Church Math

Malachi 3:8-12

Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, “How have we robbed you?” In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts. Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.

By Chuck Griffin

I should begin with a big word of thanks to all of you who have supported a church financially in any way. Those of us who lead churches don’t say thanks enough to those of you who support Christ’s mission with your dollars.

So, thanks be to God for you; thanks, whether you gave a dollar or a thousand dollars or twenty thousand dollars. When you give, you are part of the solution the church offers to the world.

I wanted to start out with words of thanks because today’s verses, read without much context, sound like a mixture of threats and promises tied to whether you tithe and give other offerings. Don’t tithe, and you are robbing God and faced with a curse. Do tithe, and you will receive an overflowing blessing. And I know that preachers often imitate this text, making threats and promises where church giving is concerned.

I will note that Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament in our Christian Bible, so we should expect more legalistic formulas for relating to God. Jesus Christ, the ultimate expression of God’s forgiving grace, is not yet visibly in the picture.

I don’t, however, want to simply write off Malachi’s words about tithes and offerings as somehow irrelevant. In fact, this minor prophet makes a major connection between what he says about tithes and offerings and the reasons for Christ’s entry into the world.

Malachi’s straightforward question, “Will anyone rob God?” comes in the midst of other, more mysterious and far-reaching words. Just before he speaks of tithes and offerings, the prophet has been speaking of a coming messenger, to be followed by the arrival of the Lord. These words long have been associated with the ministry of John the Baptist—the Messiah’s herald—and the coming of Jesus Christ.

After Malachi speaks of tithes and offerings, he raises a new subject, how God will respond to the faithful. That leads ultimately to prophecies about “the great and terrible day of the Lord,” a time when the wicked and righteous are finally sorted, with the righteous entering a glorious new life. These images remind me of Jesus’ more detailed words in Matthew 25:31-46, where he makes clear that he will be the one to do the sorting.

All of that Messiah and End Days imagery, with talk of tithes and offerings sandwiched in between, causes me to reconsider my understanding of tithing. In fact, that big-picture perspective is what should convince us to tithe.

Certainly, tithing was part of the Mosaic law, the code the Jews tried to live by to remain in relationship with God. It’s important to note, however, that tithing predated the law.

Tithing also didn’t just go away after God’s grace more clearly entered the picture through Christ. Consider this: How did the early church, made up largely of Jews used to tithing, respond to the resurrected Jesus? Rather than shrinking their giving, they gave everything they had. (See Acts 2:43-47.)

If we could interview them, I think we would be hard pressed to find an early Christian who would describe tithing as anything more than a starting point in support of God’s redemptive work.

Scripturally, tithing for thousands of years has served as the baseline for how we participate in God’s effort to move us toward a time when evil is vanquished for good. In the world we live in now, a world where money is the primary driver behind how everything works, we still have to talk frankly about how money gets into church coffers. It gets there because people like you make commitments that the money will be there, and I think the tithe remains the appropriate beginning point for Christian giving.

Here’s a little church math to consider. As best I can tell, United Methodist households in churches I have served give about 4 percent of their income toward the work of their churches. That’s an average covering every active household, whether a household gave nothing or thousands of dollars.

If we could raise that average by one percentage point, incredible things would happen. A percentage point doesn’t sound like much, but if churches would move from an average of 4 percent per household to an average of 5 percent, our funds for ministry would jump by 25 percent.

I dive into this church math for one reason. I want you to see there is increasing power as we move toward tithing in a community, the kind of power that helps change the world.

With more finances available, we could tell more people about Jesus. We could feed more people and clothe more people in Jesus’ name.  We could do more for our children and youth and our homebound elderly. We could start ministries we have yet to imagine.

Maybe we would minister with more programs and facilities to serve the people we’re trying to reach. Maybe we would reach out to the community with more paid ministry staff to lead the way. However our churches might minister, lives would be changed, even more so than they are being changed now.

Here’s what I want you to walk away with today: You are not required under some sort of law to tithe, or to give at any level. As grateful recipients of God’s eternal grace, however, you are invited to participate in God’s restorative work, using the financial resources God has given you.

Lord, speak to our hearts directly about how we use our resources to benefit your kingdom. Amen.

Thanksgiving

Psalm 63:5-9 (NRSV)

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
    and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
    and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
    and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
    your right hand upholds me.

By John Grimm

We are ready!  We have our minds set on turkey and fixings.  We are looking forward to the pie—whether it be pumpkin, pecan, apple, or mincemeat!  We are glad it is time to feast. 

Why are we ready to feast?  God has been providing for us!  We are satisfied by God in our waking—whatever time we are awake.  For when we awaken in the middle of the night and can not get back to sleep, it is prime time to concentrate on the Lord.  This time is when we have a rich feast, and our mouths are full of praise.

I believe the hymn title is: “Count Your Blessings.”  God shelters us, and that’s a blessing we can count multiple times!  We cling to God by noticing how much the Lord does for us.  There is nothing like knowing God’s right hand upholds us!

Lord God, thank you satisfying our souls.  Lying in bed, thinking of you and your work in our lives brings joy to us.  As we know you, may our friends and family notice our contentment in you.  May we have more reasons to be thankful as friends and family find satisfaction in you.  In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray for joy for our friends and family this Thanksgiving.  Amen.

For the One Who Owns Everything

By Chuck Griffin

Several of us in my family have birthdays in the spring months. I’ve had presents on my mind; most of us have a tendency to want to show love to someone having a birthday, and we often do so with a present.

For years, I had trouble finding a present for my grandfather around his birthday. As he got into his 80s and 90s, he had few real needs or wants that a present could cover. We still had that urge to give him something, however, if only to let him know how important he was to us.

The last few years of his life, we focused on simple gifts, mostly the kind my wife, Connie, could make in the kitchen. He seemed to genuinely appreciate her cakes and cookies more than anything we could have bought him in a store.

Why did he like them? Well, these gifts were sweet, and he liked sweets, particularly pineapple upside-down cake. I’m sure there was another reason, though. Connie’s work in the kitchen was a simple act of love. And as I dwell on that other reason, my mind also goes to how we respond every day to our Savior, Jesus Christ, who has given us the gift of eternal life.

Obviously, there’s no way to buy something for the one through whom all things were created. We’re blessed, however, with a simple wish list left by Jesus, one expressed very clearly throughout the New Testament.

If we were to package Jesus’ gift, I imagine it going inside one those big gift bags. You know how people pack big gift bags; sometimes there is more than one item inside. I see two items in Jesus’ bag, both related to the love and gratitude we feel.

The first gift is our love for God. Again, we who call ourselves “Christian” understand what God has done for all of us. Once true belief has washed over us, this gift is easy to give. Our awareness of eternal life should cause us to race toward our prayer and worship times with thankful arms held high.

First John 3:14-18 talks about the second gift. Once we’ve experienced that overwhelming love for God, we are told that we should next feel a similar love for those who share our belief in Jesus Christ as Savior. He even positions our ability to love one another as a test of our faith, a determination of whether we are believers or “murderers,” people who abide in death.

As I meditated on this text, I began to wonder if this is the real point of struggle for the modern church. Maybe it always has been; the letter of 1 John was written for a reason. Within the church, starting at the level of a local congregation, have we achieved the kind of mutual love described in these verses? Do we love each other to the point of being willing to lay down our lives for one another? We’re always going to have disagreements, but do we hear each other with patience, forgiveness and openness to the influence of the Holy Spirit?

Lately, as we in the United Methodist Church find ourselves in what seems to be a mission-stalling irreconcilable disagreement over how we read Scripture, I also have to ask this: For the sake of Christ, do we love each other enough to set each other free, to release the unwanted holds we have on each other? Even Paul and Barnabas, out of love for Christ and each other, had to seek such a mindset in the early days of the church.

Lord, we so often find ourselves focusing on discord in church. Help us to show each other whatever kind of love is needed so we may better work on your behalf. Amen.

Who Owns Whom?

“Peter’s Conflict with Simon Magus,” Avanzino Nucci, 1620. Simon is on the right, in black.

Acts 8:18-25 (NRSV)

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.” Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.”

Now after Peter and John had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, proclaiming the good news to many villages of the Samaritans.


By Chuck Griffin

Earlier in Acts, we learn that Simon was a magician, one so clever he astonished the people of Samaria to the point they thought he was tapping into the power of God.

But even this trickster was drawn to the message of Jesus Christ as Savior. Impressed by the signs and great miracles that truly flowed from God through Philip the Evangelist, Simon received baptism and began to follow the preacher about.

Pretty soon, two apostles, Peter and John, arrived on the scene, laying hands on those who had claimed Christ as Savior so the Holy Spirit would go to work in their lives. In other words, new spiritual gifts became available to this fledgling church in Samaria, expressed visibly in new signs and miracles now flowing through these recent converts.

As we see, Simon had heard the message in only a kind-of-sort-of way. It had not moved his heart to a new place. He saw the world as transactional, all about gain and loss. He thought money could somehow let him control this Spirit power.

Here’s what Simon was missing: We do not control God, and God’s work is never intended to glorify us. Instead, we let God control and guide us, giving the glory to him. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross removes the offense of sin from the relationship, and we are able to resume the role of created beings serving the loving Creator.

It’s a struggle that continues today. Even church leaders can become obsessed with the idea that they need to benefit personally from this kingdom work. Certainly, the “laborer deserves to be paid,” but beware of those whose only motive seems to be personal glory and a paycheck, preferably a big one.

Thanks be to God for all who serve the kingdom humbly and without thoughts of entitlement or reward, other than the joy to be found in eternal life with God.

Lord, may your Holy Spirit flow freely among your church, going to and fro to all who call upon your name. Amen.