Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
This is harvest time. All through history this has been a very important time of year, the time when people go out into the fields and the orchards to bring in the crops. Apples are one of the crops people harvest in the fall. Many of us have traveled up to Apple Hill in the foothills this time of year where you can sit in traffic for hours for a chance to try apple pie, apple butter, caramel apples, apple cider, apple turnovers, apple crisp, and more. Here’s the point: if you don’t like apples, Apple Hill may not the place for you. On Apple Hill, apples are in overflowing abundance.
This is why harvest time has always been a time for giving thanks. In our own country, Thanksgiving comes at the end of the harvest season, giving us an opportunity to stop and remember that everything which we possess, even the apples which grew in the orchards, are gifts to us from God. It’s good that we do this because sometimes we forget. Sometimes we begin to imagine that the things we possess actually belong to us and when that happens we begin to imagine that we are people who can take care of ourselves. That’s not good, of course, because we can’t take care of ourselves. We need God every day for every thing.
God knows how easily his people forget this, and so a long time ago he gave his people something called the tithe to help us remember. Here’s how it worked. At harvest time, when the people picked ten apples off a tree, they would take one of those apples and give it back to God by taking it to the temple. If God blessed a shepherd with ten sheep, that shepherd would take the first one of those sheep and give it back to God. In this way, the people would always be thankful and humble, never forgetting that everything they had, every apple, every sheep, was a gift from God.
Listen to one of the places in the Old Testament where God gives his people this gift of the tithe.
30 All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord. 31 If persons wish to redeem any of their tithes, they must add one-fifth to them. 32 All tithes of herd and flock, every tenth one that passes under the shepherd’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord. 33 Let no one inquire whether it is good or bad, or make substitution for it; if one makes substitution for it, then both it and the substitute shall be holy and cannot be redeemed. (Leviticus 27:30-33, NRSV)
Next Sunday is our annual Stewardship Commitment Sunday. Stewardship is a fancy way of saying that everything we possess does not belong to us. We are not owners but stewards, or trustees. Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” In Psalm 50:10 God declares, “Every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hillsides.” All of it belongs to God. For this reason, God instructs us to give back a portion of what he has given us so that we don’t run the risk of imagining it belongs to us and then fooling ourselves into thinking we don’t need God.
Now some people, preachers and church members alike, avoid talking about stewardship. Not me. I love it. I love it because God has such good news for us here and it’s been a delight over the years for me to watch light bulbs go on for people when they begin to see that when we trust what the Bible teaches us about handling our wealth we discover amazing freedom and joy.
One of the most foundational things scripture teaches us about stewardship is the tithe, a practice I believe God is still giving us to follow. Of course, since we no longer live in an agrarian society most of us are not counting apples or sheep, but dollars and cents. Still, apples can serve as a good illustration. It’s quite simple. If God puts 100 of his apples in your possession this year, he wants you to take at least the first 10 and give them back to him. For every dollar that finds its way into my hand this year, God tells me to take at least 10 cents and give it back as a reminder that the whole dollar still belongs to God.
Why 10%? It’s a good question because it seems so arbitrary. Why not 5%? Why not 50%? Why does God command us to take a Sabbath and rest every 7th day? Why not every 6th day? How about every other day? Wouldn’t that be great!
The owner’s manual on my Honda Accord tells me that every 3 months or every 3,000 miles I need to take my car in to have it serviced. Because I’m somebody who has no idea how an automobile engine works, the designation seems a bit arbitrary to me. Why not every month or every 1,000 miles? Why not every 12 months? That would be a lot more affordable!
I don’t know exactly why the manufacturer sets those particular numbers. Still, I follow them because even though I don’t understand how my engine works I trust that the manufacturer does. In the same way, because he is the Creator of the universe and I am not, I trust that God knows better than me what rhythms and balances are built into the created order to keep things healthy and right. Perhaps 2 apples out of 100 wouldn’t be enough of a sacrifice to keep us humble. Perhaps 20 apples might put too heavy a burden on us and make us bitter. Who knows? What I do know is that God who loves us knows what is best for us, and so we are wise if we trust God and do what he tells us to do even when it may seem arbitrary.
Here’s the thing. When we trust God in this, giving back faithfully from what we have been given, in our giving we are the ones who actually receive. In fact, this morning I want to show you three gifts that we receive when we trust God and obey his commandment to tithe.
First, we receive the gift of consciousness.
Read the Gospels and over and over again you will hear Jesus teach parables to his disciples about those who have been entrusted with the treasure of another. A king, for example, goes away and leaves his kingdom in the hands of his subjects. A master leaves town and places his estate in the care of his servants. Every parable has the same message. The ones entrusted with the treasure must act as trustees and not owners because one day the king, the master, is going to return and call the trustees to account. On that day, those who have remembered to handle what did not belong to them according to the desires of the rightful owner are always rewarded in these parables. On the other hand, things never end well in Jesus’ parables for those who forgot that what they possessed was not theirs to begin with.
Every dollar I put into the bank. Every possession I bring home from the store. Every apple I pack for lunch. All these things belong to God. When I regularly give back to God a portion of what I have been given, I remain conscious of this reality and it makes me humble and it keeps me grateful. This is why when we think about giving we are never to ask ourselves, “How much of my money should I give to God?” That’s entirely the wrong question. Much better to ask, “How much of God’s money does God want me to keep for myself?” Much better question. You see, our giving is a response. We don’t give to God to get him to give us something. No! God has already given us so much, not only our possessions, but life itself, salvation, hope, the promise of eternity. Our giving in return is simply a response of trust and thanks.
Second, when we give back to God we receive the gift of contentment.
Just this week I read an article in this month’s Christianity Today by Caryn Rivadeneira entitled “Blessed are the Broke”. The article describes the experience her family went through during a season when they faced unemployment compounded by unexpected medical debt. It was a hard time for them, but a time God used to teach them some very important truth. Specifically, God taught them how wrong they had been to assume that the only way God blesses people is by “adding zeroes to pay stubs, by keeping us healthy, and by giving us spouses and babies,” that in the end God is really about “upward and onward, bigger and better.”
Rivadeneira recounts the day her husband came home and told her they were done, broke, out of money, out of credit. It was a difficult and desperate time. And yet, when she now reflects back on that season of humility and brokenness before God, at the rock bottom of faith, she remembers that it was there where God’s goodness and presence became most real. In contrast, before that time her family had more money than they knew what to do with. They enjoyed lavish vacations, never thought about grocery prices or heating costs, and sent all their kids off to schools with hefty price tags. In all their material comfort, however, she remembers that, “I had to squint to see God in my life.”
Sometimes God has to use financial hardship to teach us to depend upon him rather than upon our wealth. But God can also use giving to accomplish the same thing. As we give we remember that it is not the apples which are the foundation of our identity and security but the One who gives the apples. And if that’s the case, then whether we have lots of apples, just a few apples, or no apples at all, our foundation doesn’t change. This is why Paul could write in Philippians 4:11-12, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”
Young children have much to teach us here. When my kids were little, four or five years old, we began teaching them about God’s tithe. In those days they might receive $1 of allowance, given to them as ten dimes. We’d then teach them that all ten of these dimes are God’s but that he was putting them into their hands to use. To remember this, God wanted them to take at least the first dime and give it back to him by taking it to church and putting it in the offering.
We’d explain this and then we’d ask them how much they wanted to give back. Nearly every time they would take four or five or more of the ten dimes and put them in their little offering envelope. And my initial response was always the same. To be honest, it seemed too generous to me. I found myself wanting to say to them, “You know, you don’t have to give that much. You might want to keep a bit more for yourself to buy that toy you’ve been saving for, or to use it to go out for ice cream one night, or don’t forget that Father’s Day is coming up.”
I’m ashamed to say that the generosity of my children awakened me to a reluctance in myself to give away too much. But that’s what kids do, right? At least kids in healthy loving families. Why? Because they’re content. They just know that they will be provided for by parents who love them and by a God who loves them. Can you see what a gift that is? Giving generously back to God reminds us that it is not the gift, but the Giver of the gifts, who is the source of all we need.
Finally, when we give back to God we receive the gift of compassion.
When we realize that everything we have is from God, and that God, and not our wealth, is the foundation of our identity and security, we find that we are now much more free to share what we have been given. And the more we come to know the heart of God the more we come to know that the heart of God breaks for those who are poor in our world. If we have God’s heart, our hearts will break for the poor as well.
We have so much wealth in our part of the world that I could go out yesterday and easily buy 100 apples from the store just to use them for a sermon illustration. There are people in our world, however, millions and millions of people, who literally don’t even have enough apples to feed their children who are starving to death. Anybody in this room who has ever taken a portion of what God has given to you and given it back to him to be used to help others in this world who don’t even have enough to get through the day, you know that the joy in doing so is worth infinitely more than the sacrifice.
One thing I love about our church is the spirit of compassion that runs through the people of this congregation. For example, when I’ve listened to many of you talk about your excitement about this new construction, it’s been amazing to hear that so much of the talk has been about how we can use this building to serve others in our community. In fact, a group is about to form of people here who want to pray and dream about how God wants us to use these new spaces to care for people beyond our church who are in need. That is a perfect example of how giving back to God helps us to receive, in turn, the gift of compassion. It’s a gift.
Maybe you never saw it this way before. All that we have is from God, a gift temporarily placed in our hands by a good and gracious God who loves us and has sacrificed everything for us. When we, in turn, give back to God the portion he instructs us to return to him, beginning with the tithe, we actually will become the ones receiving gifts, among them the gift of consciousness, the gift of contentment, and the gift of compassion.
So here’s what I want you to do. The end of the message this morning is going to be intensely practical. This week I want you to go home and count up how many apples God gave you this year. As best as you can, figure out how much income God directed to you or your family this year. Then, figure out how many of those apples did you give back to God? In other words, what percentage of your income did you offer back? God instructs us to give back 10 apples out of 100 but maybe you only gave back 2 apples. You know what? That’s great. Lot’s of people don’t give back any apples. Be encouraged because you have taken these steps of generosity. You’ve already begun the practice of giving and I hope you’ve already begun to experience the joy of doing so.
As we all count apples this week, many of us are going to realize we’re a long way from where God wants us to be in this and that can initially be a discouragement. If you go to the doctor and she tells you that you need to lose 10 pounds that’s one thing. If she tells you that you need to lose 60 pounds, well, that’s harder to take. However, what if your doctor then tells you not to think about that 60 pounds of weight. Instead, she says, this next month let’s lose 5 pounds. Then, the month after that, let’s lose another 5. Suddenly, the journey, broken down into steps, doesn’t seem so impossible. In one year, at five pounds a month, I can lose 60 pounds. Still not easy, as many of us know, but certainly manageable.
So here’s my challenge. Take time this week, you and your family, to pray about giving one or two more apples this coming year. If you gave 3% of God’s money back to him this past year, perhaps you could give 4% or 5% this coming year. Perhaps your kids could be taught to do the same. And if you do, maybe the next year after that you might give an apple or two beyond that. Suddenly, the journey, broken down in steps, doesn’t seem so impossible.
In all of this, of course, please understand that this has nothing to do with trying to impress God or earn God’s favor, as if we could ever do either. It’s possible, you realize, to give away 50% of all your wealth for all the wrong reasons and in the end receive none of the gifts I’ve talked about this morning. You see, God is interested far more in your devotion than your dollars. He only instructs us to give our dollars because he knows it can help us learn that our devotion to him will never be in vain.
Next Sunday we will gather here for Stewardship Commitment Sunday. On the way out after the Vision Forum, please pick up the stewardship packet with your name on it at the table in the narthex. It contains the tools and information you’ll need to help you and your family prayerfully prepare to come and make a pledge towards God’s work here in 2015. Though I know this isn’t the case in every church, Stewardship Sunday is a great celebration here at Faith. In fact, it’s one of my favorite Sundays of the year, an annual opportunity for me to be reminded that I get to serve a grateful and generous church that I believe is well on its way to understanding the joy and blessing that comes when we trust God with every single apple he puts into our hands.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read Leviticus 27:30-33. What do you notice?
The tithe (literally, “a tenth part”) was a command God gave to his people in biblical times. Do you believe that this command still applies to God’s people? Why or why not?
Do you tend to live day to day in the reality that everything you possess ultimately belongs to God? If so, how do you remember this? If not, what causes you to forget?
Jeff talked about three gifts we receive when we practice giving back to God. Which gift have you most often experienced in your life as you have given?
#1—The Gift of Consciousness (remembering it all belongs to God)
#2—The Gift of Contentment (knowing the Giver, and the gift, is the source of our identity and security)
#3—The Gift of Compassion (discovering the joy of sharing God’s heart for the poor)
Which of these three gifts do you wish you could experience?
Does God bless us more when we have a lot or more when we have a little?
How did you hear God speaking to you about how he wants you to handle the “apples” he has put into your hands this year?
Who in your life taught you the most about giving? What did you learn?
 Tithe literally means “a tenth part”.
 Also see Numbers 18:21-28 and Deuteronomy 14:22-29.
 Jesus affirms the tithe in Matthew 23:23, although he is also clear to keep it is it’s proper place.
 A prefect example is the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30.
 Caryn Rivadeneira, “Blessed are the Broke”, Christianity Today (October, 2014).
 Philippians 4:11-12 (NRSV).