Giving God Our Best: Offering All of Us

Scripture: Amos 5:21-24

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – stewardship season, the time when I get to stand up here and talk to you about money.  And, specifically, about how the church needs yours, and about how God wants you to give some of it.

There’s a reason church people traditionally hate this time of year.  I know, because I used to be a church person in the pews and I hated stewardship season too.  There’s something that just feels a little bit disingenuous about it, like what we’re trying to do is put a nice spiritual veneer on this very worldly and unholy matter of the church budget.  And even if we know deep down that God does want us to give, and even if we know deep down that this community we are part of does need money, and even if we know deep down that you can’t entirely separate spiritual and earthly things, it can all end up feeling a little icky, like am I preaching the Word of God or fundraising?

I attended a church once that was in the middle of a building campaign, and for the children’s sermon, the associate pastor did some measuring and talked about the need for a larger youth room.  I was scandalized.  I thought, “the children’s sermon is part of the building campaign now?  IS NOTHING SACRED?”

Have I summed that up pretty well?  Do you have anything to add?  Why do we hate stewardship season?

When we read today’s passage from the prophet Amos, we may get the impression that he actually feels the same way.  It might seem strange for him to rail against worship and offerings because in the Hebrew Bible, worship and offerings are kind of a big deal.  From the beginning, Leviticus and Deuteronomy instruct the Jewish people to tithe, to present one tenth of their produce as an offering t God.  Ritual worship consists largely of bringing God offerings, in that time animal sacrifices – offerings when you’ve sinned, offerings when you are thankful for something, offerings at certain times of the year, offerings that help support the institutional religion as well as pleasing God.  The authors of Leviticus especially are concerned with getting those offerings right – the right animals, on the right occasions, prepared the right way.  When the Temple is destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE and then rebuilt again 70 years later, a major concern was that people be able to make proper offerings to God once again.  (And speaking of which, the Bible even records a couple building campaigns!) Despite this unmistakable emphasis throughout the Hebrew Bible on what we might call stewardship,  Amos seems to not be that impressed.  In fact, since he is a prophet and he is speaking these words on God’s behalf, it seems that God Godself, in fact, is not that impressed.

I hate your offerings, God says, in the words of Amos.  I don’t want them.  I don’t even want to look at them.  Instead, give me justice and righteousness. 

Across the board, the prophets share this same perspective.  “I’ve had enough of your burnt offerings,” God says in Isaiah 1; “bringing them is futile.  Instead seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”  “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,” God says through the prophet Hosea (6).  “Will the Lord be pleased,” asks Micah (6), “with thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil? What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God?”

Jesus himself rips on the scribes and Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew (23:23) who, he says, “tithe mint and dill and cumin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”

If you, like me, are someone who tends to dislike stewardship season, there is probably something about passages such as these that resonate deeply with you.  Yes, we say, of course, it’s not really our offerings or our money that God wants.  What God wants is holier than that.  What God wants is for us to be faithful and just people.  What God wants is for us to love one another.  It rings true, and it sounds much less icky than talking about money.

Only, as we probably also suspect deep down, it’s not quite as simple as that.

It may sound on the surface like Amos and the prophets are ready to cancel the whole Israelite worship system of sacrifices and offerings in favor of more spiritual endeavors.  But they’re not.  What they’re mad about is that people have started to think that because they make their offerings, they’ve checked a box and they’re all good with God.  They’re mad about people who feign holiness without actually fulfilling the basic obligations of loving one’s neighbor.  In Amos’s case, he sees the religious elite grandly writing large checks while trampling the poor and needy at the city gate.  This, the prophets say, is disgusting to God.

The prophets hate worship and offerings that are not accompanied by justice and righteousness.  But neither, I think, would the prophets be quick to accept a definition of justice and righteousness that didn’t involve generosity, or making God a priority in all aspects of your life, including but not limited to your bank account.

If we go back to the Gospel of Matthew and Jesus’ condemnation of the tithing Pharisees, we find that he went on: “You tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law…It is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.”

This is what I take from Amos and his fellow prophets: that God doesn’t want our time or songs or prayers or money if all we are doing with those things is trying to prove how holy or faithful we are while failing to love our neighbors.

What God wants, instead, is an offering of our whole lives.  What God wants, instead, is for our offerings to be one part of a wholly faithful life.

You may remember that back around Ash Wednesday this past year, I told you that I was giving up road rage for Lent.  I was not going to allow myself to get angry at the guy who drove all the way up to the front of a long line of cars waiting at the exit and squeezed his way in.  Instead, I was going to let him in. I was not going to react to the lady who honked aggressively at me to make a left turn while cars were still coming from the other direction.  Instead, I would allow myself to feel some compassion – she must be really stressed and in a rush. When someone cut me off on the way to church, I was going to take a deep breath and give it up to God.

It’s been a while since Lent, and I will be the first to admit that I have done some backsliding since then. But I remember during that time that one morning as I walked to the Panera in the Metro Mall for my morning coffee, a young man rushed to cut ahead of me in line as I walked into the store.  It was the kind of thing that ordinarily would have made me kind of fume quietly for a few minutes just on the principle of the thing; maybe I would have caught his gaze and held it a second like, yeah, you know what you did.  And I didn’t technically give up line rage at Panera for Lent.  But the thing was, because I had given up road rage, I was already primed to have a more gracious reaction were annoying or rude elsewhere in my life.  I wasn’t in a hurry.  Maybe he was.

I really believe that giving, like other spiritual disciplines, can work this way too.  I believe that when I am serious and intentional about making a financial commitment to God, it actually makes me a better person – not better just because I have done this one thing, yay me, but better because each month when I write my check I practice putting God first.  Generosity is not my spiritual gift.  But when I give money away, I honestly believe that there is something freeing in saying no to my own natural stinginess and yes to God’s abundance.  Because of this, tithing has actually become something that is really important to me, not just something I do so that I’m not a hypocrite when I ask you to do it too, which was maybe kind of true at first.

When I make the decision to put God first in my finances by offering 10% of my income before I figure out the rest of my budget, or by sitting down to figure out what in that budget might need to change so that I can offer God a little more than I did the year before, then I believe I am going to be primed to put God first in my life in other ways as well – like intentionally taking time out of my day to cultivate my relationship with God through prayer.  Like taking the time to notice someone else’s needs even when I have my own stuff going on that I am very busy with.  Like making a hard choice because I know it is the faithful one – I will have already had practice at that.

This also works the other way– if I’m a person who commits to a habit of prayer and devotion, not just for the check mark it gets me in heaven but as one part of offering my life that is more faithful and pleasing to God, then I believe that has the power to shape my heart and gradually make me more willing to give in other ways.  It all goes together, Amos and Jesus both tell us; you can’t separate a commitment to justice and righteousness out from a commitment to giving, just like you can’t separate giving out from a life of justice and righteousness either.

You know by now that there is this card in your bulletin, there for you to take with the purpose of going home, logging into your bank account, thinking, praying, and writing down how much you pledge to commit to the ministry of Arlington Temple UMC in 2018.  I’m asking you to bring this card back next week so that we can celebrate these commitments we are making together.

Here’s the thing: I am not claiming that giving to God is synonymous with what you fill out on this card.  There are lots of ways that God is at work in the world around us.  Maybe there is a particular cause that God has called you to be a part of by supporting it financially, as well as perhaps in other ways.  If you decide to start tithing or otherwise grow in your giving and part of your offering goes there instead of here, praise God.

Do you know why I’m comfortable saying that during stewardship season, when we also have a budget to plan for and do actually need your offerings for that?  Partly it’s because I think it’s more important that you all be the kind of people who give than for us to meet a budget.  But partly it’s also because I truly believe that if you all are the kind of people who give, we won’t have any trouble meeting our budget.  A person who is generous in one area of their life is more likely to be generous in another.

Now, do I think that making a commitment to give to Arlington Temple is a good way to make an offering to God? Yes. I do, and I try my best to live out that conviction through my own giving.  I believe that the welcome people receive here is something special, something that reminds each person that they are loved and worthy in God’s eyes.  I believe that we provide a necessary place for our community to come together to serve and be served, whether that is through the AA meetings that use this space during the week or our Wednesday morning Bible study for our homeless and hungry and other neighbors or our bag lunch and health kit making that blesses our community and world. I believe that Arlington Temple makes this world a better place because people come here and are empowered to go back and out and be God’s people in the world.  In the past year or so we’ve seen more people in worship, more people in Bible study, more people willing to volunteer and serve in more ways.  I believe that God is doing something here, and I want to be part of that with everything I have to give.  I also believe that we who form this community have a responsibility to each other.  We are the church together! Your offerings help us to practice justice and righteousness together in community.  Let’s keep doing what we’re doing, and do it even better in 2018!

On the back of this card is a place to note what besides money you want to commit to God in the coming year.  I don’t always emphasize the back of the card so much, largely because we talk about those commitments at other times during the year.  We have opportunities to engage in new devotional practices like reading the Bible in a year.  We have opportunities to offer our time and service when we begin new volunteer rotations.  But, don’t think that this side of the card is just to soften the blow of talking about money.  As the prophets remind us, the offering God wants from us is our whole lives.  Our time, our money, our prayers, our service, our justice and righteousness.  Maybe this is the invitation you need to think about how God is calling you to live a wholly faithful life.

God asks for your best: not your leftovers, not those offerings that cost you nothing, not an effort to prove your own righteousness.  God has already given God’s best to us, and in return God asks for all of us.  Not to check a box.  Not to make ourselves holy.  But to let God make us God’s people, little by little, generous and just.

Giving God Our Best: Offerings That Cost Me Something

Scripture: 2 Samuel 24:18-25

In college, I had a friend who worked at the main library on campus.  He was a good, reliable, hard worker, and before we all left for winter break that year, his boss gave him a Christmas present.  It was a mug with the library logo on it.  They had hundreds of them down in the library basement to hand out to various guests and visitors throughout the year.  My friend was not impressed.  I mean, I don’t think he actually cared that much that his boss didn’t get him a real Christmas present.  He cared that she gave him one that he could have gone down to the basement and gotten for himself.

Have you ever gotten a gift that didn’t mean anything?  Something that either literally didn’t cost much, when you knew that affordability wasn’t really an issue?  Or something that obviously took no thought or effort on the part of the giver?  Have you ever given a gift like that?

This is a story about gifts that cost us something.

There’s a back story, here, to the passage you just heard – a story that tells us how King David ended up at the threshing floor of Araunah.  It’s a story that shows up at the very end of 2 Samuel, and it has to do with a bad decision on David’s part and a plague that comes over the land of Israel as punishment.  I’ll tell you the story later if you want, or you can read it for yourself – every time I tried to write it out and retell it, I just kept thinking what a strange and random story it was that seemed more like going down a rabbit trail than preaching a sermon.  Sometimes the Bible is like that – which is not to say that those stories aren’t worth a read!

Anyway, in this particular story, as David seeks to convince God to end the plague, one of his court prophets named Gad tells David to buy this guy Araunah’s threshing floor, the place where he threshed the grain he harvested, and to offer a sacrifice there.

Araunah does what any good subject would do if they saw the king and his entourage arriving – first, probably panic; second, rush out and bow low and greet the king as ask, as reverently as possible, what he is doing on your threshing floor.  King David replies that he is in fact there to buy the threshing floor, and Araunah, like any good subject, protests: “Nonononono!  You can have it for free!  I’m giving it to you!  Here’s some oxen too!”

But King David tells him no, he plans to buy the threshing floor and oxen at a fair price.  “I won’t offer God burnt offerings that cost me nothing,” he says.  So he pays Araunah, offers the sacrifice, and Israel is saved from the plague.  2 Chronicles even tells us that this threshing floor later becomes the site on which Solomon’s temple is built.

In a story that it’s kind of hard to know what to make of, that one line has always stood out to me: I won’t offer God offerings that cost me nothing.

The thing is that I can really imagine myself, as King David, taking Araunah up on it.   I really like things that cost me nothing, you know?  I’ll attend any event that promises me a free t-shirt, even if I don’t need one.  I sometimes go to fairs exclusively for the free pens people are giving out.  I really like it when other people buy me food.  And of course, David is much richer than Araunah, and of course, that makes for a bit of an awkward dynamic.  But still – I’m sure it was at least a little bit tempting.

It makes me wonder how much I’ve sometimes tried to do the thing that King David refuses to do – offering God something that cost me nothing.

Obviously we are pretty far removed from the days of burnt offerings and making sure the oxen we sacrifice to God are legitimately acquired.  But to me the question goes far beyond that – how much, instead, have I offered God only what isn’t really precious to me?  How much have I offered God my time for worship and service that I had to spare after I had filled it with other things?  How much have I offered only as much of my money as won’t actually be a sacrifice or cramp my style in any way?

Here in DC, time and money are two precious commodities, and I wonder how much all of us are accustomed to basically offering God our leftovers.  We assume, I think, that God will understand.  And maybe God does – but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want more from us, or even for us, than that.  After all, if we wouldn’t offer the proverbial library basement mug as gift to someone we valued or cared about, why would we do that for God?

I do realize that to some extent I’m probably preaching to the choir here.  You all are here, making time for God this morning.  And yet, these are questions that ring true to me – so maybe they ring true to you too.

I remember at least once seeing the saying “Give till it hurts” painted on those red Salvation Army pails where volunteers are ringing the bell outside grocery stores around Christmas time.  To tell you the truth, I always thought it seemed like pretty poor marketing.  Mostly, when companies or organizations want to get me to do something, they tell me what’s in it for me.  This is true for nonprofits as well.  If I give to Doctors Without Borders, I can be part of saving people’s lives. If I donate to NPR, not only will I keep my favorite shows on the radio, but they’ll also send me these cool socks that everyone else in DC will definitely be wearing.  They tell me that just a little bit of money can make a difference, that I’ll barely even notice it’s gone.  I get that.  Those things strike me as good marketing.  I see the Salvation Army pail and I think, “But I don’t want to give till it hurts.”  I want to give and feel awesome about myself.

And of course, those reasons to give that I get in the mail or hear on the radio are good reasons to give. I bet the Salvation Army uses them too!   Over the next few weeks, we’re asking you to fill in those little cards in your bulletins or that you got in the mail committing a certain amount of money to the ministry of Arlington Temple in the coming year.  And there are lots of reasons why you should do this.    You should do it because for most of you, if you are here, this community means something to you.  This is a place where you receive community and sustenance that helps you go back out into the world as God’s person, and by giving, you ensure that Arlington Temple can continue to be that for you and for everyone else who walks in those doors.  You should do it because this place is a beacon of light in the community for so many people who don’t have any other place to go during the day to be warm, or get a simple lunch, or feel like they are part of something.  It costs money for our doors to be open not just on Sunday mornings but throughout the week, which is a really important part of who we are as a welcoming church.  You heard a few weeks ago from our newest church member how much that meant to her during her several-year journey of homelessness.  When you give, you get to be part of making that happen, too.  When you give, you are saying “yes” to what you see God doing here.  When you give, you are investing in the work that we are called to do for God’s kingdom together.

But when we talk about giving and offerings, it’s about a lot more than just these cards.  It’s about more than balancing a budget.  It’s about the place that we are willing to give God in our lives.   I know that there might be some of us who might be willing to give God anything but our money – because that’s what would really cost us.  Again, for some of us the really precious commodity might be our time, too.  Either way, the truth is that what we spend that which is precious to us on says a lot about what is most important to us.  Are we willing to offer God that which actually costs us something?

Like I said, the question might not make for great marketing, but it also strikes me that Jesus wasn’t super into marketing his message.  When he told the crowds following him to count the cost before becoming his disciples, that they’d have to leave their homes and their families and face harassment and persecution, when he told a rich man to sell everything he owned and give the money to the poor, when he said you had to lose your life to save it – none of those things would have gotten the green light on Madison Avenue.  Jesus said them anyway.  Jesus wasn’t trying to convince people to give toward a budget – he wanted people to put God first in their lives.

I should be clear that God isn’t in the business of exploiting people.  There are those of us here for whom tithing would literally mean not being able to pay the rent, and while I certainly don’t believe that you have to have a lot materially to be able to contribute to God’s cause, I don’t think that’s what God is going for.  I think God is a lot more interested in those of us who honestly have a lot more than we need – who will pay for vacations that cost us something, and pay for clothes that cost us something, and pay for coffee that costs us something – and all of a sudden we have nothing left over.

Honestly, this is a struggle for me each year as I fill out my own Estimate of Giving card.  How do I distinguish between needs and wants?  How much is Jesus cool with my “wants,” and how much is money that could be more generously shared?  How about savings and planning for the future – what’s smart and realistic, and what is honestly just hoarding?  Just how much is this giving supposed to hurt, anyway?

I don’t think there’s probably one good answer to that.  The Old Testament offers us the tithe, 10% of our income, as a good benchmark.  The expectation was that people would offer 10% of their first fruits, 10% off the top of their harvest in an agricultural society, not just whatever questionable produce happened to be left over at the end.  It was a way of giving thanks to God and putting God first in a way that has never quite been easy, because it’s not supposed to be.  But again, there are those of us for whom a tithe might truly be more than we can bear, and those of us also who might tithe and find that it doesn’t really even hurt that much, that we still have more than enough left over to cover both our needs and our wants.  I believe that rather than there being one pat answer for us to check off, God probably means this to be something we wrestle with, and pray about.  What does it mean for our relationship with God to cost us something in the context of our own budget?

Why should giving hurt a little?  Why should our offerings cost us something?

It’s not because God just up in heaven trying to make things hard for us, or setting standards that we’ll never measure up to.  But it’s because it helps us realize what, in fact, we don’t need.  It’s because it helps us learn to rely on God and not on our wealth or anything that wealth can procure.  It’s because it helps us recognize the cost of what God has given us, and it’s a way of reminding ourselves, even letting God shape our hearts to believe over time, that God is more important than some of those other things we want not need.  It’s about giving God our best, because we give our best to that which we love most.

You know, David may have been rich.  He was the king, after all.  But there were some times in the books of Samuel where that doesn’t stop him from taking – taking a woman he finds attractive.  Taking the life of a man who stands in his way.  Here, standing on the threshing floor of Araunah, it would have been so easy to take what was offered, even from someone who had less.  It would have been justified, even.  But this time, at the end of his life, at the end of his story, David doesn’t take.  David realizes that being in right relationship with God involves generosity, and a willingness to bear the cost himself.  For David, the decision to give God an offering that cost him something might have been nothing short of redemption.

And maybe that’s true for us too – that the more we give – not the more we earn in return – but the more we give, the more we get a taste of what it means to be redeemed, and free.

What is God calling you to offer of your yourself and your resources?  Maybe it’s more than just whatever cash happens to be in your wallet on a given week.  Maybe it’s more than the time that you happen not to be busy with other things.  Maybe God is asking you for an offering that costs you something.

It’s not good marketing.  But God isn’t all about the good marketing.  But paradoxically it’s those who learn to give who also learn to receive the abundant life that God has in store.