celebration

Gloria Party 2

Acts 2:43-47
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.


Stay with me on the subject of tithing, and the party’s potential will only increase.

Last week, we looked to the Old Testament for guidance regarding God’s intent for tithing. In Deuteronomy, we found something out of sync with modern notions about tithing.

Even as part of the law, a joyous celebration was key to the tithe, along with a deep concern for the people in society lacking resources. Tithing created an atmosphere of abundance, driven by a general belief that God’s people working together in harmony could create a glimpse of heaven on earth.

I briefly spoke about what a modern tithing community could look like. Mostly, I gave you some numbers to consider. At Luminary, we easily would be working with an extra $240,000 a year. With our fixed operating costs currently covered, pretty much all of that would go toward ministries.

I invited you to imagine what would be different about our church if we were to achieve such community-wide levels of commitment. I got some great feedback during worship at Luminary today about what people saw as possibilities, all ministry-related.

I tend to see things in relation to what I call Matthew 25 ministries. Down deep in that chapter, starting at the 31st verse, we see a scene of judgment, where we learn Christ assesses the hearts of his followers based on how they have treated the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the strangers, the sick, and the imprisoned—basically, the people of Jesus’ day living on the margins of society, just barely hanging on to life. This scene certainly seems to be the starting point for ministry in any culture.

First, if we were a tithing community, I see some of the things we already do being done in a bigger, much more effective way. Why could our food closet and our Wednesday night community meal not morph into a full-time feeding ministry, a place where all, rich or poor, could find physical and spiritual sustenance together?

In a tithing church, our clothing and furniture ministries could be so much more, operating in the heart of Ten Mile and Meigs County rather than up here on the hill. And our outreach to people in the community who feel like strangers, for one reason or another cut off from circles of friends and families, could be more organized and effective.

Here’s another one: Why just an annual one-day health fair? Why not a regularly accessible health clinic somewhere in the Ten Mile area?

Within a couple of years I think we would certainly finish this building, debt-free, and perhaps build new ones or refurbish old ones, all with expanded ministries in mind. Our second floor would quickly become a place of community for all ages. Our presence could be truly in the community rather than just in this one location. And I’ve not even begun to describe ministries our community probably needs but we don’t offer. (See, you’ve not even given the money, and I already have it spent.)

The picture I see is starting to look a lot like the church in our Acts text, and all we’ve done so far is discuss the effect of tithing. The early Christians quickly put tithing in their rear-view mirrors. They were living the kingdom of heaven on earth, if only briefly. Tithing wasn’t enough of a commitment, in their minds. Yes, Christ freed them from the law. He freed them to go further in areas tied to love of each other.

They were so excited about salvation through Christ that they began to practice a kind of holy communism, something very different from the political communism we have seen in the 20th and 21st centuries. Modern communism is imposed by the dictates of tyrants; the early church’s communal life was inspired by the feeling of solidarity the Holy Spirit brings to a group. And again, it all played out like a party, one where everyone’s needs were met.

I get excited thinking of what one local church committed to tithing could do. I get giddy thinking of all of Christ’s church returning to a commitment to joyous tithing, the kind designed to celebrate our Savior and ensure no one is left out.

Imagine churches linked together from community to community—oh, wait, we’re the United Methodist Church, we already have that going for us. Now imagine us working with real tithing power, families tithing into ministry-minded local churches and local churches tithing toward our broader operations globally.

We would still have a stewardship issue, of course, but instead of scraping by, our main task would be ensuring the abundance is not wasted on fraud or luxuries that don’t benefit our Matthew 25-type ministries. Using our abundance to pursue vision and mission is a much more exciting task than begging our way through the year, wishing we could do more.

Tithing even impacts politics, but in a way where normally divergent interest groups find common ground. If you’re a Christian political conservative and you don’t like big government, tithe. The arguments in favor of big government will go away as churches deal with most social needs faster than government ever can.

If you’re a Christian political liberal, tithe, and lead the stewardship effort by bearing the standard for the outcasts of the world, ensuring ministries happen according to Matthew 25 principles.

Why ask others to do what we can do ourselves? We have the power to feed, clothe and heal the people around us, no election needed. And the word of salvation through Christ will spread.


I have to acknowledge that many people don’t know how to respond to a sermon like this because they are overwhelmed by debt. How do you tithe when you’re struggling to pay your debt service each month? There are several good Christian programs that can help people bring their debt under control and begin to handle their finances in a godly way. Any good pastor should be able to help someone find such a program.

 

Advertisements

Gloria Party

Like the coin says, "In God We Trust"

Like the coin says, “In God We Trust”

Deuteronomy 14:22-29

“Tithing.” It almost rhymes with “sighing,” and that’s what most people feel like doing when the subject comes up. Tithing is a burden, the reluctant surrender of 10 percent of what we gain to some mysterious rule of religion.

Or is it? Is it possible tithing has been misunderstood, perhaps even misrepresented for centuries by the church? What if we were to discover tithing is rooted in joy?

As our text shows us today, it’s no great leap to link tithing to joy, a kind of joy that might leave our more legalistic brothers and sisters in Christ tearing at their hair. (When my Baptist deacon grandfather taught me about tithing, he said nothing about “wine” and “strong drink” being involved.) What we have before us is evidence of God’s original intent for tithing, made clear when he embedded the activity in the laws he gave to the Israelites.

We have become confused about tithing for a simple reason: Religious leaders have corrupted the message, largely because of their concern that the money might stop coming one day. It happened in the Old Testament days as Judaism became more institutional and legalistic. In the New Testament, we can see how Jesus criticized the handling of money by the religious leaders of his day, including what we might call “tithe abuse.” For examples, see Matthew 23:23-24Mark 12:13-17, and  Mark 12:41-44.

Many religious leaders still botch this message. I must admit I have participated in this process myself, a realization that is more than a little humbling. Church leaders tend to sow confusion regarding the tithe in one of two ways. Either we attempt to “re-legalize” tithing to prop up our church coffers, ignoring how the grace of Christ has taken us from under the law, or we ignore the subject entirely, in the process failing to communicate the power God offers us as a people using our resources in community.

I know, a little explanation of what I’m claiming here is in order. There are lots of Old Testament Bible texts related to tithes of different kinds, but our Deuteronomy text is particularly important because it reveals God’s intent.

Look at it again. Are you not struck by how the tithe is to be used? Essentially, the tithe becomes the basis for a celebration, one laden with bread, meat, “wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire.” Imagine the crops all coming in about the same time, and this law being lived out by all the people in just a few weeks. The bounty and the blessing for all must have been incredible. The Hebrew word for “tithe,” ma’aser, must have been a beloved, celebrated sound.

Every third year, this tithe was a particular joy for the Levites, the priestly class who had no land, and other dispossessed people: the travelers among the Jews, the orphans, and the widows. The harvest went into storage so these people with few resources would have enough.

I also should note the tithing law talks about the Israelites as if they would have fields and crops one day, live in cities, and have a central location for worship. These agrarian and urban settings represent divine foresight—the Israelites were desert wanderers when they received the law. Because God clearly is peering into the future as he gives this part of the law, and because tithing pre-dates the law, I have no problems seeing the tithing principle as timeless.

So, the obvious question is, how might we tithe today according to God’s intent? In short, I would say we should tithe with an expectation that our churches become places of great joy and abundance, for ourselves and for the dispossessed within our reach.

Imagine how different churches would be if every Christian household were to grasp the potential of the tithe as God intended it and begin to tithe. I’m going to keep the math simple here, asking that you trust I’ve actually done some calculations using government data for household incomes and available church data. At a minimum, what is given at Luminary would double; it very well could triple.

For Luminary, that would mean at a minimum an extra $240,000 or so a year, all in a church that already has its fixed costs covered. This would be ministry money, available to make our time together a great joy and providing the kind of abundance that could touch thousands of lives locally and even far away.

It sounds like a pipe dream, but I believe that if God already has said it is possible for a tithing community to have great joy and a powerful impact, then it must be something to pursue. I invite you to spend this next week dreaming about the impact of such a church on the world.

Next Sunday, I’ll share what I see. I hope to hear from some of you online and  in our worship services regarding what you imagine.

Four Parts of Worship: Celebrate!

So, we’ve talked about what it means to gather ourselves in search of God, and we’ve talked about how God is consistently revealed in Scripture. What is an appropriate response to God’s presence?

A celebration! The third part of worship is like a thank-you, praise-you party thrown for God, where we declare our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer the jolly good fellow, the one worthy of honor.

Again, it’s one of those reasons I like to put the declaration of God’s word up front as much as possible in a worship service. I think a lot of people struggle with worship because we don’t spend enough time rejoicing, and it’s hard to celebrate until we’ve really heard from God. When we fail to celebrate in worship, we miss out on the joy of being Christian, a joy available to us regardless of our circumstances.

I know—we may not always feel like rejoicing. Poor? Sick? Lonely? Broken by sins committed? Victimized by another’s sin? Those aren’t ideal situations to be in, but our current circumstances brighten considerably when we put them in the light of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. The temporary nature of this life becomes obvious when the Holy Spirit begins to work in us through God’s word, giving us a taste of what it means to be citizens of an eternal kingdom.

The joy of the resurrection—first, Christ’s, and later, our promised own—is something God offers us whenever we immerse ourselves in his story and praise him.

You see such celebratory worship in the Old Testament. One example would be the story in 1 Chronicles 16:1-6, when David returned the Ark of the Covenant—Old Testament evidence of God’s presence—to Jerusalem. Even before these verses, there are recorded acts of worship on the way to Jerusalem: sacrifices, singing, dancing and music, most of it quite exuberant. It all continued once the Ark was in place, with people appointed to keep it going.

Celebratory worship continues in the New Testament, particularly after the victorious nature of Christ’s work on the cross is made clear in the resurrection. We’re told in Colossians 3:16-17, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

God’s word begets gratitude, and with gratitude in our hearts, we sing and direct our celebration toward our audience, God. We can rejoice in such ways during appointed worship times, at 11 a.m. on Sunday, for example. We can rejoice when gathered in small groups. We can rejoice in our one-on-one time with God.

I know not everyone rejoices and celebrates in the same way, just as people will enjoy a party in different ways. I’ve always been more of a wallflower at a party. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy parties; it just means I’m not necessarily going to put a lampshade on my head.

You may be a fairly laid-back, reserved person in worship. Not everyone wants to jump up and shout “Amen!” while holding their hands up in the air. (Thank God for the worshipers who do such things; they are great help to a preacher and to worship in general.)

But if you’re reserved in nature, ask yourself this: Am I celebrating? Does that joy regarding Christ’s gift wash over my soul, at least as a quiet, tender experience?

Do I let the music take me back to the revelation of God I’ve just heard, connecting my emotions to my logic? Do I understand the prayers we lift up corporately as an open door to heaven? When I come to the table for communion, am I expecting to meet the one who will feed me for all eternity?

God calls you to such celebratory experiences whenever you stand before him in worship.

Four Parts of Worship: The Gathering

It has long fascinated me that when we make mistakes in life, they often are rooted in our failure to execute the basics well. We’ll let complicated details worry us and then botch what should be simple.

You see it in sports. A Major League baseball player costs his team the game by booting a routine ground ball, a simple maneuver he’s executed thousands of time since Little League. An NFL quarterback in a panic throws off balance and across his body, something a coach first told him not to do when he was 8 years old. Interception.

It happens to us at work. We’re trained in the basics of our job. We execute those basics day after day. And then one day, often for reasons even we cannot explain, we do it another way, and we’re left scratching our heads, wondering what went wrong.

It happens to us in worship, too. To worship well, there are some basics we need to keep in mind. And if we keep going back to them, we will worship very well, in a way that invigorates us and impacts every moment of our lives.

Through the rest of September, we’re going to talk about the most basic aspects of worship, the four identifiable parts of worship going back to the earliest days of Christianity. We’re going to see if we can fully understand our role in each part and how each part leads to its next part.

Worship experts use different terms for these four parts of worship, but I like these: Gathering, Word, Celebration, and Sending Forth. We’ll cover one each week. We’ll begin today with gathering, of course.

Focus

The gathering time is perhaps the most confusing of the four, simply because many Christians don’t consider it part of worship at all. Much of it happens before we’ve officially “started.” When we neglect it, however, we’re like a traveler who begins a journey by tripping in the first few steps and cracking a kneecap. The rest of the journey will be painful, and the traveler may never reach the destination.

At the latest, the gathering should begin somewhere out on the church lawn, before we ever enter the building. It begins when we gather ourselves, readying ourselves for why we have come to this place—to encounter God, and join with others seeking to do the same.

If you’ll pause outside a church building for a moment and breathe, you’ll see there is so much designed to put you in the right frame of mind. The exterior design of Cassidy and many other church buildings is intended to point you toward God, to say to you, “Lift up your eyes! Look up!” We’re granted a moment of perspective where we remember where we stand in relation to God.

If you’re blessed with a church bell, as we are, its ringing is a call to the faithful and a reminder to the lost that something special is about to happen. And we’re particularly blessed at Cassidy to have a beautiful garden with a pathway through it next to the sanctuary. I’m often able to center myself before a worship service by walking through it.

To again use a sports metaphor, the gathering is first about getting your head in the game. You may have noticed that I said the gathering begins on the church lawn “at the latest.” I’m probably stretching the concept of gathering a little, but I would argue it begins long before we cross the church property line. Are you preparing yourself for worship through encounters with God during the week? Was your Saturday night an appropriate prelude to an encounter with God, including plenty of rest?

Once inside the sanctuary, the gathering continues as the service formally begins. Our individual readiness becomes a group readiness, and when we do it right, great things begin to happen. We feel it in the singing. The prayers bind us together.

We’re Not Alone

And we should expect great things. Just look at Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:19-20, words given to us very clearly in the context of church life.

Consider Jesus’ words, and then think about what we’re doing when we gather here. God is present when we gather. Not only that, the holy decisions we make as a church align us with events in heaven.

When worship is properly understood, the question regarding church attendance should never be, “Am I going today?” Instead, it should be, “How will I ever leave?”

We also begin to realize that a mature Christian’s worship experience has little to do with matters like style of music or preaching. Jesus promised to show up when we gather in his name; he said nothing about matters of style. Our experience is tied to how fully we believe God is among us when we gather as Jesus told us to do.

Next week, I’ll tell you why I can promise you we will encounter God every week in worship, assuming we stick to our basics and walk into church ready for the encounter.