Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 11, 2007

2007.11.11 “This Gracious Work”

Central United Methodist Church

“This Gracious Work”

2 Corinthians 8: 1 – 15; 9: 6 – 7

Rev. David L. Haley

November 11th, 2007

I have appreciated over the last four Sundays, the remarks made by Denis and Gerhard and Priyanka and Betty, on worship as offering, on why they give to the church.  Wouldn’t it be fun if we all had to stand up here and make such a statement?  Don’ worry; today, it’s my turn.

Over the years, I can’t tell you how many times while talking with people – usually people marginal to the church – I have heard this speech:  “Every time I go to church, they are always asking for money.”  Comedian George Carlin even put it into a comedy routine:  “Let’s face it, God may be rich, but God is a poor money manager: God is always asking for money, always strapped for cash.”

And it never helps when media scrutiny falls on those caught abusing their privileges.  Just last week, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley announced a Senate investigation into whether six celebrity preachers violated their organizations’ tax-exempt status by living lavishly on the backs of small donors. 

Though not even a part of Grassley’s investigation, Richard Roberts, son of televangelist Oral Roberts and President of Oral Roberts University, just went on leave under such accusations.  In her 1983 memoir, ”Ashes to Gold,” Richard Roberts’ first wife, Patti, documented the jet-set lifestyle: a blue Mercedes as a Christmas gift for Richard, a Jaguar for her, Italian suits and Palm Beach vacations.  Honestly, between the abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, and periodic televangelist scandals, it’s a wonder Christians give to the church at all.

Perhaps it is this that makes our thinking about church and money shaky, and our giving cautious, resulting in donations more like “tips” than “offerings.”

Did you hear the story of the $20 dollar bill and the $1 dollar bill on the conveyor belt at the Federal Reserve Building?  As they were laying there side by side ready for the shredder the $1 dollar bill said to the $20 dollar bill, “Hey, where have you been. You look awful?”

The $20 dollar bill replied, “I have been having a ball! I’ve been to distant countries, to the finest restaurants, to the biggest and best casinos, to boutiques, to the mall uptown, downtown, across town and even to the ultimate, the Mall of America.”

In fact, just this week I’ve been in Europe, to Rodeo Drive, to an all day retreat spa, to a top-notch hair salon and a brand new casino in Las Vegas! On Sunday I was even at a Professional Football Game! I’ve been everywhere and I’ve done it all! Unfortunately I was in the fast lane and now my time is up before my time, if you get my drift?”

After describing his great travels, the $20 dollar bill looked at the $1 dollar bill and noticed he looked just like new, “What about you? Where have you been?” The $1 dollar replied, “Well, I’ve been to the Baptist church, the Methodist church, the Presbyterian church, the Episcopalian church, the Church of God in Christ, the Catholic church …

“Wait a minute! Wait a minute!” shouted the $20 dollar bill to the $1 dollar bill. “What’s a church?”

Jesus — I think — might have loved such a story.  Because contrary to what we might believe — Jesus, in his parables and stories, actually talked about money, and its influence for good or evil, more than he talked about many others things we think he talked about, like God or love or heaven or hell.

Today, I’d like to share two ways of thinking about money that have been helpful to me, to see if they might be helpful to you also.

The first is what you might call “practical” thinking about money.  Several years ago I read a useful book called, Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin.

In it, they argued that what money really represents in our life is our “life energy.”  Our life energy is all we have.  It is our time here on earth, the hours of precious life available to us.   When we go to our jobs we trade our life energy for money. (Which might make some of us wonder whether what we’re doing is worth it?)

 

Because money represents our life energy, what we therefore do with our money has enormous potential for good or evil. Whatever we give our money to, we invest with our life energy.  What are we putting the days of hours of your life into?  Houses, cars, toys?   What about charitable causes?  What about church?  Every year when you go through your finances when you’re working on your taxes, what do the numbers say you are investing your life energy into?  Makes us think, doesn’t it?

 

            When you give your money to the church, you invest the church with your life energy.  You make it go:  you make worship and ministry and mission happen.  You enable me to be your Pastor.  You enable our congregation to maintain our buildings as tools for ministry.  You enable us to reach into community, and reach others, and invite them into the community of faith, just as we do Katy Washington here today.  Do you realize that without that elevator, Katy could not even be in worship with us here today?  Your gifts to the church make not only this worship, but that elevator, possible.

Sometimes, we forget this.  Do you remember that old Flip Wilson routine where he is a preacher explaining to his congregation about having to feed the collection plate. “In order for this church to grow,” “it first has to crawl. (“Let it crawl, Rev,” the congregation shouted back. “Let it crawl!) “Then, like a child, this congregation has to learn how to walk.” (“Let it walk, Rev, let it walk”) “And in order for this church to succeed, it has to learn to run!” (Let it run, Rev, let it run!) “And in order for this church to run, y’all gonna have to dig deep into your pockets and put some money in this basket!” shouted the preacher.  Somewhere in the back of the church, a lone voice said, “Let it CRAWL, Rev, let it CRAWL!”

Sometimes, that’s the way we think.

        But the second and most important reason for giving to the church is not practical after all, but spiritual. 

        Long ago, a pastor set forth this argument as he wrote to a congregation to exhort them to follow up on a financial promise they had made.  As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Since you excel in so many ways — in your faith, your gifted speakers, your knowledge, your enthusiasm, and your love from us — I want you to excel also in this gracious work of giving.” (2 Corinthians 8:7)

What had happened was, in the mid decades of the first century, some 20 years after Jesus, famine had come to the area around Jerusalem, and the mother Church, composed mostly of Jewish Christians, was in dire need.  For many reasons, it became an important project for Paul to raise money for them among the Gentile churches.

But by the time Paul writes 2 Corinthians chapters 8 & 9, like so many financial campaigns ever since, the Corinthians lost enthusiasm for the project, and Paul writes to them to convince them to make good their intent. 

As it turns out, these two chapters constitute the most extensive set of remarks in any of his writings concerning the question of financial stewardship. They still speak to us modern Christians who sometimes need to be challenged to contribute to worthwhile projects.

St. Paul used familiar tactics. He held up before the Corinthians the example of the Macedonians:

“We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints — and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you.”

Do you know which United Methodist conference has traditionally been one of the leaders in per capita giving?  Red Bird Missionary Conference in rural Appalachia.  What does that say?

But then, after the example of the Macedonians, Paul reminded the Corinthians of the best example of selfless giving of all, the example of Christ.  In what has to be one of the most beautiful verses in the New Testament, Paul says:

      “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”

A few verses later, Paul ends his argument by audaciously stating:

“The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9: 6 – 7)

Did you get that?  St. Paul argues that it is an absolute and universal spiritual law of the universe, that, variously stated:

“As you sow you shall reap”

“As you give you shall receive”

So the real question for each of us becomes, then, not “How much does the church need?”  But

“How much, for my own spiritual growth and Christian discipleship,

do I need to give?

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, CA, has framed it this way:

“We easily miss the spiritual growth significance of giving money.  We need to give the first part of our day in meditation to God. We need to give the first part of our week in worship of God.  We need to give the first part of our income to God.  We need to give the first part of our social life to fellowship with other Christians.   Each of these four kinds of giving keeps our mental compass focused in God’s direction.  Remove any one of them and spiritual growth slows.”

        Like Denis and Gerhard and Priyanka and Betty, I believe giving is important, for both practical and spiritual reasons.  I try to practice what I preach, not only in giving, but also in living

One of my favorite and most-prayed prayers is the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, in which St. Francis articulated these convictions.  I think St. Francis’s prayer is second only to the Lord’s prayer in Christian significance, and every Christian ought to know it by heart.  I pray it constantly, as I come to church, as I go to visit, before almost every thing I do as your Pastor.  It may be found as No. 481 in the Hymnal.  Please turn there, and pray it with me:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master,

grant that I might not so much seek

To be consoled as to console,

To be understood as to understand,

To be loved as to love;

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

Amen.

(The Prayer Of St. Francis,

Francis of Assisi, 1182 – 1226)

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