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.