February 12th 2017

The Nuts and Bolts of Giving

Have you ever been asked to do something without begin given a clear picture of what constitutes success and what constitutes failure?  You were just given a general outline and told to get on it.  On your side of the equation, the pluses or minuses of being in such a place depend on whether or not you are the kind of person who needs more specific guidelines.  Some people want little more than the nature of the task and then to be left alone to get it done however they see fit.  Others (like me) want a detailed step-by-step set of directions.  On the other side of the equation, as long as the person who made the assignment doesn’t have a specific picture of what success looks like this can work.  But I suspect that if you’ve been in this position you probably found out along the way that there was indeed a more specific vision in mind, you just didn’t know it until it was made known you later that weren’t on track with it.

I say all that because there’s a chance I left you feeling a little like you were in that kind of a place last week.  We spent almost half an hour together talking about the importance of taking up the practice of sacrificial giving into our regular life routines, but I didn’t actually tell you how to do it.  I want to fix that lack this morning.

This morning we are in the third and final part of our series, Wise Stewards.  The big idea for this whole journey has been that if we want to have the best lives we possibly can, practicing wise stewardship with all of the things we have is going to be the way it happens.  But, the thing about practicing wise stewardship is that we must first get out hearts and minds wrapped around a fundamental assumption, namely, that the things we have aren’t really ours.  Indeed, you can only practice wise stewardship of something that doesn’t belong to you.  Otherwise you are practicing wise ownership.  Thus, as we started this little journey a couple of weeks ago, we were faced with the powerful truth that it all belongs to God.  Regardless of what exactly we place in the category of “it” there, the whole lot belongs to God.  To paraphrase one of our VBS songs from last year: “He is the maker and creator of everything.”  And if He is the maker and creator of it, then He owns it, not us.  Again then, if we are going to practice wise stewardship we have to start there.  Otherwise we will at best practice wise ownership.  The problem with practicing wise ownership of our stuff is that if we are not in fact the owners, then we are living out of sync with reality.  We are like the bank robbers who have gotten away with a pile of cash and are living as if it were theirs.  Eventually, just as the law will catch up to them, the walls of reality will come crashing down on us.  That’s never pretty when it happens.

With that baseline established, we could start the actual conversation about giving which we did last week.  And while I know nobody looks forward to talking about giving, I did not expect to make anyone ill over it.  As one of the Scout leaders said afterwards, “You said, ‘We’re going to talk about giving this morning,’ and someone promptly threw up.”  In any event, what we saw last week through the story of the poor widow and her two mites is that God wants us to take up, not just the practice of giving, but of sacrificial generosity, because that will give Him the most direct access to our hearts which is the prize after which He’s really seeking.  God wants your heart, not your wallet.  The old adage may be that the way to someone’s heart is through their stomach, but God knows it’s really through our wallet because where our treasure lies is where our heart lives.  But, establishing that theological fact is as far as we got.  I told you to come back this week and we would complete the picture by getting a lot more practical which is exactly what I want to do.

Still, a laundry list of instructions is neither exciting nor memorable.  And indeed, when Paul offers us some of the most specific advice he has on the practice of sacrificial generosity in 2 Corinthians, he doesn’t just give us a laundry list of instructions.  It sits within the larger context of a story.  It was a story of which his audience, the believers in ancient Corinth, were a part.  The story doesn’t start with them in 2 Corinthians, though.  It starts several years before and several hundreds of miles away in Antioch.

Luke writes about this starting in Acts 11:27: “Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch.  And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius).  So the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea.  And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.”

Now, we know from historical records that this famine really did happen just when Luke said it did and it was bad.  The ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, writes about it and so does the more secular ancient Roman historian Suetonius in his book “Life of Claudius.”  It was particularly bad in and around Jerusalem prompting the believers in the new and dynamic church that had recently popped up in Antioch and which was led in part by a fresh-off-the-farm Saul (who would soon change his name to Paul) to do something about it.  For his part, Paul was sufficiently inspired by this initial act of generosity, that he decided to take up a collection from all the churches he planted and later visited.  He wrote about this in several of his letters.

In Romans 15:25 we see this: “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints.  For Macedonia [which is where the Philippians were] and Achaia [which is where the Corinthians were] have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.”  In 1 Corinthians 16:1 we see this: “Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do.  On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.  And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem.  If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me.”

That’s the story.  Apparently, though, the Corinthian church, which was a hot mess anyway, took a bit of extra attention to make sure they followed through on what they promised to give.  Thus, in his second letter to them, Paul dealt with the issue a bit more directly.  Ironically…or maybe it’s not ironic at all…the relatively wealthy Corinthian church was slow to take up the practice of sacrificial generosity for the sake of their suffering brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.  Paul encouraged them to get on it in 2 Corinthians 8:1 like this: “We want you to know, brothers [and sisters], about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.  For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.”  Now, this probably would have been really effective because there was a natural rivalry between the regions of the two churches.  This would be kind of like trying to get a bunch of UVA fans to do something good by pointing out that a group of Tech fans had already set the bar really high.

More important than their gift alone, though, the Macedonian believers (which would have included the churches in Philippi and Thessalonica) “gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.”  Thus Paul’s punchline in v. 7: “But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also.”  Can you hear the not-so-subtle appeal to pride there?

And then, lest they gripe something about Paul wanting to make them poor and these Jerusalem believers rich by strong-arming all this money out of them, Paul added this: “So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have.”  In other words, “You’ve talked a big talk…it’s time to put up or shut up.”  Paul doesn’t want them impoverished, though. He wants them to give sacrificially, whatever that happens to look like for them.  Look at v. 12 now: ‘For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have.  For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness.”  He wants to see needs met and nothing more.

So again, what Paul is doing is calling the Corinthian church to step up to the plate of sacrificial generosity for two reasons.  First, they said they would, he told others about their bold commitment, and he doesn’t want either of them to be embarrassed by their not following through.  Second, and more importantly, he wants them to experience the blessing that comes with such a move.

This second point comes out a bit more fully a few verses later when Paul gets a lot more specific on the hows and whys of sacrificial generosity.  His doing this brings us one step closer to the place toward which we’ve been angling for the last three weeks.  After getting more specific about his first aim, Paul lands on the second reason with both feet starting in 2 Corinthians 9:6: “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”  In other words, when it comes to sacrificial generosity, you get out of it what you put into it.  But lest I leave you thinking this is talking about some kind of a tit-for-tat financial reward system, it’s not.  While God certainly can (and sometimes does) bless us materially when we get this right, we should be more on the lookout for spiritual blessings.  The more we are willing to place our whole trust in God when it comes to our stuff, the more we will experience the peace, joy, love, hope, and meaning of His pleasure.

Continuing now in v. 7: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  This just reinforces what we said about sacrificial generosity last week: If we don’t give our hearts to God first, it’s not going to be of any benefit to us or God.  When we get it right, though, God will show Himself to be faithful: “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.  As it is written, ‘He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.’  He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.  You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.”

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  When we step out and practice the kind of sacrificial generosity we’ve been talking about, when we use God’s stuff in a way consistent with His own vision for it, He will make sure we are equipped to keep doing it.  He will enrich us in every way to be generous in every way.  This means that, again, we shouldn’t look for an immediate financial windfall when we start practicing sacrificial generosity.  If we are looking for that, then we haven’t given our hearts over to God in the matter.  We’re just in pursuit of a get-rich-quick scheme.  Those nearly always fail.  Think about being generous in every way, though.  If we are generous with our time, God will make sure we have the time to continue doing it.  If we are generous with our spiritual growth, God will help us grow deeper and richer in our faith so that we can continue to share.  If we are generous with our non-monetary stuff, God will make sure it doesn’t get used up or worn out so that we can continue sharing freely.  There are lots of ways to practice sacrificial generosity.  Giving money is but one, albeit an important one.

Paul finally lands on the big picture of what this all can accomplish when we get it right in v. 12: “For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.  By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you.”  Did you catch all that?  When we practice sacrificial generosity to see the needs of others—and in particular here other Christians—met, their needs getting met is not the only thing that comes out of it.  We give sacrificially for them, which in turn prompts them to respond with gratitude to God, which in turn draws them closer to Him, which in turn results in their praying for us, which in turn prompts God to act on our behalf, which in turn enables us to continue this life of sacrificial generosity.  The net result is that this blessing fly-wheel gets started and eventually becomes self-sustaining.  It’s no wonder Paul finishes this section with an exuberant, “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!”   Taking up this practice of sacrificial generosity will result in a cycle of blessing in our lives, in our community, in our world, that will see the rapid advancement of the kingdom of God to His great glory and our great joy.  But this only will happen when we give God our best…not the rest.  God wants your best, not the rest.

So how do we do that?  At long last and as promised, let me give you some really specific ways to go about implementing all of this, to get to the place where you are giving God your best, not the rest.  First some advice and then a challenge.  If you want to implement the practice of sacrificial generosity in your life, you need to remember three P’s.  First, priority.  If you want to practice sacrificial generosity, giving must become the priority when it comes to using your stuff and your money in particular.  When you get a paycheck, the first thing you think about doing is giving.  You write your offering check before you write any other checks.  Whether you give monthly or bimonthly or weekly, you write that check or those checks first. What this will do is begin to change the way you think from “me first” to “God first.”  The goal here is for this to become something that’s automatic to the point that you don’t even think about it anymore.  This is not to say you should give without thought, but rather that it should become as natural as breathing.  You don’t think about breathing.  In fact, barring some health issue, you breath more normally when you aren’t thinking about it than when you are.  “How can I use this stuff to bless others,” should become the very first thing that crosses our minds when we think about our stuff.  My cousin Douglas taught me this.  He once told me that he doesn’t have any stuff that’s his own, he just has stuff that God has loaned him until he can find the right owner.  As an additional benefit here, when we learn to make giving our first priority a number of other common financial stressors—like taking on unnecessary debt for instance—will cease to be problems because acquiring more stuff isn’t our first goal anymore.  Giving is.  We’ll begin to plan and budget carefully so we can give more, not so we can acquire more.  I think we can all agree that is a pretty good place to be.  When we think like this we will always give God our best, not the rest.

Okay, but how much should we give?  I mean, sure, we said last week that God doesn’t care about the amount, but at least a little bit of guidance would be helpful.  Well, this is where the second P comes into play: Percentage.  Your best bet when figuring out how much you are going to give is to work toward the point that you are a percentage giver.  You give a percentage of your income on a regular basis.  This will help make sure your giving is consistent.  But wouldn’t a set amount lead to a more consistent gift?  Yes and no.  Yes, because you’d be giving the same amount every time and that would be more consistent than a variable percentage.  But, no, in that if your income goes up or down and your amount stays the same, your sacrifice will be inconsistent.  Giving a set percentage of your income will allow your giving to be reflective of your current financial situation.  If you suddenly come into a whole bunch of money, you keep giving the percentage you have chosen.  The amount will increase, but the sacrifice will stay consistent.  Alternatively, if you hit a financial roadblock, you won’t feel driven to maintain some arbitrary amount.  Your percentage will stay the same.  Your gift will be much smaller, but your sacrifice won’t.

Things get a little trickier with the last P.  Ready for this?  Progressive.  When you pick a percentage, and make giving that percentage a priority, you’ll feel really good about it for a while.  If you set your percentage right, you’ll probably really feel the sacrifice.  But eventually, believe it or not, you won’t anymore.  In fact, eventually, it’ll get to where you don’t really even notice it.  When that happens, you have not arrived.  You don’t need to pat yourself on the back for being such a good Christian.  You need to begin progressively increasing the percentage.  The reason is this: At the point you don’t even miss the money you are giving any longer, it has ceased to be a sacrifice.  That’s just a matter of definitions.  If you don’t miss it, it’s not a sacrifice.  And, if you’re going to practice sacrificial generosity, the sacrifice part is pretty important.  So, when you get to that point, progressively bump up the percentage to the point that it is a sacrifice again.  This will help you make sure you are always giving God your best, not the rest.

So again, the three P’s are: Priority—make your giving a priority; percentage—give a percentage of your income away on a regular basis; and progressive—gradually increasing your giving over time so that it always remains in the category of sacrifice.  God wants your best, not the rest, and this will help make sure you are giving Him what He wants.

Let me leave you with a challenge and then we will celebrate the sacrificial generosity of our God together.  Here it is in three parts.  First, figure out what your income is.  I suspect that there are more folks in here than would care to admit it who do not in fact know what their exact income is.  The checks come and you cash them, but other than making sure the bills are paid, you don’t really reflect on the details.  When you get home this afternoon, fix that.  Get your mind around what your income is.  After all, that’s God’s money and He should be able to ask you how much you are getting on a regular basis and you should be able to answer Him.

Second, prayerfully consider what percentage of your income will constitute a sacrifice for you.  It could be 10%.  That’s a great place to start.  For many of you, though, 10% just doesn’t represent a sacrifice.  And if it doesn’t represent a sacrifice then you will not be practicing the kind of sacrificial generosity that is most honoring to God by giving it.  Be ruthlessly honest here because the heart is deceitful above all things and if you have been serving the god Money, he’s going to do everything he can to convince you to give away as little as possible.  Ignore him, be honest about your needs, and choose a percentage that is truly a sacrifice.  Don’t be unreasonable, be honest.  Pick a percentage and, starting next week, give it.

Finally, if you have a smart phone, pull it out, open up your calendar, and set a reminder for six months from now.  In six months I want you to reevaluate your percentage.  Is it still a sacrifice?  Be honest.  Does it still represent giving God your best and not the rest?  Has your income increased?  Has it decreased?  How has God enriched you for even more heights of generosity?  If you are going to be a wise steward, this is what it will take.  It’s not easy, but it’s worth it, because my God is able to meet all your needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus.  God wants your best, not the rest.  Give it and experience His blessing.

We give it because God has already given sacrificially to us.  You see, God doesn’t ever ask us to do anything He is not only not unwilling, but has in fact already done for us.  He calls us to practice a lifestyle of sacrificial generosity.  Well, He sacrificed His Son for our sake.  What could be a more significant sacrifice than that of your own child?  I can’t think of one.  Jesus—God the Son—made Himself this sacrifice on our behalf so that we can enjoy the life that is truly life.  His practice of sacrificial generosity bought us life.  When we too take up the practice of sacrificial generosity, we are continuing that gift of life to those around us.  Remember the sacrificial gift of our God is why we come to the table of the Lord ‘s Supper on a regular basis.  What we do here serves to re-center us on what’s most important: the life we have in Christ.  And why do we have that life?  Because of His body, broken to pay the price for our sins, which we remember in the symbol of the bread.  Because of His blood, spilled to the last drop to sign and seal a new covenant of life with the Father on our behalf, which we remember in the symbol of the juice.  A sacrifice more generous than any that has ever been made before.  A sacrifice that established the pattern which we are called to follow if we are indeed His followers.  And so as we transition to the Table this morning I want you to do something for me.  First, I want you to offer a prayer of thanksgiving to God for demonstrating the pattern of sacrificial generosity we are trying to follow together.  Thank Him for not holding back His Son, but giving Him up for us all as a demonstration of just how big is His love for us and just how far He’s willing to go to see us freed from our sins and living the abundant life His kingdom offers.  Second, ask for His helping in following His pattern.  Ask Him to give you the wisdom to think about your stuff rightly and the courage to live in light of that.  And then I want you to say this to Him—and close your eyes here and make it a moment just between the two of you—say, “Father, I want to live a life of sacrificial generosity.  I commit here and now to take up this practice so that I can give you my best and not the rest.”  As you take this time with your Heavenly Father, the deacons are going to serve you, first the bread and then the juice.  When you have prayed this prayer, take and eat as you are prepared.  Don’t worry about the folks around you, let this be a moment between you and God.  Deacons, if you will come on forward, I will pray and we will come to the Table together.