February 16, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
FAITH PRACTICES: GIVING
I Corinthians 16:1-3
The fifth in a series of five.
Tony Campolo and his son, Bart were taking a bus tour of downtown Chicago. The bus stopped and the tour guide pointed to an alley. He said, “This is where the notorious gangster, John Dillinger was gunned down by police. Over his long criminal career, John Dillinger stole millions of dollars. But on the day he died, all he had left was 32 cents.”
Bart Campolo spoke up in a voice loud enough for everyone on the bus to hear: “What great timing!”
You can’t take it with you. But you also don’t want to outlive your money. You want to have enough to meet your needs even if you live way longer than you expect. So there are retirement advisors out there who will help you come up with the magic number. This is how much you need to have accumulated before you retire so you can rest assured that you will have a little more than 32 cents left on the die you die.
Financial advisors have a consistent message: “Plan for the day you die, so you will still have money left.” The message of Jesus is different. “Plan for the day after the day you die, so you will know you have used the money God entrusted to you in the best possible way.” In other words, when my time on this earth is over, how will I evaluate my financial life then? And since it really all belongs to God anyway, how will God evaluate my financial life? How will God evaluate my stewardship?
Here’s what I think. People seldom look back over their lives and wish they had accumulated more stuff. People often look back over their lives and wish they had been more generous.
Today we are wrapping up our series on faith practices. We have looked at spiritual gifts, serving, worship, and communion. Today we look at giving. Those three short verses in I Corinthians have a lot packed inside that we are going to unpack. But first I want to try to lay down a theological foundation for this topic. I want to start with the single Bible verse I’m guessing you all know. John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” God gave. God gives. That is the nature of God. God is a giver.
Here’s another verse you may have heard before: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). God is a giver. And we were created in the image of God. Ergo, we were created to be givers! We are meant to be generous! Life works best that way. And for a good reason. That’s the way God intends for life to work!
It’s tax time. Some of us tend to get on this early and some of us tend to file for an extension year after year. I am one of the early birds. It takes me about a day to get everything ready to take to my accountant. I had that day a few days ago, and my favorite part of that day was running the adding machine to come up with the grand total of our charitable contributions for the year. There are a lot of people who give away a lot more money than Helen and I do. I’m sure they agree with what we have discovered. It makes us feel so good to know how much we have given away!
Our son, Collin delivers pizzas. The other day, he delivered one to a modest looking home. The charge was around $20. He was handed a $100 bill and told to keep the change. He was pretty excited about that. But here’s my question: Who do you think felt better about that extremely generous tip? The one who got it, or the one who gave it?
We were made to be generous. So it shouldn’t surprise us that generous people are happy people. One of my favorite recently discovered authors is Arthur Brooks. He wrote a book with an interesting title: Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America – and How We Can Get More of It. Here’s what he says:
To the extent that happiness can be “bought,” it is with charity: giving of effort, time, and money makes people much happier.
It is counter-intuitive. It seems we ought to be able to spend money on ourselves that will make us happier. The more we spend, the happier we will be. Maybe in the short run, but in the long run, it’s just the opposite. Selfishness is going to make us miserable. Because we weren’t made for that. God made us to love and to serve and to give.
Our scripture today is about a special offering Paul is collecting for Christians living in poverty in Jerusalem. There are several other places in the New Testament that make reference to this offering (Acts 11:27-30; Acts 24:17; Romans 15:25-31; II Corinthians 8:1 – 9:15). Clearly this was something that was important to Paul. But why? I’m sure there were plenty of poor people living in Corinth and in every other place where Paul was planting all these churches. Doesn’t charity begin at home?
There’s something going on here that may not be obvious at first. Paul was a Jew who had become a Christian. And Paul’s big deal was that you don’t have to be a Jew first before you become a Christian. You can be a Gentile. The word “Gentile” just means anyone who is not a Jew. Paul was “Apostle to the Gentiles,” traveling all over the world, bringing the Good News of Jesus to anyone who would listen.
But Paul was painfully aware of the long-standing enmity between Jews and Gentiles. They just didn’t like each other. That really bothered Paul. But how could that ever change? Paul was convinced God was creating a new family, where there would no longer be “Jew or Gentile . . . slave or free . . . male or female.” One day we are all going to be “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). That’s God’s plan, but that’s not the way things are. So what can Paul do to make the way things are the way God wants them to be?
He had an idea. What if he could get the Gentiles to send a generous love gift to the Jews? They didn’t have much to give. Most of them were poor, too. But if they would give sacrificially out of love for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, maybe that might be a game changer. It really was a crazy idea. Kind of like University of Idaho alumni raising money to send to Boise State. Or vice versa. Nobody would do that. Except in this case, they did. It happened. And apparently it did change things. That’s our first point today. 1) Giving changes things.
The second point: 2) Giving changes us. There’s something else going on in these three short verses that might be easy to miss. Paul says, “On the first day of every week . . .” (16:2). Not on the second day, or the third day, or the seventh day, if you have anything left over by then. It has to be “on the first day.” Why?
Early Christians would have recognized that phrase, “on the first day.” Because that’s the day Jesus rose from the dead. This is a significant verse if you have ever wondered why most Christians worship on Sunday instead of on the Sabbath, which is Saturday. It’s because Sunday is Resurrection Day, and right here is the first indication we have that Christians were already starting to gather on that day for worship.
Here is why this is important. The resurrection changes everything. It certainly changes us and the way we view money. There is capitalism. There is socialism. There is trickle-down economics. There is Keynesian economics. This is resurrection economics! Here’s how Jesus says it works:
Truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds (John 12:24).
Jesus gave his life away, but he gets it back. And he gets back more than he had before. This is a basic financial principle. If you hold on tight to your money, greed will wreck your soul. Death and the IRS will eventually take your money. You can’t take it with you, but you can send it on ahead. You can give. If your life has been changed by the resurrection, you will give.
And when you give, it starts a chain reaction of generosity that is nothing short of miraculous. There was that boy. All he had were five loaves of bread and two small fish. He could have eaten them. Instead he gave them away. You give something away and it’s gone forever, right? Not in this case. Everyone in that crowd of 5,000-plus was fed and they had twelve baskets full of leftovers.
Maybe the leftovers got sent home with the boy. I imagine his mother saying, “Son, I sure hope you have something left from the lunch I sent with you, because I don’t know what we’re going to eat tonight.” And he says, “Yeah, Mom, I have a few leftovers, and we’re going to have to buy a new fridge to hold them all!”
3) Giving takes discipline. It doesn’t just happen. And so Paul tells the Corinthians to “set aside a sum of money in keeping with [your] income” (16:2). What’s generous for me is not what’s generous for Bill and Melinda Gates. And what’s generous for that widow Jesus told about who gave the two copper pennies is not what’s generous for me. We give in proportion to what we have.
And we give in a disciplined, systematic way. Not just when we feel like it. Paul wants the Corinthians to “set aside” what they intend to give before he gets there. He wants them to think it over in advance and decide what is the right amount. He does not want them to be swayed by his emotional appeal.
Benjamin Franklin had a story about this. He once went to hear George Whitefield preach. Whitefield was a good friend of John Wesley and was generally considered the better preacher of the two. Franklin had in his pocket a few copper coins, three or four silver dollars, and five gold pieces. He had decided in advance he wasn’t going to put a thing in the offering plate. But then Whitefield started in. He talked about poor, starving children. He tugged at the heartstrings. Hard. Practically everyone was crying, Benjamin Franklin included. So he changed his mind. The least he could do was give those copper coins. Then he decided he would part with the silver dollars as well. By the time the offering plate reached him, he had put in the gold. His pockets were empty.
He was sitting next to someone who knew how persuasive Whitefield could be so he had left all his money at home just in case. He didn’t want to be tempted. But this person was moved to give, same as Benjamin Franklin. He tried to borrow money from a friend, but here’s what he was told: “At any other time I would lend to thee freely, but not now, for thee seems to be out of thy senses.”
Paul is not telling the Corinthians to give when they are out of their senses. He is not telling them to give when they feel moved to give. He says: “On the first day of the week, set it aside.”
4) Giving is for everyone. Paul says, “each one of you” should set something aside. We tend to be nicer than that. We tell those who are on the edge financially that we don’t expect them to give. We understand their circumstances. We don’t want them to do without. And besides, we have people with greater resources who are perfectly capable of taking up the slack.
In our federal tax system, the poor don’t pay income tax. You have to reach a certain threshold of income before you owe a thing. Why not do it that way at church? The wealthy pay a little more so the not so wealthy can pay nothing? Why is Paul saying it’s important for everyone to give?
Again, there is something going on here that needs a little explanation. In the ancient Roman world, of which Corinth was a part, there were “patrons” and there were “clients.” Patrons had wealth and power. Clients had neither. They depended on their patron, almost like children depend on their parents. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement, but it was always clear who was in the position of power and importance. So these lowly clients would even walk down the street blowing a trumpet as a way of honoring their patron.
That’s the way the Corinthians understood giving. The purpose was to enhance the status of the wealthy and the powerful at the expense of the poor and the weak. But now Paul is presenting this new way. The poor no longer grovel before the wealthy. They no longer blow trumpets. Now everyone gives. Everyone’s generosity matters. If you don’t have much, you don’t give much, but still you give. Everyone has enough to be generous. The idea not that everyone’s giving is needed, but that everyone needs to give.
It’s a basic need. We were made by God to be happiest and healthiest and functioning at our best when we are givers, not just takers.
It took me a while to figure this out. I wasn’t exactly born with an overwhelming desire to put others ahead of myself. Children can be selfish. We adults need to teach them to share and to give, so they don’t stay selfish.
Well . . . yes and no. Because I also have seen children who know a lot more about giving than we adults. They teach us more than we teach them.
I found this video that comes from a Boys and Girls Club in Atlanta, Georgia. I’m pretty sure they would have had similar results if the children interviewed were children right here at our Nampa Boys and Girls Club. Let’s take a look.
(YouTube: “The Other Christmas Gift”)
Since God is a giver, since we are made in the image of God, since giving is at the core of who we are, maybe this desire to give isn’t something we learn as we get older so much as it is something we forget as we get older. But we don’t have to forget. We can keep learning as we keep practicing and as we keep experiencing the joy of giving.
God, we praise you for your generosity. You are God “from whom all blessings flow.” We could not give had you not first given to us. All that we have and all that we are is a gift from you. We confess that our fear gets in the way of our faith. We are afraid that if we give away too much, there will not be enough left for ourselves. And God, we know you want us to take care of ourselves and those who depend on us. We pray for those who struggle mightily to do that. But help us to take a hard honest look at our own life circumstances – every circumstance is different – and to dare to be as generous as we possibly can be, and a little bit more. That’s the way you made us. That’s the way life works best. That’s the way we glorify you, our Maker. In Jesus’ name, Amen.