We Really Need To Talk

Mark 10.17-31

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good by God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these word. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brother and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” 

The old pastor had a reputation for turning church finances around. Every where he went he encountered the same sorts of stories: “we’ve lost some really big givers, we’ve had to cut corners, we just don’t know what to do.”

And it was his responsibility to preach fiery sermons about the virtues of generosity such that a church would receive the kind of cash flow that could bring resurrection out of financial doom.

He wasn’t really sure where he developed the aptitude for financial sermons, but people kept calling him to fill in from time to time, particularly when the offering plates started to feel a little light.

And so it came to pass that he received a phone call from a very wealthy member at a church on the other side of the state. It didn’t take long for the old pastor to discern some of the same problems he had heard before; The church was suffocating under horrible debt that had accrued over years of bad financial management. Finally, after describing all of the problems, the wealthy church member said, “When you come to preach you are welcome to stay at my country house, my town house, or my seaside cottage.”

To which the old pastor responded, “I’m not coming.”

The rich member was incredulous, “But you have to come, we need your help! How else can we pay off our debt?” 

The pastor said, “Sell one of your homes and pay the debt yourself.” And then he hung up.

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Woe to those who are rich! It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God!

Last week we spent the entire worship service addressing one of the topics Jesus spoke about all the time, a topic that for some reason we avoid in the church – divorce.

And as I stood up in this place and preached those words, I witnessed some pew squirming as the rigidity of Jesus’ proclamation landed upon our ears. Whether we’re divorced, or we know someone who is divorced, this was a place defined by a feeling of anxiety last week.

But now we have to talk about money. And if you thought people were uncomfortable last week, you should’ve seen how you all looked as the scripture today was being read!

Money! 

Presumably we all interact with money on a regular basis, and presumably most of us here wish we had more of it.

And perhaps some of us truly need more money – maybe we don’t have enough to pay our bills, or purchase groceries, or fill up our gas tanks. 

And maybe some of us have just enough – we’re able to make ends meet, save a little for the future, and splurge every once in awhile.

And still yet there may be some of us who have more than enough – we never have to think about bills because we know we have enough to cover them, we’ve can’t remember the last time we bought something used, and we are always the ones who reach for the check at the restaurant.

Money, whether we are poor or rich, is easily the thing that consumes our thoughts and desires more than anything else. 

Jesus was about to set out on a journey when a man ran up and knelt before him. In the other gospels we learn a little bit more about this man, but in Mark’s version we don’t know anything about him except that he apparently kept all of the laws and that he had a bunch of stuff.

Teacher! What must I do to inherit eternal life?

You know the commandments! Do them.

Of course I know them teacher, and I’ve kept all of them since my youth. 

And Jesus, looking at him with love, said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 

When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

He wanted to know what he could do to inherit the kingdom of heaven. He had apparently done a lot already, even from the time he was young. And Jesus had the gall to look him in the eye and say, “That’s not enough.”

When Jesus invites people to follow him in the gospels, they almost always drop everything right then and there to do so – but not this guy. For some reason his wealth was such that it was not something he could walk away from – whether it was the materialism of it, or the power that it created, or the comfort that he appreciated – he, unlike almost everyone else, walked away from the kingdom with grief.

And, lest we skip over the detail that stands out with strange absurdity, Jesus’ response to them man was apparently born out of love!

What kind of love compels someone to say, “you know what… the only way you can do this kingdom thing is to do exactly the thing you are not going to do.”

This is painful stuff! This is the Messiah peering into the heart of the man and naming right then and there the sin that has wrapped itself around his heart.

And to make things worse, Jesus doesn’t even wait until the man is gone before he begins regaling the crowd!

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed, much like us.

So, some sermons would now logically shift into a “each of us can surely take look at our own lives…” And someone like me who ask people like you to imagine what in your life is keeping you from the kingdom – an attachment, a desire, a hope – something that acts more like a shackle holding you back than a spring that pushes you forward.

I’ve heard plenty of sermons like that, in fact I know I’ve even preached some sermons like that. A sermon where the final line is something like, “just let it go.”

But what if the point isn’t about what we must give up, but that we won’t be able to?

Jesus is clear with his disciples about the impossibility of the rich man’s salvation; it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

And yet he also proclaims the Almighty power of God to make the impossible possible.

So… which is it?

In theological terms we call this divine tension, it is an impossible possibility. One cannot inherit eternal life in the sense that so long as you do this, this, and this it’s all yours. Time and time again the gospel, what we call the Good News, grace offered freely to us in spite of us, gets whittled down to a proposition. 

If you do this… then the kingdom is yours.

If you repent of your sins… if you pray everyday… if you sell all your possessions.

And when that becomes the defining message of the church the Good News is no longer good news. Instead, its just another version of the law whereby impossible tasks always remain impossible.

There is no such thing as “if” in the kingdom. 

And of course there are things in this life, sins and desires and temptations, that prevent us from being all that God would have us be. But when those very things become the lynchpin to everything we experience and know as disciples, then our lives will be little more than chaos.

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We really need to talk about money and our unhealthy obsessive attachment with it – but perhaps it’s more important for us to talk about the fallacy of earning the kingdom. 

This moment with the rich man reveals the kind of righteousness we think we require to acquire the kingdom of heaven. We make it out in our minds that its even more than following the laws, its more than checking off all the boxes. We take it to dimensions of frenetic fear and imply that to acquire the kingdom its all about who we are behind closed doors, who we are when no one else is around.

And then we boldly proclaim that Jesus is waiting in the wings to ask us to drop the very thing that we know we cannot. 

Why?

Perhaps Jesus wants to suck out all of our self-righteousness. Jesus asks the rich man a question, and vicariously asks all of us a question, as a reminder that we are no better than the people maligned in the media and the people dropped because of bad drama.

Maybe Jesus asks the question because he wants us to know that we really are sinners. That its not just a noun that we throw around all the time, but really, truly, deeply, who we are.

But where is the Good News in that?

The tension of the story, that pull from what we are asked to do to what we know that we cannot do, is at the very heart of Jesus’ message to the rich man and to people like you and me: We have a job to do, and we cannot save ourselves.

That is the uncomfortable comfort and the impossible possibility of our salvation – that we worship a God who, in spite of our best and worst intentions, desires our salvation even when we cling to the things we know we should not.

God, in the midst of our chaotic and frightening dispositions, waits for us to realize that it is because we are sinners, it is because we cannot save ourselves, that we are saved.

When we read the story of the rich man, and we make it into a call for better stewardship, then it appears that none of us, poor and rich alike, none of us will inherit the kingdom. When faced with our own version of the question, we would all grieve while looking back over our shoulders.

But friends, that’s kind of the whole point – inheriting the kingdom is not up to us!

If all the Christians we know make us feel like we’re not doing enough, if every sermon leaves us feeling guilty, then we cannot call it amazing grace. 

When the gospel becomes a commodity to be propositioned – Jesus did something for you and now you have to do something for Jesus, then the cross is foolishness.

We all, the rich and poor, fail to live according to the law. If any of us were there that day, Jesus would have given us our own impossible task. That’s why the passage ends with the terrifying list of things to be abandoned for the sake of the gospel – friends, family, property.

Sure, selling our possessions to help the poor is a great thing. But it doesn’t earn us a ticket to the kingdom.

Sure, confronting a family member for their bigotry and hatred is the right thing to do. But it doesn’t earn us a spot in the resurrection.

Sure, abandoning our sinful desires that prevent us from being who God wants us to be would be a smart idea. But it doesn’t procure us anything.

Were our salvation up to us, it would be impossible.

But nothing is impossible for God. Amen. 

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Lying Naked On The Floor

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Lindsey Baynham about the readings for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost (Job 23.1-9, 16-17, Psalm 22.1-15, Hebrews 4.12-16, Mark 10.17-31). Lindsey is an ordained elder for the United Methodist Church in the Virginia Conference and currently serves as the Associate Director for Call, Candidacy & Discernment in the office of Clergy Excellence. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the value of vacation, hippos and Harry Potter, vulnerable churches, the divine “yet”, being comforted in isolation, the narrative of salvation history, being bold, talking about $$$ in church, and believing what God can do. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Lying Naked On The Floor

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In God We Trust

Mark 12.38-44

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worthy a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

For the month of September we’re keeping things simple – though, when in the church is anything simple? When in our lives is anything simple? Well, we’re going to try and bring some simplicity in the midst of all our complexities each Sunday till the end of the month.

The whole series is focused on the materially simple life that Jesus led, taught, and exemplified. And, each week, we’re going to have a challenges that accompany our worship.

The first week we were challenged to spend time every day being grateful for our time. Last week we had a clean out challenge where we reflected on what really matters in our lives.

Today we’re moving on to the subject of money. 

The bible spends a lot of time addressing a great number of topics, but time, possessions, money, prayer, and food are the topics that Jesus talked about the most. And, when Jesus addressed these issues for the people of his days, he came at all of them with an air of simplicity that is often lost in the church today.

Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

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The church was in the midst of a stewardship drive and the finance committee could not stop arguing. Every Sunday they bickered in the hallways and in the narthex fighting about who they could hit up for more money this year, about how much they would need to raise in order to buy new candlestick holders for the altar, and about whether the pastor should know who gives and how much.

Finally they called for a formal meeting on a Sunday evening and after 3 hours of more shouting, disagreeing, and even some belittling, they ended only to have the frustrations spill out into the parking lot as everyone was preparing to leave.

However, sitting outside the front doors of the church was a homeless man holding out a styrofoam cup hoping for donations. He had been there for most of the afternoon, hopeful for any gift, and he could not help from overhearing the church folk arguing inside and out the parking lot.

After some time has passed, the man stood up from his spot and he meandered over to one of the older women with her hand placed perfectly on her hips, he reached out for her hand, dumped the few dollars and space change he had received, and said, “You clearly need this more than I do.”

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Money! Everyone’s favorite subject in church! In ranks up their with politics and sexuality! I can tell that you all have just been on the edge of your pews all morning waiting to hear what I have to say like a bunch of kids on Christmas morning.

Money! The American Dream! So many of us came of age in a world, in a culture, that told us this dream was possible – a desire for achieving material possessions and deeper bank accounts. We hope to pursue more than we have, to gain more than we have, and to save more than we have.

And, importantly, most of us tend to measure our success based on the number in our bank accounts.

But, and this is a big but, for a lot of us the American Dream feels like the American Nightmare.

For as much hope as we might have for a day in the future when all of our finances will be taken care of, there’s plenty in the present to worry us. There was a study recently that noted at least 80% of Americans are stressed about the economy and their personal finances – more than half are worried about being able to provide for their family’s basic needs, 56% are worried about job security, and 52% report lying away at night thinking about their bank accounts.

That might not sound all that surprising to any of us here, because honestly, who among us hasn’t worried about money?

How about this then – in 1990 the average credit card debt in America was $3,000 and today it is well over $9,000. And that doesn’t include mortgages, student loans, or medical debt.

For many of us The American Dream has become The American Nightmare when it comes to money and finances. So so so many of us are unwilling to delay gratification and we use tomorrow’s money to finance today’s lifestyle. Few us us save money appropriately because we keep thinking that tomorrow won’t come. 

But then it does.

Over and over again.

Jesus was teaching in the temple when he warned everyone with ears to hear about the religious elite. 

“Watch out for those scribes and priests – you know, the ones who like to walk around in long robes and get all the respect in public, the preachers who like to gets the seats of privilege. They are the type of people who prey on the widows and the poor and for the sake of appearances will fill their prayers with big and long words. Watch out for them.”

Then Jesus immediately gathered the crowd around the treasury and they watched as people filed in line to drop of their donations. Many rich people proudly walked ahead to make the donation as public as possible, but then a poor widow shuffled over and put two small coins in the treasury, two coins that amounted to a penny. 

Jesus pulled his disciples close and said, “That poor widow put in more than all the rest who are contributing to the treasury. The rest of them gave out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had: her whole life.”

In life, few of us have any use for hypocrites. Those people who are pretentious and show off their status only to draw more attention to themselves at the expense of the less fortunate – like politicians making great sums of money while complaining that it’s not enough to live on – like pastors urging their congregations to make financial commitments while they themselves offer nothing.

Today we’re obviously talking about money, and the text makes it quite difficult to make a case for giving it to church. 

Because we can take the story of the widow at face value – she truly sacrifices. She is the example upon which Jesus makes a theological claim. But let us not forget that her gift is considered far greater than greater sums of money not because of the amount but because of her generosity.

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And that’s why we have to sit with something rather uncomfortable before we jump to the simplicity of money, which of course is no simple thing. It is good and right for us to rest in the tension of the text read for us today because this is about more than just encouraging extravagant generosity – it is an indictment, plain and simple, against any institution (including our own) that results in a poor widow giving all she has so that the leaders can continue to live lives of wealth, comfort, and power.

We might leave church today feeling guilty about the money we give (or don’t give), we might feel apathetic about what our contributions can really do for our church or for our community. But perhaps the most appropriate feeling might be outrage; outrage toward any system that appropriates the property of the poor and near-destitute in order to perpetuate wealth for the elite.

Ask any pastor and they’ll tell you the best givers in the church are almost always the poorest. It’s those on limited and fixed incomes who are usually the first to tithe, but the wealthy and elite, those with gifts to share, have a harder time with it.

Maybe you’ll be surprised to hear, or maybe you won’t, that there are more than 950 billionaires in the world and yet the percentage of giving among the majority of the billionaires does not rise above the single digits.

By the time Jesus encountered this scene by the treasury, the whole religious apparatus was perverted. The operators lived privileged lives, and the poor, widowed, orphaned, and marginalized were no longer protected.

And today, sadly, some things haven’t changed.

I was out of the office for two days this week between clergy meetings and hospital visits, and when I checked the church voicemail on Thursday morning we had over twenty messages, twenty messages in two days, from people in our immediate community who needed financial help – a rent payment, a overdue electricity bill, grocery money.

And I wish, I wish, that we could give money to every single person who called. I wish that my days were primarily filled with making sure that people could stay in their homes, that those homes could keep the lights on, and that the refrigerators were well stocked. 

But we can only use what we are given.

And so, from this story of Jesus and the widow, from the reflections on the church’s, and any institution’s, temptations to prey on the weak, it’s quite difficult and problematic for someone like me, part of the religious elite, standing in my long robe, to build a case for why the church is worthy of the gifts of its givers.

The church is only worthy when we use the gifts as Jesus commands.

As I noted last week and at the beginning of this sermon, each Sunday this month we are taking the time to encounter the simple qualities of complex realities, but we will also have challenges that accompany our worship.

This week we are encouraging everyone to budget their money.

For a long time there’s been an 80-10-10 focus on finances in which you spend 80% of your money on what you need to live, you save 10% for the future and unanticipated emergencies, and 10% is given away. So the challenge is to sit down with your finances and start thinking about what it would take to break it all down into something close to the 80-10-10 model.

But, of course, tithing is really hard. It simply may not be possible for you to give 10% away. However, it is helpful to think about your generosity in terms of a total value instead of an occasional offering. As in, what does 2% look like for you? Or even 5%?

And you can leave it right there, a relatively simple thought experiment, or you can take it one step farther and take a good look at whatever debt you might have and make a plan to repay it. If you are anywhere near the average $9,000 in credit card debt, and you only make the minimum payment every month, it will take something like 200 years before it will all go away. So look at what is owed, and make a budgetary plan to star chipping away at it so than it no longer grips your around your soul like a shackle, so that you never wander over to the offering plate and have to give away your entire life at the value of a penny. 

And, if you want serious extra credit, you can bring back a commitment card next week (found in your bulletin). It is something to prayerfully consider and fill out, a commitment of giving to the church so that no widow in our community will be forced to give away her very life at the expense of her life being ignored.

A lot of us have a warped understanding of what faithful giving looks like. We think that if we give, then God will give more back to us. But that is not how it works. We do not give to God in order to get something in return. 

Do you think the widow at the treasury believed that if she just kept giving everything that she would one day wake up with an overflowing bank account? 

We give to God simply because God has given to us. We believe that when we give it blesses not us, but others. And then, of course, it is in the blessing of others that we are blessed.

The church is not perfect. After all, it’s filled with broken people like you and me. 

But we believe in having transparency in our finances and we are committed to serving those in need. 

We believe in the power of the blessings God has given us to bless others. 

And we believe that by returning to God what belongs to God, we take steps toward making the kingdom incarnate on earth. Amen. 

Devotional – Psalm 138.6

Devotional:

Psalm 138.6

For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away.

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On Sunday morning, in the middle of worship, I gathered the children from the congregation and I announced a new plan for ministry. We moved about the sanctuary and I showed them where I was praying when God spoke to me as clear as day about what we need to do. Their faces were aglow with anticipation as I announced that the future of the church rests on the congregation’s ability to raise $54 million dollars.

While the children danced around with thoughts of all the money, the adults sank down deeper in their pews. I was grateful that one of the kids finally asked what the money was actually for and then I proudly announced that we need to purchase a private jet so that I, as the pastor, can share the gospel around the world.

I, of course, was kidding.

But a pastor named Jesse Duplantis said just about the same thing to his church two weeks ago, and he was dead serious.

If that church raises the funds, and it seems like it might, it will be Duplantis’ 4th private jet since entering ministry and he justifies the request because, “If Jesus were on the earth today he wouldn’t be riding on a donkey, he’d be in a private jet spreading the gospel.”

The Lord we worship is magnificent and beyond our ability to comprehend yet, as the psalmist puts it, our Lord regards the lowly. In the New Testament, Jesus talks about the subject of money more than just about anything else and very wonderfully says that its easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.

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I, for one, cannot wait to see Jesse Duplantis fly his (4th!) private jet through the eye of a needle.

In our fast-paced frenetic world that is so consumed by a thirst for power and wealth, it is always a strange thing to remember that our Lord came to dwell among us not as the televangelists live, but like those who wander among the margins of life. We worship a first century Jew who ate among the sinners, not a preacher who thinks flying with other people is akin to spending time with demons.

What a blessing and privilege to know that though our God is mighty, God chooses to meet us in the muck of life, instead of escaping away into the stratosphere.

Devotional – Mark 8.36

Devotional:

Mark 8.36

For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

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When I do pre-marital counseling sessions I have a set of questions I use to get the conversation going. I always start with “What was your last fight about?” It knocks the couple back for a second, but then very quickly they can share with me a disagreement that they recently worked through (more often than not it has to do with wedding invitations!). All couples fight about something, and so instead of advocating for no fighting, I do what I can to help them see how they already reconcile their differences, and then encourage them to work on those practices.

Later in the conversation I will ask, “Why do you want me to perform the service?” The question isn’t about me particularly, but more to the point of having a church wedding. Many couples might think they want a church wedding, but they’ll come to pastor and ask for it to happen in a church but “without the God stuff.” I am of the opinion that if a couple does not want the Lord’s blessing on their wedding, then its probably better to be done in a local courthouse than in the Lord’s house.

But of all the questions, the one that usually stumps couples the most is, “How much money is too much money?” Most respond with something like, “There’s such a thing as too much money?!” But then I’ll ask the question again. Many couples getting married are young and not quite in a position to be swimming in the dough, but a time could come in which they will make more than they need. And so I ask if they’ve ever contemplated how much money would be enough money, and what would they like to do with the rest.

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It should come as no surprise that the most prevalent reason for divorce today is money. Whether it’s hiding money in a separate account, or arguments about how much to spend on a certain item, or not saving enough for the future, or a great number of other financial disagreements – money is at the heart of divorce more often than not.

And so, as a couple prepares to embark on the strange territory that is marriage, I ask, “How much money is too much money?” I ask the question to get them thinking about finances now, and later, but also to get them to think about what their lives are all about.

We are trapped in a world where the accumulation of wealth is the end all be all, but what will it profit us to gain everything at the expense of our lives? Is the time we spend at work making money more important than the time we spend with our friends and families? What will be more important at the end of our days, the money in the bank or the people we share our lives with?

Devotional – Psalm 90.1

Devotional:

Psalm 90.1

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

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On Sunday we spent the entirety of our worship service talking about why we give to the church. We looked at biblical calls to generosity, we reflected on the challenges of tithing, and we even went through our Missional Budget for 2018. I know that it was a challenging service because I could see the tension it created throughout the pews, but I am happy to be part of a church that is willing to be honest and vulnerable with one another.

When looking at a church budget it is important to ask questions about money and how it will be used. Questions like: How much of our budget is going to salaries? Should we be spending that much on our copier expenses? Do we anticipate our giving increasing or decreasing next year?

I’ve spent enough time looking at church budgets to determine, rather quickly, whether a budget is designed for maintenance or for mission. A budget focused on maintenance prioritizes building expenses and maintaining the status quo over and against just about anything else. Maintenance budgets are designed to keep the church looking, and running, like the year before and insuring that the doors will be open every week. For better, but usually worse, maintenance budgets propel the idea that the church building itself is the decisive factor in what it means to be the church.

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A budget focused on mission is different in that it prioritizes ministries and vision for the year(s) ahead. Missional budgets are designed to ask: “What’s God calling us to do?” and figuring our how to live into that reality. That challenge and joy of a missional budget is the belief that God is our dwelling place more than a building or a property.

That’s not to diminish a church structure or property; churches (as in physical buildings) allow for a gathering of people on the journey of faith and they establish a place for community. But when the church (as building) becomes more important than the church (as Body of Christ) we fail to remember that God has been our dwelling place in all generations.

I am thrilled to be part of a church that puts a priority on mission rather than maintenance. The challenge, however, is committing to that reality and remembering that God is our dwelling more than the buildings we gather in on Sunday mornings.

Why Do We Give?

Matthew 22.15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

When I was in my final year of seminary, I had a friend who asked me to fill in and preach at his church one Sunday morning. He had labored for the previous years as a full time student and a full time pastor and needed a little break. Also – he was given tickets to a Carolina Panthers football game, though I was forbidden from telling his church that where he was instead of with them on a Sunday morning for worship.

The tiny United Methodist Church was in the middle on nowhere North Carolina, and I was nervous about leading worship for a congregation that I had never met. However, I figured God is good and that God would show up even if my sermon fell flat.

The sanctuary was simple and charming with white walls and florescent lights hanging from the ceiling, there was a cross above the altar that was draped with an American flag, and it was so quiet I actually thought that maybe I had showed up at the wrong church.

However, within a couple minutes, the lay leader of the church arrived and greeted me enthusiastically as if I was a first time visitor of the church, only to later realize that I was the stand-in pastor for the day. He quickly guided me through the sanctuary, gave me the grand tour (he even showed off the recently renovated bathroom) and then informed me that he was the head usher, the liturgist, the organist, and the treasurer.

From what I can remember the service went fairly well, through most of the congregation was utterly bewildered by academic deconstruction of an apocalyptic prophecy from the book of Daniel (something I thank gave up doing that day), and there was an infant who wailed throughout the entirety of the sermon. I like to think that she liked my preaching so much that it drove her to tears.

When the service ended, I finally had a better chance to look around the sanctuary and I noticed a list on the wall behind the pulpit for the hymns of the day, the offering brought in from the week before, and the deficit regarding the annual budget. There in big numbers for everyone to see was how far away they were from keeping up with their plan, and it was a staggering amount of money.

On my way out I thanked the lay-leader/usher/organist/treasurer for the opportunity to preach and asked why the church felt the need to display the deficit for everyone to see every Sunday.

I’ll never forget how casually he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Guilt is the only way to get them to give.”

Offering

Why do we give? Taking time to talk about financial giving in the church is about as awkward and uncomfortable as it gets. Money, in general, is one of the taboo topics of normal conversations. We don’t ask how much someone makes in a year, even if we’re curious. We avoid asking for financial assistance or help because it requires too much vulnerability. But then we take the taboo subject of money, and put it together with religion (another taboo) and we get the double whammy of things we don’t like talking about.

It seems some things never change.

The Pharisees and the Herodians wanted to trap Jesus in his words. “Tell us,” they said, “should we pay our taxes to the emperor, or not?” There’s no good answer to the question. If Jesus said, “Yes, you must pay your taxes” it would cause a rift among those who suffered under the weight of dictatorial Roman rule. And if Jesus said, “No, you don’t owe the government anything,” his critics could have charged him with insurrection and he would have been executed.

And it was all about money.

Jesus however, answered in a way that has captured the hearts and minds of Christians for millennia: “Bring me a coin… whose head is this and whose title?” The people responded, “The emperor’s.” And Jesus said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And when the crowds heard his response they were amazed and they went away.

2000 years later and taxes and money and giving still drive us crazy. It’s a hard subject to talk about. I certainly don’t enjoy it. We, and by we I really mean you and we, we would rather have a service about grace and mercy than one about sin and sacrifice. Which is strange when we consider the fact that Jesus talked about money more than just about anything else during his earthly ministry. For Jesus, money was a subject worth confronting because it had taken over the lives of his peers and it was leading them on a path of disappointment, regret, and fear.

We don’t like talking about money because what we do with our money is personal and private right?

collection-plate-money-hands

A UMNS photo illustration by Mike DuBose. Accompanies UMNS story #099. 3/20/12.

To talk about giving in the church, to address the subject of why we give, we have to get personal. It would be shameful for me to stand here each and every week calling for the gathered body to give your gifts to God if I, myself, was afraid to talk about my own giving. If we want to be a church of gifts, then we must first be a church of vulnerability and honesty.

Before I became a pastor, I rarely gave to the church. I have vivid memories of sitting in church throughout my adolescence, and feeling waves of guilt as I passed the offering plate over my lap to whomever else was in the pew. It helped that I was a kid and had no money to give in the first place but the guilt was still there.

It is a powerful thing here at Cokesbury when the children come up for their message and they place their offering in the plate. They are creating a habit of generosity that was largely absent from my childhood.

By the time I made it to college and seminary, I still attended church but rarely gave to the church. I certainly volunteered my time, led mission trips, and taught bible studies, but giving money to the church was not on my radar.

Then I was appointed to my first church. I had a steady income, and Lindsey and I started to tithe. And honestly it was really hard. We were a young married couple with seminary debt, and then we had a baby. Yet, we covenanted with God and one another to give 10%. In the first months it was harder that I thought it would be. I would find myself thinking about those thousands of dollars that I could have spent on other things, but we got into the habit and we kept giving. And after a while it became pretty easy because I just withheld the 10% from my paycheck and after time I stopped thinking about it at all.

But then we came here. We had to move and buy a house. It was easy when the money was taken out automatically, but now we needed to write a check and place it in the plate. There is a place of power and privilege that comes with being a pastor of the church, particularly when it comes to money. I get to sit up here while the offering plates make their way throughout the sanctuary. But the covenant to give is not one for pastors alone, nor is it for laypeople alone. The covenant to give is one made by all Christians, one that is challenging, but one that is ultimately what faith is all about.

My conversion toward tithing did not happen in a big shiny moment, but was a gradual transformation. The more I give, the longer the habit continues, the better it becomes, and things start to change.

            Instead of imagining what I could do with the money I’ve given to church, I’ve started tangibly witnessing what the money I give is doing for the church and for the kingdom.

Give, Donate, Charity

Giving to the church requires a conversion; it is built on a vision where we recognize how our blessings can be used to bless others. It is built on the knowledge that we give because so much has been given to us. It is built on the call to give not out of guilt, but out of generosity.

We are called to give because we have a shared vision and are invited into the mission of God through the church. Even a seemingly small act of generosity can grow into something far beyond what we could ever imagine – The creation of a community of love in this world.

Our generosity helps God build the kingdom here on earth.

But, we should not be expected to give, nor feel inclined to give without knowing why or to what we are giving. To just stand before you and say, “give give give” or to have a sign on the wall about out finances prevents us from developing strong relationships with the people and programs we serve. So, here are just three aspects of what our church does with our gifts.

At Cokesbury we believe in providing meaningful, fruitful, and life changing worship every week of the year. We plan months in advance, connect messages with the music, and look for imaginative ways to respond to God’s Word in the world. This means that we keep our sanctuary in the best shape possible for the worship of God, and use the great gifts of all involved in the church to make it happen. As a church we regularly welcome first-time visitors to discover God’s love in this place and help to develop professions of faith in Jesus Christ.

At Cokesbury, we believe in nurturing those in the midst of their faith journeys. We spend a significant amount of time and resources to help disciples grow in their faith and love of God and neighbor. We have numerous classes and opportunities to study God’s Word, whether its through Sunday School, Thursday Night Bible Studies, or Vacation Bible School. Everyone that participates in any of our groups is able to take what they learn and apply it to their daily lives whether they’re eight or eighty.

And at Cokesbury, we believe in witnessing to our faith in service beyond ourselves. We strive to serve those in need through a mosaic of opportunities in order to be Christ’s body for the world. Every year we have apportioned giving that directly impacts people in our local community and across the world. We provide support to agencies in our area like Hilda Barg and ACTS, and others. We help people with acute needs through discretionary accounts. And we have a great number of other missional activities that are all focused on helping other experiences God’s love through the work of the church.

We give from our abundance to bless others. Whether it’s the people in the pews next to us who gather for worship, kids from the community who show up for church events, or the countless people around the world who need help. We give out of generosity because so much has been given to us.

Sometimes when we read the story about Jesus’ response to the question of taxes, we liable to water it down to something like: Jesus leaves the choice up to us. Rather than falling into the trap of the Pharisees or the Herodians, rather than siding with the empire or inciting insurrection, Jesus breaks down the question and put the ball in our court.

But that leaves the passage without saying much of anything and prevents it from ringing out the stinging truth: We can put all of our trust in our money, we can use it to do all sorts of things in the world, but if we think that it all belongs to us, or has come to us simply because we deserve it, then we’ve failed to recognize the One from whom all blessings flow.

This passage about money isn’t so much about whether or not we should pay our taxes. Instead, it calls into question what we are doing with our money, and why we are doing what we are doing. It forces us to confront whether or not we believe God is the source of our being, or if we believe material objects can bring us satisfaction in this life. It begs us to reconsider what we’ve spent our money on, and if it helped the kingdom at all.

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Yet, as Christians, we believe that we, and everything we hold dear, belong to God. Amen.