9th Sunday after Pentecost
Talk about an awkward moment! I will never forget the time this mother burst into my office to complain about her son's religious about-face. Apparently, he had come back from a retreat really changed. Really changed! And that was okay for a while, but the effects were lingering. That had her worried! Afraid that her son was becoming a religious fanatic, she ticked off all his strange new behaviors: reading the Bible for long periods of time; insisting that they should pray about all their problems, even little ones; talking openly and frequently about his love for the Lord. "And even that wouldn't be so bad," she admitted, " but you know what else he's doing? He's started giving ten percent of his wages to the church. Ten percent! Right off the top! Have you ever heard of anything so crazy in your life?!"
I couldn't help smiling. "Yes. It's called tithing. I do that, too." "You ... do?" For a moment, she just stared at me, seriously stared at me, as if I must also be crazy. Then it dawned on her: "Oh, well, of course you do. You're a pastor. But I don't know what's gotten into my son!"
As I said, talk about an awkward moment! But I don't think that mother was unique in her attitude toward tithing. For many people, tithing falls into the same category as bungee-jumping and sky-diving: something that may show courage but seems pretty extreme and is something they would never, ever want to try! That puts me at a bit of a disadvantage this morning as I raise the question: "Why tithe?" For, biblically-speaking, a good case could be made that tithing really falls into quite a different category. It falls into the same category as moral purity, financial honesty, personal integrity: that is, still something too many people these days would never, ever want to try, but something that should be part of the Christian life -- in fact, something that should be the norm, not the exception, in the Christian life.
So where does this put us? These are two very different perspectives. Is tithing extreme or should it be the norm? I don't know what your attitude is toward tithing, but I do think it is something we need to talk about. So that is what I would like to do today: talk about tithing. And just so we're clear, let me emphasize I want to "talk" about tithing, not "debate." Though earlier I said a good case could be made for tithing, that will not be my game plan this morning. Instead of quoting a bunch of Bible verses and marshaling persuasive arguments, I'd like to take another approach. I'd like to speak personally from my own heart and my own experience about why I tithe. Don't worry about me having ulterior motives. We're not in the midst of a stewardship drive, and we're not in a financial crisis, so you can relax. There will be no pressure to increase your giving. However, I do have pastoral motives -- that I freely admit! -- and without any pressing problems to distract us, this seems a good time to raise the question: "Why tithe?"
To begin at the beginning, I should probably confess that I have not always been an enthusiastic tither. That's not my parents' fault. They gave generously and took stewardship seriously. My dad was often church treasurer. So I certainly was raised with good giving habits, but... Well, you parents know how that works. No matter how hard you try to instill Christian values, there's still that thing about leading a horse to water that comes into play. Some things kids just have to figure out for themselves. For me, tithing was one of them.
Sure, I knew what the Bible said on the subject. For instance, how God said in Malachi 3 that I was "robbing" Him by not giving a full tithe -- and for that matter, how God also said, "Put Me to the test" and "see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing." Strong words! But honestly, instead of motivating me, they mostly just made me rationalize not tithing. For instance, even in seminary I rationalized that paying my tuition for pastoral training more than satisfied my tithing obligation -- as if "obligation" were even the main issue! Pretty lame, huh? I'm not proud of this, but I just have to tell you that guilt about robbing God or greed to gain extra blessings never really motivated me to tithe.
Which is just as well, for what kind of motives are those for a Christian? Giving out of guilt? Some gift! Okay...Here, God...If I have to! I know how I'd feel if someone gave me a gift in that spirit! I doubt that God enjoys it much, either! It's pretty pathetic to just give out of guilt!
That's even more the case with giving out of greed. Greed to gain extra blessings. I don't deny the promise attached to tithing, that God will "pour down for you an overflowing blessing." In fact, I affirm it. But some popular preachers -- yes, especially TV preachers -- have made too big a deal out of this promise. And I emphasize "deal," for some even talk as if tithing were a deal with God! It isn't, and even if it were, giving just to get is a pretty sleazy motive for tithing. Furthermore, if someone is giving just to get, and the "overflowing blessing" doesn't come right away or doesn't match their expectations, that kind of motivation dries up real fast!
Case in point: I remember when this guy I'll call Sam told me he had started tithing." It took me a moment to figure out what he meant, but since he was a little old for "teething," I figured he must mean "tithing." "That's great, Sam," I said, "Good for you!" Then he told me why. Browsing through the religious section at the local book store, he had found a book offering the spiritual key to financial success. Intrigued, he read further. With the same breathless excitement you find in any other self-help book, the author described tithing as a kind of faith investment. You give first, and God will pay back big dividends! Sam figured he'd be a fool not to give it a try! Though I gently warned him that it might not work out quite the way he hoped, he recited back all the success stories recounted in the book. He just knew God wanted him to be rich! He was sold on "tithing" -- at least, for a while. As you might guess, though, the big bucks didn't start rolling in right away. After a few months, Sam got discouraged. Before the year was out, I think his "tithing" pretty much bit the dust. Which is just as well, because, like giving out of guilt, giving out of greed to gain extra blessings isn't a good reason to tithe, either.
So why tithe? For me, the turning point came during internship when I heard Evangelist Bill Vaswig thunder from the pulpit, "Don't tell me Jesus is your Lord if you don't tithe." Ouch! At first, those words angered me. What a hard-nosed, self-righteous, legalistic thing to say! But even as I stewed about it, there was this little voice inside questioning, Could he be right? And the more I thought about it, the more convicted I felt. It had been easy to make excuses for not tithing when I didn't really think them through, but when I took a closer look at my excuses, they turned out to be pretty pitiful. One excuse was basically selfish: It's my money; I earned it, and I should be free to spend it as I please. I never put it that brazenly, of course, but that's what my attitude boiled down to. Another excuse was more fearful: If I give God 10%, how will I be able to get by? Neither excuse was real compatible with what I said I believed.
And that's what my little voice inside kept whispering: You say that everything belongs to God; it came from God, belongs to God, and will return to God. So if that's true, why doesn't God have a right to ask you to tithe? You say that you are just a steward, managing what God has entrusted to you, and that one day you will give an accounting of your stewardship. So if that's true, why aren't you following God's instructions and giving back a tithe? Then came the zinger! You say that you trust God, that you trust Him to meet your needs, that you trust Him to be faithful. So if that's true, why are you so nervous about giving God your tithe? Why? And I couldn't come up with a respectable answer. I saw more and more clearly that I was talking the talk but not walking the walk -- at least in this area of my life. And that needed to change. I needed to change. It was time for me to step out of my comfort zone and really demonstrate my faith tangibly. That's when I began to tithe.
To be honest, tithing that first time did feel kind of like bungee-jumping or sky-diving (I imagine). It was scary -- and exhilarating! To my relief, I did survive that hit on my pocketbook. And to my surprise, I felt good really demonstrating my faith so tangibly. Faith was not just theory anymore. I was putting myself on the line. Trusting God that way, and finding God faithful, actually energized my faith. Who'd have guessed? And you know what? Today, twenty years later, it still energizes my faith -- though now there are other reasons for tithing that mean just as much to me.
One other reason is that tithing gives me a more concrete way to thank God, a more concrete way to show Him my love. And the more I grow as a Christian, the more important that becomes. I look at it this way. God has done so much for me! So much! Everything I have comes from Him. Everything I am. Everything I hope for. And what a wonderful God that He would even go to the cross and do everything for my salvation so that I could spend eternity with Him in heaven. What a wonderful God! Plus, as if that were not enough, He has given me such rich blessings besides! Why, just look around at this congregation for single example! The more I grow as a Christian, the more appreciative I become. And I know that I could never pay God back, but somehow just saying "thank you," "I love you," isn't very satisfying. Being able to show God "thank you," "I love you" means a lot more. And, of course, there are a lot of ways to do that, but doing something concrete that I know pleases God, and doing something practical that helps promote His work -- well, that is a pretty satisfying way to go about it. Tithing is as good a way as I can think of to say "Thank you, God. I love You!"
Which leads to yet another reason for tithing: it gives me a practical way to promote God's work and help needy people. Maybe now that I work with church budgets I am more aware of how much good my offerings can do, but when I think of all the ways people will benefit from what I give, tithing seems a privilege, not a sacrifice. I may have told you about the time not that long ago when someone cornered me at a reception and started in on how the church is always asking for money. Instead of getting defensive, I simply asked him, "Do you know what that money goes for?" I was prepared to show him what kind of car I drive, just in case he thought it all came to me, but he just said, "No." So I said, "Let me tell you." And I did tell him -- how part of the money goes to feed starving people through Lutheran World Relief, how part goes to send medical missionaries to Third World countries, how part provides counseling services, foster-homes, and drug prevention through Lutheran Social Services, how part provides shelter for battered women, campus ministry at many colleges, food and clothing and shelter for the homeless, and on and on and on. The guy was overwhelmed! "I had no idea!" he said, "Thanks for setting me straight." "Thanks for the opportunity," I answered. And you know, that pretty well sums up how I feel about tithing to support God's work. Thanks for the opportunity! Whatever I might miss out on by giving God the 10%, that's nothing compared to the satisfaction I get from it -- and will get from it even after I leave this world. For when it comes right down to it, tithing gives me a way to do something eternally valuable with the blessings God has bestowed. And I call that an opportunity!
Well, that's pretty much what I wanted to share with you about tithing. Do
with it what you will. How much you give, whether you tithe, is entirely your
choice. After all, we live under grace, and I did promise no pressure. But as
you think about your choice, I must tell you that my choice has given me great
satisfaction and has really helped my spiritual growth. To me, these are
"overflowing blessings" far more precious than gold! Tithing has given me a
tangible way to express and strengthen my trust in God. It has provided me a
concrete way to show God my love and. It has opened up an exciting way to do
something eternally valuable with the blessings God has bestowed. To me, each
of these is a powerful reason for "Why tithe?
The Rev. William Martens is pastor of Richland Lutheran Church, Richland, WA. He preached this sermon on Aug. 2, 1998.