Text: Malachi 3:6-12, Pentecost XXVI
November 16, 2008
God says in no uncertain terms, "It's not yours, it's mine. And if you, in cavalier fashion, take what is mine and treat it as your own, then you are robbing me."
My Fellow Liars and Thieves...
November 16, 2008
Text: Malachi 3:6-12
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I was 14 years old when I went to work for my family's construction business. The first week of summer after my ninth grade year, I was given the job of taking newly made cement blocks out of the kiln and stacking them on pallets; 4000 blocks a day, if my memory serves me. I dressed for the job; tennis shoes, denim shorts, a T-shirt and a baseball cap was my uniform of choice...until the end of that first week.
My grandfather wasn't at the plant those first few days, but along about Friday, he came driving by me on a fork lift, and when I waved to him, he came to a screeching halt! He jumped off that fork lift and grabbed me by the shoulders: "Stevie, what the heck are you thinking, dressed like that? This is a dangerous place. You don't wear tennis shoes and shorts and a baseball cap working around heavy, sharp things. You tell your dad to take you out and buy you some steel-toed work boots, and some tough blue jeans. And get a hard hat!"
I was crushed. My grandpa and me, we were buddies. He was always kind and soft spoken to me, and I had never seen him this harsh and...mean; it was out of character for the grandpa I knew. It wasn't until much later in my construction days that I came to realize that he spoke to me that way because he loved me. He wanted to protect me. And I also recall that after he reamed me out that day, he told me to hop on the fork lift and we'd go and get a donut.
I tell you that because today I'm going to be out of character with you. It's not a jovial and lighthearted sermon you're going to hear today. In fact, it may even sound harsh. Because I love you; because I love this congregation, I need to share a pointed sermon about giving. Not just because it's Stewardship Season at Our Savior's Lutheran Church. Not just because the economy is suffering, and jobs are being lost, and stocks are being slaughtered, and because the future is so unclear for so many. No, the reason for my bold speech today is because I fear we have, as a Christian culture, lost our way when it comes to our attitude about giving. In America today, our charitable giving stands at 2.2% of our income. In 1929, when the Great Depression spiraled downward, charitable giving was at 3.3%. Three generations ago, when life got hard, people reached out to God and to one another. Today, when life gets hard, we often hunker down and care mostly about ourselves.
But we still sing the same songs we sang in church in 1929: (singing)
I will ever love and trust Him, In his presence daily live
I surrender all, I surrender all
All to Thee, my blessed Savior; I surrender all.
No we don't! We do not surrender all to Jesus, and freely give him everything. Ten dollars maybe. 2.2% maybe, but not all. And the song we sing after the sermon today will serve as another glaring example: (singing)
Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold
Take my moments and my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Liars! Liars. Because the way we live our lives does not match the words we sing on Sunday mornings. Don't take this too personally; you do it, I do it, we all do it.
But we're not just liars; we're also thieves. The scripture lesson today comes from the last book in the Old Testament; the Book of Malachi. In this period, some 500 years before the birth of Jesus, the Jews had also become a bit reckless in their walk of faith. They stopped worshiping in the temple, stopped following the rites and rituals of their ancestors. And so they got the Grandpa Molin speech from God. The writer of Malachi, presumed to be Ezra, cries out on behalf of God.
Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say "How are we robbing you?" In your tithes and offerings! You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me -- the whole nation of you! Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.
You see, the Jews of that era made the same mistake that most of us make; they assumed that everything they owned belonged to them. The wheat in their fields, all theirs. The oil in their bins, all theirs. The shekels in their pockets, the cattle in their barns, the sheep in their pastures; it all belonged to them. But God says in no uncertain terms, "It's not yours, it's mine. And if you, in cavalier fashion, take what is mine and treat it as your own, then you are robbing me."
And then God makes an astonishing offer to the Jews. "If you give me ten percent of what you earn -- not 100%, but just 10% - if you bring a tithe into the temple, I will reward you beyond your wildest dreams. Test me on this" God says, "and see for yourselves if it's true; that if you bring a tithe into the storehouse, I will open up the windows of heaven and the blessings will overwhelm you."
The Jews had God's promise; if you bring a portion of your blessings into the temple, I will provide for you. You will not go without; you will not live in scarcity but you will live in abundance. You will not languish in poverty and hardship; rather you will flourish in joy and delight.
Now some are no doubt saying "Ah, but Pastor Steve, this is from Malachi, that's in the Old Testament, isn't it?" Well, the last time I checked, the Old Testament was part of our bible. But if you would prefer a New Testament lesson, then consider the story of the Widow's Mite, remember that one? The wealthy Jews were walking past the temple treasury, tossing in their tithes and offerings, feeling really quite proud of themselves. And then a widowed woman quietly walked up to the treasury and put in two copper coins -- pennies, really -- and Jesus said that this is the new standard. She didn't give ten per cent, she gave one hundred percent, and Jesus said "That, my friends, is stewardship." Suddenly, the Old Testament model doesn't look so bad; that we are called to give 10% of what we have to the Kingdom, and God allows us to keep and use the other 90%.
About now, many of you are thinking I'm crazy. At a time when our budgets are strained and we're looking for anyplace to cut corners, it just makes sense to start with our giving. And now I'm suggesting that we do the opposite? Well, call me crazy! I'm not asking us to do the opposite of what we have been doing; I am calling on us to stop lying. In the words of Harry Wendt, the founder of Crossways bible study, I'm not asking us to give more - I am asking us to steal less. In short, I am suggesting that if we are not willing to change our giving, we ought to at least change our singing. (Singing...)
I surrender part, I surrender part;
Two percent I will surrender, I surrender part.
Wouldn't that be more honest? Wouldn't there be great integrity in that? "God, I know you have said in scripture that you expect me to give 10% but I'm telling you right now, I'm only going to give 2.2%...or less. I know that you think I should trust you at your word, but I really don't." That sort of prayer would be brutally honest.
You know what the irony in all of this is? I have never ever heard someone say "I tried tithing, but it didn't work." And yet I have heard countless people say "Well, I've never tried tithing, but I am certain that it wouldn't work." Don't you find that ironic?
Well, here's the donut. Though this message from this generation's Grandpa Molin is very harsh, I am here to tell you that, no matter what you give, God loves you. God will not love you more if you tithe; God will not love you less, even if you give nothing. It's really your choice, and you still get all the benefits of Jesus' death upon the cross, and God's promise that your sins are forgiven. You see, that's the incomprehensible covenant that God has made with his people.
If we could get to heaven by virtue of a tithe, I'll bet everybody would do it! But if we gain heaven as a gift, then what Jesus invites us to do becomes a concrete expression of our gratitude; a love gift every week that would say beyond words "Thank you, God; thank you."
Do you think that God needs our money? God is the creator of the universe; he doesn't need anything from us! But by his grace, God gives to us a way to say "Thank you. Thank you for loving me so much." And this, my friends, is stewardship. Thanks be to God. Amen.
ښ2009 Steven Molin
Steven Molin is pastor at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Stillwater, MN.