Personal Tithing Testimony
Preached at UUMC on 9/14/2014
Rev. Diane Kenaston
“‘Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes
and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,’ says the Lord of hosts.
But you say, “How shall we return?” Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me!
But you say, “How are we robbing you?” In your tithes and offerings!
You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you!
Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the Lord of hosts. Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.”
– Malachi 3:7-12
Today, with much humility, I will share my personal giving testimony. This is with my husband Adam’s permission, as he figures in it prominently.
I come from a long line of tithers. My parents tithe. My grandparents tithed. When my grandparents died, they tithed in their will, leaving 10 percent of their estate to their church. And then my parents tithed their portion of the inheritance to our church.
I asked my dad this week about his family’s practice of tithing—why had it been such a big part of their lives? And he surprised me when he said that giving 10 percent to the church wasn’t part of my grandparents’ original practice. They always pledged—gave a fixed amount—but it wasn’t until the 1990s, when my grandfather’s job was made redundant and he stopped working at age 59, that they began reorienting their lives to give to the church first. On a fixed income, they began giving 10 percent to God. And when my dad took over their books fifteen years later, he discovered that they were giving 20 percent away to the church, and more to other charities. I think that had a big impact on my dad, seeing the witness of his parents even as they paid for their mortgage and entered into an early retirement that they didn’t plan.
For me, tithing—that is, giving 10 percent to God through the church—was just something we did. Even growing up on a single-income preacher’s salary—which when I was a kid in rural West Virginia qualified us for reduced-price lunches at school—we all knew that tithing 10 percent was expected.
And the tithing wasn’t based on when you were in church (although we were in church every week); the tithing was based on when you got paid—your “first fruits.” Whether the check was from the government, your job, your pension, or your parents, the very first thing you did upon receiving this gift from the Lord was to return thanks by giving the first ten percent back to God.
My sister, brother, and I got an allowance every 15 days: $1 per kid. 25 cents went to savings. 10 cents went to the church. That left 65 cents. Even in the 1990s—back when fast food chains actually HAD a dollar menu—there was not much you could buy for 65 cents every fifteen days. So, in reality, 10 cents went to the church and 90 cents went into savings.
And I tell you, that’s how I learned how to save. I learned how to give “first fruits.” And I learned how to tithe.
A “tithe” did not mean whatever percentage of my income I chose to give. It wasn’t a “pledge.” A tithe was 10 percent and that’s that!
This isn't bragging. This is what I assumed everyone did. I would have looked around the sanctuary and just assumed that each one of you, if you were in worship, were tithing. And then… And then I got married. To this guy. (pointing at Adam)
Adam’s family made roughly the same amount mine did growing up. Both of his parents worked—long hours—as a nurse and a hospital tech. They’re Christian, but, as Adam says, “They are not MARRIED to the church.” They gave to the church, but they did not tithe.
Adam was the first person in his family to go to college. And not only did he get his college degree, but he basically became a professional student. Some of you know what that’s like. When we applied for our marriage license and the county clerk heard our answer to how many years of school we’d been to, she said, “No, not your age.” And we said, “No, really. We’ve been in school 20 and 25 years each.” So we have a fair amount of student debt—plus car loans and normal stuff like that. And Adam, through all this time, as a student and as a child, has not tithed.
Remember: I grew up assuming that everyone tithed 10 percent of their income to the church. You can imagine how the pre-marriage conversations went. I sounded a little bit like Malachi: “What? You don’t tithe! Are you kidding me?”
The prophet Malachi, using the voice of God, puts it like this: “You are robbing me! You are defrauding me!”
And the people responded to Malachi a little like Adam responded: “Uh, Lord? How are we robbing you?”
“You are robbing God in your TITHES AND OFFERINGS!”
If you think that Malachi’s accusation in chapter 3 is harsh, try reading Malachi chapter 2. Joyce King, our liturgist, is glad she didn’t have to read this earlier. God says through Malachi: "I will spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings" (Malachi 2:3). Your face? Cow pies. The dung of offerings was supposed to be burned outside the camp. (Harper Collins Study Bible, page 1286) But the people were keeping the offerings for themselves. And God responded—essentially, “I’m going to rub your nose in it.”
God was not happy with anything less than whole-hearted worship, with the best of the first fruits and offerings.
But, if I’ve learned nothing else in the first fourteen months of marriage, it’s this: Don’t tell your husband he’s robbing God. And definitely don’t use the phrase “the dung of your offerings.” Self-righteousness doesn’t get you (me!) anywhere, and pride is a sin.
Malachi says that God is like a refiner’s fire. God purifies us like a goldsmith purifies gold. And God does this SO THAT we may offer due sacrifice to the Lord (Malachi 3:2-3). We can’t offer anything unless God purifies our hearts.
So Adam and I went through the painful purifying process. Adam asked God to purify him of his attachment to MONEY as SECURITY, and I had to ask God to purify me of my self-righteousness, my criticism, and my nagging.
We worked out an agreement where I would continue to tithe the pre-tax income that I earned and he would choose an additional amount that he was comfortable with to give to the church out of his earnings. Over time, we committed to grow toward a full tithe as a couple.
When we first made this agreement, we came up with an amount that represented 8-9 percent of our combined income.
That’s the point, after I stopped struggling with Adam—once we began struggling *together* towards a tithe—that’s when I began to struggle with MYSELF. I felt guilt over not tithing. But why? Was it just something “good Christians” do? Is it just to support the Church? Was this just another Old Testament law that Christians get to ignore---like eating kosher foods and sacrificing animals? Don’t we live in a world of grace?
In Malachi’s day, the tithes and offerings supported the rebuilding of the Temple and the priests. As a pastor, I know the costs of supporting a church that we dearly love. Every time we sit in an air-conditioned sanctuary, play bells with new music, play with toys in the nursery, tune the organ, or use toilet paper in the bathroom, there’s a cost associated with the ministry. And it’s worth the cost. As one lay leader says, “EVERYTHING is worth it if it brings just one person to know the love of God in Jesus Christ.”
And yet, as I wrestled with my own reasons for giving, I knew that there has to be something more. I don’t want to tithe just to support an institution. Because if it’s only about meeting the practical needs of the church, then Adam’s argument would be enough: “you’re already giving of your time and your emotional energy… what more could the church want?”
If it was just about cash transfer, I could ask to reduce my salary by 10 percent. So why did I want to tithe?
As I wrestled with these questions, I turned to Scripture. That’s usually a good place to go! And I learned that Malachi insists that the reason for giving is deeper than being a good person or following the law. I learned for the first time that there was not one but three tithes in the Old Testament:
1) a first tithe supported the Levites, who were priests; the Levites had no land, so they survived through the gifts of others (Leviticus 27:30-33; Numbers 18:8-32)
2) a second tithe was for religious feasts and festivals (Deuteronomy 14:18-27)
3) a third tithe was collected every third year for the orphans, strangers, and widows (Deuteronomy 14:28-29 and 26:1-15)
This totals to “two tithes every year and a third every third year, or an average of 23.3 percent of one’s annual produce from the land.” All of these tithes were paid not by everyone but by a special group: the middle- and upper-class. The tithes were given by land-owners in the Holy Land.
Today, we have a different type of economy. Adam and I aren’t land-owners, but we are full-time wage earners. We might be called to not stop at 10 percent but to go all the way to 23 percent.
But there are certainly times in life—like Adam’s twenty-five years of schooling—when we don’t have any income. What does the Bible have to say about that?
Folks who are struggling financially might be modern-day "widows and orphans." And by that I don't necessarily mean those who have lost a husband or parent. Saying “widows and orphans” in the Bible means “people who can’t support themselves.” “Widows and orphans” are those who rely on the generosity of others in order to survive. “Widows and orphans” means those whose only income is a disability check, SSI, Social Security. “Widows and orphans” means those who spend 50 percent of their paycheck paying for daycare and then lose government benefits because they are working. “Widows and orphans” means those who are told by non-profit agencies to water down their milk and soup to make them stretch longer.
God has some really harsh words about not caring for widows and orphans. God says in Malachi chapter 3, “I will act as a relentless accuser against those who cheat workers and subvert the cause of the widow, orphan, or strangers” (Malachi 3:5).
Adam and I, at this point in our lives, are not orphans or widows. We are healthy adults who fit into the category “DINKs”—Double Income No Kids. We’re really “DINKs-POSL” (Paying Off Student Loans), but you get the idea. We have a responsibility—a stern responsibility!—to care for the widow, orphan, and stranger. We have to care for the poor—because by caring for the poor, we are caring for God.
Through the church, we live and worship together—widows and orphans and Levites and land-owners. Our gifts are shared both financially and spiritually. We live and learn together in community.
United Methodist pastor and writer Leonard Sweet says that when we interpret the tithe as 10 percent for everyone today, no matter what, it sets too low a standard for the rich and too high a standard for the poor. Worse, focusing on tithing as 10 percent can make us think that “tipping” God something like 10 percent is an adequate response for God’s grace in our lives. (Freely You Have Received, Freely Give by Leonard Sweet)
Remember how I said that the Holy Spirit was purifying me? I was majorly convicted when I read part of a sermon that said:
“There are some people who have given a tenth of their income to their church for years who have never given a dime to God! For many people, "tithing" is a have-to law, and they perform their "giving" much like paying a bill. If your attitude is that you are "paying your tithe as a bill," then don't kid yourself into thinking that you are giving to God. Some of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were doing that, and Jesus called them hypocrites.” (“The Truth about Tithing - Giving in Grace: A New Testament Perspective (Part 1)” by Andy Neckar)
Ouch! That hit home! And my research continued. I read:
“Go, sell all you have and give to the poor (Luke 18:22).”
Jesus commands us not to worry. (Matthew 6)
In answer to my question, “Why tithe?” I discovered this reason: I want to participate in the mission of Jesus Christ to bring about the kingdom of God in the world.
Our motivation for giving is that we are recipients of God’s free grace who in grateful response act as trustees who freely give and distribute God’s resources for God’s glory.
Not only does the tithe belong to God but so does everything we possess. God owns it all. We are just entrusted with it for a brief period of time.
When Adam and I sat down and started talking about our finances, we wanted more than security: We wanted freedom and joy. And we found that freedom and joy through reorienting our finances and our hearts.
God says, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, and let there be food in My House, and thus put me to the test. I will surely open the floodgates of heaven for you and pour down blessings on you… and all the nations shall call you happy.” (3:10-12). God has been blessing us as we journey toward fully giving ourselves—time, talent, AND treasure. God is blessing us by giving both of us a Spirit of Generosity:
generosity toward God;
generosity toward each other and towards others;
and grace towards ourselves.
Like I said, Adam and I are working towards and beyond a tithe. We currently give 10 percent of my pre-tax income and 10 percent of Adam’s post-tax income.
And as we work towards and beyond this tithe, Adam’s gifts shine through. Adam is both the best gift receiver and giver ever. When Adam receives a gift, his whole face lights up. He wakes me up at midnight to say, "Presents now! Presents now!" And when it’s my birthday, Adam can’t wait to show me what he got for me. THAT’s the kind of joy that we’re beginning to experience when giving to God.
The numbers? I’ve got that. The joy? Adam’s teaching me. I’ve watched over the past year as Adam texts me: “i finally put in my United Way pledge...” “gonna give a check to Cropwalk next week” “what should we give to Eden Seminary?”
Please don’t think I’m bragging. We have a long way to giving 100 percent--all that Jesus asks. But the discipline of giving 10 percent is changing our perspective towards money. It gives us the freedom to think first not of ourselves but of God and of others.
And that’s the kind of freedom and joy that I believe Malachi wanted for the Israelites.
I know that’s the kind of freedom and joy that Jesus wished for his followers—the ones who gave up EVERYTHING to follow him. And it’s the freedom and joy from giving that I hope each one of us can grab hold of today—not out of law, but of grace.