Bruce Van Blair
November 16, 2014
I Corinthians 3:21-4:2
STEWARD OR VICTIM
I was at a wedding reception a few months ago and found myself off at the quiet coffee table instead of over at the busy bar. It was calm enough there for conversation, and a very pleasant Lutheran lady got to telling me about her church and what she thought of the wedding ceremony. Another pretty lady was standing near us. I took her to be a friend of the first lady, so I asked her if she was Lutheran also. She squared her shoulders, turned straight toward me, and announced forthrightly that she was an atheist. Now, that would not be my first choice, but each person to her own.
Then she glared at me earnestly, as if she had thrown some gauntlet in my face and, if I wanted to save my honor, I had better try to convert her right on the spot. At my age, a statement like that is more pathetic than offensive, but I said, “Hey, it’s your life. If you want to serve Athe, it’s okay with me.”
“I wish to serve nothing and no one,” she shot back with considerable energy.
“Well,” I said mildly, “I’m sure that’s just what you do.”
Mercifully, she wandered off, no doubt looking for some male with more spirit with whom to joust. And I stood there uttering a quiet prayer that I might somehow be allowed to serve my Master well enough that He would not think me an atheist.
Now, if you think I had no caring for this woman, you would be mistaken. But it would take long-range community and commitment to get into a reasonable conversation with her, and I saw no likelihood of either. If I could have known her story, I’m sure it would have been sprinkled with broken trust and betrayal by men – probably starting with her father – and she was not about to sign up for any heavenly version of “more of the same.”
To her mind, she was making a heroic statement: a declaration of freedom; a promise to be her own person in a harsh and unfair world, no matter what it cost her. To my mind, the step up was into a dead-end wasteland – lonely, isolated, and defensive – a pointless and pathetic waste of life. It is tragic when humans serve nothing and no one. What could sound sadder to my ears? When I was a kid, I read a story about a man without a country. Bleak and sorry as that was, it was a charming picnic when compared to a conscious creature who has no link with their Creator.
On the other hand, it is scary and dangerous for us humans to give our allegiance and devotion to anything. We do not like to be played for suckers. There is something egregious about realizing that we have played the sucker, that we have been taken advantage of, that we have been played for fools. We all write declarations of independence when that comes to light. Often humans would rather die than go on living and giving to those who take without intending to give anything in return. That is, in fact, the definition of a “sucker”: someone who gives without getting anything in return. Often the church speaks and teaches as if it were trying to convince people that it is some kind of higher spiritual development for people to play the sucker. This is one of the most damaging things that the church ever does, and many people never really trust the church because it teaches and preaches this way. It also means that the church draws to itself many people who like to play others for suckers. So it is no wonder that when the church asks for money, lots of people get suspicious and many people are turned off. We say commitment, and people hear victim. We say steward, and people hear sucker.
Jesus, by the way, never talks about giving without getting. Jesus never asks for a selfless sacrifice. Jesus never suggests a change of behavior or invites people to do anything whatsoever without promising a better REWARD than they are presently getting. Even the starkest teachings about dying to self are clearly stated to make us let go of very limited levels of self-awareness that we have become attached to or that we are stuck in. The purpose is to get us to break free and become our true selves – not to get us to become selfless! Jesus does not just want from us. Jesus always wants more for us – far more than we are willing to receive. Far more than we even believe is possible. That is why we talk about being LOVED. Love is never selfless, anemic, or conditionless; it never wants to give without receiving or to receive without giving. And this does not contradict Paul’s love hymn in the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians – it puts passion into it. When does Paul ever take passion out of anything?!
Why is it that so many dedicated, believing Christians do not tithe to the church of their Lord and Savior? They don’t want to be played for suckers. If it is merely a human institution, with some humans getting rich at the expense of other humans, why should anybody tithe? Clearly no one should tithe on that basis. And I bet I know more sad stories than you do, if we wanted to illustrate the point.
Some of you are rather new to our covenant system and procedures, and lots of the rest of you have wrestled more than usual with your covenants this year. Now that it’s all over and you have turned your covenants in – and it’s too late for me to be trying to persuade or cajole you into anything – perhaps I can explain.
First of all, our covenants include our entire program for raising money to run this church. A couple of brief announcements and a letter from the Board of Deacons – that was it, that was the whole deal; just a reminder/request to write your covenants. Nobody calls in your home. There are no financial thermometers on the wall. WE LIVE WITH WHAT WE GIVE. There might be a larger message in that phrase somewhere, but there’s no time to go into it. We live with what we give.
Second of all, in this church you can write a covenant and never mention money. Our bylaws require us to accept any covenant you write, exactly the way you write it. If you do not mention money, we will never complain. Well, you might hear a Trustee wondering why eighteen percent of our members don’t promise any money to help with our expenses, but they will not know who those people are. And they may not remember that I keep urging some of you to not give any money. That has nothing to do with being poor. We have poor people in this congregation, and some of them give the widow’s mite that gleams in the eye of God. If you ask me, I will tell you to TITHE: give ten percent of your income, regardless of outer circumstances. (There is one exception.)
This is a belief statement on my part, and tithing is one of the spiritual steps of the Christian Way of Life. Tithing has an impact on the church budget, to be sure, but it must not be done for that reason. As a matter of fact, I don’t think it can be done from that motive. At least I have never known a person who tithed because of the impact it would have on the church budget. Tithing is an allegiance thing. “Whatsoever thou givest unto me, I will give a tenth to thee.” It is tribute to our rightful King. It is an act of faith and commitment. “While I live, ten percent of my income goes to my true King.” It started with Abraham, and we just read about what Jacob did. It is one of our oldest traditions. When we stop tithing, our hope begins to die. Not our hope in God, perhaps, but our hope in the earthly institutions we participate in to honor and serve God. When we stop tithing, we no longer believe that the earthly church is very important to Jesus or His purposes. This is not a scold. I wonder about it nearly every day, probably a lot more than you do. I just keep coming up with the wrong answer. Tithing is what we do when we still mean it – when we still believe in “Thy Kingdom come on earth.” Not that we expect that to happen in fullness, but it is still what we want to live for.
If all of you believed that Jesus Christ really came to establish a spiritual fellowship on earth, and that this fellowship would live and work to transform human lives, generation after generation; if all of you believed that this was the most important aspect of being alive on earth; and if you each believed that giving ten percent of your income to the Christian church was your privilege and your chance to keep this movement strong and effective – then I know you would all tithe. What else could be more important? No excuse would suffice to cut you out of your share in this work and for this Kingdom. So if you do not tithe, is it not because you have doubts about these things? Stewardship is not a clear precept in your mind. And you don’t want to be a victim or a sucker. Either you think the promises are false or you think the church is insincere. Or you think the whole affair is a good deal less important than it claims to be. You may think or say to yourself that it is because you are selfish, but I don’t believe that. I tithe because I am selfish. If you were truly selfish, you would too.
So you do not have to tithe. You do not have to give anything, for that matter. Nobody here will ever try to make you. I will always try to persuade you, but that’s because I want you to have a better life. And you will not be persuaded until you believe for yourself that it really is a better life. That is how it is supposed to be. Tithing is one of the spiritual disciplines of magnitude. If you seek greater awareness and a higher bond with God, tithing is one of the ways to move in this direction. Going into partnership with God with this kind of investment sets many things in motion that have far-reaching consequences in our lives. Meanwhile, I hope you know that there are people in this congregation who will consider it a privilege to carry some or all of your share, while you take whatever time is necessary to grow and learn and come into your own. Others did it for them. Do not feel badly about staying honest.
Let me state the warning again: You must be careful not to tithe until your heart is ready. Your pocketbook never will be ready. To tithe out of gratitude and devotion is a spiritual step, not an economic step. It cannot be faked. If you try to tithe out of any other motive, it will backfire. God does not need your money. God does not want your money if you do not want to give it. God will not receive your offering if you give it for the wrong reasons. The church will receive it, because it doesn’t know any better. But God will not. If you have a hang-up about money, give no money. Concentrate on some of the other spiritual disciplines: pray every day; study the Bible every day; carry the Message; consider your vocatio; choose your six; find a Mentor; work to strengthen the faith community; concentrate on friendship. Then one day you will discover that the hang-up has melted away and the Spirit will put it into your heart to tithe, and you will discover the great joy of allegiance to God and giving to the Kingdom.
One day, after hearing such statements from me, a person came up and said, “You’re just trying to use reverse psychology on us, aren’t you?” I said, “You just really don’t get it, do you? Somewhere you got so cynical that you can’t believe I’m not trying to trick you into something. What if there really is a God – what if Jesus really came and we really are supposed to be the body of Christ in this world? Have you ever thought of that as a possible explanation for the things I say?” This person could not track that. She thought I was trying to play her for a sucker. She thought I just wanted her to give to God and get nothing in return. Have you ever tried that? Giving to God without getting anything in return? Good luck!
No doubt some of our members who give nothing to this church are just careless or uncaring. And some who keep giving in their old patterns may also be careless or uncaring. But some of that eighteen percent who give nothing are just following my instructions. If God is angry with them, it is on my head. Just because a pastor has virtually no authority here on earth does not mean we carry no responsibility in Heaven. If they don’t like it at The Gate, blame it on me. That will not work in very many areas, but it will work in this one.
So, if you don’t pay the IRS, you get thrown into prison. If you don’t pay the King of the Universe – the Creator of All That Is – what happens to you? What happens to Christ’s church on earth is that it grows weak and ineffective, but what happens to YOU?
Some people say you get thrown into a lake of fire. In this church, we believe that you will be taken into the eternal realms, where you will be forgiven and healed and loved and restored until you want to be alive, want to contribute, want to give from all that you have received. It is joy to overflow.
The secret of life, some say, is in learning to give. Close, but no cigar. That is what the shallow people say. The great theme in all of life –and the central principle in all relationships –is dialogue: a giving and receiving.
If you only talk or if you only listen, it gets boring and stale pretty fast. If you work but do not receive payment in some form, it ends up being ugly. We used to call it “slavery,” but the ugly goes deep inside –and both ways. That is, it is as bad for the one you work for as it is for you. If you marry and try to make love but it is not a dialogue – a giving and receiving – that gets ugly too, both ways. There is a word for that also, but I will not say it.
The great theme of life and of all relationship is dialogue –giving and receiving. And when it moves beyond legalism and deals and keeping score and goes creative – that is, when the trust has grown up and become mature – it gets so wonderful and wondrous that it breaks us into new dimensions.
Do you remember a phrase that goes like this: “Give and it shall be given unto you”? Do you know where that is from or who said it? (Luke 6:38) It continues: “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over....” Does that sound like a sucker deal?
But at the first level of awareness – when our minds are occupied with getting what we want or need and they are spending very little time or focus on giving – the phenomenon is that, focused on acquiring, we are mostly blind or oblivious to what we are receiving. I hate to remember how bleak that can be.
Gratitude is not yet alive and well within us when we are focused on what we want to get instead of on what we are receiving. Maybe under huge gifts our gratitude yawns and stretches a little, but it still does not come fully awake. As we learn to give, one of the miracles is that we awaken to what we are receiving – and then gratitude comes awake and alive within us, making us eager to give more and more, as the realization of what we are already receiving becomes increasingly conscious. The problem is, this does not happen with counterfeit giving – that is, the principle does not operate if the giving is forced or is coming from false motives, like guilt, fear, duty, or in the hope of controlling something. Isn’t that a downer. But we have heard it before: With spiritual principles, there is no way to cheat. How do you fake love, or faith? It gets us nowhere, except into despair.
The sheer fact that we are here and at least semiconscious this morning is a miracle of staggering proportions. And it is the result of such compassion and love on the part of God – and of literally countless other human beings – that even a tiny, true awareness would transform us forever.
So do not force your giving. It is a contradiction in principles as well as in terms. It will only backfire in resentment and set you back for years. If you do not want to give, do not give. And never focus on trying to make yourself be generous. Work on waking up. Why did God create you? Why did God die for you? Why does God try to contact you daily? The mystery and the magnitude are staggering. We do not need to kick or scold ourselves, or try to warp or remake ourselves. We only need to work on waking up.
Copyright 2014 by Bruce Van Blair. All rights reserved.