Monday, June 29, 2015

God loves a cheerful giver

Imagine getting up every morning and heading out to gather food for the day.  You don’t have to hunt for it.  It is just there.  You can bring home just enough to feed your family for the day.

It’s not quite bringing home the bacon.  In fact, bringing home the bacon would not have gone over well had you been a Hebrew wandering in the wilderness.  Bringing home the Manna was surely the metaphor of the day as well as the literal work of the day.

God provided for each and every day.  If you saved up something for tomorrow, it went bad and was ridden with maggots.

Give us this day our daily bread was a literal way of life.  OK, on Friday’s you could gather a double portion so that you did not have to gather on the Sabbath.

Some gathered a lot and some a lot less.  It did not matter.  It was enough and it wouldn’t keep overnight, save the single exception made to uphold the Sabbath law.

It was enough.
It was sufficient.
It met the needs of God’s people.

Occasionally, there would be a quail roast to vary the diet, but God’s people were being taught to rely upon God for their daily provision.

We should be content with our daily provision, sort of content anyway.  We are made in the image of God.  Our Creator decided to make us in his own likeness, and being made in his likeness comes with some issues.

Such as?
Such as—our God is a generous God and being made in his image, he is shaping us with a fine scalpel into vessels of generosity.

Generosity?  Really?  I can hardly pay my bills.

Bills for what?
A very reliable automobile or two or three?
A home with indoor plumbing, central heat and air, gas, and electric?
Satellite television?
Medical Insurance?

If you could turn back time 100 years, you might get nothing but perplexed looks from anyone you talked with about these things.

Cars, sure, they are what the very rich people drive.
Indoor plumbing?  You bet, in the next decade or so we might just get some of that.

Air conditioning?   What?  Do you mean a shade tree and a breeze?

Television?  Internet?  The next thing you will tell me is that movies will have sound and that we can watch them on a hand held device. 

Medical Insurance?  Now you have lost me altogether.

Yes, if we compared our present struggles with where people in our country were 100 years ago, we could legitimately say that we struggle to maintain our standard of luxury.

I like indoor plumbing and air conditioning and the internet but I know that they are not essential to life.  They are blessings.

I can’t turn back time but I have seen much of the world. In early 1981, I was hiking into the Philippine jungle with my platoon behind me.  I was the third platoon back on the company march along a very narrow trail in which it was difficult for two Marines to walk abreast of each other.  We were in the boonies for sure.

After a couple hours of walking, the trail opened up. To our left was a fair-sized house made out of C-Ration cardboard.  What ingenuity!  What genius.  What poverty.  A family was living in a house made out of discarded cardboard.

Don’t get me wrong, C-Rat cardboard is the best in the world for waterproofing.  It has a fair insulation value.  It is sturdy.

How do I know this?
In many a cold and wet moment, a piece of C-Rat cardboard was just the insulation from the cold or wet ground that I needed to get a couple hours of sleep.

These people had built an entire house out of the stuff, to include what seemed to be a garage, at least there was a garage door-sized opening that faced the trail which brought us past this unique site.  But there was no car in the garage, not even a Jeepney or a bicycle.

Instead, there was a beautiful pool table around which were gathered some young men who seemed to be enjoying themselves and nearly oblivious to our passing.

What a contrast.  What a dichotomy.  What a paradox.  We were witness to luxury within poverty.

Or was it poverty?  Did that single item constitute luxury?
How does the world define poverty?

By how much stuff you can buy.  Jesus said that a man’s life does not consist of the abundance of his possessions, but the world defines haves and have nots by how much stuff you can buy.  It is not necessarily how much stuff you have but how much more you can go get.

It is that go buy something urge that must be honored, respected, and perhaps worshiped in our culture.

How do we know if we are rich or poor?  Do you use the world’s metrics?  Paul said that Jesus became poor for us.

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 through his poverty might become rich.

So Jesus was poor?  He didn’t even have a pool table in a cardboard house?  He might have had a regular house in Capernaum.  Mark’s gospel would indicate that this was his home area.  I hope his homeowner's insurance covered holes in the roof.

Why do we even use this as a criterion?  A house?  Really?  The man had a boat whenever he needed one.  He had a room for supper whenever he needed one.  He had a ride into town whenever he asked for one.  The world was at his beck and call but he was unencumbered by any possessions.

How many times in the scriptures do we read Jesus saying, “OK guys, everyone take two weeks off to go home and cut the grass, or paint the trim, somebody better win YARD OF THE MONTH this time.”

Jesus told a man who thought he was ready to follow him, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

So was Jesus poor or not?

Of course he was, but not as the world defines poor.  He gave up his place in heaven to walk on this earth for over three decades as a man, and he even gave that life as a man up of his own accord.

If you were to ask Jesus if he were rich or poor while he walked the earth, his answer might just be:  Asked and answered.

A person’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.

We are trying to frame our understanding of rich and poor, poverty and abundance, haves and have nots but we are asking the wrong questions.

Let’s look at some verbs—some action words.
Jesus gave up his place in heaven.
Jesus gave up his life freely.
God gave his one and only Son.
That’s a lot of giving.

Should we ask God for daily provision?  Yes!  Absolutely yes!  Jesus modeled a prayed that asked God for daily bread.  That might be Manna or doing the will of the Father or just a sliced loaf of whole-grain rye.

We need to affirm daily that God does sustain us, but getting by is not enough for the follower of Jesus.

We need to get to generosity.  We want to know abundant life.  We want to live.  We need to get to generosity.

Paul talks about churches in Macedonia.  This is probably everything in and around Thessalonica.  These are some poor folks by the standards of the world but they have scraped together an offering for the poor in Jerusalem.

These believers might have had less than those they were helping but they were led to give anyway.  They did not run down the payday loan company to get the money.  They gave out of what they had.  It was surely something along the lines of a widow’s mite offering.  It was surely some sort of offering that required further sacrifice in the people’s lives, but they gave out of the little that they had.

Now Corinth had been quick to respond to this love offering but now Paul is reminding them to finish the work.  Do what they committed to do.  They were willing at first.  Now they must follow through.

The congregation in Corinth was surely better off than the ones up north, so why did Paul need to make this appeal?
Do you own your money or does it own you?  Do you own your stuff or does it own you?

Does that moment of hesitation in giving become a moment of retreat?  Are we like Ananias and Sapphria?  We sell something of considerable value to give to the Lord’s work, and then at the last moment decide that we might just ought to keep half of that back for ourselves.

Some might be cringing at this point.  Here it comes.  I knew it from the beginning.  The preacher is going to talk about the tithe.  He is going to tell us to go for the full 10%.

If we have been tithing 2% or 5% working our way up to the full tithe, he is going to make his move and challenge everyone to tithe 10%.

I knew this sermon would be about tithing.

Except it is not.  We are going way beyond the tithe.  The preacher does not have to preach the tithe because so many have testimonies about the blessings of the tithe.

The preacher is talking about abundant life.  It is time to understand generosity.  It is time to embrace being a joyful giver.

I am not talking about the tithe.  I am talking to those who already tithe and have been blessed.  You know that this small congregation has enough money to pay the bills, fund ministries, and even replace an occasional tile floor.

Part of the purpose of the tithe is to fill God’s storehouse so we can do God’s work.  The storehouse is not full but a little more is coming in than is going out.  We are slowly getting there.

Our focus is on generosity.  Today, I want you to think of generosity that has nothing to do with what goes into the collection plate.

Think of the generosity that flows directly out of the temple that you walk around in every day, and ask two questions:
    Am I generous?  Am I joyful?
Now put them together.  Am I a joyful giver?

I can always give a joyful greeting.
A smile on my face that acknowledges that I have a bit more than my daily provision is a nice touch as well.
I can walk a few steps out of my way to go say, “God bless you” or “God’s peace to you” or just give someone a hug instead of a distant wave.

Paul commends us to give from what we have.

I challenge us to really look at what we have.  For the past several years, the Spence household has been making monthly runs to the Mission House, Judah House, and Christi’s Thrift Store just giving away stuff.  Usually, we have something for the youth yard sale as well.

You would think that by now we would have run out of stuff, but that is not the case.  We not only have enough stuff but we have more than enough stuff.

The junk goes straight to the trash but we have stuff that has value.  It is just sitting there in our house.  It has greater value when we give it to somebody that will put it to use or sell it to help one of these local missions.

Better still is when we see someone who could use that stuff and we just give it to them.  You don’t get a tax receipt with that but the joy factor far exceeds the minor deduction forfeited.

Some might say, “I don’t have any extra stuff.  I live lean and clean.”

For that you are blessed but if the kids across the street don’t have shoes, sometime before school starts back up in the fall go know the door of the parents and ask if you can take their kids to Dollar General or Walmart on a shopping trip.  There is a certain liberty in wearing a worn-out pair of shoes all summer, but see if you can’t help out for the school year.

If you live in a neighborhood overrun by a bunch of screaming, sweaty kids; make some lemonade or Kool-Aid or ice water.  Be generous.  Be cheerful!

If your neighbor can’t keep up with his yard and you have a nice riding mover, swing by and take a few laps.  But I don’t have a riding mower, well then, pay the kids roaming the town with their movers in search of a job a few bucks to cut his grass.

Be on the lookout for opportunities to be generous!

I am not talking about Chewy Tuesdays.  This is a wonderful ministry.  It is full of blessings for those who give and receive, but it takes place once a week.  I am talking about opportunities that present themselves to this temple that we walk around in each and every day.

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.  Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

You will abound in every good work.  Now we are getting to abundant life.  Our lives are not about how much stuff we have but about fullness in doing God’s work.

It is about living and giving with joy in our hearts.
And yet our human hearts and human minds doubt.  We wonder when the well will run dry and we will have nothing more to give.

Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.   You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

Not only will our harvest be incredible, but God will replenish and even increase the seeds that we have to plant.
We will be enriched in every way.  Stop thinking in the world’s framework but in terms of abundant living—of genuine fullness in our lives.

Our generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

We always have the opportunity to be generous.  Someway, somehow, generosity is always an option for us.  That does not always mean money or stuff.  Sometimes is time or compassion or listening but we are blessed that oftentimes it is money or stuff.  We have more than enough.

Think back to where we started.  The poorest among us in this country sometimes struggle to maintain not our standard of living but our standard of luxury.

In the commands to love God and love one another, most of the ways that we can think of to love God involve loving one another but realize that in being generous with others that generosity itself may lead to others giving thanks to God.

The scripture says that God loves a cheerful giver.  This is the agape love that we know in the blood of Jesus.  It is not that this willing and cheerful giving on our part causes God to love us more.  It is that we understand more of this love that seems just beyond our comprehension when we give with joy in our hearts.

Now whether we are giving sacrificially or out of an abundance from which we barely notice, we are giving from what we have.

God does not expect us to give something that we don’t have.

He does want us to have eyes to see that what we have is his already and in so doing liberate us from the slavery of being owned by our money or our stuff or anything else that slows us down as we follow Jesus.

Abundant life is less about what we have and more about what we give.
It is about joyful giving.  It is about never giving out of compulsion or perceived duty or obligation.

Paul considered the plight of the Macedonians.  They were in the middle of severe trials and surely knew poverty but they were richly generous and their joy was overflowing.
Their joy had nothing to do with how much or how little they had but that they were generous with what they had.

Now in this instance this had to do with a special love offering.  It was a big deal.  It connected many of the early churches in a common effort.

Today, we have many opportunities to give to our denomination, our Children’s home, our local ministries, and to area ministries; but on this day, I ask you to consider not just those established ways in which we may give with joy in our heart, but also how we give joyfully in each and every encounter we have in the days and weeks to come.

When people have an encounter with us do they go away thinking that we are joyful and generous?

Do they depart their encounter with us thanking God for our generosity?

It might just be a smile that we gave freely.
It might be a cold drink.
It might be a hug.
It might be a gallon of gasoline or a gallon of milk.
It could be a ride to Walmart.
It could be making sandwiches for the neighbor kids, just because.

It might be that you really want to be generous and you know some kids that could really use something extra but you just can’t scrape a few dollars together right now and you actually paid attention when I preached the proverbs for a year and you know that debt is not the answer.  Running up a credit card bill is not the answer.

So what do you do?

You stop thinking that you are in this generosity business all by yourself.  There are going to be times when you can help a lot and times when you can’t but you still can.  You see those who were able have been filling baskets with Pop Tarts and Peanut Butter for a few weeks.

Can you pick up a bag of those and take them to some hungry kids in your neighborhood and tell them that God loves them and do it with joy in your heart?

Let us all examine our hearts and our closets and our storerooms and our checkbooks and be on the lookout for opportunities to be generous.

Even if in this world of luxury that we call lower to middle class America, you cannot muster anything to give but you see a need, especially as it involves children, then stop by my office and let’s talk.  Somebody has already given something or will come into my office within moments just looking for an opportunity to give because they know the joy of giving.

It is a very addictive high.

If nothing else, you can take a bag of Pop-Tarts and Peanut Butter to prime the pump.  Once you have tasted the joy of giving, your vision improves.

You find things around your house that might be better suited in a household that doesn’t have much.

You find $10 a month in your budget for the Family Care Center or the Children’s Home or $32 a month for a World Vision kid.
You find time in your life and Kool-Aid on the shelf and make cold drinks and read a book to the neighborhood kids.

And you give with joy and are filled with joy and God refills your seed bin so you can do it all again and know—finally know—what abundant life is.

God loves a joyful giver.

The verb here for us is “give.”  The action word is “give.”
But in our giving we know joy from start to finish.  We know love that goes beyond what we can comprehend in our minds.

God loves a joyful giver.  This is a big part of the abundant life that Jesus wants us to know.