In our Scripture reading this morning, Peter is set upon by some tax collectors – not, this time, tax collectors for the Romans, but collectors of the half-shekel Temple tax – who ask if Jesus pays his share for the upkeep of the Temple. Now, Peter doesn’t know if Jesus has paid his tax or not, but if he says No or shows doubt, he makes Jesus look bad with the Jewish faithful, so he says Yes, but is wondering if he did the right thing when he comes in the door.
And Jesus asks him, Whaddya think, Pete? Who gets taxed in this world – kings’ sons or other people’s sons? Well, other people’s sons, obviously. That’s the way of the world, right? Elites make rules for other people and blow off their own obligations.
Well, then, says Jesus, the king’s sons are free, aren’t they? Meaning, God does not tax his children. And you and I are God’s children, right? So, our standing with God isn’t affected by whether or not we pay the Temple tax.
But – just so we don’t go giving offense to people, go catch a fish, and you’ll find a shekel coin in its mouth, and go pay the tax collectors for you and for me. And Peter does that, which makes this one of the biggest fish stories of the Bible, if you’ll forgive my saying so.
Now, this is really, really important: When we encourage people to give to the church as a means of giving to God, we do not talk about “paying one’s dues” or “paying one’s share” or anything like that. The grace of God is completely free, and if you can’t give anything, God loves you just as much as he ever did, and so do we.
Nor when people make pledges at this time of year in support of the church do we dun them if they don’t manage to give as much as they said they would. Christian giving is not about contracts or bills or reckonings or keeping score or any of that stuff.
God does not tax his children.
But we do say that if you want to grow in Christian discipleship, then you need to learn to give – for giving is a spiritual discipline, that helps you become like Christ. So, let’s put aside all thought of “paying what you owe,” because none of us can ever pay God back for anything he gives us, and let’s put aside worrying about meeting the budget or any of that green eyeshade stuff. Let’s just talk about how we grow as Christian disciples: how does a disciple practice Chistian giving?
Well, before I really get into that, let me tell you about a conversation I had last weekend. I was out in the woods, running an orienteering course, and there were some Scouts who were helping me as time-keepers. One of these kids was a 7th grader – about 13 years old, I guess – and we got talking about backpacking. He’d just done a little 5-mile, out-and-back backpacking trip, and he was emphatic: I’m never doin’ that again! he said. That was awful! Painful, even.
I replied that if it hurt, you were doing it wrong. And I began to explain how when you pack a pack, you put all the weight high and forward in the pack. He was boggled by that, so I asked what kind of pack he was using, and when I learned that it was an external frame pack with two large compartments in the center, I explained that you pack your light stuff – your clothes, mostly – in the lower compartment, and your heavy gear in the upper compartment.
Well, his leaders told him exactly the opposite, and I said, well, no wonder it hurt. And then I began to talk about how to adjust the various straps. He didn’t know that the straps adjusted. So, he walked 5 miles with all the weightt dragging on his shoulders and pushing his back out of alignment. No wonder he hurt!
Anyway, this is the first principle of any serious kind of exercise: if it hurts, you’re doing it wrong. Tiredness and soreness we can expect, but pain is always a signal that something isn’t right, and if you keep doing that, you’re likely to injure yourself, so don’t keep doing that.
Well, we went on to talk about backpacking generally, and I explained about how we train people in how to do all kinds of things. There’s a way to do every sort of thing you might be called upon to do while backpacking: there’s a way to start the crew; a way to stop the crew; a system to the breaks we take; a way to purify water, and a way to wash dishes; a way to set up camp and a way to handle injuries. There’s even a way to act if you meet a bear.
And we practice these things before we go into the real wilderness, because any time you have to stop and actually think about what to do while you’re out in the raw, there’s a chance you’ll jump to the wrong conclusion. So we practice all these little sub-routines until we just do them automatically. And not only does that make us safer when we’re out over the edge of the wild, it means we are free to look around us and really share ourselves with our crew mates, instead of constantly fiddling with our gear and solving problems. The more practiced you are, the more you can really enjoy the trip.
And finally, we do conditioning hikes and such before we ever strap on a pack; in fact, we’ll spend all spring getting built up to do a big trip. Well, I’ve told you all this about the discipline of backpacking so I can tell you this about the discipline of giving.
First, you’ll hear some people tell you that you should give till it hurts. Don’t listen to them. If it hurts, you’re doing it wrong.
When Deanne and I were first married and trying to figure out this discipleship thing, I remember the fear and fretfulness with which I faced the offering plate every Sunday morning. For I would open my wallet, and there was all the money I had left to get through the week on, and whatever I gave was going to mean going without something that week. And if I’d forgotten to break any bills before getting to church, and all I had were a couple of big bills, ooh – that was awful, because I couldn’t afford to be that generous, and I was too embarrassed to make change in the offering plate.
The upshot of this way of giving was that I always worried over where I was giving as much as I should, and no matter how much I gave, it hurt. And then someone said to us that we soulhd give to God first, when we had all our pay at our disposal, instead of last, when we were down to what was left.
Now, some folks give every week, some give every pay period, some give every month. But however you give, when you decide in advance how much you intend to give and give to God first, then you wind up being able to give more. And it may stretch you a bit, but it doesn’t hurt when you do it that way. That was a great lesson and we have followed it ever since.
And then someone began to explain to us some of the techniques of giving – the little sub-routines that you learn that make giving easier and more enjoyable. We learned to give regularly, even when we weren’t in church. We learned to plan all our major giving at the beginning of the year, when we set up our budget – so that we gave to God through the church, first, but we also budgeted in giving to other causes that we care about -- missions projects, civic organizations, and so on.
This enabled us to give more and give to all the things we cared about, without our really feeling the strain. And it meant that when someone gave us an opportunity to give spontaneously to something, we could pass it up without guilt if it didn’t move us, or we could give out of what was left if it did move us. In any case, all those little extra things – special offerings and Christmass bell-ringers and getting up a love gift for someone who’d experienced a major loss – were entirely up to us, to give or not to give just as we thought best at the time.
That way, when we did give, we could feel really good about it – and when we didn’t give, we didn’t have to feel guilty about it. Just as practicing backpacking routines frees one to really experience the beauty of the trip and the joy of one another’s company, so practicing one’s giving according to the best practices means you are free to enjoy your rel with God and with God’s people, and your giving enhances both, rather than distracting from them.
Finally, just as we do conditioning hikes to build ourselves up for the big adventure, so we prepare ourselves for a life of giving by slowly building ourselves up to it.
You have prob heard of the Biblical idea of the tithe – the giving of 10 percent of your income to God, with missions gifts and everything else beyond that – and that may seem impossibly far from your capacity to give. Well, I’ll tell ya – it’s amazing what you can do if you build yourself up to it.
When we started out trying to reach a tithe, we started at 5 percent, I think. Then the next year, we went to 7 or 7.5 percent. And then it took another couple of yrs to reach a full 10 percent. And, given the ups and downs of life, there’ve been times when we’ve been knocked off our pace, where we couldn’t give as much as that. And there’ve been other times where our ability to give to extra causes has been impacted. And that’s okay – God doesn’t tax his children, remember?
We’ve taken the reverses as they’ve come, always setting a new level, making a new plan, and then we’ve started to climb up toward our goals again. Most years, counting our tithe to the church and our missions and civic giving, we usually give around 13 percent of our income away – sometimes we’ve given more, sometimes less. But we do it in a disciplined way, because we want to support the things we believe in, and because we are grateful to God and want to grow to be like Christ.
It is a joy to give to others. Which is why our most popular mission project is the Angel Tree at Christmas time. You gotta get here early to get one of the tags off the tree (and people will about knock you down to get to them). Everybody loves to shop for others and imagine their joy at receiving what we’ve given them. It makes us all warm and happy ourselves.
Well, with what we have given to the church and to missions and to other good causes, we’ve been able to make a lot of good things happen that we care about, and that makes us feel good. And because we do it in a planned way, giving to God first, employing the best budgeting and giving practices, and then building up slowly to the level we want to reach, it doesn’t hurt. Instead, it gives you time to really look around and rejoice at all the good there is to do. It teaches you all kinds of things are possible. And you begin to understand what Jesus meant when he said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
So when we ask you next week to share with us what you intend to give to the church next year, remember, this isn’t about obligation and guilt and meeting budgets or anything like that. This is an adventure we’re on - to become like Christ, to grow into his likeness – and learning to give is a way to do that, another spiritual discipline, just like prayer or service. We invite you to challenge yourself – to step up to the next level of what you can achieve as a Christian giver. But it’s not about how much you can give, it’s about the adventure we share as we follow Christ together in his Church.