God's foremost rule of finance is: We own nothing. We are managers, not owners. Stewards, not landlords. Maintenance people, not proprietors. Our money is not ours; it is his. Max Lucado, When God Whispers Your Name, p68
The Method of Miriam’s Madness
Three men were talking about how they decided how much money to give. The first one said that he drew a circle in the ground and took all the money he had made and threw it up in the air. Whatever landed in the circle he gave to God. Whatever was outside the circle he kept for himself. The second one also drew a circle and threw his money in the air. Whatever money landed in the circle he kept and whatever was outside the circle he gave to God. The third one said “I take all my money and throw it up into the air. I figure God can keep whatever he catches.”
Some people, during the offering, will open their wallet and look for the smallest bill they can find to put in the offering plate. These people are the ones who tend to pray, “O God, why does a $20 bill look so big at church and so small when I’m shopping.” Some people don’t think about what they give. They just give the same amount every year. “$10 a week was good enough in 1966. It ought to be good enough now.” Let me share with you two ways to decide how much to give. They come from our Bible passages.
The first option is to give a portion of whatever you earn. Out of whatever you receive as an income you give a percentage to the church, or where ever you give. This is the traditional method of deciding how much to give. It comes from the Old Testament. There are a variety of passages call the Israelites to tithe. In Deuteronomy Moses gave the law to Israel, showing them how they were to live as God’s faithful people. He told them to take a tithe of their crops and give that tithe to support the Levites and the work of the Temple and other religious organizations.
Now, I want to be very clear. The word tithe is a technical term. Some people use it to describe the amount that they give. The word tithe means 10%. If you give 2% or 3%, or 30%, you are not tithing. To tithe means that if your income is $10,000 you give $1,000. If you receive $100,000 you give $10,000. One way to decide how much to give is to give a portion, a percentage, of what we receive. The Biblical expectation is 10%.
I don’t know how much anyone here makes and I don’t know how much anyone gives. My assumption would be that most of us are in the middle class. In Allegheny County, middle class is defined as making between $34,438 and $102,800 per year. If we assumed that the average income in this church was $50,000, and if every family gave half of a tithe, 5% to Sharon Church, we would more than double our budget. One way for this church to reach its financial goals and dreams would be for every family to calculate the percentage you are giving to this church and increase it 1% per year, until every family gave at least 5% and maybe even 10% or more, to the Sharon Church.
A seminary professor was talking about this passage from Deuteronomy. The class was rather uptight about it. To many people 10% seems like an impossible amount. One student raised his hand and said, “Is the tithe still mandatory for Christians? Didn’t Jesus come to get rid of this type of legalism?” The professor agreed that tithing could become legalistic and that the Christian life did not demand a tithe. There was a collective sigh in the class as they felt the freedom that we have in Christ. But the professor went on to talk about the standard that Jesus set for giving and the example of Jesus’ life. Jesus demands everything.
Miriam was one such example. She was married to Howard for 31 years. They had four children who had all grown up and gotten married. They had 3 grandchildren and were expecting more. Then Howard died, leaving Miriam with a farm to run and incredible debts to pay. As she began working through her grief and putting her life back together Miriam never lost her faith in God. She claimed that the only way she survived was with God’s help. Every week she went to worship, gave an offering and praised God.
For several years she did okay. She hired out workers to plow the fields, plant and harvest the crops. She didn’t make a lot of money but made enough to pay the bills. Then she hit a bad streak. One year there was an early freeze. Two thirds of her crop was destroyed. The next year there were floods that ruined most of the crop. Her creditors demanded their money and Miriam didn’t have anything left in her bank. She looked in her wallet and all she had was $20. She went to the grocery store and bought as much food as she could. Her bill came to $19.98. She took the two pennies, went to the temple, and put them in the offering. She gave the last of her money to God.
That would have been the end of the story, except that Jesus was sitting there, watching people put money into the treasury. Lots of people came. Some of them were of average wealth and put in average amounts. Some were rich and put in average amounts. When Jesus saw Miriam put in her two pennies he pointed her out to his disciples, praising her with words that showed his respect and compassion. He said that she put in more than all the others. “They all gave a small portion of their abundant wealth. This poor widow gave everything. She gave out of her poverty – 100%.”
No one knows what happened to Miriam after that. Maybe nothing happened and she died of starvation. Somehow, I don't think so. Maybe she went to live with her kids. Maybe there was some sort of miracle that kept her food from ever running out. I like to think that Jesus found her and she became a disciple and lived in the Christian community until she died. Jesus lifted Miriam up as an example for us. She gave everything she had. It was crazy. It was madness. But we remember her story.
I’m not suggesting that Miriam’s method of giving is an example that we are supposed to follow. There are some people who are called to give away everything. There was a man out in our presbytery in Colorado whose goal in life was to give away one million dollars. He did it twice. He was a chemist and researcher. He built up two companies and sold them for a million dollars and gave it all away! If anyone here feels led to do that we won’t argue. I’m not suggesting that is what everyone is called to do. However, I do believe Miriam can teach us several lessons about our giving.
First, faithful giving is sacrificial. The amount of the gift is not as important as the cost to the giver. The size of the gift isn’t as important as the sacrifice that went into it. As I mentioned earlier, the tithe is the standard that has always been lifted up as what Christians ought to give. “If you give 10% you are being faithful.” I’m not going to reject that standard, but for many people 10% isn’t really a sacrifice.
Some of you are probably thinking “That’s not a sacrifice! He’s got to be kidding. There is no way we could give 10%.” Years ago Ted Turner, the cable TV mogul, gave away 1/3 of his wealth, 33%. That was impressive until you remember that he was worth $3 billion. He gave away $1 billion, that is great, , but there isn’t much sacrifice when you still have $2 billion. For most of us, giving 10% might mean that you have to sacrifice going out to eat as often as you would like, or not going on as many fancy vacations or buying all the things you want. I’m confident that most of us could give 10% without sacrificing meals or a warm home.
The story of this woman who gave everything, who sacrificed all that she had, challenges us to give sacrificially. For some of you that may mean shifting from giving 1% to 5%. For some it might mean shifting from 5% to 10%. For others it might mean shifting from 10% to 20%. We are all challenged to give sacrificially.
The second lesson is that faithful giving involves the recklessness of faith. Miriam could have kept one of the coins. It wouldn't have been much, but it would have been something. Yet she recklessly gave everything. She didn't hold anything back. She was able to do so because she trusted that God would provide her needs.
The Flying Roudellas were a group trapeze artists. As a kid I always loved watching the trapeze. It looked like a fun to go swinging back and forth, and then to let go and have someone catch you. On the other hand, I’m not a huge fan of heights, so I doubt I would be very good at it.
In trapeze there is always a flyer, the one who lets go of the bar and flies through the air. There is also a catcher, the one who catches the flyer. The Flying Roudellas said this. “The flyer must never try to catch the catcher.” The flyer always has to wait and trust the catcher. When you are 40 or 50 feet in the air, letting go of a bar is a reckless act of faith. You have to trust that the catcher will catch you. That is the type of faith that Jesus commends when he sees Miriam put her two coins in the offering. Faithful giving means having a reckless faith that trusts in God to provide everything we need.
So, how much will you pledge to the ministry of Jesus Christ through the Sharon church for 2016? I invite you to spend some time this week praying, asking God to show you how much you are being called to give. Think about increasing the percentage that you are giving – from 2% to 6%, or even to 10% or more. Think about giving sacrificially, to the one who sacrificed everything for you. Above all, put your faith in Jesus, trusting that God will provide everything you need in your life.
I wasn’t originally going to include the Mission Statement of Sharon in this service, but as we pray and reflect on our giving to the Sharon Church, I thought it might be good to affirm what we are giving to – the mission of God’s love in Jesus Christ, through the Sharon church. Please stand and join with me in Confessing our Faith.
The mission of Sharon Community Presbyterian Church is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, welcome and encourage all who want to grow in faith, care for those in need, and celebrate the glory of God in worship and in our daily lives.