Please allow me to share a 1960s joke. The setting is a “man-on-the-street” interview. Question: “Do you think the two greatest issues of our day are ignorance and apathy?” Answer: “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”
Please forgive me that. But I do want to ask you a question. Would you agree that ignorance and apathy are a problem today in the church? Do ignorance and apathy damage the Church of Jesus Christ, de-energize the mission of His Church, and leave Jesus’ followers with little passion for generosity? Do you know what God asks of us in terms of generosity? Do you care?
For all the Sundays of this month, we have been thinking about living a generous lifestyle, not exclusively as financial in nature, but as a lifestyle of love for Jesus Christ and generosity toward opportunities of service and the advance of His kingdom. This is to say that when we think about bring generous, we are talking about giving in our relationships, giving for the mission of the church out there, and also giving for the church in here.
We have also talked these past weeks about a suggestion here that there are three ways to do this: “giving up,” expressing love for God; “giving out,” expressing love for those who are not yet Jesus’ followers; and “giving in,” directing love for those who are part of God’s family in the Church. Generous giving requires all three.
Around the words of Jesus, “Let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (v 24), I want you to think about being generous, focusing on “giving in.” To be clear, “giving in” is not about losing, such as an argument. Giving in, as we will discuss it today, is not surrender. Giving in is about direction. It is about love for those who are part of God’s family in the Church.
When you see a NASCAR or INDY or Formula 1 auto race, you see something that can be very exciting. People who go fast interest us. Racing can be interesting because the commitment of the racing teams is very high, the demands of the race itself are large, and the finish to the race can be so spectacular.
Commitment, demand, and spectacular finish set the pattern for the words Jesus speaks: “Let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (v 24). He speaks these words to His disciples as He shares with them what’s going to happen to Him. “Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16:21). No ignorance or apathy here. Jesus is telling them about His commitment and demand, and also His spectacular finish, which we call Easter.
Having disclosed His own suffering, death, and resurrection, He speaks to His disciples about what it means to continue with Him. No small commitment. No small demand. No unspectacular finish. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (vv 24–25).
Two important implications are clearly connected to this word of Jesus. First, while the pronouns of the verses are singular, Jesus is addressing the whole group. That means the call to follow is extended to me, and you, and the whole Church.
Second, because the invitation to follow Jesus requires us to stop being selfish, each individual follower of Jesus needs the support, camaraderie, encouragement, counsel, instruction, and love from all the other followers of Jesus. This is not a journey to be traveled alone. In other words, you are not just here to get what you need, you are here for me, and everyone else that is here. Belonging to Him means we stop putting ourselves and our stuff first.
What I am trying to get at here today, the case I am trying to make to you, is that “giving in” is loving those who are part of God’s family in the Church. “Giving In about loving your church. “Giving In,” Is Not about Losing, but about Loving Those Who Journey with You as Jesus’ Followers, about Supporting and Sustaining one another. Jesus describes it: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35).
No small commitment. Deny yourself. No small demand. Take up your cross. No unspectacular finish. Follow Jesus. “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (v 25).
These words of Jesus are here for us in the context of Commitment Sunday. Today you have the option, the OPTION of making a pledge to St. Mark. Now over the years I have heard folks say to me that it is not Lutheran to talk about tithing. I know my dad was baptized more than eighty years ago and he knew about it and did it, and I learned it from my dad and from my pastor. I think it is interesting that on the two occasions Jesus spoke about “tithing” (returning 10%) he affirmed it (Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42). I am also intrigued by the fact that the first two “tithers” in the Old Testament were Abraham (Genesis 14:18-20) and Jacob (Genesis 28:20-22). What is cool there is that they were doing this several hundred years before the law regarding tithes and offerings were given through Moses.
A study of the Old Testament regarding tithes and offerings reveals that for the follower of God 3000 years ago, a minimum of 23 1/3% would have been given each year. This includes the Lord’s tithe, the festival tithe, and a tithe over three years for the poor. So from Old Testament times to New, we go from 23.3 percent to ten. What a deal, right? My question is, “If not tithing, then what would you suggest?”
Another thing I have heard over the years is I have heard people say, “I don’t think it is very Lutheran to make a pledge.” Sometimes it is an excuse, but sometimes it comes from people who are not sure they will be able to complete a pledge. Just so we are clear, a pledge is not a legally binding document and that God understands that circumstances can change. If you prefer, we could say that card you have is a “giving goal” or an “estimate of giving.”
Nevertheless, whatever you call it: “pledge,” “commitment,” “giving goal,” “estimate of giving,” I am convinced that there is spiritual value in making an annual financial commitment.
It is an act of Christian maturity. Commitment is a sign of maturity. It is what we do when we are confirmed, married, decide on a career. We move from a kid saying stuff like: “Maybe I will …” (be a firefighter, live in Hawaii, marry that Valerie I shared the swings with) to the adult’s commitment and to a specific course of action. A child dreams of a million possible careers, spouses, future homes. An adult commits to a chosen spouse, settles on a career field, lays out a course of preparation. Commitment in generosity also marks a shift from random gifts to a specific, committed path of service and worship. It is part of growth in discipleship and Christian maturity, and, like prayer, witness, and worship, it is only learned by doing it.
It is an act of prayerful discernment and decision. The annual financial pledge disciplines me to sit down and prayerfully decide what God would have me do to support His mission in the local church. Without that discipline, your gift might be determined by whatever you happen to pull out of your pocket on a given Sunday. And let me give you a hint here: Make a decision based on percentage of income rather than just a specific amount. Percentage giving is Biblical.
It is an act of faith. If I believe that God has guided me to make a specific commitment, then I also have the faith that as God guides, He will provide. Making a promise and acting upon it is a lesson about God’s love for us, whose promises to us are renewed and fulfilled every day. Pledging is a bold and simple way to respond in faith to God’s promises and His gifts.
It is an act of Christian community. It is always a good thing to see you folks come forward and place your cards here. As they pile up, they become symbols of the Body of Christ standing together to do wonderful things in mission and ministry that can only be accomplished as each of us brings his or her gifts of time, talent and money to the task God has set before us. These cards connect us to one another in the common endeavor of God’s mission. This, what we do today, is “giving in.”
Generous giving has to be done on purpose, it does not happen by accident. Jesus loves me and gave His life for my salvation. Because being the Savior was the reason He was here, the cross could not be avoided. That was the plan. Now the plan for us is to love one another as we are loved by Jesus. God calls us to live daily with a purpose in Jesus Christ, expressing love to God and other followers of Jesus, even when it is costly for us. But it is not going to cost us too much. For a generous life, His Word teaches and promises:
Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine. (Prov 3:9–10)
Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. (Mal 3:10)
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 the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (Lk 6:38)
And it will not cost us too much to love and share here! Again God’s Word: And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Gal 6:9–10)
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. (1 Jn 3:16)
No small commitments. Jesus says, “Deny yourself.” No minimal demand. Jesus says, “Take up your cross.” No unspectacular finish. Jesus says, “Follow me.” Jesus also said, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (v 25). Whatever we give, our time, our talent, our tithes and offerings, are given to show our love for God, our love for the lost, and our love for each other and the work of this congregation. Jesus calls us to be generous, since He was and is, generous to us.