Sermon for November 14th, 2021
So, I have good news and bad news about today's sermon. The good news is that this is a milestone sermon. I keep track of this sort of thing, and today is the 400th sermon that I have preached to you in the course of the past decade. That's good news for me at least, since apparently you're still willing to show up and listen to them. I hope it's good news for you, too. After all, that's literally what the word "gospel" means -- good news.
The bad news is that this is the money sermon, the stewardship sermon, the annual pledge drive sermon where if we were public television, you'd all be reaching for your remote control right now to change the channel. Those of you who know me, already know that I absolutely hate preaching this kind of sermon. But I'm also smart enough to know that if we don't talk about money at least a few times during the year, the lights will go out, the building will fall apart, my children will go hungry, not to mention the rest of our staff and their families, and (perhaps most importantly) the 139 year legacy of First Presbyterian Church, its ministry, its mission and its witness will quickly fade into oblivion. No pressure, right?
I thought we might as well just tackle this head on. So I picked a real zinger of a scripture passage, the kind they warn you in seminary never to preach on, the kind that makes people squirm awkwardly in the pews and think to themselves, "Is he looking at me? Why is he looking at me?" Don't worry, I promise I'm looking at ALL of you, myself included. Here we go...
8 Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, “How are we robbing you?” In your tithes and offerings! 9 You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! 10 Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. 11 I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the Lord of hosts. 12 Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.
Crops and Robbers
After that, I figured some humorous diversion might be in order.
A local pastor, going through end-of-year giving records, realized that his church had never received a single contribution from its wealthiest member, who happened to be the town's most successful lawyer. So the pastor decided to pay him a visit at his very large mansion, and after some small talk, he worked up the nerve to ask the man why he never gave. The lawyer responded, "It seems like you've done some research about me. But did your research also show that my mother has been very ill in recent years and is now dying, and has medical bills that are several times her annual income?” Embarrassed, the pastor was silent. So the lawyer continued: “Or that my brother, a disabled veteran, is blind and confined to a wheelchair?" The pastor was mortified, and began to apologize, but the lawyer interrupted him, saying: “Or that my sister’s husband recently died, leaving her penniless with three small children?” Completely defeated at this point, the pastor mumbled, "I'm so sorry, I had no idea..." But the man cut him off again and said, “So, if I didn’t give money to any of them, what makes you think I would give anything to you?”
In our scripture passage today, the prophet Malachi, speaking on behalf of God, calls the entire nation of Israel a bunch of cursed robbers. A little bit of context is probably in order. The book of Malachi is the very last book of the Old Testament, and it's possible that Malachi himself was the last prophet before the 400 years of silence that separate the Old Testament from the New. Most likely, Malachi delivered his message some time in the 6th century BC, after the people of Israel had returned from exile in Babylon, and after the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. It's hard for us to understand just how monumental these two events were in the life of the Hebrew people.
On a smaller scale, I suppose we might compare it to the year 1881 here in El Paso, when the railroad first arrived and people began to flood into the city. One year later, in 1882, First Presbyterian Church was established, and not long after that the people of this congregation built their very first sanctuary, a gothic stone building downtown, on Myrtle street. I imagine those were exciting, energizing times for the people of El Paso, and especially for the Rev. J.E. Merrill and his congregation. When I was in seminary, it was my dream to be a church planter. But God had other plans.
God had other plans for Malachi, too. I said he delivered his message *after* the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple. It was probably quite a bit afterward. You see, when something is new, it's exciting. It's not hard to rally people together, to point out the great sacrifices required to build something that will last. But then once the dream is realized, once the sanctuary is built and the community established, other cares and concerns take over. Maintaining something is not as glamorous as building it. That's where Malachi comes into the picture. The people of Jerusalem have become complacent, and the temple has fallen on difficult times. Much of Malachi's message, in the earlier chapters of his book, is actually directed at the temple priests, who are just "going through the motions," and have lost their former zeal for God. At one point, Malachi says that it would be better to just close the temple doors forever, than to light the fire of God's altar in vain.
But in chapter three--our passage today--Malachi turns his attention to the people of the congregation, and to the nation. Their parents and grandparents made a pact with God, a commitment to support and sustain the temple with something called a "tithe." If you're not familiar with that word, it's just an Old English spelling of the word "tenth." In the Old Testament, God's people were supposed to bring (each year) ten percent of their income--whether in crops, in livestock, or whatever they produced--to the temple.
From a practical standpoint, this was to support the temple priests and their families, who were prohibited from doing other kinds of work. It was also to support the maintenance and upkeep of the temple itself, and to support the temple's responsibility to care for the poor and marginalized people of the city. But from a theological standpoint, it was an acknowledgement that ALL income of any kind came from God, who provided the rain, the sun, and life itself--all the sources of income. God allowed them to keep 90% of that, but asked that 10% be returned to him. The "tithe" then, belonged to God. And when the people became distracted by other things; when the people stopped coming to the temple, and stopped bringing their tithe to the temple, they effectively took something from God that belonged to him. Hence Malachi calling them "robbers."
Like a good preacher, Malachi gets the attention of the people with a shocking claim--you are robbing God! But also like a good preacher, he goes deeper. He calls the people to take action: "Bring the full tithe into the storehouse," he says, speaking on behalf of God. He tells them why: "so that there may be food in my house." And then he gives them a challenge and a promise, again speaking on behalf of God: "Put me to the test . . . see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing."
He goes on to address their deepest fears and worries: "I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren." If God were speaking to us today, through Malachi, I imagine he might say, "I will rebuke inflation, so that it will not destroy your income; and your paycheck will not be a surprising disappointment."
I think a little caution here is in order: Contrary to what some churches today teach, God does not promise that if you tithe to your church, he will make you fabulously wealthy and your life will be a bed of roses. That certainly wasn't the case with the people of Israel. No, the promise is that if you do your part, God will do his. And what is God's part? When it comes to money, it's not to give you more--it's to give you enough. And there's something even more valuable God promises us, right there in verse 12: "Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts."
We give to the church in order to maintain the church, to maintain its ministry and witness in the world. That's not always exciting, but it is a necessary and important part of being a faithful person. We also give to the church because everything belongs to God--all that we have--and he asks us to return a small part. Finally, we give to God in order to reap the benefits that he has promised us: Not wealth, but happiness and delight.
In my own life, I have always felt the most blessed, the most happy and most fulfilled when I have been the most generous--to other people, and to the work that God is doing in the world.
But don't take my word for it. Put God to the test. Bring your full tithe into the storehouse, and see if he will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.