Now as you excel in everything-in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you-so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. - 2 Corinthians 8:7
As it was a challenge to the original recipients, this exhortation of St. Paul remains a challenge to the Church in any age, including St. John’s today. We are invited to excel in generosity toward God! What is the standard to guide us in such an undertaking? The Episcopal Church teaches that the tithe (ten percent of our income) is the minimum biblical standard for Christian giving. Minimum? The average financial pledge for Episcopalians is about 4% and for members of St. John’s it's about 2.5%. We're being encouraged to step up toward the tithe. And yet, our Church’s teaching suggests that that is only “the minimum.” How much more will be enough?
The reason our Church's teaching is stated this way is that the New Testament standard for giving is one hundred percent. Do you remember the occasion when Jesus pointed out the poor widow who put two small coins in the offering box at the Jerusalem temple? It was an object lesson for his disci-ples. He wanted them to notice that the more prosperous people contributed the mandated minimum portion of their wealth as an offering to God and the poor widow contributed everything she had. “Truly I tell you,” said Jesus, “this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21:3-4).
On another occasion, some people asked Jesus whether it was lawful for the faithful to pay taxes to Caesar. He responded, “Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?” They said, “The emperor's.” He said to them, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's” (Luke 20:24-25). The image and title of the Emperor was stamped on the coin of his realm. Jesus' subtle point was that the image and title of God is stamped on the human being, which is the most valuable asset of God's realm.
It is our purpose and our privilege to offer ourselves to God. Jesus showed us how to do that on the cross. The result of that ultimate offering was resurrection. Our offering is made complete and our lives made victorious when joined with his offering. “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
In the insignia of St. John’s, the Red Cross of St. George on the white field is a reminder of the English origins of The Episcopal Church. From the thirteenth century until the nineteenth century, the flag of England was a red cross on a white field symbolizing the patron saint of England, St. George. Most of what we know about St. George is legend. We usually associate him with the Crusades or dragon slaying. However, reliable sources suggest that George was a martyr who suffered under the persecution of the emperor Diocletian in the fourth century.
Martyrdom has always been considered the supreme witness for one's faith. Even more importantly, that red cross is a reminder of victory through sacrifice - the sacrifice of Christ and his martyr, George. When Christian art began to depict the Risen Christ holding a triumphal cross-shaped staff with a banner attached to it, the banner was most frequently white, symbolizing purity, with a red cross on it, symbolizing the victory of the risen Christ over death.
Although Christians still die for their faith in many places, you and I will probably never be required to face physical death for our faith. Nevertheless, we are called to offer our lives completely in Christ's service. St. Paul's invitation to Roman Christians is as significant to us as it was to the those to whom it was addressed during a time of persecution two thousand years ago:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2).
So, then, how are we to understand the tithe in relation to the radical expectation that we are supposed to give everything to God? Here's a way to look at it. The tithe is the portion we give specifically to God as a tangible sign of our acknowledgement that everything we have – possessions, time, lives, relationships, labors, influence – whether saved, spent, or given away is a sacred trust from God. Giving sacrificially to God is a spiritual discipline, like the disciplines of worship, prayer, sacraments, study, and good works. We give God a portion of what we have that is large enough to be considered sacrificial so that we notice when it is gone. That should make us mindful of what we do with everything else that remains.
Gay and I practice tithing as a spiritual discipline in this way. Years ago, when we struggled with the decision about how much to give to God, we realized that if we tithed and could not live on the remaining 90%, we were living beyond our means. So we made the necessary adjustments to our life-style and discovered that we still have more than enough. In fact, we are still able to save for a comfortable retirement and to support other worthy causes. It is only one way to keep tabs on our spiritual life and values, but a very important one. It helps us see how abundantly God blesses us so that we can bless others.
When you see that red cross, remember the ultimate sacrifice and victory of Christ, St. George, and all the Christian martyrs. Be mindful of the living sacrifice you are called to make and the victorious life you are called to live. Consider how your bold decision to give to God will gladden your heart and make you a more generous saint in God’s household. Envision how together with your fellow saints you can ensure that St. John’s is a beacon of generosity.
“You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God” (2 Corinthians 9:11-12).
I’ll see you in Church!