Did you hear that sometime last Sunday morning at Wapping Community Church in South Windsor, Connecticut, a robbery was committed? An undetermined amount of money was stolen. And this doesn’t appear to be the first time such a crime occurred. The evidence strongly indicates that this is only one of the many unchecked offenses that have been going on over a long period of time.
What’s more, all clues seem to suggest that it was an inside job. There was no sign of forced entry. Over two hundred people were here at the scene of the crime and no one is above suspicion. So far none of the suspects have been apprehended. And local authorities are still investigating.
One of the authorities commented that in all his years of investigating robberies, he’s never seen anything like this before. A large sum of money was missing, but no money seems to have changed hands. In fact, the money appears to be stolen from God…address unknown. There is no indication that a weapon was used, no visible sign of any struggle that might have taken place. By all accounts, it looks to be a robbery without precedent.
So I have come this morning on behalf of the authorities to issue warrants for arrest. But I have also come to announce that the judge in this case, who also happens to be God, is willing to suspend all sentences. Yes, God plans to pardon all those who make a vow not to commit this crime again.
This bold and unique all points bulletin comes to us this morning via the prophet Malachi. The prophet goes to the people of Israel on God’s behalf. He pleads with them to return to God what they have taken from God. He expresses to the people the pain God feels that God’s love has been unrequited.
In no uncertain terms, Malachi gives voice to God’s message. “I have delivered you. I am your parent and your partner. I entered into sacred covenant with you. You became my people and I agreed to be your God. I promised to companion you and keep you and provide for you all the days between now and eternity.”
“Meanwhile you have despised me. You have dishonored me. You have withheld yourselves and your offerings and your service and your substance. Even though I keep nothing from you, you are actively taking something from me. You want more and more and more and you aren’t willing to give anything in return. I feel like I’m being robbed.”
As is the case sometimes with Old Testament prophets, Malachi comes across as a little over the top. Granted most of us would admit that we fall short when it comes to our relationship with God. We could pray more than we do. We could reach out to people in need and offer help more than we do. We could give more to our neighbors and more to our community. Many of us could increase our financial pledge to the church. But is it really robbery? I’m not sure I’d go that far.
Then again, listen to what Malachi is actually saying and it makes sense. If our human relationship with God is one sided, we know that one sided relationships don’t work. Healthy relationships work because both sides are considerate of each other. In a marriage, for example, there are certain initiatives and responsibilities that both spouses must make and take in order for the marriage to thrive. If the relationship is a one way street. where one spouse is doing the giving while the other spouse is doing the taking, resentment will build and the marriage will eventually self-destruct.
So if we know that one sided relationships don’t work in our human experience, what makes us think one sided relationships work with God? In order to maintain a healthy relationship with God, you and I need to do certain things on our end to maintain balance.
To that end…with the goal of reminding his people why it was important to even out the scales…the prophet Malachi called human beings to accountability. Back in the first chapter of his book, Malachi stated that “a son honors his father and a servant respects his master, but the people of God despise God.”
The people of Israel who heard the prophet responded as any of us likely would. “How is it that we have despised God?”
And through Malachi, God proceeded to lay it on the line. You have offered polluted bread on my altar. You have given me trash and mess and garbage. You’ve provided me far less than your best and that doesn’t work for me.
You and I would never think of giving less than we are supposed to when we pay taxes to the government. We would never shortchange the school that sends us a tuition bill. We wouldn’t pay less than the required amount to our mortgage company or the bank that holds our car note or the store that sells us the new outfit.
In every other area of our lives, we engage in regular, substantial, intentional payments. And yet we think we can stroll into the presence of God and give less to God and do less for God than we do for ourselves with all our conveniences and creature comforts.
Flip ahead to today’s Chapter Three, and Malachi goes even further by declaring that we have actually abandoned God. Yes we claim that we believe in God, but our actions don’t match our words. Finally, Malachi’s imagery comes to a climax when the prophet asks the blunt question, “Will anyone rob God?”
Malachi isn’t talking about stealing. When we steal from someone we do it behind their backs where no one can see what we’re doing. But when we rob somebody, we’re doing it right in their face. Will you and I in all our weakness and mortality and frailty and brevity of days on this earth go so far as to rob God?
In the end, everything you and I have in this world comes from God. We brought nothing into this world and we will take nothing out. There are no safe deposit boxes in a casket. I’ve never seen a Brink’s truck in a funeral procession. If we have anything, God gave it to us.
There are plenty of people who will protest. “I got what I earned on my own. I worked hard. I woke up early every morning and came home late in the evening and I deserve everything that is coming to me.
But who wakes you and me up in the morning? Who starts us on our way? Who opened the job door up for us and gave us an opportunity? Who gives us the strength we need to stand up and breathe and hold onto hope? As the Apostle Paul said, “I am what I am but by the grace of God!”
Malachi informed the people they were robbing God. And the people of Israel responded the way any of us probably would. How have we robbed God?
God’s answer? You’ve robbed me by withholding your offerings. But there is something you can do about it. If you really want to keep faith with me and if you want to maintain balance in the covenant I share with you, bring all the offering you can to the “storehouse.” Which is a word that means in Hebrew “the temple treasure.”
Don’t hold back. Don’t give just a piece of what you can give. Give your best. Bring your offerings and your pledges and your gifts to the temple where God is and dedicate them to God.
When we give our offering to the church or make a yearly pledge to the church or commit to an endowment gift, you and I are admitting that God is the source of our lives. And when each of us gives our very best to God here at Wapping Community Church, we can make a powerful and meaningful impact on the life of this world. Our offerings can be signs of life and hope for those who are desperate and lonely. Our pledges translate into healing for those who need the company and counsel of faithful Christian companions. Our offerings represent a place where children and youth can come and be educated and feel safe and welcome. Our pledges will be used to help provide food and shelter for those who are hungry and homeless.
Every year around this time, you and I have an opportunity to start a new trend in the world. Everyone out there is busy shouting “We don’t have enough! We don’t have enough joy!
But when we learn to trust God and stop robbing God, what you shout out loud and what I shout out loud will be different. Instead of “not enough” we will shout together, “there is more than enough!”
By the grace of God, may that day come soon…Amen.
NOTE: Inspiration for this sermon came from a sermon preached by the Rev. Alvin O. Jackson. Rev. Jackson’s sermon, entitled “Robbery Without a Weapon,” can be found on pages 75-79 in Joyful Giving: Sermons on Stewardship, edited by Dan Moseley. (Chalice Press: 1997)