This is the third and final week of our annual stewardship campaign. Which means that today is also Commitment Sunday. Which means that at the end of today’s service, you’ll be invited to turn in your Financial Commitment Card for the 2018 year of ministry.
For this year’s campaign, we’ve not just been preaching about stewardship. We also asked everyone to participate in some way in the accompanying study of the book Shiny Gods by Mike Slaughter. Some of the Sunday School classes chose to participate. For those who did not, as well as for those who do not yet have a Sunday School class or small group, we’ve offered a class on the main campus taught by Pastor Sam, and one at Mosaic taught by Abbey Echols. We have extra copies of the book available for those who would like to do the study on their own. We’re even teaching it in our Youth Ministries and teaching a modified version of the curriculum in our Children’s Ministries. That’s how important we think this subject is, so important that it’s worth doing a three-week, church-wide series both of worship and study.
This comes during an important season in the life of our congregation. We’ve spent the past couple of years laying the foundation for the next generation of ministry, through such major projects as our capital improvement efforts and the launch of our modern worshipping community, Mosaic. The construction will soon be over. Mosaic is thriving, and in fact is serving as a model for other churches in our Conference. Our congregation is growing. Our ministries are expanding.
And some time after the first of the year, we’ll be launching Family Promise, which is an important new ecumenical ministry in Grayson County. In partnership with other local churches, we’ll be hosting families who are experiencing situational homelessness. For a week each quarter — four times a year — we will house and feed three families, up to fourteen people. Family Promise is a proven ministry, having succeeded in communities nationwide for over 20 years. This is a significant commitment on our part, and a crucial component of our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
There is so much happening in our community of faith. All of which is dependent upon all of us. Dependent upon our spiritual health and spiritual growth. And as we seek to grow in our faith, it’s important to emphasize all of the foundations of our faith, the spiritual disciplines that form us into the kind of disciples capable of supporting and growing our many ministries. The foundational spiritual disciplines of our faith include weekly worship. Ongoing Bible study. Service to the church and to the community. And of course our focus for this series — the spiritual discipline of financial stewardship.
In the first week of the series, we read the story of the Golden Calf from the Book of Exodus, and we talked about identifying and naming the idols in our lives. In week two, last week, we read from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians and we talked about how all that we have is a blessing from God, and about how our financial stewardship is an act both of gratitude and accountability to God, giving back to God a portion of what God has entrusted to us. We got specific about how we’re called either to 10% of our income or be working toward the goal of the tithe. Both of those sermons are on our website if you missed them and would like to get caught up.
Today, I want to return to something that we mentioned last week, something said by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. He said, “When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart.” From the very beginning of our salvation history, beginning way back with Abraham, God’s people have been practicing the tithe. It’s a discipline that was commanded in the Law of Moses. It’s a discipline that Christians have practiced since the earliest days of the Church. The proper use of money is a subject talked about by Jesus more than any subject other than faith.
And all of this emphasis on the proper use of money is rooted in the concern expressed by John Wesley. “When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart.” The financial stewardship of God’s people is not about the needs of the church. Although the church certainly has financial needs, a growing church like ours more so than a stagnating or dying church. And the financial stewardship of God’s people is also not about philanthropy, meaning giving to humanitarian causes for the good of our fellow human beings. Although philanthropy is certainly a worthy and important endeavor.
Instead, the financial stewardship of God’s people is a reflection of our commitment to God. It’s a reflection of our trust in God to provide. It’s a measure of our obedience to the law of God. All of which is to say, what we do with our money reveals where our hearts lie. Jesus himself said so, in the Sermon on the Mount. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
Well as it turns out, Jesus’ emphasis on this sometimes uncomfortable subject is a reflection of the tradition of the Israelite prophets that he inherited. The subject of the proper use of money, and the practice of the tithe, is a common one in the books of the prophets.
The Book of Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament. It was most likely written in the middle of the 5th century B.C. (meaning around 450 B.C. or so). The Israelites had been allowed to return from Exile in the year 538 B.C., and it took them about 20 years to rebuild the Temple. But over the next half century, the hope and excitement that had accompanied their return from Exile had dimmed.
In the decades after the rebuilding of the Temple, the people and their leaders seem to have forgotten their way. By the time of the prophet Malachi, priests were not following the ritual laws concerning sacrifice. They were not teaching the people God’s commandments, nor were they guiding the people in following those commandments. Not surprisingly, the people were not living up to their covenant commitments, found in the Law of Moses.
The four-chapter Book of Malachi follows a pattern. Through the prophet, God makes an accusation about the people’s behavior. The people respond with a question, implying that they disagree with God’s accusation. God then clarifies, sometimes harshly, as we’ll hear. The point of Malachi is to call the people back to their religious roots. To call them back to righteous living, especially through worship, service, and attention to issues of social justice. And as the prophet points out in our passage for this morning, financial stewardship is an important part of righteous living…
[Read Malachi 3:6-12]
A couple wanted to get married in a Methodist church, so they made an appointment with the pastor. They were not members of this particular church, but they were moving to the area and were considering joining. They were a middle aged couple, neither of whom had been married before and neither of whom had kids. It was going to be a smallish ceremony.
It was a lovely meeting. They made all the arrangements and the pastor was about to say a prayer for them before they left. The pastor asked, “Is there anything else to talk about before we close?”
The groom said, “Yes, actually there is. Neither of us has kids, as we’ve said, but we think of our dog, Buster, as family. We’d like to have Buster walk with my fiancee down the aisle.”
The pastor wasn’t quite sure how to respond without offending the couple. “I’m sorry. But we don’t allow animals in the sanctuary.”
The groom said, “Look, this is really important to us. So important, in fact, that we’d love to give $25,000 to the church in honor of Buster participating in our special day. ”
Without missing a beat, the pastor said, “Why didn’t you tell me Buster’s a Methodist — that changes everything!”
There are lots of reasons why people give. Malachi takes a pretty direct approach. God commands it, therefore we should do it. But even Malachi’s rather blunt approach is in support of a more constructive theology. Which is to say, yes God commands that we practice generosity. But the practice itself is not the point.
I coach both of my boys’ soccer teams, and each week each of their teams has two hours of practice. The boys run and stretch and do drills. We walk through formations and talk about strategy. We play games that build the skills of dribbling and passing and shooting. But those two hours of practice each week are not the point. Practice serves the purpose of forming them into soccer players for game time on Saturday.
It’s the same with the practice of giving. The point is to form us into disciples. The practice of giving is an act of thanksgiving for what God has given us. The practice of giving is an act of accountability to the God whose covenant with us has always had high expectations. The practice of giving is an act of trust that God will continue to provide even when we give generously of what we have.
In our passage from Malachi, verse seven gives us the point of practicing the tithe: “Return to me,” God says (Malachi 3:7). By which the Scripture means, do the things that make you my follower. As disciples of Christ, we go to church. We love and serve our neighbor. We study the Bible. We say the Lord’s Prayer. We receive Holy Communion. We baptize our kids.
And we tithe. Or we work towards the goal of the tithe.
And if at some point in our lives, we realize that we’re not doing what Jesus has taught us to do. We don’t beat ourselves up over it. We don’t get paralyzed by guilt or shame. We don’t make it worse by running farther away from God and God’s teachings.
Instead, we take God’s advice, as recorded in Malachi 3:7. “Return to me,” God says. God’s enduring love and mercy are the foundation of everything we do. God is the source of our gifts and our blessings. Which means that in our giving we are practicing another sense of Malachi 3:7, returning to God a portion of what God has entrusted to us. These are the theological reasons why we give.
But there are some practical reasons as well. The Book of Joy talks about recent neuroscience that has given us what researchers call “a unified theory of the happy brain.” Neuroscientist Richard Davidson has argued that there are four independent brain circuits that give us a sense of lasting well-being. Four areas of the brain responsible for determining how happy we are, or can be. One is our ability to maintain positive states. The second is our ability to recover from negative states. The third is our ability to focus and keep our mind from wandering. And the fourth circuit in our brain responsible for determining our happiness is our ability to be generous. A quarter of our brain wiring is devoted to generosity!
And it’s not just our happiness that’s influenced by our generosity. Turns out that there’s research indicating that generosity — with both time and money — has a great bearing on our sense of purpose in life. That is, when we’re generous, we feel like our lives are meaningful and making a difference in the world. And this sense of purpose, according to the research, makes us healthier! A study by a cardiologist at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Medical Center found that “a high sense of purpose correlates with a 23 percent reduction in death from all causes.” And a study in the JAMA Psychiatry reported that “…people with a sense of purpose were half as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease after seven years.”
So yes, we give because God commands it. More importantly, we give because it’s who we are as disciples of Christ. And as a bonus, it’s literally good for us!
Near the end of Shiny Gods, Mike Slaughter writes, “What we do with what we have makes all the difference in the world…Each of us is accountable to God for using the resources [God] has placed in our hands, in order to serve God’s redemptive purpose in the world.” Friends, ours is a congregation in the midst of an exciting season of growth. Ours is a community of followers of Christ who take seriously our faith and our commitment to the gospel. Ours is a church that is serving God’s redemptive purpose in the world in so many ways, and it’s an honor and blessing to be part of what we’re doing here.
As we make our commitments for the coming year, whether we’ve reached the goal of the tithe or we’re still intentionally working our way there, may our giving come from the heart, and may it be a fitting response to all that God has done for us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Abrams, Douglas, The Book of Joy, p. 56.
 Ibid., p. 266.
 Shiny Gods, p. 102.