Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 14, 2010

2010.11.14 Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity: Sermon 5: “Defined By Generosity”

Central United Methodist Church

Enough: Discovering Joy

Through Simplicity and Generosity

Sermon 5: “Defined By Generosity”

Pastor David L. Haley

November 14th, 2010

Tell those rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money, which is here today and gone tomorrow. Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage — to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life.” 1 Timothy 6: 17 – 19

When I meet with families to plan a funeral or memorial service for a loved one, even if I knew the person well, there is usually much I don’t know.  So I ask, “Tell me about your loved one. What were his/her defining characteristics?” “What would they want to be remembered for?”

Someday, someone will sit with our family and ask such questions. What will the answers be? What do we want to remembered for?

One of the defining characteristics I hope you and I will want to be remembered for is generosity. I hope people will say of us, “He was defined by generosity” or “She lived what Jesus taught: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive'” (Acts 20:35). My hope is that we can learn the truth of Winston Churchill’s famous words: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

When God created us, I believe God designed us to be generous. Yet, like Adam and Eve in the garden, we keep hearing voices that whisper against our God-given impulse toward generosity, tempting us to keep or hoard what we have.  

The first voice is that of fear. Fear says, “If you give, there won’t be enough for you! What if we don’t have enough to fill the gas tank or buy groceries or pay the bills?”  Fear, along with a misplaced idea about the true source of our security, keeps us from being generous and leads us to hoard what we have, like Scrooge McDuck sitting on his huge pile of money.

The second voice is that of self-gratification, which says, ”But if I give, I won‘t have enough money to buy the stuff I need to make me happy.”  We do the math and realize that 10 per cent of our income could buy a new car or a bigger house or whatever else we’ve convinced that we need to make us happy.

So, how do we defeat these voices of fear and self-gratification? In a sense, they are defeated the moment we give ourselves to Jesus Christ. Because when we do this, we invite him – not ourselves – to be Lord. As God’s Spirit begins to change us from the inside out, we find our fears begin to dissipate and our aim in life shifting from personal pleasure to pleasing God and caring for others. Although we still may wrestle with the voices, we are able to silence them more readily and effectively the more we grow in Christ. And the more we grow in Christ, the more generous we become, because generosity is a fruit of spiritual growth. That’s right: our giving – to God and others – is a measure of our spiritual growth, because giving requires that we trust God to supply our needs.

As the Spirit continues to work in our lives, we think less about ourselves and more about others, such that we begin to say, “If I dont do this, who will?”  Soon we discover we find more joy in doing things for God and others than we ever did in doing things for ourselves. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

These spiritual realizations bring us to a central theological foundation for generosity: “Life is a gift, and everything belongs to God.” You didn’t bring any of it with you when you came into the world, and you won’t take any of it with you when you leave this world. John Ortberg has a book entitled, When the Game Is Over; It All Goes Back in the Box.  Ortberg says that at the end of our lives, everything goes back in the box; a box about six-and-a-half-feet long by two-feet wide, to be exact. If we’re not taking it with us, what does it mean to own things? Come to think of it, in this sense, we don’t own anything. God owns it all; we just use it for a little while.

In the Book of Genesis, God created Adam and Eve, put them in the midst of the garden, and said, “Be fruitful and multiply and manage this planet. It’s mine, and I’m asking you to take care of it on my behalf” (Genesis 1:28, my paraphrase). So our job is to be managers of God’s resources, both the natural resources of our planet and the things we have in life.

Obviously, many of our resources go to take care of our needs. Certainly God expects us to have shelter and to eat and to take care of our children. However, God expects us to do more than focus only on ourselves. So the Scriptures teach us to and return a portion of our resources to God, and to help the poor and needy.

From the early days of the Old Testament, God’s people observed the practice of giving a portion of the best of what they had to God, which was a way of saying, “God, I give this to you, it’s yours.” Initially, this was by burnt offering, but in later times, people would bring their offerings to the priests and offer them to God for the work of the temple and the priesthood. Such a gift was called 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 Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, whose name also was Israel, made a covenant with God that included giving one-tenth of all he had to God. He said:

“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, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.” (Genesis 28:20-22)

In time, the tithe was codified in the law. Whether it was the produce of the ground or the offspring of the flocks, the first tenth was holy to the Lord.

As Christians who live under the new covenant, we’re not bound by the law of Moses. So what does God expect of us today? Most Christians agree that the tithe is still a good guideline for our lives, and one still pleasing to God. We give our tithes to the church to accomplish the work of God’s kingdom through the body of Christ, and the church is responsible for praying and discerning how God wants these resources to be used.

However, even when we believe this, tithing can still be challenging. It can be a stretch, especially when we’re wrestling with those voices of fear and self-gratification.

David Slagle, pastor of Veritas Church in Decatur, Georgia, uses apples to illustrate this struggle. He invites us to imagine God has given us ten apples, which represent our wealth or income. God tells us that nine of these apples are ours to enjoy. We’re to use some to care for ourselves and for our families, some to save for retirement, and some to give away to others. But the tenth apple is holy to God. Giving this apple to God first, before we consume the other nine apples, is a way for us to express praise, love, obedience, faithfulness, worship, and devotion to God. This also supplies the resources for God’s purposes to be accomplished in the world through God’s church.

Slagle then notes that our lifestyles are such that, for many of us, nine apples are not enough anymore. We think, “How can I pay the bills and have all the stuff I want with just nine apples?” So we decide the Lord will not mind if we take just a little bite of God’s apple. After all, there’s that trip we want to take, and it’s really important. “The Lord will understand,” we think. Then Christmas comes and we don’t have enough money for all the presents we want to buy, so we take another bite out of God’s apple. One day a medical emergency catches us by surprise. Because we didn’t set aside money in an emergency fund, we must take another bite from God’s apple. Buying a new car, eating out, spending on this or that; each expense takes a bite out of the apple that belongs to God. Soon all that’s left is the core. So we give the core to God and say, “Here’s your portion, Lord.” And so God receives not our first fruits or our best gifts, but our leftovers.

On the other hand, a strange thing happens when we give the first apple to God. We’re not tempted to eat it, because it’s not there! With God’s help, we somehow find a way to make the other nine apples meet our needs.

I realize this is challenging. It might not be possible for you to begin giving 10 percent to God right away. But I encourage you to take a step in that direction. Perhaps you can give 2 percent or 5 percent or 7 percent. God understands where you are, and God is also ready to help you make the changes in your lifestyle that will enable you to tithe, the kinds of things we’ve been talking about over the last four weeks.

There are different opinions regarding whether the tithe should be calculated on gross or net income. Most agree that the tithe should be based on net income. We subtract Social Security because we will pay tithes on these monies when we receive them. We subtract taxes because we do not actually see this money and because this is the cost of being a citizen and an American.

Contrary to popular belief, tithing is possible at any income level, whether you make only a little or a lot.  In fact, some may say it is easier when you have little, rather than a lot. If we’re fortunate, and our income grows through the years, it’s easy to look at our tithe and think, “That‘s a lot of money; does God really mean 10 percent of that?”

 

 The famous preacher Peter Marshall, who served as chaplain of the United States Senate from 1947 to 1949, once told a story about a man who struggled to tithe even though he had a large income. The man said to Marshall, “I have a problem. I used to tithe regularly, but now I’m earning $500,000 a year, and there is just no way I can afford to give $50,000.” Marshall said, “I see your problem. Let’s pray about it.” The man agreed. So Marshall bowed his head and prayed with boldness and authority, “Heavenly Father, I pray that you would reduce this man’s salary back to the place where he can afford to tithe.”

The truth is, regardless of our income level, each of us struggles with the same question: How many apples are enough? As nine apples grow to twenty apples, to forty apples, and more, we basically have two choices: Store them in storehouses, or share them with others.

That’s why some reach the point where tithing is not a ceiling, but a floor. I know Michele and I have found that as our income has grown, we give beyond the tithe, to things important to us. Over the years, we have given to church building funds, mission projects, arts and veterans organizations, and sponsor children in other countries. I have to say, the more we do it, the greater a joy it is to us.

Perhaps the most amazing thing of all is that, over time, we discover that our generosity not only pleases God and helps others, it changes us. When we are not generous, we become like a clenched fist. As we hold on tightly, after a while, it becomes uncomfortable and painful. Over time we become self-absorbed, money-consumed, joyless people (maybe even Finance Committee Chairs or Methodist preachers.) But when we relax and learn to give, becoming generous – to God, to family, to friends, neighbors, and others in need – we are filled with joy, enlarged by the very act of giving. That’s how generosity works: the more we give, the more generous we become.  Generosity is like a muscle that grows with use.

Finally, when we are generous with what we have, we find that unexpected blessings flow back into our lives, catching us by surprise. Somewhere along the way, as we see our acts of generosity helping others and perhaps even changing the world, we say in wonder and amazement, “Wow, look what happened,” and we find ourselves blessed. As our generosity blesses others, they are changed, too.

Jeff Hanson is a seventeen-year-old visually impaired artist and philanthropist from Overland Park, KS. He is visually impaired as the result of an optic nerve tumor caused by a genetic condition called neurofibromatosis. Thanks to chemotherapy and other treatments, he is doing well.  Jeff is a gifted young man. He bakes and paints, sells his creations, and donates the money to charities, such as the Children’s Tumor Foundation. (www.jeffreyowenhanson.com/). So far he has given over $180,000 in charitable donations.

Back in the fall of 2005, when he was 12 years old, and receiving chemotherapy, Jeff was granted a wish by the Make a Wish Foundation. That wish was to meet Elton John. When Elton announced that he was coming to town for a concert, Make a Wish contacted Jeff to say that he would get to meet Elton backstage before the concert.

The day arrived, and Elton met Jeff backstage before the show. Elton was gracious and generous with his time. Jeff told Elton his story and gave him a package of note cards with his paintings on the fronts. Then, before saying good-bye, Jeff reached in his pocket and pulled out a check for $1,000 for the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Jeff Hanson, twelve years old at the time, gave a thousand dollar check to Elton John. My guess is that Elton was virtually speechless. Elton had wanted to bless Jeff, but now he was the one who was being blessed. So he asked the photographer to capture the moment with a picture. A week later the Children’s Tumor Foundation called Jeff to tell him they had just received a $5,000 check in the mail from Elton John in honor of Jeff.

But there’s more to the story. Before Elton and Jeff’s visit was over, Elton asked Jeff if he had ever been to Dubai. When Jeff said no, Elton invited to fly Jeff and his parents to Dubai for an all-expenses-paid stay while he was in concert there. He explained that he wanted to hear more about Jeff’s work.

Even though young, Jeff Hanson understands what life is really about. Though he could feel sorry for himself, he has chosen to focus his attention on helping others. In the process, others have been changed. Other people have become more generous. Jeff’s generosity has returned to be a blessing to him.

 This is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “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” (Luke 6:38).  That, not just hoarding for ourselves, is the point of managing our resources well, that we might live in simplicity and generosity.

Which brings us back to that old Shaker hymn:

“’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come out right.“

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

This series, “Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity,” was developed by the Rev. Adam Hamilton and the staff of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, and then made available to the larger church through Cokesbury. As such, these sermons are my versions of Adam Hamilton’s original sermons, for my congregation.

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