Generosity is the Answer

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Sunday, May 20, 2018
Growing Your Garden Sermon Series
Scripture: Acts 2:37-47 & Luke 12:13-21
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

Jesus just doesn’t let us get comfortable, does he? I think most of us prefer to think of Jesus as kind, accepting, and loving, but we push out of our minds how prickly he could be to people, especially to those who wanted to bend Jesus to their own way of being in the world. Today’s passage has us encountering a prickly version of Jesus. He’s been teaching crowds of people. Since he’s attracting crowds, it’s safe to assume that a lot of people like to hear what he’s saying. It’s kind of like if you had a political rally today, and the candidate was surrounded by adoring crowds. They’re holding up signs. They’re cheering on cue. Everything is going well, and then all of a sudden the candidate goes off script and calls out, “And do you know what I think is a great idea? Doubling our taxes! Who’s with me?” And the crowd drops their signs and just stares.

Here is Jesus teaching, and people are loving it. Out of the crowd a person cries out, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” The crowd all turns to stare at the man who spoke up. There is silence. So, Jesus speaks up and asks him a question, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Jesus pushes things back on this man by answering with a question. Then he follows up with a difficult parable about a rich man who keeps building barns to store up all that he has, but never learns to share with others. It’s as though Jesus was peering right into this man’s heart. This is not about what’s fair, Jesus is saying. It’s about your own greed. Prickly Jesus calls him “friend,” but leaves it to him to decide what he should do with this parable. The ball is in his court.

I’ve been around people who heard a message that cut to their hearts before.  If you were here two Sundays ago, I told you about how our offering plate helped purchase a used van for the fantastic children’s and youth ministries going on in Orange Walk, Belize. Today I want to share another Belize story with you. Pastor Ed Perez and his church, Koinonia Ministries, have a call to “reach Central America one child at a time.” To do this, they organize children’s ministry trainings throughout Central America. Sometimes they hold those trainings right in their church, and a couple of years ago, I had the privilege of taking an adult mission team down to be a part of that training.

Over the course of two days, Pastor Ed and his church taught over 150 others a fun curriculum they had developed, but we had no idea until we arrived that they were teaching about giving. So, I need you to use your imaginations with me for a moment. My last church was in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, which is one of the wealthiest areas in the entire country. With me on that trip were a lawyer, an accountant, a special education teacher, an engineer, and a woman who retired from her work in her 50s because she had handled her money well. These are all wonderful people, who had given a week of their lives and spent around $1800 each to go in mission. They got out of their comfort zones, worked hard, and loved well. By my rough estimate, among us was an average income of over $100,000 per year. The average income in Belize is $7,000. And here we had before us these wonderful Belizean friends who were passionately teaching each other about God’s generosity and call on their lives to be givers.

So there we were, sweating with no air conditioning in the church, while our friends taught about giving. The first lesson was this, “Our tithe is an act of obedience to God.” My mission team leaned over to me and whispered, “What’s a tithe?” I told them 10% of what comes our way. Their eyes enlarged a bit, but then they settled back in. The next lesson later in the day was “Our offerings are an act of love.” This time they didn’t even bother whispering. You mean there’s a difference between a tithe and an offering? I thought it was kind of just a pairing like “thoughts and prayers” but that they were just really the same thing. No, for them they were saying that an offering is over and above the 10% we give to support larger projects that God is doing.

We broke for lunch, which helped my mission team calm down, but then came the third lesson: Sowing is an act of faith. Now, they’re all staring at me – you mean that these Belizeans give a tithe, an offering, and a third gift over and above those? (They treated sowing kind of the way we treat a capital campaign, by the way.) But, they weren’t done. The fourth lesson was coming: Giving to the poor is an act of mercy. So in addition to those other three areas, they gave more to support the poor in their midst.

I could see the mental calculations going on in our mission team. Do you mean to tell me that these Belizeans who make $7,000 per year on average give away upwards of 25% of it? And of course lying just below the surface of their concern was a question for themselves – “why do I think tithing and generosity is so hard? If they can do it, surely I can do it too!”

At this root of their discovery is that generosity is both a mental state and a commitment. The Belizeans already had the faith that God was going to take care of them, so they trusted and obeyed God. Because they did that, they weren’t running around thinking about how much they had to sacrifice to be faithful. They just were. And while they were giving with such extravagance, they were also content with their small, cinder block homes and with the basics of life.

I tell you this story because I think it helps reframe for all of us what generosity is. It also reminds us that we are so unbelievably blessed – even if we’re barely making it paycheck to paycheck. There is no shortage in this church or community, as long as we learn the path of generosity that God has laid out for us.

Now, before I get further into this, I didn’t return home and start teaching everyone that they had better pony up 25% of their incomes to Christian causes! As you’ll hear in the coming minutes, I want to remove any whiff of legalism from our ideas of generosity. But! (And this is a big but!) I wanted these comfortable Christians from Bloomfield Hills to have that strong sense of challenge in their lives. These new friends in Belize were learning how to be faithful with what they had. I wanted to have my friends in Michigan know the joy of trusting God’s provision the way they experienced on this mission trip. And I was privileged to see so many of them come home and open their lives up in ways they hadn’t done previously. Their generosity grew because of this encounter. Like the man in our Jesus story earlier, the ball was back in the courts of those who had encountered a new way of being in the world. They were challenged, but it was up to them to determine how to respond.

I have received several good questions from members of this congregation about this sermon series, so I wanted to take some time this morning to address some of them, but I think you’ll find a pattern in my answers. To totally understate it, I think Jesus was pretty smart, particularly in how he answered the questions of others. Instead of offering them a simple way, Jesus often presented them with a challenge that put the ownership of the answer back on the person. And I think that’s the best way to answer these questions today because I want each of us to think seriously about the implications of God’s generosity to us, as well as how we live out those implications personally. So here are some of the questions:

First question: Does my tithe go only to the church?
We talked about how the tithe was 10% of your income. Keep in mind that income comes in various forms – paychecks, dividends, Social Security, and so on. Some believe that the tithe should go to your local church and that you give over and above that to other causes you care about. I know some people who split theirs 50/50 between their church and other Christian causes. Personally, we give the majority of our tithe to the church we serve, reserving a small portion of it for other Christian causes. I do believe that the beautiful thing about giving to the church is that it takes my name off of my money and giving and puts Jesus’ name on it. I love that our church supports so many missions, and I’m glad that a portion of what I give here has impact outside of the church. Also, if we were giving to Public Radio, for example, we would not count that toward our tithe. It’s a cause we believe in, but it’s not tightly connected to God’s mission in the world. But that’s just us.

I don’t think there is a right answer to this question, although I hope that the church is a major part of your generosity. To answer the question, I would ask you: What feels generous to you?

Second question: Do I tithe off of the gross income or off of the net?
When we get legalistic about anything in faith, I think we get lost. This is a great example of getting lost in the details. Should you tithe based on your gross income or your income after taxes? To that I give you the same answer: What feels generous to you? Go with that. I will say that I’ve never met a person who regretted being more generous than less so! The same goes to any and all changes in tax laws. If your giving is predicated solely on how it benefits you in your taxes, you’re missing the point. Sure, we’d love to have a tax benefit for our giving, but even if the government completely eliminated it, that doesn’t change God’s desire for you to imitate God’s generosity!

Third question: Everybody is asking for money. How do I decide how to distribute my giving faithfully?
This is a really great question. Over the past few decades the marketplace for your charitable giving has vastly expanded. In the 1970s, over half of giving went to religious institutions. In the last decade, that number has shrunk to 33% of giving, while institutions with large fundraising departments like hospitals, foundations, and arts institutions have claimed a much larger share of giving. This is a really big deal when it comes to the future viability of the church. After all, in the 1950s, a large portion of people just showed up every Sunday and gave. There was no need to even talk about it. Today, however, that is just not the case.

That being said, it is fine to give to other causes. I encourage it! How do you decide what to give to the various things that you’re passionate about? Well, if you have a spouse, you should have those conversations together. If you don’t have someone in your life like that, then I’d find someone who can walk with you in your decision-making. I’d prioritize and budget for what you feel is best. Never give out of a place of guilt, but find a place of joy for your giving. But, finally, I ask you, what feels generous to you? Go with that.

Fourth question: I’m just getting started as a giver. How do I grow in generosity?
Perhaps you haven’t thought much about this before, and giving 10% away seems like climbing Mount Everest. For some you just need to pull of the Band-Aid and just do it because you know it’s the only way you’ll get it done. For others, you need to develop a plan for incremental growth. Set small goals that lead to the bigger goal. I think as you come to find joy in giving, you’ll come to see how it gets easier the more you do it. Through it all ask your yourself, does this feel generous to me?

Living into the every day practicalities of personal finance and giving is not the most fun thing we do in life. As our gardens grow, they require attention to help them thrive. They need to be weeded. They need to be watered. They need to be trimmed so that they can be their most fruitful. Dwelling with these questions and questions like them and faithfully answering them is a part of having a fruitful garden, ready for a harvest. I pray that you seek answers to your questions, but that the fundamental answer to them all is this: generosity.

Today is Pentecost, but instead of the flaming tongues of fire descending upon the first believers, I chose a passage of its aftermath. Why? Because it shows how Spirit-filled people can come together and live in a beautiful way in this world. God had reframed their worlds, and they knew generosity. They shared what they had. They helped any who had need. They ate together – with glad and generous hearts, Acts tells us.

Would that we come to resemble the early church in how we share, experience life together, and learn generosity. Would that we have glad and generous hearts!