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Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Promises of Membership: Gifts

Luke 18:18-30

How do you know what someone really believes? Do you ask them? Do you find out how they think? Do you find out what they feel? How do you find out what someone really believes to be true and trustworthy in their life? How do you find out what a business believes? What a school believes? What a country believes? What a church believes?

The English word belief, said the late South Georgia preacher and New Testament scholar Clarence Jordan, “comes from the old Anglo-Saxon be, which means ‘by,’ and lief, which means ‘life.’ What one lives by is actually his belief or his by-life.”[1] Jesus had another way of putting this. He said that our lives were like trees, and that we would be known by the fruits, by the products of our lives. In other words, no matter what we say we believe or feel we believe or think we believe, the way we live our lives — the priorities we give for our time and our money and our attention — is the truest statement of what we believe. How well we talk the talk is irrelevant — what finally tells everyone who we are is how we walk the walk.

That, it seems to me, is the compelling difference between the lives of Princess Diana and Mother Theresa. After her tragic death, much was made of Diana’s compassion for the poor, and her qualities as a mother. All that may be true. It is also true that the Princess spent the majority of her time not working with the poor but jet-setting with the extremely wealthy. She died not with her children but with her multi-millionaire playboy lover. Mother Theresa, on the other hand, was not known for her speeches or her appearance, but for a life spent with the poor and homeless and dying. Diana and Theresa verbally and emotionally shared many of the same causes, but their by-lives could hardly have been more different.

When the rich young man comes to Jesus, he asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus immediately points him to God, the One who alone is truly good. If the man’s life were centered in God alone, he would not wonder about eternal life. But this is not where the man is, so Jesus points him to the commandments. Keep the commandments, Jesus says. While Jesus cites the commandments about adultery and stealing and killing, once again Jesus is really pointing the man to the central issue, which is the first commandment: You shall have no other gods before me. Incredibly, the man answers Jesus, “Been there, done that. I’ve kept all the commandments since I was a child. What else do you want me to do?”

It has long seemed to me that churches should be chapters of Sinners Anonymous. Like any Twelve-Step Group, when one of us gets up to speak, we should begin by saying, “Hello, I’m Brooke, I’m a sinner.” But instead of the Twelve-Step response – “Hello, Brooke!” – we should say, “In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.” I once asked the members of a church to turn to each other in the pew and say, “Hello, my name is (fill in the blank), and I’m a sinner,” and then respond with forgiveness. A woman named Marcie said she turned to the woman next to her and followed the instructions, and the woman responded, “You know, I really don’t sin.” Marcie grabbed her hand and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!”

That’s just what the young man is saying to Jesus. "I live this perfect life — my belief system is impeccable. Now, why do I keep feeling as though something is missing?”

The real issue is not what we feel or think, but how we live our lives, Jesus is about to say. Elsewhere he had said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. . . You cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve God and money at the same time.” So, seeing that the man is very wealthy, Jesus tells him to sell everything he has, give the money to the poor, find his treasure in heaven, and follow Jesus.” This is the real bottom line. What must the man do? He must live his life completely at God’s disposal. Now, what the young man wants is something to think or to feel. He wants a magic phrase that is the key to life. What he gets is not a thought or a feeling. He is told to live his life completely at God’s disposal. And, for him, that means the only way he can stop trusting his wealth is to get rid of it.

I learned a long time ago that if you really want to know what a church believes, you don’t look in The Book of Discipline or in back copies of sermons or in mission statements on the wall or what people say. If you really want to know what a church believes, look at how it spends its money. If it spends most of its money on fixing up an empty building, or in paying salaries, and spends little on ministry and mission, that is its real by-life. By the same token, if you want to know what a nation or a business or a school believes, look at how it spends its money. And, if you want to know what a person believes, don’t ask what they think or what they feel. Look at how they spend their money. That is the most accurate indicator of what we really think will bring us eternal life.

Money is the great conversational taboo in church and in life. We talk much more easily about sex and drugs and crime and shame than we do about money. Jesus, on the other hand, talks a lot about money, and how it is the most significant obstacle to eternal life. Being rich, Jesus tells his disciples, is not a sign of God’s favor, as they had supposed. Wealth is an obstacle to faith, because it is so easy to trust in our possessions to give us happiness and meaning and life.

When we join the Body of Christ, we give our whole selves to God’s service through the Church. We have talked the last two weeks about what it means to surrender our prayers and our physical presence. The third promise of membership is our placing our gifts, including our financial gifts, completely at God’s disposal. It is not that God wants his cut, and then we can do what we want with the rest. One hundred percent of our money belongs to God. How we spend every penny is a sign of our by-life. The kind of food we buy, the kind of amusements we enjoy, the kind of house we live in, the kind of clothes we wear, as well as the amount we give away to the needy are all signs of our by-life. In the early days of Methodism, Methodists were ridiculed by the world because they wore plain clothing, lived in simple houses, wore no jewelry, participated in no activities that did not glorify God. But they also cared for the poor and the imprisoned and the lonely and the lost. There was no question about what they believed, because of their by-lives.

Let’s get specific. The Biblical standard for giving was the tithe — ten percent. Now, it is true that was before income and state and local tax and health insurance and social security. But it’s still the standard. I know that it is possible to tithe, and still have enough money to waste, because I do both. For some of you, tithing would be impossible — you could not put food on the table and keep your house warm. For some of you, tithing is not enough: the ninety percent you have left is far more than is necessary for your needs. This week, I want each of you to figure out what percentage of your income you give to the church. I know about Scouts and Red Cross and the Rescue Squad and Habitat for Humanity. I give to those, too. If you give one percent to the church, can you give two? If you give four percent, can you give five? And if you tithe, God bless you — but what are you doing with the rest?

If every member of this congregation would give five percent – half a tithe -- of their income to the church, we wouldn’t need an extra financial campaign to pay off our new building. We wouldn’t need the Stewardship Campaign at all. And if every member of this congregation would put not five or ten but one hundred percent of their gifts at God’s complete disposal, then our by-life would transform this community in unbelievable ways to the glory of God.

What do we really believe? Whom do we really trust? The answer isn’t in what we think or what we feel. It’s really in how we spend our money.

[1] Jordan, Clarence, The Substance of Faith, ed. Dallas Lee, Association press, NY, 1962, pp. 42-43

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