A parishioner came to his pastor, Rev. Peter Marshall, the once renowned pastor of my home church – New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. This person had a “problem” that would be nice to have! The person said: “I used to tithe when I didn’t make so much money, but now I make $500,000 a year and I can’t tithe anymore.” Pastor Marshall told the enquirer that he understood his problem and asked if he could pray about it with him. He prayed: “Lord, please reduce this person’s yearly salary to where it is low enough so he can tithe on it again.”
I like this little story for it highlights both the encouragement of tithing to the work of God through the church as a spiritual discipline and commitment and also how sometimes money has a way of tightening us up rather than loosing us.
I encourage you this year to tithe, however you want to define tithe: 10% of gross income, net income, taxable income (line 32 or whatever it is on your tax form).
That is what Deanne and I are doing. It is going to mean that we will raise our pledge this year over last year by just under 10%. And I will continue to tithe any honoraria and fees that I receive. Full disclosure: We really only intentionally started moving in this direction about 5 years ago. So no self-righteousness intended – we can do more.
We also like to consider tithing of our time and talents.
Tithing is a great exercise of faith. Like any exercise, maybe hard to start, but once started the endorphins really kick in! In some ways it seems overwhelming, but it offers a reasonable cap too, because sometimes we say “yes” to everything and do too much.
Tithe: give 10% away and live on 90%: your money, your time, your talent. It is the same if you make $10,000 a year or $500,000 a year. It isn’t about the size of the gift; it is about the heart of the giver.
Tithing is graceful – a discipline to be generous. It puts boundaries on what you have, it frames the life you live.
Evidence shows that if everyone pledged an averaged of even 5% of income to Forest Hill Church, I would never preach a stewardship sermon again. (That is an incentive, isn’t it!)
I encourage you who are timid about tithing to start with a 90-day trial. Pledge whatever you pledge, but for the first three months of the new year (January to March) give 10% of your pay check to the church. Test and see. Or perhaps during Lent. Pledge a Lenten tithe (for six weeks give ten percent of your take home pay to the church.) I am not going to promise that you will reap a reward – for Christian giving is not a transaction with God: it’s never an “I scratch your back and you scratch mine” equation.
But giving things away loosens you to see other connections, feel deeper feelings, love more completely, risk and trust, and perhaps see your own deeper needs.
However, whatever you discern about your giving this year, remember this: a pledge is not a vote. If you don’t like what is happening at the church, become a leader, or find a church where your heart soars, but don’t cut your pledge because you don’t like what I preach, or the Session did. Likewise, don’t pledge because you like the choir, or agree with this church’s stance on some issue.
Because a pledge is not an opinion. A pledge is a vow, a trust, an offering to God. You are part of the people of God, so you pledge to the work of the people of God. And yes, we follow Micah’s call – that all we do should be pointed towards, justice and kindness and humility – and we do that with our tithes and offering as well as our lives.
I hope that you trust me and our leadership to do with your pledge what God calls us to do. But even if you didn’t trust – your pledge is an offering to God, not to me.
I think your pledge to Forest Hill Church should be among the top ten things you write checks for (or scan your cell phone for) in no particular order: mortgage, rent, car payment, education, taxes, food, clothing, Starbucks, (kidding!) and tithe. Certainly you should pledge more to Forest Hill than you give to the cable or cell phone company.
I would hope that your pledge to the work of God at Forest Hill is more than a club membership, season tickets and more than you spend on going out. And these are good things! Entertainment and relaxation, going to sporting events, being with friends and family are blessings of God and we should revel in them, truly.
Your gift to the work of God at Forest Hill Church is equally important.
You have received the excellent “Narrative Budget” from the Stewardship Ministry that tells stories of what we are called to do as a church and what we dream about doing. You can certainly get a line item budget, if that is important to you. They are almost ready.
But I don’t want to waste your time or mine, telling you things that you already know. I am NOT going to sell you on the brilliance of the choir, or the wonderful staff and all the programming. Because stewardship is not fund raising for a cause. It is a spiritual discipline.
I am not going for your heart strings. That’s how most fundraising works: what you feel passionate about you support. You love NPR so you pledge to it. You are passionate about the environment, so you give to the Sierra Club. You identify where your heart is and then you give to it.
And that isn’t wrong…it is just not where Jesus starts. Jesus starts with your checkbook. I love Jesus – he is always making me blink and look again. He is always challenging me to see more than two-dimensionally: right and wrong, black and white, this or that. Jesus is always saying life is full, not simple nor simplistic, it is more of a “both-and” proposition. So take time to look at all sides. Stay in the tension as long as you can.
Jesus isn’t fundraising for a movement. He isn’t motivating – Jesus simply describes what Kingdom people do. He doesn’t judge, he simply says, “This is how it is!”
Today’s reading is part of the Sermon on the Mount – actually it’s a collection of Jesus teachings brought together by Matthew in one unit – Jesus is telling the crowd what the Kingdom looks like and how we are to live in it:
“Love your enemy.” “Don’t retaliate.” “Be poor of spirit.” Keep your prayers simple, don’t be self-righteous, don’t worry, don’t judge and “In everything, do to others as you would have then do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
In the midst of this “sermon,” Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
I know this to be true. Deanne and I have spent a lot of money raising Jack, Meg, Sarah and Leo (the dog!) Yes, that is where are hearts are located! I went online and I almost fell out of my chair: Did you know that it costs $254,340 for a middle-income family to raise a single child born in 2013 to the age of 18.
Good gracious, those cute little things we baptize and bless are costly little buggers! But once invested in them, we give our hearts to them, our hearts are broken by them, are hearts are thrilled by them. Why do we do it? We keep paying the bills even when we want to “kill” them! Investment fuels love and participation and participation and affection pulls deeply at who we are and all we have – and we would have it no other way.
So here is the pitch, I guess. You are part of a church. So tithe if you can. Move towards it if you are able. But please just don’t quickly fill in the same number you always give. The Bible teaches: give more and you will love more. There you have it! The more you give, the more you will be invested. The more you give, the deeper the relationship. The more you give, the more you show who you are and the more you become who you were meant to be.
I offer my treasure to the place where I have come to be known; I come with others to worship God and get equipped for the living of my life. This is the place and you are the people – together we catch a glimpse of God’s kingdom. Invest in it – your heart will be revealed. So be it.