Stewardship

Hebrews 9:11-14 Contemporary English Version (CEV)

11 Christ came as the high priest of the good things that are now here.[a] He also went into a much better tent that wasn’t made by humans and that doesn’t belong to this world. 12 Then Christ went once for all into the most holy place and freed us from sin forever. He did this by offering his own blood instead of the blood of goats and bulls.

13 According to the Law of Moses, those people who become unclean are not fit to worship God. Yet they will be considered clean, if they are sprinkled with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a sacrificed calf. 14 But Christ was sinless, and he offered himself as an eternal and spiritual sacrifice to God. That’s why his blood is much more powerful and makes our[b] consciences clear. Now we can serve the living God and no longer do things that lead to death.

It’s a week before Stewardship Sunday, but this particular text came up for today, and it got me thinking about all things stewardship – offering – tithing-related. So let’s call this the Annual Stewardship Sermon and hope it helps to clarify why we do what we do around this part of church life. Here we go.

Long ago, early in the roots of our religious tradition, rituals of faith were – let’s say - more direct – than they tend to be today. Think about what goes into the offering. For the most part, we offer something from our checking account. We supplement that with the occasional cookout or refreshment hour offering or some other contribution – something from our time or talent or treasure or some combination thereof. How do we determine what it is that we give? Or, deeper still, what motivates us to give at all? Sometimes, we give because we’re happy to be supportive. We believe in the cause. We WANT to help. Other times? Maybe there’s a sense of obligation involved.

What’s the difference between doing something because it’s your obligation and doing the very same thing because it’s what you most want to do? The same thing is done, right? Let’s say you’ve been invited to two weddings on consecutive weekends. One is to the wedding of the daughter of your boss. You’re feeling obligated to give – probably in a certain price range. Not that this will be considered in your performance review. Right? One can hope. So you spend that pretty penny.

Now – the other wedding. This one is for the daughter of someone who has been there for you at your lowest times, someone who you love as much as you’ve ever loved anybody, someone you expect to be close to no matter what? How’s it feel to go shopping now? What do you want to give?

In both cases, you’re giving a gift. The first is out of a sense of obligation. You have other places you’d rather be, you don’t want to spend the money, but you don’t want to offend or look like you’re obligated to show up and give something. In the second case, you’d give more if you had it, and nothing you can do feels like enough, and you wouldn’t miss this event for anything. What’s the difference?

The difference is between a social obligation and a deep relationship. To one, you give of your time and treasure because it would look bad for you to do any less. To the other – you’re trying to wrap love in a box with ribbons and bows, pure and simple. That’s the difference. It’s love, even if it’s the very same gift and the same amount of time. The difference is love.

Years ago, when I lived in the parsonage, my next-door neighbor, George Draghetti, kept goats. Well, “kept” might not be the right word. The goats occasionally broke loose and managed to get out, even getting across North Westfield Street alive – something of a modern day miracle if ever I saw one. So maybe “hosted” is the better word. George hosted goats and sometimes they apparently tired of his hospitality and went off seeking adventure elsewhere in the neighborhood. I mention this because George’s goats are my sole experience with these animals, and, of bulls, I cannot speak from experience at all.

For the intended audience of the Letter to the Hebrews, it was a different world. They would have had multiple goats and bulls and would choose from among them those without blemish to offer to the Lord as a sacrifice. I can only speculate – a goat without blemish – it didn’t have acne? I don’t know. But these people DID know. Choosing the proper goat and bull was as routine for them as writing a check would be for most of us. They had lots of experience with this and plenty of support in getting it right. There are 38 biblical references to this topic in Numbers, Ezekiel, and other texts. For example, in Ezekiel 45, the people are instructed in these words: 8 The Lord God said:

On the first day of the first month,[a] a young bull that has nothing wrong with it must be offered as a sacrifice to purify the temple. 19 The priest will take some blood from this sacrifice and smear it on the doorposts of the temple, as well as on the four corners of the altar and on the doorposts of the gates that lead into the inner courtyard.

20 The same ceremony must also be done on the seventh day of the month, so that anyone who sins accidentally or without knowing it will be forgiven, and so that my temple will remain holy.

21 Beginning on the fourteenth day of the first month, and continuing for seven days, everyone will celebrate Passover and eat bread made without yeast. 22 On the first day, the ruler will bring a bull to offer as a sacrifice for his sins and for the sins of the people. 23 Each day of the festival he is to bring seven bulls and seven rams as sacrifices to please me,[b] and he must bring a goat[c] as a sacrifice for sin. These animals must have nothing wrong with them. 24 He will also provide twenty pounds of grain and four quarts of olive oil to be offered with each bull and each ram.

25 The Festival of Shelters will begin on the fifteenth day of the seventh month[d] and will continue for seven days. On each day of this festival, the ruler will provide the same number of animals that he did each day during Passover, as well as the same amount of grain and olive oil for the sacrifices.

Where would the ruler get all these animals? Where do rulers today get the resources they need to fulfill their obligations? Taxes. Tithes. Does a tithe sound like a lot? Well, what’s your effective tax rate?

So what’s a good word for what the people are expected to deliver to their government, the priests at the Temple? Sacrificial. A sacrifice is, by definition, costly. Expensive. It makes a big difference in what you have left to work with. If your tax rate is 30% and all of a sudden, you can deduct enough so you don’t have to pay taxes, your income has just gone up 30%. Most of us can’t dodge our obligations, so every April 15, we pay up.

Now, why would you WANT to dodge your obligations? Because you don’t see how your money is being spent and you’re not so sure you trust that the politicians aren’t taking from the poor and giving to the rich. Reasonable.

But with a biblical sacrifice, you can see the blood on the doorposts. You can smell the aroma of the burnt offering. We would say – oh – a bbq. A portion is offered to the Lord – i.e., you don’t get to eat it – but it’s a feast, so, yes, you’re invited to the bbq. The goat roast is for your benefit. The community is together in this. They see where their sacrifice went and they even get a plate for themselves. That would sure cut down on the resentment, wouldn’t it, if you cut a check and the next thing you knew, the potholes on your street were filled. Instant gratification – that’s what we want.

Well, Hebrews tells the people of God some good news – Jesus paid your taxes. It’s his blood that God finds to be an acceptable sacrifice to cover your biblical tax bill for fiscal year 2018. Your obligation is covered. Why? “Because “he offered his own blood instead of the blood of goats and bulls.”

Now – if someone covers all your bills, how do you tend to feel about that person? Especially if he paid, not by writing a check, but with his own blood? How do you even begin to make that up? You can’t. If blood is the acceptable form of payment, and he gives that so you don’t have to, what can you say? What can you do? If your obligation is covered, then maybe you actually WANT to offer something yourself after all. That’s the difference between an obligation and our offering. It’s not because you’re obliged to give that you give. Instead, what you give, you give out of love. Because no matter how much you give, you’re not being bled dry. Not by way of seeing the blood of your goats and bulls on the doorposts of the church. Not by the size of the check you write. If you believe God has sacrificed more than enough for you, then your obligation is covered. That’s your tithe. The tithe was your obligation, but Christ has covered your obligation.

The offering is what you give over and above the tithe, that obligation. And you give it, not because it’s required of you – but because you love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and all your mind. And you love your neighbor as yourself. What did I just quote? The Great Commandment, right. And where did Jesus get this? Deuteronomy 6:5. He didn’t make this up. He knew his stuff. That’s part of being faithful.

The other part, of course, is living like you believe it. That’s the difference between pretending to love someone and really loving. It shows in what you give of your time and your talent and treasure. When love is real, no matter what you give, it never feels like enough. So you just give until you feel good about it. And that is what we mean by stewardship. In the blood of Jesus, God has covered your obligation. Your offering is what you give because you love him for it. Is that hard to understand? We don’t offer goats. I have nothing in my job description that obliges me to cover the doorposts and altar corners with the blood of anything or anybody. But we still have a sacrificial altar where what we offer to God is gathered and lifted up. And we don’t say you have to give a tithe. We hope you will give an offering. Not out of obligation. But out of love – again – for your God and for your neighbor as yourself.

There’s a story in Mark 12 that I mentioned earlier. Jesus is asked about the most important commandment, and when the man heard Jesus’ response, he agreed. Loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself is more important than any sacrifice or offering. When he heard Jesus talk like that, he knew he was seeing someone sent from God. And when Jesus heard his agreement, he assured him of one thing: – you are not far from the kingdom of God. May we all get a little closer to the kingdom of God this year. Amen.