Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

October 15, 2017

Matthew 20:1-16; Philippians 4:1-9


There is no beating around the bush this morning.  Today’s sermon is all about tithing—a Biblical concept that carries a lot of baggage, especially when we start talking about other people’s money.  The good thing about tithing is that it is so easy to calculate.  All that you have to do is move the decimal point one place to the left, and you know exactly how much you are being asked to give.  If you make $200, you give $20.  If you make $200,000, you give $20,000.  The math is simple.  It’s the amount that may be much more difficult, especially if you are on a fixed income, or don’t make much money in the first place.  At this point, we all remember the story about how Jesus commended the poor widow who gave all that she had to the temple treasury—something that Jesus did in order to make the point that everyone else was simply giving out of their abundance.

Most of us do give out of our abundance, and that is a good thing.  However, depending upon where you get your information, on a national average, people generally give about 3% of their income to charitable organizations.  Given that the annual median income in the entire Bay area recently was reported to be $96,000, that 3% amounts to $2,880 of benevolence per individual or household earning any kind of income.  If we introduce the concept of the tithe into this conversation, that amount would be $9,600.  Too often people will shrug off this challenge by saying that the tithe is just a religious thing that religious leaders use to obligate their people to give more money to their churches.  Besides, I’m already obliged to pay my taxes.  So, why should I feel obliged to anyone or anything else in terms of my charitable giving?

This natural reaction to the tithe is reinforced by Jesus’ own repudiation of the scribes and the Pharisees whom he accused of tithing their mint, dill, and cumin in order to earn God’s favor, while neglecting the more important matters of justice, mercy, and faith.  In this instance, Jesus was not critiquing the concept of the tithe.  He simply was exposing and denouncing how the religious leaders had turned the concept of the tithe into a legalistic practice that it was never meant to be.  As the practice of the tithe was originally introduced within the nations of Israel and Judah, it was a religious construct that was meant to ensure that those who had little if any means to support themselves—like widows, orphans, and sojourners—would receive some kind of welfare to be sustained in this life.  Thus, the tithe was meant to be a contribution to the way of justice and peace throughout the community.

Based upon Ron Sider’s book, “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger,” introducing the tithe is just the beginning of this conversation.  He suggests that if we only advocate for everyone to give 10% of their income for charitable causes, then those who only make $20,000 annually will be left with $18,000 on which to live, while those who make $200,000 annually will have $180,000 at their disposal in order to support their lifestyle.  Quite a difference in terms of available living expenses!  Therefore, Sider introduces the concept of a graduated tithe—a practice that involves increasing the percentage of your giving beyond a tithe as your income also increases.  This practice is a much more progressive way of considering how we make our contributions rather than the strict practice of tithing for everyone across the board.

Here is where the distinction is made.  A straight-across-the-board practice of tithing may seem to be a fair way of administering this concept, but what often is considered to be fair is not always the just thing to do.  Take for example our gospel lesson for today.  Those who worked all day thought that it would be only fair to pay everyone for the number of hours that they had worked, while the landowner paid everyone the same amount according to his standard of justice.  Likewise, when the Apostle Paul concludes his letter to the church at Philippi today by encouraging the people of faith to concentrate on whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just—not fair, but just—whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, and whatever is commendable, and to do these things, we could include in this list of things the practice of a graduated tithe.

As you might have deduced by now, I am an advocate for the challenge of tithing, not as a matter of legal obligation, but rather as a way of taking care of those who are the least among us and seeking justice for all people as well as for all creation.  Therefore, as we move into a conversation about a graduated tithe, there is an assumption that the tithe—or 10% of our income—is the starting point for any intention of charitable giving, whether it be to the church or to any other organization, ministry, program, or cause that falls within our baptismal commitment to strive for justice and peace in all the Earth.

Today, I would like to follow Pastor Elizabeth’s example from a few weeks ago when she invited us to write down our personal statement of faith and beliefs as a spiritual exercise.  Knowing that she wasn’t going to ask us to do something that she wasn’t willing to do herself, she then shared with us her own statement of faith and core beliefs.  I find myself in a similar situation this morning because asking you to consider a tithe or even a graduated tithe in terms of your charitable and justice-oriented benevolence, I had better be able to hold up my end of this proposal or be held accountable for not doing so.     

All that I need to say in this regard is that when Cynthia and I were married, we made a commitment to give at least a tithe of our income to strive for justice and peace in our community, in our nation, and throughout the world, whether it be in and through the church, or through other organizations, ministries, or causes that were consistent with our values.  Consequently, when we moved to Washington DC, we were living on Cynthia’s meager salary, I was without a call, and Cynthia gave birth to our first child.  Even under those circumstances, we continued to give 10% of our income to justice and peace organizations and ministries that we wanted to support.  When we both became gainfully employed, we increased the percentage of our benevolence as we saw fit, and knew that we still were simply giving out of our abundance.

At this point in the conversation, we all are reminded of the famous verse about God loving a cheerful giver, and the implication that if you cannot give cheerfully, then maybe you ought not be giving anything at all.  From my perspective, there are many, many other criteria to use that are more important than cheerfulness in determining the heart of our benevolence—criteria like love, compassion, commitment, and whatever is justice-seeking, peace-making, and life-giving.  Add to these criteria, Paul’s criteria of whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy, and we have more than enough foundational criteria on which to build our community and support all that we do as individuals and as a congregation.

Now I know that your heart is in the right place, because as a congregation you have committed 10% of this current capital campaign to support the ELCA Campaign that will fund new congregation starts, leadership development, hunger and poverty relief, and global missions.  Besides that, we—and I now feel like I can say “we”—have pledged 10% of our pledge and freewill offerings to our Synod, a significant portion of which goes to the national ELCA.  In addition, we give to so many other ministries and organizations through St. Mark’s such that our total benevolence as a congregation is well beyond the tithe that we already have committed to the broader church.  We do this as a congregation because we are a people of faith who are inspired and moved by the Holy Spirit to do so.

Look around you this morning at everyone gathered here.  We have so much for which to be grateful, nothing more significant than this holy meal that we are about to share together.  Here we are reminded that we have a God who loves us, who always is ready to forgive us, and who promises never to forsake us or abandon us.  Here is where we encounter Jesus, the One whom we profess to be our Christ, and who, as the image of God, has revealed to us the inclusive love of God, the beloved community that God desires, the justice that God requires of us, and the way of reconciliation and peace that will heal our broken world.  Here is where we are renewed in the Holy Spirit, the one who has called and gathered us together as one people—a community of faith that is united in the body of Christ which we are called to build up so that every part is working together properly in love.        

Our financial gifts to the mission and ministries of this congregation is one of many ways for us to build up our community of faith within these four walls as well as to contribute to the health and wholeness of the neighboring community that surrounds us and of the world in which we are global citizens.  At the heart of these gifts is our desire to love our neighbors as we have been loved by God and to strive for justice and peace in all the Earth.  As you consider your pledge to St. Mark’s for another year, may this love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, the cornerstone of our community and the bedrock of our faith.  Amen.