Why Do We Pledge?

First Presbyterian in Lafayette, Louisiana
October 31, 2010 – Stewardship Sunday; OC 31
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Psalm 119:131-133; 140-144 (with Cantor)
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

Today is the day of the ubiquitous and unavoidable stewardship sermon. That means that there are certain things you probably expect me to say, and usually there is a joke to make us all feel better about it. So, does anyone know why church membership is more like bacon than eggs? Well, the chicken is involved in the process of providing breakfast but the pig is committed to it.

Now, I do not mean to make light of the stewardship campaign or the reality of God’s calling to redistribute our wealth. In fact, this being my first official stewardship sermon in 10 years of ministry, it’s a pretty big deal to me. My hope is to offer something you do not expect to hear and to find a way to affirm the calling we share as stewards of God’s good creation.

Typically we entertain ideas about being created and given dominion over the earth. Dominion is further defined through the quality of our relationship with the earth and with its resources. That leads us to the way in which we share and distribute those resources, and ultimately to the way we are in relationship with one another as God’s representatives in the world. Pretty standard stuff so far, right?

About now is when we bring up the idea of tithing as a responsibility and an expectation, and that is right about where some people tune out. Tithing is a standard set throughout the church, but we live in a time that resists standards as strongly as it resists change. Some of us live on fixed incomes. Some of us have made commitments that have gotten out of control. Some people think of charity as charity and see the church as one of many. I would suggest that the church is unique, and that a person’s generosity should start there.

These are all very practical considerations, but I don’t think they get at the heart of the matter. The texts we have today offer us something to consider about the choice before the choice. Before the actual gift is the decision to give, and the culmination of that decision is the pledge.

There are those who simply do not believe in pledging, and nothing I say can or do will change that. I respect that. I am not about to tell you that if you don’t pledge you are not acting in accordance with God’s will. I will say that in light of our heritage and the practice of being the Body of Christ, which is the church, I believe the scriptures we have received today offer us an opportunity to experience God’s faithfulness and to express our appreciation for God’s decision to love us unconditionally.

That’s a little different than you may have heard from the chain emails that threaten disaster if you break them and promise blessing within ten days if you forward it to ten friends. God’s faithfulness is not magic. It does not protect us from hardship. God’s blessing is not something we can earn. It is a free gift we can only respond to. That, too, is pretty standard stuff, but I don’t think we can say it enough.

In our Old Testament lesson, Habakuk is wrestling with the idea of God’s faithfulness and arguing with God. How can God bring such hardship on God’s own people. God is good, not evil. In the few verses we skipped, God claims responsibility for sending the Chaldeans. God also claims responsibility for sustaining the Hebrews and promises restoration. Habakuk still doesn’t understand, but he makes a pledge. “All right,” he says, “I’ll stand and watch. I’ll wait and see.” God pushes him further, and tells him not just to wait for God to prove something to him but to be part of the proof. God says, “Go put up a billboard!” It kind of reminds me of those black billboards with white letters, all attributed to God, that were placed anonymously around the country for a while. They said things like, “I Love You…I Love You…I Love You,” and “Need Directions?”

It makes me wonder what our vision might be. Of course we have our mission statement, printed on the front of your bulletin:

We at First Presbyterian Church are seeking the wholeness we believe Almighty God, our Creator, promises through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
That first sentence reminds us of our brokenness, and the promise of wholeness we find together and individually through Jesus Christ.

Through our worship, study, and life together, we are finding God’s wholeness for ourselves
Notice that these are not presented a la cart, but worship, study, and life together are parts of a whole.

and, guided by the Holy Spirit, seek to share it with our community and our world through prayer, service, outreach, music, and fellowship.

Again, prayer, service, outreach, music, and fellowship are parts of the whole expression of God's grace that we offer to the world.

That’s a pretty good vision! But I wonder, do we write it in a way that those passing by on their way to work, school, Mardi Gras, or on their way through town can not help but see it because of the size of the letters? Now I’m not talking about a physical sign, necessarily. I’m talking about our public demonstration of the presence of the Kingdom of God! That’s something we have to be intentional about, prepare for, and make commitments to. It is also something that has to be woven into the fabric of our character. In some ways it already is, but in others it is yet to be.

A surgical procedure like that sounds intimidating, but I can tell you that it is already happening. I can tell you that people in other congregations in our Presbytery are saying that something has woken up at First Presbyterian Church in Lafayette. Like those leaders in the church in Thessalonica, I have received emails from leaders in our Presbytery (bet you didn't know they emailed back then) thanking God for your willingness to host events and offering prayers for our strength, knowing that as we grow in faith we will grow in our ability to glorify God. That’s a pledge they have made to us, just as we make pledges to pray for and financially support the ministry of our Presbytery. We are a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are connected to others in a way that offers a deeper, wider, and larger proclamation of God’s amazing love than we could ever hope to offer by ourselves.

Now this is something God is doing, but not without inviting us to be a part of it. The choice before the choice is not actually ours. It is God’s. The pledge to love and forgive us is the choice that opens the door for our decision to commit our resources, our time, our very lives to whatever we choose to commit them to. This is true in marriage, in friendship, and in church membership. It is true for parents, children, and grandparents. It is true in a job, in your lifestyle during retirement, and in the way you pursue your dreams as a student.

Now, I will admit that Zacchaeus’ story seems somewhat the contrast to that, if you just take it at face value. He ran ahead of the crowd, climbed a tree, and when called for he ran down before Jesus and pledged to give away half of his possessions and refund everyone he had cheated by the Deuteronomic standard of returning four times the amount. He did a lot of stuff before Jesus proclaimed him a child of Abraham, or so it seems.

Scholars have often taken the path of assuming that Jesus knew what was going to happen, and that’s why he called on him. That would be an easy way to save face for Jesus and for Zacchaeus, but I don’t think they need it. Zacchaeus was a “Chief Tax Collector.” That means he was probably hated by all, richer than most, and regularly benefited from the extra fees that the other tax collectors lived off of. His stature, whether tall or short, was small in the Jewish community. So he ran ahead of the crowd, but he still climbed a tree because the front pew was just not a comfortable place for him.

Jesus had a habit of picking the outsider. He came to seek and save the lost. Who else would he pick than the guy in the tree? Jesus picked the guy who made a commitment above and beyond the rest - the one who did not feel worthy of the grace freely offered to all. Jesus chose him because Zacchaeus offered more of an opportunity to demonstrate grace and mercy than anyone else.

Jesus stopped the parade, called him out of his tree, and rudely invited himself into Zacchaeus’ house for dinner. There is an urgency to all of this. “Come here quickly,” he says. “I must stay at you house today,” he says.

Zacchaeus’ response is the real kicker, and traditionally it has been used as an example of what we do when we truly come face to face with the presence of God. We let go of anything that could get in the way and keep us from God’s presence. Now, for most people, the closest thing they can claim as an experience of being face to face with God is something like a near death experience, but something about Zacchaeus’ experience suggests to me that there may be another way.

One thing that scholars have pondered for years about this text is the fact that the verb forms in this text are active and present. He is literally saying “I am giving” and “I am restoring.” So, one could say that it is not his pledge to do something, but it is his statement about who he is and what he does. Jesus tells him in the presence of witnesses that he is restored to the community. Jesus proclaims Zacheus to be a good Jew not because of what he will do, but because of who he is and how he responds to God’s redeeming love.

So, God calls to us in our tree house fort along the parade route and says with great urgency, “YOU, come down here! I must come into your house to stay.” And here we stand with the urgency of the request and the opportunity to respond. How do we respond? What will we pledge? Why do we pledge?

We pledge because, like Habakuk, we want to see what God is going to do next, not to test God or wait to see if God will do what we want God to do with our money. We wait to see how God is going to weave our vision into the restoration of the world. We pledge because we, like Paul and the early church, want to glorify God. We want to be encouraged by others, and we want to participate in something far bigger than we can conceive. And we pledge because, like Zacchaeus, it is our way of claiming and proclaiming the fact that we are a community of believers in the way of Christ that offers healing, hope, and acceptance to all. That is why I pledge, and I hope you will too, in your own way, as you feel God is calling you to pledge.

And now I want to invite you to practice God’s active presence. Take a moment to consider in the silent chapel of your heart the word you have received today and the way you might respond with your life as we move forward together. Let us practice the presence of God…

May God continue to transform and reform our hearts and minds till our wills are so knit with God’s that there be no distinction. Amen.
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