Party Tithe

On Sunday, November 26, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights concluded our month-long exploration of gratitude and thanksgiving, and how necessary those disciplines are to the life of faith. This week we considered the practice commanded in Deuteronomy for the people to bring their offerings with great joy.  In addition, we listened to the very familiar story of the prodigal son… Our scriptures included Deuteronomy 14:22-27 and Luke 15:11-32
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the media player below.

 

Every time a group of people chooses to become “Covenant Members” at the church, whether it’s because of Confirmation Class or as a result of some other conversations, I always ask the same question: what is your favorite part of worship? When we assemble in God’s name, we do a lot of things – from the gathering hymn to the benediction, which is your favorite? This morning, let me invite you to give that some thought and simply turn to your neighbor and answer that question: what is one thing you look forward to when we come into this room for worship?

Did you say the candles at Christmas Eve? Or when we get to sing your favorite song? Or maybe when we get to stop singing your neighbor’s favorite song?

I can’t say that this is my absolute favorite, but one of the most special aspects of worship here at Crafton Heights is what I like to call “the dance of the meerkats”. It’s listed in your bulletin as “receiving our tithes and offerings”.

The church wherein I grew up had a team of twelve men, each of whom accepted responsibility to facilitate the collection for a given month. These men recruited, plotted, and sometimes planned their vacation time around the Sundays for which they’d be on duty as ushers.

The Crafton Heights U.P. Church of 30 years ago elected a single man as “Head Usher”, and it was the responsibility of that office bearer to make sure that there were four men who were appropriately prepared to come forward at the correct time and receive the morning offering.

But this morning, as on most Sunday mornings here at CHUP, I suspect that this will happen. The music will start playing, and then heads start popping up, like meerkats out of their burrows, as people seek to make eye contact in trying to assess whether or not they are needed for this important ministry. Through some sort of signals unknown to linguists, two, or three, or five or six of you will rise and walk toward the back of the room. The fifth person there generally pretends to be going to get a drink so that no one will think that he doesn’t know the signal.

Worship at our sister church, the Mbenjere CCAP in Malawi, Central Africa

At any rate, a crew is assembled and the offering is received. I am teasing, of course, but that’s because it reminds me that giving really is a joyful and blessed aspect of our life together. We tend to forget that in the United States some times, but when folks travel to Africa with me, they almost always react to the joy with which the people bring forward their gifts. Whether it’s in small churches in remote villages or large complexes in the middle of town, there is a sense of profound gratitude that marks the giving of the offering. People are excited because they are able to give.

Too often in the American church, we are taught that our giving is rooted in one of three beliefs: one, we give out of duty. We are consumers of religious services, and so we better pay up to cover our costs. That’s the thinking that lay behind the car ride wherein the young boy left church with his folks and said, “Wow, that was really good. I’m glad we came!” His father was less impressed, and commented that the sermon was a little long and the second hymn was off key. “Oh, come on, Dad!”, sighed the boy. “You gotta admit, it was pretty good for a dollar!”

The second stream of giving in many of our churches is from those who are so pleased with how things have been going for them lately that they’d like to offer the Man Upstairs a tip as a gesture of appreciation. Folks think, “I like my life, and God has done all right by me, so here you go, Big Guy – get yourself something nice on me…”

The other reason that I see folks being asked to give in the North American church is because giving is seen to be an investment strategy. The worship leader promises that if you give to God, then God will bless you. There’s a promise held out that seems to indicate if you give a little, you’ll get a little, but if you give a lot, you’ll be deeply enriched.

Firstfruits offering: illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company circa 1896

There are a number of models for giving set forth in scripture, but none are impersonal and very few are based primarily on appeals to either greed or duty. More often, as is the case in our reading from Deuteronomy, we see that giving is a response to what God has done in the world.

In the passage you heard, the people are commanded to set aside a tenth of their produce and take it all down to the church and live it up with the gathered community. If you live too far from church, or you have such a big harvest that this is impractical, then go ahead and sell your tenth and stop at a Sheetz or a Get-Go along the way. The party is to include everyone, and is to be centered in giving thanks to God for what God has done in the world.

Other parts of the Bible offer a rationale for giving that includes the expectation that people will take part in funding what needs to happen for the upkeep of the temple and the financial provision for the worship leaders, and many passages indicate the need to be attentive to God’s call to care for the poor. There are many, many places where the Bible talks about money – in fact, Jesus spoke more about our finances than he did about hell, or about sex, or even about love. The scripture is full of exhortation to give generously to the Lord’s work.

I’ve told you some of my story, and you’ve heard from Ed, Stacey, Karen, and – in a little while – Ron. Today, I’d like to affirm that giving out of gratitude is a fundamentally good thing that – as we learn to do it better and better – will bring us great joy. I’ve taken as my text for this a very well-known story of Jesus that we often call “the parable of the prodigal son”, or sometimes “the loving father”.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt van Rijn c. 1661-1669

When we hear these familiar words, we usually focus on the profound vision of forgiveness that is offered here. A son essentially wishes his father dead, and then blows through his inheritance, and is finally restored by the father’s willingness to make things work. At the same time, there is a different son who is lost to the family as a result of a self-induced fog of pride, legalism, resentment, and self-righteousness.

This week, though, as we are thinking about gratitude all month long, I’d like to ask you to consider which character in the parable is the most grateful? I’ll suggest that it is, in fact, the father – a man so excited about the turn of events that he throws a heck of a party and brings in all the neighbors. There is music, feasting, joy, and laughter – the whole thing, to tell you the truth, is pretty Deuteronomic. It’s as if Luke 15 is a vision of Deuteronomy 13.

But you interrupt me and say, “Wait a second, Pastor! How can God be grateful? To whom would God be grateful? Is it even possible for God to be grateful?”

And, on the one hand, I’d say that you have a valid point, particularly if your vision of gratitude looks like a child who has received a gift from a relative and whose mother drags that child in front of that giver and commands, “Now, listen to me, child! Before you even think about using that gift, you’re going to say a proper thank you!” Nobody likes that kind of experience – not the giver, not the recipient, and not the one who feels obliged to make sure that the “thank you” gets said.

But what if gratitude is being glad for what is, or has been, or could be with an eye toward the one who made it possible? In the parable, the father is so happy about the restored relationship with his boy that he wants the world to witness it. In this context, we could even say that the father is, in some way, grateful to the son as well as to those who come forward to share in the joy. The father is supremely happy for how things are, or for who is there, or for what can happen as a result of these things…

Listen, I had some experience of this as a father – when some interaction between my daughter and myself allowed me to break out of the dull routine of my normal life and see myself as profoundly blessed… but I have to tell you that no matter how I experienced this a generation ago, I am simply killing it as a grandparent. I mean, there I am bounding one of those little girls on my knee and all of a sudden I’ll blurt out, “Oooooh, look! The baby spit up on me!” A blonde four year old will ask me a question, and I’ll say, “Do I want to go out in the rain and play in the mud? You betcha!”

One of the great gifts I have received at this season of my life is that of joy in shared activities, in sharing – in relationship. Listen – there is not a blessed thing that either one of my granddaughters can actually do for me in any practical sense. They cost me money, energy, sleep, fishing time, and more. And, of course, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

In the same way, the father in the parable is a paragon of joy and gratitude because he is glad for the chance to participate in relationship. Because he is so blessed in this fashion, he finds himself giving, and giving, and then giving some more. The whole shooting match is his – and yet he is the most grateful person at the party.

This week, we’re presenting our Intention of Giving cards as a part of our worship. In a few moments, the elaborate dance of the meerkats will begin and you’ll be invited to place one of those green cards in the plate. I want to remind you that we are doing all of this with the full awareness of the fact that there is a whole lot of 2018 that is outside of our control. We don’t know what will happen in our lives or in the lives of those whom we love. And yet in spite of that uncertainty, we will declare our intent – we will decide and proclaim – that so far as it depends on us, we want to live like the Father. We want to be like God.

We want to laugh with the people of God.

We want to rejoice in the possibility of relationships with each other, with God, and with God’s world. We want to be givers.

In the fall of 1983 a Dutch Catholic priest and theologian named Henri Nouwen had just finished what he called an exhausting trip through the United States wherein he spoke as often as he could urging Christians to do whatever was in their power to stop bloodshed in Central America. He later wrote,

I was dead tired, so much so that I could barely walk. I was anxious, lonely, restless, and very needy. During the trip I had felt like a strong fighter for justice and peace, able to face the dark world without fear. But after it was all over I felt like a vulnerable little child who wanted to crawl onto its mother’s lap and cry. As soon as the cheering or cursing crowds were gone, I experienced a devastating loneliness and could easily have surrendered myself to the seductive voices that promised emotional and physical rest.[1]

By chance, he happened to be invited to a meeting with a woman who had a copy of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. He stared at the poster for the entire meeting, and later made arrangements to visit the museum to see the original. He sat with the painting for four days, and as he did, he was overwhelmed with a sense of God’s call on his life. As he reflected on both this experience and the ways that it shaped him, he said,

In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.[2]

I am here to suggest that the father in the story that Jesus told, that Jesus himself, and that the One of whom Jesus spoke so often all point to a reality in which we experience gratitude as both an awareness of that we’ve received as well as a discipline to practice in our interactions with each other, those around us, and the Lord. As we think about who we are called to be these days, may we be those who are called “grateful”, “joyous”, “generous”. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] The Return of the Prodigal Son, Doubleday 1992, p. 4.

[2] The Return of the Prodigal Son, Doubleday 1992, p. 85.

Starting Small

On Sunday, November 12, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights continued in our month-long exploration of gratitude and thanksgiving, and how necessary those disciplines are to the life of faith. This week we considered the stories of Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10) and Anna (Luke 2:36-38) can inform our lives of gratitude and generosity.  Due to technical difficulties, there is no audio of this message.

I’d like to talk about your intentions. According to Wikipedia, an intention is “is a mental state that represents a commitment to carrying out an action or actions in the future.”

Of what use are intentions?

You’ve probably heard it said that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Whether we’re talking about New Year’s resolutions, turning over a new leaf, or kicking some old habits, our intentions are often met with skepticism.

American business leader Brad Smith once said, “Good intentions often get muddled with very complex execution. The last time the government tried to make taxes easier, it created a 1040 EZ form with a 52-page help booklet.” Screenwriter Sonya Levein scoffed, “Good intentions are not enough. They’ve never put an onion in the soup yet.”

And while you’d think that you could find a little more receptivity at church, it doesn’t always happen. Televangelist Joyce Meyer said, “Good intentions never change anything. They only become a deeper and deeper rut.” And Britain’s “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher noted, “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.”

Apparently, “good intentions” are doing about as well in the public eye these days as are “thoughts and prayers”. They are dismissed as meaningless and maybe even harmful.

And yet this morning, I’d like to speak in favor of good intentions. I know, intentions are never enough – but without intent, we run the risk of sinking into despair, frustration, irrelevance, and uselessness.

The High Priest and Hannah, James Tissot (19th c.)

In fact, our scriptures for today tell us the stories of two women who had, at least initially, nothing to offer except their good intentions – their “thoughts and prayers”, if you will. And today, we remember them as paragons of faithful living. I would argue that it was their intentions that set them on the road toward following through with the actions that would eventually bear fruit in the world.

Let’s consider the story of Hannah. Here’s a woman who is, apparently, the living embodiment of the “there are no atheists in foxholes” mentality. She’s an outcast in her village and at a difficult place in her marriage because of her inability to conceive a child. She drags herself to the Temple and throws herself into a prayer – in fact she is so demonstrative in her plea that the clergy on duty that morning suppose that she is drunk. “Lord, if you give me a son, I’ll give him right back to you – I promise. I’ll raise him to serve you. I just need to have a baby, Lord.”

While you didn’t read all of her story, I’m here to tell you that everyone in this room has whispered a prayer like Hannah’s at some point in your life. “Lord, if I can only get an ‘A’ on this test…” “All I need, God, is one date with her – and then…” “Father, I’m asking for a healing – and if I get it, then I promise that…”

Uh-huh. Let’s see what happens, Dave…

Except that in Hannah’s case, she actually follows through on her prayer. She is able to conceive and she gives birth to a son. When he gets to be three or four years old, she takes him to the Temple, where she leaves him in the care of the high priest.

(I should note that while there may appear to be some biblical precedent for this practice, we are not advertising for such at this point and would, in fact, request that all children that were brought to worship today be taken home by their parents. Thank you.)

In her later years, Hannah goes on to have 3 more sons and 2 daughters – yet she chose to make good on her vow when all she had was the young boy named “God has heard” – Samuel. When she brings her son to the Temple to leave him with the old priest, Eli, she bursts into song celebrating a God who not only has the power to transform the world, but is apparently willing to intervene in it as well. She sings of a God who has heard her, and she replies by fulfilling her intentions, and Samuel rises to deliver Israel from threats both inside and outside the nation. Hannah goes on to live a life that is apparently steeped in faith. The story begins with a desolate woman crying out in her emptiness and ends with a family reunion and a nation entering a new expression of God’s presence.

Simeon and Anna in the Temple, Jan van’t Hoff, 21st c. Used by permission of the artist. More at http://www.atelierjanvanthoff.nl

Similarly, the reading from the New Testament features a woman in the Temple. This time, however, it’s a woman who, by first century standards, is ancient – well into 80s if not older. Like Hannah, Anna was present to the Lord – although we do not know the nature of her prayers. Did she have children? Did she pray for them? We don’t know. All we can be sure of is that she was apparently alone in the world at this point of her life. She would not have mattered much to anyone then or now, except for the fact that she is the only woman in the New Testament to be called a “prophet”. She has the distinction of joining in the small group of people who announce the good intentions of God as revealed in the infant Jesus.

Both women point to a central truth of life and scripture: we are designed to be creatures of gratitude. We express our thanksgiving through intentioned, disciplined giving, even when there is apparently not that much to give. Hannah and Anna stand in the presence of God and offer what they have – even if at first it does not appear like much…

For me, this sense of gratitude has been rooted in the practice of giving. Specifically, I have tried to make a percentage of my income available for the Lord’s work. I’m glad that I learned that early in my life, because I’ve discovered that it’s really easy to put this into practice when you don’t have much to offer to begin with.

Some time ago a high school student asked me how I decided how much to give when it came time for the offering at church. I told her that everyone had their own thought, but that one practice that has been held up by the church for years is that of the tithe: bringing 10% of one’s income and offering it to the Lord. She held out $30 she’d just received from a babysitting gig and said, “So wait… let me get this right… I have $30 here, and you’re suggesting that I only put $3 of it in the plate?” I nodded, and she said, “Wow! What a deal! I get to keep $27?” I said, “Sure. Just remember that when you’re sitting on top of $3000 or $30,000. You don’t believe me now, but it’ll be harder later.”

Each person who is a “Covenant Member” of the congregation, as well as many other people, should have received a letter containing a green Intention of Giving card. Observant members will have turned the card over and discovered a chart on the back that helps break down this concept of percentage giving. You can find your weekly income and see what a gift of 4%, or 7%, or 10% might be. There are no commands – just some help for those of us who are mathematically challenged.

Sometimes when we talk about percentage giving, we get sidetracked with questions that, while important, are not really the heart of the matter. I’m asked, “am I supposed to use my gross salary or my take home pay?” Other disciples find themselves in a position where there is not a lot of income, but rather some fixed assets like retirement savings. How do you give 10% of nothing?

Last week, with Karen’s help, I challenged the people of this congregation to demonstrate gratitude by writing at least one thank you note each day for the month of November. I hope that you’re making progress in that discipline. If you’d like, you can take a few more cards from the back of the room.

Today, I’d like to invite you to prayerfully consider declaring your intentions to live and practice gratitude by returning to God some portion of that which has been entrusted to you.

Of course, this challenge has real-life ramifications. Choosing to give something to the Lord’s work means that you’ll have less available for other purposes. For Hannah, it meant that she risked becoming childless again – who knew if she would be able to conceive any subsequent children? For Anna, her presence in the Temple – the gifts of her time and energy – meant that she was not able to be in other places. You and I, as we consider the implications of this little green card, will have to be aware that there are consequences that will show up in our spending at Amazon.com, or in the size of the loan we try to take out for the next car or home we purchase.

Perhaps you are new to this idea. If that’s the case, then let me encourage you to start small and look for ways to increase. When Sharon and I got married, I talked with her about my hopes to return 10% of our income to the Lord. I was paid the princely sum of $7500 for my first year of work in youth ministry, and we tried to give back $750 of that. Today, I’m happy to tell you that we are in a position to return more than the 10%. We can do that because we’ve practiced and we’ve learned how to do it better, and we’ve discovered that we actually like giving money to the church. If you would like to hear more of my giving journey, I’d be happy to share that with you.

Here’s the goal: can we learn to be like the women in scripture? Here’s Hannah, a young mother who has just given the most significant gift of her entire life. Over there is Anna, who might be 84 or she might be 105, depending on how we translate that verse, who is utterly dependent on those around her for her daily sustenance and yet is somehow able to find her way to the Temple for worship and praise each day. And each of these women burst into song and praise the goodness of God as they present themselves and their gifts.

The hope is that you and I can somehow cultivate an attitude of gratitude that leads to a life that is filled with thanksgiving, joy and singing as we grow to discover that our intentions match God’s intentions, and that our “hopes and prayers” have hands and feet that result in real action that brings real change to the world around us.

Consider the opportunities that are before you this morning, beloved. Establish and declare your intentions. And respond by giving some of what you have, and all of who you are, to the Lord with joy.

Thanks be to God! Amen.