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Sermons

Giving from the Heart

March 25, 2012

Bible Reading

Moses said to all the congregation of the Israelites: This is the thing that the Lord has commanded: Take from among you an offering to the Lord; let whoever is of a generous heart bring the Lord’s offering: gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine linen; goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, and fine leather; acacia wood, oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, and onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and the breastpiece.

Then all the congregation of the Israelites withdrew from the presence of Moses. And they came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the Lord’s offering to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the sacred vestments. So they came, both men and women; all who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and pendants, all sorts of gold objects, everyone bringing an offering of gold to the Lord. And everyone who possessed blue or purple or crimson yarn or fine linen or goats’ hair or tanned rams’ skins or fine leather, brought them. Everyone who could make an offering of silver or bronze brought it as the Lord’s offering; and everyone who possessed acacia wood of any use in the work, brought it. All the skillful women spun with their hands, and brought what they had spun in blue and purple and crimson yarns and fine linen; all the women whose hearts moved them to use their skill spun the goats’ hair. And the leaders brought onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and the breastpiece, and spices and oil for the light, and for the anointing oil, and for the fragrant incense. All the Israelite men and women whose hearts made them willing to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord.

(Exodus 35: 4-9, 20-29)


Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field. In the presence of the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. But if, when the Lord your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the Lord your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you, then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the Lord your God will choose; spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together. As for the Levites resident in your towns, do not neglect them, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you. Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.

(Deuteronomy 14:22-29)


“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

(Matthew 6:1-4)

Sermon

Once upon a time, in a galaxy much like this one, at a church meeting not unlike many I attended in my youth, a very wealthy man rose up to share his testimony. “I’m a millionaire,” he said, “and I attribute it all to the rich blessings of God in my life. Friends, let me tell you about the turning point in my faith. I was young man and I had just earned my first, crisp one dollar bill. I took it with me to church that evening and listened as the missionary who was visiting told us about his good work for the Lord. I knew, at that very moment, that even though I only had the one dollar, God was calling me to either give it all to his work or give nothing at all. So at that moment I decided to give my whole dollar to God. I believe God blessed that decision, and that is why I am a rich man today.”

There was an awed silence as the man returned to his seat. As he sat down, the little old lady who was sharing his pew leaned over and said to him, “Son, I dare you to do it again.”

Today we have the opportunity to talk about stewardship and begin the process of intentionally setting aside time to consider how we can best respond to God’s many blessings in our lives. And it is customary to begin this discussion with some words about money. But nobody likes to talk about money, at least not in public. And pastors are especially reluctant to talk about money. I have read a number of articles, studies, and surveys over the years, all of which conclude that the majority of pastors practice the Biblical discipline of tithing ten percent of their income back to the church, and that the majority of pastors would rather talk about anything else in a sermon. And I am with the majority on this one.

Because money is a funny thing. Yes, we need it, we want it, we chase after it, and we do our best to earn it. It can be stolen, saved, won, stashed, given, worshipped, despised, considered the root of all evil and the fount of great good. It seems that money, no matter how much or how little you have, can be seen as either a blessing or a curse. Perhaps that is why, as the Reverend Eric Allison has pointed out, Jesus talked more about money than he did about prayer.

And for good reason. We are right, at least on the most literal of levels, to equate money with power, influence, and security. It is a force to be reckoned with, but if viewed correctly, that is really all it is: a force. Stephen Mitchell has said that “when we see money clearly, we can recognize it as neither good nor bad, but as pure energy, and understand that it can be used, just like electricity, either for good or harm” (The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 240).

So money is a blessing that ought to be held loosely, because it is a blessing that can all too easily overwhelm us if we become too attached. I guess you could say that there is a strange alchemy surrounding the accumulation of wealth. I have seen it in my own life. As I alluded to before, I have done my best to tithe—that is, give ten percent of my income—since I was little. And I’ll admit right away that I haven’t always been successful. But I will tell you something curious that I have learned. You see, I remember tithing out of the check the church paid me back when I was working here as an intern during my divinity school days.

I remember all too clearly how hard it was to make ends meet, and I used to dream about how much easier life would be when I had more money. I was sorely tempted back then not to tithe because I had so little to begin with, but I also really wanted to be true to that ideal. And so I would have the treasurer write out two checks for me each month. One was for the amount I had earned minus ten percent, and the other was the ten percent. He would leave the second check blank for me, and I would fill in the name of the church and hand it back to him. I didn’t trust myself to put the full amount in the bank and then bring the ten percent back at a later time, so I never let the ten percent leave the premises.

But here is the funny thing. For some reason, I thought that when I earned more money it would be easier to give ten percent of it back. But I have found the opposite to be true. The more money I make, the harder it seems sometimes to give that ten percent back to God, because as that sum gets larger and larger, I become more and more attached to the other things I can do or buy with that money. I find myself tempted not to tithe.

And I use the word “temptation” for a reason. Just like Swedenborg, I believe that in a spiritual sense we are always kept in balance, and that as our potential for good grows, so does the nature and strength of our temptation. Because I have always thought of tithing as a powerful spiritual practice, it makes perfect sense that I would feel tempted not to do it. And when I say “powerful,” I don’t mean to sound like the rich man I just told you about. I don’t want to encourage you to tithe with the expectation that God will reward you. Tithing is its own reward and carries within itself an inherent sense of satisfaction.

As Swedenborgians we talk a lot about believing what is true simply because it is true and doing what is good simply because it is good. And we believe that right belief and right action are compromised if they are embraced out of a sense of fear or greed, or for the sake of reputation. I don’t tithe because of what I get out of it, or because I am afraid that God will withhold himself from me if I do not. I tithe because God has asked it of me, it makes me conscious of my blessings, it is a way for me to support the church, and by extension it is a way for me to support the needs of others.

I also use the word “temptation” because in a very real sense I was tempted not to speak about tithing as plainly as I just did. I think it goes back to all those weird attitudes we cultivate about money. In our society we claim that money is a private matter, though how we live could easily leave people of other cultures thinking otherwise. But I think this awkwardness pastors feel stems more from temptation than from a sense of modesty or unwillingness to offend. As pastors we know how powerful this practice can be, and I think we are tempted to keep quiet about it because if we were all to tithe we could accomplish such powerful things and grow in such meaningful ways that the spirits whose job it is to tempt us away from what is good have a lot invested in keeping this knowledge under wraps.

But I already feel as though I have gotten ahead of myself, so let me tell you a little bit more about what tithing entails from a biblical perspective. Often you hear phrases in church like “Now it is time to give of our tithes and offerings,” and you may wonder, “What’s the difference?” Well, tithing is the biblical concept of giving ten percent of your income or yield. Back in the day, if you had ten new sheep born to your herd in a given year, you would take one sheep to the temple and offer it as a sacrifice to the Lord. If you harvested a hundred bushels of wheat, you would take ten bushels to the temple. If your fig trees yielded thirty pounds of fresh figs, you’d bring three pounds with you to the altar.

And, as our reading from Deuteronomy makes clear, you wouldn’t just leave your tithe there. You would offer it to the priest, he would consecrate your gift, then take a portion for himself and the work of the temple—which included caring for and feeding the poor—and then everyone would share the meat, or the fruit, or whatever it was that you brought. Tithing was a celebration.

It wasn’t just about sacrificing or giving away a portion of what you had been blessed with, it was about taking that portion, holding it up in the presence of God, and saying, “This bounty I lay here on the altar is just the beginning of what I have to be thankful for.” God did not require tithes because he was hungry, or thirsty, or in need. He called on his people to be very intentional about bringing their tithes and offerings to the temple because it made them conscious of how much they had been blessed. And it was a practical, evenly distributed, and organized way of providing for the priests, maintaining the temple, and caring for the poor, the fatherless, the widows, and those who sojourned as strangers in their land.

It was a beautiful system, really—a tangible way in which people could come together, give thanks for all they had earned through the grace of God in a given year, support the good work of the temple, and care for the poor. And tithing remains to this day a concrete way in which we can acknowledge that everything good we have comes from God. It is interesting to note that tithes correspond, according to Swedenborg, to everything in our souls that is of God. Swedenborg refers to these aspects of goodness and love as “remains,” generous and heavenly impulses that lie within us at the ready, just waiting for some moment to surface and lead us to act in love. When we tithe, we openly demonstrate our understanding that everything we are, and everything we have that is good, is of God. It instills in us a sense of gratefulness and humility; it makes us conscious of our many blessings, reminds us of our dependence in all things upon the Lord, and enables us to provide for our churches and those in need.

And tithing does not need to be limited to money, just as the blessings God bestows upon us are not limited to money. I think most of you already know this because I see you live it out each week. We are a diversely talented and generous group of people. I am so thankful for each and every one of you because you so freely share your computer skills, your artistic ability, your knowledge of home improvement, your ideas for how we can strengthen our efforts, and your compassion for one another. Even taking the time to come to church on Sunday is an act of giving as well as receiving. I hope you feel this time is worthwhile, but I also hope you know how valuable your presence here this morning is to our community and our future. In some ways I feel as though I am preaching to the choir, because I have seen how each one of you has found ways to share a part of yourself with the larger community.

And so I trust that you can see not just why tithing is important, but also why it is such a joy-filled practice—why it makes sense to give back a portion of what we have been given. But I did promise to tell you about the difference between tithes and offerings, and it is this: tithing involves giving ten percent of your income; offerings are what you freely give over and above that amount. This is why I picked out the reading from Exodus for today as well. I love the image of Moses standing before the Israelites and calling upon them to give the very best of themselves, whether it was gold or silver, or their skilled labor, to create a tabernacle for the Lord.

Listen again:

“Moses said to all the congregation of the Israelites: This is the thing that the Lord has commanded: Take from among you an offering to the Lord; let whoever is of a generous heart bring the Lord’s offering; gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and crimson yarn,... All who are skillful among you shall come and make all that the Lord has commanded:

“Then all the congregation of the Israelites withdrew from the presence of Moses. And they came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the Lord’s offering to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the sacred vestments. …They came, both men and women; all who were of a willing heart brought broaches and earrings and signet rings and pendants, all sorts of gold objects, everyone bringing an offering to the Lord. And everyone who possessed blue or purple or crimson yarn or fine linen or goats’ hair or tanned rams’ skin or fine leather, brought them. Everyone who could make an offering of silver or bronze brought it as the Lord’s offering; and everyone who possessed acacia wood of any use in the work, brought it.

“All the skillful women spun with their hands and brought what they had spun in blue and purple and crimson yarns and fine linen; all the women whose hearts moved them to use their skill spun goats’ hair. And the leaders brought the onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and the breastpiece, and spices and oil for light, and for anointing oil, and for the fragrant incense. All the Israelite men and women whose hearts made them willing to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord” (Exodus 35:4-29).

I love this image of all the Israelites working together, because everyone in that assembly had unique gifts to bring to the project. For some it made sense to offer their gold and silver; for others their gift was weaving or carving. But what I really love about this passage is the repeated mention of the word “heart.” Five times in this little vignette people are described as giving from their heart. And this is so important. Giving our tithes and offerings to the work of the Lord is not about giving out of a sense of obligation or even expectation. It is not meant to be a burden, or a chore, or some sort of karmic roulette game where you give your whole dollar and God gives you a million in return. We don’t give hoping that God will bless us more; we give because we have already been blessed.

And even though tithing involves the number ten, I want to make it clear to everyone that God is not as invested in the amount we give as he is in the attitude with which we give. If God can multiply five loaves and two fishes to feed five thousand, he can take even the smallest offering and work wonders. That is why Jesus commended the widow who dropped in her last two mites and scorned the wealthy men who made such a show of offering lavish gifts in the temple. God does not want your money; he wants your heart.

He wants you to know how much he loves you and cares for you and provides for you, and when you give a portion of that back, whether it’s money or time or talent, you are letting God know, and you are letting yourself know, just how blessed you really are. When I worked in the homeless shelter across Harvard Square at University Lutheran Church, we did whatever we could to allow the guests at the shelter to give of themselves. These men and women who had so little in terms of material goods had the opportunity to offer to dry the dishes or mop the floor, to listen to one another and offer prayers and advice. We are all created to be useful and capable of making a contribution, and because of this, I think we feel a real need to be useful. As long as we are able to draw breath, we are able to give to one another, and there is no price tag attached that determines the worth of such actions. No gift we can give is too big and no gift is too small, if it is given with a willing heart.

So I don’t know about you, but I’m excited. I’m excited to give to the work of the church, and I’m excited to see how God will work in your hearts and lead you, over the next few weeks, to consider what you will offer to the church.

There is a stewardship card in each of your programs. We will take these cards at the end of the month and add them together to draft up our annual budget. But this is not just about money. This is about something bigger. This is about taking stock of all we have and all we are and prayerfully considering how best to give thanks for the good of everyone.

So I encourage you, take your card home. Sit down with it. Take some time to think over the many ways in which you have been blessed by the Lord, and with a willing heart ask him how he would have you respond. Amen.

Prayer

I am bending my knee in the eye of the God who created me, in the eye of the Son who died for me, in the eye of the Spirit who moves me in love and in desire. For the many gifts you have bestowed on me, each day and night, each sea and land, each weather fair, each calm, each wild, thanks be to you, O God.

Rev. Sarah Buteux