I want to start out this morning with a testimony… This is my experience and I hope and pray that my own story might somehow connect with yours and that the transformation in my own life might point to the way that God might also work in yours.
This testimony however is about a topic that makes a whole lot of us uncomfortable… but it is part of our daily lives. This morning, I’m going to talk about money.
And my testimony is this: It took me three years of serving a congregation… three years of being a pastor… before I tithed to the church.
You might hold pastors up on a pedestal or think that as a pastor I do all of the things that people of faith are supposed to do like feed the hungry, pray every morning, read the bible cover to cover all the time, and give 10% of their money to the church.
But pastors are just like everyone else. We are disciples, too. We have struggles and successes. We have places where we are explorers and beginners. Only sometimes are we truly mature in every part of our faith. There is always room to grow deeper in our relationship with God… even for pastors.
I often gave to the church… but for a long time, I made excuses about how much I should give.
When I was a teenager and had occasional part time jobs, I might have stuck a dollar or two in the offering plate – whatever pocket change I might have had that day. It was the last of my money… not the best.
When I was in college, I did not attend a church regularly on Sundays, but worshipped on campus Wednesday nights – and no one asked for a financial contribution. No one asked me to give, much less give sacrificially. So I didn’t.
As a seminary student and an intern at a church, I was spending more money on school and travel than I was making and piling up debt. I gave my time to the church and occasionally a few bucks as well.
And then I was commissioned and sent to First UMC in Marengo. I was sent to be their pastor and I knew that I could not ask them, in good faith, to give faithfully to the church and to God, if I was not also giving.
Having a steady paycheck for the first time in my life, I should have immediately started tithing. But I didn’t. I held back. I looked at my student loans and debt from college… I looked at how much our cable bill was going to be… I thought about how we wanted to travel a bit… I knew that taxes would take a chunk of my wages… And so I started out small. I gave to the church – but only a small portion.
And then, I became comfortable with that level of financial giving. I knew I was doing God’s ministry in other ways and so I didn’t worry about it.
But one day about three years into ministry, I was having a conversation with a friend, a fellow pastor, about the things that we cling to… the things we hold close and refuse to give to God.
I realized in the midst of that conversation that I had never willingly yielded my money to God.
There had been times when I had given out of guilt.
I have given because it was what I was supposed to do.
I have given out of habit as the offering place went around and each person in the pew pulled out a few bucks and dropped it in.
But never had I prayerfully thought about what God wanted me to give.
Never had I searched my heart to ask what I was willing to yield, what I was willing to joyfully give up in my life, for the sake of our Lord and our church.
This conversation was a conversion experience for me, and I really prayed about what God could do through the gifts that were placed in my hands and started giving more to the church on a regular basis…
The next year as we made our financial commitments, my heart led me to set aside a full 10% of my salary for the Kingdom of God.
In Marengo, the church struggled with finances and they didn’t have a lot of money to pay their pastor…. But I found that even… maybe especially… because I was giving, I had enough.
I joyfully gave that money to God… and I have to tell you – I didn’t miss one cent. I still don’t!
And maybe that’s because in the process I learned how to give to the church first. I make sure that the gifts I have committed come out of my paycheck before it ever comes home with me.
I learned how to give God my first and my best, instead of the change in my pocket – instead of the leftovers from my own spending and desires.
In Leviticus, we hear instructions for this early agricultural society to leave the crops on the edges and on the corners for the needy in the midst. The farmers were not supposed to harvest every last seed and kernel, but rather let them remain in the fields so that the poor could go through the fields and glean the leftovers for themselves.
A portion of the harvest, of the economic benefit earned by the farmers, was to be let go of before it was even taken out of the fields. It belongs to God… and God desires that it belongs to those who need it the most.
Today, not all of us are physically out in the fields harvesting the grain… but we can think about setting aside a portion of our income… a portion of our take home pay… for God’s use before it ever makes it into our bank accounts.
Instead of giving to God what is leftover after all of our other expenses… necessities and luxuries… we can leave that portion of our gifts in God’s hands first.
A year or so after I had this discipleship conversion and grew in my generosity, Bishop Trimble asked me to lead Imagine No Malaria.
I had just learned how to give… but I was so excited about what God could do through the dollars and cents entrusted to our care…
Maybe that made me exactly the right person to help United Methodists across the state give over $2million to help fight malaria… often $5 and $10 at a time. Millions of children are alive today because you helped purchase a net, and train a community health worker, and provide malaria medication.
In Matthew, we are invited to stop hoarding the blessings of our lives, and instead set them free for the Kingdom of God:
As The Message translation puts it: “Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”
The old adage says, you can’t take it with you… and its true. Our time here on earth is short and piling on pleasures and wants and desires doesn’t get us anything but a house full of stuff that someone else is going to have to sort through.
Where you put your treasure is where you end up, Jesus says.
My family still has a cable subscription and a Netflix subscription… and an amazon prime subscription… and I know I still have some growth to do in my personal discipleship. Because let me tell you – I am putting some of my treasure into those forms of entertainment and almost every night I end up sitting on the couch in front of the television.
Where you put your treasure is where you end up, Jesus says.
Television and new clothes and name-brand cereal… they don’t last. They will all wear out without having made an ounce of difference in this world.
What lasts is the kingdom of God. What lasts is the word of God. What lasts is the joy that I have found through letting go of my desires to ask what God needs from me.
This week, I had the amazing experience of traveling to Atlanta to attend the first meeting of the Global Ministries Board of Directors. I was elected by the jurisdiction to serve as a Director for the next four years.
One of the executive staff members is Dr. Olusimbo Ige who heads up our Global Health ministries. Dr. Ige is trained as a community physician, which means she is not only a medical doctor, but also has background in community development, engineering, finance… she is trained to help make the entire community well.
Dr. Ige shared that she could put her extensive skills to work in a hospital and make $500 – 600,000 a year… but when she sees the lives transformed in a village where babies are surviving birth and children stop dying from malaria… she knows that she is doing the work she is supposed to do.
Today, you will be asked to help contribute funds for UMCOR blankets and health, sewing, and school kits for Ingathering.
This past week, I heard countless stories of how those kits and blankets are being used across this world. I heard about 5,000 girls in South Sudan who received school kits this year… about women in Armenia who are using sewing kits to learn a new skill and support themselves economically… pregnant moms in Liberia who had no prenatal or obstretic care… but because of the United Methodist Church… because of our gifts and resources… because we traveled to their remote village and brought life-saving interventions every single one of the 123 babies born this year lived.
Where you put your treasure is where you end up, Jesus says…
And as United Methodists, we end up all over this world, doing amazing things for the Kingdom of God.
Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
You see, friends, God does not want your money, if God doesn’t have your heart.
God doesn’t have any use for your stuff, if you won’t let go of your soul.
God doesn’t care about the things that you own… even if they could be used to help other people… unless you are willing to share with God your life.
Our generosity is a deep part of our discipleship… of our relationship with and for God.
Grow in your love of God… grow in your love of neighbor… and let God grow your generosity for this world.