Empty Cups

Proverbs 11.25

A generous person will be enriched, and the one who gives water will get water.

It was my first Sunday in a new town and it was hotter than blazes outside. I would be attending my first seminary class the next day and I figured I needed to be in church before embarking on what would become my theological journey.

So I looked up United Methodist Churches on google and went to the one that was closest to my apartment. 

I meandered through the open front doors, collected a copy of the bulletin from a distracted usher, and walked into the sanctuary hoping to find an empty pew. It was only a few minutes before the top of the hour and I was perplexed to discover an entirely empty sanctuary.

No preacher.

No choir.

There wasn’t even a wayward acolyte wandering down the aisle.

I only stood for a moment before the aforementioned usher walked up behind me and said, “Son, you must be new here. We’re having worship this morning down in the fellowship hall.”

So I turned my back to the beautiful stained glass windows and the exposed organ pipes and descended into the dark and dismal basement.

After navigating a few frightening corridors and passing long-forgotten Sunday schools rooms, I heard a scattering of voices and followed them until I entered the space for holy worship. The room was sparse with only a handful of folding chairs set-up in a haphazard semi-circle around a podium and a make-shift altar. 

By the time I grabbed an empty chair the preacher was standing behind the improvised pulpit encouraging us to stand and sing our opening hymn, which we did.

“Take my voice and let me sing, always, only for my King. Take my lips and let them be, filled with messages from thee. Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold. Take my intellect and use, every power as thou shalt choose.”

The next forty five minutes the collection of Christians in the basement listened to the preacher go on and on about the virtues of Christian generosity, about the call to give back to the Lord what was first given to us, and the imperative to raise enough funds to replace the Air Conditioning in the sanctuary lest we continue to worship in the fellowship hall until Jesus returns on his cloud of glory.

When the service was over, I made for a quick exit out of the basement when the preacher grabbed me by the shoulder and introduced himself all the while apologizing that I had to hear all of that on my first Sunday at the church. He said, “I don’t want you to leave thinking this is what it’s like every week.” I’m sure I made some sort of positive comment hoping to make him feel a little bit better when a tiny older woman walked up and triumphantly declared, “Don’t listen to the preacher. It should be like this every week. Giving is what being a disciple is all about.”

I attended that church nearly every Sunday until I graduated from seminary.

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Today, we live in a world surrounded by a culture that is constantly encouraging us to live beyond our means. Our collective credit card, medical, and student loan debts are the highest they have ever been with no slow down in sight. And I think the reason why so many of us buy a whole bunch of things we don’t need, is that in the back of our heads we hope that the things we buy will be with us forever – which isn’t possible.

In some way, shape, or form, we all go out hoping that the things we purchase will make our lives better now and forever, and even though it never really works we keep doing it anyway!

When confronted by the strange spending habits of the early Methodists, John Wesley put it this way: “In seeking happiness from riches, you are only striving to drink out of empty cups.”

We’ve been talking this month about Wesley’s teaching regarding money: Gain all you can – Save all you can – Give all you can. And for a lot of us the first two sound really nice. Wouldn’t things in our lives be better if we could just bring in a little more money? Wouldn’t the future feel a little more secure if we were able to increase our portfolios accordingly? 

But then we come to the third and final aspect and we’re not sure how we feel about it. Why give away that which we have worked so hard to earn and to save?

If all we do is gain and we can and save all we can and stop there, then it would all be for nothing. We may as throw our money into the fire. Not to use it faithfully and prayerfully is effectively to throw it away. 

It may sound strange to our compulsively capitalist ears, but giving away all we can is what makes intelligible the calls to gain and to save.

There is a story from the Bible that we, for some reason, love to throw into VBS curricula  and it is easily summarized in a short song: Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he, he climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see, and as the Savior came that way he looked up in the tree, and he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, cause we’re going to your house today.”

The song and the ways we often tell the story make Zacchaeus out to be this smaller than life character who just wanted a little vision of heaven on earth, and how God in Christ chose him to be the vehicle of an internal transformation regarding money.

But one of the things we miss, or downright ignore, is how horrible Zacchaeus was. He was a tax collector, a man who stole from his fellow Israelites whatever he wanted and kept a fair portion for himself before passing the rest of the money up the chain. He was a traitor and stood for everything that was wrong during the time of Jesus. And Jesus picks this little good-for-nothing-horrible-excuse-for-a-man out from the tree and says, “Hey, lets eat.”

And in a way that could only happen in the gospel, Zacchaeus reacts to this strange man with an even stranger proclamation. “Wow, the only way I know how to respond to you is to give back half of my wealth to the poor and pay back the people I cheated four times over.” And Jesus responds, “Now that’s what salvation looks life! Lets have a party!”

It’s a strange story, and one that we often water down its strangeness. Zaccheaus doesn’t deserve to be in the presence of God. He has swindled good people out of their good money, and then Jesus rewards him with salvation? I mean seriously, what in the world?

But that’s kind of the whole thing. 

Salvation, the end all be all, is the way God transforms every area of our lives so that we become a part of God’s work in the world. Salvation changes everything by changing our hearts and the orientation of every part of our lives, including how we use our money. Salvation sets us free from the bondage to our own narrow self-interests and opens us up to the movements of the Spirit in the world.

Many of us today want a version of Christianity that doesn’t want anything from us. Like another notch in the long list of commodified aspects of life, we show up and leave with thoughts about what we got out of it, without ever daring to wonder what God got out of us. Which is strange. Martin Luther, the 16th century church reformer, put it this way: “There are three conversions necessary in the Christian life – a conversion of the heart, a conversion of the mind, and a conversion of the wallet.”

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Oh how we wish it were only the first two!

When Zaccheaus was met with the radical nature of God’s grace in the person of Jesus, he experienced a profound conversion – he was no longer the person who climbed up in the tree. His heart was converted in the realization that the Son of God could make something of his nothing. His mind was converted over a dinner table conversation about what really had value in this life. And his wallet was converted when he saw what he had and make the decision to give it away. 

But let us pause for a moment to get something crystal clear – Zaccheaus did not earn his salvation by giving all he gave with his newfound generosity. His generosity was simply a response to the extravagant generosity of God. 

God cares not at all how much money we put in the offering plate or how much money we send to our favorite charity or how much money we make every two weeks or how much money we have saved away for a rainy day. God cares only that we see and know and taste and touch the wondrous gift already given to us in Jesus. What happens next is a matter of faith.

And, lest the call to faithful giving and the witness of the theology of generosity isn’t enough, neuroscientists have proven over and over again that our brains get a happiness boost, we release endorphins, when we give and help other people. Doing good is a good deal for us.

We can give all we want if it makes us feel better, but ultimately as Christians we give because God first gave. The little jolt of happiness is just an awesome byproduct along the way. 

During the earliest days of Methodist, John Wesley desired to lead the people in his care to a healthier, more productive, and more deeply Christ-centered life. He did so by offering practical wisdom about the relationship between money and finances. The end goal of all of this stuff isn’t to make sure the church has more money, though that wouldn’t hurt, the whole thing is about becoming more like Jesus in every part of our lives but particularly in the way we handle our finances. 

In terms of faithful giving whether its to the church or to community projects or any other numbers of places, most of us follow a trajectory. We start off as tossers – we toss our gifts (however big they may be) into the offering plate or the salvation army bucket without giving much thought to what we are doing and we don’t necessarily even feel it when we do it.

Then, at some point, we might enter into the realm of what we might call tryers. Tryers are those among us who have a plan of moving from where they are to where they believe God would like them to be in terms of giving. Going from not giving at all, or even tossing, straight to tithing is a remarkably difficult venture. Our own current financial situations or debts make it very difficult to jump right into the deep end of the pool.

And then there are the tithers – those among us who see their 10% given to God as the baseline of a disciple’s stewardship. Many tithers can’t imagine a life without tithing because it has become completely connected with their way of being. Giving 10% back to God is a practice rooted in scripture, a call to return the first fruits back to the Lord. But tithing is not a duty nor is it an obligation – it is simply a gift given out of sheer gratitude for what God has given.

For me, the journey toward tithing was not one that happened over night and is still one that I struggle with and our family struggles with. I constantly have thoughts about other things I could be doing with the money I give to the church, I think about gifts I could buy for my son, or the dates I could take my wife on, or the frivolous material items I could buy for myself. I do this in my mind because I too fall prey to the insipid temptations of the world around me. I, just like anyone else, want to keep up with the Joneses. I, just like anyone else, want what I wear and what I drive to communicate something about my worth. 

And all of that stuff can’t hold a match to the fire that is God’s grace. 

It has been an act of faith to continually give back to God and it has been an act of trust. Regardless of the amount, whether we’re tossers, tryers, or tithers, putting something in the plate is a profound form of trust. It’s saying, with our wallets, that we believe God can do something incredible with what we give and we get to be part of it all.

Because, at the end of day, we give all we can because God gives all God can. God gives us more than we deserve and more than we realize. God gives us God’s Son every time we gather at the table as a reminder that God is in control. Our cups, whether we respond with generous hearts or not, will never really be empty because God will never stop giving. Ever. Amen. 

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