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Well, I am about to commit the ultimate heresy. I am going to tell you DON'T DO IT! Do NOT give to support the program of this church. Do not give because you hear of the urgent need of particular missions. Do not give to alleviate hunger, disease or poverty. All of that comes under the category of what I call GIVING DANGEROUSLY. You and I know each other well by now, and you know I love you and what this church has become. I CARE about your relationship to the Lord, and I want you to do right as you deal with this one area of discipleship which for so many is a problem. I want to help you to exercise responsible stewardship of what God has given you to manage, but I do NOT want you to do it because somebody says they need it. That is dangerous in several ways.
First, it is dangerous because it is often possible to give the wrong amount. There is the temptation to give a few dollars to this worthy cause, a few more to that, still a couple more to the church and think that you have done your part. Meanwhile, the total giving comes nowhere near what God expects. As you know, the divine standard for giving is the tithe - ten percent of income. Unfortunately, as you heard from Glenn Culbertson's report last week, the percentage of God's people who take that seriously is embarrassingly small.
A grade school teacher set up a model store in the classroom to help students learn to make change and count money. One of the youngsters enjoyed the experience so much that he, with his pre-school brother, played store at home that afternoon. The pre-schooler was left in charge of the counter while the older brother went off in search of items to use for merchandise. The boys' father saw their intention and, to go along with their game, went up and dropped a few coins on the counter for a purchase. The youngster at the counter said, "Dad, this is a store, not a church." Hmmm. What had those kids learned?
There is another danger in giving only in response to an appeal - self-righteousness. You have heard, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." No question. The dollars that you commit to the church or a mission or a charity or cultural group or an educational institution make you feel good. It is nice to know that you have helped a worthy cause. But we know very well that those dollars are rarely a real sacrifice - they do not take any eggs off our tables or shoes from our feet. Not to say that they should. But when we feel we have done our part (and felt good about it) without gauging our gifts by God's standard, we are on dangerous ground.
I like the story about the careless Scotch Presbyterian who tossed a crown, thinking it was a penny, into the collection plate, and when he saw his mistake, asked to have it back. The usher refused, and then the Scot grunted, "Aweel, aweel, I'll get credit for it in heaven."
"Na, na," responded the usher, "ye'll get credit for the penny."
There is one more danger in giving only in response to a perceived need - the danger that the need will not be met. In the case of the church, the work of evangelism, outreach, missions, the relief efforts can only go forward if there are enough funds to accomplish the tasks. Sadly, much of the work does NOT get done simply because God's people have not given enough money to do it.
The numbers bear it out. According to a study released last month by an organization that tracks congregational giving, in the year 2000 (the most recent for which statistics were available), giving to benevolences as a portion of income in mainline denominations remains at an historic low - 0.4%.(1) That would amount to $40 per YEAR for each $10,000 in income. Pretty puny. Meanwhile, total church giving averaged out to 2.64% of income. According to Sylvia Ronsvalle who, together with her husband Dr. John Ronsvalle, coauthored the new study, "These numbers suggest that churches are not transforming people but rather servicing them. People are concerned about keeping the lights on and the staff paid at their churches, both of which are valid needs, but those activities ought to be the platform from which to reach out to a hurting world as Christians practice their religion. Instead, congregation members appear to be emphasizing their own comfort over the needs of their local and international neighbors." In 2000, levels of giving as a portion of income were lower than in 1933, the depth of the Great Depression. Not good.
The figures cited reflect a decline of from 3.1% of after-tax income in 1968 (the bench-mark year); in real money, that means about 2-billion dollars is missing. You could a lot of mission with 2-billion dollars. But the church cannot DO it if the church does not HAVE it. Too bad.
There is an old story from France which you may have heard about the beloved village doctor who was about to retire. To honor him and express appreciation for his years of dedicated service, the townspeople decided to give him a barrel of wine, one pitcher from each family poured into a cask set up to receive the gifts in the center of town. On the appointed day, everyone gathered in the square, heard speeches commending this good man and thanked him for his faithful care. The wine was presented. The doctor dipped a ladle into the cask, raised it to his lips, tasted, and SPPFFT! It was water! It seems that every family, thinking that the contents of their pitcher when mixed with so many others would not matter - they had brought water instead of wine...everyone blessed one of them.
There is a corollary danger in this matter of not giving enough to get the work done, the danger of making what DOES get done less effective than it might be. That happens when the officers and ministers who are charged with overseeing the congregation get so tied up with worry about finances that they cannot see the forest of opportunity for the trees of cost. They get discouraged, disheartened, downcast. That ought not to be.
The problem is particularly acute as regards the minister. I know...first hand. I once served a church that, because of some unusual expenses (and insufficient reserves), went through terrible financial times - it was hand-to-mouth. As the bills came in, we were forced to decide which HAD to be paid and which could wait for a week...or two...or more. It was awful. It ruined that ministry. As I have told you before, the relationship between a church and a minister is very much like that of a husband and wife, and in all my years of helping folks through marital difficulties, the number one problem has been money. In the same way, money problems can ruin pastor/parish relationships. That ought not to be. As concerns church finances, I feel somewhat like the late heavyweight champion, Joe Louis. In response to a question on the subject, he said, "I don't like money actually, but it quiets my nerves."
Giving Dangerously - giving only when asked. There is the danger that not enough will be given, the danger of self-righteousness over even the little bit, the danger that the work will not get done anyway. There is a good way to remove the danger. Give what God SAYS is the appropriate amount without being asked - the tithe. That is not my standard, not First Presbyterian's standard, nor even the denomination's standard; this is what GOD says to do. In fact, as our Old Testament lesson makes clear, God calls it ROBBERY if we do not. Obviously, as the numbers quoted in the giving study make clear, there are LOTS of folks who are guilty.
Would you like to do better? For those of you who are not already tithing (and that is most of you), let me offer a suggestion. Since we know that the tithe is God's standard, set yourself up a TITHE ACCOUNT; your bank will arrange it for you. As you receive income, set aside ten percent right off the top which you can then use to respond to the needs as God gives you guidance. That way you are not tempted to weigh between something for yourself and some worthy cause, but rather simply between one cause and another. That is Biblical stewardship.
Personally, I believe that the tithe should be placed in the hands of the church, and that is the practice in my household. Other appeals, other charities, are over and above. If you are not at that level, I suggest (and I bite my tongue as I do it) that you allocate at least five percent to the church and divide the rest among the other needs that you wish to support. If everyone did at least that, this congregation WOULD be able to get its work done and you would be more faithful disciples.
Now, I realize that some of you would have difficulty going from the level you are currently giving to immediately beginning the tithe - you are already over-committed. You know you should do better and you WANT to, but are terrified to take such a giant step. Let me offer a "baby" step to get you on the right road: take the amount you are currently giving and add one percent of income to it - that would mean $100 per year for each $10,000 of income. Next year, add one MORE percent, and do that each year until you get up to the level God intends. Be clear about this: until you get to ten percent, you are not doing what God has commanded, but at least this graduated approach will start you in the right direction.
The one question that always comes up concerning tithing is do we base it on the gross or the net? Before taxes or after? The best response I have heard is this: Suppose God were to change the plan for one year and, instead of asking for a tenth, were to give you an extra ten percent based on your income. What figure would you suggest to God? That is the amount upon which you can reasonably be expected to tithe. In other words, be as fair with God as you would expect God to be with you.
In a way, I am sorry to be preaching about money as we approach Consecration Sunday because the timing makes it sound as though this is an appeal to support the church. No. This sermon is not to help the church, but rather to help you. This is not just a financial issue, it is a spiritual issue. You see, I want for you what the Apostle Paul wanted for the Christians in ancient Philippi. As we read in the lesson, he was most appreciative of the support they had sent him, but he was more appreciative of the fact that their generosity was pleasing to God. "Not that I am looking for a gift," he wrote, "but I am looking for what may be credited to YOUR account." I too appreciate your financial support for this church, but I will appreciate even more knowing that you are doing what you are supposed to do and that God will bless you for it - you cannot outgive God. Please, do not give in response to an appeal from the Apostle Paul or even this church - no more giving dangerously. Instead, give to God, then depend on God's guidance to show you how it should be allocated.
Consecration Sunday. Give to the church. Do not give to the church. If this sounds like two different languages, I apologize. A friend of mine tells the story of the cat in Miami being chased all over the neighborhood by a particularly nasty dog. Round and round they ran, over hedges, under porches, crossing streets, until finally the cat spied a convenient pothole and jumped in. Quietly, it waited and listened for the barking to subside. Finally, there were no more dog sounds, just the gentle meowing of a kindred spirit. Gingerly the cat raised its head out of the pothole only to be snatched immediately by the dog. As Rover sauntered back to the curb with his catch, the cat said, "You didn't sound like a dog; you sounded like a cat." To which the dog replied, "In this neighborhood, you've got to be bilingual." Because this is a sensitive subject, the same applies to speaking about money in the church.
We are approaching a hectic season, a time of year that forces us to confront questions about money. Consecration Sunday, then appeals geared to Thanksgiving and Christmas - we are deluged with opportunities to get rid of money - to merchants, to beggars, to bell-ringers, even to the church at the end of the year again to take advantage of a tax-break by December 31st. And the result, of course, is the best chance ever to do it improperly, the GIVE DANGEROUSLY. No need...if we handle what God has given us according to the standard set forth in the Word. Give to God what is God's; use the rest wisely.
You have seen that bumper sticker over the years, "Honk if you love Jesus"? There is a better one - "If you love Jesus, TITHE! Any fool can honk."