(From Sunday’s sermon)
Today, I’m preaching to myself and I need you to hear that. I’m preaching at the point of my present struggle. And for some reason God keeps asking this of me! My writing and my preaching is usually painfully birthed out of total vulnerability.
But, if this subject of money and tithing is not where you are wrestling, I trust that God will show you where the wrestling mat has been thrown down in your life.
Come, Lord Jesus Christ, come. I pray that the wind of Your Holy Spirit will breathe strong on all of us here…burst open those doors we try to hold shut against Your Presence. We ask You for hurricane-force strength winds today. You come and do this work in us. Amen.
So friends, this is where it all started: Monday night vestry (our board meeting) we sat down cozily at Lynne Maxwell’s house and my husband, Andrew, led us through a Bible study that could be described as anything but cozy based on the Gospel (Mark 12:41—44) and Old Testament (1 Kings 17: 8-24) from this morning.
That’s where the hard-core sweat on the mat wrestling with God began.
Anyone else thankful that the widow had such hardcore trust in God but fearful that God might ask the same of us?
I had just been crunching numbers the weekend before, Andrew, has been recently able to provide a more steady extra income from the website design business and the swirling numbers were starting to come into focus. I was gathering a healthy feeling of control. I sat down on the futon with a cup of tea and an empty November budget from Dave Ramsey spread out before me and began crunching last month’s numbers. Oh. I hadn’t realized what those choices were really costing us. I started fumbling through the money being pumped into our cars at the gas pump and then evaporating into thin air. I know you all are going through the same thing as you look at your own numbers.
Then, my eyes slid down to the tithing line item. We had honestly stopped tithing last January when we bumped our salary down…
but this is what I’m realizing…
when we stop tithing, something dams up in our heart and it’s a whole lot harder to get started again.
With my finger on that empty line item, a toddler whine rose up from some deep cosmic place…it’s mine.
David knew that giving rearranges our perspective. This is what He said:
Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power
and the glory and the majesty and the splendor,
for everything in heaven and earth is yours.
Yours, Lord, is the kingdom;
you are exalted as head over all.
Wealth and honor come from you;
you are the ruler of all things. (1 Chronicles 29:11-12)
Tithing is just this: knowing that all of what He has given us was His in the first place.
Tithing is getting down on our knees and begging for the idol of greed to be slain in our lives.
It is money that is out of our control…an offering. And sometimes we wrestle laying down squirmy things on the altar.
Do you remember that creepy emaciated figure in the Hobbit? That’s the image I get. I’m Gollum in the Hobbit holding onto that ring and petting gold whispering, “My precioussss.”
But I fully understand that 90% of the world does not live anywhere like we do!
We in America live insulated in our two car households, with 1500 square feet on average and throwing out at least $500 worth of food every year! 90% of the world lives in a building the size of some of our sheds and lives on $2.50 a day with much bigger families. 1 billion people on our planet do not have safe drinking water and we have it coming out of our shower heads! We have NOTHING to complain about!
Discontent is a contagious disease. We pass greed around eagerly with every handshake, we inhale it as we watch television.
In Matthew during the Parable of the Sower, Jesus explains that our small seedlings planted by the word of God get choked by what? …The worries of this life and the desire for wealth.
Matthew 13:22 “The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced. “
When we stopped giving, I slowly began to believe that it was all mine…
The question is, when my fingers clamp tightly around that small round coin, could it be that my heart gets stony and tight too?
On Monday night at the Vestry meeting, the scripture exposed the hard truth.
Here’s the gospel scripture again:
“Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
This time as you listen, place yourself in the scripture, are you a disciple, a passersby listening, someone in line at the treasury ready to give out of your abundance, or perhaps the widow herself?
What are you hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling? What words stand out to you?
By the way, this way of looking at the scripture is called the Ignatian Way. Ignatius taught us not just to open our ears to the scripture but to live inside the stories through the senses and allow God to transform us by jumping into the Word with our whole selves.
It was in the middle of this scripture that I began to wrestle…. Someone at the vestry pointed out that the widow was giving not out of abundance, but out of poverty. Unbidden, my anger started rising.
Like much of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes an Old Testament command and raises it to the nth power. Don’t just avoid committing adultery; don’t lust after a woman in your heart. Don’t just love your neighbor, love your enemy. Don’t just give and “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
And now here: Don’t just tithe out of abundance, give out of your poverty. Really God? You can’t be asking us to give from the point of our fear?
Have you ever gotten angry at a word of God? It’s kind of scary…but our emotions, especially strong emotions are just signals that there are tender spots to bring before God…and it was clear I had some major work to do in His Presence.
It was then that the truth began to emerge. Jesus pointed to His love, His sacrifice. Nothing held back. All given out of love. He left heaven, a world of perfection, of riches and a throne to be born from an unwed mother into poverty,
left perfect health to be crucified,
left perfect love of the Trinity to be rejected.
Jesus is talking less about money in this scripture and more about full heart conversion. He just knows that with us Gollums, what we do with our money says a lot about where we worship.
Where we put our money tells us about our focus and even more telling…about our trust.
Matthew 6:24 says, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
The tithe is my bowing down before the altar, money in hand, and worshipping, offering to God all that I am.
On Thursday I schlepped our bulky Lenten cross into Joy Seiler’s living room and each of us in my Journey group asked God for what sins we were running to instead of giving our full selves, our pain, our mistrust, our wounds to God. Then after a time of silence, we took small nails and the hammer and banged them one at a time, confessing to one another the idols we were begging to give us life…instead of God.
This is what the Lord seems to be saying to me:
The weekly tithe is another hammering, each time banging my greed, my discontent, keeping my greed nailed to that cross…
…a nun came to LeAnne Payne, one of my favorite Anglican inner healing prayer ministers…
This nun had laid down in front of the altar, given her all to God but had never felt close to the God she served. She was drowning in depression, a swirl of negative thoughts about herself and her relationship with God. LeAnne invited her to journal through each negative thought and ask for a verse to speak directly to that thought pattern. (Extremely helpful idea, by the way…)
She wrote this in a letter back to LeAnne and this, friends, is where hope finally sparked for me…this is where the grace comes in:
[That horrible thought that keeps going over in my mind, “I’ll never be able to surrender to God” met Ezekiel 36:16-36 (and I want you to write this down because this is THE key to the spiritual life) but especially verses 25-27. “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
And she continued with this: “My surrender issue is of long, long standing. I have felt as though my hands were hopelessly clamped onto my life, control, a driver’s wheel, a rope—something that had to be let go of, but I couldn’t pry my grip loose, and confessors who demanded a verbal declaration of surrender made me feel only MORE guilty and frustrated and hypocritical because I knew the words couldn’t effect the reality. And now—it doesn’t matter anymore! It is God’s responsibility. I can trust Him to give me the heart and spirit of surrender when it pleases Him…”
I finally lay down on the wrestling mat, face down. Lord, I can’t do this myself. I need the Spirit of God to be put in me to move me to follow His decrees. This is always the key: God’s Spirit in us, moving us to follow Him.
If it is your desire to have God work in your life like the nun experienced, pray with me:
Lord, we admit it…we can’t do this ourselves…we have places in our lives where we have closed and locked doors to You. But we know that abundant life means getting healed and holy and having the wind of Your Holy Spirit blow through every corner of our lives unhindered.
Jesus, we thank You that through Your blood and through baptism, You have already sprinkled clean water on us, and we have been made clean and You are still cleaning us out;
Continue to cleanse us from all our impurities and from all our idols. Give us a new heart and put a new spirit in us; Remove from us our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh. Put your Spirit in us and move us to follow your decrees and be careful to keep your laws.
We thank You that this is already Your will in our lives. In Jesus name, Amen.