“God’s Challenge: Put Me to the Test”

Malachi 3:6-12

Dr. Robert J. Anderson

September 28, 2014

 

I want to share a couple of stories I heard recently with you.

 

Pastor Johnson was sitting at his desk when the phone rang.  He answered and the person on the other end of the line identified himself as Agent Edwards with the IRS.  Pastor Johnson’s heart skipped a beat or two.  The agent continued that he wasn’t calling about him but one of his parishioners.  It seems that Gerald Becker reported that he made a $16,000.00 contribution to Pastor Johnson’s church, and he called to verify the contribution.  Pastor Johnson sighed a quiet sigh of relief and said, “I’m sure it must’ve slipped his mind, but he will send the check as soon as I remind him!”

 

Sam came into his pastor’s office, with a face that wanted to express wisdom, but portrayed pain.  “Jim,” he said, “I’ve been doing so well in my business–been making more money lately–that I can’t afford to tithe anymore.”  Jim grabbed Sam by the shoulders and forced him to his knees. Then he offered a word of prayer, “O Lord, lower this man’s income so he can tithe again.” (source unknown)

 

One of the reasons that stewardship is such a difficult issue in so many congregations is because, no matter how much people spend on themselves, many feel it is never enough.  Many people think that they have not accumulated enough possessions to satisfy themselves.  Therefore, until all of their own wants and desires are fulfilled, they consider their giving to God as a lesser priority.

 

Apparently this has been a part of American culture since its earliest days.  Writing during the early part of the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans “find prosperity almost everywhere, but not happiness. For them desire for well-being has become a restless, burning passion which increases with satisfaction.” (Peter C. Whybrow, American Mania: When More Is Not Enough [New York: Norton, 2005], p. 103) (CEB)  We can certainly testify that is alive and well in our culture and society today.  I am amazed that people will stand in line for hours, days, and overnight to get the new iPhone!  It’s like the present phone won’t make calls, and they have to get the newest one immediately!

 

When you go to a doctor for your annual check-up, he or she will often begin to poke, prod, and press various places, all the while asking, “Does this hurt? How about this?”  If you cry out in pain, one of two things has happened. Either the doctor has pushed too hard, without the right sensitivity. Or, more likely, there’s something wrong, and the doctor will say, “We’d better do some more tests. It’s not supposed to hurt there!”

 

So it is when pastors preach on financial responsibility, and certain members cry out in discomfort, criticizing the message and the messenger. Either the pastor has pushed too hard. Or perhaps there’s something wrong. In that case, "we’re in need of the Great Physician because it’s not supposed to hurt there.” (source unknown)

 

It seems to be unspiritual to talk about money in a sermon.  At least, it strikes many that way.  I remember the reaction to one of my early stewardship sermons.  It was repeated to me that some members that didn’t come every week said they came to worship for a spiritual message and got at stewardship sermon.  And, added to this, there were two cars in the manse’s drive way—never mind that there were two working adults in the home and in a place where there was very little public transportation!  You see the assumption the person made was that the “stewardship sermon” was unspiritual and really an appeal for the pastor’s salary to be raised.  Preaching about stewardship is all about the pastor slipping from preaching into meddling!

 

Using our money responsibly for the benefit of others is a central theme of the Scriptures.  According to Jim Wallis, about one out of every sixteen verses in the New Testament deals with the poor or the subject of money.  In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), one out of every ten verses deals with those topics.  And in the Gospel of Luke alone, one out of seven verses speaks of the obligations of wealth. (Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It [San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2005], p. 212) (CEB)  Buttrick’s book, The Parables of Jesus, lists 43 parables.  Twenty-seven refers to money and possessions.  One out of every ten verses in the gospels deals with money.  The Bible includes 500 verses on prayer, fewer than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2000 verses on money and what it buys.

 

Typically we hear about tithing (giving to the church 10% of our resources), but we are surprised when we see it somewhere else.  Yet an article in Forbes magazine spoke about tithing.  The author, Rich Karlgaard, admits that often when we hear about tithing, we stereotypically picture in our minds some smooth-talking TV preacher urging his viewers to send in large amounts of money in order to receive particular benefits in their lives.  Karlgaard was astonished when he recently learned that a higher-income couple that he has known for some time suddenly decided that they needed to make tithing a part of their lives.  Previously, the couple confessed, although they had considerable income coming into their household, at the same time they seemed to be constantly falling deeper and deeper into debt.  Now by tithing, the husband and wife say that they have gotten their priorities in order. That particular couple has decided upon what they call a “10-10-80 rule.” They “tithe, save, and spend joyously, in that order.”

 

Greg Gianforte, the founder and chairman of RightNow Technologies started his company in a spare bedroom in his house in 1997, and by 2005 the enterprise had sales of about $40 million a year.  Gianforte views tithing as a religious duty, regardless of whether it provides any benefits to the tither.  Yet, he notes certain positive things in his life.  For one thing, he says, “The decibel level in my life has gone down.” He explains that it is “because every possession speaks to you. Everything you own wants attention. When I began to tithe, I found a freedom from my possessions. I don’t hold on to things as tightly anymore.”  Tithing also creates a sense of discipline. He states, “Discipline begins to show up unexpectedly in other areas of my life. When I began to tithe, I was able to rise earlier in the morning. I am more patient with people.”

He points out also that tithing “puts you in touch with people’s needs.”  That, he says, is not only good from a religious point of view, but it is good from a business perspective as well.  Finally, Gianforte suggested that “when you tithe, you begin to see your role as a steward of resources. You don’t engage in wasteful spending. You learn to become a bootstrapper.” (“Irrational Act,” Forbes, 2/14/05) (CEB)

 

Good stewardship is a skill that many Americans today lack. One sign of that is the fact that while the United States is one of the most affluent nations on the face of the earth, Americans tend to be one of the most debt-laden people.  66% of Americans don’t save enough for retirement.  76% of Americans are living from paycheck to paycheck.  The average American’s credit card debt is $5,200.00  Then you figure financing a house and transportation on top of this.  When people carry so much debt, it robs them of their ability to be generous.  They have no flexibility to…give to their church, support cancer research, help out a friend, be able to respond spontaneously to a good cause.

 

I talked to Bob Smith, our Parish Associate, this past week about stewardship and what he said was direct and to the point.  He responded, “My Father owns the cattle on a thousand hills!”  Bob quoted a song I’ve heard before and think about every now and again.

He owns the cattle on a thousand hills,

The wealth in every mine;

He owns the rivers and the rocks and rills,

The sun and stars that shine.

Wonderful riches, more than tongue can tell –

He is my Father so they’re mine as well;

He owns the cattle on a thousand hills –

I know that He will care for me.

 

Bob went on to say, “If you never give a nickel to God and God’s ministry he won’t love you any less, but he will use you less.”

 

Two wealthy Christians joined a party that was going around the world. Before they started, their minister asked them to observe and to remember any unusual and interesting things they might see in the missionary countries through which they traveled.  The men, without thinking too much about it, promised to do so.  In Korea one day, they saw in the field by the side of the road a boy pulling a crude plow, while an old man held the handles and directed it. One of the Christians thought it was a humorous scene and snapped a picture.  "That’s a curious picture! I suppose they are very poor," he said to the missionary who was the interpreter and guide.  "Yes," was the reply, "that is the family of Chi Noui. When the church was being built they were eager to give something to it, but they had no money. They sold their only ox and gave the money to the church. This spring they are pulling the plow themselves."  The two Christians were quiet for several minutes. Then one said, "That must have been a real sacrifice."  But the missionary said, "They did not call it that. They thought it was fortunate they had an ox to sell."

 

“If you never give a nickel to God and God’s ministry he won’t love you any less, but he will use you less.”

Over the next several weeks you will hear from our Mission and Stewardship Team as we enter our 2015 Stewardship Campaign.  Spiritually speaking, this should be a time of prayer and discernment.

 

United needs your support now and in the coming year.  We have utility bills to pay and property to maintain.  These aren’t very glamorous projects, but they are here none-the-less.  There is per capita to pay: again, not a glamorous obligation.  We could support mission here and around the world through the Presbyterian Church (UAS) but we can’t afford it.  We could join the other Presbyterian Churches in east Volusia County and give our sponsoring financial support to the Presbyterian Counseling Center, but we can’t afford it.  We have a dedicated staff that works serving you that received a 10% pay cut several years ago and few per cent increase since then and now working through the second year with no increase.  We draw upon the funds from the sale of the Highlands’ property to float our budget.  There are many things we might do for people and new ministries, but we are strapped for funds.

 

God’s challenge to each one of us is to put him to the test.  Tithe and see if the windows of heaven don’t open and God’s blessing rain down.  If you aren’t tithing, then to suddenly give 10% is a big step and overwhelming.  So, start where you are and increase over several years to reach your goal—increase 3% each year until you reach the tithe.  Try it.  God challenges you to put him to the test—tithe.  If you find that God doesn’t bless you and you don’t have all you need.  Tell him he failed the test and you don’t have to tithe anymore!

 

A priest once asked one of his parishioners to serve as financial chairman of his parish.  The man, manager of a grain elevator, agreed on two conditions: No report would be due for a year, and no one would ask any questions during the year.  At the end of the year he made his report.  He had paid off the church debt of $200,000.  He had redecorated the church.  He had sent $1,000 to missions.  He had $5,000 in the bank.  "How did you do all this?" asked the priest and the shocked congregation.  Quietly he answered, "You people bring your grain to my elevator. As you did business with me, I simply withheld 10 percent and gave it to the church. You never missed it."

 

God challenges us to put him to the test!  I suspect you won’t miss the 10%, AND you won’t miss the windows of heaven opening up and raining down blessings upon you either!