SCRIPTURE: Romans 15:13
DATE: October 26, 2014
Well, the last couple of weeks, my messages have been a little intense, at least to share, and probably to hear. And so I thought I would lighten things up this morning as we continue in our Faith That Matters study and I’d talk about everyone’s favorite topic to consider on Sunday morning and that is Giving.
I am reminded of the farmer who called the church office one day and said to the Administrative Assistant: “I’d like to talk to the head hog at the trough.” And the assistant replied: “Well, the pastor is not in at the moment. And,” she said rather indignantly, “we don’t refer to him like that. He deserves more respect than that.” To which the farmer replied, “I’m sorry if I offended you. I didn’t mean nothing by it. I just wanted to talk to the preacher about making a $10,000 donation to the church.” And the assistant thought about that for a moment, and then said: “Wait. I think I hear the big pig coming in now.”
Talking about giving often changes the tone of the conversation in the church. And let me let you in on a deep dark secret. Most preachers hate to preach on money as much as you hate to hear messages about money. And we can say things like nearly half of Jesus’ parables talk about money. And that there is more mention of money in the scriptures, then any other subject, but that doesn’t ease our discomfort. But the truth is that giving and discipleship and church, and a faith that matters all go hand in hand. And so occasionally we need to be reminded of our part in that aspect of our faith. So I have instructed the ushers to lock the doors so no one can escape and here we go.
Now many of you know that in a previous life, I spent 11 years as Campus Minister at Eastern Kentucky University. And the first thing I learned after being appointed as Campus Minister at Eastern was that money was always a problem in campus ministry. In fact, after my name was read by the bishop as the Campus minister at Eastern for the first time at the end of the 1983 Annual Conference, the outgoing campus minister (who by the way was a former pastor, Gene Strange) came up to me and said, “Congratulations. By the way, there’s not enough money In the checking account to pay you this month.” Money was a constant problem. And from time to time we would put out these letters, which I called “beg” letters, telling how desperate we were for money. Guilt was a major component of those letters. And we would get enough of a response to go on a little longer. Well, it did not take me long to conclude that there must be a better way. And a Board member took me aside and suggested that we stop sending out those beg letters. “Guilt” he said, “should not be the reason that people support ministry.” That instead we let people know about all that is going on in ministry on campus. About young people successfully struggling with the temptations offered by campus life, and making the transition of being away from home for extended periods of time. About young people ministering in the local nursing homes, and sharing their faith in churches all over the conference. About the Christian community that had been formed on a secular campus. And about the number of students responding to a call into ministry. If we tell the story, he said, people will want to get involved. So that’s what we did. And the response was immediate and fantastic. We discovered that people wanted to be involved in that kind of ministry, not because they felt guilty, but because they believed in what God was doing in the lives of those young people. And as long as we kept telling the story of what was happening in ministry on campus, we never had to write another beg letter. God was faithful to provide all that we needed to be in ministry on campus for eleven years. Well, that experience was a spiritual awakening for me. It transformed the way that I viewed giving in the church. And so I do not intend to preach to you this morning, as much as share with you some of Wesleyan understandings of what giving is all about.
The first thing that I realized from that experience is that God blesses faithful ministry. God does not call me or us as a church to be fund raisers. He calls us to be faithful and obedient to His will and vision for us. And if we do that, then we will not have to worry about money and resources to support the ministry. Faithful people are generous people, and a faithful church is filled with generous people. People who have a sense of God’s calling on their lives and on the church and who are striving to do their best to respond to that call.
I believe that If the church is making a positive difference in people’s lives then God through each of us will provide the needed resources. As long as we are obedient to that call. Faithful people are generous people, and God uses faithful people for great things. That has certainly been St. Luke’s history. And that’s not just a financial principal, it’s a discipleship principal.
And the second thing that I have realized is that I do not give to God, I simply return what is already His in the first place. When I stopped viewing the ministry of the Wesley Foundation as my ministry, my responsibility, and understood that it was God’s ministry, then it freed me up to be faithful and rely on God to provide. We are not responsible for the church. Whether it succeeds or fails is not our decision. As long as God has a purpose for this church, it will be accomplished, if not by us, then by somebody else. It is God’s church and He gives us the privilege and responsibility of being a part of His church. You see, everything we have, everything that we claim to be ours, really belongs to God. He is creator and Lord. Nothing exists outside of Him. And that includes me and all that I have. I have nothing to give to God. I only have the opportunity to return what is already His. In his letter to the Romans, Paul talks about a “God of hope” who fills us with joy and peace. And I look around at my life, and see that He has filled me time and again to overflowing with great blessings. With a wife who loves me, no matter what. With a wonderful family. With a mostly healthy, if slightly pudgy body, with wonderful friends such as you. I am filled. And it is out of that fullness that I return who I am to God. What I give is the overflow of His blessings. I used to make decisions about giving to the church based on how much I thought I could afford to give. Could we afford to tithe on our income. So I would carefully figure out what amount of our income 10% would be and then add that in with my bills and figure out if I could afford that. And there were some scary times. But there were several problems with that understanding of giving. First, I viewed the tithe as the end not the beginning. When I got to 10% I thought I had fulfilled my obligation, and the other 90% was mine to do with what I wanted. But the truth is that the other 90% belongs to God also. You see, I don’t think that God cares how much we give, but He does care what we give. Because He wants our whole lives. He gives us life and we give it back to Him. You see, when we stand in judgment, I’m not sure that what God will want to know is how much of our bank account we put in the offering plate. I think He’ll want to know how much of our life we gave back to Him. He’ll want to know: Did we love our neighbor completely? Did we honor our family completely? Did we feed the hungry and care for the needy completely? Did we give all to God? One of my favorite Christmas hymns is “In The Bleak Midwinter”. And I particularly like the last stanza because it really catches the spirit of Christmas:
What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if! were a Wise Man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give Him: I give Him my heart.
Tithing is a Biblical principal, and as such I commend it to you. God required the people of Israel to bring 10% or their crops to the store house so that all people could be taken care of. It was an economic principal of sharing resources so that all, even those unable to work, would be able to live. I get that. But what I don’t get is God saying the tithe is it. Once you reach that 10% you’re done. Even though you might be confronted with additional needs, you’ve given your 10%. So you’re good. True giving is a response to the infilling of God’s Spirit. One writer says:
“How shall we live?” is the bottom-line stewardship question. How can we show – by our priorities, our passion, our tears, and our joy – the loving relationship that God offers us all?
What we return to God is not a financial decision it is a life decision. I used to think that tithing was the goal, but then I began to wonder does God practice the tithe in His blessings to us. Does He only give us 10% of His grace, 10% of His blessings? Did only 10% of Christ go to the Cross for me? Did He Give only 10% of His life for me? Of course not. Christ was all in. He pours all His grace upon me. Christ gave Himself so that I might live as a blessed person here, today. Grace upon grace He offers to us. It is love without limits. Forgiveness without limits. All that we could possibly need and more. He fills us up and then He keeps pouring until we overflow into the lives of others. And it’s then that our faith matters. In Paul’s words He “fills us with ALL joy and peace”. Fills us to overflowing. And in response we give ourselves back. Give according to your heart not your bank account and you will “abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Faithful people are mgenerous people. And why is that. Well I think it goes back to the moment of creation when God made us in His image. Our God is a wildly extravagant giving God, and He created us to be wildly extravagant givers.
So how much of our time and talents and gifts do we give? Only you can decide that. C.S. Lewis once said: I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. Give out of the overflow of God’s blessings upon us. Give ourselves. Give our best.
We have been talking a lot about John Wesley the last few weeks as we have examined how our heritage as Methodists as shaped our faith that matters. Well as you might expect, Wesley had lots to say about money. But you might be surprised to know that Wesley did not teach much about tithing. In fact in his sermon on the use of money, he says:
give all you can; or in other words, give all you have to God. Do not limit yourself to this or that proportion. Render unto God not a tenth, not a third, not half, but all that is God’s (be it more or less) by employing all on yourself, your household, the household of faith and all mankind. Earn all you can, give all you can, save all you can.
Because you see, our God is a God of unlimited generosity and since we are created in His image, we are called to be persons of unlimited generosity. It is our heritage. It’s what makes our faith matter in the lives of others.
You know that I like to end my messages with a story. So this morning let me tell you a story that some of you may be very familiar with. It’s about a church that began 38 years ago in a store front on New Circle Road when persons from all of the other Methodist Churches in Lexington banded together to do a new work in an area of Lexington where there wasn’t a church. God blessed them and immediately that church began to grow and they soon expanded into a second store front. And then just three years later, God planted a vision in their heart of a field, really in the middle of nowhere, where he wanted to build his church. At that time the access to the area was very limited. There were a few houses that had been built, but really nothing else. I was just coming into the Kentucky Conference at that time, and I remember some of the conversation about the crazy church that had decided to build where there wasn’t anything else. But the people were faithful to the vision, and they began construction on a building that would serve as a sanctuary on Sunday and multipurpose room the rest of the week. The church had very little money and so individual members stepped forward to guarantee the loans that would be used to construct the church. And God blessed them. The church served as the gateway for development in that area of Lexington. An interchange was built off of New Circle Road. And the church continued to grow. They called the church St. Luke, after Luke the great physician, and began to build a heritage of offering healing ministries to the community. Ministering to the least, the last and the lost in our neighborhood and community and world. Even though they had little room. they became a distribution point for the God’s Pantry Food Bank. They opened their doors to AA groups and scouts. Members of the church became leading supporters of urban missions like Nathaniel Mission and the Hope Center and Lexington Rescue Mission. And the church continued to grow. They soon out grew their building and so they stepped out in faith and built a Sanctuary that would seat more than 300 people, less than 10 years after they started in that store front. And as they grew, God planted even larger longings in their heart to do more, serve more, heal more, reach more, love more. God sent a Christian counselor and they began offering a counseling ministry. LThey adopted the bold vision of Jesus Christ In Every Life and then set out to do all that they could as a church to make that vision a reality. And God continued to bless St. Luke; with growth and vision and strong leaders both lay and clergy. Several of the lay persons developed a ministry of their own which today is leading to renewal in many churches and Conferences across the country and in just 38 years of existence the church has gifted the General church with two pastors who were chosen by God and their peers to be Bishops in the church. For a church so young to have two of their pastors elected to the episcopacy is unheard of and not only a reflection on the quality of leadership that God has gifted St. Luke with, but also the dynamic quality of the ministry of the church. And then God placed another vision into the collective hearts of St. Luke. How many more people could the church serve if it once again expanded it’s facility to make space for a larger food pantry that could be open twice a day and serve 100s of people every week. And a kitchen that could provide the resource to feed dozens of children each week through a Kid’s Cafe ministry. And a recreation facility that could serve as the focal point for the youth of the community to come and be touched by the spirit of God. And that would allow the church to host 100s of children and parents and grandparents for Upwards Basketball and Cheerleading. And would provided classroom and meeting space for community groups as well as Sunday School and church groups. And space to host two Christian Schools. In fact the church is just beginning to grasp the unlimited potential of that facility in reaching persons for Jesus Christ. And so, as has always been the case, the church acted with boldness and great faith on the vision that God had planted in their hearts and moved to construct such a facility. There was great excitement as the facility moved towards completion and many plans were made concerning the ministries that would be housed there. And then the nation’s economy collapsed. And several years later, continues to struggle. And so the ministries that are housed in the facility are needed even more today than they were before it was constructed. The church has used the facility as a tool to reach ever greater numbers of people in the community. But now the church faces a major problem. How will we continue to fund the vision and ministry. Because while the church has bucked the general trends in the church and because of the generous nature of the church membership, continued to experience increases in giving while most churches were dealing with declining revenues throughout the recession, those increases which averaged around 2%, fell short of the 9% that was projected to be the needed annual increase to pay for that original vision. And so the church now finds itself at a crossroads. Will it continue to push forward in ministry and service, or will the resources cause it to pull back – discontinue ministries – defer the vision that God continues to place in our hearts. Because you see this story has no ending. God is still writing it. And the instrument that He is using are the people of the church. There are few places where God’s image of unlimited generosity has been more evident than in the story of St. Luke Church. And now it’s up to us to continue to write the story of a faith that matters through this church for our community.
You know, I recently read that one of the reasons that churches tend to struggle with resources is because they fail to ask. So this morning I’m asking. I’m asking that all of us step up and let God use us to continue the amazing story of St. Luke UMC. I know that he continues to cast his vision in our midst and that vision challenges each of us to respond. So I am asking today to respond in four ways.
First, I am calling all of us to enter into a two week period of prayer and fasting, asking God to continue to plant his vision in the collective hearts of the church and bring clarity to where we fit into that vision.
Secondly, if you are behind in your giving for 2014, do all that you can to catch up. And if possible add a little to your giving for the remainder of the year.
Thirdly, Karen and I have decided to make an additional offering over and above our tithe to help the church erase the deficit that we face going into the last few weeks of the year. We don’t do it out of a sense of duty or obligation. We do it because we value so much the wonderful ministries of the church, especially the outreach that is possible because a few years ago the church had the courage to act on the vision that God had placed on your heart. We weren’t here then but we want to share in that now. And if the church needs some extra help to sustain that vision, we want to be a part of that. And God has blessed us so that we can be a blessing. I’ll never forget going to a church service several years ago in a predominantly African American Church and they took up the offering in the usual way but later in the service the preacher stood up and announced that they had not received enough in the offering plate to meet the needs of the church, and so they were going to pass the plates again and keep going until they received all they need. Well, we’re not going to do that but I will leave this basket up here for the next few weeks for any who want to join with Karen and I.
And then finally, spend these next few weeks seeking God’s guidance concerning your giving for 2015. I told you some time ago that Karen and I have tithed for our entire marriage, but in studying our Wesleyan Heritage I have been convicted that I need to be giving all that I can if I am going to truly be a reflection of the image of God within me. That’s my heritage as a Wesleyan Christian. Because he was not welcome in the church even though he was an Anglican Priest, Wesley’s first placement was as a University Professor. He was paid about 40 pounds a year. About $64 in today’s dollars. He lived on 28 pounds and gave away the rest. That established the pattern for his life. 50 years later, when he was 88 years old, because of sales of his books and pamphlets, Wesley had one of the highest incomes in England at 300 pounds, and he lived on 28 pounds and gave away the rest. So during our Covenant Service on November 9, we’ll have the opportunity to respond as God reveals His will and where we fit in, to us.
So I’m asking – no that’s not right – since God placed this in my heart – I believe that God is asking. What are you doing with the overflow of the blessings that God has poured into your life?