He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father know that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.
The receiving line following worship is vastly underrated. A lot of people make their way out of the sanctuary as quickly as possible, whereas others will wait in line just to ask that one question that popped up during the service. It never ceases to amaze me that some of the most profoundly theological and spiritual moments that take place at St. John’s happen in that line after worship on Sunday mornings.
This month’s sermon series “Why We Do What We Do” has its roots in those conversations. Week after week I will hear some of you wonder about the purpose of an acolyte carrying in the flame for worship, or you ask about the value and importance of having a time for offering and collection, or you question why we talk so much about bible study, or you remark about how difficult it is to pray. If you’ve ever left church with a question on your heart and mind, this sermon series is for you.
Today we will explore why we give.
I was in my final year of seminary when my friend asked me to preach at his church. He had labored for the past few years as a full time student and full time pastor at the same time and needed someone to fill-in. He had received tickets to a Carolina Panthers football game, though I was forbidden from telling his church that’s where he was instead of with them on a Sunday morning for worship.
When Lindsey and I arrived at the tiny United Methodist Church in the middle of nowhere North Carolina, I was a little nervous about leading worship for a congregation that I had never met, but I figured God would show up even if my sermon fell flat. The sanctuary was tiny, with white walls and bright florescent lights hanging from the ceiling, there was a cross above the altar that was draped with an American flag, and it was so quiet that I was worried we had arrived at the wrong church.
However, the lay leader was waiting by the door and greeted us as if we were first-time visitors, only to later realize that I was supposed to be the pastor for the day. He quickly led me into the sanctuary, gave me a quick and grand tour, and then informed me that he was the head usher, liturgist, organist, and treasurer.
From what I remember the service went well, though most of the congregation was utterly bewildered by my academic deconstruction of a prophecy from the book of Daniel (something I thankfully gave up doing that day), and there was an infant who wailed the entire service. I like to think that she loved my preaching so much that it drove her to tears.
When the service ended, I finally had a chance to actually look around at the sanctuary and I noticed a list on the wall behind the pulpit of the hymns for the day, the offering brought in last week, and the deficit regarding the annual budget. There in big numbers for everyone to see was how far away they were from keeping up with their plan, and it was a staggering amount.
On my way out I thanked the lay-leader/usher/organist/treasurer for the opportunity to preach and asked why they felt the need to display their deficit for everyone to see every Sunday. I’ll never forget how casually he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Guilt is the only way to get them to give.”
Talking about giving, and in particular financial giving is about as awkward as it gets in the church. Money, in general, is one of the taboo subjects of normal conversations. We don’t ask how much someone makes in a year, even if we are curious. We avoid asking for financial help because it means admitting too much vulnerability. But then if we take the taboo subject of money, and put it together with religion (or the church) we have the double whammy of things we’re not supposed to talk about.
After all, money and religion are personal and private subjects aren’t they? What I do with my money and what I do with my faith should be of no concern to anyone else other than myself…
To talk about giving in the church, to address the subject of why we give, we have to get personal. It would be shameful for me to stand here each and every week calling for the gathered body to give their gifts to God if I, myself, was afraid to talk about my own giving. If we want to be a church of gifts, then we must first be a church of vulnerability and then conversion.
Before I became a pastor, I rarely gave to the church. I have vivid memories of sitting in church throughout my adolescence, and feeling waves of guilt as I passed the offering plate over my lap to whomever else was in the pew. It helped that I was a teenager and had no money to give in the first place but the guilt was still there.
By the time I made it to college and seminary, I still attended church but rarely gave to the church. I certainly volunteered my time, led mission trips, and taught bible studies, but giving money to the church was not on my radar.
Then I was appointed here to St. John’s. Now that I had a steady income, Lindsey and I decided to start tithing to the church, and honestly it was really hard. We are a young married couple with debt to the federal government for paying for my seminary education, and we are going to have a baby in April. Yet, we covenanted with God and one another to give 10%. In the first months it was harder than I thought. I would find myself thinking about those thousands of dollars that I could be spending on other things, but we got into the habit and we kept giving.
My conversion toward giving did not happen in a big shiny moment, but was a gradual transformation. The more I gave, the longer the habit continued, the easier it became, and my perspective started to change.
Instead of imagining what I could’ve have done with the money I gave to church, I started to tangibly witness and experience what the money I gave was doing for the church and the kingdom.
Giving to the church requires a conversion; it is built on a vision where we recognize how our blessings can be used to bless others. We are not called to give to St. John’s out of guilt, but out of generosity.
As John Wesley once said: “Having, first, gained all you can, and, secondly saved all you can, then give all you can.”
We are called to give because we have a shared vision and are invited into the mission of God through the church. Even a seemingly small act of generosity can grow into something far beyond what we could ever ask or imagine – The creation of a community of love in this world. If we act generously, we are helping God build the kingdom here on earth.
However, we should not be expected to give, or feel inclined to give without knowing why or to what we are giving. To just stand before you and say “give give give” prevents us from developing strong relationship with the people and programs we serve. So here are just three aspects of what our church does with our gifts:
At St. John’s we believe in providing meaningful, fruitful, and life changing worship every week of the year. We plan months ahead, connect messages with the music, and look for imaginative ways to respond to God’s love in the world. This means that we have to keep our sanctuary in the best shape possible for the worship of God, and use the great gifts of all involved in the church to make it happen. As a church we regularly welcome first-time visitors to discover God’s love through this place and help to develop professions of faith in Jesus Christ.
At St. John’s we believe in nurturing those in the midst of their faith journeys. We spend a significant amount of time and resources to help disciples grow in the faith and love of God and neighbor. We have numerous classes and opportunities to study God’s Word, but one of the most profound things we offer is weekly Chapel Time to our Preschoolers. Not only do we help to provide a wonderful facility for them to learn and grow, but we also welcome them into this sanctuary every week to learn about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The Preschoolers discover how much God loves them, and they take those stories home to the families and subsequently teach them about God’s love.
And at St. John’s we believe in witnessing to our faith in service beyond ourselves. We strive to serve those in need through a mosaic of opportunities in order to be Christ’s body for the world. For the first time in a long time we have paid our Apportionments in full to benefit the greater church, and the world. Some of that money goes to pay for clergy healthcare, some of it goes to domestic and international benevolences funds, and a number of other places. Moreover, we are able to provide a tremendous amount of financial resources to SACRA (Staunton-Augusta Church Relief Association) who then distribute the money to acute needs in the local community.
We give from our blessings to bless others. Whether it’s the people in the pews next to us who gather for worship, the preschoolers who gather to be nurtured and educated, or the countless people in the local and global community who need our help. We give out of generosity, because so much has been given to us.
However I don’t want to make it sound as if giving is the easiest thing in the world, because it does require sacrifice. Living a spiritual life of generosity requires a change of heart, a conversion. It might happen in a moment, or throughout a lifetime of faith, but when the transformation occurs, we become people of generosity.
We all have blessings to offer. Some of us have been blessed by God with incredibly lucrative careers and vocations, God has clothed us with more splendor than Solomon and all his temples, and we can give back to God through our financial giving. Some of us have been blessed by God with powerful relationship skills, God has given us personalities that bring out the best in others, and we can give back to God through our willingness to serve others. And God has blessed all of us with the gift of time, which is the most precious thing we can ever offer to the church and others.
Are we grateful for what God has done for us through this place? Do we appreciate all the blessings we have receiving throughout our lives? Do we want to bless others as we have been blessed?
We give because we have a common yearning for God’s kingdom to reign on earth, and when we give we join a new communion with the people of God. We give because it is the way by which we live out our love toward the church and our brothers and sisters in faith. We give because God first gave to us.
Where our treasure is, there are hearts will be also. Amen