Sunday, November 20, 2011

Four Habits of Highly-Effective Christians (Acts 2:42-47)

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

I’ve got some bad news for you – you showed up on Commitment Sunday. Every church has one and you can call it what you want – Stewardship Sunday, Generosity Sunday, Faithful Response Sunday, but you know what this is – it’s the Sunday we’re going to talk openly and honestly about money. I just want to say at the outset that I’ll make a deal with you – today is the only Sunday we’ll talk this much about money until somewhere around this time next year, unless, through your giving habits, you tell me that we need to talk about it more.

Now, I realize that pastors pull all sorts of tricks to bribe people to show up on this Sunday. 8% is singing today – that’s no coincidence! If you knew we’d have great music today, well, there was at least a fighting chance you’d show up.

You may not realize that the past few weeks of messages have been a stewardship series. If you didn’t realize that, you’re likely having one of two reactions: you could be saying, “He tricked us!” OR, you could be saying, “Wait a minute, how is this a stewardship series? There was that one sermon about discovering and using the gifts God has given us. Then, there was All Saints Sunday; he didn’t talk about stewardship there, either, just about the lives of the saints who have let God’s light shine through them and how we, also as saints, are called to let God’s light shine through us. And then, he talked about Jesus’ call on all Christians to be his witnesses – to let the Holy Spirit into our lives and transform us, and then to share the good news of that transformation from the very depths of our being, and that God intends to use everything we have and everything we are for God’s purposes – how God intends to work through our hands and feet and hearts and minds and words and deeds and how we need to surrender ourselves to God constantly and offer everything we have to God, but I didn’t hear him say anything about stewardship!”

Ah hah – have you figured it out yet? Here’s a hint – stewardship isn’t about money. Did everyone hear that? Let me say it again, just in case you weren’t paying attention – stewardship isn’t about money. Well, if it’s not about money, let’s find out, together, what it is about. May we pray.

What is a steward? In a large household, a steward is one or more persons who manage the affairs of the household on behalf of the owners. Or, on cruise ship, a steward is one or more persons who manage the baggage, arrangements, or meals on behalf of the passengers. So basically, a steward is someone who manages something that belongs to someone else. Fair enough? That's the first thing I want you to remember today - stewardship isn't about money. Stewardship is about managing something that belongs to someone else.

Going to summer camp as a kid, our parents wrote our name on the tag of every article of clothing we took. This, of course, was to keep our things separate if the clothes got all mixed up, and sure enough, my Mom wrote “Andrew Jeremy Thomas” on the tags in my underwear, and shirts, and shorts, and even on the inside of my socks. It was a way to know what belonged to whom.

The Psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. The world and all its people belong to him” (Psalm 24:1). Don’t let that one slip by too easily – this is pretty important! The earth and everything in it belong to whom? To God. The world and all its people belong to whom? To God.

And so, as Christians, we are stewards. We manage things that belong to someone else, we manage the things that belong to God. And what belongs to God? Everything. Everything and everyone belongs to God.

You may as well have "Property of God" stamped in bold letters across your backside. Your hands and feet, your intellect and skills and all the things you have used to make a living, those belong to God as well. The title to your car should really be in God's name, the deed to your house should have God listed as owner, and your bank statement should have God listed as the account holder, and you as the custodian of the account. It all belongs to God - everything we own, everything we have, everything we are - it all belongs to God.

Now, here is the fun part - God loves to share. So yes, it all belongs to God, but God freely shares everything with us that we might enjoy it. God is irresponsibly generous, radical in grace, reckless in blessing, and conspicuously abundant in love. God just can't help but to give and give and give, because that's who God is, even giving his Son for our salvation and to show us the way of life. Further, if we've all got "Property of God" stamped on us, then we are created to reflect that same generosity. Somewhere deep down in our DNA, we are hard-wired to be generous as God as generous, that our lives may reflect the glory of the God in whose image we are created, and to whom we belong.

It's like that experiment we used to do back in elementary school science class, where we would take white carnations and soak the stems in colored water, and after a day or two, the color of the water would show through the petals of the carnation. If our lives are planted in the generosity and blessing and abundance of God, eventually those same characteristics are going to start showing up in our lives, as well.

Maybe now you can see why stewardship isn't primarily about money, though it certainly includes money, and we are going to talk pretty specifically about money before it's all said and done today. But, I hope you see that stewardship is really about discipleship - about being the best possible followers of Jesus we can be, and living our lives in such a way and using everything we have in such a way that God is glorified and God's will is done through us.

When I think about the goodness of God, the blessings of God, the generosity of God, I want to use what I have been given in a way that honors God and expresses the depth of my gratitude. And so, in response to all that God has already done and already given, we practice the habits that will help us grow in our faith, and show our desire to be the people and the church God desires for us to be.

In today's Scripture reading from the book of Acts, we see the early church's commitment to practicing the habits of highly-effective Christians. In Acts 2:42, it says, "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers." What I have always found interesting about these particular practices is that they were the natural result of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the early church. Because, when the Holy Spirit moves into our lives and realigns our priorities, these become the kinds of things we want to do.

And what happened when they did these things – nothing all that spectacular, right? They just sat around in a circle and not much changed and they generally felt pretty good about themselves, right? Not quite. The text says, “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47b). Filled with the Holy Spirit, they committed themselves to certain practices, and those practices helped them fulfill their mission. Everyone was part of it – it took the whole community, everyone pulling their own weight and contributing according to their own means.

Or, if you are a member of this church, you took certain vows when you joined. Unlike joining a country club or most other organizations in our society, joining a church carries with it more responsibilities than it does privileges. If you have joined this church, you made certain promises and committed yourself to certain practices, and the commitment you made is no small matter. First and foremost, of course, is your confession of Jesus Christ as your Savior and your commitment to serve him as your Lord. But then, you also made a commitment to practicing certain habits, promising before God and to the rest of this congregation that you would participate in and support the ministries of St. Paul United Methodist Church through your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service. These things together represent your witness as a follower of Jesus Christ who is committed to growing in God's grace.

And it's not about what the church needs from you, it's about what you, as a follower of Jesus Christ, need to do for yourself. It's about what a person who has committed themselves to a lifetime of Christian discipleship needs to do to stay on that path and participate in a lifelong growth in God's grace.

When we support and participate in the ministries of our church through our prayers, presence, gifts, and service as the simple and natural response to God's abundant generosity and extravagant grace, we find greater generosity and a deeper experience of grace. We respond with praise in gratitude for all God has done for us and God's blessings that have flowed into our lives. We praise God from whom all blessings flow, and as we praise God with everything we have, blessings seem to flow all the more.

Friends, God is good! (All the time!) All the time (God is good!). God has been exceedingly generous toward each of us. God gives and gives and gives because that's just who God is. Are you grateful for the blessings of God in your life? Are you grateful for the goodness of the Lord? Are you grateful for the gift of grace? Do you want to respond to God's generosity in ways that truly reflect the depth of gratitude?

Today, on this Commitment Sunday, I am asking you to commit to some practices and habits that will both express your gratitude, and continue to help you grow as a follower of Jesus Christ. In a few minutes, we're going to make our commitments for the coming year. Go ahead and pull out your commitment cards - I want us to spend a few minutes looking over these. If you don't have your card, don't worry, you've probably already noticed that we've got plenty here.

You may also notice that the card asks you to commit to certain practices in the coming year, and that they correspond to the vows you made when you became a member of this church, to support it and participate in its ministries through your prayers, presence, gifts, and service. Don't fill out your card just yet - let's go through what's on them.

How many times a month are you willing to say, "Yes, I will attend worship!"? You and I are made to worship, to proclaim our devotion to God, to be encouraged and challenged in our discipleship, and to enjoy the fellowship of our brothers and sisters. The Bible tells us not to neglect worship but to be present every available opportunity; accordingly, I am asking the most-committed among you to attend worship every week unless you are sick, out-of-town, or working.

How many times a week are you willing to pray for the ministries of St. Paul to work for God's purposes? To pray for your pastor? Your church staff and leaders? For programs and ministries that will meet the deepest spiritual needs of our members and surrounding community? For the Holy Spirit to fill the heart of every person who considers St. Paul their church? I am asking the most-committed among you to pray for St. Paul daily.

How many times a month are you willing to give of your own time to support the ministries and missions of St. Paul? That could be teaching a class, leading a Bible study or other small group, serving at the men's shelter, mentoring, working in children's ministry, singing in the choir, or any number of other opportunities where you actually make a real difference in the lives of others. I am asking the most-committed among you to serve at least one hour a week, that's four hours a month, in ministry and mission.

OK, back to the financial piece. Oooh, it's time to talk about money. So, the Bible teaches us to tithe - to give the first 10% of our income to God as an expression of worship and gratitude for God's blessing in our lives. The Bible says, "'Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,' says the Lord God Almighty, 'and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there won't be room enough to store it" (Malachi 3:10). The storehouse is our local church, and God promises that when we faithfully bring the first 10%, God will pour out so much blessing that we won't have room enough to contain it. Though God has told us elsewhere in Scripture not to put God to the test, this is one place God says, "Go ahead, try me."

God asks us to give 10% of our income, and God promises to bless the tithe. Sometimes people ask, "Is that 10% pre-tax or 10% post-tax?" and I usually just say, "That depends if you want a pre-tax blessing or a post-tax blessing!" God promises to bless us when we tithe, and I'll confirm that it works.

Thankfully, Ashley is a tither too - it's something we were both practicing long before we met each other or got married and we didn't have to convince the other of the benefits of tithing. And so, in 2012, we'll be giving about $9,000, or $170/week, to God through Davidson and St. Paul; we split between the two based on our salaries. And while we know and have experienced God's blessing in this kind of faithful giving, we also have been blessed to know something of the joy that comes from generosity.

You can put God to the test on this, and God will come through. God makes good on God's promises, and God will bless your giving. Now, it's not always monetary - many times the blessings of God come back in other ways. I'll be honest, I don't know how it works, I can't make it balance on a spreadsheet, I can't explain the ratio of our giving to God's blessing - all I know is this, it works! I have felt God bless my giving, and not once have I regretted giving to the church. Try it yourself, and you'll see, it works! You can't out-give God, no matter how hard you try!

This morning, I am asking the most-committed among you to give 10% of your income to God through St. Paul United Methodist Church in 2012. I am asking not for the church's benefit, but for yours. Generosity is something that produces joy, and the more extravagant our generosity, the more extravagant our joy. I want you to know and experience that joy first-hand!

Now, maybe you’re looking at that 10% figure, and you’re thinking, “There’s no way I can do that.” All I will say is that God will bless it if you do it, but I get that may be a big chunk to bite off. But, if it’s just not possible but you want to take a step in the right direction, you can do one of two things. If you’re already giving, figure out what percentage of your income you’re currently giving – maybe it’s 3%. Next year, commit to giving 4%, the year after that 5%, and so on until you hit the goal. Or, if you don’t have any real habit of giving, think of a weekly amount that seems reasonable and attainable for you, and then add $5 a week to it. I say add $5 because if you’re going to grow in this area, you’ve got to stretch at least a little bit. There’s got to be some faith and leaning on God to provide all you need. Giving is more of a faith matter than a financial one, and as we grow in our faith, we grow in our capacity for generosity.

Even so, many within our congregation know the joy of generosity, and they want to help you experience that joy, as well. These people, who have asked to remain nameless, are making an additional gift of $100 above and beyond their own personal commitment for anyone who makes a first-time financial commitment in any amount, OR who increases their commitment by 10% or more. They know the joy of generosity, and they want everyone in our church to know that joy, as well, and they're certainly putting their money where their mouth is!

I also want you to know that your acceptance in this church is not tied to your ability to give. I know what the economy is like, I know about the difficulties people are going through, and I realize that it really may not be possible for everyone to give in the way they wish they could. I get that. Know that we're praying for you, we love you, and we support you. We're your church family, and if there's anything we can do for you, please let us know. Even if financial hardships prevent you from being able to make a commitment at this time, don't stay away from worship or keep from getting involved in other ways.

Before you write anything on your card, the first thing I want you to do is pray. Consider the goodness of God, the blessings in your life, and thank God for them. Then, think about how you want to show your gratitude to God. Ask for God's guidance on how and what you should give in the coming year. When you're ready, fill out your estimate of giving card, and remember to fill out the back of it and keep the top portion for your personal records. Bring the completed lower portion and place it with everyone's commitment in the basket up front.

Friends, God has indeed been good and generous toward us. What a joy that is, and what joy we receive when we are generous as God is generous!

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