A Sermon Preached by the Rector, Rev Chris Williams as part of the Money Matters series

10 September 2017

Readings Proverbs 3 v 9-22, Luke 6:27-38 and 2 Corinthians 9

Money. There are few subjects that cause such dramatic and varied reactions as money and, as people have realised we are using September to look at this subject I have been the object of much advice and many suggestions as to what I should say (or not), and why.

Just before I begin properly I just want to ground some of this in our own context here. Some of you have implied to me that we (I) am only looking at money now because the church needs money. Well, that’s partly true. The reality is that, despite the generosity of many people we, as a church community are kept afloat by the interest from our investments. We are effectively sitting on over half a million pounds but we are unable to use it because we need the income it generates. Simply, we are not paying our way.

The Archdeacon wrote to the PCC to say that this is not a healthy situation – a comment few of us would disagree with.

Here are some of his comments:

Your investment income should be a “bonus” in terms of its contribution to church finances, and not a key part of your necessary core income.  Therefore, if you are running at a sustained year-on-year real deficit, there is an underlying stewardship/commitment issue that you need to address and rectify – and I would say that needs to come first and be before – or at the very least run alongside – any attempt to tackle a large capital fund-raising appeal for the future of the church.

…this is an unhealthy position to be in, as it cushions your members from embracing the full costs of committed church membership and discipleship, diminishes stewardship, and also weakens the credibility of any significant appeal for funds that you may seek to make in the future.

The challenge as I see it is to what extent are we facing up to: ‘The full costs of committed church membership and discipleship’

We are fortunate to have so much money and we must be grateful that we have it – but with so many hopes and plans and with so much need in the world, we should be able to use it.

So, yes, some of the motivation for this special month is to enable us – the parish church in Liss – to be as effective as we can in our worship, our discipleship and our mission – all of which constitute our core business and all of which can be enabled by money. But, and I hope this will become clear over the weeks, the challenge to us all is bigger and deeper even than that. This is not (just) about us paying our way and releasing half a million pounds.

Yes, the church and its mission is ‘a thing’ – an important thing (I hope you agree). Let’s acknowledge that – let’s place it here in full view. But let’s also recognise that this subject is bigger than that and, in fact, goes right to the heart of our discipleship. I have been a Christian for 50 years and I have been challenged in new ways these last few months since studying Dethroning Mammon and preparing for these talks – in particular in the areas of what I spend my money on and what I give. I am hoping that all of us are challenged to review our commitment to Christ in this area of our finances.

I wonder how you feel about the fact that we are looking at money? I know some people are uncomfortable with it. I would like you to stop a moment and consider why? What are your fears or concerns? What’s going on in here (in your heart)? Acknowledge your feelings.

When I look at my own heart in relation to this issue, I think any concern I have relates to the fact that I know that what I do with my money – how I spend it and how much I give – is something of a litmus test of my relationship with God: revealing something deeper about my heart and my values in general.

So let’s acknowledge our feelings, our fears – maybe even our guilt and ask God to help us to listen with an open mind and an open heart.

So, I make no apologies for speaking about money and giving this morning. It’s a vitally important part of our life and therefore a vitally important subject. And it’s something mentioned extensively in the Bible – in over 800 passages in fact. So not to talk about money would be decidedly unbiblical.

Well, I’ve got three weeks left to address a subject that could take months. Where do we start? Well, I suggested in my email that I would begin in the Old Testament – these foundational stories of our faith. What can we learn here?

Well, as we’ve seen, the Hebrew Scriptures are full of references to money – the majority of them encouraging generous giving to the poor.

But, let’s go back to the beginning – the period from Genesis to Moses. Before Moses we find that there are no rules about giving – all giving is voluntary and is directed toward God in an attitude of love and sacrifice. The offerings of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, are the first recorded acts of giving. These offerings were voluntarily, and there was no requirement, no amount, no stipulation, and no frequency placed upon them to give.  Noah responded to God’s saving power after the flood by offering a sacrifice. Again, it was voluntary. After Abram (later Abraham), was given the promise by God and entered into the new land he also offered a sacrifice – again, there was no command – simply a spontaneous response to God’s blessing.

Well, what about the tithe? I hear some of you saying. The first mention of the tithe (which simply means tenth by the way) was when Abraham offered a tenth to Melchizedek, this enigmatic priest. Abraham had just won a battle and responded by giving a tenth to this representative of God. Again, it was a voluntary, one-off offering and was in fact only a tenth of the spoils he captured in battle – not of everything he owned. Jacob, too, offered a tenth to God for his blessing but again (you guessed it, it was voluntary and a one-off). But notice this: in the Ancient Near East, ten represented completeness, the giving of a tenth symbolized the giving of the whole. In other words, by giving a tenth, people indicated that their gift was a symbol of the fact that they were giving their all freely, out of gratitude.

So what about the period between Moses and Jesus? And the reason Moses is pivotal is because he represented the period when the Israelites came under the law – which was given to Moses at Sinai. This is when giving became conditional.

The nation of Israel was divided into twelve tribes, and one whole tribe—the Levites—were priests. A 10% tax was requested of the other 11 tribes to support the priests. (that clearly means that as priests we should be given 110% of the average earnings of the congregation! I’m joking – but I do know church leaders who have appealed to this passage in such a way!).

So 10% was requested of the people, but a second tithe was also required, and you can read about it in Deuteronomy 12. It was called the Festival tithe and it was quite exciting actually – listen to this: “And there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices (well, that might not sound very exciting to modern western ears!), your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock. And there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the Lord your God has blessed you.” The purpose of this tithe was to stimulate devotion to God and to promote unity among the people. It was like a national bring-and-share because it made everyone, well, share. So, 20% so far.

And then we discover a third tithe was required, and it was called the Poor Tithe. This was to provide welfare for poor people, and it was 10% every third year – which averages out to 3.3% recurring every year!

This tithe goes to (and I quote from Deuteronomy): “the Levite, (those priests again!) because they have no inheritance of their own, foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns that they may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”

So when people say the Israelites gave 10% it is not true – they gave 23%. This was effectively a tax for the good running of society – although a society that was led by priests and for whom the religious system was a major part.

But that was what was required. On top of that was voluntary giving! There was an offering called the firstfruits.  Before the tithes, the Jews would collect the first and the best crops and fruit and give it to God.

Proverbs 3 says: “Honour the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.”

How much were the people to give voluntarily to God? As much as they wanted to give. They just honoured the Lord and gave voluntarily to him. And God promised them that if they were generous, he would bless them with plenty.

Not everyone wanted to be generous to God and the writer of the Proverbs said : 1:24, “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.”

Do you see what God is saying? God says that if you do not have an attitude of generosity you will continue to suffer a shortfall. On the other hand, if you give freely, if you honour the Lord with your wealth, you will have more than enough to meet your needs.

And just an aside here: Think for a moment about your relationships. There are some people ‘out there’ who are selfish and greedy – concerned primarily about themselves – their wealth, their image, their possessions, their reputation, their security – and who seem to care little about the situation of others. There are also those ‘out there’ (and I hope ‘in here’) who are generous, big-hearted, always looking for the best in others, always willing to help – with time, money, effort, whatever. Which of those groups of people tend to have the closest friends, the genuine relationships, the love, support and good-will of the community?

I suggest that the way we live our lives – (what we sow), will affect what comes back to us (what we reap).

Anyway, back to this voluntary giving. I hope you noticed that God did not require a tithe regarding his people’s voluntary giving. In fact, the LORD said to Moses when building the tabernacle: ‘“Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering for me from everyone whose heart prompts them to give.” (Exodus 25:1-2). And you will notice more than an echo with the Corinthians passage we had this morning which says: Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. Notice, even way back in these OT times, God seems infinitely more concerned about the attitude of the heart and the underlying motivations– than the bottom line. The way we use money – how we spend it and what we give –  is a window into our hearts.

So, as we look at the Old testament we see two forms of giving: Required giving which was effectively a tax made up of three tithes amounting to 23% a year. It was used to enable the national government to run the priestly programme, the national religious programme, and the welfare programme.

Voluntary giving was always from the heart. There was no command to give voluntarily. God’s people were told that if they honoured God, he would honour them. They were told that if they were generous towards God, he would be generous towards them. Voluntary giving was always an expression of love and devotion to the Lord.

This was the world that Jesus and the disciples grew up in

Next week we will look and see what the NT says about this area of giving – what does it add – what does it remove from the OT understanding?