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.