November 15, 2020

“Honoring God First”

Proverbs 3:9-10


This morning we are back into the series on the Book of Proverbs, seeking God’s wisdom. Today’s focus is on stewardship- in particular, financial stewardship and giving to our church and its mission. Stewardship is really something we do year-round, for we are called to be stewards or caretakers of God’s creation every day and called to use the resources we have been given by God wisely and for God’s glory. So, although this is what we call the financial Stewardship sermon due to the stewardship campaign letter having gone out a few weeks ago, in reality, all of my sermons in some way relate to stewardship.


There’s a story related to financial stewardship about a woman from a Presbyterian church who was rushed to the hospital, and it just so happened to be during the church stewardship campaign in the fall. She had suffered a heart attack, was transferred to CCU, and her family was warned by the cardiac doctors not to excite her. While in the hospital a wealthy uncle of hers died and left her a million dollars. Her family wondered just how they could break the news to her with the least amount of excitement. They finally decided on asking their pastor if he would go and break the news quietly to the woman. He went and visited with her, gradually leading up to the question. Finally, he asked the woman what she would do if she inherited a million dollars. She replied, “Well, I was taught in scripture to give my first fruits to God. Therefore, I think I would give of my substance of my whole self and donate at least half of it to the church.” The pastor grabbed his chest and dropped dead. Stewardship can be a dangerous topic! My physician Dr. Sager can vouch for the condition of my heart, which is good and strong according to a recent MRI. So, don’t worry - If you would like to donate ½ a million dollars to the church, I can take it.


Today’s passage speaks of an ancient manner of stewardship- using the gifts God has given for God’s glory and giving back to the temple. The proverb tells us to “Honor God with your substance, to give of the first fruits of all of your produce.” The word for substance in Hebrew, hown - does stand for one’s wealth, but it means much more. Substance - that which is solid or real - hown means to give from your whole being. So, by the time of the writing of this proverb, the temple of God had been built, and people were asked to give in support of its ministry. They gave financially. In those days, a collection box was placed in one of the courts of the temple. The box had a long metal trumpet, where one would drop their coins (which was the currency of the day). The coins would make a noise as they dropped down into the collection box. One was asked to give regularly to the temple to support the priesthood.


Giving was varied, however. Giving was related to festivals and the 7-year Shabbat. In the 3rd and 6th years of this cycle, one gave what was called the poor person’s tithe, giving a tenth of one’s produce to the Levite Priesthood and to the poor - which was likely distributed to the poor through the priesthood. In addition, each year there were three major agricultural festivals where one was asked to give of their first fruits to the temple: The festival of Unleavened bread, when the faithful gave the grain barley, the Festival of Weeks, when the faithful gave wheat, and the Festival of Tabernacles when the faithful gave from their vineyards and orchards. The priests in the temple who served the surrounding community ate the first fruits. These gifts as well as animal sacrifices sustained the priesthood, were consistently given by the faithful as a way to honor God, and to acknowledge God as the giver of all gifts- financial, food, and life itself. It was a well put together stewardship system.


Things are a bit different today when it comes to supporting our place of worship. We do not have animal sacrifices, for we believe Christ’s sacrifice was the only one needed to reconcile us with our Creator. We don’t have festivals and offer the first fruits to the church staff. Although I have heard of pastors back in the day being paid in some rural church communities with chickens, eggs, and the like.


Nowadays, we find someone to be the chair of our annual stewardship campaign (Thanks this year to Marsha Hunter), send out a letter to our congregation, ask them to support us with a pledge throughout the year, and then put together a budget based on what folks are able to give.  In reality, this passage was written for a different system of stewardship. How then does it apply to us?


At first glance, these verses seem to be a simple formula on how to amass wealth for oneself. Honor God with your substance. Then your barns will be filled, and vats will be full. Sounds like the prosperity gospel! God wants us to be wealthy. All we need to do is to give generously to God, and God will then give generously to us. Simple, right? No, it is not so simple. We do an injustice to God’s wisdom when we read just a part of it in isolation from the whole. This is not the only place God’s wisdom addresses wealth and we would be remiss to ignore those passages. We should never view God as a means to an end (If I do this for God, then God will give me financial prosperity!) That is a form of idolatry, elevating financial and material gain above a relationship with God. Furthermore, does God not care for and love those who have little? God loves the poor and blesses them as God blesses us. So, this is not a magic formula to find financial success.


Second, we must be careful in how we apply these proverbs to us. We should read it more like a book of principles rather than a book of promises The Principle in these verses is to honor God. When we acknowledge God, when we honor God, we are in a close relationship with God. We honor God when we give thanks for the food on our tables, for the homes in which we live, for the ATM cards and bank accounts which fuel our daily lives, even for the little day to day things.  By acknowledging God first in our lives, we can see God’s blessings back to us in a clearer way.


An example - Last week, I was lamenting the fact that our beautiful maple trees in our front yard had dumped significant amounts of leaves. The whole front yard, the driveway, and the street were covered by leaves. I was just too busy to do anything about it. Then, late Thursday night, when a storm front came through, the winds picked up. The next morning, I looked out at our front yard and saw that ALL the leaves had been blown off the street and off the yard, directly onto our front porch in one pile, and stacked up in another pile against the garage door. It literally looked as if God had taken a leaf blower and stacked all the leaves for me. My first acknowledgment in that moment was to give thanks to God, to honor God in that moment. I don’t know if God looked down at our home and said, “Well I can use the wind to help Dan out, but it sure felt like it, and God is Lord of heaven and earth, God of the wind and of the leaves. That afternoon, I came home and took all of 15 minutes to load those leaves into my green waste bin, giving thanks as I did so. So, we gain the wisdom of God through this principle - to recognize God and give thanks for God’s presence in our lives, and for a relationship with the Creator of all things. Then we can more clearly recognize those blessings that come back to us.


Third, let us focus on that word hown or substance. We are called to give to God of our whole selves. We do this by honoring God in how we live, in how we treat others, in how we demonstrate our faith, in how we spend our time, in how often we worship God and pray to God. That is giving of our substance.


We also give of our substance financially. The point of our money is to honor God with it first. We can honor many things with our money. The struggle that comes for us is honoring ourselves and our needs first rather than honoring God first. Here Woman Wisdom teaches us that the best way for us to use our wealth is for God and for things that glorify God, rather than things that glorify ourselves. For the person of faith, we see the bigger picture. It all begins with God. Psalm 24:1 reminds us, “The earth belongs to God. Everything in all the world is God’s and comes from God.” With that perspective, our lives are to be lived in light of a grander scheme.  What does your budget say about what you honor most? Rev. Billy Graham once wrote, “A checkbook is a theological document. It will tell you who you are and what you worship.” The first thing we are called do with our money is to honor God. This is not to say we can’t spend on things we love and find pleasure in. Rather, we see things including our finances in a bigger, God-filled context, and therefore honor God first.


The passage for today tells us to honor God with our first fruits. God is not to be an afterthought in our giving, but rather the principal interest. Giving to the church, giving to those organizations which help turn the world upside down to make it more on earth as it is in heaven- These should be our first priorities. Yet it is difficult to think of honoring God in a time such as this. We are living in unprecedented, stress-filled days of a pandemic, as the COVID numbers keep increasing here in Jackson County and nationally. The governor has declared a freeze on our activities beginning next week, and we wonder how long we will need to hunker down. Not far from us at all, so many have lost homes and livelihoods in Phoenix and Talent. We wonder how we can help folks rebuild. Then there is the presidential election, which most people think has ended. The ongoing stress of the election not being fully resolved makes it difficult to sleep at night. Sometimes it is all we can do at such times just to get up out of bed and face the day. These problems overwhelm our senses, and we place our fears and anxieties first in our lives. This is even a struggle for me at times.


This Proverb is a reminder for us all us to Place God first in our lives. Acknowledge God. Honor God. Pray to God in the midst of all of this dark night of the soul. By honoring God first in our lives, it will help us see the bigger picture, and help us in our struggles.


So many of you have given in spectacular ways this year, and we thank you for that. Thank you for honoring God first with your substance and first fruits, enabling us to do so much! As you prayerfully consider your pledge to the church this coming year, I want to remind you of some of the wonderful things this church does, which you have supported through your giving. We are an open and inclusive congregation, believing God sees each person as a creation of the Creator, made in the image of God and loved by God. We are blessed to be able to provide an online worship service every Sunday, proclaiming the Gospel, thanks so much to our talented staff whose salaries you support. I hope you are able to take advantage of that great gift. Theologian and Author Anne Lamott writes, I go to church every Sunday, which is like going to the gas station once a week and really, really filling up.  I hope our services fill you up with hope! We are giving space in our Fellowship Hall for a winter shelter for the homeless 7 nights a week, helping people reclaim the lives God intended them to live, helping fire victims from the Almeda fire. This is something that speaks of our Matthew 25 roots, as well as our history as a congregation, having begun the shelter movement here in Ashland some 13 years ago. We also have our Safe Parking Program, run by volunteers in the congregation enabling folks to get back on their feet, find services, jobs, and housing. We give out bus tokens and food vouchers, help people keep the heat on and pay for their utilities, and give needy families food at Thanksgiving and Christmas through your support of the Deacons funds.

Thanks to your generous giving, we can support local entities like OHRA, The Ashland Emergency Food Bank, Maslow Project, and other places that help those in need. We are able to do some needed repairs on our facility and have just gotten the outside of the church grounds cleaned up. We have a small dedicated group from the church studying the history of Oregon and its racist roots, trying to educate ourselves so that we can in time educate others, and understand what it means to live in white privilege and to proclaim that “black lives matter”  in a world that demonizes someone who is “other.” We still have fellowship times and Bible study and book study together, even though it is online - giving thanks for our relationships with our fellow friends in Christ. These are some of the many things the church is doing, working to bring about the kindom of God, sharing God’s light and hope in a dark and often hopeless time in this world. Thank you for your giving, for your generosity, and for your faithfulness in supporting our church and its mission to the world. Alleluia! Amen.

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