Defined by Generosity

Defined by Generosity

Our scriptures this morning show us what it means to be generous. They describe to us people and communities who went the extra mile, who dug a little bit deeper, who gave more than what was necessary or expected.

They gave more than what was necessary or expected.

To be completely honest, those words did not describe my life for a very long time. It took until I was about thirty years old before I ever thought about what it meant to be defined by generosity, before I thought about what it meant to be a generous giver.

When I was a teenager and had only part time jobs, I might have stuck a dollar or two in the offering plate at church. It was the last of my money… not the best.

When I was in college, I did not attend a church regularly on Sundays, but worshipped on campus Wednesday nights – and no one asked for a financial contribution. No one asked me to give, much less give sacrificially.

As a seminary student and low-paid church intern, I was spending more money on school and travel than I was making and piling up debt. I gave my time to the church and occasionally I put a check in the offering plate.

And then I went to my first church. I knew that I could not ask them, in good faith, to give faithfully to the church and to God, if I was not also giving. This was the first time in my life I had a steady full time job.

 

Looking back, I should have immediately started at the very least tithing.

But I didn’t.

I held back.

I looked at my student loans and a bit of debt from college… I looked at how much our cable bill was going to be… I thought about how we wanted to travel a bit… I knew that taxes would take a chunk of my wages… And so I started out small.

I gave to the church – but only a small portion. Maybe not even what was necessary or expected.

And then, I became comfortable with that level of financial giving. I was giving something, and I thought that was enough.

 

A few years back, I was in a teaching session led by a with guy named Ken Willard and he talked about how we make disciples in our church.

And he helped us to see that we almost never talk about discipleship. We talk about membership. This morning, we welcome new people into our church as members, but even in our preparation, we barely paint a picture of what it means to be a disciple. And when we don’t speak about discipleship in a concrete way, then you and I do not have clear standards to evaluate ourselves by.

 

And too often, that means that wherever you were on your journey of faith when you became a member of the church is where you have stayed. Not because of anything that YOU have done, but because we, as the church, have never helped one another to grow beyond that. We have not challenged one another to become disciples. We have not provided resources and tools to help one another deepen our faith.

 

If generosity is defined by what we give, in our time and money, beyond what is necessary or expected, then to be generous, we have to know what is expected!

 

But, truth be told, I didn’t know what was expected. I had never been taught about how my stewardship of my resources was part of my discipleship. Even as a pastor! I knew how to preach and pray and how to listen to my parishoners, but not once did any church leader or professor or pastor sit down and talk with me about how giving was an expression of my relationship with Jesus Christ.

 

Until three years ago, when I began talking with a friend, a fellow pastor, about the things we cling to… the things we hold close and refuse to give to God.

I realized in the midst of that conversation I had never willingly yielded my money to God. I had never thought about what God was asking me to give and then prayed about if I could do that.

There had been times when I had given out of guilt.

I have given because it was what I was supposed to do.

I have given out of habit as the offering place went around and each person in the pew pulled out a few dollars and dropped them in. Sound familiar?

But never had I prayerfully thought about what God wanted me to give. Never had I asked what was expected of me. Never had I searched my heart for what was necessary and then what I was willing to joyfully give up in my life for the sake of our Lord and our church.

I knew that a tithe was 10% of our income, but I hadn’t ever sat down and really thought about what God wants from us; what God wanted from me.

Your “Enough” insert for this week… the one on the green slip of paper… is just a glimpse of the scriptures that talk about money.

1) Tithe = traditional “first fruits”. When the people of God gathered to worship, they brought the first fruits of their harvest to the temple. The first 10% of their grain or livestock they gave to the Lord. This was a gift out of gratitude for the blessings of the harvest and helped provide for the ministry of the temple itself.

One question that is raised, however, is if Christians are supposed to tithe. If we don’t follow the dietary laws of the Hebrew Scriptures and we don’t make animal sacrifices any more, is this one of those things that was part of tradition and doesn’t apply to us?

I think we find in some ways, that Jesus relaxes these expectations on us.

2) Adjusted Title = where we render unto Caesar what is Caesar and unto God what is God’s. One way of understanding this passage is that as citizens, we owe time and money to the rulers of our land. Everything that remains is God’s and we can offer a tithe of the resources we take home in our paycheck.

But as he often does, Jesus also takes those traditional expectations to give and challenges us to do even more.

3) Give Sacrificially = the widow’s offering from our scripture today. As Jesus sat in the temple and watched the people give, he saw a poor widow who put her last two copper coins into the coffers. She gave all that she had. She gave more than what was expected and necessary. And she is the one Jesus calls us to emulate. She was the one defined by generosity.

4) Giving what you have: At various times in our lives, our resources are limited so as to be non-existent. What is expected of us when we literally have no income? The fourth scripture listed describes a time when Peter and John are ministering and are asked to give to a person in need. They respond that they have no silver or gold, but they give of what they do have and are able to heal the person in need.

Even when it appears as if we have no financial resources, God has given us gifts of love and service and prayer and these, too, should be offered.

5) Non-Essential Tithe: Next week, when we celebrate what God has done in our lives and we offer up our commitment cards to God, we are going to be wrestling with the scripture associated with this form of tithing… God loves a cheerful giver.

And so this non-essential tithe invites you to prayerfully think about those obligations you have in your life, those places where you simply cannot sacrifice right now, those places and those bills that cause you stress and anxiety. This tithe sets you free to fulfill those essentials and then to joyfully give out of the remainder. To joyfully give out of your abundance.

 

There are countless other scriptures that describe our relationship with God and with money. But what I have learned in my own journey of stewardship is that taking the time to think about what you are going to give and why you are doing so are two of the most important things we can do. We need to prayerfully consider what is expected of each of us.

The people in the temple gave because they were supposed to. The amount they put in those coffers were minimal compared to what treasures they had stored up. And they probably gave the same amount, every year, at the same festival. It was a ritual. It was tradition. Nothing would change in their life based upon what they gave that day. They never thought about it.

When the widow, however, stood and gave her all, she had to think long and hard about that gift. Those two coins were everything she had left. Those coins represented food and shelter. They provided for her safety and security. Yet she gave them, freely, out of her gratitude for every breath of life she had ever recieved and every blessing that had been poured out. She thought about what she was doing.

I can’t tell you what to give.

I can tell you is what is necessary to keep the lights on and to provide the resources to do ministry here at Immanuel United Methodist Church. Each of our members should be recieving at home a giving guide that describes our current budget and it tells you very plainly what it takes to provide for our facilities and pay our staff and what resources we need to do ministry with children and youth and to support the missional work of our connectional church.

But even then, I know how much more we could do with greater resources for the Kingdom of God. I know that God is calling our church to do more in this world… to provide not just for our facility and our people but to give beyond ourselves in even bigger ways. God is calling us to be a church defined by generosity – out in the community and the world through love, service and prayer.

To think just about what is necessary to keep our church going isn’t big enough. What is necessary for this church, Immanuel United Methodist Church, to answer God’s call and move beyond these walls… to the children at Hillis Elementary and families served by CFUM, to flood ravaged neighborhoods and among people who are struck by illnesses like malaria. What is necessary to bring the Kingdom of God to our neighbors near and far?

 

When I actually sat down and prayed about what God was calling me to give, I began to joyfully give more. I began to increase what I put in the plate each week. In 2012, I began to give a full 10% of my income to the church.

And I decided to give that money to the church first… the money comes out of my paycheck before it ever comes home with me. I give God my first and my best, instead of the change in my pocket and whatever I might happen to have with me that day… instead of what is leftover.

It is probably not a coincidence that the same year I began to give joyfully to the Lord I was called to help others do the same through Imagine No Malaria. When I surrendered my resources to God, I also opened myself up to the moving of the Holy Spirit and was able to hear how God wanted to use me and what I had learned for the Kingdom.

In our passage from Acts this morning, we witness the results of the Holy Spirit moving among the disciples and the people of God. Filled by the Spirit, Peter gives an extraordinary sermon and three thousand people are converted on the spot.

But what is really amazing is that they don’t pray the Sinner’s Prayer and then go back to live as it was. They don’t experience the mountain top moment of a retreat and life as usual sneaks in… No – they actually commit themselves to living out the fullness of what it means to be the people of God. Their entire lives change. They become the body of Christ. They become disciples.

I believe that if we want a picture of generosity we need to look no farther than this passage from Acts. Filled with the Holy Spirit, these three thousand plus people were living out their faith in the best possible way. We are shown here a glimpse of the Kingdom of God… this is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. This is what it means to be defined by generosity.

 

What does God want from your life? What does God want from this church?

And what would happen if we freely, joyfully, without hesitation, gave more than what was expected?

What could happen if we let the Holy Spirit loose in our lives?

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