Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 5, 2009

2009.04.05 “PoWeRSuRGe: “G” is for ‘Give’”

Central United Methodist Church

“PoWeRSuRGe: “G” is for ‘Give’”

Pastor David L. Haley

Palm/Passion Sunday

April 5th, 2009

“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

At the heart of our current economics crisis is something I confess don’t understand: economics.  I didn’t take economics in college; the economics course at my university had a reputation as one of the most difficult courses in the university, so I steered clear. Now, when I read articles about things like hedge funds and derivatives, I struggle to understand.

Even daily transactions sometimes leave me mystified.  Don’t you feel strange anymore when you actually pay with cash? Now we pay with credit cards and debit cards, and our access to our own money is open or closed and tracked and of course, always charged fees, sometimes without services performed.  We placed our trust in bankers, and now it turns out they didn’t understand economics much more than we did. And now the whole system teeters on the edge of collapse.

So we’re back to the basics: economics fundamentals such as getting and giving, saving and spending – especially spending. The one economic absolute we all understand is that one named by poet Ogden Nash in his Ode to Money:

“O money, money, money.

I’m not necessarily one of those who think thee holy,

but I often stop to wonder how thou canst go out so fast

when thou comest in so slowly.”  — Ogden Nash

With our mystification about money, is it surprising that we feel a certain disconnect when the topic of money comes up in church? We call it “stewardship”, and stewardship it should be, although most church people know to put their hand over their pocketbooks when churches start talking about stewardship.

As a pastor, I have friends who love to remind me of this. One used to mimic the late George Carlin’s comedy routine about how “God must be a poor money manager . . . everytime I go to church, they are always asking for money. How is it that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, but is always strapped for cash?”

It may seem that way, but I have an audacious argument to make today:  GIVING – including the giving of our money – is not just a dirty necessity, but an essential, important aspect of our spiritual life and Christian discipleship.  

This is the sixth and final sermon in my PoWeRSuRGe series, our survey of six essential disciplines for growth in spirituality and discipleship. PoWeRSuRGe stands for: Prayer, Worship, Read the Bible, Serve, Relate, and Give.  Today I focus on the importance of GIVING.

In many ways, it’s a luxury to talk about giving apart from a specific need, like a stewardship campaign or renovating the log cabin. (Did we tell you we’re renovating the log cabin?) The point I wish to make today is that the real need for giving is not the church’s need for money, but our need to give, as an aspect of our spiritual growth.

      When you look at the Bible, it’s surprising to see how much the Bible talks about giving.

In the Old Testament, the standard of giving is the tithe (10%). For example, in Genesis 29: 20 – 22, it says:

        “Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will      keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and        clothing to wear . . . of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.”

It’s worth noting that the main point of the tithe was not the percentage given, but the motive behind it: a gift returned to God, in recognition of God’s gifts to us.

When you turn to the New Testament, and especially the Gospels, you might be surprised to hear that the two things Jesus talked about the most were not what we often assume, such as heaven, but (1) the Kingdom of God; and (2) Money. Jesus especially warned of money’s dangers and distractions, whether in having too little or in having too much, reflected in either anxiety or affluence.  “Where your treasure is,” Jesus said, “there will your heart be also.”

 And who could forget what he had to say to the rich young ruler?  For all we know the rich young ruler was devout in prayer, faithful in worship, read his Bible, diligent in service, rich in relationships, but Jesus said to him:

“There is one thing lacking.  Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.”  (Luke 18: 22 – 25)

        Ouch! Later in the New Testament, as Christian congregations flourished, then as now, money and giving were topics of discussion.  For example, in Second Corinthians chapters 8 & 9, Paul wrote some of the most profound words ever about Christian giving. At issue was a special offering for the Christians in Jerusalem (the mother church), who were facing times of famine. His arguments, in essence, were:

        (1) First, others are in need.

        (2) Two, “As you give, so you will get”: 

“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.”  (1 Corinthians 9: 6 – 7) 

As he later says to the Galatians:  “As a person sows, so shall they reap.” (Galatians 6:7)  As we put it today, “What goes around comes around.”  Do we believe this?

        (3) And finally, giving is what it’s all about.  As we read in Philippians, Paul reminds us of what Christ “gave up”, emptying himself, becoming human. Paul put it most memorably in 2 Corinthians 8:9, one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible:

        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.”

In addition to these powerful Biblical incentives to see giving as an integral part of our Christian discipleship, there are practical ones as well.  I told you at the beginning that I don’t understand economics, but a few years ago I came across a helpful book which helped me understand the importance of giving.  It’s called, Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin.

In Your Money or Your Life, Dominguez and Robin argue that the reason money is important is because it represents our “life energy.” Our life energy is our time here on earth, the hours of precious life available to us. When we go to our jobs, what we’re essentially doing is trading our life energy for money.

Because money represents our life energy, what we do with it becomes a spiritual issue, and has enormous potential in our lives for good or evil. (Just think of Bernie Madoff.) You can squander it, you can spend it on frivolous things, or you can use it to accomplish tremendous good, even after you’re gone.   

As a spiritual and practical issue, giving raises several practical questions.

How much should I give?”  While a tithe (10%) might be the gold standard, how much you can and should give is a question only you can answer.  Because the real question is not how much is needed, but how much we need to give, to express our gratitude to God for what we have, and as a measure of spiritual growth. 1%? 10%? 50%?  As a “stretch”, some people set the goal of increasing their giving by one percent of their gross income each year, as able. 

The next practical question is, “To Whom Should We Give?”  I think we need to give – I think our children need to see us give – to individuals. Yes, that homeless person might misuse your gift, but after all, the gift counts for you based not upon what the person does with it, but for the motive with which you give it.  Practice random deeds of kindness: give money to those in need.  Buy them a meal, a cup of coffee.  Sit down and have a conversation.

We also need to give not just to individuals, but to agencies, organizations, charities, and causes, including the Church, who  by our collective gifts, can accomplish more than we could individually.  Remember when we give them our money, we invest them with our life energy. What’s your favorite charity?  Hopefully, not just your church. A rising tide of generosity floats all boats.  Sit down with your checkbook and invest some of your favorite charities with your life energy. 

            The next question, in addition to “How much should I give” and “To whom should I give, is “How Shall I Give?”  From the top or from what’s left over? (Hint: there won’t ever be anything “left over;”) Through cash in the offering plate, or pledged and regular giving?

Remember the story about the one-dollar bill and the twenty-dollar bill that arrived back at a Federal Reserve Bank to be retired?  As they moved along the conveyor belt to be burned, the two bills struck up a conversation. The twenty-dollar bill reminisced about its travels all over: “I’ve had a good life,” the twenty proclaimed. “I’ve been to Las Vegas and Atlantic City, the finest restaurants in New York, performances on Broadway, even a cruise to the Caribbean.” “Wow!” said the one-dollar bill.  “You’ve had an exciting life.” “So tell me,” says the twenty, “where’ve you been?” The one-dollar bill replies, “Oh, I’ve been to the Methodist Church, the Baptist Church, the Lutheran Church, the Episcopalian Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Catholic Church …”  The twenty-dollar bill says, “What’s a church?”

            Apart from cash and checks and gifts given during your lifetime, will you give through trusts, through bequests, through your will, through gifts, that even after you’re gone, keep on giving?

        We were discussing in Finance recently the ironies of this. We had in our congregation, two cases representing the spectrum of what can happen.  (Both died without surviving relatives, so no confidences are being violated, and in any case, no names named.) Person A attended church at most two or three times, died without surviving relatives, and in their will, generously left the church several hundred thousand dollars. Person B attended for decades, and as it turned out, died surprisingly wealthy, again with no surviving relatives.  Person B gave several million dollars to institutions the connection of which is not clear, and left the church, in their will, a not unsubstantial, but modest gift, relatively speaking.  What can we say?  “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Please remember the church with your gifts, upon your passing.  Endow us with your life energy, to live after you.

We do these things, we practice all these forms of giving, because finally, giving is a discipline that goes to the heart of the spiritual life. It has such power in our lives because it is characterized by the quality of letting go, the same quality   exemplified in Jesus. Being able to let go, to give up, to renounce, to give generously, all spring from the same source within us. As we cultivate generosity, our heart stops sticking to things.  It’s as if we’ve been making a tight fist for a long time, and slowly the fist opens. We experience relief, happiness, and freedom as our grip loosens. And so we give, not only to free others, but to free ourselves.

            With that, I conclude this PoWeRSuRge series. I hope, as we’ve looked at these various disciplines, you’ve come to see how important they all are, and how, even by beginning to implement them in small steps, they can have a major affect upon our attitudes and lives.  I hope – even if its only in small steps – that you have begun to practice them. I commit myself to practice them along with you.

Each of them separately, and all of them together, have an important function. No one or two of them can fulfill what all together can accomplish.  As Christians, we all need to Pray, to Worship, to Read the Bible, to Serve, to have significant Relationships, and to Give.

The goal – I believe – is for each and every one of us to become spiritually growing, mature Christians. These disciplines are the tools whereby that happens.

        I like to think of it this way: One of the life lessons I learned on my January trip to Italy was a greater appreciation of one of the greatest artists who ever lived, Michelangelo. (1475 – 1564). Michelangelo was an artist in many ways: a sculptor, an architect, a painter, and a poet, but his greatest gift was as a sculptor.  Think of his Pieta, his David.  Having seen them “in the flesh” so to speak, you have to remind yourself that they are stone, not flesh.

        In each case, Michelangelo would start with a block of Carrara marble, which he would go to the quarry to select himself.  He once said that “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” 

        Then he would go to work with the tools at his disposal, the rough ones first, then the fine ones, until the figure within was revealed – until everything that wasn’t the figure was taken away.  At first grossly, then in fine detail, evoking texture, muscle, skin, life.

        Through the tools of these disciplines, that’s what I think God is doing with us: carving from the block of life, the distinctive person God intends each of us to be. 

        I can’t wait to see the end result!

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