October 11, 2009

Give It Away

In the nineteen-teens and –twenties the secretary of the treasury was a man named Andrew Mellon. Mellon had made a fortune in business, specifically the steel business. He was a billionaire in a day when few people could even conceive of a billion dollars. Yet business was not Mellon‘s passion. His passion was art. He was no artist himself but his wealth allowed him to collect some of the greatest works of art in the world. He gave some effort to his collecting while he was serving as secretary of the treasury, but he could not then give it his full attention. It was not until the 1930s when a new party came to power and the nation entered a period of economic struggle like none seen in its history that he was able to more freely pursue this passion. His purchase of these fabulous and fabulously expensive works of art drew much ire in a day when wealthy men bore the brunt of the anger and frustration of the country. Yet in spite of this resistance he kept on collecting because he had a plan. He planned all the while to make a gift of his art back to the country whose economic system allowed him to make the money that afforded him the opportunity to enjoy such a collection. And give he did. From the perspective of culture and the arts, Mellon gave one of the greatest gifts ever given to this country. His art collection became the National Gallery of Art and with the addition of other works of art from collectors inspired by Mellon‘s generosity has become one of the finest collections of Western art and sculpture in the world. All this because of one man‘s generous gift.

Today, we face an economy teetering on the brink of a 1930s-like depression. In the minds of some it would seem silly to take up the topic of giving at a time like this. Yet broach such a discussion we must because developing a giving spirit and a generous heart are vital for becoming the people God created us to be. And so this morning I want to talk to you about the spiritual discipline of giving. In this discipline we look for ways that we can do without excesses in our lives so that those with needs can see them met and in so doing proclaim the faith that our God can provide for all our needs regardless of what we have to start with. Now, when we think of giving today, we generally think first of money, which makes sense considering that when we are faced with a request to give to one cause or another, the gift needed is usually money. And so we are going to talk about giving money this morning. In fact, the passage we are going to draw from is a call from Paul to the church in Corinth to prepare their monetary gift for the believers in Judea. But giving goes way beyond our money. In fact, sometimes giving money is a way to get out of giving in ways that will make a true difference in someone‘s situation. And so we‘ll talk about other ways to give this morning as well. Before we get there, though, we need to understand what drives our giving and how we are most benefited by incorporating the practice of giving into our lives. Whenever we encounter someone truly generous in this world, their giving is propelled by something bigger than them. Giving is an inherently selfless act and gifts given for purely selfish reasons never have the impact of a selfless gift on either the recipient or the giver. Well, people will find all sorts of causes that inspire them to give, but as believers, I can say with certainty that we have the biggest and best: We give because God first gave to us. We give because God has given us life, we recognize that everything is rightfully His, and there is no better way to say thank you than this. When we develop this mindset we will find ourselves freed from the tyranny of our possessions and able to enjoy them for all they are worth. So come with me on a journey this morning as we seek to understand how to best incorporate this discipline in our lives such that this piece of our identity is firmly in place. Let us meditate together on the fact that we give because God first gave to us.

Guiding us on our journey will be the words Paul wrote to the Corinthian church to prepare them for his eventual visit at which time he would gather the offering they promised to send to the believers in Judea who were struggling to make it. You‘ll find these words in 2 Corinthians 9. Turn there with me if you would. You see, the Judean countryside was not nearly as economically prosperous as many of the cities Paul was visiting on his third missionary journey. Moreover, in the 40s the area was hit with a severe famine from which many of the people were still reeling. Well, there are few causes more worthy for believers to support than fellow believers who are experiencing sincere need and so Paul was urging the Gentile churches he had planted to give generously to the primarily Jewish Christian churches in the Judean area. Word had already gone out to these churches that a collection was being taken up and many had already pledged to give to the cause. In fact, to encourage the Corinthian church, a few verses before our passage picks up Paul talks glowingly about how the Macedonian church had given an incredible gift in spite of the financial hardships they were facing themselves. He also talked about some reasons for giving generously as well as the great care being taken to be good stewards of the offering. All this was aimed at buttering the Corinthian church up, so to speak, so that when he turned and addressed them in our present passage, they would be ready to listen. As a side note, how often have we heard calls to give structured like this and resented them? I confess that were I in the Corinthian church I would perhaps be tempted to respond cynically and balk at being .guilted. into giving. Yet these words are in Scripture and so perhaps this reaction reveals more about my own character than Paul‘s motives. Have you been there? As it stands, we can see here that the Corinthian believers had already made a pledge to the offering and Paul is simply calling them to honor their commitment. Listen to his words in vv. 1-5: .Now concerning the ministry to the saints, it is unnecessary for me to write to you. For I know your eagerness, and I brag about you to the Macedonians [about whom he has just bragged to them]: =Achaia has been prepared since last year,‘ and your zeal has stirred up most of them. But I sent the brothers so our boasting about you in the matter would not prove empty, and so you would be prepared just as I said. For if any Macedonians should come with me and find you unprepared, we, not to mention you, would be embarrassed in that situation. Therefore I considered it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance the generous gift you promised, so that it will be ready as a gift and not an extortion.. So we see that Paul‘s motives here are clean. The believers in Corinth had promised a generous gift to the Judean offering and Paul had used their generosity to encourage generosity in other believers. Now he is looking to make sure that neither he nor they are embarrassed by their not following through on their commitment. He is also trying to put them in a place of giving with pure motives rather than giving out of guilt, for such gifts profit the giver nothing. Such giving is purely selfish. The proper pattern is that our giving is done as a gracious response to all we‘ve been given. We give because God first gave to us.

Well, with the context for this passage well established, let‘s dig in a bit to the body of what Paul had to say to the believers at Corinth and see what bearing it has on us. The first thing Paul makes clear is that our giving should flow from generosity alone which itself flows from God‘s generosity with us. Indeed, we give because God first gave to us. Listen to these words in vv. 6-9: .Remember this: the person who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the person who sows generously will also reap generously. Each person should do as he has decided in his heart—not out of regret or out of necessity, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make every grace overflow to you, so that in every way, always having everything you need, you may excel in every good work. As it is written: =he has scattered; he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.‘. Now that first part should be readily apparent to this group. The more you plant, the more you get. For example, Lisa and I planted about 30 seeds of corn this past summer while the Coburns planted a full pound of corn. As a result, we didn‘t even get a single edible ear while I suspect many of you benefited from the Coburns abundance. The broader principle here is that we will receive reward for our giving in proportion to the amount given. Now, this doesn‘t mean that if we give $100 to the church or some other organization that we‘ll get $200 back from God and so on. Paul‘s not talking strictly about monetary rewards here as we‘ll see more clearly in a few minutes. Think for a second about the people you‘ve known who have been the most generous. Are these not some of the happiest, most gracious people you‘ve ever known? Do they not have friends in all kinds of places willing to help them with a variety of needs? Let me give you an example. Jim Green, the owner of the shop from which we purchased our new sound system, practices generosity like this in a lot of little and some big ways. When we had a broken microphone he ran out to figure that it was the microphone that was broken and then made a special trip back out here from Colonial Heights that day in order to make sure we had what we needed. Beyond that, while he was here, I was telling him about having a broken power cord for my computer and getting the run-around from Best Buy in trying to fix it. Thanks to his generous ways, he had a customer who worked for Best Buy‘s Geek Squad who was willing to run in on his day off and work to get things straight for me because Jim asked him to do it. That kind of reaping doesn‘t happen on its own. You could argue that Jim is just a good businessman (which he is), but the root of this is a generous spirit. And I‘ll tell you, I‘d be willing to do any number of favors for Jim because of his generosity with me and with our church. Living a life of generosity will naturally bring an abundance of blessing because we will be putting ourselves in a place to receive them. When we demonstrate faith in our God like this He will reward us with spiritual blessings and opportunities for greater faithfulness. The challenge for us is that we quite naturally think in terms of monetary gains. Breaking from this will be a difficult but important first step on the path to a life of generosity. We give because God first gave to us, not because of what we can get from Him.

What I mean here is that generosity alone should propel our giving. This is what Paul was getting at back in v. 5 when he said that he wanted the Corinthian believers to provide their offering as a gift, not an extortion. Our giving should not come from guilt: we feel like we won‘t be a good enough Christian if we don‘t give a certain amount. It should not come strictly from need: we give so much with the goal in mind of paying less in taxes. Nor should it come from reasons of image like Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Giving like this benefits us nothing. The principle for giving is that we pray for guidance and give whatever God leads us to give. And this gift will be in proportion to what He has already given us. We give because God first gave to us. Let me pause here and briefly address the tyranny of 10%. Giving a set 10% of one‘s income to the church is a great principle that has helped many people develop a good habit of giving a tithe in their lives, but the fact is that the way we practice it today does not have biblical foundations. It is true that the word often translated .tithe. in the Old Testament literally means .a tenth,. but it is also true that culturally the Israelites were expected to give three offerings that amounted to 231/3% of their income to God‘s work in the country. Let‘s be honest: if preachers across the country started proclaiming that congregants needed to faithfully give nearly a quarter of their income to the church we would have a mass rebellion from the church. Furthermore, in the New Testament, after Christ‘s resurrection (i.e. in the period of history of the Church in which we now live), nothing is said about the need for believers to give a tithe. The truth is, many believers who hold to a 10% tithe with a death grip are looking for a standard, a check box, by which they can know for sure that they are in fact being a good Christian. I seem to remember Jesus blasting the Pharisees because of some practices awfully similar to this in the Gospels. The principle of giving in the New Testament is not equal gift but equal sacrifice. Demanding that everyone give a flat 10% of their income to the church does not represent an equal sacrifice. For some people, giving 10% or even 231/3% of their income is hardly a sacrifice at all. They can give that much without batting an eye. There are some of you in this church. For these people, they should consider giving a larger portion of their income that represents a real sacrifice. For others, demanding that they give even 10% of their income is fiscally irresponsible because it hampers their ability to provide for their family. There are some of you in this church too. For these folks, a smaller offering may be appropriate. Now, does God call some in this situation to give beyond the point that it hurts? Yes, He does. But not all. Rather than demanding a strict 10% tithe from all believers, the amount of each one‘s gift needs to be decided upon between them and God and on a situation-to-situation basis. Will this result in some people giving less than they should? Sure it will. We‘re human. But, this principle will also free others to give with a generosity far beyond what was formerly .expected.. This will help us give cheerfully.

You see, our generosity is from the overflow of God‘s provision for us. This is Paul‘s point in v. 8: we give because God first gave to us. God‘s generosity with us is not simply so that we can give more money back to Him, but so that we can excel at every good work. God blesses us so that we can be a blessing to others in every way. Now, God does give some people the spiritual gift of giving and provides abundantly so that they can give abundantly, but all are called to give sacrificially. This practice, discipline even, of sacrifice helps build into us a character of righteousness whereby we trust in God and not our things for life. Indeed, generosity is one of the marks of a righteous life. The verse Paul quotes in v. 9 is from Psalm 112 which is a description of a truly righteous person. This series of exhortations is not intended to simply be a list of maxims that we memorize in order to give more. They are painting with broad brush strokes the path to a complete shift in thinking, a worldview change, which will help us become more righteous people in every area of our lives.

The last thing Paul talks about here is the fact that developing the discipline of giving into our lives and becoming more generous people has benefits far beyond simply the person or group at the receiving end of the gift. Listen to the words in vv. 10-15: .Now the One who provides seed for the sower and bread for food will provide and multiply your seed and increase the harvest of your righteousness, as you are enriched in every way for all generosity, which produces thanksgiving to God through us. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing in many acts of thanksgiving to God. Through the proof of this service, they will glorify God for your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with others. And in their prayers for you they will have deep affection for you because of the surpassing grace of God on you. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift..

Paul‘s point here is that God will provide so that we can give to others. Remember: We give because God first gave to us. Yet this giving is not the reason for the provision but merely the by-product. God provides so that we might have all we need to .increase the harvest of [our] righteousness.. Remember what righteousness means? Right relationships. God provides so that we might be rightly related to Him and by virtue of this to others. If we are holding tightly to the things we have as truly ours and not merely gifts from a loving God then we are not rightly related to God. And if we hold tightly to what we falsely claim as .ours. when our neighbors have unmet needs then we aren‘t rightly related to others either. A couple of weeks ago my cousin Douglas rode through town and stayed the night with us. Douglas has been in a place in life the last few years that has allowed him to do a pretty significant amount of traveling by himself. This has given him space to spend a lot of time reflecting on the character of Christ and his relationship with Him. In light of this he said something to me that I don‘t think is going to get out of my head anytime soon. He was talking about the number of things he‘s had to give away because he couldn‘t carry them with him any longer and he said that he views his things as on loan from God for a time until he finds their real owner. I wonder how many people have benefited from this. I wonder how many thanks have been poured out to God because of his generosity. Look again at what Paul says here. He is clear that not only the recipients of the generosity are thanking God, but others are as well. In other words our generosity will draw others to give thanks and glory to God; our generosity will result in people coming to Christ who might not have otherwise. Yet this is still not about simply giving more away than we currently do. It‘s about putting ourselves in a place where we have greater faith in God. It‘s about seeing the kingdom of God made manifest on earth and becoming the people God designed us to be. This is about disciplining ourselves to view the things we have not as their owner but as temporary stewards of God‘s stuff.

But how do we do this. Enough theoretical. Let‘s talk reality. How can we incorporate the spiritual discipline of giving more fully into our lives? Well, let‘s start with the obvious. We can look for ways to give more of the money God has blessed us with away. One of the easiest ways to do that is to give it to the church. Let‘s be honest: ministry takes money. There are ideologues out there who think they can get by completely free of the things of this world. I‘m not one of those. I understand that it takes money to go about accomplishing all that God has set before us. We are trying to expand our ministry here at Central. The finance committee has worked hard to put the finishing touches on the budget for next year. They‘ve done this with one eye firmly fixed on the realities of the economy, but also with an eye fixed firmly on the possibilities of kingdom work ahead of us. Hopefully you have all seen a copy of the budget and have started praying over it. I‘ll tell you right here and now, based on the average giving in the church thus far in the year we cannot accomplish this budget on our own. This budget is intentionally structured to call us forward to greater sacrifice and faith in God as a body in order to see our commitments to the kingdom honored. This budget can only be accomplished with God‘s help and provision. It calls us forward to growth in every way. This will be a challenge to the thinking of some, but I encourage you to take up this challenge and run it straight to God. Ask Him how He will help you help this church see our mission accomplished. Now, I have said before that this church is financially healthy and that hasn‘t changed. But in order for it to stay that way—including in light of the improvements your past giving has allowed us to easily make to the building in recent months—we have to keep giving. I challenge you to seriously consider what God is calling each of you to give to see the mission and vision of this church come to fruition. But as we said before, money is not the only form of giving. You can give time. Expanding ministry in a church with a small staff like ours takes a lot of volunteers. We have an incredible group of volunteers here but we still have places to fill. And if you don‘t see a place that suits your fancy we‘ll create it together. You can give nonmonetary things. Think through your houses this week and find things that you could do without to the benefit of others. I know that the co-ed II class is still collecting things to do a Bailout Bazaar part 2 in the near future. In weeks ahead as you write your offering checks, don‘t just blindly move the decimal place around from your paycheck. Pray very seriously about what God would have you give and then follow through with that. I can tell you from personal experience that praying such prayers can be dangerous, but God will always provide so that you have plenty to give and live. We give because God first gave to us. As a part of this praying, ask God to lead you into more areas of giving. Considering taking up this challenge as something even more concrete you can do to make this practice real in your lives: for the month of November, intentionally give something away to someone else each day of the month. Start with small things and gradually build up to a big gift.

Now to our opportunity to practice this discipline together this morning. You might have noticed that we didn‘t take up the offering before the choir special like we usually do. That was intentional. In just a minute the ushers are going to take up the offering for this morning. In addition to your monetary offering this morning, take the blank piece of paper you found in your bulletins and write down one other thing you will give away this week as thanks for what God has done in your life; what God has given you. Then when the plate comes around, put these in the offering plates to symbolically dedicate these things to God. Then as you go through this week, pray over these things before you give them away asking that God will help not only you, but this entire church become the people He has created us to be through the spiritual discipline of giving. Pray that through our practice of giving we will create a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ. Ushers please come on forward as I pray.