It’s funny, the things that stick in the back of your mind. I remember, for in-stance, going to a sleepover for the birthday of one of my classmates, Robert Gelinas; it was maybe sixth grade, and I have no idea why I was invited. We weren’t friends particularly, and I really don’t know why I was there. I enjoyed it, though. I remember we watched a couple of movies—Fletch, and a Richard Pryor movie called Brewster’s Millions—and that we went out at some point; I want to say it was to Pizza Hut, but I wouldn’t swear to that. I remember that particularly, though, because it was as we were getting ready to leave that Mr. Gelinas made a point of telling me (and maybe one other kid) that there are three things you don’t talk about in public: religion, sex, and politics. Now, I can assure you I wouldn’t have been talking about sex, but back then I was just a trifle opinionated, and I think maybe he didn’t trust me on the other two, because he made it very clear they were off limits.
These days, you’re probably more likely to get away with talking about sex in public; religion and politics, maybe, but if you pick the wrong time, the results are likely to be a lot worse. My dad lost one of his oldest and dearest friends a couple years back when he unwisely forwarded an e-mail that was political in nature. But even as conten-tious as political conversations can be these days, I don’t think they’re the biggest no-no out there—that would be one Mr. Gelinas didn’t even mention: money. I’m not sure there’s any bigger taboo in our culture than asking someone how much money they make, except under certain conditions. With a lot of people, you’ll get a better response asking nosy questions about their sex life than you will prying into their finances.
This affects how the church does business, too; there are exceptions, churches and preachers that talk about money all the time, largely so they can ask people to give them more of it, but they only make the rest of us even more hesitant to talk about it. After all, it feels personal, and pushy, and we’d all really rather believe that the Good Church Budget Fairy comes along and leaves the money we need under the nearest cabbage, since there are plenty of other things that we’d far rather talk about; but as much as we might like to avoid talking about money, we can’t do that. We can’t do it for two reasons. The first would be what Carolyn and Gene have told you recently; by my back-of-the-envelope calculation, it costs over $3500 just to pay for this service we’re having here this morning, when you figure in my salary package, and the salaries of everyone else who contributes, and the cost of having this building, and the cost of the bulletins and all the other materials we use, and we don’t take in anywhere near that much per week. Indeed, when you factor in the preschool and the other missions we support, we’d need to double our giving and more just to get to the point where we’re no longer burning principal on our endowment; to get to the point where our giving covered everything and we could begin using the interest on the endowment for new ministries, we’d have to triple our giving. Obviously, this is more than just a stewardship issue, it’s a growth issue—we need to draw in a fair bit more people to reach that point; but still, as a practical matter, we can’t avoid talking about money. We’re living on borrowed time as it is.
That aspect of things is Carolyn and Gene’s job to worry about, at least primarily, and you’re lucky to have them. My main concern this morning is the second reason we can’t avoid talking about money, which is that the Bible spends a fair bit of time talking about it, and for good reason. We spent a while earlier this year considering what it means to be the church, and part of what it means to be the church is that we’re all in this together, committed to each other in God and to what God is doing in and through us. If that’s a real commitment, if we’re really on board with that, then it’s not enough to stand and say the creed together, it’s not enough to stand and sing the words of our great hymns—we need to live out what we say we believe, and the way we use our money (and for that matter, our time, our abilities, and everything else God has given us) needs to reflect that. It’s not enough to say that Jesus is Lord—our bankbook needs to show it, too.
Unfortunately, there are a couple factors which tend to work against that. The first is our false understanding of our money—a false understanding which is inherent in the fact that we call it our money to begin with. We look at the money in our accounts and think it belongs to us to use for our own purposes, and thus that whether or not we give to the church, and how much, is our own decision, to be made on the basis of whatever criteria seem appropriate to us. That view of money breeds a lack of trust in God, because if our money really does belong to us, then it’s entirely our responsibility to use it to provide for ourselves. We might talk about trusting God, and relying on God, but in the last analysis, in our bank balance we trust. If that’s so, then giving is a luxury, something we can choose to do once we’re sure we can afford it and know how much we’re going to spend on everything else; it’s simply one more option for our money, depending on what we want to do and how much we feel we can afford given the standard of living we want to maintain. It’s purely our choice, purely a matter of our own priorities.
To this idea, God says, “NO.” As we talked about three weeks ago, everything in this world belongs to him, even the clothes on our back—even our very bodies—because he made everything. It isn’t our money, it’s his—it isn’t our time, it’s his—they aren’t our abilities and talents, they’re his; indeed, everything we have isn’t ours, it’s God’s. Stop and think about that for a moment; let that sink in. Everything we have belongs to God. We aren’t owners, we’re stewards to whom God has entrusted his wealth, and in the end, we will have to give an account of what we’ve done with it. If we’re going to live lives pleasing to God, as individuals and as a people, we need to bear that fact in mind, and it needs to make a difference in what we do with our money.
Out of this truth flow three important points. First, giving isn’t optional. It isn’t up to us, it isn’t a matter of whether or not we want to, it isn’t something God would like us to do if we think we have a little room in the budget—God commands us to give. Indeed, the Old Testament law commanded the people of Israel to tithe, to give 10% of their income, to the temple—and that wasn’t supposed to be the limit of what they gave, but the minimum, which is why we have the phrase “tithes and offerings.” Again, this is based on the fact that all the world is God’s; he’s given his people everything they have, and he commands that they give back 10% of what he’s given them. To withhold some of that 10%, then, to give less than God had commanded, would be to refuse to give God what belongs to him—and that is nothing less than theft.
Now, does that mean that if we don’t tithe, we’re guilty of stealing from God? I don’t think so, since this commandment isn’t repeated in the New Testament, nor is Malachi’s language echoed anywhere. It’s hard to say for sure, since so many of the early Christians were either Jews or God-fearing Gentiles, and probably kept on tithing after converting to follow Christ; and we know from Acts that the first group of believers, in Jerusalem, gave far more than 10%, contributing great sums to the church for the sake of the poor and powerless among them. Still, if the early church had seen tithing as a requirement, I think we’d have something—perhaps in one of Paul’s letters—stressing the necessity of giving 10% of one’s income to the church; and that just isn’t there.
I wonder, though, if that isn’t the wrong question in a lot of ways. Saying, “Do we have to tithe, or can we get away with less?” isn’t the question of someone looking to honor God with their money—it’s the question of someone trying to justify giving as little as possible. It’s the question, we might say, of someone who doesn’t trust God enough to give freely and generously—who assumes that if they do, they’ll be poorer and worse off for it—and to that way of thinking, God says, “Try me.” Through Malachi, he tells his people, “Bring your full tithes, put me to the test; see if I don’t send rain to bless your crops, and keep back the bugs that destroy the fruit of your labors.” This isn’t an individual promise here, that if you, personally, tithe, God will make you rich; but if the nation as a whole will give God what he requires, he will bless the nation and everybody will have enough, without having to fight so hard to survive.
Then in 2 Corinthians, Paul takes this and develops it in a more individual direction. “You know how it works,” he says: “you reap what you sow. If you only sow a little seed, you only get a small harvest, but if you sow a great deal of seed, you reap a huge harvest.” Of course, with fruit, like olives, what you eat and what you plant are different parts of the fruit, but with grain, they’re one and the same; so there’s always the tension, especially in poor areas, between how much you eat and how much you sow back into the ground for next year. You can’t sow it all, obviously, or you’ll have nothing to eat this year; but if you eat too much of the harvest, then your harvest next year is guaranteed to be poor, because you can’t reap the benefits of seed you didn’t sow.
Giving, Paul says, is the same way. We need to remember, first, that God owns everything, including all that is ours to use, and thus that he is ultimately the one who gives us success in our labors, not we ourselves; and second, that not only is he able to bless us with all good things, he wants to do so. Thus Paul says in verse 8, “God is able to provide you with every kind of blessing in abundance, so that in every circumstance you may always have everything you need and still have ample resources for every kind of good work.” The word “blessing” here is the word kharis, the word “grace”; thus the blessings in view here aren’t only material but also spiritual. This isn’t a promise of material wealth, but it is a promise that those who give freely, generously and gladly to God will always have enough; and it’s a promise as well of all the spiritual blessings that make life good, and that empower us to do the good works God calls us to do.
Note again that “freely, generously and gladly” really does matter—how much we give matters, but so do why and how we give. Thus Paul tells the Corinthians, “If you really don’t want to give, or if you’re only giving under pressure or because you’re worried what others will think, then don’t; for it’s the cheerful and open-hearted giver that God loves.” The call is to give generously and gladly back to God from what he has given us, in gratitude for all the ways in which he has blessed us, believing that if we do so, he will continue to bless us and provide for all our needs. The key here is trust: are we willing to stake our lives on trust in God rather than trust in our own sweat and our own wits? That kind of trust, that kind of faith, is what God wants from us.
Finally, we need to understand our money the same way the farmer understands seed. Yes, we need to use some of it for food (and also clothing and shelter), but just as the basic purpose of seed is to be planted so that it can grow and produce a crop, so the basic purpose of money in this life is to be invested to produce treasure in the next, in the kingdom of God. This isn’t the investment plan the world recommends—the world, after all, wants things it can quantify, and the First National Bank of Heaven doesn’t send out bank statements, nor can one put a number and a label on the promises of God—but there are advantages; thus Jesus says, “Don’t store up your treasures on earth, where hurricanes, financial scandals, and stock market crashes can wipe them away, where floods can ruin them, or thieves can break in and steal them” (that’s a loose translation); “instead, store up your treasures in heaven, where they’re safe from all those things.” Our earthly investments might be quantifiable and might seem far more certain, but in truth, they are far more vulnerable to destruction; only God’s promises are truly secure.
Of course, giving to the church, in our community and around the world, is just a start; even if we tithe—as I believe we’re still called to do; Sara and I do—that doesn’t mean the other 90% of our income is ours to do with whatever we please, for it too belongs to God. Giving to the church is just the beginning of a biblical approach to money, one which involves making all our decisions—what we spend and where we spend it, what we invest and where we invest it, and so on—in light of the fact that it’s all God’s, and that in the end, we’ll have to turn all our books over to him for the audit of a lifetime.
So I would encourage you to start preparing for that audit: go home and take a look at your finances, and ask yourself if what you see there honors God. Does your giving honor God? Does it proclaim that you know that everything you have belongs to him, and that you trust him to provide for you—or does it say that you only give him the leftovers? How about your spending? Could you honestly say that the things you spend money on give honor to God and reflect his priorities, or would you have to admit that they don’t? If you have investments, are they investments which honor God and build up his kingdom, or is your money at work for other purposes? These are questions you need to ask seriously of yourselves, and which you need to answer honestly; and if the answers tell you that you need to make some changes, then I encourage you strongly to step out in faith, in trust, and make those changes, that you might be, that we all might be, faithful stewards of the great bounty God has given us.