Sunday, May 6, 2018
Scripture: Genesis 28:10-22 & 2 Corinthians 8:8-9
Growing Your Garden Sermon Series, Week 1
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
I don’t have the greenest of thumbs, but I’ve learned a fair amount from my parents who are truly excellent at gardening. My dad, who is primarily in charge of the vegetable garden, has turned gardening into a 12-month process. As soon as he harvests the last vegetable, he turns his mind to what he will grow next season. He takes notes about which bean and tomato varieties he liked and which didn’t reach expectations. He scours seed catalogs as the snow starts falling. He gets his seeds planted in his small greenhouse while the snow is still on the ground, nurturing each one to life. Then he tills the ground. He waters and fertilizes. He plants. He waters some more. He weeds – sometimes. He keeps this up until his garden is producing so much of a harvest that he has people come over and take what they want. It’s a passion for him and a pleasure for both of my parents because they love going straight from garden to table all summer long.
My dad’s garden happens with planning and purpose. It doesn’t just show up every year. It produces a harvest because he has worked for one. His garden only happens because he’s intentional about it.
The longer I’ve been in ministry, the clearer it’s become to me that money is an awful lot like a garden. You have to be intentional with it. Sure, work is necessary. Planning is vital. Tending to it faithfully also helps. Typically, if you ignore it, it doesn’t do what you want it to do. Like a garden, it gets all weedy and less useful.
In the coming weeks Pastor Jill and I are going to take an intentional walk through what the Bible and Christian tradition have to say about money. We’re calling the series “Growing Your Garden” because we hope you’ll also see the parallels between good gardening and good stewardship of the resources of your life. There is so much to say, so I’m going to dive right into the topic today. I’m focusing on the biblical foundations of money. So, let’s just get started, beginning with tracing three themes in Scripture about money and possessions.
The first theme is this: God is the source of everything. At a fundamental level this means that without God having created and ordered everything, we would not have life, resources, ability to turn that life and resources into something that creates prosperity or even basic subsistence living. Therefore, any and all material blessing comes from the hand of God. It is not merely the result of our hard work, intelligence, or creativity, although that is in play as well. Without God’s provision, we don’t exist or have materials to work with. Life is a gift that God entrusts us with and expects us to use well, first and foremost for God’s continued work in the world and second for our own areas of influence – our families, community, and so on.
It should go without saying that not one of us created the earth we use to create things to sell. Not one of us is responsible for the air we breathe, without which none of this is possible. Not one of us is the source of the water we drink to sustain life. God is that source. Scripture has much to say on this as a foundation, but this morning I want to focus on the next theme of Scripture because it is fundamental to how we respond to such gracious provision.
The second theme of Scripture about money is that God assumes that people will be givers. This is an imitation of God’s overwhelming generosity. Being a giver is never optional in Scripture. Being a giver is never limited to people with disposable incomes. Being a giver is for everyone. Why? Because being a giver is a way we learn what it means to be created in God’s image – for God is a giver! – and it is the primary way we experience abundance. Scripture talks frequently about giving, but I’m going to walk us through three areas that show the progression of thinking from the beginning of the Bible on into the earliest Christian teachings.
The first area is tithing. What is a tithe? Tithing means 10%. From some of the first pages of Scripture, we see that the basic assumption of giving is that the God is who gives you 100% of everything desires that you use a minimum of 10% of that to bless others, particularly through the church but also in other ways. This leaves you 90% to steward in ways that you feel are also faithful to God’s purposes in your life – for the basics like shelter on through luxuries like a vacation.
We saw this in our text from Genesis. Jacob, who is one of the earliest figures in our faith, has a vision that connects heaven and earth – the divine and the human have a relationship that is dynamic and that is transformational for life. After that vision Jacob vows to God that he will follow God’s leading. This involves creating space for worship, but it also leads to him pledging to give back 10% of all he receives from God to God’s purposes in the world. This is one example of tithing in the Bible. There are many, many more.
This year our church is putting this into practice. The Session has vowed to take 10% of all that comes in to the church through the offering plate and to use that for God’s mission both locally and globally. We have fixed our mission budget to the actual giving of the church. We did this primarily because this is God’s calling but secondarily to be a witness to the members of the congregation and community that we are striving to be faithful to God’s expectations.
Sadly, statistics about Christian’s giving fall far short of this standard. 20% of American Christians give absolutely nothing to church or charity. Surveys show that the typical Presbyterian gives 1.5% of their annual income to the church. Interestingly, those who make under $25,000 annually have a higher likelihood of tithing than those who make more, so it’s clear to me that this is a heart issue, not an income issue.
In our own church, we’re seeing signs of improvement. Still, I would venture to say that only a small percentage of us tithe – even when we take into account other charitable giving. Here’s some good news: we are actually above average in that our average household gives almost $900 more than the national average. But we have a long way to go. We have a little over 400 households in this church, but almost 40% of those households never give to support the church. I don’t say this to shame the congregation or you specifically if you find yourself in that place. I say it to encourage you try out giving. God wants you to be a giver, so give it a shot! Imagine if we could inspire giving across the church. I wonder what it would be like not to have to worry about meeting budget but rather dreaming about how we could bless others through our generosity. Think about how much we could make a difference in our community if only we became faithful church-wide in our giving!
Alright that’s enough with statistics for now. I hope these are actually eye-opening for you, but not in the scared straight sort of way. Rather, I hope you hear these and you find the challenge of them motivational for you.
Beyond tithing, Scripture talks about bringing your first fruits to God. What are first fruits? Well, obviously this is an agricultural term, and its definition is found right in its name. First fruits are the first production of the garden, or in our case, the first blessing that enters our life. It is tempting to think about our giving as the last thing in our budget because the places where we give – the church, charity, and so on – do not bill us. In my house, we have found that it is far easier to budget with first fruits in mind. We take a look at the produce of our lives for that month, and then we budget our giving first. Then everything else that needs attention gets it. It’s far easier to give first, and frankly, that’s how the Bible talks about it.
Both tithing and first fruits are predominantly themes in the Old Testament, so we might begin to wonder about how the New Testament talks about it. Because of Jesus, does any of this change? I mean, after all, the whole 10% thing sounds awfully legalistic, and Jesus was all about grace, wasn’t he? What Paul writes to the church in Corinth is really telling here. Interestingly, the city of Corinth was well off by the standards of their day. Many Corinthians had financial well being, but that was actually a challenge for them. Paul was taking a collection for the poor in Jerusalem, and other early churches that were poor themselves were giving readily and joyfully. The Corinthians were not. Paul scolds them, but not by reminding them about any kind of legalism like you should be giving 10%! No, he holds out generosity as the new standard. Paul writes, “I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Just as the generosity of God in creation leads to responsive generosity through tithing, so too renewed generosity is held out in the massive love and grace of Jesus Christ.
So, Paul says generosity is the new standard. Paul, who was raised a Pharisee, surely believed in tithing as a baseline for giving, so I couldn’t imagine in his wildest dreams he would think that the 1.5% that Presbyterians average meets his desire for generosity! Paul is urging a move from the transactional mentality – if I give my 10%, then God will bless me! – into the transformational – when I am generous with what God has blessed me with, I learn more and more what it means to live the way God wants me to live. The transactional is fear-motivated. The transformational view is joy-driven. I hope we learn the latter!
This brings me to the third and final theme about money in Scripture. Money has a tendency to become an idol. What does that mean? Well, an idol is anything we put our trust in over and above God. Jesus certainly dealt with the same issue in his ministry with frequency. I’ve especially got in mind the young man who wants to follow Jesus but is unwilling to obey Jesus is selling all his possessions to follow Jesus. This story isn’t about money, ultimately. Plenty of people followed Jesus who had means and supported his ministry. It’s a story about the ultimate importance of money in that young man’s life. Until he was willing to entrust even that part of his life to Jesus, he was going to struggle to trust Jesus. Period. And we’re the same way.
Francis Bacon had it right when he said, “Money is a great servant but a bad master.” That captures well how the Bible handles it. When put in its proper place – that is, when it is received as a gracious gift from God that are to steward faithfully and be open-handed with – then it becomes an incredible tool to do God’s good work in the world. When it is not, well, you have experienced the clenching up of your heart or the extreme worry that comes when it feels it short supply. You’ve read the stories of embezzlement and greed that lead to jail and broken lives. It’s tragic.
For money in and of itself is not evil. But money is also not neutral. It can be used for incredible good and for unimaginable evil. But money is rightly put under the authority of the Lord. When each of us learn to give according to God’s will for us, we learn in a new way the freedom we have in Christ. For in giving we experience abundance in a way that is not otherwise available.
To close with our garden metaphor, understanding what God has to say about money is like having nutritious soil in which to plant the seeds of your life. We’ve done some of the work today getting the ground ready for planting, and we’ll be continuing in the coming weeks to give you all you need to help raise productive gardens.
Dear friends, God’s generosity is greater than our imagining. I pray we are a church made up of people with a deep desire to imitate God’s generosity, for it in giving away from ourselves that we find freedom.