Monday, November 02, 2015

Claiming Exemptions

Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish (John 6:9)

For years I claimed an exemption – and I’m not talking about my income taxes.

Claiming this exemption wasn’t something that required me to fill out a form. I was never asked to present proper documentation. I never had to report it to anyone in anyway. I simply claimed it. I claimed it every week when I sat in church and didn’t give. I claimed it every year when an opportunity came to make a commitment as to what I would give in the coming year and I chose not to participate.

It’s remarkably easy to claim spiritual exemptions. We do it all the time.

Just Getting By?
The scriptures tell us to praise God, to come into his presence with singing, to be careful lest we neglect the habit of gathering with other followers of Jesus. But we claim a worship exemption. We gladly gather with others to worship as long as our weekend plans allow it. But once the guests or the game or the get-away is planned we’re exempt, right?

Scripture tells us to pray without ceasing, to pray at all times in the Spirit, to give thanks in all things, to go into our closet and pray to our God. But when the meeting is scheduled for early morning and we haven’t had enough sleep or we need to get in our work-out because the afternoon and evening hours are booked, we claim a prayer exemption. We know prayer is important, but when life gets a little crazy we’re exempt, right?

And then there’s the giving exemption. I’ll speak for myself. I claimed this exemption for one very simple reason: I didn’t have any money. Throughout college and most of seminary, the jobs I had were part-time jobs. In seminary I worked part-time at a bookstore for a few years and then I had a weekend pastorate that paid my rent and bought food. It’s not like I was blowing a wad every week at the Mall. I was just getting by.

And when you’re just getting by, you’re exempt, right?

Cheating Ourselves
Not according to Paul. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians he was addressing a congregation that included slaves who really had no income at all. The NIV language that says “according to your income” isn’t very accurate. Better to say “as God has prospered you.” Paul includes everyone in his call for an offering. No exemptions.

The two most famous offerings given in the Bible came from marginalized people who didn’t have much. There’s the widow who gave two small coins, all she had to live on. And then there’s the boy who gave his bag lunch: five loaves and two fish.

The story of the boy’s lunch is familiar to many: Jesus is teaching, a crowd of thousands is gathered. In John’s version of the story, Jesus tests his closest followers by presenting them with a challenging circumstance: “Where are we to buy bread so that these people may eat?” The disciples scouted the crowd and came up with a boy and his lunch.

This boy gave what he had. It wasn’t much. Jesus took the gift and fed a multitude. Big miracles happen with small gifts.  Maybe we need to ponder this story before we claim a giving exemption. Jesus blesses people through the gifts of other people. Jesus didn’t magically produce food for the crowd. He took a gift of food – and a small gift at that – and used it feed many.
When we claim an exemption, God is not deprived of what we have. Rather we are deprived of the chance to be involved in the miracle of what God is doing in this world.

In the end, claiming a giving exemption saves us very little and costs us a great deal.             

I want to be a part of what you are doing in this world, O God. I want to be in on the miracle – and yet I hold myself back. I find ways to rationalize my fear. I quickly defend my lack of obedience. I want to stop claiming exemptions and making excuses. Make me bold to offer what I can. Use it as you will to the glory of your name. Amen.

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