October 25, 2015, Of Your Own Have We Given You – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

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Next Sunday is a special day for two reasons. First of all, it’s the first of November, and that means that it is the Feast of All Saints, where we give thanks to God for all of the people in our lives that have been his face and his hands and his voice to us, from our earliest childhood right up to today: those who are still here with us, and also those who have gone home to be with him. That is an important day every year.

But this year we have also chosen November first as our Consecration Sunday. You’ve already heard from Helen and from Carroll, that first of all, that is the day that you have the opportunity, to pledge what you plan to give to the church in the coming year. Each person that chooses to do so will write their pledge on a card and put it on the altar, face down, as their promise to God. Only God – and Irene, who records all our offerings every week – will know what your pledge is. And then the other part of Consecration Sunday is we all get to have a party. So that is something to really look forward to.

But in preparation for Consecration Sunday, I want to talk this week about the sticky subject of tithing, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Helen did a beautiful job of getting us started a couple of weeks ago, when she told us that what we offer to the church is actually between us and God. The work of the church isn’t my work or the Vestry’s work or the work of the Diocese of Albany. It’s God’s work. He puts it in our hands, each one of us, and we are answerable to him, and everything we do is for his purposes, to spread the good news of his kingdom right here in Norwood.

And then, last week, Carroll added to what Helen had to say by pointing out that the most important offering any one of us makes at St. Philip’s is the offering of ourselves. You show up. I show up. And God works through each and every one of us, and we are all blessed, and God’s work goes forward. If every one of us wrote out an enormous check each week and mailed it in, and then stayed home to read the paper and do the yardwork Sunday morning, we would have no church at all. The body of Christ is his people, in the flesh. We are the Church.

But then there is this thing we call tithing, and a lot of people have had a lot to say about it over the years, not all of it true or biblical. And the first thing I want to say about tithing is that nowhere in the Bible are Christians commanded to give a tenth of their income, or any percentage of their income, to the church. There is no commandment for us about tithing. It’s just not there, no matter what the televangelists would like to sell you.

The Bible does talk about tithing – not a lot, but it does – but in every instance, it’s talking about tithing in connection with the law. The people of Israel were commanded to give a tenth of their produce and livestock and so forth to support the Levites, because the descendants of Levi were the one tribe who didn’t get a portion of the land when Israel came into the Promised Land. The Levites were all designated as priests, and their inheritance was to be the special servants of God. But that meant they didn’t have land to raise crops or sheep or cattle. So God set it up that the other tribes shared the fruits of their inherited land with the priests, the Levites. And the Levites tended to the ritual sacrifices and the other tasks of worshiping God on behalf of their brothers and sisters. That was the function of the tithe.

When Jesus talks about tithing, as he only does a couple of times, he is talking to the Pharisees who are still living in accordance with the law of Moses. Jesus doesn’t actually have anything much to say about tithing itself, good or bad; what he does is to point out that in all their careful observance of the tithe the Pharisees have completely ignored the things that God really cares about. He said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are so careful to tithe your mint and dill and cumin, but you don’t pay any attention to the real matters of the law, the things God really cares about: justice and mercy and faithfulness.”

The only other time Jesus mentions tithing is when he tells the parable of the boastful Pharisee, who comes into the Temple to pray and stands up in front and gives thanks to God for what a great guy he is, because he fasts twice a week and gives a tithe of everything he gets. And then, Jesus says, another man comes into the Temple, a tax collector, who stands way in the back and doesn’t even dare raise his eyes to heaven, but just stands there and beats his breast and asks God to have mercy on him for all his sins. And Jesus says that it is the second man, the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who leaves the Temple justified before God. So that’s what Jesus has to say about tithing. It’s not much.

One of the clearest passages about tithing in the Old Testament is from Malachi, who was the very last of the minor prophets. Malachi was sent to Israel at a time of widespread corruption: the priests were offering diseased animals for their sacrifices, divorce had become commonplace, masters were abusing their workers, and people weren’t giving their tithe. And God spoke through Malachi, “Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house (and that would mean food for the Levites who served in the Temple). Put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, see if I don’t open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.”

Like Jesus, Malachi was speaking to God’s people who were still under the Law. Jesus hadn’t come yet; the Law still stood between God and his people. They met God in their sacrifices and rituals, and in their observance of the Law, like the tithe. But we don’t relate to God by means of rules and regulations anymore. In Jesus we are children and heirs. His Spirit makes his home in us. We can know God.

On this side of the Christmas story, this passage is not a commandment for us to tithe, and it isn’t a proof-text, as some people have claimed, that if Christians give a tenth of their paycheck to the church God will make us rich. What it is is a testimony to us that God’s goodness and mercy are so much greater than anything we can give, no matter what. His blessings are beyond our comprehension – he is the God who is “able to accomplish abundantly far more than anything we can ask or even imagine” like it says in Ephesians. God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, he is the God of Israel and the God of the Cross and the God of the Church – and he is generous beyond our wildest imaginings. For us, that’s the bottom line; that’s what Malachi has to say to us: that we can never out-give God.

But as children of God, made in his image, that also means that we are created to be givers like our Father. And we know that in our own hearts. What is more fun than giving really good things to the people we love? Giving brings us joy. We don’t go out to find the perfect birthday present for our husband or wife so that they’ll give us something really spectacular when our birthday comes around. We don’t give our kids really nice Christmas presents every year to make sure they’ll take care of us in our old age. We don’t give to get something back; we give out of the abundance of our love, because that’s how we are made – because we are children of the Father who gives to us out of the abundance of his love for us. Just think – God so loved the world that he gave us his own Son. We learn from the very best.

I have been impressed by how my son Wyatt and his wife have helped our grandchildren, Alan and Katie, learn about giving. When it’s Wyatt’s birthday, or Adrienne’s, or at Christmastime, Alan and Katie get money to go shopping for their parents. And Wyatt and Adrienne give them a lot of freedom in what they choose, whatever Alan and Katie think would be the best possible presents for their Mom and Dad, that’s what they get. One year Alan got Wyatt a kite for his birthday, and they had a blast flying it together. The kids are too young yet to have any money of their own, and sometimes Wyatt and Adrienne end up with some pretty funny gifts, but Alan and Katie take their gift-giving very seriously. It is a real act of giving for them.

And isn’t that exactly what we are doing when we make our offerings to God? There is nothing in this world that doesn’t belong to our Father already. There is nothing we have that we haven’t received from his hand, and there is nothing we can give to him that will add to what he has already. But by his grace God gives us the opportunity to participate in his goodness by giving back to him, out of love, some of the riches he has given us. And God takes our gifts seriously.

Your gifts keep the lights on and the building warm and the organ in good repair. Your gifts make it possible for me to visit people who are sick and study the Bible and spend time in prayer and all the other things I do. Your gifts allow Schuyler to keep our building clean and our lawn trimmed. Most recently, your gifts got the plumbing working again. Your gifts have helped build an orphanage in Malawi and put food on the table for our neighbors here in Norwood. The gifts of God’s children at St. Philip’s over years and years have provided beautiful vestments and linens and candles and books for our worship – sometimes we have the names of the givers recorded or engraved, and sometimes we don’t know who gave these things – but they all gave, not because it was required of them, and not because they expected to get anything in return, but because it was their joy and privilege to give back to the God who gives his very self to us.

About three thousand years ago, David’s son Solomon was supervising the building of the great Temple in Jerusalem, which was quite a bit bigger than our little St Philip’s. And all the gold and silver and bronze and iron and precious gems, everything that went into the building of the Temple was given by the people of Israel as gifts. And in 1 Chronicles it says: “the people rejoiced because they had given willingly, for with a whole heart they had offered freely to the Lord.” And David prayed this prayer: “Who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you….O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own…and now I have seen your people, who are present here, offering freely and joyously to you.”

And that is what Consecration Sunday is for, a time set apart for the people of God, us, to offer freely and joyously out of the great abundance our God has given to us. We offer our selves – we show up – we offer our time and our energy; we offer our love and our worldly goods, and God takes our gifts seriously. And then we celebrate, all of us together; we have a party to give thanks for the goodness of the greatest Giver of all.

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