October 2, 2016 – Gifts are for giving

Pentecost 20   October 2, 2016   Psalm 112, 1 Corinthians 12:4-12, Deuteronomy 14:22-29, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15         Gifts are for giving

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The comedian Jack Benny was famously stingy in the radio and tv roles he played. His on-air, on-screen personality bordered on miserliness. (He once had a pay phone installed in his home kitchen…) In one skit on his tv show Benny is walking along when a man comes over, and points a gun at him. Benny says, “what are you doing? Put that gun away.” The man says, “This is a stick up, buddy. Your money or your life.”  Benny doesn’t reply. The man says again: “I said your money or your life!” … Long pause…. “What’s it gonna be buddy – your money or your life?” …Finally, Benny says, “I’m thinking about it… I’m thinking about it…”

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We’re thinking – aloud – about life and money today. And the good news is – it doesn’t have to be either or. Its possible to have both money and life.

The bad news is – its also possible to have plenty of money – and not get robbed or shot… but still not have life.

But of course we’re here today to hear the good news. The good news of Jesus Christ. And as he so often does, Jesus tells us how to have it all, in just a few words – (the words of our Thought For the Day): “Give, and it will be given to you… for the measure that you give will be the measure you get back.”

Some call this karma – the law of cause and effect. The bible speaks of reaping what we sow. “What you sow, you shall reap”(Galatians 6:7). And whatever we call it, this is one of those basic laws of the universe that applies, whether or not we believe laws of the universe. Whether or not we believe it: The measure we give will be the measure we get back….

Our psalm today tells us those who give generously to the poor will themselves be blessed with wealth, prosperity, and enduring righteousness. Paul quotes from this same psalm in our reading from Second Corinthians.

Of course we know of some people who are notoriously ungenerous, yet who appear to prosper. We also know people who are generous, yet poor. The word translated here as prosperity is probably better translated as flourishing – meaning abundantly blessed with life. We can indeed always expect to be blessed with enough and to share when we give – though we should not always expect material wealth – which, as the bible also explains, is a frequent source of spiritual peril, and even spiritual bankruptcy…

Jesus counsels us to always keep eternity in view. He tells us the rich and powerful will be brought low, the poor and vulnerable lifted up. “Blessed are you poor, yours is the kingdom of God” and “woe to you rich, you’ve had your fun,” Jesus says (Luke 6)…

Jesus tells a story of a rich man who feasts sumptuously every day, and dresses in the finest clothing, while…At his gate, begging, seen, but not helped, is a desperately poor man, named Lazarus (Luke 16)…

And the rich man dies – and goes to a hot, unpleasant place – while Lazarus also dies, but goes to the arms of the patriarch Abraham in heaven.

The rich man pleads with Father Abraham – “Father, please send Lazarus to warn my brothers not to persist in greed…. and have to come join me here in Hades.” But Abraham tells him, “They have Moses and the prophets, they should listen to them.” The man says “No, Father, but if someone comes back from the dead they will believe.” “Child,” Abraham replies, “if they won’t believe Moses and the prophets – they won’t believe even if someone comes back from the dead.”

Money and giving really can be a matter of life and death. And one of the major scandals of Christendom over the ages has been how often we forget or disregard most of what the bible tells us about wealth and giving.

The law of Moses makes giving part of the religious law. The generous giving the apostle Paul urges us to do voluntarily has come to us previously as the requirement of God’s law. Now to be sure, if we were better at giving voluntarily, there wouldn’t be a need for giving to be required by law. But we humans seem to need carrots and sticks to help us do the right thing. And… Making tithing a commandment is one of God’s ways of trying to save us from the sin of thinking we’re responsible only for ourselves. (And Jesus’ story about the rich man in hell might not even be about money – as much as about thinking we can live just for ourselves. But the love of money and thinking of ourselves to excess do seem to keep very close company.)

We need divine structure for guidance. So God gives the commandment to Israel, in Deuteronomy, for the giving of a tithe, a tenth of our income, every year, in gratitude for what God has given. The tithe is to be given in support of the Levites, Israel’s priests; and for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the landless immigrant. And lest we think God’s a spoil-sport who wants us to be gloomily legalistic – the word of God tells us we are to eat and drink our tithe offerings with gladness, rejoicing together – celebrating God’s generosity – reaping the blessings that come with generous giving. Our tithe offering, according to Deuteronomy, is all about God’s abundance and the joy of giving… (and…)

I doubt any of us have as much difficulty with giving as Jack Benny’s on-air personality. (And in real life, Mr. Benny had the reputation of being a generous man.) His skit was a master comedian’s way of saying something pretty close to what Jesus says. (That is–) The measure that we give will be the measure that we get.

But if we don’t know how to give, then we are in the role of radio Jack Benny – and it’s just a coin-toss choice… between our money and our life. Because if we don’t know how to give generously… we’re really not alive anyway… We’re just living a pale shadow… of real life.

To be truly alive is to find joy in giving. We’re made in the image of God. We’re fulfilled in becoming more like God. God is the ultimate generous giver. God finds joy in giving to us. God is the source of every good gift. As our first reading says, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit…” God activates each and every good gift that God gives, in everyone of us…

So the first principle of stewardship – the one principle that puts everything else there is to know about stewardship in context – is that everything (absolutely everything) belongs to God, our gracious Creator, Sustainer, and Savior. Everything we have is a gift from God, given in trust, for a season.

A steward is someone who looks after and helps manage someone else’s property and possessions. Christian stewardship is about helping manage God’s gifts for the common good and the glory of God. And because generous giving is inspired by God –

We find joy as we receive God’s gifts – and learn to give as God gives. And just as God doesn’t force us to receive the gifts he gives… So also God doesn’t force us to be generous givers. God leaves a lot of decision-making about our giving up to us… (God gives us more freedom here than I sometimes think is a good idea… But God didn’t ask me…)

Our reading today from second Corinthians may be the very gentlest word in the entire bible about stewardship. Here giving seems to be all voluntary, all the time. (Though earlier in this letter we have heard each will “receive what is due…” when we come before Christ in the time of judgement. We are clearly all expected to do all the good we can. But God leaves it up to us to decide on the specifics of what kinds of good we will do… Within the broad boundaries of gospel living.)

Again, I wonder if God may be giving us too much freedom of choice, given our track-record as a species… But then again –

Perhaps God giving us so many choices… is all because – the more voluntary our giving…the greater the blessing… for us… and for all…

Perhaps because giving, like love – that isn’t voluntary – isn’t really love – or true generosity…and–

There is something about choosing to be generous givers… that frees us to be much more alive… Something about giving generously that stirs others to generosity…

Generosity generates yet more generosity. When we give generously (as 2nd Corinthians tells us) others will be praying for us with gratitude – as we should be praying with gratitude for all who have ever been generous in our lives…

Our churches have been through quite a lot, in the more-than-200-years we’ve been here. One of the main reasons we are still here is because of the generosity of the saints, known and unknown, who have been here before us, giving themselves generously to God, the church, and the community. Giving of their time, talents, and treasure.

Reminding us – we too know how to give generously – when we remember Jesus.  Because Jesus clearly tells us – “where your treasure is, that’s where your heart will be also…” We know to invest our treasure with God, and let our hearts follow. Giving to the poor, filling our treasure troves in heaven – being filled with all the fullness of the love of God, so freely, generously given…

Remembering above all –

God is the giver of every good gift. No one can out-give God.

No one can out-give Jesus, who gives his all –

that we may all have life through Him…

We know all we need to know about generous giving –

looking to Jesus.

Thanks be to God. Amen.