“Letter and Spirit”

            Thank you, Bill Lindberg and Gary Burns, for bringing the faces and voices of Barbara and Mae into our worship this morning. I am grateful to Mae and Barbara for your love, faithfulness and generosity toward First church over so many, many years. When I go to see our elders, including these two and several others, I realize how much it matters to them to stay connected to us, even if they are not able to be physically present for worship or other events. They diligently keep up with the people and happenings of the church: studying the prayer concerns, bulletins, sermons and newsletters we send from the office, and asking me lots of questions.

I was struck by Mae’s comment about making her contribution to the church first, before spending money on anything else. My parents, too, taught me to practice this “first fruits” giving, or “tithing.” A tithe is simply a percentage, a portion of our income that we offer back to God. The purpose of tithing is not, first of all, to fund the operations of the church. It is to praise God, and to learn to trust God. Through our tithe, we acknowledge that everything we have rightly belongs to God—it comes from God and returns to God. Traditionally, a tithe is ten percent. But it really can be any amount given with intentionality. A “modern tithe” typically includes gifts not only to the church but also to other organizations that meet human need and work for a more just world.

The whole idea that we might talk about money in the church, or that the church might promote certain values and practices, or even “rules” around money, is I realize, a bit radical. In this morning’s generosity moment, Barbara noted that in her childhood church “we did not make a great deal of fuss” over matters of money. It used to be that the church didn’t really need to make a case for giving. Financial generosity was an assumed duty of a church member. Today, though, we’re kind of done with the whole idea of giving out of duty. We give because we are inspired to give, not because we “should.” In our postmodern world, we are suspicious of all institutions. We give only to organizations and causes that can demonstrate that they are making a difference in the lives of real people, they are animated by a clear sense of purpose, and their business affairs are conducted in a transparent and responsible manner.

The Ten Commandments begin with this word of context: “I am the God who brought you out of slavery.” The people find themselves in a wilderness of freedom. They’ve been liberated from Pharaoh’s control. And at the same time, the lack of social structure in the wilderness is nearly deadly for them, leading to hunger and thirst, disorientation and conflict. So the law that God provides for the people at Mt. Sinai offers boundaries within which they can truly claim their freedom: leading healthy lives and creating thriving community. We, too, live in a wilderness of freedom, as we navigate our postmodern, make-your-own-rules kind of world. Nothing is sacred, just because the church says it is, whether it is a practice of financial generosity or keeping the Sabbath or refraining from coveting or honoring our parents.

“I am the God who brought you out of slavery.” The commandments are not merely rules. They are a statement of identity. Slaves cannot rest.But people made in the image of God can choose to keep the Sabbath, to find renewal, as God did, on the seventh day of creation.Slaves are not people with sacred worth, but tools for the accumulation of the empire’s wealth and power.Free people, on the other hand, have the responsibility and the capacity to act according to our own, God-given conscience and to develop ways to live together well.

In this era of moral and spiritual freedom, there is no single path toward a meaningful life. This is a challenge, but it is also a gift. The beauty of the time in which we live is that we do have the freedom to be radical, that is, to return to our roots. We can reinterpret the ancient traditions handed down to us in a way that gives life to us and to the world in which we live. Reflecting on our material lives, our relationship with money and possessions, is a crucial element of this process of making spiritual meaning. It is one key to claiming our true freedom as children of God. Generosity, which we might express through tithing, is really about the joy and the power of authenticity. Rather than allowing Pharaoh’s empire to rule us and to direct our resources for its own dehumanizing purposes, we are free spend our treasure to express our true values and to claim our share in God’s liberating vision of the world. It seems to me that this is what Paul really means when he speaks about the “surpassing value” of knowing Christ. In Paul’s world, divisions were absolute between rich and poor, men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, and yet he yearned to participate in a community in which all were recognized as children of God. He saw that vision realized in the followers of Jesus, the gathering of souls we now call the church. Paul was willing to suffer the loss of “all things,” including his own privileged social and religious standing (and the material wealth that implies) to gain the chance to belong to the Christian community.

The church, which we support with our gifts, is not the building or the staff or the programs, but the community grounded in the liberating vision of the God we know in Christ. I’m thinking of the note of thanks we received (in the Chimes and last week’s email news) from Lisa Keitel and Eric Sjostrom for the church’s support in a difficult time of their lives. I’m thinking of the spirit of hospitality I saw at work in yesterday’s sale. I’m thinking of the dollars we will offer to our Neighbors in Need collection in a few minutes, and all the unimaginable ways these gifts will go forth to show compassion and create justice. I’m thinking about laying to rest the ashes of our brother Bill Truesdale today, and of the columbarium as a visible, tangible reminder that in life and in death, we belong not to the Pharaohs of our world, but to God, and to a great communion of saints.

“I am the God who brought you out of slavery.” Who or what binds you, holds you captive? What are the spiritual practices that will free you to live as a child of God, a member of Christ’s community? How will you claim, daily and concretely, the divine gifts of trust, generosity, and joy?