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Edward F. Markquart

It Blows My Mind!

I would like to begin the sermon for today with two stories.  The first is a bad news story and the second is a good news story.  First is the bad news story. Recently, I was talking to a young man who is not so young anymore;  he fought in Viet Nam.  He is a Christian and a member of another neighboring Lutheran church, but he grew up in this congregation, a young man known to some of you.  He was involved in the ugliest parts of the war in Viet Nam.  He was in the worst kind of face to face combat, and the word, awful, does not begin to describe what this young man did and had to do when fighting the war in Nam.  When he finally did come off the battlefield or out of the jungles, he went back to his barracks to discover that he received a letter from his church (not ours).  The letter was the financial quarterly statement from his congregation that had been forwarded to him.  He had given nothing to the church, not a dime, and the letter implied that he should be sending the church his offerings. Meanwhile, out in the jungle, many of his buddies were being killed, and as each young man was killed, his GI friends took all of their money, gathered it together, and sent it back to the dead soldier’s family.  These soldiers were giving away every dime that they had to the families of their dead buddies. Now, needless to say, this young man did not have real positive feelings towards God or the church during this time in his young life.  In fact, his feelings were rage and fury, and he still struggles to overcome the furious rages in his midnight dreams.

For me, this story symbolizes the immorality and insensitivity of the church concerning money.  It symbolizes the immorality of the church when pastors and leaders abscord with the church’s money;  but much more importantly, it also symbolizes the insensitivity of the church that makes people feel guilty for not giving more money.  For example in the newspaper the other day, an elderly woman was caught shoplifting for food, but the church will send her a letter which says, ‘Old lady, why aren’t you giving more dollars.” Or a single mother in our church does not have enough money to buy shoes for his kids;  she has been feeding them Top Raman for food and doesn’t have enough to pay the food bills and doesn’t want to use the food bank because to do so would crush her dignity, and then she comes to church and hears a sermon with the strong message:  give more money to the church, and she feels enormously guilty.  Or a person is married to a spouse who is not a church member and wouldn’t be caught dead giving an offering to the church.  The faithful spouse who comes here all the time arrives on the third Sunday of November and hears a sermon with a not so subtle message to give more money to the church, but by doing so, the marriage will be further upset.  And so I appreciate the story of the young soldier from Viet Nam because he symbolizes the immorality and insensitivity of the church when it causes guilt in people for not giving to charity. The church often causes guilt in people who are barely surviving and keeping their heads above water.  To such people, the church needs to get down on our knees and say:  “Forgive us.”  So, that is the bad news story.

Now, I would like to share with you a good news story or stories.  I called Lutheran World Relief the other day, and talked to one of their top administrators.  The suffering in Cambodia has been in all of our newspapers recently, and I asked him what we Christians were doing in Cambodia.  He told me that we are doing plenty; that OXFAM is the primary relief agency of the world and they have been working in Cambodia for a long time; they have a history of good work there.  All the relief agencies funnel their money through Oxfam into Cambodia.  These are relief agencies such as Red Cross, UNICEF, Catholic Charities, Lutheran World Federation from Geneva, Lutheran World Relief from America, American Friends, Church World Service.  Our offerings for Cambodia go to Lutheran World Relief to Oxfam to Cambodia.  That’s the way the system works.  It works sensibly, with fabulous partners who are already working in that part of the world.  Secondly, Dr. Bill Foege, a Lutheran physician and graduate of Pacific Lutheran University, is head of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, and he was in that part of Asia recently and he is helping to co-ordinate medical supplies for that region.  Third, there was a recent meeting in the White House about Cambodia, and all the representatives of the primary agencies were there.  They were organizing a concerted effort to feed, house, give medicines, job training for the people of Cambodia. All the agencies that I previously mentioned were there.  To me, this was symbolic of the church of Jesus Christ at its very best, symbolic of the church when we understand that we are to be the hands and heart of Christ.  This is symbolic of the great numbers of our congregation who give offerings excessively and generously to the work of Christ in the whole world.

So we have two stories:  We have a bad news story about this young friend in Viet Nam, and we have a good news story about the church at its very best in what we are doing in Cambodia.

Years ago, I was taught at the seminary that a sermon is supposed to have an introduction (which you just received) and then three points, in the classic style of Aristotle.  I would now like to make six points about stewardship.  These six statements are based on the Bible’s teachings about money and my own experience of wisdom that I have learned from you during the years.

First, Christ was never cheap.  Being a Christian is never cheap.  The cross is never cheap.  All the stories in the Bible about conversion and discipleship call for total commitment.  Christ asks to rule every part of your life and mine:  our hearts, our hands, our minds, our mouths, our feet, our everything, including our pocketbooks. The call of discipleship is for total commitment, not selective commitments.  It is not “I’ll select the cheap part to give to you, Lord.” Christ wants to rule our hearts that control the pocketbook and how we spend money.  The key is ruling the heart; and the heart has a direct connection to the pocketbook; a direct link.  Christ rules hearts of people like us.  Christ is never cheap and true love is never cheap.  False love is cheap, most of the time.  Cheap loves looks like God’s love on the outside but never is. 

Second, the Bible asks for at least a tithe to be given in offering to God. Now, I especially want to talk to you confirmation students who are taking notes on the sermon.  The word, tithe, is spelled, T I T H E and that means 10%.  I want that in your sermon notes.  In case you don’t know it or your parents haven’t talked with you about it, Christ wants you to give at least 10% of your allowance or your income to Christ’s work in the world.  So if your income is $5.00 a week, that means a Christian is to give at least fifty cents. If you make $10 from allowance and/or babysitting, that means we give one dollar in the offering plate of our choice.  This tithe comes right off the top.  It is the first thing you do.  Out of thanksgiving to God for life, you happily and joyfully give the first portion and the best portion to God. You keep the 90% to use in ways you see fit.  Now, I want you confirmands to understand this; but more importantly, I want you to do this.  But more important than I wanting you to do this, God wants you to do this.  That’s what God is saying to you in the Bible.  It is very serious to develop good habits early in life, and those good habits of childhood and youth may be with you throughout your whole life.  It is harder to develop good habits in adulthood, as many of us realize. God in the Bible asks us to tithe.

Third, a tithe is never the goal of Christian giving; the tithe is the starting point.  A person never strives to give a tithe, 10%, and then say to yourself, “Oh, I have arrived, I have given 10%, I am a better giver than you.”  It is never a goal to tithe and then pat yourself on the back for arriving at your goal.  Nowhere in the Bible does a person ever give less than a tithe.  Not once.  Nowhere.  In fact, if you can find one place in the Bible where a person gives less than a tithe, I’ll give you a hundred dollars, a hundred dollar bill.  But don’t worry, I won’t have any takers.  The disciples gave all that they had.  The widow in the temple gave her last two pennies, again, all that she had.  Zaccheus gave 50% of what he had to the poor. The Gospel of Luke invites us to sell all we have and give it to the poor.  The goal of Christian giving is to give everything.  The starting point, the first step on the ladder, the first rung, is a tithe.  That is where it begins.  By the way, taxes were much higher in the Roman Empire than they are in our American Empire.  Also, the Apostle Paul told the first Christians that they were free from the tithe; that the disciples didn’t have to give 10%; but Paul never scaled anything down.  And Jesus didn’t scale anything down.  I can’t imagine the first disciples saying, “Well, I don’t have to tithe. What a relief. Guess I will give 2%.”  No.  When the disciples were freed from the Jewish law of the tithe,  that meant they were free to give more. You are free to give sacrificially, to give all that you have.  The point is:  the first step on the ladder of giving is a tithe; it is the starting point.  O yes, I remember where in previous sermons that I encouraged Christians to start where they were and increase their giving by 1% a year until they pass the 10% mark.  That still makes sense in our American culture. But the first step in the ladder of Biblical giving is 10%.  “Bring the full tithes into my house, says the Lord, that I may abundantly bless you,” says God in the book of Malachi.

Fourth:  rarely, if ever, have I heard a tither complain about the lack of money to spend.  People who tithe rarely complain about not having enough cash around.  Sometimes these people are rich; more often, they are poor; and sometimes they are middle-income; but regardless of income, they tithe to the Lord right off the top, their first and best gift, not the leftovers after all the bills have been paid.  What is interesting to me is that the people who complain the most about the shortage of money usually give the least to charity.  It always amazes me that those who tithe rarely complain about money and they always seem to have enough money to do what they need to do.  Those who complain the most, seem to give the least.  I truly believe that God cares for us in all our needs.

Fifth:  in comparison, lower-income Christians do not seem to resist tithing as much as higher-income Christians.  Higher income Christians seem to have a greater resistance to tithing.  I worked in another parish one time, and they had so many doctors and dentists that I could have a dentist for each tooth in my body.  These were great people, my dearest friends, but did they fight the concept of a tithe.  They couldn’t afford to tithe, so they thought. Meanwhile, in a neighboring Lutheran church in that town, with mill workers, construction workers, secretaries, teachers, and other people with moderate incomes, their congregational giving was just as good as the rich church down the street. This was very revealing, and this is often true.  Why is it that the more money your make, the more money you need to spend on yourself?  Why is that?

Sixth:  What would happen if most of our households tithed?  It blows your mind.  The possibility truly blows your mind. What if we had an extra $300,000 to give away?   I telephoned church headquarters and found out that we could sponsor ten missionaries a year. Ten missionaries?  It blows your mind.  I called the person in charge of American missions and the told me we could buy a start for a new congregation, the land, the building, It blows my mind. We could take the 150 women in our congregation who are divorced, single, with kids, and are barely keeping above the poverty line, and we could give each of them $2000 a year.  It blows my mind, how much it would help them.  I called a professor friend of mine at the University of Washington, and he made a quick calculation of what to buy with $300,000  and he said we could feed 7500 people daily for one year.  That blows my mind.  He reminded me of the story from Jesus about the boy with two fish and five loaves of bread.  The boy gave them to Jesus, and before you knew it, there was enough bread and fish for 5000 people.  Some say that the real miracle of this story was that Jesus got everyone to share, and when everyone shared significantly, everyone ate, and there was food left over for tomorrow.  It is called the miracle of the feeding of the 5000.  But this professor said that our congregation could feed 7500 people  a day, for 365 days.  Now, I am telling you, that blows my mind.  Our miracle would exceed the famous miracle of the feeding of the five thousand.  If that happened, that would be a true miracle and everyone would study us to find out what happened.  What happened on that day and hillside in Palestine? Simply, the people shared what they had, and it became the miracle of the feeding of the 5000.  If we shared what we had, we would experience the miracle of the feeding of the 7500…every day. It blows your mind.  But this professor friend from the University had an even better idea, so he said. It was to buy land and equipment for water and farm equipment, so the families would not receive a handout of food, but be able to grow the food.  He said he would get back to me on the telephone how many families we could sponsor so they could  get their own land, water and equipment.  It blows my mind.

So, what do you want to do when we all tithe?  Sponsor ten missionaries? Build a new church here in America?  Support 150 single families in our parish? Feed 7500 people a day for a year?  Buy land, water and farming equipment so they can grow the food for themselves?  And of course, you have dreams and visions to consider as well. It just blows my mind thinking about the possibility.  Jesus worked a miracle when he got the people to share.  Can similar miracles happen today?  In you?  In us? Amen.

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