Monday, October 27, 2014

Five Practices: Extravagant Generosity

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 2 Corinthians 9:1-15:

In preparation for this week, I actually ended up writing 3 different messages.  The first is lasts 5 minutes and it costs $5000.  The second lasts 25 minutes and it costs $2500, and the third costs $1000 and it lasts an hour.  Now we’re going to take up a collection and see which one I deliver.

Today we conclude our series on the five practices of fruitful living, based on a book of the same name by Bishop Robert Schnase.  We have looked at passionate worship, radical hospitality, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and service, and today we conclude with extravagant generosity.  For the past three weeks we have also been answering a series of question about the church.  The first week, the question was what we loved about our church, and one of my favorite answers was from someone who said they loved my sermons, except when I talked about money.

That means today is going to be a day that they aren’t going to enjoy, but I know they aren’t the only ones because lots of people don’t like it when I, or any minister, begins talking about money, first because they want to hold onto their wallets a little tighter, and second because they don’t want to be made to feel guilty or uncomfortable about their finances.  But the simple fact is I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t talk about money, because Jesus talks more about money, and things that come out of it like greed and envy and covetousness, than he talks about just about anything else.  And here is also the simple truth, we don’t have to give.

We don’t have to give one single solitary penny, but instead we get to give and for us, as Christians, giving is more important than is the church’s need to receive.  Our giving and what we give is more important than our budget.  We don’t have to give, we get to give, we get to make the conscious and deliberate decision about giving, but what we decide about that makes all the difference in the world.  Jesus says that we will be known by our fruit, and one of the fruits of the spirit is generosity.

What does it mean to be generous? Those are all important, but what we keep talking about is that it is the adjective that comes before that really makes all the difference, so what does it mean to be extravagant?  (Going above and beyond, being outside the box, giving much more than expected.)

That is what Paul is talking about to the community in Corinth, about their bountiful gift that he is collecting for the community in Jerusalem.  And Paul asks that it be given, not from compulsion or extortion but instead will be given freely, from a decision that they have made about what they are going to give, but notice that Paul does say that that we should not give reluctantly, that is, as I interpret it, that we should be giving, but why we should give is really the crux of Paul’s argument, and also of what we see elsewhere in scripture.

You should have been given a penny when you came into worship this morning.  What I’d like you to do is to hold that penny in your palm, and then close your hand around it.  Now I want you to try and give that penny to someone else, but you can’t open your palm.  Anyone able to give it away?  Now, open your palm and try and do the same thing.  Much more successful right?  And in addition, you were also able to receive what others were trying to give to you.  We’ve covered this quite a lot, but when we walk around with a clenched fist, holding onto what we have for fear of losing it, not only can we not give anything away, but we also cannot receive anything.  Giving and receiving go together.  That’s why Paul says that “the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”  Or another way we often say it is that we reap what we sow, so if we want to receive in abundance we need to give in abundance.  Although that’s not really correct.

Although it does seem, and I’ve certainly seen it a lot, that people who give also receive, and I think it’s true for the reason we just stipulated, that is not the reason why we give.  If you are giving because of what you hope to receive in return, then you are not giving with the right attitude or with the right intentions.  Instead we give not because of what we might receive in return, but instead we give because of what we have already received or because of what we open ourselves up to when we begin to give, and that is God.  We give because of what God has already given to us, and we give because we are made in the image of God and God is a giver.  In John 3:16 we are told that God so loved the world that God did what?  God gave, and not just some token amount.  No, God gave his only son that whoever believes in him shall not die but have eternal life.  That is why we give, and Paul says that God loves a cheerful giver, not one who gives reluctantly or because they have to, but because they give freely and generously and without restraint.  But this is a special form of cheerfulness, because the Greek word translated as cheerful is helios, from which we get words like hilarious.  Do we give hilariously?

I’m sure that most of us are not laughing uproariously as we put our offering in the plate, and we might call for some help for you if you did.  But I think we could say that when we begin to trust in God and start tithing or moving towards a tithe, then we might start laughing, more nervously than anything else, but that is where we should be moving as individuals and as a church.  If you have been receiving the stewardship letters, and more importantly reading them, then you know that we are a church will be tithing our income to the general church starting next year.  It’s taken us two years to get to making that a possibility, but if we are going to ask you to do that then I believe that we as a church have to be doing the same, and that also includes me.  Some of you know our story that Linda and I pledged early in our marriage to become tithers and we finally reached that goal in our last year in Massachusetts, but then we moved to New Mexico and took a $25,000 pay cut, without our debt lowering, and so we had to drop our giving again, and we are working on getting back to that level.  Last year our estimate of giving was $3,000, although we will give more than that, and this year our estimate will be for $5,200.  Here is how we came up with that number.  We had made a pledge to the raise the roof campaign, and so that amount along with our regular giving was $175 every two weeks, and so we were going to make that our minimum, but then we decided that an extra $25 wasn’t really all that much.  That total represents 8% of our adjusted gross income, it’s 10% of Linda’s gross income, but only 4% of our gross income.

I say all that because people will often ask what they are supposed to tithe off of, and the truth is do it off of what you feel comfortable.  Start with your net and move up from there if you want.  This is not a salvation issue, because the price for our salvation has already been paid, we are saved by faith alone, not by what we give.  As the dean of the national cathedral says, “the water is salvation is free, but it does cost for the plumbing.”  But giving is a spiritual issue because our giving indicates where our loyalties lie, whether we are willing to give to God’s work in the world and trust that God is going to provide for us.  And so the other question people ask me is whether I truly think they can give 10% of what they make, but that’s the wrong question, really the question is why can you not afford to live on 90% of your income.

But ultimately it’s not about the money, it’s about what’s in our hearts.  Even extravagant generosity is not about the amount of money.  If Bill Gates gives us a million dollars, he would be by far our largest contributor by dollars, but when you’re worth 81 billion, that’s not extravagant generosity.  Now not to dissuade anyone here, if you want to donate a million I will tell you where we bank so you can make the deposit.  But Jesus is sitting in the temple watching people put their offerings into the box, some very large donations included, but then a widow comes and puts in two mites, which are the smallest coins in value available, and Jesus says that he gift is the most generous, why?  Because the others gave out of their abundance, but she has given all she had.  She is filled with the joy of abundance, rather than living in the fear of scarcity.  Martin Luther said that every Christian needs to experience three different conversions: a conversion of the heart, a conversion of the mind and a conversion of the wallet.  Giving is a spiritual exercise.  Have you ever met someone who you would, and others would, consider spiritually mature who didn’t also give generously in all aspects of their lives?

When we are generous in any aspect of our lives we give of ourselves and offer the best of what we have to others, and we often do that extravagantly, and we also do it to the things that we are passionate about.  That is we might give reluctantly to some group because we feel we have to, but we normally give, generously, cheerfully, intentionally, to those groups that we are passionate about.  If New Mexico State were to ask me for money, it wouldn’t have a very good chance of success because I have no relationship with them, but as a UNM alum, they have a much better chance of receiving a gift, because I have a connection.

I certainly hope that you are passionate about your faith, and will give appropriately to continue God’s work in the world, because we don’t give to the church, we give through the church to proclaim the kingdom of God, and God has a specific request for all of us.  And so to help illustrate that, I’m going to ask everyone to get up and you need to go to the end of the aisle and make sure you have enough room to move around a little bit… (then we did the Hokey Pokey, because putting our whole selves in is what it is all about)

Bishop Susan Hassinger tells the story of going to Africa and during the offertory, the minister talked about giving our best to God, and so as the plates made their way around, it stopped at one lady and she held it for a while and then she put it onto the floor and stepped into it.  That is her offering was herself, all that she had and all that she was and all that she owned she was turning over to God and trusting that God would provide.  It turns out that putting our whole selves in is what it’s all about. I pray that it will be the same with us as we prepare to offer our estimates of giving for the coming year.

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