The memories of the particular worship service have probably become more exaggerated with the passage of time, but it clearly left a lasting impression. When we came into the sanctuary for worship I could not help but notice the stacks of paper on the platform, I just could not imagine what role they would play in our morning experience together. Then we came to the sermon and the pastor walked toward the stacks of paper and began to explain. It seems that each stack represented a level of dollars given to that point in the year by families and individual whose reports composed each stack. He celebrated the stacks that represented larger gifts, and then as he went down the scale his voice became harsher and angrier. Suddenly he was tearing papers and shouting that if the average gift per person represented a tithe of their incomes then people of the church were much poorer than their houses and cars reflected. As I scanned the eyes of the people of the congregation it seemed that each word was a body blow, inflecting pain and tearing them down. I do not think anyone was actually challenged to think about their stewardship. Instead, it seemed most just wanted to survive the service and get out of the way of the angry tirade. Sadly, too many have experienced sermons on giving that were born in frustration and claimed a foundation of guilt, shame, and obligation. These sermons don’t teach us, encourage us, inspire us, or even challenge us. No, too often, these sermons beat us up and we leave church feeling worse – even more broken, than when we walked in the door. It is part of why we hear people say that they hate it when a pastor preaches about money.
When I preached at Tabernacle Baptist Church a few weeks ago I witnessed something in the service that caught me by surprise. When it was time for the offering to be taken, an usher stood at the front of each aisle and they invited tithers to bring their offering forward. A handful went forward. When these tithers had their moment, then and only then, they passed the offering plates down each row for everyone else to give their gift. The message was clear. If you are not a tither – not giving a full 10% of your income, your gift to God was not as important.
I have to confess to you that I do not remember ever being taught about giving in a healthy way. When Beth and I were young married and did not seem to have two nickels to rub together I heard a lot about tithing, but it seemed no one was ready to talk about how to get from where we were to where God wanted us to be. It seemed that all too often pastors celebrated large gifts and somehow seemed to quietly demean smaller gifts, even when they were given sacrificially. I remember sitting in worship having given everything we could, wondering if it was good enough for God.
Our focal passage offers us a very different picture, a much healthier picture, of giving. King David’s dream was to build a grand temple for God. He gave all he could and invited the leaders and the people to join him in raising the needed resources. The response moved him and we hear his prayer of celebration. It paints a picture of giving born in faith and generosity, gifts given freely and wholeheartedly.
David begins; 14 "But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? This rhetorical question captures David’s joy that God would allow him to be a part of God’s work on earth. God has already told David that he would not be the one to build it, his son Solomon would. David was raising money for a temple he would never see. He would never worship in its gates. He would never bring a sacrifice to God and hear the songs of the people in the temple walls. Even with this knowledge, David wanted to do his part to help make the building of the temple possible. He wanted to be a part of what God was doing. We get this same opportunity. Every time we see what God is doing in and through this church, we are joining God in His work. When you see people baptized like last weekend; when you see us commission people to serve in missions in our community and across the globe; when you hear children singing; when you witness people in worship – in each of these moments, and so many others, you are joining God in His work. God could move and minister without us, but God has chosen to invite us to be a part of the great Kingdom story. A healthy approach to giving invites us to give generously to be a part of God’s work in the world.
Recently a friend of mine, Ruben Swint, shared a story that struck home for me in his monthly newsletter. He told of a church where budget giving had fallen behind. One of the congregational leaders suggested they hold a “catch up” offering. (Do you remember the year the Finance Committee held a hot dog lunch with big bottles of ketchup in an effort to help promote a catch up offering?) Well, when they looked at the life of the church they saw that ministries were growing, missions were having global impact, and people were joining on a regular basis. They decided they did not need to catch up, but rather to move forward. This was the challenge they brought to their church family. Their story is our story. We celebrated a strong first quarter of giving together, but since then we have slowly but steadily fallen behind. God has given us the opportunity to be a part of God’s work in this community and the world. To accomplish what is before us we need to choose to give in a way that will let us move forward side-by-side in mission and ministry.
David continues; Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. 15 We are aliens and strangers in your sight, as were all our forefathers. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope. 16 O LORD our God, as for all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name, it comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you. David was clear that all that he had came from the hand of God. Our culture of self sufficiency stands in sharp contrast to a theology that begins with the belief that everything belongs to God and all we have comes from God. David had no doubt. He understood that God has made the means for him and his people to be the people of God. We see this even more profoundly because we are a people made the children of God through God’s great act of love and grace through Jesus Christ.
David understood that God had given them all they needed, and more, so that they could be a part of this incredible opportunity to build a temple for God. He understood that when he gave, he was returning to God with joy some of what God has provided for him. He understood that when he gave, his gifts were born out of his authentic relationship with God. A healthy approach to giving understands that our gifts to God are not a debt to be paid but gifts returned to God freely and wholeheartedly out of the joy of our relationship.
It is important to hear that our giving is out of the whole of who we are. It is not choosing a category of our lives where we give of ourselves. Our stewardship is a life stewardship. It means giving of our time, returning to God a portion of the time he has given us. It means giving of our talents. God has uniquely gifted and equipped you for the work of the Kingdom. In Romans 12, we hear Paul tell us 4Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We need each other to accomplish all that God intends for us to do. We belong to each other, so in our sharing with one another we are made better. Our life stewardship also means sharing our financial resources. This is the moment most pastors will dive into a conversation on tithing. But, I want to pause in reality. In 2003 a major study was done across Baptist life and discovered that the average Baptist church member gave just a bit over 2 per cent of their income.(1) I celebrate those who give the tithe of their income. They have historically been the financial foundation of congregations like ours. But, I also celebrate those who give sacrificially; no matter what level or percent it may reflect. For some, giving has been more causal. Instead of a reflection of spiritual choice it is an act of what bills lay available in our wallets. For some, in fact for most, the move from where we are to where we believe God wants us to be in giving will mean a journey of decision. This journey will nudge us to take one intentional step after another that moves us progressively one step closer to the acts of joy and generosity that transform our giving.
Our passage closes with; 17I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things have I given willingly and with honest intent. And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you. David celebrated that he and the people have responded willingly, not out of debt or obligation. They have given freely and wholeheartedly out of the best of who they were and what God had provided for them. We are invited into this picture. No more brow beating stewardship sermons, no more guilt or obligation, but instead becoming a people of generosity, freely and wholeheartedly giving out of authentic dependence and relational joy.
(1)“The State of Giving in the Southern Baptist Convention: Third Report of the SBC Funding Study Committee To the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, September 23, 2003,” available online at http://www.baptist2baptist.net/b2barticle.asp?ID=293 on September 2, 2010.