hungry

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.

 

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Leftovers

Matthew 25:34-40

I spent a lot of time talking about food in the context of feasting last week, and a lot of folks said they left church really hungry, so I don’t want to belabor a food metaphor. But the Sunday after Thanksgiving certainly is a time when we have leftovers on our minds, isn’t it?

Jesus always has leftovers on his mind. Our Scripture reminds us today that Jesus’ primary concern is how we as his followers treat people who feel like society’s leftovers, put aside as marginally useful or destined for the scrap heap.

This text is something of a theological puzzle. We know from a broader understanding of the Bible that our salvation is dependent not on our works, but on our belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. We look to the cross, believe that what happened there is effective, and we are saved.

And yet, when Jesus gave us images of the judgment to come, he described it as being based on what we do for others, in particular those people who from a worldly perspective don’t play a major role in society. Somehow, the idea of God’s unmerited grace and the idea of good works aimed at society’s least have to be reconciled.

As I consider all of this, I have to rely largely on what I’ve learned from trying to follow Jesus’ dictates in Matthew 25. I’ve not always done these acts of service well, but experience has been a good teacher.

Let’s look first at helping the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked. I group them together because I once was able to volunteer regularly in a rural community relief center that focused on helping people meet these very basic needs for sustenance and dignity. I know many of you have worked in such places, too.

What stays with you after working with people who are so poor they cannot get enough food or proper clothing? For me, it’s the look so many of them have in their eyes, a mixture of desperation and shame. People’s sense of worth can drop to almost nothing when they no longer can acquire what they need to keep themselves and their families alive.

I wish I could to tell you a simple, happy story where people get food or clothing and the transformation in their eyes is instantaneous. That story seldom happens, however. People volunteering for the first time in such relief efforts are often surprised by the lack of gratitude they see from the people receiving help. The desperation may be temporarily alleviated, but the shame remains.

If you stick with such work, however, you occasionally get the opportunity to form a relationship—maybe even a genuine friendship. When that happens, the look in the poor person’s eyes will change. Food is important, and clothes are important, but you begin to realize that relationships are deeply important. People need to know they remain worthy of love regardless of what they have.

The idea of reaching out to the stranger works in a similar way. In the Old Testament and on into Jesus’ day, people traveling or trying to live in a place where they had no relationships were in constant danger. Who would stand up for them when they were attacked or cheated in some way? A culture where people deliberately reach out to strangers is a culture that makes people safer.

As a pastor, I also have had a lot of opportunities to spend time with the sick. The sick need much, but if I had to sum up their needs in one word, I would have to choose “restoration.”

They usually want to be restored physically, of course. Sometimes physical healing happens in unexpected ways, and that’s always wonderful to see. But even without physical restoration, remarkable events can happen when someone is sick.

Often, sickness becomes a path to restoration with God, and the presence of other people can become a very important part of that restoration. I’ve seen people work through their fears and find tremendous peace before dying simply because others were there to pray with them, to comfort them, and to make them feel loved.

Now, not so many of you may have worked in prison ministry. The idea can be a little repulsive. I remember the first time I was volunteering in a federal prison and realized I was sitting next to someone convicted of trafficking in child pornography. It took me a few minutes to warm up to the guy. The whole time, I’m wondering, “Jesus, is this really what you meant?”

I’ve also sat with and even dined in the prison cafeteria with killers and rapists, not to mention the thieving accountants who cost people their life savings. I’ve preached to these people in worship services, I’ve taught them in small groups, and certainly, I’ve prayed with them. The only way you can become comfortable doing these things is to realize that Christ died for them, too—that their sins are just as forgiven as our sins.

And as I consider all these experiences, I begin to realize how the truth that we are saved through simple belief is so closely tied to Jesus’ expectation that we do good works for the least among us. It all goes back to grace; God loved us enough to save us even though sin had rendered us worthless, and we’re expected to model his behavior.

By going to the least, we open the door so God’s grace can better reach them. We also open another door, the one to our own hearts, and God’s grace is better able to reach us. Serving the least works very much like a sacrament, changing all involved.

That’s why it is so important to do some or all of these outreach efforts, to be there in body as the work is done. We can give money all day to support such ministries, but to experience the change, we have to be present.