Monday, March 28, 2011

Hope or Habit: the things we do

Malachi 3:8-12 2 Corinthians 9:5-15 Matthew 22:15-22

"Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1).

The difference between genuine "religious belief" and "superstition" is manifest in what the writer of Hebrews is expressing. Superstition deals primarily with the here-and-now while religious faith deals almost exclusively with what is to be. Faith does not simply acknowledge a present reality; faith deals in the substance of the future reality, the "substance of things HOPED FOR, the evidence of things NOT SEEN" (I might add, not seen "yet"). In other words, religious belief expressed in faith is about what is to come, not about what has been and not even about what currently is. Faith is all about the future!

When the Church calls the faithful into the season of Lent, it is not for the purpose of continuing a practice that was conceived in the past; it is not just something we are "supposed to" do. When the faithful are called to make sacrifices during Lent, it is not with an eye on what is right before us such as seeing if we can go 40 days without ______. The season, the practices, the devotions, the sacrifices - if done with the right spirit and heart - are all done with a sound belief not in what was previously established, not in what is the current dogma (or practice) of the contemporary Church, but in what is to come. It is expressed not merely in what we believe in right now, but that we TRUST what is to be.

The same thing can be said about the giving of tithes. It is not about what we are "supposed to" do, it is not about what we happen to have to spare right now (which is predominantly an act of fear), and it most certainly is not about paying the local church's bills. As a spiritual practice, tithing must be an expression of "faith" - the substance of things "hoped for", the evidence of things not seen "yet". Like Lent, like Holy Communion, like prayer, like worship, like fasting, like tithing; if all these things are done simply because we have come to believe they are expected of us, then we are stuck in the present "habit" of engaging in empty religious (if superstitious) practices. Hope as trust in that which is to come cannot exist in such empty, shallow practices. Such empty practices are little more than a reflection of the current reality.

There are some who might suggest that in the New Covenant, the tithe does not have the same substance. They suggest the tithe was just something the ancient Hebrews were engaged in as merely a test of obedience, little more than a "legal" requirement that all should fulfill. But this is not what is expressed by the Lord through His prophet Malachi. The Lord is challenging the faithful not to "be tested"; they are actually encouraged to test the Lord! A word of caution about the interpretation of this text, however. The Lord is not promising that in the "here-and-now" He will magically increase what is offered just to prove to them that their present is secure; the Lord is promising His faithful A FUTURE filled with hope! But we must believe in the Promise with hope and eager anticipation. Habit is a mere grudging acceptance of what is right now.

It is necessarily the same interpretation of what St. Paul is expressing to the Corinthians. A gift cannot be reduced merely to the "tithe" or strictly 10% because there can be no hope in such a mathematical equation that merely reflects the current reality and has nothing to do with the future reality. It then becomes not a "gift" to the Lord but a "tax" to the Church.

In some of the larger, so-called "mega" churches, absolute proof is required of a 10% "cut" for those who are employed by the church or are assigned leadership positions such as committee chairs, and in some cases even to participate in choir or other more public endeavors of worship on behalf of that particular church. They call it "spiritual integrity"; I call it a cryin' shame because the very concept of "gift" is in jeopardy. They are invoking and forcing a "habit" that is completely void of any sense or semblance of "hope". It is a "habit" that is being enforced by threat of the loss of a job or other worship participation. I don't know, maybe even the threat of a loss of fellowship in that particular church. These so-called "spiritual leaders" have completely missed the point! But these mega-churches also have overwhelming financial realities they must contend with. They are not freed from any shackles of bondage; THEY ARE "TRAPPED".

St. Paul admonishes the Corinthians, however, that "those who sow sparingly will reap sparingly" as those who "sow bountifully will also reap bountifully". St. Paul is not talking about the "here-and-now" for the Corinthians, though. He is talking about expressions of a faith in what is to come, what is "yet to be seen". The FUTURE reality filled with hope and promise; not the present reality in which is found only empty, almost mindless habits; habits that come to be resented as "grudging". Like Malachi, St. Paul is talking about a future; specifically the future of the Church and what the Lord will call forth from that Church.

What we must learn to get past when the collection plate comes by is the notion that we are merely contributing to the "bill-paying" apparatus of our local churches, bills that must be paid before we can even think about ministry to the community. We must realize that what goes into the plate cannot be a mere contribution to the budget which comes out of our pockets. It is our gift to the Lord which comes from a heart filled with joy and hope! It is a gift of thanksgiving that expresses not the current reality or necessity - but rather the future reality that is firmly in the hands of our Lord. The gift we offer must be an expression of that hope if it is a spiritual practice at all.

I'll grant that there are budgetary realities every church must be mindful of, but overall giving has declined. There are many reasons why some would choose to withhold. Some out of some silent protest, a protest we may never know the nature of, but some - perhaps many - withhold out of a sense of fear.

We still live in very strange and very unsettling economic climate. People are still losing their jobs, and people are still living in fear of losing their jobs. Many of us are genuinely afraid of tomorrow's unknown challenges - and for good, practical reasons! And we're not stupid! We can see the writing on the wall, and we have every practical reason to be apprehensive.

But faith is not practical. Hope is virtually nonsensical. And promises of what "might" be? Almost completely empty ... to the practical mind. But what is faith without substance? And what is hope without evidence? Superstitious nonsense. Fear without foundation. We're jumping at shadows. We are afraid of the unknown.

And this is the very reason why faith itself is a divinely imparted Gift from the Lord. It is not something you and I can "go get" or "come to". I'm not even sure if the substance of faith itself can be "developed" or "reasoned" because anything we reach for in books or studies or from our own minds cannot make us unafraid of the unknown. There is nothing man-made that can give us the substance of hope because anything that comes from humans will last only as long as humanity lasts. Politicians have been promising us a better life for I don't know how long - and by now we should know they are making promises they CANNOT keep. They may mean it when they say it, but what the human race really needs - TRULY NEEDS - will not and cannot be politically assigned.

The challenge is before us today. We are here in this sanctuary because we believe we have been given life - and in abundance, as Jesus Himself promised. Knowing you and I will never taste death by protection of the Mighty Hand of the Living God, what exactly would we give in return? And seeing that the Life we are promised is before us, so much more our hope and faith in what is before us ... YET to be seen, YET to be reaped ... perhaps because it is yet to be sown.

Only you and the Lord know. Amen.

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