Sermon: Firstfruits Giving

By Sheri Hostetler

Luke 19:1-10

Zacchaeus appears only once in the New Testament, in this story from the Gospel of Luke, but he is an unforgettable character. Too short to see Jesus in any other way, he climbs onto a limb of a big sycamore tree as Jesus walks down the road into Jericho. Zacchaeus is willing to go to some length to get a closer look at this holy man he’s heard so much about.

Zacchaeus was a Jew who worked for the equivalent of the Roman IRS; he went around collecting the hated taxes for the hated occupying Empire. So, he’s already seen as a kind of traitor by his own people. In addition, it was common practice for tax collectors to collect more money from people than what they actually owed to the Roman government; they would give the Romans what they expected and kept the rest.  Zacchaeus must have extorted a lot of money from other Jews because the scripture says he is “rich.” So, even more reason to hate this guy. When people saw Zacchaeus coming down the street, they crossed over to the other side but not before spitting on the path he would walk on.  And so, these same people watch with anticipation as Jesus looks up, sees Zacchaeus in the tree, stops and opens his mouth to speak. They just knew that this holy man was going to give that shyster a real sermon. 

Everyone leans in to listen. And Jesus says, “Come on down, Zacchaeus, and hurry because I’m going to stay at your house today.” What? The people hasten to point out to Jesus who Zacchaeus was, just in case Jesus didn’t realize who he was talking to. Don’t you realize — that guy is a sinner? Jesus’ silence was deafening.

It’s not reported how Zacchaeus got out of the tree, but I’m guessing he fell out in sheer amazement. When he got his breath, he said, “Half of my possessions I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” And Jesus said: “Today salvation has come to this house.” 

This is the only time in the Gospels that Jesus says that someone is saved. The only time! And it’s directed toward someone who has radically rethought how he is going to gain and spend his money. Not to someone who has changed his sexual ethics or said he’d pray more or study Scriptures more diligently – salvation has come to the house of the one who has changed his relationship to money and wealth.

It’s long been said that if you want to know what someone really believes in, look at their budget. How we get money and what we do with it is possibly the surest revealer of what we value, what our priorities are, to what we give our allegiance. Obviously, money is at the heart of faith. So why don’t we talk about it more? Maybe because it’s such a potentially fraught topic. When I was in training to do premarital counseling, we were told that the three things couples fight over the most, by far, are religion, sex and money. So, talking about money and faith hits two of those fraught topics.

Jesus was not afraid to talk about money. In fact, he talked about it more than any other topic. Sixteen of the his thirty-eight parables were concerned with how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, an amazing one out of every ten verses deal directly with the subject of money. (From here.)   So what does our wisdom tradition have to say to us about how we are to regard and use the money we’ve been given? I think there’s two foundational pieces of wisdom that our tradition has for us. Like all really good wisdom, it’s pretty simple to understand, but harder to live out.

One: Who does our money belong to? Our wisdom tradition tells us that our money does not belong to us. It belongs to God. It may seem like it belongs to us, since clearly we are the ones putting in eight to ten hours days at work, and we’re the one who may have gone to four years or more of post-high school education so we could get the job for which we get the money. 

But our money does not belong to us because nothing truly belongs to us. This is what it means to be creatures, not the Creator. Our creation story from Genesis says it clearly: 

(Gensis 1) In the beginning when God created[a] the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God[b] swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

God called the entire world into being. The trees that made the timber that formed this building and those chairs? Who made it? Did you make it? No, the Creator did. The oil that made the gas that went into the car we drove to get here today or the bus we took? Did anybody here create that oil?  Did you make the silicon needed to build the integrated circuits for the computer in your phone? 

All this and so much more was created by God and belongs to God. Even the ingenuity that figured out how to extract oil from the reserves deep in the earth and how to fashion steel and how to make a circuits from silicon – all this comes from the Creator, too, as a gift to us. Everything we have belongs to the Creator, including the contents of our bank account and our wallet, and we are merely trustees – not owners – of it. What would change, as we are standing in the checkout line or getting ready to click “buy now,” if we were to say: “This money belongs to the Creator, and I am merely the trustee of it”?

Two. What is our response to this basic truth that everything we have – including our money – really belongs to God? The wisdom in our tradition says that the way we acknowledge and respond to this basic truth is to give the first fruits of what we have been given back to God. Now, first fruits is not a term we use a lot but it was a common practice in ancient times. It’s a religious offering of the first produce harvested. This means that when the barley was harvested, the first thing you did before you did anything else with that harvest – before you made barley cakes or barley wine or whatever you do with barley – was to give a specified portion of that harvest – usually a tithe, or a tenth of it –  back to God in a temple ceremony. Only when you did that, was it lawful to eat it. Before you do anything with your harvest, you give the first part, the best part of it, back to God. That’s firstfruits giving.

A modern-day version of that story is from a pastor who got a call in the middle of August from a member of his congregation, who wanted to know if he was home so she could bring him a small gift. And when she came she held in her hand one small, ripe tomato. She explained that she knew it wasn’t much of a gift – it was a smallish tomato and only one, at that. But it was a very special tomato – it was the first tomato to ripen in her garden. When the pastor tells this story, he tells it with obvious emotions – it made him feel so special, so honored, that she would give him this precious first fruit of the harvest.

What might giving the first tomato of summer mean for us? Lynn Miller is a Mennonite pastor who has done a lot of stewardship education in the Mennonite Church. He lays out a simple three-part plan for firstfruits giving. This is one example of how you might live this out. First, he says, you tithe. Before you do anything else, you commit 10% of your income to God and God’s work in the world — however you define that. Before you even think of where else your money is going to go, you give away 10%. 

Second, you take care of your and your family’s needs. And Lyn is no money monk – he doesn’t believe in deprivation, in doing without everything but the basic physical necessities. He believes it’s important to have hobbies, and go to movies with spouses or friends, and have access to stimulating reading. He believes in saving for retirement and your kids’ college education. So you take care of you and your family’s legitimate needs. 

Then, third, if you have anything left, that money belongs to the Creator. Lyn advocates transferring money left over at the end of the month into a separate account, called God’s account. I had a pastoral colleague who attended one of Lynn’s seminars when she and her husband were quite young. They ended up adopting his threefold plan. They actually had a separate account at their bank called “God’s fund” — that’s what it said on the checks — and they used this money to make charitable donations to organizations they believed in. Or, if they heard of a neighbor who needed a new refrigerator and couldn’t afford one, they might decide to give her the money out of their God’s account. My colleague spoke glowingly of her experience of being able to release resources for good into the world via their God’s account. It gave her great joy.

Now, not everyone is going to be able to do this. For some people, the tithe alone will be impossible. That’s why I love that Katelin intruded the idea of “time – talents – treasures” during the children’s story. For some people, giving their firstfruits might mean giving away some percentage of their time to God’s work. Or giving their best talents to God’s work or the use of a valued resource. Years ago, one of you told me that you and your husband decided that the one material possession they really valued was their sports car, and so they decided that that was the first tomato of summer — the first fruit — that they had to consciously let others use. It’s their way of doing firstfrutits giving. Giving back the best of what we’ve been given.

So: God owns everything; we are only trustees.And: We demonstrate our gratitude for this everything by giving back the best to God, the firstfruits. Many of us have already deeply embraced this stewardship wisdom of our tradition. There are so many generous and faithful people in this community. We’re going to have a chance to learn even more from each other during our adult Education Hour, where people will be sharing their stories of how money intersects with their faith. May we be inspired by each other and by the spirit of Jesus to become ever more faithful to the wisdom of our tradition.