Standiford " IT'S WHO YOU ARE TITHED TO THAT COUNTS”
You've heard the phrase, "It's who you know that counts." Let me give you two glimpses of that. The first comes from the 22nd Psalm. Most likely David is the writer. David obviously is feeling estranged from God and separated from those around him, feeling alone, feeling abused, feeling like there is no one at all who cares. And yet, even though he feels separated from God, who does David talk to but to God. David knows who he is related to, and knows who is there to listen to him, even when there is doubt in his own mind that someone might be listening. It really is who you know that counts, which enables you to reach out in a time like that in your life.
Let me give you a second glimpse into the phrase. When I was first appointed as a District Superintendent, I met a fellow superintendent from the Alaska Missionary Conference. His name was Billy Still. Billy and I became friends quickly, we wrote and talked on the phone, e-mailed with each other, whenever there was a meeting we both attended we would find our way together to talk and share. One time we were walking in Los Angeles. We had been at a meeting, and during the break we just decided to take a walk. During the time of that walk, Billy shared that he might be thinking of leaving the superintendency and looking for a church. He wanted to stop traveling about so much and settle down with one people, and preach week after week.
We probably walked another couple of miles when he said, "You know, I have vacationed in Southern Arizona, and it is a beautiful area." Now I am a real quick study when it comes to hints. I heard somebody who wants a job, and somebody who likes Southern Arizona, and I put those two together, and it worked out.
I went to a meeting of the Western Jurisdiction soon after Billy was in place in a church in Tucson. Now I had only been a superintendent for four years, I didn't know a whole lot of people, so in my usual style I went in somewhat quietly and timidly. As you get to know me, you'll know that's really who I am. I no more than walked in the room, when someone said, "Are you Jim Standiford?" Well I stood up straight. Somebody knew me here. It was a big mistake. I happened to notice that this person's name tag said, "Alaska Missionary Conference." I supposed that the person would come to me, and say, "Take my greetings to Billy and Ann will you?" She came up to me, and said, "You big lout! You took the best pastor we ever had." As I was reeling back from that greeting, there was another super intendent from another Conference who came to me, and said, "So you're Standiford. You're a skunk! We wanted Still in our Conference." Then another person came. Within a matter of thirty seconds I was accosted by three different people. So sometimes it's who you know that gets you in big trouble. You need to remember that. Sometimes it's who you know that counts, but sometimes it gets you in real big trouble.
I want us to think together this morning about the whole concept of stewardship under the idea of it's who you're tithed to that counts, even more than who you know. For me, stewardship is seeking service over self-interest. Stewardship is living a giving lifestyle in response to the grace of God. Let's look at the story of Zacchaeus to see what light it sheds for us on these ideas.
We are told that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, and rich. As a chief tax collector he would be responsible for an area with some associate tax collectors under him. The procedure that Rome used in those days was to say to their area collectors, we need so much money out of your area, anything more that you can gather, you can keep. So the area collector would say to his associates, I need this much money for Rome, I need this much more for myself, and anything else that you can collect, you can keep.
I think you see how tax collectors became rich in those days. It was a corrupt system. It led those who decided to side with Rome to be out of sorts with their neighbors and their fellow country-people. They were hated. Zacchaeus made that choice. He chose self-interest over service to his fellow citizens.
We are told in the Gospel of Luke that as Jesus moved toward Jericho, he performed a healing right outside of town. The word of the healing spread into Jericho like wild fire. This traveling healer, preacher, teacher, is here, so people went out to see him, including Zacchaeus. We are told Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. Remember, Luke is a physician. So whenever Luke says, someone wants to see someone else or something else, he is certainly talking about visual contact, but Luke often means something in addition. He means this person wants to understand or perceive what's going on. Zacchaeus has an inner need that is pushing him to see Jesus.
We are told Zacchaeus is a short person, so he has to climb a tree so he can see. Jesus happens along. I don't know how it is that Jesus knew Zacchaeus. Perhaps he heard the cat-calls against Zacchaeus as he was climbing the tree, people didn't want him there, so they took the opportunity to make fun of him. However it is, when Jesus gets to where Zacchaeus is, he calls to him, calls him by name, and says, "Come down Zacchaeus; I want to come to your house." Which is the same as saying, "I want to have dinner with you," which was the absolute highest honor you could pay someone in the first century.
Sounds a little presumptuous to us, "I want to come and eat with you." To present a material gift, a financial award, or to present an Oscar, would have paled in comparison to saying in public, "I want to eat with you." It is the highest of compliments. Jesus graces Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus responds by coming down, and saying, "Lord, half of everything I have I will give to the poor; and if I defrauded anyone (and you can be sure there was muffled laughter and choking and guffawing through the group then. That crowd knew what Zacchaeus had been like), I will repay them four times."
Now the Levitical Law said if you were convicted of defrauding someone you had to pay them back twice the amount. Zacchaeus doubles that, and says, "Four times I will pay back. Fifty percent of everything, and then four-times anything I have taken." Because of the grace offered to him by Jesus, Zacchaeus changes his way to service, instead of seeking self-interest. That is the power of grace in our lives. Zacchaeus goes from seeking self-interest to service. He goes to a giving lifestyle in response to the grace of God.
We could say that Zacchaeus "tithed" himself to God. But what does that mean? When you and I think of a tithe, we usually think of our material wealth, our checkbook, and we think of a ten percent gift to God. But that is not what the first century Jews thought. They had a different understanding. The concept of the tithe came from the Egyptian culture, and the Jews brought it back with them during the Exodus.
The Egyptian understanding was that numbers had spiritual significance. The number ten was the perfect number. They believed that their soldiers were perfect ten's in intellect, in emotional health, in spiritual health, and in their physical well-being. A solider could stand and fight until one-tenth of his being had been injured, or he had been "tithed," and then that person could no longer fight on his own, but was dependent on fellow soldiers around him. He was dependent on others for his salvation.
So what the Jews brought back with them from Egypt was an understanding not of a ten percent gift to God out of monetary resources, but a lifestyle choice that one made, where they voluntarily placed themselves in dependency on God. It was a choice that individuals and communities made that said, I choose to live in this way, simpler, poorer, because I believe in God. I'm not in control, God is in control, and I will make God the controller of my life by placing myself in dependency to God. That's what to be "tithed" meant in the first century.
In our day we have people who if they gave two percent of their wealth would be tithing themselves. We have some who if they gave seventy percent away, would not yet be tithing themselves. So the problem with the very rigid ten percent figure or understanding is, for some it is a source of guilt because they know they cannot reach it, and for others it is a source of smugness because they know it is so small compared to their resources.
What we need to hear is what the biblical witness says. And that is, in response to God's grace, we place ourselves in a dependent relationship with God. We find that God is at the center of our lives, the focus of all that we do, and we do that by giving ourselves to God and God's work.
It's a counter-cultural move by the Jewish people against all the powers and principalities of their day that said, your life belongs to us, we'll tell you what to do, and they said, no, our life belongs to God, and we will show you how we live.
Let me tell you two stories that I think might help us understand what I am talking about. If we are good stewards of the life that God has given us, we will choose service over self-interest, we will choose a giving lifestyle, we will tithe ourselves.
There was a woman who was an avid golf enthusiast. As such she loved to play, loved to watch golf on TV, and loved to go to tournaments when they were in her area. She contracted cancer, and because of that, she had to undergo all those treatments. A part of what happened to her was that she lost all her hair. She became quite weak.
But then the treatments came to an end. As she began to regain her strength, she began to regain some life as well. She heard of a golf tournament coming nearby. Her favorite pro was going to be playing in that tournament, so she made every effort to go and see it. She went out and bought herself a wig. She brought herself a hat. She saved up her energy, her money, and she went.
She positioned herself at the first tee where there is always a great crowd of people. She was right by the tee box so she would be in the front row. Her favorite pro was coming up. He teed up his ball. He was addressing the ball, looking down the fairway, when a sudden gust of wind came up. It not only lifted her hat, it lifted her wig off her head, and dumped them both right in front of this favorite pro of hers. A most embarrassing situation. But without hesitation she stepped forward, picked them both up, and pulled them down on her head, and she said, "Be careful. There is a strong right-to-left breeze here." That is seeking service over self-interest.
Jessica Moffatt is a United Methodist pastor in Oklahoma. She is a single-parent mom. She has a preschooler, and she has her later-aged mother living with her. One night Jessica's mother was watching television, the evening news, and noticed a piece about a woman arrested in their community for murder, who was placed in the city jail for holding. Somehow in the two minutes of that little bit on TV, Jessica's mother felt called, called by God to do something. The next morning she called the jail.
So she made her way to the jail. She visited just for a few minutes that day, but a couple of days later went back again, and then again. She began to visit some other folk in the jail too. In time she was so good and so regular that the police department gave her a pager so they could notify her when there was somebody in need in the jail. She became the de facto chaplain of that jail, but especially visiting young mothers.
One evening Jessica tells of fixing dinner for her daughter. Mom was at the jail. As she fixed dinner her little preschool daughter played in the kitchen on the floor with a doll. All of a sudden Jessica turned around and her daughter wasn't there, and it was quiet in the house. If you have a preschooler, and it's quiet, you had better go and see what is going on. So she began to search. She went upstairs to her little girl's room, and there was her preschool daughter, sitting in a little rocking chair, rocking her doll back and forth. As Jessica stepped into the room her little girl went, "Sh... Her mommy's in jail."
The lifestyle change of the grandmother had an impact on her preschool granddaughter. Stewardship is seeking service over self-interest. It's living a giving lifestyle in response to God's grace. It's "tithing" ourselves to God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.