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.


Action!: The Precious Present

James 4:13-5:6

Where is your head right now?

I’m asking you to think about what you’ve been thinking about. How many of you are absolutely, perfectly focused on worship? That is, when we sang, all you thought about was the song; when you prayed, all you thought about was the prayer; when I started preaching, you were rooted in the giddy excitement you always feel when a sermon begins.

Conversely, how many of you know that in the last half-hour or so your minds have wandered off into the past or the future? Maybe you saw a friend and started thinking about the warm words you exchanged a few days ago. (Or maybe the opposite happened.) Maybe your stomach rumbled and you started wondering where you’ll go for lunch.

The human mind is a time-traveler. Our bodies are always in the present, but our minds jump into the future or the past at will. In fact, it is very difficult to keep our minds perfectly in the present.

That’s not necessarily a problem. I’m simply describing a fact regarding how our minds work. Both the past and our vision of the future help us to make critical decisions. I mentioned last week, however, that James tells us our words sometimes betray our failure to keep God central in our lives. That idea is the core of our Scripture reading today, in particular when we consider how we talk about the future.

Again, a little context helps. Last week, I mentioned James wrote his letter at a time when the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. It helps to know exactly who the rich were; basically there were two classes of rich.

The first class was the landed gentry, people who did little work but profited from vast tracts of land they had inherited. Like plantation owners in the Old South, they had very high status in society. They also were sometimes criticized for cheating the laborers who worked their fields.

The second class was made up of merchants, who in James’ day were often richer than the landed gentry, but of very low status.

James was not being critical of wealth, just as Jesus was never critical of wealth. Both warned, however, of the incredible distraction wealth or the pursuit of wealth can become. James took particular note of the merchants, running from city to city and planning years in advance, with no acknowledgment of their own mortality or need to rely on God.

Jesus told a parable found in Luke 12:13-21 along these lines, although his story was aimed more at the landed gentry. A rich landowner, pleased with his abundant crops, begins talking about the future as if he is in control. He’ll tear down his barns and build bigger ones, he thinks, store the excess, and then take it easy. Little does he know that death will come for him that night, and he will face the maker his riches were intended to serve.

An interesting side note: When the Jews rebelled and the Roman army responded by destroying Jerusalem in the year 70, the Jewish landed gentry were for all practical purposes wiped off the face of the earth. Both Jesus and James were being prophetic in their teachings.

There’s a simple, very true cliché that Jesus or James could have used: “You can’t take it with you.” And if you can’t take it with you, why would anyone who believes in God pursue wealth with disregard to God? As one Christian commentary notes, such an attitude is the “sin of arrogant presumption.”

Learn to think about the future in the right frame of mind—with the right attitude toward God— and your relationship with wealth and possessions can become much more healthy.

James helps us to achieve the right attitude by giving us another simple phrase to keep in mind, “If the Lord wishes,” as in, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” In the South, we might say, “Lord willin’, I’m gonna do that.”

Similar phrases serve almost as a mantra in other parts of the world. You may have heard that devout Muslims will use the phrase “Insha’Allah” before making plans or beginning events with an uncertain future. Translated, they are saying, “God willing.” Interestingly, it’s not just Muslims who use that phrase. Middle Eastern Christians, for example, Coptic Orthodox Christians, use the exact same phrase, taking James’ advice as they look to the future.

Using such a phrase doesn’t mean they or we are simply surrendering to fate, succumbing to the weak theological notion that God causes every tiny event, good or bad. What they and we are doing is remaining mindful that as followers of Christ, we should make all of our decisions conform with God’s will for this world.

This is where James’ lesson becomes freeing rather than restricting. First, we put our minds in the present, that place I call the precious present because it’s the one place everything is very clear and real. If you’re uncertain about God’s will, you can go to Scripture now to seek God’s truth. You can pray now, staying with God fully until you hear from God. We encounter God in the here and now, when we allow ourselves to do so.

Understanding God, we then can look to the future with a big-picture understanding of what we know God will do. That’s what James is doing when he talks about riches rotting and gold and silver rusting. It’s a metaphor for a time when riches are useless, when there is nothing left but the loving relationship we have with God through Jesus Christ. We may reach it at death; we may reach it when Christ returns. Regardless, the time is coming, and no form of wealth or material possession has a role to play.

When we get our heads around these ideas, it’s not hard to understand how we should handle possessions and wealth. Certainly, God sustains us in this life, giving us what we need. And where we find abundance, we’re called to ask ourselves how God is leading us to use those riches to grow his kingdom.

The concept of tithing, giving 10 percent of our income toward the church’s work to expand Christ’s kingdom, fits into all of this, of course. Tithing has nothing to do with church budgets. As I’ve said before, if Cassidy UMC had a million dollars in the bank, I would still encourage you to tithe because you need to maintain that connection between your financial resources and God’s work.

The same goes for how we allot our time. In particular, I become concerned when I see Christians delaying their involvement in Christ’s work, waiting for the day when the education is out of the way, when the career is where it’s supposed to be, when all is settled and the future seems clear. That day never really comes—one of my regrets is the time I wasted thinking in such ways.

If you’re an investment-oriented person, think of James’ teaching this way: What better return is there than the eternal reward we gain from faith in Christ? And even better, it’s a return we begin to see right away in the changes Christ makes in our hearts.

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.

New Year’s Commitments

I’m not much into New Year’s resolutions. Even though the concept is rooted in the word “resolve,” it seems that resolutions are made to be broken.

If you don’t believe me, just ask some gym managers to tell you what months their treadmill and weight room usage peaks, and how quickly that usage declines. Resolutions are mostly about us saying, “I’ll give it a shot and see what happens.”

Christian living is about year-round commitment, the kind of wholehearted, “I’m in” attitude that raises our level of joy dramatically. Christian commitment drives Christian ministry, changing the world for the better. And because Christian commitment has a huge spiritual component, it also is sustained by the Holy Spirit, helping us avoid burnout.

All of us in church, myself included, need to take time occasionally to measure our commitment. The first of the year is as good a time as any.

As a starting point, here’s a basic question: How are we responding to the salvation freely given to us by Jesus Christ? Because all Christians are called to spread the good news, I would suggest that our commitment should in some way sustain the church’s primary mission: to offer Christ to those who don’t understand that salvation is available.

When you commit to pray, you are changing the world. Pray for the lost, pray for the hurting, pray for the church to be effective. I’ll admit that how prayer works is often a mystery. Pray anyway. We pray in faith, knowing we’re pushing creation toward full reunion with God.

When you commit to be present in the life of the church, you empower your local congregation to better do God’s work in the local community. You help your church worship well; you help your church serve the world. For example, at Cassidy UMC, you might find yourself feeding the hungry, something this congregation particularly likes to do. Or maybe you’ll help us grow our children and youth into the Christian adults the world so desperately needs. There are lots of opportunities to serve.

When you commit your gifts of money, you make ministry happen. Yes, the church needs your money; every institution in our culture needs money to operate, and in a church run by good stewards, the money is used in holy ways. I feel I’ve been at Cassidy long enough to affirm that buildings and staff are in place so that people may know Christ. Also, Cassidy’s budgets are designed so that others may know Christ through our ministries.

An unfunded church is like a car without gas—it’s going nowhere. Can you commit a percentage of your income in 2012? A church filled with tithers, people who commit 10 percent of their income toward ministry, can do great ministry quickly. Few American churches are full of tithers, nor even committed givers. Too few Christians are carrying the load for others.

When you commit to be a witness, you promise to know the story of Jesus Christ well enough to tell it. Therefore, you also are making a commitment to study. You then find people who need to hear the story, building friendships along the way so you earn the right to tell it.

When Jesus died for our sins, he didn’t do it halfheartedly. The cross took commitment. And in committing to the cross despite his anxiety, best revealed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46), Jesus became all his Father intended him to be.

For us, too, commitment is not about rules. It is about becoming what God would have us be, in the process helping the world become what God says it will be.