Margins: Enough to Set Aside

Scripture: Deuteronomy 14:22-29

It’s the time of year again when we get to talk about money.  I always like to open things up by acknowledging that no one likes talking about money.  Religious appeals for money may for some of us conjure up images of megachurch pastors with private jets or smarmy televangelists who promise that whatever you give will be returned to you tenfold.  Or they may just bring up that good old-fashioned sense of being guilted into something you don’t really want to do.  How we spend our money tends to feel like a really personal thing, even more so than how we spend our time, and so it can feel like this is one of those times, as the saying goes, when I’ve “quit preaching and gone to meddling.”

I say those things upfront because I never liked listening to stewardship sermons from the pews, and I feel like it kind of helps to clear the air a little.  I don’t say them by way of apology, because in the end, if the church doesn’t have the investment of the people who make it up, financial and otherwise, then we don’t really have a church.  And also because I really do believe that the way we spend our money is an important part of our spiritual life; that if Jesus is Lord of our lives, then that means of our bank accounts too.

The concept of giving as part of a faithful life does, of course, precede Jesus.  So today I want to back it up and talk a little about the most basic rule for faithful giving in the Hebrew Bible – tithing.

To tithe means to give ten percent, and for the people of the early Hebrew Bible that meant ten percent of your grain, your fruit, and your livestock.  We find the command to tithe in three different places – Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – and it’s a little different in each one, which probably shows that the specifics were adapted to the needs and circumstances of the time.  But some of the things these tithes went to were Temple worship, both personal and corporate, supporting the priests and Levites who did priest-adjacent work, and caring for immigrants, orphans, and widows – the most vulnerable people in society who didn’t have the means to support themselves.

I’ve been surprised to discover that you can find a lot of Christians on the internet who do not believe in tithing. They will tell you that nowhere in the New Testament do we find a command to give 10%. Paul, they’ll point out, writes to his churches and instructs them to give according to their means, instructs them to give joyfully, instructs them even to “excel in this grace of giving.”  And, in fact, I was even surprised to discover that the Christian church didn’t recover the practice or expectation of tithing until sometime in the 4th century.[1]

So it’s easy to argue, I guess, that insisting on some old law requiring some fixed proportion of income is no longer that relevant.  After all, times have changed.  We pay taxes now. Our giving should be prompted by the Spirit, not dictated by some legalistic understanding of holiness.

And times have, and we do, and it should.  And giving prompted by the Spirit may even mean more than 10%!  And yet I’m not ready to give up on this idea that I’ve heard referred to as “creating margins” in our lives – intentionally scaling down so that we have enough to set aside.[2]

A couple weeks ago I had a conversation with one of our new church members to talk about what membership means, and she asked the question, “Is tithing required?”  It wasn’t a skeptical question; she was open to it, and wanted to know.

I answered that when we officially join the church, we make a vow to support its ministries with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.  That word “gifts” includes financial gifts.  We are promising to give of what we have to be a part of this community and participate in it and invest in it.  But in the end, that amount is between you and God.  I’m not logging into your Wells Fargo account to check on the actual rates or anything.  You need to decide what is a faithful and realistic commitment to make given your own situation.

BUT, I said, I really believe in tithing.  When I first started tithing, in seminary, I did it because I felt like if I was going to be a pastor and preach sermons like this I should probably not be a hypocrite about it.  But it’s turned into something I feel really strongly about as a personal practice.  Because I believe that God has given me a lot.  And I believe that my budget says something about my values, what I make room for in my life.  And I believe that if I didn’t commit to setting some aside, that I would always find another use for that money, and that more often or not, that use would be for me, or our family, or something that did not require me to look far beyond myself.

And I really, really believe that life is better when I look beyond myself.  I believe it’s better when I acknowledge the source of my blessings, when I invest in a community and purpose that is bigger than myself, when I do my part to make sure the most vulnerable people in our community and world are fed and cared for.

We often think of drawing lines, creating margins in our life, as something that limits us and hems us in.  But the well-drawn margins can actually be life-giving.  I once heard about a study some researchers did watching kids on the playground.  One playground had a fence around the perimeter, and another playground was not fenced in.  On the playground that was fenced in, the kids used the whole space, right up to the fence.  On the playground where there was no fence, the kids stayed closer in.  Instead of limiting them, that boundary gave them freedom.  If you ask me, there is something freeing about making a commitment to give.  It’s not something you need to wrestle with every week or every month.  It just becomes part of what you do, and eventually, part of who you are.

I know tithing may seem way out of reach for some of you.  10% is actually kind of a big number. I know that you may have crushing student debt.  And I know that you might barely be able to make your rent this month.  And I know that you may have health issues and that once those bills start coming they don’t stop.  I never want your giving to this church to be something that’s oppressive or exploitative.  I would rather you give nothing than that be the case. You know what I think is more important than the actual number?  This practice of intentionally creating margins to live within.  The practice of setting some aside, in gratitude and in recognition that life isn’t all about us.  As one of my colleagues said the other day, committing to giving 5% consistently is better than giving whatever’s left over.

I told you that even within the Bible, the actual practice of tithing seems to have adapted with the times. I know another pastor who tried to do some work re-imagining what this kind of commitment might look like if not a flat 10%.

What if, she said, you committed to giving to the church an amount equivalent to what you spend on groceries each month?  Or what you spend on eating out? What if you committed to the giving the church an amount equivalent to what you pay for a gym membership?  Or what you spend on entertainment and leisure, however you want to define that?  What if you gave to the church an amount equivalent to what you spend on vacation each year?  Or an amount equivalent to what you set aside for retirement?

Obviously these are some widely varying amounts and proportions here, but that’s the beauty of it – that it helps you think about creating that margin in your life, in a way that puts this commitment alongside those commitments you are already making whether you are thinking about them that way or not.  If you do think about things that way, it would still be helpful to have a number on this pledge card, since I don’t know how much you spend at Starbucks each month, and we do still have a budget.  But I would also love to know what equivalency you are making there.

I don’t promise that God is going to bring what you give back to you tenfold.  I do believe that God will bless you in your giving.  I believe you will receive the blessing of looking beyond yourself.  I believe you will receive the blessing of being part of God’s work in the world through this church.

It starts with creating margins.  What will you commit to set aside?

 

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. I, p. 1190

[2] Phil Maynard, Membership to Discipleship: Growing Mature Disciples Who Make Disciples, p. 27

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