Jesus And We - Week 4: Irrational Generosity
We are in the middle of a sermon series for the month of May, entitled Jesus and We. The basic idea behind this series is pretty simple. We're wrestling with what it means to be a community of faith that lives into the hope of the Resurrection.
Christianity in America has become decidedly self-centered. Christian book stores are filled with all kinds of self-help books on all of the things you can do to become a better Christian. Far too many churches in America espouse a Jesus and Me kind of theology.
But what we know from Scripture, from the teachings of Jesus and from experience itself is that it's not all about Jesus and Me. The Church is about Jesus and We. Church is more than just a place you go, it's who we are.
Today we're going to be talking about Irrational Generosity, and what that means for us as a church. And when I say "irrational" generosity, I mean the kind of generosity that doesn't make sense to most people, who put safety, security and caution before everything else.
In the Bible we have this famous verse which comes to us from Acts 20:35, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." We all know that verse, right? We share that verse with our children when we are teaching them about being generous, sharing their toys and the like. We even say it ourselves from time to time when we're patting ourselves on the back for doing something nice.
But what I feel has become the real idea that American Christianity follows is not what we find in the book of Acts, but what we find in the Hallmark Card school of giving. And what is that exactly? It's this: "It's the thought that counts."
This little phrase that we use all of the time to excuse the fact that whatever gift we either got or gave was woefully poor... like a snuggy, or a blender, or a velcro wallet... This little phrase has permeated American Christianity and particularly the way that Christians in America view generosity and giving.
"It's the thought that counts," gets us off the hook when it comes to our giving. We can give a minuscule amount of what we have to God, and then say: "It's the thought that counts," and think that it's okay. I gave something therefore I am good. Most Americans give 2% or less of their income to their local church or Christian organization.
I've also come to understand that lots of churches struggle with this same little phrase. They worry about their own needs, first and foremost, rather than the needs of their community. They are more worried about keeping their doors open than they are about doing something about the brokenness of our world.
At our church, we are going to adopt something that Pastor Craig Groeschel has declared should be a foundation of every church. It's also the one thing that I want you to remember today: We will lead the way in our community with irrational generosity.
My wife Merideth and I have had quite a generosity journey over the last twenty five years of our marriage. When we first started going back to church when we were in our 20's we gave just a little to our church, here and there. But the biggest charity we felt we needed to support during the early years of our marriage was us.
It wasn't until we got involved in a small church in Tallahassee when our oldest boy was small that we considered giving to our church on a regular basis. But then we only gave to the things we liked. I wasn't keen on my money being used to pay the light bill, or someone's salary. And even when I started working at the church--I only gave money to the youth ministry, which I led.
Over time we realized that what we thought was our money wasn't our money at all. We came to know the joy of surrendering our finances to God. We took a Dave Ramsey class together, and started working hard to get out of debt. Over a period of a few years we were able to get rid of over $100,000 worth of debt, and we started focusing on living generously.
The key to our understanding of what it means to live generously is the difference between scarcity and abundance. When Merideth and I lived in scarcity we walked around saying and thinking, "there is not enough." When we began living with and abundant mindset, we were able to say, "there is always more," when we felt led to act generously, to give to others, to share with our church.
Scarcity is marked by a lack of faith, and a degree of selfishness. Abundance is marked by a generous, faith-filled spirit, and open handed living.
When we learned to give control of our giving to God, to let God lead us we lost our sense that it was our money. All of our blessings come from God, and so we hold on to them a lot more loosely than we used to. When we have an opportunity to do something generous for someone or to our church--we always err on the side of stepping out into faith and giving generously.
This is the same kind of spirit that we want to foster in our congregation--open handed, faith-filled---and often irrational generosity.
There's a passage of Scripture in the New Testament that speaks right into this very issue. The Apostle Paul was writing to one of the 1st century churches--in a town called Corinth. In 2 Corinthians 8:1-7 we have his thoughts on acting with irrational generosity.
And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. 5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. 6 So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7 But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you[a]—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.To give you some background on this passage--we need to understand a bit about what Paul is talking about here. Paul was gathering an offering for the church at Jerusalem from all of the various churches that he'd planted all over the ancient near east. The purpose of this offering was to show the solidarity these new churches had with the "mother church," and the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.
There was a lot of debate going on at the time regarding what it took to be a real Christian. Lots of people still thought that you had to be Jewish to be a real follower of Jesus, a sentiment that Paul did not share.
The church at Jerusalem was going through hard times. And Paul saw this as a way to demonstrate how the Holy Spirit was at work even with people who were non-Jews. So he began soliciting an offering from all of the churches he'd planted, and they all gave.
Now Corinth was a cosmopolitan city, the economy was thriving and the church at Corinth had some fairly wealthy people in it. There were also some folks who weren't, mind you, but generally the church in Corinth was better off than many of the other churches Paul founded throughout the region.
In fact, the Macedonian churches who are cited here are described as being exceedingly poor. The phrase that Paul uses means "down-to-the-depth" poverty. Scholars believe that the reason these churches were experiencing such hardship was because they were being persecuted by their neighbors who were suspicious of their loyalty to a "new" religion.
So despite their poverty, and the hardship they were facing, they displayed what Paul describes as "a wealth of liberality" or more plainly, an openheartedness toward their possessions. They were living open-handed and faith-filled. They practiced irrational generosity, the kind of generosity that was defiantly hopeful and kingdom-minded.
Despite the fact that they had very little, they held what they had loosely because they were operating out of a mindset of abundance.
From this example, we learn that if we want to be the Church we have to understand that, as Pastor Groeschel asserts, "Giving is not something we do. Generous is who we are." In the same way that the Church is not a place we go, it's who we are... In the same way that we don't exist for the sake of existing but for the sake of the world... we are generous, irrationally generous in the name of Jesus.
And the question that we have to always be asking ourselves is: Are we going to be a church where we believe what we have belongs to God? That we are entrusted not entitled? In other words, we live with this ethos: "We don't deserve any of the blessings that we've been given. Who are we to be blessed so richly, really?" We don't believe that we are entitled, we have been entrusted with blessings that are meant to be a blessing.
I heard this analogy this week that really illuminated this for me. The key to understanding irrational generosity as a congregation requires us to understand the difference between a spoon and a ladle. When we give up the spoon and pick up a ladle, we are following Jesus example of selflessness. We feed ourselves with a spoon, but we can feed others with a ladle.
So where do you see our church being a ladle in our community?
And how do we keep moving in that direction?
I think we keep moving in the direction of being a ladle when we ask the right question.
It reminds me of a parable I heard from philosopher and theologian Peter Rollins. He told of a couple who wanted to wallpaper a room in their house, but didn't know how much wallpaper to buy. They didn't want to buy too much so they went to their next door neighbors whose house was identical and who had just wallpapered their house. "How many rolls did you buy to wallpaper your house?" They asked. They were told twelve rolls, and so they went and bought that many. They quickly discovered they had six too many, and went angrily back to their neighbors. "Why did you tell us to buy so many rolls we had six left over!" "So did we!" the neighbors replied. You asked us how many we bought, not how many we used.
The question that most of us usually ask when it comes to giving to our church is this: "How much does the church need?" This limits our vision. It sets a bar that in many cases is far short of irrational generosity. The question that we should be asking should be, "What could I possibly give to the One who has given me everything?"
If we are always focusing on need--we lean too far toward scarcity and it's all to easy to fall more in love with the Bread than the Baker, if you know what I mean. But if we focus on gratitude, and the way our giving should be an irrational response to irrational grace--then we are on to something.
As a church we need to be asking that same question. All of the time. It should drive our ministries and missions. It should permeate the way we reach out into our community. Let me tell you something. The moment we start worrying about how a mission or ministry that we are doing out in our community to make the world a little more like heaven is going to somehow grow our church--that's the moment we need to shut our doors and go do something else.
We need to be completely authentic and open-handed in our approach to outreach. We need to share the Good News of the Risen Jesus because that's what we do--we know and show Jesus. We need a whole church full of people who live with open hands and open hearts.
And we will lead the way in our community with irrational generosity that is direct response to the amazing, irrational grace of God to us.