A Cheerful Sacrifice

A sermon based on Micah 6:1-8 and 1 Timothy 6:56-19 preached on October 23rd, 2017

Sermon audio

There’s a comedian and column-writer for Esquire Magazine whose name is A.J. Jacobs, who one day had nothing better to do, so he got this crazy notion to live a year of his life following the Bible as literally as possible.

Jacobs is Jewish, but he says he’s Jewish in the same way that Olive Garden is an Italian Restaurant. He refers to himself as agnostic, so this idea of living biblically for a year didn’t come from his devotion to anything. At least at first, his desire to try to live an entire 365 days attempting to follow all 614 of the Old Testament’s commandments was born purely out of his curiosity. It was a stunt. At first, he thrived on the absurdity of it. After just a handful of days, as his beard grew out, his diet, his wardrobe, and so many other things about his life began to change, he wondered if this was even possible. He began to realize both the blessings and the curses of having to constantly think about what scripture has to say about the smallest little details of his life. After several weeks a remarkable thing happened. He started to notice the subtle blessings and the simple wisdom inside of having to pay close attention to absolutely every aspect of his life, how he dressed and what he ate, how he spent his money, and how he treated others.

Trying to follow the Bible as literally as possible was hard, and sometimes it was more than he could manage, but he realized relatively early on that there was a sacred intelligence beneath all the rules—that all of it together led him into something wonderful and freeing. What A.J. Jacob’s first though was going to be an absurd journey into something ancient and irrelevant quickly became an invitation into joyful living.

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We who are suspect of rules—we who often scoff at anything that seems on the surface, at least, to take away our freedom of choice—might be surprised by what would happen if we gave ourselves over to scripture’s invitation to practice a life of devotion and sacrifice to God.

What if we too made our decisions using more than just our own habits or preferences? What if we trusted that God has something life-giving hidden behind what appeared to be a suffocating commandment? What if we trusted that there was freedom hiding behind something that seemed altogether confining? We might be surprised to know that there is often blessing inside of sacrifice.

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Author Anne Lamott found herself sitting on an airplane next to Jewish man. She noticed he was wearing a yarmulke, and she being the curious sort, struck up a conversation with him. As they were talking, a stewardess stopped by and asked them if they’d like the chicken or the fish for their in-flight meal, and the man asked if either of them were Kosher. The stewardess had no idea, but she promised to find out. Anne Lamott asked him,

Isn’t it a huge pain to be restricted to a Kosher diet?

The man responded,

It’s not a pain at all. And it’s not a restriction. It’s a blessing because every time I eat, God’s a part of my choice.

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The practice of stewardship is just like that. Stewardship is a more-than-daily way of involving God in every single choice we make. It’s the more-than-daily intention of including the “capital S” Somebody into every one of our decisions. A life of stewardship is a life lived in gratitude and freedom because we are at each and every turn, we’re reminded that God is the Source of every bit of it.

The invitation of Stewardship is to practice a sacred mindfulness where we’re asked to consider the right use of all we have and all we are! And just like A.J. Jacobs or Anne Lamott, it is inside a life practice of stewardship that we can discover the blessing and the freedom that secretly reside inside what we first thought are just a bunch of rules for us to follow.

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We need not approach Paul’s words in this passage in a legalistic or moralistic way. Many have used this passage to shame those who are rich. Some others have, for better or for worse, given away everything they possess to live a life of poverty. Some have used this passage to preach the evils of money itself, as if having a few thousand dollars tucked away in a savings account is some sort of affront to God. This, of course, is a grave misuse and a dangerous misunderstanding of this passage. Instead we should see this passage as an invitation into fuller life, to let its wisdom redirect our steps—to let it reorient us until all that we are and all that we have are match up with who God is and what God desires for us. Until our own desires fall in line with God’s desires. Until God takes all that is disordered about our loves, and rearranges us until our lives reflect the life of Jesus.

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If you took a bible and cut out all the places where money (and its right use) is mentioned, you would have a very holey bible. Throughout scripture, money is spoken of as a rival love. Jesus warns us of this over and over again. Money, more than anything else in our life, has the power to pull us away from our relationship with God and others. That’s because we have a tendency to place money and our pursuit of it above everything else. We lose ourselves in our quest for more of it.

The love of money is called the root of all evil because a disordered desire for more of it is the most destructive power there is. Our over-focus on it will wreck us. God knows that we are what we do with our money. And how we acquire, regard, manage, spend, and talk about money is a window into our hearts. There’s almost nothing that reveals a person’s character more than this.

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There’s nothing more biblical than a budget. The way we spend our financial resources is another opportunity to be a part of the work of God. I encourage you to sit down this week with your family. Every one of you, kids included. Gather around and have a family discussion about finances. Bring it all out into the open.

Studies show that arguments over money are by far the top predictor of divorce. Many couples get married before they even say a word to one another about money. We tend to be too quiet about money and its important role in our everyday lives. I think most of us have a precarious and overly tenuous relationship with money because we don’t like to talk or think about it in the first place.

We mismanage money because most of us didn’t grow up inside of a family that was transparent about its finances. Whenever I log into my online bank account, I do it with one eye closed, because I have a contentious relationship with money. I didn’t grow up in a household where all these things were shared aloud. So when I started earning for myself, I didn’t have a heathy way to talk or even think about money. That’s when mistakes and mismanagement happens. So, I encourage you to sit your family down and talk to each other about you household finances—what comes in and what goes out. What does being a disciple of Jesus Christ mean financially? Have a conversation about what the faithful use of money looks like. Talk about contentment and what that has to do with money. Then ask each other what it would be like to live below your means as a spiritual practice? There’s nothing more biblical than a budget.

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This week, you received a letter in the mail from our Stewardship and Mission Committee. Inside of it, you received a pledge card. On the back of that pledge card, there’s a chart that will help your family discern how much to pledge to our church for 2017. I invite you to make your pledge to our church a part of your family discussion. And before you fill out that card, may I encourage you to ask a few questions aloud:

The first question is meant to change your perspective on giving. We are the relatively affluent, so the proper question isn’t so much What do I need to give? so much as it is, What do I have the right to keep?

Second question: What organizations other than church have our hearts and minds, and what might a faithful gift to them look like?

Third question: How much might we pledge to the church that represents a cheerful sacrifice? A cheerful sacrifice is an odd phrase. You might ask What can be cheerful about a sacrifice? But those two words together are meant to usher us into a biblical sweet spot. The idea of Cheerful Sacrifice is meant to give you twin guidelines for your giving.

When A.J. Jacobs was seeking out advice at the beginning of his year of living biblically, he asked a pastor about whether he should tithe his income before- or after-taxes. The pastor replied,

You shouldn’t get too legalistic with it. Give what you can afford. And then give some more on top of that. It should feel like a sacrifice.

Later on, Jacobs said about giving that he does it with a mixture of God’s pleasure and his own pain. If your giving is not a sacrifice, you’re probably not giving enough. On the other hand, if you’re not giving cheerfully, then perhaps you’re giving too much. Find the sweet spot. The cheerful sacrifice. Keep in mind that God works in the hearts of those who give an amount that stings a little.

Another consideration: Sometimes we need to be proactive in our giving. We need to give what we think we should give rather than what we want to give. So the next question I’d like you to ask as a family is, If I were the sort of person I would really like to be, then what would I give?

We can direct our hearts where we want them to go by asking questions like that. Sometimes giving is our best way into living.

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We are what we do with our money.

May our lives—all we say and do, and all that we are—be a faithful expression of our commitment to the practice and challenge of stewardship. And in our giving, may we find life that really is life!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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