October 25, 2015
As most of you know I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church. My parents carried me in the doors of the church as an infant and we were in church every Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening. Thanks to the Baptists and my family of origin, I have learned my Bible very well, can sing oodles of hymns without the hymnal and know how to tithe.
As soon as we were given even the smallest allowance, fifty cents a week, it was made clear to us that we were to give away 10 percent, save 10 percent and the rest was ours to do with as we please. My mother made it explicit to us, 10 percent of the money wasn’t even ours to begin with, even if it was in our possession, that 10 percent belonged to God. Period. End of story, don’t even try to pretend to keep the money. So each week we put that nickel into the offering plate as it passed by, and always thought of it as God’s money.
What I didn’t know about tithing was what we read about in today’s reading from Deuteronomy. How many of you have heard this about tithing: take a 10th of whatever you have produced for the year and then go to the place that God directs. If the trip is too long to carry your grain or your goats, then you can convert your goods to cash and then travel. When you get there, you can use the money for whatever you like: (vs26) cattle, sheep, wine, beer, whatever and then HAVE A PARTY! Have the feast with your family, your extended family, the local priest. You do this year one and year two, and then in the third year you give the 10 percent to the priest, the immigrants the orphans and the widows so that everyone can feast until they are full. Do this and you will be blessed!
- Let’s pretend to take this literally for a moment: let’s all pool 10 percent of our income every year and then have a huge feast, of course including all of our immediate family, and everyone else that we can because I imagine that if we pooled this 10 percent we could have one heck of a party! There would easily be enough for the immigrants, widows, orphans and anyone else. It would be like a massive thanksgiving!
In the Malachi reading God says to “bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test: see if I will not open the heavens for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.”
This seems like an airtight argument to tithe. It is as if God is saying that you cannot lose. If you bring your gift to the temple, not only do you get it eat it up yourselves before you go home, but God will keep on blessing you after you leave. It seems exciting and remarkable when we read it, but not exciting enough to actually do it.
It really all comes down to trust. Do we trust God? Take a moment and think about this. Do we really trust God? Sometimes I think that we only practice trusting in God when we have truly run out of other options, when we realize that we really cannot help ourselves and we have no other choice. Certainly pooling money with others in our family of faith requires exercising trust. It requires that we believe that in the act of giving, we really will be blessed.
The other text that we have read today from the prophet Jeremiah is about trust in God. In Jeremiah chapter 29, right before we get to the part that we read, the prophet is writing to the people of God who have been carried off into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. The reason that Jeremiah has written this letter is because God’s people had been listening to false prophets who had been encouraging them to go home to Jerusalem. Jeremiah is telling the people that the time isn’t right to go home. Jeremiah told the people that God wanted them to settle into Babylon: to make themselves at home, to build houses and inhabit them, to cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. To get married and have children and grandchildren! To increase in number and to promote the welfare of Babylon. We are talking about putting down enough roots that the people will live in Babylon for at least a couple of generations. They are told to not only to live in Babylon, but to promote the welfare of the city while their hearts are longing for home. In the midst of their disappointment, the prophet speaks for God when he says that they will be brought back to their home “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the lord, they are plans for a future filled with hope.” Can you imagine trusting God in this situation? These people of God will not see fulfillment of the promise of God in their lifetime. How can they trust when they can’t see the outcome?
I think in many ways we who follow Christ in the midst of this rapidly changing culture are like the exiles in Babylon. In the stories of Scripture, exiles like Esther, Daniel, and Jeremiah are significant because they were faithful during a period of tumultuous cultural change for the Hebrew people. In the case of these biblical examples, the people of God were taken from a nice, relatively homogenous cultural setting into the cosmopolitan world of Babylon and forced to make sense of that world in faithfulness to their God. Even in my lifetime, culture has become so much more complex as the world as become flatter and church going is no longer the norm. We as spiritual exiles work in the fields of government, journalism, media, academia, education, technology, science, the arts, and more. In these work settings and beyond, people sometimes feel an extreme tension between their faith and their vocation or calling. Think of exiles like second-generation immigrants, trying to be conversant in two languages. Many people in this sanctuary resonate with the feeling of being stuck between two worlds. We know that the church as we know it has to adapt in these changing times. Main line denominational churches look as though they are coming to an end. But what if they are not? What if they are becoming something new and crazy-amazing that we just cannot see yet? What if what we are going through is something like when the people of God were told to put roots down in a different place and make it thrive? From where we sit, the church looks like it is in decline, but what if it isn’t? What if it is being reborn?
“Surely I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the lord, they are plans for a future filled with hope.” Do we believe that? Are we willing to trust in the promise? Will we invest in the future that we cannot yet see? Will we invest in the future that we might not see in our lifetime? We could be like the second generation living in Babylon and perhaps we’ve never seen the “home” that the ancestors have reminisced about. We have heard folks in our congregation talk about it…those days when the United Churches had 1100 members and there were activities and classes every day. That is not our home now. Perhaps we can’t see what the home of the future will be, but God sees. Will we trust in the plans that God has for us?
If we are willing to take a chance, if we are willing to believe that God sees a future for us with hope, we will support this ministry with our money, with our time and with our talents? I will. I am making a financial pledge even though standing here right now, I have no idea what the future holds. Will you join me and pledge your financial support as well?