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September 25, 2015, 10:55 AM

The "T" Word


Proverbs 31:10-31, Jewish Study Bible (italicized words from Dr. Wil Gafney’s translation)
What a rare find is a woman of warrior-strength!
    Her worth is far beyond that of rubies.
11 Her lord puts his confidence in her,
    And lacks no good thing.
12 She is good to him, never bad,
    All the days of her life.
13 She looks for wool and flax,
    And sets her hands to them with a will.
14 She is like a merchant fleet,
    Bringing her food from afar.
15 She rises while it is still night
    And supplies provisions for her household,
    The daily fare of her maids.
16 She sets her mind on an estate and acquires it;
    She plants a vineyard by her own labors.
17 She girds herself with strength,
    And performs her tasks with vigor.
18 She sees that her business thrives;
    Her lamp never goes out at night.
19 She sets her hands to the distaff,
    Her fingers work the spindle.
20 She gives generously to the poor,
    Her hands are stretched out to the needy.
21 She is not worried for her household because of snow,
    For her whole household is dressed in crimson.
22 She makes covers for herself;
    Her clothing is linen and purple.
23 Her lord is prominent in the gates,
    As he sits among the elders of the land.
24 She makes cloth and sells it,
    And offers a girdle to the merchant.
25 She is clothed with strength and splendor;
    She looks to the future cheerfully.
26 Her mouth is full of wisdom,
    Her tongue with kindly teaching.
27 She oversees the activities of her household
    And never eats the bread of idleness.
28 Her children declare her happy;
    Her lord praises her:
29 “Many women have warrior strength,
    But you surpass them all.”
30 Grace is deceptive,
    Beauty is illusory;
    It is for her fear of the Lord
    That a woman is to be praised.
31 Extol her for the fruit of her hand,
    And let her works praise her in the gates.
 
Mark 9:30-37, CEB
30 From there Jesus and his followers went through Galilee, but he didn’t want anyone to know it. 31 This was because he was teaching his disciples, “The Human One[a] will be delivered into human hands. They will kill him. Three days after he is killed he will rise up.” 32 But they didn’t understand this kind of talk, and they were afraid to ask him.
33 They entered Capernaum. When they had come into a house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about during the journey?” 34 They didn’t respond, since on the way they had been debating with each other about who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.” 36 Jesus reached for a little child, placed him among the Twelve, and embraced him. Then he said,37 “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me isn’t actually welcoming me but rather the one who sent me.”
 
 
Aidan was recently watching YouTube videos where people were tested to see if they could match TV theme songs with the show from the 1990s, and I found myself playing along, since the 90s seem so recent to me. I didn’t do very well, but there was one I knew instantly—Home Improvement! Tim Allen starred as a local TV fix-it show host who was lousy at home improvement. His fake cable show began each time with their announcer, Heidi, asking the crowd, “Hey everybody, what time is it?” The audience shouted in response, “It’s Tool Time!” (the name of the fake show). We, the Church in America, could play our own version of Tim’s show announcement every fall as the leaves begin to change and thoughts turn toward the close of this year and the beginning of the new. I could call to the congregation, “Hey everybody, what time is it?” Why, it’s Stewardship time! (yay! crowd roar) Let’s try it… “Hey everybody, what time is it?” (congregation responds, “it’s Stewardship time!”—hopefully with enthusiasm)
 
Our Finance team has been working toward that end and a member of the team asked me a question recently about tithing…the dreaded church ‘T’ word! So, what is a tithe? The quick answer is ‘giving 10%.’ But that is not a clear answer. In fact, I must confess, that simple answer leads to tons of other questions that are hard to answer, even for clergy—or especially for clergy. Ten percent of what? Income? Which income figure? Net? Gross? Is it every inch of income all factored together? Is it just my main salary? Ten percent given to what? Just the church? All charitable giving? There are no easy answers to those questions. Though the concept of tithing is biblical, as is the 10% figure, all our other questions aren’t so easily answered thousands of years later in a very different world.
 
And if those questions weren’t enough, here are some others. Many young adults and even middle aged adults discover the concept of tithing a little later in life, after the accumulation of quite a bit of debt. How do we then conceive of tithing when much of my income is tied up in this debt? Can I factor that debt into my concept of tithing? What if I am literally living paycheck to paycheck? How can we talk about tithing then? And doesn’t the concept of tithing primarily come from the Hebrew Scriptures-Old Testament? Does it then apply to us who follow Jesus? If so, how?
 
Can we go back to singing our hymn, or move on to praying for the world?
 
My home church never talked about tithing or giving, not in any way that left an impression on me and I was very active. My parents are faithful givers. I know this because they let me put their offering envelope in the plate every Sunday, but I never knew what was in it. I had never heard of tithing until I joined a mega-church in Baton Rouge as a young adult with my husband—and let me say, the mega-church in that Southern city was clear and concise in their required membership classes on their definition of tithing. Tithing was 10% of your after-tax income. At the close of the class, you would be pledging. A tithe was preferred, other percentages were offered as options. Doug and I chose an option. We were still figuring all this out.
 
We are still figuring all this out.
 
And then, Peter Storey, retired bishop from South Africa, messed up my neat definition received from that Louisiana UMC. He stood in front of our seminary class and declared that tithing is where we start in our giving and generosity. Ten percent is what we pledge to our church home as a start in our generous living, and then we give above and beyond. Many in the room gasped, audibly. And then he began teaching about sacrificial giving and sacrificial living and our little heads just spun in circles. He has that way about him. Wow!
 
So let’s stop with the barrage of questions and ask the important one, what does Jesus say? Here is the hard answer, Peter Storey was pretty much on target as to Jesus’ teaching on giving. But before we start gasping, let’s look at it from the scripture readings we have before us today. Jesus, and Proverbs, offer us a way into this Jesus way of living that might be less anxiety provoking.
 
I do want to take just a moment and talk about Proverbs. Chapter 31 is probably the most well-known passage from Proverbs and can stir up some strong emotions. I hope you noted the opening of the passage as it was read today—a woman of warrior strength. The Hebrew word, Isshah, is used for both woman and wife—there is no word that speaks specifically of one or the other. It is hard to know which one Proverbs means as the literal word for ‘husband’ never appears in the passage, only the word for ‘lord’ or ‘master.’ So this woman could be the wife, or she could be in another type of relationship in this household, even the household manager or steward. The word used to describe the Isshah is actually used earlier in this same chapter, where it is translated physical strength and literally means the strength exhibited by a warrior.  This passage, which closes Proverbs compilation of teachings on following Woman Wisdom and not Woman Foolishness, is a testament to Wisdom living—whether we see this strong woman as Wisdom herself, or an example (exaggerated for effect) of wisdom-living.  It is about more than tithing. It is about giving to God and community 100%, not 10%. It is about living always conscious of God present in oneself and in the world around us and treating all accordingly.
 
But chapter 31 is the end, not the beginning, of this journey of Wisdom. It is not our new ‘to-do’ list on discipleship. This is a glimpse of glory, a promise of full living to urge us on in our journey of life with God. We need to start at chapter one, and work, step by step toward that vision—what John Wesley called ‘moving on to perfection.’ We too strive for that warrior strength and that wise living—a life of peace and justice as one.
 
Now back to Jesus. First, Jesus does speak of tithing, in Matthew 23:23. He points out that his audience tithes, some Pharisees he is none too gentle with, and indicates that this is a good thing, BUT they are neglecting what he terms the ‘weightier matters’ of justice, righteousness and faithfulness. God wants more than the 10%, God wants 100% committed to God’s way.
 
Second, Jesus, in the way he guides his followers on a journey, clearly understands that kingdom living is a journey for us. In our reading today from Mark we find another confrontational moment between Jesus and his disciples on this journey. It is another moment where Jesus is pushing his followers beyond the popular understanding of living, the worldly understanding of power and greatness and privilege, and into a greater understanding of the upside-down way of God’s commonwealth. Jesus speaks for a second time of his impending suffering, death and resurrection. The disciples were too afraid to ask questions—they really didn’t want the answer. Instead they revert to their previous understanding of Messiah-ship, the popular and familiar one, where the Messiah comes in, kicks Rome out on its bum, and establishes the golden rule of God—King Jesus. And when that happens, they will be powerful! They begin to bicker about which one of them will be greatest, who has the best connections.
 
When confronted by Jesus, when their reversion is brought to light, Jesus is much gentler than last week’s “get behind me, Satan!” Jesus gives them a visual to stand in contrast to their fear and to their desire to define God’s way by worldly standards. Jesus takes the most powerless person in their current culture, places this tiny, no-status child in the midst of them, and states that greatness will be determined by how they welcome someone with no social position or status; not the world’s way where greatness is determined by being able to welcome the most powerful, wealthy, and privileged.
 
Fear makes us want to cling to what is familiar and so visible around us. Fear makes us want to do what everyone else is doing. There is comfort in numbers. Jesus calls us to step out in faith, step by step, even if they are baby steps at times. God’s kingdom assesses and assigns value very differently than the way the world does, and Jesus calls us to move toward seeing the world God’s way, not the world’s way. Tithing can be a milestone on that journey, a marker on the way. I don’t think it matters as we take baby steps toward tithing how exactly we define it—net income, gross income, debt figured in, etc. The vast majority of church goers, across most denominations, do not tithe under any of those definitions. I think the first thing we do is define our goal for ourselves and start moving in that direction. As we evaluate what we need to change to make those steps-what we will give up, what we will do differently-we begin to evaluate our lives through Jesus’ eyes. Our financial changes begin to affect our daily living—so that we start giving more and more of ourselves to God in an active way. We begin to assess and assign value in new ways, Jesus’ ways.
 
Tithing becomes a gift for living more of our life for God, giving more of our resources for God’s work. Those first steps are hard. Fear clings and pulls, making us want to go back to singing that last song/hymn or go forward to the pastoral prayer. But perhaps this year, Stewardship Time can be true discipleship time, as we step together in faith forward with God.
 
So, let’s try this again, our little spin off of Home Improvement and Tool Time… “Hey everybody, what time is it?”

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