15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
I have been counting, and in the past two weeks, I have received financial solicitations from my elementary school, my high school, my alma mater, my fraternity, my seminary, my local NPR station, my favorite advocacy organization, my favorite charity, my preferred candidates in the upcoming election, and now, my goodness, we’re going to talk about money at North Decatur United Methodist Church.
I hope you agree with me that it is important to support your schools, your local charities, the issues that move your heart. I think it is important to have your checkbook reflect the desires of your heart; in fact, I give money every year to all the organizations I mentioned. And yet . . . and yet the church is different. I want to talk about that today, about why the church is different, sort of reframe the way we think about money in the church.
I do want to start by just sort of calling a spade a spade, and being clear that one of the weirdest things about the church talking about money is that it is usually the pastor that does it, because it is the case that my family and I benefit financially from your giving. My paycheck comes from you. And that’s strange. It can feel like I am up here begging or whatever, which is not what I mean this to be, particularly as I have asked the church council not to give me a raise this year, but I’ve been in other churches and seen how it can go, and it can feel like the church is after your money more than anything else, but I also want to acknowledge that while it can feel a little like this, that to let that awkward feeling rule is to use the awkward nature of this conversation as an excuse not to talk about it or not to take it seriously.
And so let’s just sort of wallow in that awkwardness for a minute, become friends with it and move on, because this stuff is too important to let the awkwardness stand in the way of having a really frank discussion about the dynamics that are involved in our giving. …
Are we good? Ready to move on? Good.
Let’s talk about generosity for a minute. I hope you have had the chance to be generous. It feels good, doesn’t it? It feels good to give things away. I’d say that if you are looking for long-term happiness, there is no better investment than to give away your money. I like being generous, which is why I support all of those organizations. I like seeing my name in the annual report of the college. I like getting the little return address labels and the magnets and all the rest. And so every year, I sit down with the budget and say to myself, how much do I think my high school needs from me this year? How much does my seminary need from me? How much should I give? And I sort of see where we are financially, my wife and I, and make a decision based on that sort of information.
There’s nothing wrong with this kind of thinking—in fact, it is good to think about how much a charity needs from us. But when we are talking about giving to the church, it is the wrong question, because the church is not just another charity. None of those other organizations can say, with a straight face, what the church says, which is that what we are doing is the most important stuff in the whole world.
I know I am not saying anything revolutionary, but I do want to share that I am not saying this just because the church happens to write my paycheck. If it is true, as we speak about sometimes, that the church functions as the Body of Christ, that it is the body of Christ, then what we are about is fundamentally different than anything else we do, any other good we do, any other service. What we are about here is the most important stuff in the whole world.
And if the church is the most important body in the whole world, that means that charity isn’t. Government isn’t. Those things are important, but they aren’t the most important. I hope this isn’t a surprise to you, mostly because I hope you’ve experienced it for yourself.
I hope that through the church, you have experienced a God who loves us, who delights when we delight, who cries when we cry, the God who loved us so much that he did not let death win, who loves us so much now that death still does not win, so that the worst thing ever to happen to you will not be the last. In fact, God loves us so much that God has given us the gift of the church, this community, to rally round us when we are sick, to care for us when we have loss, to go out the back doors at 12:05 or whatever it is, empowered to change the world. This isn’t a club. We don’t spend this much time and sweat and tears on a club. This is the body of Christ.
And because of the unique nature of the church, when you give to the church, you aren’t really giving to the church. I mean, yes, we need money do ministry, but in a very unique way, you are giving to God, because the church is the primary way God acts in the world. So the wrong question to ask is how much money does the church need? How much should I give in response to the church’s need? The question to ask is this—and I want you to write this down. What percentage of my income is God calling me to invest in the work of God? What percentage of my income is God calling me to invest?
I want to share that I think there are three faithful answers to this question. If you are wondering what percentage of your income that God is calling you to give, I think you can answer that question three ways.
The first faithful way to answer that question is to say that God is calling me to invest ten percent. Maybe you have heard us talking about tithing—that’s what it means. It comes from the Old Testament account of the Israelites being commanded by God to give ten percent of their income to the temple, and every three years giving ten percent to the poor on top of that. This is where we get the language of “first fruits,” of God wanting you to give your first fruits, because the Israelites were literally told to give the first fruits and vegetables and grain they grew to God. We share in this practice today—it was Jesus’s practice and it continues to be God’s expectation. In fact, I want you to know, that tithing, that investing the first ten percent of my income to the work of God through the church, is something that my wife and I both practice. We haven’t always, but a number of years ago we determined to work our way towards a tithe, and it is my practice now. My salary is public, so this isn’t private or whatever, but I tithe. I invest the first ten percent of my income to the church. After every paycheck, $209 is drafted from my bank account, such that I invest $5000 a year in the work of God through North Decatur United Methodist Church. That is 10% of my income, and it is what I will again be writing on my estimate of giving card next week. Special offerings and gifts—and gifts to charity—are on top of this, because God wants my first fruits. Everything else comes after.
You probably know that my wife is also a United Methodist pastor, and she does the same thing with her income to the church she serves. I am not telling you this to brag—there are plenty of folks here who give more than I do—but to affirm that we are talking about real money here. When Stacey and I budget for the year, we budget on 90% of our income, because the first fruits go to God, and it works. It works. In fact, I don’t know if you know this or not, but the church even operates on this principle when we craft the budge. This congregation gives a tithe, the first 10% of our budget back to God through what we call apportionments, giving that goes to the global church. The first ten percent of your giving goes to run Africa University, to provide disaster relief, to feed orphans, to combat diseases like malaria and ebola. It goes to build new churches in the United States and around the world. It goes to our United Methodist Colleges and universities. And then on top of that giving, we budget for special ministries, for cooperative ministries, for missionaries. When we say that God works through the church, we mean it.
Now, I want to be very upfront about all of this, because I don’t think it is helpful to pretend that God doesn’t expect this from us, but I do want to acknowledge that while tithing, that 10% is God’s expectation, it is not the only faithful answer to the question, “what percentage of my income is God calling me to invest in the work of God?”
The second faithful answer to that question, I think, is to say, I hear that this is God’s expectation, but I’m not quite there. I think it is faithful and good and holy to say, 5% or 6% or 4% of our income equals this much money, and it will be tight, but we will build toward tithing, because what we are doing here—welcoming everybody, sharing God’s love, telling God’s story—this stuff is the most important stuff in the whole world. I think that is really, really honorable, and it is a good thing, because before I was a tither, this is how I got there. I said this year, we’ll do this percent. Next year, we’ll take a step up in faith and invest 1 or 2 percent more. I know this can be difficult, because I’ve done it myself, and so if you are wondering about practical ways to do this, about how to make it happen, or why I think it is so important, please know my door is open, because while it is not the case that we talk about money all the time here, it is certainly the case that it is a really, really deeply spiritual issue.
That is the second faithful answer to the question, “what percentage of my income is God calling me to invest through the church,” but there is a third, and maybe this is something you are considering. Tithing is God’s minimum expectation, and yet if I read anything in the life of Jesus, it is that we are called to go beyond the minimum. We are called to keep investing, to keep sharing love. Maybe God is calling you to go beyond 10%. I feel God calling me there, and I am hoping to get there soon, because I want to be faithful. I want to be a faithful disciple. I want to respond to the incredible gift of love I see in Christ, the love that I see in the church.
Now, there’s a danger in this kind of conversation, because you might wonder, how much is enough? And I don’t have a good answer for that. I wish I believed that the more money you gave to the church, the more God would bless you financially, but as Jim said earlier, that’s just not how it works. And yet we are still called to give—not because it buys us happiness, or because the church needs the money, or because we’re hoping to hire a children’s minister next year as Mary Gene steps back, which we are—but because this is what God expects of me. And while it is the case that I’ve never met somebody who got rich by giving their money away, I’ve never met anybody who was unhappy because they did.
Listen. I’m about to sit down, but I want to acknowledge that this is not the most complex sermon you’ll ever hear from me. It won’t win any awards for rhetoric or poetry. And yet sometimes we just need to lay things on the table, for it is the case that this question—how much of my income is God calling me to invest in the work of God?—this is one of the most important questions of the life of faith. It is so important that the church spends a month talking about it and even risks making you a little uncomfortable. And so as we prepare for Consecration Sunday next week, when we will fill out our little estimate of giving cards and chart a course in faith for the next year, what percentage of your income does God want you to divert from investing in your kingdom so that you can invest it in God’s kingdom, the thing that is being built here, in this community, and around the world? What percentage of yourself will you invest?