Psalm 76:11, 1 Corinthians 16:1-3 & Malachi 3:8-10
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
November 13, 2016
On this Sunday when the church is inviting pledges of financial support, you may be surprised to hear me begin by making a case against automatically being as generous to the church as you’d like.
I know a couple who is at present in a bad financial situation, but who so love their church and what it is doing that they are thinking of borrowing money to increase their giving.
They do not, in that, have my support.
For any of us to incur a debt we cannot pay, even if it is for the sake of supporting Christ’s mission, is to rob those to whom money is owed; and Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount taught that, if we are about to make an offering to God and remember that we have an obligation to another human being we are failing to fulfill, we should refrain from giving our gift to God and instead make things right with that person. We do not rob God when we refuse to put someone else, without their consent, in a position where they have to underwrite our generosity. Avoiding leaving them holding our bag is just doing the right thing!
For that reason and others, the Bible exhorts us to planned giving: careful, prayerful, responsible and regular giving that does justice to both God and others. Pledging is one modern form of doing it. Psalm 76:11 says, “Make vows to the Lord your God” – sounds to me like pledging – “and perform them;” – sounds to me like keeping the promises you write on the card – “let all who are around [God]” – sounds to me like people at worship – and “bring gifts to the one who is awesome” – sounds to me like blessing the One who has the right to everything anyway.
First Corinthians 16:1-3 also talks about this kind of planned giving. It says, “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn” and then put it into the custody of trustworthy people who can be counted on to get it to the right place. Sounds to me like responsible and accountable charity.
Such thoughtful and careful giving does not, however, preclude heroically sacrificial and risk-taking generosity. I know a couple who have no significant debt, who have set themselves up for reasonably comfortable “golden years”, and who have recently received a financial windfall that, if they kept it all, would mean that they could live very, very well until they died. Yet, they so love their church and what it’s doing that they’re giving the Lord the vast majority of that windfall. Why? Because they see it as all God’s money from the start, because they trust God will (in collaboration with their having been responsible) take good care of them and their loved ones, and because they so delight in serving Christ that the delight of doing so is to them well worth the loss of enjoying some “niceties” they might otherwise enjoy.
Out of love this couple is giving more than they have to. But some of their brothers and sisters in the faith need to learn just to give God what they owe God. In today’s last Scripture, God is addressing such people through the prophet Malachi, and telling them that they are in effect robbing their Lord when they fail to give Him their full tithes and offerings. But God doesn’t scold them about this. Rather He gives them a promise, and then challenges them to run an experiment to find out whether He will come through on it. He dares them to give Him their full tithes and offerings, “and thus 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.” See, in other words, if you can out-give the One who gives you more as you give more.
God never asks for anything from us for which He doesn’t offer a more than compensating return. As we read in Scripture last Sunday, God promises to bless and enrich the generous. God promises to do that for anyone who makes and keeps a promise to Him.
I recently met Bree Hsieh at a poetry reading, and later was introduced to husband Tom. Some years ago, Tom was a software designer and engineer with Earthlink. When Earthlink’s stock went public, Tom suddenly found himself with a stock portfolio worth millions. Yet, that financial windfall did not change Tom and Bree’s lifestyle, for they had made certain promises to God about serving the poor, and they couldn’t see how that new-found wealth gave them a reason to abandon a commitment on which they had set their hearts. So they made a home in an inner city neighborhood of Pomona, the second poorest city in L.A. County; and, after creating a college fund for their two kids, they dedicated their money to God’s purposes, and decided to live at the median household income level for the nation. Why? Because their true identification with the poor would open the hearts of the poor to them and to the Savior who made Himself poor for their sake.
Tom and Bree lead a program called Pomona Hope, connected with the First Presbyterian Church there. One thing they do on occasion is take into their home needy people, to live with them as family. Despite the sacrifices involved in doing that, they carry out this loving work of hospitality with joyful gratitude. Tom shakes his head in happy amazement over it and exclaims, “We get to be a part of shining God’s light in a dark place. It’s amazing that He lets us be a part of His transforming lives!”
They did, however, at one point worry about how this ministry might be affecting their six-year-old since she was losing space and toys as a result. So they asked her how she felt about it. Little Candance said, “It is hard; but if you let it happen, your heart gets bigger and there’s room for more people. So it’s worth it.”
When people wonder whether they should follow the Hsiehs’ lifestyle choices, and approach them for counsel, Bree always tells them, “There is no formula to figuring out what you’re supposed to do. There is just praying about what to give away and what to hold on to. There is just a listening to Jesus…and, finally, a conviction.”
In considering your pledge, there is just a listening to Jesus…and finally a conviction. All we are asking for is for you to ask Him what to give away.