of the Greek words Paul uses to describe their affliction are associated with religious persecution, and it is also clear from his words the Macedonians had descended into poverty because of what they suffered.

And yet, they give to help others, Paul writes, giving “even beyond their means.” The Macedonian churches even beg for the privilege of participating, finding great joy in the midst of their suffering to join in Jesus Christ’s work on earth.

In their giving, the Macedonians were like Christ, reducing themselves so that others might be made rich by the gift of eternal life flowing from the cross.

Nothing about the Macedonians’ attitudes should surprise us. Among people who study Christian giving patterns, it is known to be a basic fact that the best givers are among our poorest people. I have heard needy people say, “If you want help, go to a poor community, not a rich one.”

I’m reminded of the story about a church that announced in 1946 it was going to take up a collection to help a poor family in the community. A widow and her three daughters went to great lengths to participate, finding great joy in the sacrifices they were making. They raised most of the money collected by the church, only to discover they were the intended recipients of the offering. They ultimately gave what the church had handed them to a missionary working in Africa.

There was a family that would have been comfortable in Macedonia.

In terms of resources available to us at Luminary, we are more like Corinth than Macedonia. Most of us are not what anyone would call poor. Certainly, as a church, we are not mired in poverty and persecution. That’s a blessing, of course, but such a blessing comes with great responsibility.

The great preacher and writer Charles Spurgeon told the story of being invited to preach at a rural church so a special offering could be taken to retire the church’s debt. The man making the invitation said Spurgeon had his choice of places to stay during the visit: the man’s country house, his town house, or his seaside home. Spurgeon declined the invitation, suggesting the man sell one of his homes and pay off the debt himself. Abundant resources are an invitation from God to take bold actions.

As a group, bold action is always possible for us. I have mentioned before, and I will mention again, that committed tithing is the great equalizer for all church members, allowing us to commit equally to our community, rich or poor.

And this is where I begin to celebrate. Clearly, some of you are developing a deeper understanding of what it means to give to the kingdom. I don’t know who tithes and who does not tithe, but I can look at the bigger picture and surmise a few things.

♰ A significant number of you are giving in committed ways. I can tell this because our church income remains steady even as our “regulars” travel during the summer. Thank you for treating your church like a community with ongoing ministries, and not like a movie theater.

♰ Some of you also have increased your commitments. We are succeeding financially in ways we have not succeeded in a long time. Halfway through the year, our income is exceeding our expenses by about $6,000.

♰ Our better financial performance has happened while you have been “tithing up” to support the larger church, much like the Macedonians desired to do. Late last year, your leaders decided to begin tithing from our general offerings to the conference after many years of not supporting the larger church in full, and we have stuck to that commitment. (Until 2011, this system was called “paying apportionments.”) In all of 2014, Luminary sent $7,583 in support of the larger church; to date in 2015, we have already sent $12,236, and there’s no reason to believe we cannot continue that commitment. And none of that accounts for the special gifts you have made—for example, the more than $1,900 you sent to the Holston Conference to aid area children in poverty, or the regular gifts we send to Holston Home for Children.

All of this translates into lives being changed, locally and beyond. And there is so much coming in the life and ministry of Luminary:

♰Starting in August, our worship will be made richer and more vibrant with the arrival of Seth O’Kegley, our new music director. I cannot say enough about what this young man brings us in terms of music skills and devotion to worship. Your giving makes his presence possible, and he will bring Christ into people’s lives in ways we are only beginning to imagine.

♰A new vision for how we function as a church is taking shape, thanks to your Church Leadership Council. You will hear more about that soon, and I’m already praying each of you individually will see your lives and the lives of people around you changed for the better. Some of these changes will require new tools; the retirement of current debt, the acquisition of church vans and the completion of the upstairs keep coming up as likely needs.

We may not yet be Macedonians in heart, but we certainly are moving toward Macedonia. Pray that our financial commitment to our church holds and grows; pray that we become a people so enamored with Christ that we beg for the chance to give.

Gloria Party 2

Acts 2:43-47
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Stay with me on the subject of tithing, and the party’s potential will only increase.

Last week, we looked to the Old Testament for guidance regarding God’s intent for tithing. In Deuteronomy, we found something out of sync with modern notions about tithing.

Even as part of the law, a joyous celebration was key to the tithe, along with a deep concern for the people in society lacking resources. Tithing created an atmosphere of abundance, driven by a general belief that God’s people working together in harmony could create a glimpse of heaven on earth.

I briefly spoke about what a modern tithing community could look like. Mostly, I gave you some numbers to consider. At Luminary, we easily would be working with an extra $240,000 a year. With our fixed operating costs currently covered, pretty much all of that would go toward ministries.

I invited you to imagine what would be different about our church if we were to achieve such community-wide levels of commitment. I got some great feedback during worship at Luminary today about what people saw as possibilities, all ministry-related.

I tend to see things in relation to what I call Matthew 25 ministries. Down deep in that chapter, starting at the 31st verse, we see a scene of judgment, where we learn Christ assesses the hearts of his followers based on how they have treated the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the strangers, the sick, and the imprisoned—basically, the people of Jesus’ day living on the margins of society, just barely hanging on to life. This scene certainly seems to be the starting point for ministry in any culture.

First, if we were a tithing community, I see some of the things we already do being done in a bigger, much more effective way. Why could our food closet and our Wednesday night community meal not morph into a full-time feeding ministry, a place where all, rich or poor, could find physical and spiritual sustenance together?

In a tithing church, our clothing and furniture ministries could be so much more, operating in the heart of Ten Mile and Meigs County rather than up here on the hill. And our outreach to people in the community who feel like strangers, for one reason or another cut off from circles of friends and families, could be more organized and effective.

Here’s another one: Why just an annual one-day health fair? Why not a regularly accessible health clinic somewhere in the Ten Mile area?

Within a couple of years I think we would certainly finish this building, debt-free, and perhaps build new ones or refurbish old ones, all with expanded ministries in mind. Our second floor would quickly become a place of community for all ages. Our presence could be truly in the community rather than just in this one location. And I’ve not even begun to describe ministries our community probably needs but we don’t offer. (See, you’ve not even given the money, and I already have it spent.)

The picture I see is starting to look a lot like the church in our Acts text, and all we’ve done so far is discuss the effect of tithing. The early Christians quickly put tithing in their rear-view mirrors. They were living the kingdom of heaven on earth, if only briefly. Tithing wasn’t enough of a commitment, in their minds. Yes, Christ freed them from the law. He freed them to go further in areas tied to love of each other.

They were so excited about salvation through Christ that they began to practice a kind of holy communism, something very different from the political communism we have seen in the 20th and 21st centuries. Modern communism is imposed by the dictates of tyrants; the early church’s communal life was inspired by the feeling of solidarity the Holy Spirit brings to a group. And again, it all played out like a party, one where everyone’s needs were met.

I get excited thinking of what one local church committed to tithing could do. I get giddy thinking of all of Christ’s church returning to a commitment to joyous tithing, the kind designed to celebrate our Savior and ensure no one is left out.

Imagine churches linked together from community to community—oh, wait, we’re the United Methodist Church, we already have that going for us. Now imagine us working with real tithing power, families tithing into ministry-minded local churches and local churches tithing toward our broader operations globally.

We would still have a stewardship issue, of course, but instead of scraping by, our main task would be ensuring the abundance is not wasted on fraud or luxuries that don’t benefit our Matthew 25-type ministries. Using our abundance to pursue vision and mission is a much more exciting task than begging our way through the year, wishing we could do more.

Tithing even impacts politics, but in a way where normally divergent interest groups find common ground. If you’re a Christian political conservative and you don’t like big government, tithe. The arguments in favor of big government will go away as churches deal with most social needs faster than government ever can.

If you’re a Christian political liberal, tithe, and lead the stewardship effort by bearing the standard for the outcasts of the world, ensuring ministries happen according to Matthew 25 principles.

Why ask others to do what we can do ourselves? We have the power to feed, clothe and heal the people around us, no election needed. And the word of salvation through Christ will spread.

I have to acknowledge that many people don’t know how to respond to a sermon like this because they are overwhelmed by debt. How do you tithe when you’re struggling to pay your debt service each month? There are several good Christian programs that can help people bring their debt under control and begin to handle their finances in a godly way. Any good pastor should be able to help someone find such a program.


Gloria Party

Like the coin says, "In God We Trust"

Like the coin says, “In God We Trust”

Deuteronomy 14:22-29

“Tithing.” It almost rhymes with “sighing,” and that’s what most people feel like doing when the subject comes up. Tithing is a burden, the reluctant surrender of 10 percent of what we gain to some mysterious rule of religion.

Or is it? Is it possible tithing has been misunderstood, perhaps even misrepresented for centuries by the church? What if we were to discover tithing is rooted in joy?

As our text shows us today, it’s no great leap to link tithing to joy, a kind of joy that might leave our more legalistic brothers and sisters in Christ tearing at their hair. (When my Baptist deacon grandfather taught me about tithing, he said nothing about “wine” and “strong drink” being involved.) What we have before us is evidence of God’s original intent for tithing, made clear when he embedded the activity in the laws he gave to the Israelites.

We have become confused about tithing for a simple reason: Religious leaders have corrupted the message, largely because of their concern that the money might stop coming one day. It happened in the Old Testament days as Judaism became more institutional and legalistic. In the New Testament, we can see how Jesus criticized the handling of money by the religious leaders of his day, including what we might call “tithe abuse.” For examples, see Matthew 23:23-24Mark 12:13-17, and  Mark 12:41-44.

Many religious leaders still botch this message. I must admit I have participated in this process myself, a realization that is more than a little humbling. Church leaders tend to sow confusion regarding the tithe in one of two ways. Either we attempt to “re-legalize” tithing to prop up our church coffers, ignoring how the grace of Christ has taken us from under the law, or we ignore the subject entirely, in the process failing to communicate the power God offers us as a people using our resources in community.

I know, a little explanation of what I’m claiming here is in order. There are lots of Old Testament Bible texts related to tithes of different kinds, but our Deuteronomy text is particularly important because it reveals God’s intent.

Look at it again. Are you not struck by how the tithe is to be used? Essentially, the tithe becomes the basis for a celebration, one laden with bread, meat, “wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire.” Imagine the crops all coming in about the same time, and this law being lived out by all the people in just a few weeks. The bounty and the blessing for all must have been incredible. The Hebrew word for “tithe,” ma’aser, must have been a beloved, celebrated sound.

Every third year, this tithe was a particular joy for the Levites, the priestly class who had no land, and other dispossessed people: the travelers among the Jews, the orphans, and the widows. The harvest went into storage so these people with few resources would have enough.

I also should note the tithing law talks about the Israelites as if they would have fields and crops one day, live in cities, and have a central location for worship. These agrarian and urban settings represent divine foresight—the Israelites were desert wanderers when they received the law. Because God clearly is peering into the future as he gives this part of the law, and because tithing pre-dates the law, I have no problems seeing the tithing principle as timeless.

So, the obvious question is, how might we tithe today according to God’s intent? In short, I would say we should tithe with an expectation that our churches become places of great joy and abundance, for ourselves and for the dispossessed within our reach.

Imagine how different churches would be if every Christian household were to grasp the potential of the tithe as God intended it and begin to tithe. I’m going to keep the math simple here, asking that you trust I’ve actually done some calculations using government data for household incomes and available church data. At a minimum, what is given at Luminary would double; it very well could triple.

For Luminary, that would mean at a minimum an extra $240,000 or so a year, all in a church that already has its fixed costs covered. This would be ministry money, available to make our time together a great joy and providing the kind of abundance that could touch thousands of lives locally and even far away.

It sounds like a pipe dream, but I believe that if God already has said it is possible for a tithing community to have great joy and a powerful impact, then it must be something to pursue. I invite you to spend this next week dreaming about the impact of such a church on the world.

Next Sunday, I’ll share what I see. I hope to hear from some of you online and  in our worship services regarding what you imagine.


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.