Friday, November 02, 2012

November 4, Proper 26, Organized Love, Organized Religion

Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Psalm 119:1-8, Hebrews 9:11-14, Mark 12:28-34

Next week is Consecration Sunday. Which means that this week my job is to preach my annual sermon on tithing. Let me begin prosaically, with five principles of tithing: It’s intentional, it’s challenging, it’s a priority, it’s an investment, and it’s risky.

It’s intentional. Tithing is a discipline. Tithing is not charity, it is not a response to someone else’s need. Tithing is not responding to the needs of your neighbor or the needs of the church. Tithing isn’t even done at church— you do it at home, when you sit down to do your budgeting in general, when you budget your cost of housing and your Verizon plan and how nice a vacation you can take this year. Tithing doesn’t come from feelings but from sober intentionality.

Second, it’s challenging. Tithing is meant to cost you, just like your housing and your groceries. If the money you tithe does not cut into what you might spend on other things, it isn’t tithing yet. The ideal tithe is ten percent. That seems high if you are new to tithing. Okay, tithing is not a law, it’s a freely chosen discipline, so start at three or four percent or whatever challenge you can reach. And then next year, challenge yourself one step higher. The point is the challenge.

Third, it’s a priority. It’s from the top. Whatever percentage you choose, it’s the first portion of your budget, it’s the top percentage of your income. You budget your tithe before your housing or your cable or whatever else is in your budget. It’s the top.  Because your soul is the dearest thing about you. Because your money should serve your soul and not the other way around. Tithing is the tool you use to prioritize the economic by the spiritual.

Fourth, it’s an investment. It’s not a response to current need, it’s your investment in the long term work of God in the world. It’s also an investment in yourself, in your spiritual power over the money you have, instead of your money having power over you. You know that in our culture money means power, and money has more power over every one of us than any one of us admits to. Money demands of us that we take care of it and protect it and secure it. Tithing is how you claim some freedom from the power of money. Tithing is how you accept the power of money but reject what it demands of you. Tithing is an investment in your own empowerment.

Fifth, it’s risky. Every investment has some risk in it. You will ask yourself if you can really do this. Your certified financial planner would advise you to invest that top percentage of your money more realistically. To tithe is a risk and it requires faith. You can tithe as a way of managing your risk by means of the faithfulness of God, by believing that God is providential.

Those are the principles of tithing. The motives of tithing are two. Gratitude and love. You heard about gratitude form Jeff Chu last week and from Lance Gangemi the week before. The week before that you heard about love from Kelly Greene. I want to take up love again, because of the scripture lessons we heard today.

So Jesus, tell us, which commandment is the first of all? There are 613 commandments in the Torah, 613 mitzvoth, which mitzvah is the first? If Jesus had been a Christian, he’d have gone to the first of the ten commandments from Exodus, “thou shalt have no other God before me.”  But Jesus was a Jew, so he went to Deuteronomy, to the first mitzvah he repeated every morning in his prayers, after he repeated the Shema. And then, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Translate “might” as “strength” or as “power”. And if money is power, could you say that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your money?” Well, that’s at least the motivation. Tithing is from love.

Then Jesus adds another commandment, another mitzvah, from Leviticus, “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” Very close to the first one, but subtly different. You must love God totally, but you must love your neighbor equally. The command to love God is unlimited but the command to love your neighbor is measured with proportion. You need to love God with limitless extravagance, but you need to love your neighbor in balance with loving yourself. You love God with everything, and that’s why tithing is the top part of your spending, thereby giving the proper meaning to everything else you spend. You love your neighbor in equal proportion to yourself, and that’s why tithing is the percentage that you determine according to the measure of the cost of your life and your family’s life. You measure the cost of love, in real, practical terms.

You don’t have to do this if you want to be spiritual but not religious. You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to participate in organized religion. You can just go off by yourself to the beach and see God in the sunrise. You won’t have to think about anyone else. You won’t have to share with them or forgive them or be forgiven by them. You can have your spirituality without any risk or challenge or investment. You won’t have to do the work of love as part of spirituality.

Love is not love unless there is an object to your love, someone or something that you love. If tithing is an act of love, you give your tithe to a whole community of people whom you love, not so much depending on how you like them, for these are the people you try to practice your love upon, and in real terms. Your tithe makes possible the object of your tithe. It’s circular. It’s a circle of love. When you tithe to this community you help to build a community in which to practice love — indeed, a community which requires love in order just to operate. You contribute to a fellowship of intentionality in which to organize your sacrifices. You contribute to a culture which recites these commandments to your children and talks about them when you are at home.

A community of Jesus means that the love of God is at its center and we express that love towards each other in concrete terms. That’s hard work. That means care and visitation, the habits of reconciliation, and the work of peace. It means organization and institution and paying insurance and hiring staff and buying Sunday School curriculum. You may invest your tithes in this community as a way of loving your neighbors in real time, expressing the love of God with all your strength, because you want to love God with all your soul.

You tithe because you’re thankful for that love. As was said by Lance and Jeff. The love you get from the other people here. Not always such great love, and never perfect love, but real and practical attempts at love. Most of all you’re thankful for the love you get from God. You have heard that God is love, and you believe that God is love, and occasionally you see that Love within the world, and not just in the sunrise on the beach, but in the lives of other people, and now and then you recognize that Love of God in your own life. And you remind yourself that this is the greatest motivation for any risk and any investment and intention, this is indeed the priority of your life, to give thanks for the love of God.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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