2 Corinthians 9:6-12
Will Rogers was onto something when he said, “Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people that they don’t like.” First Timothy 6:10 tells us that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” While the great Mark Twain had a slightly different take. He said, “The lack of money is the root of all evil.” The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, spent his life disdainful of the power that money all too often has over us. He said, “When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart.”
We tend to have a complicated relationship with money. If we’re honest, we know that relationship can easily become unhealthy, especially when it’s based in fear or greed. When the subject of the proper use of money comes up in church, it’s a topic that often makes us uncomfortable, and sometimes even makes us defensive. But as we heard last week, it’s a subject that Jesus himself talked about more than any topic other than faith. And more than 40% of his parables dealt with it. Which makes it a subject that we would be irresponsible to avoid.
For the longest time, I was very unclear about issues of money and faith. Maybe your family was like mine. We never talked about money, or budgets, or paychecks, or financial management. And we certainly never talked about how much we gave to the church. I knew that we gave to the church. Every week, I saw mom write a check and put it in the offering plate when it came by.
But we never talked about how much we gave. Or about how much we should give. Or about any kind of theology of giving. The subject did not come up at home. It never really came up in worship. It was never a subject in Sunday School. (Or CCD, as we Catholics called it.)
And frankly, things did not get much clearer when Whitney and I joined the Methodist Church as adults. Each year, our congregation had a stewardship campaign. Each year, we heard about the budgetary needs of the church. But there were never any specifics — as I recall, anyway — about how much we should be giving, or about the theology of giving. So each year at stewardship time, Whitney and I would look at our household budget and list all the categories of things we spent our money on. We’d figure out what we had left over. And then we’d commit some portion of that leftover amount for our annual pledge to the church.
It was not until I was in seminary, after I’d heard a call to ordained ministry, that I realized that there’s actually a very clear theology of giving in the Christian tradition. Sometimes it’s called financial stewardship. Sometimes it’s called generosity. Whatever we call it, I learned that it’s a spiritual discipline, and that scripture has a clear and consistent message on the subject of what we should do with our personal finances.
More personally, I learned that of all the subjects that Jesus himself cared and taught about, this was the one that I was most likely to make rationalizations for and excuses about. And I remember very distinctly when I got the clarity on this subject that I had been lacking. In 2008, I was serving as the Associate Pastor and Youth Minister at Arapaho UMC in Richardson. I was given the opportunity to attend a church leadership institute. It was excellent training, spread over the course of two separate weeks that year, covering lots of different topics on church leadership. I’ve used much of what I learned that year in the appointments I’ve held since.
But in the second week of that training, we covered a subject I was not expecting. The instructor was from Chicago, and he’s a pretty brash guy. He’s kind of an in-your-face guy. Which is not really a style that usually resonates with me. So when he started talking about money and faith, I braced myself. And it’s a good thing I did.
Because he stepped on my toes a little bit when he said, “Look, in this line of work, you need to be really clear about your theology of stewardship. And not only do you need to be clear about it, you need to be practicing it. You need to figure out right now if you’re a tither or a tipper. [Zing!] A tip is something you put in the plate on the Sundays you’re in church. It comes from what’s left over after all your other needs and wants are met. A tithe, on the other hand, is a spiritual discipline, 10% given before you spend money on anything else. If you’re going to be a leader in the church, you need to tithe, not tip.”
He said a lot more than that, but that’s what I remember most vividly. Because it was a moment of clarity for me. Unwelcome clarity, I might add. This week, I found the notes I took during that training. In the margins, I saw that I had done some math. This is what I make. This is what Whit makes. We weren’t giving anywhere near 10% of that total. I didn’t like what the guy had said. But he made an important point. These days, I look back on that week as the beginning of a very important journey for our family. Because that was the day I realized that we needed to grow in this aspect of our spirituality.
This is week two of our three week stewardship series, with an accompanying church-wide study on the book Shiny Gods by Mike Slaughter. Last week, we talked about identifying and naming the idols in our lives. And we talked about doing what Slaughter calls a “heart check.” Our recommended homework for the week was to analyze our calendars and our household budgets, to find out what takes priority in our lives. Where are we spending our time and our money? That tells us a lot about what we consider to be most important to us.
This week, having gotten some clarity on where we currently stand, we’re getting specific about what the Christian tradition teaches us in the area of financial stewardship. To help guide us, we’ll be turning to the Apostle Paul…
[Read 2 Corinthians 9:6-12]
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, our theology of giving begins with an important starting point. We believe that the money that comes into our hands is actually not ours. We’re simply holding it in trust for God. Because God is the source of our talents and our blessings. God has given us the ability to earn a living. The metaphor Paul uses is that God supplies the seed that we sow. Which means that the entire harvest rightfully belongs to God. And yet, God asks only a portion in return.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, then, our theology of giving is not rooted in philanthropy. Merriam-Webster defines philanthropy as “the practice of giving money and time to help make life better for other people.” A secondary definition is “an act or gift done or made for humanitarian purposes.” Philanthropy is a worthy endeavor, to be sure. But that’s not what Christian financial stewardship is all about.
Instead, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, giving is an acknowledgement of our dependence upon God. Giving is an act of accountability to God, who is the source of all of our blessings. Financial stewardship is an act of thanksgiving for what God has done for us. And for Christians specifically, our generosity is rooted in obedience to the gospel. As we’ve noted already, it was Jesus’ second-most talked-about subject.
It’s only when we get clarity on this starting point that our perspective changes. When we’re clear that financial stewardship is an act of thanksgiving and accountability to God, it’s not longer a matter of, “God wants how much of my money?” 10%?!?!? As though God is some sort of cosmic talent agent gouging us on the contract of life. Instead, it’s “I get to keep 90% of what God has entrusted to me!?!?! Woo hoo!” (Or something to that effect.)
John Wesley cared a great deal about the subject of financial stewardship. He wrote lots of sermons on the subject. In a famous one called “The Use of Money,” Wesley gave Methodists three simple instructions. First, he said, earn all you can. Scripture doesn’t say that money is the root of all evil. Just the love of it. So the more we have of it, the more good we can do in the world. Mike Slaughter has a catchy phrase about this — we need an income to work for God’s outcome. But our work must be in a profession that honors God and doesn’t harm others. Wesley said, “to gain money we must not lose our souls.”
Second, save all you can. By which he meant that we should live frugally and avoid debt. Finally, give all you can. For Wesley, the tithe was just the starting point of generosity. He wrote, “‘Render unto God’, not a tenth, not a third, not half, but ‘all that is God’s’…in such a manner that you may give a good account of your stewardship when ye can be no longer stewards.” For us Methodist Christians, this is a succinct summary of our theology of giving.
In Shiny Gods, Mike Slaughter gives some very practical advice from his Methodist perspective. He recommends what he calls the 10-10-80 plan, as in tithe 10%, save 10%, and live on 80% of what we earn. He writes, “The first ten percent of everything that comes into your hand, you give to God as an expression of faith and gratitude.” Describing the turning point in his own faith journey, he goes on, “I made that commitment in May 1976. I wrote it in the back of my Bible and promised myself, ‘No rationalization. No excuses.’”
The question for each of us is how we’re doing in this area of our discipleship. The point is not to feel guilty about where we currently are. Because if you’re not yet tithing, you’re certainly not alone. A 2016 article by Relevant magazine estimates that only 5% of the U.S. tithes, while 80% of Americans give 2% of their income. Collectively, Christians give about 2.5% per capita these days. (Compared, by the way, with 3.3% during the great depression.)
The point is to get clarity, both on where we stand now, and where we want to go in this essential area of our spirituality. The important first step is the “heart check” we talked about last week, figuring out how we’re currently doing. The important second step is to grow in our giving by a percent or two each year until we reach the tithe.
A year and a half after that training in 2008, we were moved to First UMC Henrietta. As a result, Whitney had to leave her 10-year career as an engineer in the corporate office at The Container Store. We went from two incomes to one, with my income being less than what she made. Let’s just say it forced us to take a hard look at our finances. So we decided to take Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. And it was truly a transformative experience.
Not because Dave offers some magic secret to finances. He doesn’t — it’s all pretty basic stuff, none of which was really new to either of us. But it gave us a chance as a couple to be intentional about our finances. It gave us a space with fellow church members to intentionally and prayerfully consider what we wanted our financial life to look like. It gave us a clear theology of giving. And it walked us through the specifics of how to reach our goals. It helped us eliminate our debt and eventually reach the goal of the tithe.
I recommend Financial Peace University to everyone, regardless of how sophisticated your financial knowledge may be. On November 7th, we’ll be hosting an event on the main campus if you’re interested in learning more.
Friends, we often have a complicated relationship with money. And if we’re honest, that relationship can easily become unhealthy. When the subject of the proper use of money comes up in church, it’s a topic that often makes us uncomfortable, and sometimes even makes us defensive. But it would be irresponsible to avoid it.
“The point is this,” Paul says. “…God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly…” As we prepare for Commitment Sunday next week, my prayer is that each of us might develop and practice a healthy theology of giving, rooted in the teachings of our faith.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
 Shiny Gods: Finding Freedom from Things that Distract Us, p. 40.
 Shiny Gods, p. 48
 John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, p. 351.
 Ibid., p. 356.
 Shiny Gods, p. 95.
 Accessed at https://relevantmagazine.com/god/church/what-would-happen-if-church-tithed; 13 October 2017.