A little over four years ago I joined the Grand Haven Rotary Club. There’s a lot to like about Rotary. I like that I can be connected to others who care about Grand Haven but who are not in this church. I like that I now know many local leaders. I like that I know where my lunch is coming from every Monday. But most of all I like how Rotary leverages the power of multiplication to do a lot of good things in our community and our world.
This past summer many Rotary clubs in Michigan banded together to raise money to eliminate Polio. (If you know anything about Rotary, then you know that has been one of its chief projects and one that has been hugely successful worldwide.) Basically the fundraiser went like this. Find a person willing to jump out of a perfectly good airplane—with a parachute, of course. Have others give money towards that person jumping out of said plane. Have them do it and survive. Write a big check to end polio. (For those wondering, I paid for my neighbor to jump out of a plane, and that made us both happy.)
But here is the power of multiplication. That event took all these individual donations and raised over $63,000. What is greater, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is presently matching donations to this cause at a two-for-one rate, meaning that over $190,000 went to ending polio because some people volunteered to jump out of a plane. And, if you think about it, if you have ever owned a Microsoft product, you were somehow a part of this fundraising effort because you helped make Bill Gates very rich. It’s the power of multiplication. It’s how five loaves and two fish can feed 5000.
In John’s telling, Jesus’ popularity is growing rapidly. Crowds are following him to hear his words, to experience healing, to be in his presence. They have laid aside their personal needs—shelter and food—to be around Jesus. It’s as though his presence has made all their other desires not nearly as important. Still, they’re human. They do need to eat. They need care. So, Jesus uses this opportunity not only to care for them but also to put on full display how God can take care of people even when resources seem scarce.
Every time I read the Bible, I find it fascinating how different angles of looking at the passage become apparent. This time I imagined Jesus at a church leaders’ meeting where they are trying to solve a problem to help the community. Jesus sees the hungry crowd—the problem—and turns to Philip and asks, “What should we do about it?” Philip’s response is practical. “Jesus, we do not have what it takes to do anything about this problem. It’s too big for us. Even if I saved for six months, I couldn’t buy enough food for these people.” I imagine some awkward silence among the disciples, and then Andrew grows uncomfortable enough with the silence that he fills the air with an idea he’s sure will get shot down. “Jesus, one kid’s mom packed him some lunch—five small loaves and two fish.” And then Philip’s voice trails off because how can a little bread and fish fix this problem?
It’s an issue churches face all the time. We see the needs of our community, but we struggle to figure out if we can muster the resources to address the need. But Jesus takes control of the situation. In language that is meant for all of us to think, “Jesus is presiding over a communion service,” Jesus gives thanks to God, breaks the bread, and sends it out into the crowd. It’s a reminder that the church has humble beginnings—five loaves and two fish—yet look where we are now. It took God working with ordinary people, even an unsuspecting boy and his brown bag lunch, to accomplish the mission. Yet, in their own way everyone was participating in this miracle. Every person gathered to be with Jesus. Every person sat down to receive from him. Even the small suggestions of the disciples led to God’s mighty work. This multiplication happens when each person contributes to the whole. This is what happens when each person says, “Lord, take my life. Use it. It’s yours. Be glorified in it.”
This is our fifth week in our Songs of the Faith series. Today’s song is “Take My Life,” a song we sing in two different styles at First Pres. There’s the original hymn written by Frances Ridley Havergal, which has six verses, and there’s the adaptation by Chris Tomlin and Louis Giglio, which uses the same verses and adds a chorus after every second verse, “Here am I. All of me. Take my life. It’s all for Thee.”
Before I get into the song itself, let me share with you some of the backstory on Frances Ridley Havergal, who is the first female composer to show up in our series. She was born in 1836 in England, the daughter of a pastor who wrote hymns as well. Frances was a brilliant if unusual person. She mastered Greek and Hebrew so she could read the Bible in its original languages. She was an accomplished singer who at times sang with the Philharmonic. One of the most interesting tidbits about her was that she was a downhill skier in the Swiss Alps, long before skiing was a popular activity. Makes me wonder what the chair lift situation was like in the mid-nineteenth century.
When she wasn’t skiing, she thirsted to know God through Scripture. She memorized the entire New Testament, the Psalms, Isaiah, and the Minor Prophets. At the age of 21, she was in an art gallery in Dusseldorf, Germany, where she encountered a painting of the crucifixion that had this engraved beneath: “This I have done for you. What have you done for me?” In that moment she dedicated herself to God. Despite her great talents, intelligence, and activities, Havergal suffered from poor health. Three years before her death she wrote the hymn we now sing called “Take My Life,” which is exhaustive in offering everything to God’s purposes.
There is a line midway through that offers, “take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold.” Havergal took her lyrics seriously. She had fifty pieces of heirloom jewelry in a cabinet that she claimed was “fit for a countess.” She donated the cabinet and its contents to the Church Missionary Society, only retaining a brooch to remember her parents and a locket that had a portrait of her niece who had died. In her words, “I don’t think I need tell you I never packed a box with such pleasure.” Frances Havergal died at the age of 42, all too soon for such a remarkable person, having written over fifty hymn texts.
Interestingly, her lyrics received their first melody from her father, a tune he called Patmos. It’s not the tune we sing, however. Her words were later paired with César Malan’s tune called Hendon, which, at least in my opinion, is a far better tune than her father’s tune.
Lyrically, “Take My Life” is both simple and all-encompassing. She’s not offering just bits and pieces of herself. It’s the whole of herself. Each verse offers two things. In verse one we sing, “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee. Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.” Throughout the verses our song offers so much. In verse two we offer our hands and feet. In verse three, it’s our voice and lips. In verse four it’s silver, gold, and our intellect. In verse five it’s our will and heart. In the sixth verse it’s our love and ourselves. The song holds nothing back from God. Just like the boy could offer his five loaves and two fish wholeheartedly to Jesus, so this hymn offers everything, saying, “Here is all of me. I’m yours. Take my life and use it for your purposes.” It’s no wonder that it’s the song we should be singing today particularly, which is Generosity Sunday, when together we proclaim, “Here, Lord. Take us. Take our resources. Use us for your purposes.”
Our text from 2 Corinthians 9 is a go-to text for a Sunday like this. Paul is in full fundraising mode, and it’s a bit fraught and awkward. To give you some background for this passage, Corinth was a wealthy port city, and the church there had means. But it was filled with infighting and problems. Paul established the church years earlier, and even spent a year tending to it and his relationships there. Yet, in the years since, things have not gone well. Paul has suffered imprisonment. The church has divided itself over many issues. Now that he’s out of prison, Paul has been going to all the churches he has planted to take a collection for the poor in Jerusalem. It’s a grand project that shows up all over Paul’s letters.
But, Paul has run into trouble. The smaller, poorer churches north of Corinth are rising to the occasion. They are giving at great sacrifice. But it appears that the large pledge the Corinthians have given is in doubt. Some things never change—fundraising is hard. Even Paul’s writing reflects his struggle to ask for money. N. T. Wright notes that chapters 8-9 of this letter are among the clunkier Greek writing Paul does, revealing Paul’s struggle. Wright reflects, “I have myself done a small amount of church fund-raising, and I find it comforting that the awkwardness I have always felt in asking people for money, even for causes in which I passionately believed, appears similar to what Paul obviously felt in writing these chapters. A measure of this awkwardness is that at no point in thirty-nine verses does he mention the word ‘money’ or anything close to it. He talks of ‘the grace’ and ‘the deed,’ ‘the service,’ ‘your service in this ministry,’ and of course ‘partnership,’ kononia.”
Despite his struggle to fundraise, Paul makes a clear point. We reap what we sow. If what we plant is meager, then the harvest will be meager. But if what we plant is generous, then the harvest will be generous. Our hymn asks that God take all of us and use us. Not just the bits and pieces that we are comfortable lending to God. All of us. Our lives. Our moments. Our hands. Our feet. Our voices and lips. Our money. Our intellect. Our wills. Our hearts. Our love. Ourselves. It is this kind of wholehearted giving that reflects our trust in God as the source of everything. It is this kind of wholehearted giving that reflects our belief that God can do more with our resources than we can independently. It is this kind of wholehearted giving that takes our names off of our efforts and puts the name of Jesus on them.
It is generosity season around our church, and it is a fraught time economically. But it’s also a season where each and every one of us brings our version of the five loaves and two fish to God and says, “Take these, Lord. They’re yours. Multiply them. Take care of your church, and take care of me. I trust you.” God is at work among us, and ready to use all that we will offer. Are you ready to give wholeheartedly? Can we count you in?