What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word, “libation?” I hate to admit it, but the first thing that pops into my head is a song from the Gangsta’ Rapper Tupac Shakur. He was part of a violent sub-culture birthed from poverty and expressed through poetry, movement, and film. Only shortly before his life was claimed by the society that he spoke out against from the inside, he sent a message to the masses by pouring a cherished bottle of take-home pay on the ground to honor his dead friends and loved ones.
Hip-hop may not be your thing – but the concept of giving over something you value in honor of something you value even more is something with which we all need to be challenged. We can laugh about Tupac’s example, but those affected by inner city violence understood what he meant. They understood the message that life matters. I wish that meant that it stopped the violence – and maybe that is why we find it laughable – but at least he gave voice to those who were silenced by pain.
Likewise, the Prophet Joel spoke about a time of famine. He spoke of locusts as the army of God. Of course we know that all of these things can be explained by weather patterns and migration patterns, but they did not; and their pain and anxiety were real. So Joel promises the abundance of early and late rains – the perfect balance for a perfect harvest – and the knowledge of God’s presence through visions and dreams. But none of that will compare to the terrible day of the Lord!
Our passage leaves us with a cliff hanger, because no one really knows what that looks like. We know what it looks like when things are going well. The Psalmist is clear about that. We also know how it feels when we have done everything we can possibly do, and yet we still face opposition and despair. Paul says, “I am already being poured out as a libation.”
A libation is something we don’t have much of a concept for these days. It was a drink offering, usually alcoholic, poured out on an altar or on something being sacrificed for a God. In a time before the knowledge of water filtration, alcohol was a purified drink. It was life giving and restoring – as long as you didn’t have too much. It was a gift from God that was returned with gratitude.
So Paul is a libation. He did all he could. Timothy is being encouraged to imitate Paul, and therefore so are we. I have to say, that’s a tough row to hoe. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try. I’m just saying that a tent making pastor that wrote the majority of the New Testament (at least by attribution) might be conceptually impossible to match up against.
Fortunately we also have the words of Jesus, as we have them from Luke, to help us out. Jesus tells us of two men in prayer. (I would make a crack about women not needing to, but they weren’t actually allowed at the time, so this is what we get.) One is thanking God that he is not like the other because he knows the other guy is a tax collector and could not possibly tithe and fast and pray as well as he does. Meanwhile the other guy is truly aware of and anguished over his own sin. So Jesus tells us that this man is the one who goes home justified before God.
Moral of the story – tithing doesn’t make up for being a jerk. Not only that, being a jerk doesn’t mean that God is not able to love you. Of course, this is not simply about morality. It is not a story about my character or yours. It is a story about the way in which the God of the universe is pleased to dwell with us in all of our foolishness and perplexity. It is a story about the God who pours about blessing upon blessing and the opportunity to become as a libation poured out in thanksgiving to God!
On the surface, the Pharisee seems only concerned about the chance to feel better about himself by demeaning the tax collector – but his prayer was still a faithful prayer. It was good and right to have a way to know that one was following God’s will. He was thanking God for the knowledge that he was able to see and participate in the will of God. Yet Jesus said that this man was not justified by God. Instead, the tax collector – the collaborator with those who opposed God and God’s people – was pouring out his heart and soul as a libation. He was justified, forgiven, and received as a child by God.
It seems to me that the common thread in all of this is the idea of our response to God’s providence. Perhaps it is the season of ministry I am tending to, but everything strikes me as providence. It’s like the parable of the old farmer whose son captured a wild stallion. “What luck!” his neighbors said. “We’ll see.” he said. The son broke his leg while taming the horse. “How terrible!” his neighbors said. “We’ll see.” he said. The army came through and took all the young men who were healthy to fight for the king. His son was spared. “What luck!” his neighbors said. “We’ll see.” he said.
Relying on the providence of God means that everything, for good or for ill, can move us toward greater faith, greater wisdom, and a deeper understanding of the God who is with us. And the deeper our understanding of God, the deeper our ability to respond to God’s grace becomes.
Now, this would be a perfect time to twist the knife of guilt to encourage a financial commitment to the church, especially a tithe. Truly, we are in the stewardship season, and this is the day that I have been asked to raise the awareness of our need for financial commitment. I think, however, that the Spirit is leading me to say that our need is not for financial commitment. Yes, we have a budget. Yes, we base our budget on the financial commitments of our congregation. Yes, the budget keeps the lights on, pays the staff, and allows us to maintain our institutional identity as First Presbyterian Church on this prestigious corner. Yes, a tithe (or a tenth) of your income is the Biblical standard for giving to the church, and gifts to other ministries and non-prophets should be made after the tithe and not as a part of it. That’s all the standard stuff that we say every year. It’s all true, and if you want to talk about it later I would be glad to talk with you about it.
Right now, what I feel compelled to tell you is that I know that not everyone tithes. I know that some of us beat our breasts in anguish over what we feel that we can and cannot give to the church. I know because I am that man. Between student loans, car loans, mortgage, medical bills, taxes, and all the incidental things that life brings, we don’t have as much pie to slice as we would like to have. Believe me, I know that these words lay open a lack of trust in God – and I do not make this confession lightly. The reality is that the average church member (nationally) contributes about 4% of their income to the church. In making my confession, I am not intending to give permission to negligence. I am hoping to give voice to an unspoken reality.
Part of that reality is that our giving patterns as a congregation reflect our belief in what God is doing through the church. Right now, our giving patterns reflect a higher priority on being the church on the corner than being the place where the kingdom of God breaks forth into our midst, transforming our lives and creating us as agents of transformation for the world in which we live!
My hope is to give you permission to let go of any guilt or feeling of inadequacy related to making a commitment of giving to the church, and replace it with a desire to increase whatever commitment you are already making. If you do not commit because you cannot tithe, then just commit what you feel you can. If you are already committed to giving to the church, consider increasing your commitment by a small amount – maybe a dollar amount like $5 or $10 (the same amount as a few overpriced lattés a month), or maybe just one percentage point.
The point of all of this is that the waters of God’s providence and grace and mercy have not stopped flowing. Money is not the only indicator of a healthy congregation; in fact it is really more like the canary in the coal mine. You don’t really notice it unless it stops singing. Our voice, our collective witness, our proclamation that this is a place to experience, explore and express the love of God has a lot more singing to do!
Last Wednesday there were representatives from five different congregations across the Western Cluster of the Presbytery of South Louisiana seeking to redefine their mission, as we are, through participation in the New Beginnings initiative. The presenters asked us to consider the idea that we are looking at our current position as ending one season of ministry and beginning another. They went so far as to suggest that it is like building the plane that you are flying on.
As I think more about it, I think it is more like writing a book. I’ve never written one, but I imagine it must take a tremendous amount of time developing story lines, researching, and discovering new ideas even while formulating the one you began with. So, as we pray, as we study the scriptures, even as we beat our breasts in humble submission before God – instead of making a financial commitment – let us make our commitment a spiritual commitment before God. Then, and only then, our lives will be poured out as a libation before God.