I preached this sermon a few days before Thanksgiving, which is the also the kickoff of the now-misnamed Black Friday. During this time of year in which Americans go to great lengths to save money, preachers like me are telling you to give more of it away! Why do we do that? Because giving generously is good for our soul, as Paul makes clear in today’s scripture.
This sermon is, I believe, the best I’ve ever preached on stewardship. I’m especially proud of my Mentos illustration. 🙂
Sermon Text: 2 Corinthians 9:6-14
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
So it’s a fact of life now that for major retail stores like Walmart, Target, and Best Buy, “Black Friday” no longer begins on Friday; it begins on Thanksgiving evening, around 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. I read about a California Best Buy where two women are camping out for Black Friday—already! By the time the doors open on Thanksgiving evening, they’ll have spent 22 days camping out in front of the store. More than a few Twitter commenters have pointed out that if they just got a typical part-time job making minimum wage for those 22 days, instead of sitting there camping out, they would have made about $1,500. Unless they’re planning on saving at least $1,500 on Black Friday door-buster deals, well… it’s obviously not worth it.
For all I know it’s a publicity stunt for which Best Buy is compensating them, but who knows?
What we know for sure is that we Americans will go to great lengths to save money!
And so it is within this cultural context, as we approach the kick-off of this Christmas shopping season, that preachers like me are telling you not to save money, but rather to give money… to the church… and to commit to do so as part of our church’s annual stewardship campaign. Look, as I said last week, I get it… No one, least of all pastors, likes talking about money. I don’t like stepping on toes, and there’s no better way to step on toes and get up in people’s business than by talking about money. I get it!
So why do it? Well, let me say up front that as much as yours truly likes getting a paycheck—and I really do—and as much as yours truly likes having a job—and I really do—giving money in order to pay the church’s light bill, or to pay our staff, or to pay our apportionments back to the United Methodist Church—as important as those things are… and they’re very important… I promise you that as important as it is to pay the church bills, that is not the main reason that I’m talking about money, and that is not the main reason that a Christian should give money!
We don’t ultimately give money because the church needs it. And we don’t give money because the Lord needs it. The Lord can accomplish his good purposes with or without our contribution. No, the Lord wants us to give our money and be generous with our money because it’s spiritually good for us to be generous with our money. In fact, the Bible tells us in today’s scripture that the Lord wants to bless us through our giving!
Why is Paul talking about money and generosity? Because Paul has been going around to his churches in Europe and Asia Minor, collecting money for famine relief for Jewish believers living in Jerusalem. In a way, our church is carrying on that tradition because some of the money we commit to give in this stewardship campaign will go to UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, for famine relief and to help people rebuild their lives after natural disasters. So part of the money we’re raising is for our brothers and sisters all around the world—just as Paul was doing.
And the early church was famous for its generosity. The world had never seen anything like it. In one early letter dating to the second century, a writer named Mathetes describes the Christian way of life to a powerful Roman leader named Diognetus, who was a pagan. The writer says these Christians are indistinguishable from us in so many ways: they dress like us, they talk like us, they eat the same food as us, they pay taxes like us, they obey laws like us… in so many ways their behavior is the same. Except… And here I’m quoting directly from the letter: “They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring.” What does that mean? You see, whereas we have a crisis related to abortion in this country, in the Roman world if you had an unwanted baby, especially a baby girl, it was perfectly legal and acceptable to leave that baby at the city’s garbage dump to die of exposure. The Christians didn’t do that. The writer continues: “They have a common table, but not a common bed”—meaning, they share their food with everyone, but they don’t sleep around; even then, the Christian sexual ethic was deeply countercultural. He writes: “They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all.”
So one of the things that stood out to these Roman pagans, alongside the Christians’ respect for the sacredness of life and sexual chastity, was the early Christians’ generosity. In fact, a couple of centuries later, after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and you had a series of at least nominally Christian emperors, there was one emperor named Julian who rebelled. He became a pagan and tried to revive the worship of Roman gods like Jupiter and Apollo. And Julian wrote a letter to a pagan priest and said, “If we want to be successful in our effort to revive the worship of Roman gods, we’re going to have to do something for widows and orphans!” Because, as Julian said in the letter, Christians were famously generous, not just to their own widows and orphans, but to non-believing widows and orphans as well. No one in the history of the world had ever seen that kind of generosity.
And even today, the vast majority of charitable giving and charitable service in the world is done by Christians and the church!
And even in our little corner of the world in Hampton… This church is doing something new and costly in its effort to reach out to the children of this community with our KidZone Sunday afternoon program. We’re feeding kids physically and spiritually, teaching them God’s Word. We’re on our second series of Bible lessons, Unfrozen, and it’s going strong—thanks to the generosity of volunteers who are giving up so much time. Thanks to the generosity of this church’s financial gifts.
Paul tells the Corinthians in verse 12 that their generous giving will not only help the physical needs of the saints in Jerusalem; it is “also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.” People were praising and thanking God for Christians’ generosity back in Paul’s day, and they’re doing it today. Just last week, a mother of one of our preschool students stopped me in the parking lot and thanked me for our Sunday afternoon program. And of course I took full credit for it. No, I’m kidding, I promise! But she said it’s her child’s favorite part of the week. So she’s overflowing with thanksgiving for what you’re doing! Don’t you want people in Hampton, Georgia, to be thankful that our church is here? They will, as we continue to be generous with our money, and time, and talent.
So of course we want to give generously to spread the gospel, to bear witness to the life-changing, soul-saving love of Jesus Christ, to bless others as we’ve been blessed, to express our gratitude to God, to help people in need. We also give because our Lord commands us to give, which is reason enough… But Paul also tells us that when we give—willingly, freely, not under compulsion—we get something in return: not material blessings of prosperity and health, as some preachers talk about it—but spiritual blessings. It’s good for our soul to give.
I mentioned this in my eNews article last week: I’ve been teaching Paul’s Letter to the Romans in the new young adult Sunday school class. Two weeks ago, we were discussing these questions: “What difference does Jesus make in your life? How are you a better person today because of your relationship with Christ?”
After some spirited discussion, I offered the following: “Here’s one big difference. I’m not naturally a risk-taker. In fact, I’m a chicken… a scaredy-cat. Nevertheless, inasmuch as I am able to take risks, I can do so because I genuinely believe that the Lord is taking care of me. I feel as if I’m living my life with a safety net—that even when I fall, I’ll be O.K. Knowing Jesus gives me the courage to live life more fully.”
I’ve been a professing and baptized Christian now for 30 years. But it’s only been in the past five or six years that I’ve had this “safety net” kind of faith. What accounts for that difference? What caused my trust in Jesus to grow these past several years? Well, many things, I’m sure… But surely one of the most important things has been Lisa’s and my decision ten years ago, when I first became a pastor, to start tithing—which means to give ten percent of our income to the Lord through the local church. Tithing is the biblical standard of giving.
I talked about this experience last week: It was surely the worst time in life to start tithing. I was giving up my career, uprooting my family, seriously downgrading our standard of living, trying to afford expensive seminary, and feed a family of three young children—including a newborn. Well, I guess feeding the newborn wasn’t expensive… Lisa was nursing, but there were a lot of diapers to buy! But the point is, I knew we had to tithe because I couldn’t look my parishioners in the eye and tell them to do something I wasn’t willing to do.
So the question we had to ask ourselves was, “Can we trust—can we really, really trust—that the Lord will take care of us if we take this step of faith?”
The prophet Malachi was writing to his fellow Jews in a time of great poverty, drought, and pestilence. It was, for these ancient Jews, the worst time to start tithing. Yet in the midst of this he writes, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse… and thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” Did you hear that? The Lord said, “Put me to the test, and see if I don’t meet every one of your needs.”
My family’s experience with tithing certainly did put the Lord to the test, and he proved himself true. He supplied every need. And here’s what happened as a result. When I saw what the Lord did for us, how faithful he was to us—sinners though we were—in our time of need, well… I honestly don’t worry much about money anymore. Not because I’m perfect—I still worry about other things sometimes. But the Lord proved himself trustworthy. He came through for us in the midst of a difficult trial, and don’t you think that that kind of experience gives me more confidence to face the next trial, and the one after that, and the one after that? Of course it does. And that’s what I mean when I say that my experience of faithful giving strengthened my faith, helped me to grow as a Christian, gave me more peace in the area of my financial life, more than nearly anything.
Brothers and sisters, we can trust God with our money! I promise. Step out on faith, bring your full tithe to the storehouse. See what happens. Just see what happens!
And I know many of you are thinking, “I can’t afford to tithe right now. But some day… When I get a better job, when I get that next raise, when I get promoted, when I get out of school, when I pay off my credit card debt, when I get the kids through college… Some day I’ll be able to.” Let me gently challenge that… By all means, I hope and expect that unless you’re retired, you’ll be making more money some day. But come on… You know how it is: when you’re making more money, it’s not like everything else in life stays the same, right? What I mean is, when our income goes up, our expenses also tend to go up! We tend to buy bigger and more expensive houses or cars or boats or vacation homes and suddenly… We still don’t quite have enough to tithe.
And the devil has once again robbed us of the blessing that comes from giving generously.
Don’t let the devil win! Once and for all, say, “I’m finally going to be faithful to the Lord by tithing!”
If you still think you can’t afford to tithe, ask yourself this: What would happen if you were forced to take a 10 percent cut in your family income? Would you be able to make ends meet? I’m not saying it wouldn’t be uncomfortable at first, but could you make it? Most of us could… Most of us could by adjusting how often we eat out, for instance. There are things we could sacrifice without giving them second thought if we had to. If someone made us.
For some reason, our Lord doesn’t want to make us. He wants us to choose: God loves a cheerful giver. He wants us to give generously and be happy about it. And why wouldn’t we be happy, when we consider the blessing we get in return? Why wouldn’t we be happy, when we consider what our Lord has done and continues to do for us.
Do we get that? Do we get that every good thing we have comes from God?
Occasionally in the checkout line at Publix I’ll give in to my boys’ request for gum or candy. You parents know how that is. The truth is, I have a sweet tooth, too, and I love Mentos candy—not the mint kind, the fruit kind. So I occasionally buy Mentos for one of my boys. Let’s say there are twenty pieces of candy in a pack. Would I be asking too much of my son if I said, “Could you give me two pieces?” And my kids would gladly give it—and they have always gladly shared with me. Their mother taught them that, obviously.
But wouldn’t it be wrong for one of them to say, “These Mentos are mine. You can’t have two pieces. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ll cut one of these pieces into three smaller pieces, and that’s what I’ll let you have.” Should I be happy as a father with that tiny portion—especially given that I bought them in the first place? Should I be happy with a third of one Mento in a 20-Mento pack? Should I be happy with one-and-a-half percent of a pack of Mentos that I bought with my own money?” I’d have a right to be disappointed in my child, wouldn’t I? I’d even have a right to discipline my child by withholding additional future blessings, right?
My point is, are we treating God our heavenly Father that way—by what we give or fail to give back to him?
In chapter 8, verse 8, of 2 Corinthians, Paul begins talking about this offering he’s collecting and his request for their generosity. He says that the Macedonians, who are much poorer than the Corinthians, and could least afford it, have given far more than their share. And then he says something interesting: He asks them to give their money “not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine.” In other words, Paul says that he’ll compare the Corinthians’ generosity against the high standard of generosity that the Macedonians set, and thereby prove that the Corinthians, like the Macedonians, are true Christians who understand the gospel of Jesus Christ and what our Lord has done for them because their giving reflects that!
I’m not planning on comparing this church’s generosity against anyone else’s, but I will ask you to compare the generosity that you show to God with the generosity that you’ve shown to other people. Does it measure up to that standard?
Have you ever been in love, for instance? You wouldn’t ask, “How much do I have to spend on this person I love?” Rather, you ask, “How much do I get to spend—because what I want to spend isn’t enough. If I had more, I’d spend more. Because this person means that much to me. And I want to give her a gift that will make her cry tears of joy—just like on one of those sappy jewelry store commercials we’ll be seeing on TV soon. “Every kiss begins with Kay!” But I want to give her these things because there’s no one more beautiful, more lovely, to me than she is.”
Are we giving to the Lord Jesus in this same spirit of love? If not, why not—when we consider his love for us?
Paul says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
All of us who have confessed with our mouth, “Jesus is Lord” and believed in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, all of us who have been washed in the blood of the lamb, all of us who, through no merit on our part but only by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, have received forgiveness and eternal life and grace upon grace—all of us are rich. Can’t we afford, therefore, to give generously?