Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 13, 2011

2011.11.13 The Fifth Practice of Fruitful Living: Extravagant Generosity

Central United Methodist Church
The Fifth Practice of Fruitful Living:
Extravagant Generosity
Pastor David L. Haley
November 13th, 2011

“But since you excel in everything — in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you — see that you also excel in this grace of giving.” – (2 Corinthians 8:7, New International Version)

“This most generous God who gives seed to the farmer that becomes bread for your meals is more than extravagant with you. He gives you something you can then give away, which grows into full-formed lives, robust in God, wealthy in every way, so that you can be generous in every way . . . “ 2 Corinthians 9:11, The Message

[Note: As stated, this five sermon series is based upon Bishop Robert Schnase’s books, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations (2007), and Five Practices of Fruitful Living (2010). This is therefore my summation of Bishop Schnase’s Five Practices, a combination of Bishop Schnase’s material and my own. For a more full version, see Bishop Schase’s books. You can also learn more at Bishop’s Schnase’s Five Practices site http://fivepractices.org/, or at the Cokesbury site http://www.fivepractices.cokesbury.com/ – Pastor Haley]

A week after the famous CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, died (St. Steve, as we Apple fans call him), Rolling Stone magazine ran a tribute that included an essay from Chrisann Brennan, his first girlfriend and the mother of his daughter, Lisa. Brennan tells this story:

“We had very little money and no foreseeable prospects. One evening after we had splurged on dinner and a movie, we walked back to our car to discover a $25 parking ticket. I just turned inside out with despair, but Steve did not seem to care. He had a deep well of patience when they came to discouragements. We drove to the ocean near Crissy Field in San Francisco and walked out onto the beach to see the sunset, where I begin talking about money worries. He gave me a long, exasperated look, reached into his pockets and took the last few coins and dollars we had and threw them into the ocean. All of them.” (Rolling Stone, The Steve Jobs Nobody Knew, October 12, 2011)

Not bad for a college dropout whose annual salary as CEO of Apple was $1 a year, which he once quipped was based on attending one meeting for $.50, while the other $.50 was based on his performance. Not bad for a man who Forbes magazine estimated in 2010 was worth $8.3 billion, making him the 42nd wealthiest American. Not bad for a CEO in a society whose greed for the Almighty Dollar has almost brought us to ruin on more than one occasion, most recently 2008. And of course, it’s not over yet.

But it is not Steve Jobs’ attitude toward money that is the topic of my sermon today, but our own, as we come to the Fifth Practice of Fruitful Living, Extravagant Generosity. And what I have to recommend is not that we do with our money what Steve Jobs did, which was to throw it in the ocean (at least the small change), but to see it as the means through which God can do extraordinary things. Through our extravagant generosity, God can change lives and transform us.

What I’m proposing is that we look at our giving in a new way. Because really, Extravagant Generosity is not just a practice, it is an attitude. Extravagant Generosity is not about our money; it’s about our hearts. And, Extravagant Generosity is not just about supporting the church; it’s about doing the kingdom-building work of Jesus. Money may be a part of it, but Extravagant Generosity involves much more than money.

In many ways, the fifth practice of Extravagant Generosity is the practice that underwrites and makes possible the other four practices: radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, and risk-taking mission and service. As Bishop Schnase points out:

“Every sanctuary and chapel in which we worshiped, every church organ or piano that has lifted our spirits, every pew where we have sat, every communion rail where we have knelt, every hymnal from which we have sung, every choir that has touched our hearts, every church classroom were we’ve gathered with our friends, every church kitchen that is prepared our meals — all are the fruit of someone else’s extravagant generosity. We are the heirs, the beneficiaries of those who came before us, who were touched by the generosity of Christ enough to give graciously, so that we could experience the truth of Christ for ourselves. We owe the same to generations to come. We worship in sanctuaries we did not build, and so to us falls the privilege of building the church for those yet to come.” (Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, page 116)

As with the other four practices of fruitful congregations and fruitful living, in many ways we have sold ourselves short. Just as we have often settled for friendliness rather than hospitality, mediocre rather than passionate worship, occasional learning rather than intentional faith development, and funding the work of others rather than engaging in risk-taking mission and service ourselves, so in the church we have too often settled for fund-raising rather than Extravagant Generosity.
In the past, our discussion of giving has too often been like this: “the boiler is broken, our apportionments are due, can you kick in?” Too often our motive has been guilt rather than joy: ”Which staff member do you want us to lay off?” Too often our plea has been, “Here’s what we need,” rather than “What do you need to give?” Too often in the church we have tended to practice tipping, rather than tithing, offering back to God a percentage of our income. So instead of $5000, a percent of our income, whether 1% or 5% or 10%, we have settled for $500 chipped into the building fund, while the real work of the church – Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, and Intentional Faith Development – has suffered. No wonder the church always has money problems.

On the contrary, for hundreds of generations, the Biblical practice of tithing has sustained growth and personal generosity. To tithe means to give a 10th, and is simple, concise, and consistent. Write down your income for the month, move the decimal point over one place, and write a check to the church for the amount you see.

Jesus commanded it. The early church practiced it, as have Christians in every generation since. John Wesley tithed and expected early Methodists to give regularly and generously at every class meeting and chapel service. Their gifts were even meticulously recorded so that people could hold themselves accountable to the practice of giving.

Do you realize that 150 years ago, if our great-grandparents were active people of faith, they tithed? Why did they find it possible to type back then we have trouble tithing today? Was it because they were so much wealthier than us? Of course not, the opposite is true. We have trouble tithing today because we live in more affluent times and we have allowed our affluence to shape our finances more than our faith.

Of course if you are new to the faith, the prospect of giving 10% seems overwhelming. One man said the first time he wrote a tithe check, he felt like he swallowed an avocado pit! For most people tithing is not easy, after all, we have bills to pay and a car and a house payment and kids to send to college and retirement to save for. So yes, it takes time to grow into it. Start small, give a proportionate percentage of income such as 1% or 2%, and attempt increasing the percentage by 1% a year. With practice it will become easier, more natural, and will change your life.

On the other hand, those of us who been active in the church for 20, 30, or 40 years, who have attended worship faithfully, studied Scripture in countless classes, been sustained by the fellowship of the church, and served in countless ways, but do not tithe, why not? Why is this? Why are the other practices of faith relevant and helpful, but the practice of tithing is not?

Practice the tithe. Do it first thing when you’re paid, and you will discover that the practice dials down your appetites, reshapes your priorities, and that all your other expenses, needs, and savings will be reenergized.

For example, let’s consider Terri and Charles. Terri and Charles have high income, professional careers, and attend a United Methodist Church. One year, before their pastor preached on giving, they scheduled an appointment to come and talk.

Terri began to describe to the pastor what had brought them there, what had happened the year before when he had preached on giving. In that sermon, the pastor had said, ”Giving is not merely about the church’s need for money, but about Christians need to give.’’

Afterward, said Terry, she and Charles had a long and difficult conversation about the sermon. She poured out her heart about her unhappiness with the way they were living, and Charles agreed. ”We couldn’t breathe,” she said. ”We were living a lie. We had a big beautiful house, two cars, a boat, and everyone thought we were so happy. But underneath we were stressed out, arguing all the time about money, in debt over our heads, and we felt miserable. We were strangling.”

“Even though we had a good income,” said Terri, “we lived in constant fear. We were afraid of what others would think if we downsized our house or traded in our cars or the things everyone else was doing. We were afraid of the bills, the debts, the banks. We were scared of what would happen if one of us became sick. We were afraid of the shame of bankruptcy. We were afraid our teenagers would find out how precarious our situation was. And we didn’t talk about it for fear or marriage couldn’t withstand the stress.” Terri was now wiping tears from her eyes. After last year’s sermon, they had talked honestly about all of this for the first time, and Terri had courageously asked Charles, ”What kind of life does God really wants to have? Not this kind!”

Thus began the journey that had brought them to talk with their pastor. They finally faced what they had avoiding. With prayer and courage, they filled out last year’s card giving 1% of their expected income. When they offered it up to God, they sealed it with a commitment to start fresh in all things related to money. They read books, took a course, and consulted a professional. They spoke with their children and included them in a plan to turn their lives around. Some decisions were major — to move into a more modest neighborhood, and to sell a high- payment car in order to buy a used one. They cancelled credit cards. Like a team on a mission, the family dialed back expenses. They ate at home, repaired things themselves, and planned a modest vacation. They spent more time talking together as a family. They adopted a plan and adapted their lifestyle to live comfortably while paying off debt, saving money, and giving more. Charles said, “A year ago, we never imagined we would feel the peace we feel today. It seemed totally beyond reach.”

After sharing the story, Charles pulled from his pocket their pledge card for the upcoming consecration Sunday, handed it to the pastor, and said, “Pastor, it’s not huge, but it represents 2% of our income for this next year. Our whole family is committed to watching that number grow year by year. All of us have signed a card, and when we offer it we will renew our commitment to God and to each other as a family. Giving has become a gift to us.” (Five Practices of Fruitful Living, page 115- 116)

What Terri and Charles discovered has been repeated in the lives of countless followers of Christ, whether first century Christians, the early Methodists, our great-grandparents, or generous givers today.

And the stories come from Christians from all walks of life: janitors and teachers, factory workers and small business owners, maids and executives, lawyers and farmers, wage earners and retired folks, doctors and housewives–some with income so small that it’s difficult to imagine how they managed to give anything at all, and others with resources so large that their local church can’t absorb all their generosity.

All of these have discovered a truth as sure as gravity, that generosity enlarges the soul, realigns priorities, connects people to the Body of Christ, and strengthens congregations to fulfill Christ’s ministries of Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, and Risk-taking Mission and Service. As you practice Extravagant Generosity, soon you will begin to look at your giving in a different way.

Charles Frazier, in his novel of the American Civil War, Cold Mountain, introduces as a minor character, a fiddler whose life is changed through incident that causes him to look at his musical talents at a whole new way.

The fiddler is a drunk, who plays for drink, and only knows six songs. His military unit camps near a house where there’s a powerful explosion. A girl is burned in the explosion is and is near death, and her father sends for a fiddler to help ease her way to heaven. The fiddler doesn’t know what to do; he’s afraid, and enters the dark cabin where the young girl suffers in excruciating pain. From her deathbed, she says, “Play me something.’ He plays a tune. “Play me another.” The fiddler plays a drinking tune slowly, thinking it more appropriate to the circumstances. Soon he has exhausted his small repertoire. “Play me another,” she says, as she struggles against the pain. “Don’t know no more,” he says. “That’s pitiful,” she says, “what kind of a fiddler are you? Make me up a tune then. He marvels at such a strange request. It had never entered his mind to try such a thing. But he has a go at it. Soon the girl passes away. Her father thanks the fiddler for lifting her to heaven with his fiddle.

A change takes place, and the author writes, “Time and time again during the walk back to camp he stopped and looked at his fiddle as if for the very first time. He had never before thought of trying to improve his playing, but now it seem worthwhile to go at every tune. Thereafter, he never tired of trying to improve his playing, and he visits taverns of every kind to study the sounds and methods of other musicians. He learned more than 900 tunes, and composed many himself. ”From that day … on, music came more and more into his mind…. His playing was as easy as a man drawing breath, yet with utter conviction in it’s centrality to a life worth claiming. (Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain, (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997); pp. 231–234)

So we discover when we practice Extravagant Generosity. Before, our giving may be arbitrary, perfunctory, haphazard, a little here and a little there. But when we discover the great difference generosity makes, place it in service to God, and use our resources to relieve suffering, strengthen communities, and restore relationships, we began to look at giving differently. We look at our giving, and see it as and for the very first time. We discover something as ordinary as giving lifts souls to heaven and change lives for the purposes of Christ. We want to improve on our generosity at every turn until it becomes as easy as drawing breath. Through our generosity, God can do extraordinary things. Through our giving, God changes lives, and in changing them, transforms us.

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