Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Thanksgiving of the Tithe

Just try and out-give God. 

One of the best examples of giving that was dropped into my life was a man named Jay Hawes,

I really wish you could have met him. I remember him as a happy, go-lucky guy.
Heart of gold. Passion-filled. Heart on fire for God. Preaching was not his gift. Some of those early sermons were rough. (Maybe all of us preachers go through that.) One major area he was gifted in was finance. When he came to the Shelby Church of the Nazarene in 1992 one of the first things he did was help organize the budget. As with any church, there can be financial issues about where money should go and how things get paid. He straightened all of that out and got a good plan in motion that allowed the church to start thinking about the future. He had a good head on his shoulders. Jay had spent several years working for UPS. I heard many a story about being "brown blood". (You've probably noted those brown uniforms they wear.) The job was not easy. Jay always seemed to take the hard tasks in life and interject them with his brand of fun and laughter. I'm a better person today for having known him.

Jay and his family came to the Shelby area from up around Cleveland. He grew up and spent his early years between Ashtabula and Cleveland. It was during those UPS years that he got this idea about trying to "out-give God". I don't recall exactly how it happened. Jay was a guy who set his mind on a thing and got that thing done. At one point, he had it mapped out where he was going to be a millionaire by the time he was 40. He knew what to do and how much to put away every week so that by the time his 40th birthday got here, the work would be done. But, then God called him into ministry and he had to leave the UPS job behind. During those years while attending Cleveland First church, he got this idea about trying to give back something every time he noticed that God had blessed him with something. At first the notion started with a purely monetary push. He saw some money coming to him and recognized that God was blessing him. So, he would try to turn it around and give back. This started an endeavor that would almost break the happy, go-lucky guy.

On this Sunday, we have all gathered to note that we are thankful. What are we thankful for?
Lets take a look at our scripture for the days and see if there any lead ins for us to think about.

Malachi 3:10

New International Version (NIV)
10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.

Now, remember our context. In many cases there wasn't money. We think we know what poverty is? Go without anything but the food you are able to grow with your own blood, sweat and tears and you'll get the idea. There are some right here in Perry County, OH who are still living without running water or a  working bathroom. The Israelites have been in such a place in their time. You either lived in the luxury of the king with the upper crust of society or you lived in poverty. There wasn't a middle class to speak of in those days. And, still, they were required to tithe of what they had. The "whole tithe" in actuality was food. Grain and vegetables and perishable items were here in large quantities. God commands that it all be brought into the storehouse. The idea is that if the people will do as they are told, then God will do as God has said. Blessings will abound. 

If we widen our scope and see more of what the prophet is presenting to the people we will see that the message of thankfulness goes further than we could imagine. The message comes in the form of a challenge.

Breaking Covenant by Withholding Tithes

“I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.
“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’
“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.
“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’
“In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. 11 I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty. 12 “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty.

We saw last week how the system of tithing was instituted by Moses during the second year of the Exodus. It has long been a tradition to give a tenth of what a person had back to the Lord. But, not all kept that covenant it seems. Instead of giving what they had, they withheld it and kept it for themselves. The Lord calls them out on it, too. Just like Jesus called the Pharisees and teachers of the law out in the Gospel accounts in Matthew and Luke.  Remember what Jesus said to them? They should tithe and they should also take care of those in need. The language here in Malachi sounds as if the tithe being brought into the storehouse is certainly not something to just sit on. God wants food in the house. People need to eat. If anyone was in need they could come to the king, to the those in leadership, and find what they needed. I find similarity from the language of this passage and the inspiration found in it at other points in scripture.

Matthew 25 - Here we see Jesus using a parable about sheep and goats. Jesus calls some of the people sheep that call upon others and meet their needs. Other he describes as goats who don't meet anybody's needs. "When did we see you blind, or poor, or in prison?" The people of Israel that Malachi is speaking to are said to ask
“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ See the blank stare? The blind glare, as if they don't know. They don't seem to think that they are doing anything wrong. The point is...we can't just do whatever we want to do, however we want to do it, and just expect God to put up with it. In fact, God will not just put up with it. God will point it out to us in uncomfortable ways. In this case, it's not just a poke and a prod, but with a challenge. C'mon, you all put everything you have into this and I'll bless you beyond your wildest dreams. The challenge is to simple do what is asked - tithe. Give back to God what is due to God. Not just the monetary note, but the thankfulness. There is a glad note of all that has been given to us in put God first. God bless us with all we have. And, the blessings don't stop there. Nor does God intend to stop blessing us. But, God must be first. Anything less than that is highway robbery. 

The other piece of scripture that came to mind was from Acts Chap 2 where the believers all put their belonging into a "community chest" and simply gave to others whatever they needed. The language in Malachi suggests that the blessing God wants to give the people will be so large that there won't be room enough to store it. And, why would you want to? Why would you store all this food and grain and animals? So we can sit here and look at it? If the blessings is so large that it can't be stored then you have to use it. Is there anybody in need? Let them take what they need. The scripture in Malachi suggests that the nations around them would look in on their situation and think of them as truly blessed, a "delightful land". When was the last time you thought of your church as a "delightful" place to be? Is there an attitude of giving that suggests that this a place where people can find love and an environment that will meet their needs?

There is thanksgiving in the tithe. The Apostle Paul would call for a cheerful giver. I knew such a man. Jay Hawes gave what he had and did it with a smile on his face. I recall him sharing his recollections about trying to out-give God. The scripture from Malachi was his inspiration. During his time attending at Cleveland First Church of the Nazarene, he got this idea that he could, in essence, out-give God. Every time he sensed he was being blessed in some way, he would turn it around and give back in some way. The whole idea significantly predated the "Pay It Forward" movement. There was a time when he noticed someone at church had slipped him some money to help pay for his schooling. He would turn that around and try to give the same amount of money back into the offering plate. But, it went further. Some one gave some food to his family in charity. He, in turn, either bought a gift card to a grocery store or bought some food himself and tried to give it to someone in need. The entire process was exhausting, Jay said. After weeks and months of trying to keep up, he realized he could not. The blessings were coming in at such a rapid rate that he couldn't stay on top of each and every one of them.

Or, maybe, the blessings had been there and now he was simply aware of what was going on. How many blessings slip by us without us actually realizing or considering where it came from? At this point, Jay was in full realization mode. And, the reality was staggering. Things he had prayed for were coming to be. A sick child in the family got well. How do you repay that? How does one turn that around and give back? Jay got creative. A visit to the hospital and the children's ward. A promotion on the job brought more income. His tithe at church went up a bit. Someone blessed him with tickets to a Cleveland Indians game. He couldn't make the game on that day, so he saw to it that a family who had never been to a game got the tickets instead. In the end, Jay would say that it nearly broke him. The sheer magnitude of trying to give back would be more than he could keep up with or have the income possible to spread around to every moment where he realized a blessing had come. 

But, it didn't stop him from trying. I think Jay Hawes really understood what the word thanksgiving actually meant. And, God continues to send his blessing long after Jay has left us. His life was snuffed out long before it was time. A tragic car accident would take his life a month after the attacks on the towers of 9/11. A couple years later, his wife Judy would succumb to cancer. Another life taken too soon. For three years while Jay was our pastor at the Shelby Church of the Nazarene, we became intimately acquainted with his kids, Jared, Jacob and Jaimee. Two ornery boys that were cut out of the same mold as their dad and a sweet redheaded girl who followed in her mama's steps. When the Hawes family left Shelby, they moved back up towards Cleveland. I recall Jared struggling with his faith a bit. Jacob never seemed to waver about his beliefs, but struggled with what he was called to do. Jaimee grew up before we knew it and found a young man named Sam who would become her husband. 

Jared would changed his name a bit a and go by "Jay" - a tribute to his father. Man, he even looks like his dad. Kinda freaky. Jared graduated seminary and is pastor at Faith Venture Church, a Nazarene congregation out in Colorado, of all places. Jacob has been working in ministry for several years. He is currently pastor at Hope Community, a campus ministry church of the Nazarenes connected to Toledo University. Jaimee and her husband Sam found their way to Virginia where Sam is lead worship pastor. I amazed at how well they all are doing. It is a harsh reality to lose your parents at such an early age. But, God has blessed all three of these kids mightily. I can't help but see it go all the way back to a moment when their dad, a "brown blood" UPS guy, realized that giving back to God was more important than focusing on himself. That blessings has continued to go on. The storehouse is way past being stocked. The blessings have over flowed to the point of three great kids and their own kids.

The attitude of giving finds it's home with thanksgiving and praise.
God comes first. The blessings will be impossible to miss.

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