A Sermon on the Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity, November 9, 2014
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
The Epistle, Ephesians 6:10-20 – The Gospel, St. John 4:46-54
A. Money and St. Matthew’s Church
1. Our ministry is supported by the tithing and giving of our members and friends. For the last twenty-eight years it has been our pattern to talk about giving this time of year as we prepare our next annual budget. Our mission statement calls us each to “work and pray and give for the spread of [God’s] kingdom” (BCP 291). In this trinity, giving money has a sacramental value. It is an outward and visible sign of our inward commitment to Christ. As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21).
2. Giving money in the right way requires faith. Hebrews says, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God], for he who comes to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who diligently seek Him” (11:6). We give, not because we are buying God’s favor, or because we want a building named after us, or because we are afraid of what God might do to us if we don’t give; we give because we believe in God and his promises.
B. Faith and the story of the nobleman’s son
1. Today’s gospel illustrates what faith looks like. The nobleman in the gospel story asked Jesus to come to his house and heal his son. Jesus’ response shows he perceived a lack of faith in the man, the crowd that followed him, or both. Consequently, Jesus did not agree to come. Rather, he required that the nobleman believe his word. Jesus said, “Go home. Your son will live.” We are told, “The man believed the word that Jesus has spoken.” Jesus required that the man trust his verbal promise without the assurance and comfort of Jesus’ physical presence.
2. This is the challenge of faith. People often say, “If God will show me a sign, then I will believe.” Jesus says to us, instead, “If you will believe, if you will do what I say first, then I will show you a sign.” Miracles do not lead to faith. Faith leads to miracles.
C. Giving and faith
1. Biblical giving begins with the tithe. Tithe means tenth. To literally tithe is to return the first tenth of our income to God. Giving the first part of our incomes back to God is the way we acknowledge that all of our money is his; the first part represents the whole. Tithing is also the way God provides for his church.
2. Tithing requires faith. When we give to God first we must trust that God will fulfill his promise to take care of our needs. Faith in Christ always involves this kind of obedience. Jesus says things like, “Follow me” (Matthew 9:9), “Go show yourself to the priest” (Luke 17:14), and “Go your way, your son lives.” The hearer is called to obey without any tangible evidence other than God’s word and promise.
3. Tithing scares us because faith involves risk. We are afraid that if we tithe we won’t have enough left for our other needs. We are afraid to give because we have accepted the devil’s math. The devil teaches us that giving is a zero sum game. If I give, someone is richer and I am poorer. This leads people to be stingy and selfish. They think they will be richer because they keep things for themselves.
4. In God’s economy, there is enough for everyone; all who give in faith end up with more. Those who give generously of money, time, and talents are the most enriched and fulfilled. Those who are miserly and self-centered end up poorer in the ways that really matter. As Jesus said, “Give and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38).
D. Faithful giving and the mission of the church
1. The mission of any church depends upon the faith and faithful giving of its members. A church characterized by nominal faith and meager commitment struggles financially. It always seems to be behind in its budget. It is always cutting here and there to make ends meet. A church that is characterized by committed faith begins to get ahead. Because our treasure follows our hearts, the financial trajectory of the church begins to change as the life of Christ takes root and grows within us. A financial cushion develops. New missionary ideas can be entertained. New staff can be hired. God blesses both the church and those who give.
2. This has been the story of St. Matthew’s Church for the last twenty eight years. We began with a group of about twenty people meeting in rented room and a budget that was upside down. As the faith of our community began to grow, so did its giving. This enabled us to move to larger facilities, hire additional staff, buy property and build a church. The church building is not important as thing in and of itself; it is important as an outward and visible sign of our inward faith. It is a witness to this community that our faith is real—that our treasure and our hearts are in God’s kingdom.
3. We have had many financial heroes. The most important are the faithful tithers. Our ministry has been built on the foundation of those who, year in and year out, continue to support the ministry of this church with the offering of the firstfruits of their income. This faithfulness is more or less invisible. The more faithful people are, the less they are noticed. But, God see all things.
4. The growth of our ministry has also been made possible by periodic special gifts. There have been years when one or more of our members experienced some significant profit and shared their good fortune with the church. This has enabled us to build a financial margin and expand our ministry in new directions. I am extremely grateful for the faithfulness of our people.
E. The current mission of our church
1. Our ministry is expanding in new directions. God has given much to our church and we are being called to share it with other churches. My election as bishop was a part of this call, but it involves our whole church. We have experienced spiritual growth as a community through a commitment to the life of prayer and spiritual disciplines. We are being called to share with others what God has given to us.
2. In our culture Christian faith has too frequently been understood as a system of belief rather than as a way of life and prayer. The focus of faith has too frequently been on learning propositional truths and arguing about theology rather than on spiritual formation through the practice of spiritual disciplines. This cognitive emphasis has not succeeded in changing people. It has created many debates, but not many saints.
3. We have experienced something different in our community. Our experience is rooted in a three-fold emphasis. First, we emphasize the life of prayer lived according to a communal pattern or rule. Second, we emphasize knowledge of self; you should know who you are, how you have been formed by your family and the various things you have experienced in life, what your particular personality and gifts are, and how God is working in all of this to change you. Third, we emphasize that this spiritual work must take place in a community, in relationship with others.
4. The preeminence we place on prayer does not mean that theology is unimportant. It means that theology is in its right place. Theology explains our experience. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity explains our prayer. We pray to the Father through his Son by means of the Holy Spirit. Unless we are being changed by God the Father through the revelation of his Son by means of the work of the Holy Spirit within us, it won’t matter how skilled we are at proving Trinitarian doctrine. We are called to know God, not merely know about God.
5. The transformative work of the life of prayer is the essence of our mission. This is the foundation of our life together in this church and this is what we are bringing others into. This is what you are supporting with your tithes and gifts. This is what I talk about when I travel to speak to other people in other places. People are listening and the direction of our movement is being changed by us. Your support allows our mission to move forward.
F. Practicalities of giving.
1. Committed Christians should be committed and faithful givers. Most of you are. I am very grateful for your faithfulness. For those who are not yet financially committed to the kingdom of God, this sermon is an invitation. I invite you, not just to give money, but to become a committed follower of Jesus Christ in this church. Giving is simply an outward and visible sign of the larger work of God in your life.
2. Join us in working and praying and giving for the spread of the kingdom. Embrace our common rule of prayer. Make good confessions and cultivate new virtues. Discover your gifts and use them to serve Christ. Tithe to support our work. The discipline of tithing is two-fold. First, God should be given the first part of our income; when we receive our income, the first check should be an offering back to God. Second, what we give should be significant and sacrificial.
3. This pattern of offering God our first and best is highlighted by the Bible’s first story about giving. In Genesis 4 Abel gave God an offering “of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions.” Cain gave God “an offering”—some of his extra grain. The Bible tells us that God accepted Abel’s offering, but rejected Cain’s offering. Hebrews says, “By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous (11:4). The Bible calls us to give back to God, in faith, the first and best of what he gives to us. This is the way we commit all we have to God. This is how we show that we are trusting God to provide for us.
4. Tithing will not solve problems of financial irresponsibility. We may need to get our financial house in order in other ways. However, the right ordering of our finances always begins with giving the first and best to God, to dedicate our money to him. We can tithe no matter how large or small our income is. What is important to God is the faith of the giver, not the amount of the offering (cf. Mark 12:42-44).
5. God is faithful to provide for those who trust him. As 2 Corinthians says, “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God” (9:7-11).