Rev. Miles uses Moses sermon to talk about stewardship. This sermon can be summed up by the last few lines: "Winston Churchill knew this. He once said: "We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give." Giving is a sure sign of life."
A Sure Sign of Life
Text: Deuteronomy 26:1-25
Date: October 20, 1996
Author: Rev. David Miles
When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us." When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, 0 LORD, have given me. " You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.
When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, then you shall say before the LORD your God: "I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments: I have not eaten of it while in mourning; I have not removed any of it while I was unclean; and I have not offered any of it to the dead I have obeyed the LORD my God, doing just as you commanded me. Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors-a land flowing with milk and honey. "
A Sure Sign of Life
The book of Deuteronomy is a book of sermons. Sermons that Moses preached to the people of Israel as they entered the promised land. He was preaching to the generation born of those who had been slaves in Egypt and then led by Moses in the great exodus out of the hands of the Egyptians. Moses preached these sermons to help them know how to live as God's people in the promised land. They were sermons which addressed all different aspects of their lives as people of faith. And of all these sermons that Moses preached to the people of Israel, the sermon which I read earlier from Deuteronomy was the sermon that Moses preached the week before Pledge Sunday.
When Moses first got up into the pulpit that morning the congregation suspected nothing, as they thought it was going to be like any other sermon. But then when the words started coming out of his mouth they quickly began to figure out what he was up to. People started to fidget in their seats a little as the realization of what was coming began to set in. All the signs had been there: scripture readings that included words like giving, offering and tithe; hymns from the stewardship section of the hymnal; and after all, it was that time of fall when the pledge campaign is in full swing. Oh, they should have seen it coming, but now it was too late.
Not that they hadn't considered the options: they knew that you can usually pretend you are one of the Sunday School teachers and slip out with the children, but they had already departed. It was too early to get up and pretend that they were slipping out to host coffee hour. They knew that there was simply no easy way to get to the door, let alone out the parking lot, without creating a scene. Nope, there was no way out. All they could do was sit back and brace themselves for the stewardship sermon.
Now, you can relax, because I am not actually going to preach a stewardship sermon this morning. No, I just happen to have chosen Deuteronomy 26 as my text for the day, and I am just trying to be faithful to recount what Moses had to say to his people on that particular day. You know that I would never want to say anything that could make you feel uncomfortable.
Moses, however, was not at all shy about preaching on the subject of stewardship. In fact, the sermon that he reached that day came in the form of very specific Instructions about what the people were to do the following week on Pledge Sunday. And Moses doesn't beat around the burning bush but comes right out and tells them everything they need to know about giving to the church.
He tells them: what to give, how to give it and why they should give. First he tells them what to give. He says:
In the promised land that you have possessed and settled, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God has given you, and you shall put it in a basket and go the house of the Lord.
Now, there was nothing about this that seemed out of the ordinary. Since there weren't many cash transactions or writing of checks in those days, the people would bring some of the produce which they had grown as their offering to God. No, there was nothing out of the ordinary about this part of Moses' instructions, except for one word ..."first." "Take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground." Give your first fruits.
Now, giving the first fruit may not seem like a big deal, but actually it is the kind of giving that requires great faith. To give one's first fruits means giving up front, off the top. It means giving without first figuring out what one needs for oneself. It means making the gift first, and then being willing to live on what is left. It means giving with a sense of trust that, if one gives out on faith, one's own needs will always be met.
When most people give it is rarely from the first fruits, but more likely from the last fruits. Most people begin by figuring out what they need or, actually, spend for whatever they want, and then give from what is left over, that is, if there is anything left over to give. For there are many who would argue that giving one's first fruits would not be a prudent approach to personal finance. They would say that a more responsible financial management would be to make sure one's own needs are met first, then give from what is leftover.
Well, you know what? They are right. Giving from what is left over is more prudent, but it is not more faithful. Giving of one's first fruits is faithful giving; it is giving full of faith in the one from whom all things come. It is the kind of giving that does not ask: "What can I afford," but asks: "What will I afford?" Giving the first fruits is when someone gives off the top, when someone figures what percentage to give before taxes. When someone believes that making the gift is so important that it is the first check written each month. To bring one's first fruits means giving from the best of what one has to give. And Moses felt that the one they were giving to was so important that only giving the very best would do.
Now, this is not my stewardship sermon but if this were, I would probably have to ask the question: Are we giving our best to God, or are we giving God the leftovers? Do we have the faith to give off the top, to give our first fruits, or does that make us too afraid of what will be left for us? Are we able to ask ourselves: "What will I afford?" Or can we only ask ourselves: "What can I afford?" Whether it is our time, energy, creativity, or our money, do we make it a point to give God the best of what we have to offer, or are we content to give whatever we happen to have left? Of course, none of that matters, but if I did ask that question, I wonder what we would say.
But this is Moses' sermon, and not only did Moses tell them what to give, but he also went as far as to tell them how to give it. He said this:
When the minister takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the alter of the Lord your God, you shall make this response: "a wandering Aramean was my ancestor (meaning Joseph); he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, 0 Lord, have given me."
Now, this seems a bit much, doesn't it? That is an awful lot to remember. As a fellow preacher, I have to wonder was Moses was thinking. Everything I have read about successful stewardship campaigns says that you should make it as easy as possible for people to offer their pledge: straight forward pledge cards, simple instructions, self-addressed return envelopes if necessary. Yet Moses tells the people that when they offer their gift it has to be accompanied with a recitation of this long story. Why did he require them to give in this way?
I have a feeling it was because Moses felt that when it came to giving to God this is the only way they could give. For, you see, this long story was actually a statement of their faith. It was the story of how God saved them and their people from bondage in Israel, and led them to freedom and prosperity in the promised land. It was their story of redemption. It was their story of how they had experienced God's grace. And in Moses' mind, there is no giving to God apart from an experience of God's grace.
I don't know about you, but I cannot recall anyone ever expressing joy about paying taxes, or giving something required, or paying one's dues. But there is a kind of giving, isn't there, which is actually accompanied with a sense of joy. Have you noticed that the best kind of giving, the kind of giving that just makes you smile when you hear about it, is giving that is born of an experience of grace? When someone is so touched by love, so moved by mercy, so changed by grace, that giving becomes a natural and almost effortless response. Do you know what I am talking about? We know all kinds of stories about this kind of giving.
There is the story of Zaccheus in the New Testament, the wealthy, crafty, very short tax-collector who everyone expects Jesus to tear to shreds because he is just the kind of self-centered man who would take all he could from others, to benefit himself. And there is Zaccheus, who is visibly shaking as Jesus spots him, and calls him out of the tree, right in front of all the people whom Zaccheus has strong-armed for extra money. And then, much to everyone's surprise, Jesus says to Zaccheus: "I'd like to get to Know you. Let's go to your house for dinner. What do you say?" And Zaccheus, knowing full-well what he deserved, was so overwhelmed by this grace, that right there on the spot he promises to give away half of what he has, and pay back anyone he has defrauded four times what he took. And when we hear such a story of grace and giving, it makes us smile.
Or how about the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge? The miserly man who holds on to every last cent, with no regard for the needs of others. And then come the dreams, the nightmares actually, which give him a glimpse of his life in a way he could have never seen before. And, as painful as it was, these dreams come as a kind of grace to Scrooge, for when he wakes up on Christmas morning, we find that he has a chance to start all over again, and become a generous person who makes a difference in the lives of others. And as we see Ebeneezer Scrooge running around town in his pajamas buying up everything in sight to give away, we cannot help but smile.
And then there were the people of Israel, who had been held captive by the Egyptians who forced them to hard labor. But God, who heard their cries, sent Moses, and with a mighty hand and great display of power, not only rescued them from slavery, but brought them into a land of their own; the land God had promised them; a land flowing with milk and honey. And so Moses told them that morning, that when they came with their gift in hand, they should come with this story on their lips. For he knew that real giving is always connected to an experience of grace.
And while this is Moses' stewardship sermon, I know that if it were mine I would probably have to ask what our motivation for giving is. I would probably have to ask us all to think about our own lives, to see whether or not we have known something of God's goodness in the blessings that have filled our lives, God's mercy in being Forgiven for where we have strayed, God's grace in knowing that we are unconditionally loved for who we are. I would probably have to ask what our story of faith might be that we would recite as we brought our pledge forward.
If I were preaching a stewardship sermon, I would probably have to ask what we feel as we consider our pledge to our church. Do we feel pressure, or freedom? Do we feel this is simply our required responsibility, or that it is an wonderful opportunity? Do we feel guilt, or joy?
If this was my stewardship sermon, I would probably have to say, as I have said before, that there is no such thing as dues here in the church, there are only gifts, and everything here is always on the house. I would probably have to say that if we felt we were giving out of sheer duty, then it might be better to not give at all, for God is in no way interested in receiving our dues, God is only looking for gifts from the heart. I would probably have to agree with Moses, that here, there is no giving apart from grace. But this, of course, is not my stewardship sermon.
But it is Moses', and he had one more thing to say. He has told them what to give, of their first fruits, he has told them how to give it, in response to their experience of God's grace, and now he tells them why they should give. He says:
when you have finished giving your tithe to the priests, you shall say to the Lord your God: "I have taken the sacred portion from my house, and have given it to the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows. Look down from heaven and bless your people."
The reason why they should give is not to somehow pay God back, but to participate in furthering God's work of redemption and grace. The people of Israel were not only to give in response to their experience of God's saving grace, but the reason to give was to become of part of God's saving work to all those who need God's grace. Though to the untrained eye, bringing their tithe to the church may have appeared to Be simply paying dues to maintain an institution, but Moses reminded them that the purpose of their gifts was only one thing: to further the redemptive work of the gracious love of God.
Now, believe me, this is not my stewardship sermon, but if it was I would probably have to ask why we think we should give? Do we think that we make a pledge to the church simply to maintain an institution of which we are a part? Or do we know that the reason God invites us to give is to participate in spreading the same saving grace we have known in our own lives?
When we think only in terms of church budgets, and line items, and the bottom line, it is easy to think that what we are doing here is simply running a church. But make no mistake about it, everything we do here is about one thing: furthering the work of God's redemptive grace in our world! We are not simply here to maintain an institution, we are here both to receive and to extend the loving grace of our Lord. As much as we might be tempted to think of our pledging as merely another financial decision we have to make, giving our money to God's work in the church is a spiritual matter; it is directly related to our spiritual lives.
When Jesus used the metaphor of a tree, as we have done all fall, to speak of the spiritual life, he makes the same statement about giving. He said: "You will know a tree by its fruit." He said this because he knew that trees are for producing things, and the best way to tell the health of a tree is to observe what it is giving back to its environment. He knew that only living flowers give off a beautiful scent, only living creatures Give birth to their young, and that only a tree which is alive and well will produce fruit. Jesus said this because he knew that the truth about nature was also the truth about our spiritual nature: that the health of one's spiritual life can be seen in the way one gives.
Just as the fruit a tree produces is a sure sign of life, so are the gifts that we give a clear sign that we are spiritually alive. As a tree takes water from the ground which is drawn up through the tree and causes it to produce and grow, so, as spiritual people, we sink our roots into the life of God, and carry out from our lives the water of God's grace and love. If a tree just took things in and held onto them and did not give back to the environment, it would die in no time.
Do you know what my biologist friend told me? Do you know what percentage of the water that a tree takes up through its roots passes back out through its leaves? Ninety-nine, point five percent. Of 200 water molecules taken in by the tree, 199 are given back. Do you know what happens to a life that is only concerned about taking more in and holding on to everything it has? In no time, it dies. Oh, it may still look alive on the outside, but inside, the spirit is quickly dying away.
As Frederick Buechner once put it: "There are people who use their entire lives making money so they can enjoy the lives they have entirely used up." And a sure sign of a healthy spiritual life is that it is one which is always giving back. Winston Churchill knew this. He once said: "We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give." Giving is a sure sign of life.
If this was my stewardship sermon to preach I would probably have to ask us all if we are busy only making a living, or if we are busy making a life. But, of course, this is.
Rev. Don Hillerich is a retired ELCA pastor who lives in Sarasota, FL, curretly working for the Wittenberg University Development office.