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Giving Ourselves First to the Lord (Malachi 3:6-12; II Corinthians 8:1-15)

You are about to become the recipient of my 34th annual stewardship of money sermon. I talk forthrightly about money to all the churches I pastor once a year because I believe that what we do or don’t do with our money is such a tell-tale sign of where we are in our relationship with God and with one another. Our money habits tell us if we are living by our faith in God or living out of fear or whether we are somewhere in-between, or whether we are living in a way that acknowledges God’s grace toward us or are oblivious to it, or whether God is our God or money is our god. If you want to know what you really believe in life, look at your checkbook and your daytimer. Those two things tell the story and do not lie to us. What you and I do with our money and our time says more about what we really believe and consider important than anything else.

I am glad to have the apostle Paul with us this morning as we talk about money. As a pastor myself, I find it so interesting to see how Pastor Paul talked to the church at Corinth about money, which gives us a framework for talking about it ourselves.

As far as we can piece together, Paul was taking up a collection from all of his churches to aid the poor Jewish Christians at the church in Jerusalem, who were going through some kind of crisis, probably one of the periodic famines that would hit the area. The church at Corinth had apparently made a pledge to participate in the collection, but they hadn’t fulfilled their pledge completely. So II Corinthians 8 is Paul trying to give them good reasons to fulfill that pledge. He’s inspiring and motivating them to actually give what they have pledged.

Reminds me of the story of the pastor who said one Sunday to his congregation, “I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that the Lord has come through for this church in a big way and provided everything we need for next year’s budget.” This brought people to their feet clapping and yelling and high-fiving each other and slapping each other on the back. When they all settled down and everything got quiet again, the pastor said, “Now the bad news. All that money the Lord provided for next year’s budget, which was on its way to the church, for some reason or another got stuck in all of your pockets. This morning we’ve got to work together to try to jostle it loose!” Paul is trying to jostle loose the money the Corinthian church had pledged.

Paul begins by telling them about the churches to the north of them in Macedonia, which would include the church at Philippi, to whom Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians. Those churches had come through for the collection in a spectacular way, even though they were economically in much worse shape than the Corinthians. The Macedonian Christians, Paul says, in spite of their poverty, had come through with a wealth of generosity, giving according to their means and even beyond their means, even begging Paul for the opportunity to share in the collection. Paul explains that they were able to do this because they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to Paul and his fellow church workers and the collection. It seemed almost like they had something akin to Jesus’ Garden of Gethsemene experience where they submitted themselves and their money and things first to the will of God, even if it conflicted with their own will. Once they gave themselves first to the Lord, they felt like the Lord was directing them to participate generously in Paul’s collection.

So how we should we read this? Is this Paul’s idea of peer pressure? Is he using one group of churches to inspire another, or to shame another into action? Paul is no doubt setting up a comparison of some kind.

Years ago I was with a group of 600 Presbyterian pastors at a national Presbyterian clergy retreat at the well known Snowbird Ski area and conference center near Salt Lake City Utah, where one of the speakers was Baptist preacher and college professor, Tony Campolo, who is entertaining and funny and serious, and something of a loose cannon. The planners of the retreat had come up with a particular theme for the retreat, but Tony decided we needed to be challenged more in the area of stewardship. He told us he had just received the previous week some statistics that showed that Presbyterians had the highest income per capita of all the Christian denominations in the United States, but they were among the lowest in giving to their churches when you look at giving as a percentage of income. Presbyterians, he reported to us, give to their churches an average of just 2 and ½% of their annual income.

That information inspired him, he told us, to take the old time hymn “I

Surrender All” and rewrite the lyrics to update it and make it more relevant

to modern-day Presbyterians for this retreat. Then he said, “Now I am

going to sing for you that rewritten hymn.” So picture if you will this huge

auditorium, where 600 Presbyterian pastors are sitting listening to a Baptist

preacher sing to them. Here is what I heard Tony sing that day:

2 and ½ percent to Jesus I surrender,

2 and ½ percent I freely give.

I surrender 2 and ½ percent.

I surrender 2 and ½ percent.

2 and ½ percent to Jesus I surrender.

I surrender 2 and ½%

Then he said, “Now help me here. Where are you Presbyterians getting this 2 and ½% business? Baptists and Presbyterians disagree on some things, but I think we all still read the same Bible, and the Bible I’ve read says nothing about 2 and ½%. It mentions 10% a number of times. It even talks about people who went above and beyond 10%, giving extravagantly. Zacchaeus gave 50%. Barnabas sold a property and gave 100% of the proceeds to the church. Mary gave up a whole year’s salary to anoint the feet of Jesus. All the disciples gave up 100% to follow Jesus.

Tony was so serious and funny at the same time that I wasn’t sure at the time exactly how to take him. He might have been inspiring us and shaming us at the same time. But he did make us think that day about our own giving and whether our level of giving was something consistent with the Lord who is at the center of our faith, who though he was rich became poor for our sakes. He made us wonder whether our level of giving was consistent with the giving of the great cloud of witnesses who have lived the Christian life before us. He made us wonder whether our level of giving was consistent with people who had given themselves first to the Lord, like the churches in Macedonia. He made us wonder if we were being Biblical in our approach to giving, or just sort of making it up as we go.

2 and ½ percent. In those churches where I have had access to the full data, giving has been in that same range. And my observation is that level of giving has become comfortable for Presbyterians around the country. But that level of giving, I’ve also noticed, keeps Presbyterian churches chronically underfunded. I’ve worked with too many Finance Committees over the years who have to figure out what to cut from the church budget each year because their own members' giving leave them so strapped for cash. It gets discouraging and depressing.

The churches I am in these days often want to know where they fall in comparison. In case you are wondering, Holy Cow Consulting said last year that the average giving in this church is 1 3/4% of income, which could be skewed by the fact that 300 people on the active church roll have given nothing to this church in at least the last two years.

We Presbyterian Christians see our giving as a private decision we make apart from others, but be reminded that your private giving decisions have very public consequences for the church. I’d love to have at least one church sometime where all the programs the church feels called to provide are fully funded. I’d love to have a church that I could take on the road with me and brag about its generosity, just liked the apostle Paul bragged about the churches of Macedonia.

The churches of Macedonia, Paul says, gave so generously in spite of their poverty because they gave themselves first to the Lord. Have you ever gone to the Lord in prayer and said, “Lord, my life, my money, my things, my talents, my time—they’re not really mine, all of these you gave to me, they belong to you, and now I give back to you what has been yours from the beginning. Now Lord, I’ve got my own ideas about what I want to do with them, but show me what you want me to do with all of them because I know that those things would be better.” That's what it means to give yourself first to the Lord.

Then Paul gives a second reason to give. He writes, “I want you to excel at everything. You already excel at so much. Add generosity to all the things you already excel at.”

I feel that way about Central Pres. You do so many things well. But unless all those things are undergirded by a spirit of generosity among all the members, unless everyone is fully invested in this church, including financially, you risk not doing all those other things so well in the years ahead. Churches, in order to thrive, need to be hitting on all cylinders, including generous giving. As Paul says, as you excel at other things, excel also in giving.

Paul’s third reason for wanting them to give is that he is testing the genuineness of their love, and Paul wants them to pass the love test.

Love was defined by Jesus Christ, Paul reminds us, who though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich. In other words, love, as defined by Jesus Christ, is about divesting yourself of what you have, giving yourself and your things away for others, sharing your abundance with others. Paul called it Christ’s generous act.

In our scripture this morning, the apostle Paul uses the Greek word “Charis” five different times. Charis means grace or the free gift, something we do not work for or earn or compete for. It is just given to us.

I love the story of the businessman from New York who drives south on business for the first time. He sees a billboard for a restaurant advertising authentic southern cooking. He wants to immerse himself in the culture so he pulls off and goes in and orders several items off an ala carte menu. When he gets his plate, he identifies everything he's ordered except one thing, and so he asks the waitress, "What's this white grainy gloppy stuff on my plate?" And she says, "That's grits." And he says, "Grits? I didn't order any grits." And she says, "Oh, well, you don't order it, it just comes."

Well, there's a great definition for God's grace: you don't order it, it just comes. Paul uses the Greek word Charis to refer both to the grace we have received in Christ, and the grace we give to others as a faithful response to the grace we have received from Christ.

The grace, or free gift, that was given to us was Jesus Christ, and when we finally realize how great the grace that was given to us in Christ, we become grace to others, we give ourselves and our things away to others because Christ gave himself away for us. We give generously when we catch the vision of a world imbued with God’s grace in Christ. I have a feeling that the churches of Macedonia were able to give so generously because they had caught the vision of the grace-filled world Christ had introduced and had become in faithful response the embodiment of God’s grace to the church in Jerusalem.

So when Paul says that he is testing the genuineness of their faith, he is trying to find out if they have yet learned to love like Christ, which means divesting oneself and one’s things for the benefit of others.

The fourth and final reason Paul offers as to why they should give has to do with his understanding of what the new life in Christ teaches us to do whenever we end up with an abundance of money. When we experience abundance Paul understands through Christ that it is meant for sharing. In our American experience whenever we enjoy an abundance of money, we feel a cultural pressure to expand our lifestyle. Paul sees abundance through the lens of Christ as an opportunity to share.

With the churches of Macedonia, we ask you to give yourself first to the Lord and then to the church. With Paul we want you to catch the vision of the grace-filled world introduced by Christ. We ask you to excel at generosity as much as you excel at so many things as a church. We ask that you give at a level that expresses the genuineness of your love for Christ and the church. We ask that you give at a level worthy of your high calling in Jesus Christ, who showed us how to live this earthly life when he who was rich became poor so that all of us might be rich. We ask that you share your abundance with your church this year.

You have all kinds of causes you can give to and you do. I do, too. At this time in my life, I, too, am accumulating churches and others worthy causes to give to. I ask that you favor Central Pres church in your giving this year, not because other causes are less worthy, but because you as a church will be starting a new chapter together with a new installed senior pastor new church staff. The Lord is doing a new thing among you. Now undergird that newness with a new generosity in your giving. Fully fund the new thing that is happening so that all this newness has a chance to really take root and remake this church according to what the Lord intends for it. I am asking those of you who have gotten in the habit of giving little or nothing to the church to start giving to the church according to your means, as Paul puts it. And I am asking those of you who have been so faithful in your giving all along to consider stepping up your giving this year. If you are invested in the stock market, remember that you are having yet another big banner year.

How much should you give to the church this year? The answer will be different for every one of you. But I think the apostle Paul has just the right approach: give yourselves first to the Lord, just like the churches of Macedonia, and then give to Central Pres what you sense the Lord is calling you to give.

And as Presbyterian Christians let us remember especially the challenging words of our Lord Jesus Christ: “to whom much is given, much is expected.”


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