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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Defined by Generosity

In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve been talking about financial management according to God’s principles. Including today, we will have spent four Sundays working our way through a sermon series entitled Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity. We’ve explored several themes over these past several weeks. We talked about how many in our nation, including many of us, have spent money we didn’t have to buy things we didn’t need. We’ve addressed our temptation to accumulate debt through credit cards and other means, and the real cost we pay for things when we use credit. We’ve talked about being wise managers of the financial resources God has given us. We’ve looked at how we change our appetites to make our lives simpler, allowing us to live healthier and more-balanced lives.

Today is the final message in this series. Today, we’re talking about what it means to be defined by generosity. In case you haven’t figured it out, this series of sermons is actually a stewardship series. That’s right, we’ve been talking about money. And today we’re going to talk about giving.

Now, listen carefully, and let me put your minds at ease. Let me tell you some of the horror stories I have heard about pastors and churches about how they’ve treated money, and at the same time, I promise I am not going to do nothing of the sort.

I am not going to stand in the pulpit and arrange for the lights to suddenly go out and say, “Unless you pay your tithe, it could happen.”

I am not going to pull out a $15,000 Rolex and tell you that God sent it to me mysteriously in the mail the day after I started tithing, and that if you’ll do the same thing, God will send you a Rolex as well.

I am not going to visit the homebound member of your family with the primary interest of collecting their monthly contribution to the church.

Today, we are going to talk about giving, but I have no stunts, scare tactics, tricks, or guilt. We’ve been talking about money, and yes, this is a stewardship series, but this has nothing to do with the church’s need for money or figuring out how we can get more money out of you. It does, however, have to do with discipleship, and so today we will be talking about the generosity of God in our lives and our appropriate response to it as we grow in faith. May we pray.

We are created in the image of God. From the tale of creation as recorded in the first book of the Bible, we believe ourselves to have been created in the image of God. There is a little reflection of the divine within each of us; we each bear some family resemblance to God. Among the most compelling of God’s character traits is God’s generosity. God is a generous God, giving freely and abundantly to us, his creatures. Indeed, the world in which we live is a gift from God, given to us that we might glorify God through our enjoyment of God’s many and wonderful gifts to us. The earth and all it contains belong to God, yet God shares freely and abundantly from the bounty of all that ever has been and ever will be.

Because God is generous, and because we are created in the image of God, we are created to be generous. You know that feeling you get when you help someone, or when you find the perfect gift for that special someone, or you find great joy in making someone else happy? You are created to have that feeling! God gave you that feeling! It feels good to help and to give because God created us with the willingness and the desire to give—to God and to others. This design is part of our makeup, we actually have the need to be generous. Yet, in our world, there are two voices that war against our God-given impulse toward generosity, tempting us to keep or hoard what we have.

The first is the voice of fear. We’re all afraid of something. People are afraid of all sorts of things – heights, spiders, public speaking, water – all sorts of things that people are afraid of! If you want to know the technical names for some of these fears, go to phobialist.com to find out. It’s very important to be precise in naming these fears, however.

For example, geniophobia is the fear of chins. It would be awfully embarrassing to confuse this with genuphobia, which is the fear of knees, or genophobia, which is the fear of sex.

But when it comes to the things that hold us back from being the generous people we were created to be, fear is at the root of so much of it. We fear what might happen to us, along with a misplaced idea about the true source of our security, and we’re kept from being generous. Instead, we hoard what we have. Here’s the truth: hoarding offers us no real security in this world.

The second voice that wars against our God-given impulse toward generosity is the voice of self-gratification.

Our culture tells us that our lives consist in the abundance of our possessions, even though Jesus tells us they do not in Luke 12:15. Yet, we live in a mindset of scarcity. There’s only so much to go around, after all. And so we find ourselves thinking, “If I give, there won’t be enough left for me.”

Those of you who have been to my house may know that I love cereal. I love those cereals that are bad for you, too – the ones that are loaded down with way too much sugar. Right now on top of my refrigerator, you will find a box of Cocoa Pebbles, Reeses’ Peanut Butter Puffs, and Corn Pops. Growing up, my mom never bought these cereals, at least not in the quantity I wanted, which is precisely why I buy them now. With four kids in our house, it was not uncommon to go through 7 or 8 boxes of cereal a week, and of those, one or MAYBE two was one of these were the sugary cereals we loved.

Grocery day was Monday, which meant on Tuesday morning, it was a mad dash to the kitchen to get some Cocoa Pebbles before they were all gone. And there were more Tuesday mornings than I care to count that my sister would eat four or five bowls of cereal just to make sure the rest of us got none. She ate so much cereal she made herself sick, but she did it because of the two voices we’ve just named – fear (of running out of cereal) and self-gratification.

And this is what the world teaches – to look out for #1 – and if I give, there won’t be enough left for me.

But, thanks be to God, these voices can be defeated. When we give our lives to Christ, invite him to be our Lord, and allow the Holy Spirit to begin changing us from the inside out, we find that our fears begin to dissipate and our aim in life shifts from seeking personal pleasure to pleasing God and caring for others. Although we still may wrestle with the voices from time to time, we are able to silence them more readily and effectively the more we grow in Christ. And the more we grow in Christ, realizing that our lives belong to him, the more generous we become. Stinginess is a fruit of stunted spirituality. Generosity, however, is a fruit of spiritual growth.

The Bible gives us several reasons to give to God and to others. In Acts 20:35, we find more joy in doing things for other people and for God than we ever did in doing things for ourselves. In Matthew 16:25, in the very act of losing our lives, we find life. In Psalm 24, life is a gift, and everything belongs to God.

The Bible gives us guidelines for giving. From the early days of the Old Testament, God’s people observed the practice of giving some portion of the best of what they had to God. A gift offered to God was called the first fruits or the tithe, and it equaled one-tenth of one’s flocks or crops or income. Abraham was the first to give a tithe or tenth, and God’s people have been giving 10 % as a gift of thanks to God for all that God has done ever since.

Perhaps you’ll remind me that’s the Old Testament, and we Christians live under the new covenant. True enough, but Jesus also did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Most Christians agree that the tithe is a good guideline for our lives, and one that is pleasing to God. That tenth goes to accomplish the work of God’s kingdom through the church. And the church, then, is responsible for praying and discerning. Our finance committee and treasurer have a tremendous responsibility; they’re responsible to ask not “How can we keep spending to a bare minimum?” but to ask, “What does God want to do through us in the next year, through the resources that this congregation have committed to God? Yet, even though we think the tithe is a good guide, it’s still a challenge.

The idea of tithing is a stretch for many of us, especially when you first start becoming a Christian and you’re having those impulses, that war that’s going on inside you between fear and the desire for pleasure. Give 10%? You’ve got to be kidding. But, I wanted to find a way to illustrate it the way God sees it. (Go into 10 apples demonstration.) God sees your wealth and your income sort of like these ten apples in front of me. God says nine of these are yours. Use them to take care of your family, to clothe yourselves, use them for food and for shelter and set some aside for retirement, give some away to your friends and family, give some to the poor, and take a vacation and have fun with some of them.

You’ve got nine of these apples. But the Lord says, “One of them is mine. And it’s meant to be used, first of all, as a way for you to express your praise and your love for me. But then, after you give it back to me, I’m going to use it to accomplish my purposes in the world.”

But here’s what many of us find. Many of us find—because the society is pulling us in so many directions—that nine apples aren’t enough anymore. I mean, they really aren’t. How can we do all the fun stuff and the cool stuff and the stuff we need to do and pay the bills and everything on just nine apples? And so we think, “You know, the Lord’s not going to mind if we just take a little bit. There’s that trip we’ve been wanting to take, and it’s a special trip, and the Lord will understand. And then it’s Christmas and we didn’t set anything aside for all those Christmas presents, and well, it’s sort of giving – not to God, but to other people. It’s to our children and friends, and God will understand.”

And then it’s time to start saving for retirement. It’s coming up sooner than you think! I should be setting aside more, and I can’t afford to take it from these apples, so, I’m sure the Lord will understand. And then, it’s time to get a new car. I mean, God doesn’t want his children riding around in a broken-down hoopty. And ACC basketball is coming up, and HD TVs are on sale at Best Buy this week, and then there’s that new house because our old house just doesn’t satisfy us anymore. And pretty soon, there’s not much left, I mean, not from the Lord’s apple. And finally we say, “Well Lord, this is your part. I am going to give this part to you.”

Now, I realize that this concept of tithing – of giving 10% of our income to the Lord’s work – is a stretch for many of us. Perhaps you are new in your faith, or giving at a level that you feel you can manage, and you look at this goal of 10%, and think, “There’s no way,” or “That’s only for rich people, not ordinary people like me,” or whole host of other thoughts. Yet, tithing is possible at virtually every income level. If it’s too much of a jump for you, take a step in that direction. Perhaps you look at your finances, and you give 2% of your income to God, or 5%, or 7%. For next year, set a goal for yourself to increase your giving by at least 1% until you reach the goal. That’s how most people begin to tithe. It’s something we do as we grow in our faith, and as we grow in our Christian living, we find ourselves blessed as we grow in our Christian giving, as well.

But friends, tithing is a floor, not a ceiling. Anything beyond the tithe is an offering. God calls us to keep growing in our living and to keep growing in our giving. We should strive to set aside an additional percentage of our income as offerings for other things that are important to us, such as mission projects, schools, church building funds, the benevolence fund to help our members in difficulty, and other worthwhile charities and non-profit organizations.

Our giving affects God; our giving means something to God. From the earliest Biblical times, the way people worshiped God was by building an altar and offering the fruit of one’s labors upon it to God. They would burn the sacrifice of an animal or grain as a way of expressing their gratitude, devotion, and desire to honor God. The scent of the burnt offering was said to be pleasing to God. It wasn’t that God loved the smell of burnt meat and grain. Rather, God saw the people’s heart by which they gave a gift that expressed love, faith, and the desire to please and honor God; and this moved God’s heart. When given in this spirit, regardless of the amount, our giving blesses the Lord.

How does God respond? In Luke 6:38, Jesus says, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Or, when you get home this afternoon, read the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. This story Jesus told tells us clearly how God feels about those who hoard or sit on their resources, and those who use them wisely for the work God intends.

But friends, giving not only affects God, it affects us as well. When we give generously, our hearts are changed. When we are generous—to God and to our families, friends, neighbors and others who are in need—our hearts are filled with joy. They are enlarged by the very act of giving. When we give generously, we become more generous. Think of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. When he learned how to give, his heart grew how many sizes? And so it is with us.

And when we give, in our giving we find the blessing of God. In Malachi 3:10, we are invited to test God’s willingness to bless our tithe. The prophet says that when we bring 10% into God’s storehouse, God will throw open the windows of heaven and pour out such blessings that we will not have baskets or containers big enough to contain it all.

Giving is a matter of the heart – it’s not some carefully calculated formula, it’s not some sort of heavenly checklist – it’s a response to the goodness of God who is the biggest giver we will ever know. I’ve been asked a few times if we are supposed to tithe from the net or gross of our income. First, if we’re even asking that question in the first place, let me suggest that our hearts probably are not fully in the act of giving as God wants them to be. But second, I suppose it depends on whether you want a net blessing or a gross blessing.

Now friends, many Christians have it wrong. They say that if you give, then God will give more back to you. They say that you have to get the engine going by putting the fuel in, so if you want to be blessed, you need to start giving. But that’s not how it works. We are already blessed beyond measure, and giving is simply something we do to express our gratitude. We do not give to God so that we can get something in return. The amazing thing is that when we give to God and to others, the blessings just seem to come back to us, and those blessings are not necessarily monetary. Of course, there is no guarantee that if you tithe you will never lose your job or never have other bad things happen to you.

Nevertheless, when we give generously, the unmistakable blessings of God flow into our lives.

This week, all members and regular attenders will receive a mailing inviting you to share some information with the church. Part of that mailing will be an estimate of giving card for what you intend to give to God through the ministries of St. Paul United Methodist Church in 2010. Prayerfully consider what you will give. Then, on the following two Sundays, November 29 and December 6, place your card in an envelope and bring it to worship. This estimate of giving card is confidential and will only be seen by our financial secretary.

The card is simply an estimate. You can change your commitment at any time as your financial situation changes. You will never receive a “bill” asking you to pay your commitment, though you will receive periodic statements of our financial secretary’s record of your giving, but this is for your information only.

And hear me carefully. Your acceptance in this church is not tied to your ability to give. We don’t cow tow to the high dollar givers; we don’t sleight the low dollar givers. This is a Christian community where all people are valued, and I value each and every person here equally. Everyone is an equally important part of this church – longtime members and new visitors, young and old, wealthy or not, white, black, green, or purple.

I also recognize that it may be a very difficult time in many of your lives. You may be struggling financially because of employment or healthcare or other issues. Please let me know if there is any place you need help, and know that you have the love, prayers, support, and acceptance of this congregation regardless of your giving.

In your bulletin, you will each find an insert that says “Personal Goals and Commitment” at the top. On it, there are five measurable goals for you to increase your commitment to God by placing God in higher priority in your living over the next year. Don’t fill out this sheet right now, and don’t turn it in. This is for you to place in your Bible or other safe place to reference over the next year as you actively work toward each of these five goals. Over the next few moments will be a time of silent prayer, and you may wish to come to the altar to thank God for the blessings in your life and how you will respond through these commitments, or you may wish to remain in your seats and do the same thing.

Consider the goodness of God, who gives more than we can ever repay. My prayer for each of us is that we will be blessed to find the contentment and true joy that comes through simplicity and generosity, and that each us will continue to grow deeper in our faith.

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