Saturday, November 01, 2014

November 2, Proper 26; Transformations 9: Your Money

 Joshua 3:7-17, Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12

St. Paul reminds the Thessalonian Christians that he was "like a father" to them. So then if one of the Thessalonians gratefully and respectfully referred to him as Father Paul, would that transgress Our Lord’s admonition to call no man Father?

I’m addressed as Father out in public not infrequently. In the military, chaplains are generally called Padre even if they’re Protestant. In my third charge, in Hoboken, the Gujurati people called me Padrisahib, which literally means Father Master. Should I have stopped them? In my first charge, the Hungarians called me Tiszteletes Úr, which means Honorable Lord. Should I have refused it? In my second and fourth charges my Dutch parishioners called me Dominee, from the Latin for Lord. It should be intolerable, but it’s said with such affection that it’s my favorite. Dominee.

When I came to Brooklyn, and people asked me what they should call me, I said I didn’t care, only that the children could call me what they call their teachers, but it had not occurred to me that here children call teachers by their first names, and young children calling me Daniel let me know that actually I did care, and that I’m old-school, but are they not really closer to the admonition of Our Lord? Despite that, next week I will address Rabbi Bachman as Rabbi. The whole question of whether Gospel admonitions even count for him I will not go into today.

The question for today is what is Our Lord getting at? We have always to remember that Jesus is never about setting up a new set of rules to replace the old set of rules. He’s not about giving you do’s-and-don’ts. Here he is doing what he often does—he’s making a sweeping statement to clear away everything, to bring everything under total judgment, so that even the good things that you do you recognize for what they are, as fallen, and that your good works have value not in themselves but because God graciously accepts them, and that your best efforts have value precisely in your humility. If people call me Father, or Master, or Teacher, I accept it not as my prerogative but as my reminder to the necessary humility of my needing and receiving grace, yes, grace upon grace.

Did you ever notice that the deacons never put the collection plate in front of me? We’ve never discussed it, it’s never been brought up, but somehow it’s been the custom in all five of my charges. Do you think that I don’t give? When I was a kid my mom always passed out nickels to us kids, and they were not for us to keep. My wife and I do tithe. By tithing I mean we put our giving into our budget, just like our mortgage and our utilities and our insurance.

Tithing means that you budget a percentage of the first part of your income to give back to God. Your absolute minimum should be one percent. Your ideal target is ten percent, and so you try to raise it toward that a little every year. It’s not a law, it’s not a do-and-don’t, it’s a voluntary inner discipline to exercise your habit of trusting in God and your habit of living by faith and your habit of thanksgiving and your habit of proper sacrifice. It’s the economic expression of your inner commitment.

At this point you’re thinking, “That’s easy for you to say, Pastor, or Daniel, or Dominee, whatever, because so much of what I’m giving goes to your salary.” Fair enough, and I’m always under God’s judgment for that. But let me contend that you’re giving in your self-interest too, because you want to belong to the community of Jesus, and the community of Jesus does not exist in itself or on its own, but always in dynamic interplay with the Word of God, and the Word of God comes to you by means of human words.

As St. Paul says to the Thessalonians, “We constantly give thanks for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.” Now your pastor is not at the level of St. Paul, and my words remain human words, but in our weekly conversation you discern God’s Word from the interplay of what I say and what is at work in you believers.

In this community of Jesus my part is to keep on calling you to your mission, to call you to your best identity and to your best work, to encourage you with your identity, and to comfort you with how God sees you and what God has for you. First Thessalonians tell us that the community of Jesus requires someone working night and day to keep proclaiming to you the gospel of God.

Did you ever notice that in some churches the collection plate is quite visibly brought up to the preacher, and the preacher quite visibly pulls out his wallet and takes out some cash and puts it in the plate for all to see. Is this the hypocrisy that Our Lord condemns? It is intended as symbolic, as setting an example, as modeling behavior for the congregation, like my mom giving us our nickels. That’s why the Pharisees did what they did in Jesus’ day, with their phylacteries and fringes, they were showing their deep commitments to the people.

Why do the Amish wear their distinctive clothing? Not to judge your clothing but because they want to exercise their inner values and their disciplines of trust and sacrifice. Religion loves symbols and symbolic expressions. Religion trades on show-and-tell. But the danger is the show. Our Lord is judging the show in it and especially the showing off. So should we hide what we do? Are we supposed to shrink?

We were driving back from Canada the other day and I asked Melody to check her I-phone for the traffic in the Hugh Carey Tunnel. She laughed when Google asked her if she meant the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. Why are we putting names on every bridge and tunnel? Would Robert F Kennedy really want his name upon the Triboro Bridge? In Lincoln Center, Philharmonic Hall was renamed Avery Fisher Hall in exchange for his money. The New York State Theater got renamed for David Koch in exchange for his money.

When I went to Calvin College it had the strict Calvinist policy of not naming buildings after donors. Our dormitories were all named for dead preachers and missionaries, who could give no money. Well, that changed. Now they name the buildings for donors of big bucks. Is that a necessary evil? What would Our Lord say to that?

I knew of a Calvinist elder in Saugatuck, Michigan who believed that the money you tithe would be better burned up or thrown into Lake Michigan than be given to the church. He thought you should generously support the church, but out of your 90%, because you get a benefit back from it, the church serves your self-interest, while tithing should be a letting-go, purely a sacrifice, like killing animals in the Old Testament. Well, it’s possible for Calvinists to be more righteous than God.

The sacrifice which the New Testament requires of you is a living sacrifice, which means it must be a positive investment, an investment in something which is productive and creative. And yet it is a sacrifice, at least when you give your tithe to this church, because in this church no one is allowed to know how much you tithe. How different is this from the fund-raising practice of the world. Here you do not get your name on what you give.

It’s our strict policy here that no one is allowed to know whether you tithe a lot or tithe a little, except for two designated secretaries who are pledged to confidentiality. That you get no credit within the community of Jesus for the amount of your tithe is the sign that it’s a sacrifice.

But this sacrifice is in your self-interest because it transformative, because it puts the whole rest of your money in perspective. Tithing is for the transformation of your money, it’s the portion that leads the meaning of this very important way that you measure what you are worth. It makes you more free with your money, so that your money has less power over you: you have more control of it than its control of you. You gain more power through your giving than your taking.

The sacrifice of giving is a sacrifice of giving thanks, and because it’s thanksgiving it has to be voluntary and of free will; it has no rules, no laws, no do’s-and-don’ts. Because it is free it can be flexible and creative and even playful. I say that even as a Calvinist.

Because it is free and playful it allows for a tolerable amount of generous self-interest, shared self-interest, the genuine self-interest of loving your neighbor as your: self. Your genuine and generous self-interest is in seeking the good of the community of Jesus. The community of Jesus deserves your investment, because it deserves your love. You know it transforms everything to see your money in the perspective of the love of God.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Note: The elder from Saugatuck, Michigan is reported in a poem by Stanley Wiersma.

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