Sunday, November 12, 2006

Throwing a Party: a Sermon

I preached this morning in a small church that is going through some difficult transitions. They have just had to say goodbye to a pastor (because they could no longer afford him full-time), and a founding, beloved member dropped dead suddenly last month.

I decided to preach an adaptation of a stewardship sermon I preached last year (on the logic that, without a regular pastoral presence, who knows if they'll hear this message? Happy to take one for the team.) I owe the genesis of this sermon idea (the throwing a party part) to dear MoreCows, a truly gifted preacher and pastor and luminary in our denomination. Thanks, you!

Here 'tis.

“Throwing a Party”
Deuteronomy 14:22-29
November 12, 2006

I have a confession to make. I’ve been an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament for just over three years, and I've been preaching on a regular basis for a little over ten. As a preacher, I have been neglecting something incredibly important that Jesus, if we are to take him seriously at all, seems very much to want us to talk about. I don’t know if I’ve been neglecting it because I tend to preach from the lectionary, and it just hasn’t come up that much in the normal cycle of readings. I don’t know if I’ve been neglecting this topic because I’m just plain nervous about it. Whatever my reason (or my excuse), the result is the same. With just a few exceptions, I have ignored or neglected or forgotten to talk to the churches I’ve served about the one thing Jesus talks the most about in the gospels. I have not spoken about the topic that makes up more than half of Jesus’ parables, and about one verse in every six verses in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. I have not preached very much at all about money.

And no wonder. No one wants to talk about money. I was recently talking to a new pastor about the church she serves. “They say they need new members and they say they need more money,” she shared with me. “But they have neither an evangelism committee nor a stewardship committee. And when I mention this to them they get pretty annoyed with me.” Pastors are only human. Can you blame us if we shy away from topics that might aggravate you?

Money. Everyone needs it. Everyone wants a little more than they currently have. Everyone has some anxiety around it—“filthy lucre,” we have heard it called. So why get up into the pulpit to talk about money?

I think I may just have talked myself out of it. New topic. Let’s talk about something much more pleasant. Let’s talk about…parties! One year ago today I survived my son Larry's eighteenth birthday party. And it was a pretty great affair—lots of food, good friends, music, and no property damaged. That was a great party! My daughter Petra and I love to watch a television show called the “Gilmore Girls” together. Last season, Emily Gilmore, the matriarch of the Gilmore clan, decided to throw a 21st birthday party for Rory, her granddaughter. As Petra and I watched this episode we were somewhere between laughing hysterically and salivating.

The elder Gilmores are wealthy, and for Rory’s party Emily pulled out all the stops. There were caterers and carving stations. There were elegant little canap├ęs and a cake you could hide a person in. There were hot and cold-running servants. There were favors—each guest received a lavish little box of expensive chocolates as they left. It was a real blow-out by anyone’s standards. And as I prepared today’s sermon, Rory Gilmore’s 21st birthday party reminded me a little of the party in today’s reading from Deuteronomy.

It may surprise you to find that God gives the people instructions to have a blow-out party in the Torah, but here it is.

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. ~Deuteronomy 14:22-23

This is the fullest Old Testament understanding of the tithe. The people of God were encouraged to take one tenth of their income—that is, the yield of their fields, flocks and herds. They were to take it to the Temple. And then they were to feast upon it. They were to have an enormous, extravagant, once a year party, in the presence and under the sponsorship of the Lord their God. There is a provision in the passage for those instances where carrying/ herding all those items is impractical because of the distance; in that case, the people are to convert the tenth of their yield to money, take the bundle to the Temple, and buy “whatever [they] wish…oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever [they] desire” (Deut. 14:25). Then they are to eat it, the whole household, in the presence of the Lord, “rejoicing together.”

No more coyness. Of course, I am talking about money today, specifically about money and the church, since this is the time many of us set our budget priorities for the coming year. And it behooves me to remind you that the encouragement to tithe in Deuteronomy was, first of all, encouragement to have a beautiful celebration as a reminder that all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above. Life and all that supports life, from air and water to fresh fruits and greenery to the fish of the sea and the beasts of the field—everything is a gift from God. The command to tithe was, first and foremost, an opportunity to remember that in a joyful, tangible way. This was a party that would make Rory Gilmore’s 21st look like a fast food lunch.

Whether we give to the church or to any one of a number of charitable causes, our gifts are always an occasion for remembering how we have been blessed. You know far better than I how you have been blessed throughout your years in community together. The blessings take the form of people—those we love who are all around us in this room, or far away, or who now stand in the presence of God, with the great communion of saints. The blessings take the form of this very place: a sanctuary that means home, where your children have been baptized, where you have received the bread of life and the cup of salvation, a place where you have married and you have mourned. The blessings take the form of the faith you share, that binds you together when you stand to proclaim the Apostle's Creed or when your voices ring out in a favorite hymn. We give because we have a sense of having been blessed.

There is another compelling reason God instructed the people to give a tenth of their annual income. Every three years that tenth was to go to the “least of these,” that is, the resident aliens, the widows and orphans, and the priests who served in the Temple and who were therefore not out farming or herding for their living. Built into the command to tithe was the understanding that a portion was to go to those who could not support themselves.

People shudder when preachers say the word tithe—and as I’ve already mentioned, we hate annoying you. And the truth is, tithing is an Old Testament concept. But Jesus and the authors of the New Testament also testify to giving that is proportional to one’s income, regular, sacrificial, and cheerful. I’ll go through these for you.

First, believers’ giving should be proportional (2 Corinthians 8:12). Proportional means exactly what it sounds like it means. Take your income, decide on a percentage, and figure it out. Then give that. Just for the sake of comparison, you might like to know that statistically, very few Americans tithe. But of those who do, the poorest Americans are more likely to give a tenth of their income than the wealthiest, and the middle class are the least likely to tithe of all.

Second, believers’ giving should be regular (1 Corinthians 16:2). Many churches provide envelopes for a weekly gift for whose budgets work that way, but monthly gifts are fine too. As you know, the bills need to be paid regularly, so regular gifts are a real Godsend. I don’t use that word lightly. They are a Godsend.

Third, believers’ giving should be sacrificial (Mark 12:43-44), and fourth, it should be cheerful (2 Corinthians 9:7)! These may seem to be in conflict, as they were for the little girl whose mother gave her a dollar and a quarter on Sunday morning. Her mother instructed her, “Decide which one you want more, and then put that one in the collection plate.” After church, the mother noticed that the child had the dollar bill in her hand. Her explanation: “I remembered that God loves a cheerful giver, and I decided I would be more cheerful if I gave the quarter.” Unassailable logic. Until you remember the party.

We are asked to give, not so that life will be harder at home, or so that the Finance Committee’s job will be easier, or so that the church will be able to be featured in some “Who’s Who” of religious achievement. We are asked to give so that we can take part in creating a great celebration. We are asked to give so that we might have life and have it in abundance, right here, in this congregation. We are asked to give so that we might share that life with all who need it, emulating that grand and sumptuous banquet the ancient Israelites had each year in the Temple. We are asked to give because, as Jesus reminds us again and again, in all the meals he enjoys throughout the gospels, the bridegroom is with us, and it is time to feast.

C. S. Lewis said, “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.” A number of years ago I was the Youth Minister at a local church, and there I met an elderly gentleman named Dave. He was known for wheeling a grocery cart all around the West Side in search of bottles and cans to redeem so that he could live on the proceeds. Dave had arthritis, which made his collecting arduous and painful, and he was very proud when he could break $1200 in a year. One fall the youth group decided they would like to have a bottle drive to buy gifts for women and children who had to spend Christmas at the SOS Shelter for victims of domestic violence. I was a little anxious about this. Dave was a member of the congregation, and I was aware that lots of members were accustomed to saving their bottles and cans for him. I worried that the bottle drive would result in Dave collecting less than he needed.

One day Dave came into my office. Uh oh, I thought. Here we go. He’s going to want to talk to me about the bottle drive. And he did. But not in the way I expected. Dave took a $20 bill out of his pocket and pressed it into my hand. “Here,” he said. “This is for the bottle drive. But don’t tell the kids who gave it to you.” I was flabbergasted. “But Dave,” I said, “this is a huge contribution for you to make. Are you sure you can afford it?” “Absolutely,” he said. “I know how hard collecting cans and bottles can be. And I am so proud of the young people for wanting to help the women and children. I would like to make this gift. But it has to be anonymous. Just tell them whoever gave it thinks they are doing a wonderful thing.” As Dave left, I did the math in my head. He had given a gift worth 400 cans or bottles. He had given nearly five days of painful and slow walking in every kind of weather. But he wanted those women and children to have a good Christmas, and he wanted the youth to be successful in their outreach. That is the story of the widow and her two copper coins. That is sacrificial and cheerful giving.

So why not do it? Why not plan to throw a party, right here? Why not decide together what that party will look like… what will you serve? Will you serve classes and bible studies? Will you serve generous gifts to local charities? Will you serve the most beautiful, the most inspiring worship you can create together? Will you serve up to the people of this city a place where they can come and say, “I have feasted with the bridegroom; I have experienced the greatest party of my life”? I encourage you to figure it out together. Why not throw a party? Amen.

1 comment:

more cows than people said...

honored, mags!

lucky you to get two years out of it... there are advantages to being between calls...

what a great story about dave. wish i had read this before writing this week's sermon.

someday i may get brave enough to post my sermons. we'll see.