Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Way Forward: Giving

(A sermon based on Genesis 1:26-31 & Matthew 23:23-24 for Sunday, March 14, 2010; it is the sixth in a series.)

We have been talking about the way forward for First Baptist Church. We have said that the way forward will be built on the three main things of worshiping God, following Jesus, and being formed by Scripture. We have also said that our pursuit of those three main things will be undergirded with prayer and that it will inevitably result in the doing of ministry out in the world.

Today I want us to see that our giving is a vital part of that pursuit. I hope that we will go away seeing that our giving results from all that God has already given.

That means that I am not going to get at this subject in one way that I could and in the way that you might have expected. I am not going to talk much about responsibility. There’s something to be said for the discipline of giving even if we do it for no other reason than the “ought to” of it. It’s a step in the right direction but it’s not a worthy long-term motivation for those living the Christian life.

“The highest form of giving,” Brennan Manning said, is “thanksgiving” [Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust (San Francisco: Harper, 2000), p. 35]. The Christian approach to life is to live it in a constant state of gratitude, always giving thanks to God for the amazing blessings of life. There is so much for which we are to be thankful. The creation narratives in Genesis are celebrative passages; they lead us to celebrate God’s creation of our world and of us.

It is a blessing that God made us. Without God we are not; because of God we are. Understanding more about this fact will deepen our gratitude and expand our thanksgiving.

We are created in God’s image. That means, among other things, that we are created to be God’s representatives on the earth. As God’s representatives we are to be good stewards of what God has created, including our own lives. If we are going to be God’s representatives on the earth then we want to reflect who God is in the ways we do things. So we want to be as pure of heart, as pure of motive, as we can be. We want God’s will for the world and so we want what is best for the world. We want to respond in gratitude for this good world over which God has made us stewards. We want to do good for God by doing good for God’s world.

To be created in God’s image also means that we are created for community. The God who made us is characterized by being three-in-one; God is the Holy Trinity. God is defined by relationship so God’s people are characterized by being in relationship with one another. God who is love has made us to love one another. We want to do good for God by doing good for and with each other.

Why, then, does it all so often go so badly? We are made to celebrate God’s creation of us by doing good for and in his world and by doing good in our relationships. All too often, though, we find ourselves hurting ourselves, hurting the world, hurting our families, hurting the Lord’s work. Why? Well, the short answer is found in the little word “sin.”

God did something about our predicament, though: he gave his only Son so that in the death and resurrection of Christ we could find ourselves reconciled to God. In Jesus Christ we can have the image of God restored in us and we can move toward being and doing as God in his grace and for our good intends for us to be and to do. Even as Christians, though, we find ourselves being pulled aside by our selfishness and pride; even as Christians we find ourselves needing to turn to God with renewed faith and commitment.

It is a further blessing, you see, that God made us capable of responding. We are capable of responding to God’s good creation of this world and of us. What should that response be?

It should be a life of faithful and joyful response to who God is and to what God has done, a life of gratitude and celebration that issues in a heart-felt and life-changing commitment. We respond to all that God has done with our very lives; we respond to the giving of God’s Son’s life with the giving of our lives—but we respond not because we have to or even because we need to but rather because out of love and grace we just want to! We just can’t help ourselves! And so we look for ways to love, to serve, to share, and to give.

Jesus called the scribes and Pharisees “hypocrites” because they tithed even the smallest amounts of the smallest herbs in their gardens but failed to practice justice and mercy and faith in their lives. They evermore tithed—they were the type that, had they found a dime on the sidewalk, would have put a penny in the offering plate. But they didn’t do the bigger things: they didn’t trust in God with all their hearts and they didn’t love their neighbor as themselves—they didn’t live in faith and they didn’t practice justice and mercy. We should give comprehensively, in every way we can out of the totality of our lives.

I stand before you this morning as a strange, strange Baptist preacher. I’m almost finished with this sermon on giving and I haven’t even told you that you ought to tithe. I’ll tell you now that if you can’t give like you should in any other way then you certainly need to practice the discipline of tithing. I’ll tell you too that the tithe is but a starting point.

But I want to call us to do much, much more than tithe. I want to call us to live Christian lives. A Christian life is a life that has been touched by the mercy and grace of God. It is a life that has caught that life-changing glimpse of the way that things really are—that God has made a good world and has given us a good place in it. It is a life that is so full of faith and grace and love that even in the midst of the worst of it all it is still a life lived in celebration. It is a life that is so full of God that that it just has to give and share and love in every area of life. It is a life that will do all of those things out of love for God and love for each other.

Besides, the blessings of God are meant to be shared and if we don’t share them our lives will become stagnant and stale and even, in the long run, putrid.

Ed Bacon was the Dean of Students at Mercer during my student years; he has since 1995 served as Rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. When he talks about generosity with church members he compares two bodies of water in Israel.

First, he describes the vibrancy surrounding the Sea of Galilee, which he witnessed from the deck of a restaurant at the seashore. “There were people in rowboats and speedboats, folks way out in fishing boats, people on Jet skis, people picnicking along the banks. For centuries people have made their business a fishing business because the place is so full of fish,” he said.

“Next, I talk about going to the Dead Sea on the same tour, and there’s no life there. The only thing that’s going on is in one or two spots you go and get this mud on your face and it’s supposed to be good for your skin. You can go out and float because of all the salt. But there is no boating, no picnicking, no foliage, no greenery. It’s desolate.

“The difference between those two bodies of water is that the Sea of Galilee not only receives the Jordan River, but it releases the Jordan River; it gives. The Dead Sea only has water coming in. Nothing is flowing out, except through evaporation. That is the essence of life, and that is the essence of what makes you alive, when you not only receive the graces of God but you also give the graces of God away very liberally, very generously”
[In Douglas LeBlanc, Tithing: Test Me in This (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), pp. 120-121].

Are we letting the blessings and graces of God flow through us?

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