sacrifices and offerings and tithes…oh my!

widows-miteWhen  our church began a sermon series a few Sundays ago, I shared about the significant correlation between a church’s spiritual health and the health of a church’s giving by using the example of giving as a spiritual thermometer. Our giving says something about our faith and our relationship with God. The story of the widow’s mite is about just that. In it, we are able to observe several types of giving: offerings, sacrifices and the more elusive tithe that is not mentioned directly but implied in the context. All three are different ways of giving and have different meanings and purposes in the life of the church.

We find Jesus in Luke chapter 21 teaching in the temple where we have this small but significant scene play out. Before the story begins, he is addressing hypocrisy among the teachers of the law. He accuses them of taking advantage of the widows’ finances while at the same time praying lengthy prayers that were designed to impress people who were desperately seeking God.  He is teaching the disciples in the temple courts where all of this is playing out. In fact, there is a collection box within earshot of where they are gathered. As each person drops their offering into the box, the amount is likely announced out loud and recorded in the temple books.

As this happens, a widow, one of the ones who had been taken advantage of by the corrupt teachers of the law, walks up and drops her two coins into the box and they hear the announcement: 2 mites. That would be the smallest amount possible. It would be as if we put all of our offerings up on the projection screen for everyone to see and by our name would be 2 pennies while everyone else was giving an impressive amount. In some ways, it was demeaning for this widow as her offering was less impressive than that of the rich teachers of the law. But Jesus looks deep into her heart and recognizes that it was a sacrifice. She had given everything she had.

In the story, persons were lined up giving their offerings publicly. It is likely that the offerings were going to the poor. Though we don’t know their hearts, it seems that Jesus thought that the teachers of the law and pharisees might have been giving for show given the context and Jesus’ response to it.  It is important to note that An offering is different from a tithe in that it is given over and above the tithe. That is why we use the word offering. There are many reasons to give offerings in the Old Testament but sometimes it is given just because. Not out of obedience, not out of a sense of call, but usually out of thanksgiving or abundance. It is what we call, free will.

Now you would think that Jesus would have been thrilled. Right? But he is not. There is an underlying issue that has plagued the children of God since their formation in Exodus. They have neglected to give their tithe and have lived off the obedience of the poor who were faithful in tithing. You might remember that they were sent into exile and punished. Well, this is one of the reasons; equal to idolatry. You can see that very clearly in the book of Jeremiah.

The most famous text we have about tithing is found in Malachi 3:

Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.

“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’ “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ “In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me.

 Tithing was a part of the law that had been established since the formation of Israel. It was required of them to give a tenth part. That is where the word tithe comes from. It was a tenth of everything they had. And that was to be the first tenth not what was left over. God blessed them with everything they had, money, shelter, land, gifts and talents etc.  God has given us everything in the earth and asked us to be stewards of that gift. The one thing God asks in return is that we give the first tenth back to him. And that wasn’t just money. It was everything, land, produce, lambs, cows, time, children etc.

Leviticus 27:30-33 says this:

“‘A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord. Whoever would redeem any of their tithe must add a fifth of the value to it. Every tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the Lord. No one may pick out the good from the bad or make any substitution. If anyone does make a substitution, both the animal and its substitute become holy and cannot be redeemed.’”

 Now the tithe was used mainly for three purposes: temple upkeep, supporting the Levites who were the priestly line that ran the temple, and feeding the poor who were among them.

Over time, the wealthy persons, teachers of the law and Pharisees began to withhold the tithe and pretend as if they were giving the whole thing. That just seems kind of silly doesn’t it? As if we can hide from God? But then again, we have been hiding from God since the beginning of time. That’s why God says in Malachi that they were robbing him. They were not giving back to God what belonged to God.

One thing I think we misunderstand about the tithe is that God intended tithing to be an instrument of grace and trust in our lives. Not a penalty or interest we have to repay. It was part of the covenant God made with his children to love and provide for them.

In his article that appeared in Leadership Journal, John Ortberg says this about tithing:

Tithing is a vehicle of Grace

Tithing is God’s way of creating generous people

Tithing points to our faith that everything comes from God

Tithing is like training wheels- meant to give you a good start but not intended for the tour de france.

Tithing is not the last word in generosity – it’s the first word.

For these reasons God says in Malachi chapter 3:10

“Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.  I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty.

 In other words, God wants us to trust him; trust that he is able to provide us with what we need for each day. Tithing is a matter of trust, faith and obedience

Getting back to the parable, Jesus seizes the opportunity to speak to this problem of neglecting the tithe by honoring the two coins of the widow. You see, the public offering given by the rich for show was actually an abomination to God because they were robbing God of his tithe and dropping money into this collection so they appeared to be in good standing with God in public.

The widow, by contrast gave over and above the tithe, and above an offering, she gave a sacrifice; everything she had.

A sacrifice is something very different. It is a response to a call God is placing in our lives to give sacrificially to a cause for the kingdom. Again, it’s not just money. It can be our time, talents, homes, gifts, and any thing else you can think of. It is called a sacrifice because it costs us something.

You may recall the radical giving in the 2 chapter of Acts when the people were selling their land and giving everything they had. This was a sacrifice… not a tithe and not an offering. They were doing this because the Holy Spirit was leading them to sacrifice everything they had to get the resurrection message of Jesus Christ out. They assumed he was coming back soon, but it would take many, many years. Their sacrifices are why we are here today. They were called to a great task of sharing the good news in a radical way and God blessed them and us because of it.

The widow was moved by the spirit to give everything she had. This is the highest from of giving because it demonstrates obedience, faith, trust, and a profound love for God. It is not something that happens everyday, but it should happen at some point in our lives.

Jesus wants to teach his disciples that this kind of giving is not about the amount, but about the heart. Little did they know that Jesus would soon show them what true sacrifice looked like: he would give his life for the salvation of all humankind: out of obedience, faith, trust and a profound love for the Father.

As followers of Christ, we are called to give in all of these ways: tithes, offerings, and sacrifices because at the heart of our faith is the greatest gift of all.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

May we be moved by the spirit of such a generous God.

Ways to practice:

1. Pick one of these scriptures and read it at the beginning and ending of each day. In what ways do the words challenge you to live differently?

Luke 6:38 – “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

 

2 Corinthians 9:7 – “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

 

 

2. Take a brief survey of your life… notice the times you have given in these 3 ways: tithes, offerings, sacrifices. How was your life impacted or enriched? Share your story with someone else as a testimony of God’s faithfulness.

 

3. Prayerfully ask God to show you if he is calling you to step out in faith in one of these areas of giving? Try responding to what the Holy Spirit shows you. Keep a journal of what happens when you give. Keep it for years to come so that you can return to it for encouragement.

 

 

 

the grace of giving

bubbaIn May of 2000, I lost someone very dear to me… my stepfather, Daddy Bill. He died about three weeks before we returned from Italy. Daddy Bill was in a very real sense my father… he provided security, stability and love for me as a teenager desperately needing a father. One thing I loved about Daddy Bill was that he always had a dog… and he loved his dog very much… Bubba was his name. He was a yellow lab… very big, very loving, very smart and very, very loyal. When I returned home from Italy, I found Bubba depressed. He was lying on the floor and would not get up and move. The vet had decided that if he didn’t make an improvement, Bubba would have to be put to sleep. So I decided to take him back home with me to the farm and try to love him and nurse him back to health. After all, that’s what my stepfather had done for me. Our family extended hospitality to Bubba and were mostly blessed (other than when he had big mistakes that big old dogs make… but we won’t go there) He actually lived for another 5 years. He brought us joy and love while at the same time blessing us with the opportunity to show love and appreciation to Daddy Bill by caring for something that he loved very much.

In essence, that is what giving is all about. It has has to come from a place of deep identity and gratitude to God.  If we are honest with each other, there really is no earthly reason for us to just give away our hard earned money, time and energy away. The only real reason for us to do something that crazy is because we genuinely love God and are grateful for all that God has done for us. 

So how do we make the move from a worldly view of giving to a kingdom view? We do it because of our gratitude for the grace and love that God has shown us. You know, my dog Bubba was very large and as any of you who have had a lab know, they shed something terrible. I had to clean up the floors after him often. I even had to change my clothes before I could leave the house because I was always covered in white dog hair. He was old and had frequent accidents as I mentioned earlier that Harry or I would have to clean up. His special dog food sometimes cost more than our people food. We almost needed pet insurance to afford some of his medication for arthritis. Extending hospitality and being generous to Bubba came at a cost. But I have to tell you that I never regretted my decision to take him in, because I was motivated completely by the love of my Daddy Bill, my stepfather, who had shown such love and grace to me. Doing something that I knew would please him was enough motivation for me.

The spiritual discipline of giving can only come from that place; an awareness of God’s lavish love, grace and provision for us and a deep trust that if we were to ever need anything from our father in heaven that He would do the same thing for us. Paul in his letter to the church in Corinth says this, “But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.” Ways to Practice:

  1. Take some time and remember times in your life that you were keenly aware of God’s presence and provision. Perhaps there were times that you felt special care from other people. Try making a list of all of the God moments and grace filled moments you have experienced in your life. Ponder how much of those things you actually earned? Allow yourself to be filled with gratitude to God. Try thinking of a way to express that gratitude in some measurable way. Notice how that makes you feel and how it strengthens your love and appreciation for God.
  2. Try giving a thanksgiving offering to church or an organization that helps others just because; not out of obligation but for the grace of giving. Notice the ways in which that kind of giving forms you.
  3. Try doing a random act of kindness trusting in God’s ability to multiply the gift.

Sabbath and Gratitude

As I reflect on what it means to cultivate gratitude and a generous heart as a spiritual practice, I am reminded of the importance of keeping the Sabbath. I found this blog I wrote a few years back that really captures my thoughts about this integral connection. It was a good reminder and I wanted to share it with you.

I have recently noticed that the more I practice keeping the Sabbath, the more I experience gratitude for the things that I have. Why, you may ask? I think, in part, it is due to the slowing down long enough to notice what I have;  long enough to take in the smallest things like a double rainbow that stretches across the sky after a thunderstorm, a flock of geese flying over my head in perfect formation, the hydrangea vine that bloomed for the first time since I moved into my current house, the sound of teenage guys laughing in the basement, the funny way my cat looks at me when he wants me to rub his tummy…

I have also noticed that when life is busy and I am unable to keep the Sabbath, I quickly become  unsettled. This unsettledness leads to a sense of loss, emptiness and longing. It soon moves to an unconscious striving to do,  fill, acquire, or accomplish something that will ultimately make me feel better. Missing the Sabbath drives me toward a kind of vortex that  sucks me into another way of being and drives me further and further away from a place of deep spiritual satisfaction. It literally sucks all of the resources and creative energy out of me and as each day and week passes, I find it harder and harder to slow down. I find myself feeling less and less fulfilled and consequently, less grateful and less generous.

I recently had the opportunity to spend a day apart in silence and reflection at a local retreat center. As I sat in one of my favorite chairs to pray, I noticed that a painting was propped up on the floor in the corner facing me. I was captivated instantly… it seemed like a watercolor of a remote Italian village… along the sea. you could see its reflection in the background… but in the foreground, there was a little boat tied to a rock in a little cove surrounded by white flowers… gardenias I imagined at the time. I found myself reminiscing of our years spent in Sicily and soon became aware of a longing, an aching, even, to return.

Was I ever really cognizant of what I had in those beautiful years there? Had I taken the time to savor the beauty of the people, the land and the food? My mind was soon interrupted by the daunting thought of now… My scripture reading for that morning had been Psalm 16… Verse 6 reads “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places, surely I have a delightful inheritance”. The invitation? Take it all in and receive God’s blessings that are all around, even the blessing of memory… savor the now.

Sabbath is a time of savoring what has been given; rejoicing in what God has provided. It changes things.

the longing

oh how I would love
to sit
in a boat
skimming smooth water
anchored
among fragrant flowers

to breathe
warm salt air
with hints of gardenia

to see the village behind me
that pauses
sleepily
for a moment
in the reflection
of quiet waters

to be rocked
gently
in the presence
of day

More than enough

abundanceIt is said that giving is the spiritual thermometer of the church. A healthy congregation will experience healthy giving because it is tied directly to our understanding of God and our relationship to him. And yet, it seems to be a difficult topic for us to talk about.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of hearing Walter Brueggemann share on the topic of money and giving. I was profoundly impacted by his words and have continued to mull over the implications of all that I learned. At the core of his teaching was a powerful truth from Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”

“The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” Take a few moments to ponder that statement of faith. It is truly a powerful confession of faith. Let it sink in. Now, ponder this question… who do you think the world belongs to? Is this confession your confession? Because if it is, I want to challenge you to think abut some of the implications:.

As Christians, we believe that the earth is the God’s creation. Everything in it is a gift to us from God… even life itself. I like to think of it in this way: Our days and the things we fill our days with are on loan from God. He is the landlord and we are the tenants of this beautiful world we live in.

Genesis chapter 1:27-30 says this: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.’ And it was so.”

This is where the term stewardship comes from. God’s intention and purpose in creating us was to be stewards to the earth with all its blessings that has been given to us. The word literally means “An official person who has been appointed to look over someone else’s property. We are God’s stewards. “Stewarship is God’s way of raising people, not man’s way of raising money.”(Willmer Smith)

We are called to live as people of the Doxology… you know, the song we sing after every offering? Praise God from whom all blessings flow. What we have and what we have earned is a blessing from God… he has given us the resources, talents, gifts, and tools we need to thrive on this earth. This is our worshipful response to the many blessings God has given us: that we live our lives in a way that point to the God who is the giver of blessing.

Maybe you are struggling to feel like you are experiencing any type of blessing in your life. That’s ok. We all struggle with feeling like that at different times in our lives.  Too often we have a distorted view of what blessing is. But the biblical definition of blessing is  the divine gift of provision for and support of life. Most of us can say that we are blessed.

I have had the privilege of worshipping in many countries in my life time and this seems to be a difficult one for us Americans. It is always a humbling experience to worship with persons in a less privileged culture and watch their joy and zeal as they dance to the offering plate and give whatever they might have that day be it a fish they caught, a chicken, a couple of coins or whatever else they could give. They were grateful to be alive and excited to express that gratitude to God.

We worship the Lord of the Sabbath. You may remember the story of the Exodus? When the children roamed around in the wilderness for 40 years? Those 40 years were not years we not a waste of time. God’s sole purpose of the perfect number of years was to form a Sabbath people.

Early on in the process, the children of Israel began to grumble about not having enough, in particular not having enough to eat. And so God sends manna from heaven and quail for the children of Israel. But there were important instructions that went alone with it. They were only to gather what they needed for that day. Of course there were some that we enterprising who decided to go ahead and get extra so they wouldn’t have to work so hard the next day or maybe fear that there wouldn’t be enough. The next day, they awoke to find that it was rotten.  God wanted this people he was forming to know… to know… that He alone was their provider.

However, on the sixth day before the Sabbath, they could gather what they needed for that day of worship and rest. Miraculously it did not rot and they had enough; more than enough. The Sabbath was created to remind the children of Israel that they had more than enough. They could depend on God to provide everything they needed each day. God was forming his people to be a people of abundance and not a people of scarcity.

Perhaps you know someone that lived through the depression? It was really hard for people to change from a life of scarcity to a life of abundance. For years, my grandmother saved odd little things because she was living out of that story, a story of need and scarcity. It is not easily done. But that is what God was working at with the children of Israel. That is the story that God intends for us: to live of a life of abundance because we have a God that creates, provides and sustains.

Don’t get me wrong here… this is not about the prosperity Gospel or anything like that. This is about the Creator who gives life itself and offers us the sustenance both spiritual and physical. With that comes the call to be careful stewards of the wondrous creation. (That would require another series of blogs to talk about)

So when we exercise the spiritual discipline of giving we are exercising some core beliefs about God’s identity and our identity.

When we give we are essentially growing in these important areas of our faith:

  1. We are reaffirming our belief that God is the creator and giver of life.
  2. We acknowledge our dependence on God as provider above and beyond all other means of provision on this earth.
  3. We open ourselves to experience and excercise  the freedom God as given us from the slavery of money and scarcity.

Here are some ways you can practice these powerful truths:

  1. Try keeping a gratitude journal each day. Simply jot down the little blessings in your or day that might go unnoticed. At the end of the day take time to thank God for each thing on your list… it doesn’t need to be complicated and simple thanks to God will work!
  2. Try helping a stranger this week… by opening a door, smiling, being polite, paying a compliment. Notice how that makes you feel… how it shapes you… how it empowers you to be a giver instead of a taker. That is living out of a place of abundance. Share what you learn about your experience with a friend or family member.