Principles of Spiritual Giving
Sunday, October 23, 2005
Ephesians 2: 17-22
I had the privilege of spending seven or eight years out of a pulpit. For seven or eight years I worked for conference staffs. For those years, Jane and I sat in pews of local churches as though we were real people, and not a pastor. During those years, I think I learned things about the church I did not know in all of my earlier years in the pulpit.
One of the things that surprised me was how important giving became to me. I try to talk about giving at least once a year in a sermon and I probably ought to do it more often. I talk about the importance of giving not so much because the church needs money to do its ministry and mission, although that’s also true. I talk about it because of how important giving turned out to be for me during the years that I sat in a pew.
When we had given, I felt as though I had worshipped. To my surprise, giving turned out to be the most important part of worship for me. We lived in three different places during those years, so we worshipped in three different congregations. The preaching, the quality of the liturgy and the music may have varied from congregation to congregation, but the giving always remained important and powerful.
Jane says I shouldn’t admit this publicly. There was a church we attended that received the offering early in the service. There were a few occasions (one or two) when, after we had given our offering, I felt like I had worshipped enough so that I snuck away to Starbuck’s and had a cup of tea. Then I came back after the sermon to meet Jane at the coffee hour. Jane says I am a very poor role model.
Giving was the most important part of worship. It was very powerful to sit with Jane and to have decided what we would give, to prioritize our giving, and together to put it in the offering plate. So this morning I want to mention three principles that Jane and I arrived at together that made giving an important spiritual experience for us.
The first principle was this: we had to give enough. In order for it to be an act of worship, we had to give enough. Our offering could not just be a token. It had to be an amount that was significant enough that it had real meaning for us. It represented something significant and important in our lives.
The scripture that I always go back to when I’m thinking about this is the scripture from the Sermon on the Mount that we heard read this morning. It was misquoted two elections ago in one of the presidential debates. Two elections ago the candidate that didn’t win was trying to quote it, and he misquoted it by accident. He said, “Wherever our heart is, there our treasure will be also,” which is the natural way we tend to think about it.
But if you read the gospel of Matthew, what Jesus said was the exact reverse. What Jesus said was that “wherever your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Whatever we invest our time and our talent and our resources in is what we will eventually come to love.
When we moved into our house on Capitol Hill in 1999, I did not love it nearly as much as I do now. But over the past years, we have invested our time and our talent and our resources in it. I have come to love it because my affection, my caring, and my attention have followed my resources. (Frankly, I used to love my car a lot better when I was making car payments. Now that I’m not investing in it anymore, I notice I don’t get the dents fixed and I don’t get it washed as often as I used to.) Our attention and our time and our love go wherever we invest our treasure.
One of the principles that Jane and I came to discover when we were sitting in a church pew like real people was that we had to give enough so that it mattered in order for it to become an act of worship. We eventually grew to giving a tithe or ten percent of our income to whatever local church we were part of because that seemed to us to be enough so that it at least mattered.
Now, the idea of ten percent or a tithe is a biblical principle, but if I could rewrite the Bible, I would re-write into it a graduated tithe. I think that Jesus sort of did this when he was with his disciples and he saw a widow put a dollar bill into the collection box at the temple. Jesus said to his disciples, “That widow who gave what seems to be a small amount has actually given more than anyone else, because she gave out of her need rather than out of her abundance.”
I think the significant thing is not so much if it is five percent or ten percent or twenty percent. The question is: Are we giving enough so that it makes a difference in our lives? Does it make a difference in the way that we experience and feel it? Do we know that we are giving up something else when we give to God through our tithes and our offerings?
We have some people in this church who live on relatively low incomes. Despite what the Washington Post said about us a few weeks ago, we are not a rich church. We are not a church of rich people. We are people who give out of our incomes, out of our paychecks, out of our social security checks, out of our pension checks. We give week by week to support the ministry and mission of this church. The significant thing is not that we give a certain percentage but that we give enough so that it is significant for us.
Jane and I now have a household income of somewhere around $150,000 a year so we give $300 a week, which is about a tithe. If our income were lower, we might give less. If our income were higher, I hope we would give more. The significant thing is not a certain percentage, but that we give enough so that it matters in our life. Where our treasure is, wherever we invest our time and our talent and our resources, this is what we’re going to end up caring about. I want to give enough to spiritual things so that I will care about spiritual things.
The second principle is this: to give often. It was important to us, and is important to us, to give often, to give every Sunday, not just to give once a month or once a year. Every Sunday when we worship we want to make sure giving is a part of our worship. The more often we give, the more often we remember who we are and what we care about. So we made a commitment to give every Sunday.
We also made a commitment to give when the offering plate went around for some special cause. We made a commitment to give as often as we can because the frequency of giving reminds us over and over again what our commitments are.
The third principle that we came to was to give to God. We gave and give our tithes and offerings to a local church, but when we are doing it, we are consciously aware that we are not just giving to a local church. We are giving to God. We are not just giving to a local church because we happen to like its programs or its mission. We are giving to God so that God can do whatever God chooses to do through that local church. We are giving to something bigger than what we even know or can see.
I miss sitting next to Jane during worship. I love being here and I love being in the pulpit again. But I do miss sitting next to Jane in worship and putting our offering together in the offering plate when it comes by. It defined the commitments of our relationship and our marriage, and it helped define the commitments of our individual lives. It was very spiritual and very empowering. Every Sunday it felt so good to be able to give…to have enough so that we were able to give to God and to God’s work.
I have a cousin for whom I have a lot of affection who went away to college and became an atheist. His family had been very active in church. Christianity dominated their household. My cousin went off to college and became a fierce and avid atheist. I used to love having conversations with him at the family reunion. It was always interesting.
Well, at his father’s funeral (my uncle’s funeral), my cousin at the end of the viewing the night before the funeral sat down with a calculator. He calculated how much his father had given to the church – calculated how much ten percent of his father’s income during a lifetime of working would be. Then he used his calculator to compound interest. He sat there and calculated how much he thought the money his father had given over the years to the church would be worth at that point in time.
He shook his head and said: “What a waste, what a waste! All that money – just thrown away!” He went on about this until my aunt could no longer stand it and said to him: “Son, out of all the money that has passed through our hands over the years, there is no money that your father would rather not have back than our tithes that we have given to God through the church. It is really the only money that we ever spent that I’m confident that your father never regretted.”
my experience, too. Out of all of the
money that has seemed to just wash through my hands, there’s no money that I
have ever felt better about than the money that Jane and I have given to God
going to invite you this morning to consider your commitment to God through
Let this be an act of worship. I am going to go sit with Jane as we complete our card for the year ahead. Let this be an act of worship, and may we all know the joy of being able to give.