Message: The Message That Shall Not Be Named
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 8: 1-7; 10-12
Date: October 6, 2013
I have tried my best to not talk ahead of time about this message. Even though it is part of the series on the Five Practices Of Fruitful Disciples, I was afraid that if I named it ahead of time, nobody would show up. There are three Sundays in the year when attendance is very low. The Sunday after Easter, the Sunday after Christmas and the Sunday when we talk about giving. And now that you are here, I have instructed the ushers to lock the doors so you can’t make your way out until the end. So you might as well just relax and take it all in, because the fifth practice of Fruitful Disciples is generosity which is just a neutral way of saying “giving”, and if that isn’t bad enough, it’s not just giving, it’s extravagant giving. There I said it, and I’m not taking it back.
Now those who do such a wonderful job taking care of the finances of the church, would like for me to talk about our difficult financial condition. But I’m not going to do that because those kinds of messages focus on what the church needs, rather than what God desires. I believe that fruitful disciples give in response to God, rather than to seek God’s response to us. With no apologies to preachers who preach a prosperity Gospel, who tell us that if we dig deep and give big, God will heap blessing upon blessing on us, I believe that God has already showered His blessings upon us and that we give in response, in praise and thanksgiving.
Robert Schnase writes:
People who practice extravagant generosity give with unexpected liberality: they make giving a first priority; and they plan their giving with great energy and passion. They go the second mile. They do not give from a “what remains” mentality, but from a “what comes first” priority.
And then he goes on to say this:
Extravagant does not correspond with giving that is merely dutiful, required, burdensome, mandated or simply doing one’s part. Extravagant denotes a style and attitude of giving that is unexpectedly joyous, without predetermined limits, from the heart, extraordinary, over the top, and propelled by great passion.
And then finally this. And if you don’t hear anything else I say today, hear this:
Extravagant generosity is giving to God as God has given to us.
And how much has God given us. On the night that Jesus was betrayed, He took the bread and the wine and He said to the Disciples, eat and drink, absorb this, take it all in, because this is my body and blood that I am about to give away on the cross – my life for yours. Extravagant generosity crucified. He gave His life, so that He might give us our life.
Bishop Schnase says that extravagant generosity is the fifth practice of fruitful disciples and congregations. But I believe that extravagant generosity is not what fruitful disciples do, it is not a practice, but it is who we are. It is our life. It defines who we are, because extravagant generosity defines who God is. In the first chapter of the Bible, in the midst of the act of creation, God says: Let us make man in our image, in our likeness. And I have often wondered what God meant by that. Sometimes we think that it’s a physical image. That we look like God. But if that’s the case, then why do we all look differently. And surely God doesn’t look like a slightly overweight, slightly past middle aged man like me. No, I think image refers more to the attributes of God. And as I reread Genesis in preparation for this message, it occurred to me that God Himself goes on to define what “image” and “likeness” means. Look at what says: Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground. I GIVE you every seed bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours.
In other words, God created the world (including humanity) and then gave it to us. Our God is an extravagantly generous God. He gives us life. He gives us sustenance. He gives us beauty. He gives us companionship. He gives us unconditional love. His image is extravagant generosity. That’s what He created us to be. Extravagant generosity should be that which defines our image, if we are truly in the image of God. We tend to think of generosity when it comes to the church as what we give to God, but what it truly is, is what we RETURN to Him of that which He has already given us. Perhaps you have heard people say that you can’t out give God. That no matter how much we give, we will always receive more of God’s blessings. Well, the reason that is true is that our giving is just returning a portion to God out of the abundance of our blessings. We talk about the tithe as a monetary term. God gives us all of our material blessings and all He asks in return is a tithe. 10%. But here’s the real blessing of the tithe. He doesn’t ask us to give the tithe for His benefit. His plan was for us to bring the tithe of our crops, our labors, the first fruits, to the storehouse, so it can be kept for those who find themselves in great need. And bring the tithe to the Temple, your sacrifice, so that the Priests will be cared for, and the Temple can be used to bless others. We don’t give to glorify ourselves, we give to glorify God. Sometimes people say, I am not going to give my tithe to the church because they just use it to pay the light bill and other administrative costs. I want my money to go for ministry. But the church is a tool that God uses to bless the world. Our witness would be seriously muted, if we didn’t have the lights on and the heat going and the staff to lead us in ministry. We are giving back to God out of the blessings that He has given us, and he uses our extravagant generosity, to bless others. And so this morning, I am not going to try and tell you why you should give to God and His church, or how much you should give, that is between you and God, but instead I am going to share with you my story. And I don’t do this to boast or to imply in any way that I am an extravagantly generous fruitful disciple. I have a long way to go. But as we begin our stewardship emphasis this year, I thought it important that I share my journey with you.
I have been a tither since I got my first job in the summer after my sophomore year in high school. I went to work at the W.T. Grant Store in Frankfort Kentucky and made minimum wage on very part time hours. When I got my first pay check, I went to the bank and opened a checking account and I think that the first check I wrote was to the church for my tithe. But I didn’t do that because I understood the spiritual principles concerning tithing. I began tithing because that’s what my parents taught me. I learned from watching them. I don’t think I really began to grasp the spiritual principles of giving until around the time Anna was born. I was already in the ministry by then. And I became acquainted with a couple that had lost a child at a very young age. And when I talked with them, I would think about Anna and wonder how I would be able to survive such a loss. And one day I asked them how they had found the strength in the face of tragedy. And they said, “We don’t think about it as loss. We knew all along that she was not really ours. God blessed us with her for a time to love and to raise. But we always knew that there would come a day, when we would give her back to Him. That’s how life is.” You know, down through the years I have lost track of that couple. But I have never forgotten what they said. And God has given me a wonderful life. He has blessed me in so many ways. He has blessed me with a wonderful wife. A daughter who has blessed me every day she has been on this earth. Wonderful friends in every place I’ve served. A great life. But from that day on, I have understood that as His disciple I must be willing to return all those blessings to Him, so that He can use them to bless others. And that no matter how extravagant my generosity might eventually become, I can never begin to match the extravagantly generous God who made me and loved me and continues to shower blessing upon blessing upon me. I truly believe, and some of you may not want to hear this, but I truly believe that unless we are extravagant givers, we will never truly bear fruit in the areas that we have talked about in these past weeks: hospitality, or worship, or faith development or mission and service.
Fruitful congregations are filled with extravagantly generous disciples.
And so if we are going to be radical in our hospitality, we must be extravagant in the giving of ourselves. We’ve got to be all in. What turns mere hospitality into radical hospitality is the investment that we make of ourselves in opening the Kingdom of God to all persons. We become extravagant givers when we are willing to give away all of the barriers that we sometimes erect in the church. We give away our prejudices, and judgmental spirits, and fears and anxieties, to give ourselves extravagantly and boldly and without reservation to welcoming all persons into the church. Jesus gave Himself completely so that you and I and all people could be a part of His Kingdom, His Church. Radical hospitality becomes extravagantly generous when we understand the church for the blessing that it is and then give it away. Return it to God, so that He can bless others through us. Fruitfulness comes when not only is our generosity extravagant, but it is also radical, in terms of the world.
The second practice we talked about was passionate worship. Well, I believe that generosity becomes extravagant when it matches our passion. The new reality of stewardship is that people don’t just give to the church. People give to what they are passionate about. And so churches that talk about giving towards the general budget are struggling. But churches that successfully connect persons with ministries that speak to their passions are thriving, even in this difficult economic environment. You see I believe that Disciples that are extravagantly generous are passionate about God in all His many attributes. When God spoke of the tithe, He did not say only bring your tithe to the storehouse that you like, or to support a certain ministry of the Temple. He said to bring your tithe to Me. To my storehouse. To my Temple. Our job is to return the tithe. God will decide where He will use it to be a blessing to others. You know Jesus loved the Temple. He didn’t always see eye to eye with the priests or agree with all that went on there, but He loved the Temple and went there as often as He could and supported it. When Karen and I were first married, I had one year left at Eastern. And so we moved in to married student housing in Richmond, and because she couldn’t find a job teaching, Karen went to work at the Britt’s Department Store. And we started to attend First UMC in Richmond. One of the reasons we did was because we saw that they had a College and Career Sunday School class. But the first Sunday we went to the class we discovered that this class was formed in the aftermath of World War II, when people were returning to school and starting careers. And so they called themselves the College and Career Class. And down through the years the membership hadn’t changed and neither had the name. So we were nearly 30 years younger then everybody else in the class. And, as it turned out, they didn’t really have a ministry for twenty something newly weds. We didn’t have children, so we couldn’t hang out with the young parents group. We felt like we were too old for the College Age ministry through the Wesley Foundation. And so we settled for just coming to worship, and though we weren’t real happy in that church, there really was not another option in Richmond at that time. But when it came time for the annual stewardship drive that Fall, though we didn’t have much to give, there was really no question that we were going to give our tithe to the church. Because when we bring our tithe, we bring it to God through the church. And while the church was not really blessing us at that point in our lives, God was blessing others through it . And then several years later, when I was appointed as Campus Minister at Eastern, we went back to that church and found great blessings through the ministries of that church. Anna was born a few years later, and grew up in the wonderful children’s ministries of the Richmond church. When our passion is in God, fruitful disciples become extravagantly generous. We can never love God more than He loves us.
And then we said that the third practice was intentional faith development, and that when we practiced faith development, we were in a process of moving on to perfection. Extravagant generosity drives our process of faith development. The more generous we are, the closer we come to living a Christ like life – to living our life in God’s image. When Karen and I began tithing, we really had no idea where the money was going to come from. Karen made very little in her job at Britt’s. And we had rent to pay, and food to buy, and educational expenses. But I can truthfully say, that in more than thirty six years of marriage, there has never been a time when we have gone wanting. God has always been faithful to provide for our needs. Half way through that first year of marriage, my grandmother decided that she needed to invest some of her money, and so she bought a small house in Frankfort, and she offered it to us virtually rent free. And so we moved to Frankfort. And eventually Karen got a teaching job and I started working at J.C. Penney and drove to class. And I was wrestling with a call to ministry. And to help me discern that call, God opened up a place as youth counselors at the church in Frankfort, and we got involved in a small group of great people who discipled us in the faith and then the custodian retired and the church hired us for that job. Looking back on those days now, I can see that not only was God blessing us through all of that, but He was also shaping us for a life of ministry in the church. God uses our intentional and extravagant generosity to His purpose and His glory.
His will for us is always good, and always perfect, and always extravagantly generous.
And it is when we commit to the tithe in our faith journey that our extravagant generosity becomes intentional. In thirty six years, Karen and I have been a part of a lot of church financial campaigns. And the church has asked us to make decisions about how much we would give for the coming year. But there has never really been a question about that. We committed to the tithe long ago and have been very intentional about that down through the years. There have been some years that have been leaner than others, but we have never wavered in our tithe and God has never failed in His blessings. And the truth is that we have considered the tithe to just be the beginning point of our giving. The tithe goes to the church first. And then there has always been more that we could share with the Methodist Home, and UMCOR, and building campaigns, and special missions, and other opportunities that God has opened before us. He has blessed us to be a blessing, in so many ways.
And then we talked about the fourth practice being risk taking mission and service. I believe that extravagant generosity is sacrificial by definition and by the example of Christ. It is often risky business putting our Tithe in the offering plate. Sometimes we don’t know how we’re going to pay our bills that week, but we bring the tithe and we trust God. But generosity does not refer just to our money, but rather refers to our complete lives. Tithing has not always been easy. It always forces me to consider the priorities of my life.
But for me the decision to tithe was easy in comparison to the decision to respond to God’s call on my life.
Fruitful disciples are those that are extravagantly generous with the life God has given us. I went to college feeling as though God was calling me into the ministry. But I spent the four years of college running from that call. I reasoned that there were other ways that I could serve Him, other than being a minister. I wanted to be a lawyer and go into politics. And so I spent my college years in student leadership positions. And I started at the UK School of Law. But, almost as soon as I started classes that first semester, I knew that I was not where God wanted me to be. I was miserable and I made everyone else miserable. But I convinced myself that everyone was miserable in Law School, so I persevered through that first year. And I did okay in the classes. But God continued to call and finally I grew weary of running. And so I finished up my last exam of the second semester, gathered up my books, walked out the front door of the law school, across Limestone and through the front door of Lexington Theological Seminary. I found the Registrar’s office, and I said to her, “My name is Mark Girard. I don’t know if you accept United Methodist Students, but I have been running from God’s call for five years and I don’t want to run anymore. How do I enroll in seminary?” That was 33 years ago, and I have never looked back. The only regrets I have had is that it took me five years to give my life to the call of Jesus Christ. To take the risk and say, ok Lord, I’m all in for you. Bless me to be a blessing. And though I have not arrived at where I need to be, I fall short every day of being all in for God, to truly reflect His image, like Paul, I press on in faith and go where Christ leads, knowing that I’ll get there some day. That’s my story and I have been blessed beyond measure.
Because I have given my life to follow a most extravagantly generous God, who took the bread and broke it and the cup and passed it, and invited all of us to a life of extravagant generosity. Through this Sacrament, He invites, He is calling all of us to lives of fruitful discipleship.