Texts: 1 Kings 17:1-16 and Luke 12:22-34
“Why Give?” – Stephanie Sorge Wing, 11.4.12
When Jason invited me, a number of months ago, to preach for this consecration Sunday, I immediately said yes. “I love preaching about money!” I said. Besides, this might be a rare occasion when a sermon about money meets with some relief – at least it’s a break from politics!
Actually, Jesus had more to say about money than anything else, except for the kingdom of heaven. So the thought that we have a money sermon just once a year is quite out of step with the gospel that we preach! I trust that you have heard more about money and stewardship over the course of the year, but I know that it is often difficult to move from the sermon over to the bottom line.
Our relationship with possessions and money is about so much more than the bottom line. In fact, dare I say it, the budget doesn’t matter! I know many churches that put out a proposed budget and ask for pledges to support it, as if the budget is the goal of giving. But it’s not. A budget is important for good practices of stewardship, and it is also a moral document. One can, in theory, look at any budget – household or church – and tell where the priorities are. That’s pretty much what our final verse from Luke says – that we put our money where our hearts are. But, it’s not about the budget. So what gives? Why give?
Throughout our faith history, God has invited God’s people to give, at times even sacrificially. Look at the widow from our first reading. In a time of severe drought and famine, there is a widow living with her son, running out of food and time. She has done all that she could to keep him alive. Imagine the nights she rocked him to sleep, singing to him so that her song would be louder than his rumbling, empty stomach. Friends or family members, if she had any to begin with, had already given all they could, or so they said. There simply wasn’t enough. But at least she would give her son one final meal, see one final smile on his face, and hold back her own tears before holding him in a final, eternal embrace. This widow has nothing to her name but two fire-starting sticks, and a little oil and flour. And God, through Elijah, asks for it. God asks for it. For everything.
It is reminiscent of the story from a lectionary reading a few weeks ago, a familiar story about a rich young man who comes to Jesus. He asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life, and when Jesus says he must sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor, this poor, rich, young man balks, and goes away, dejected. Jesus asked for it. For everything.
God invites us to give sacrificially, not just to support some good work, but because our very souls are at stake. It is so easy to find our comfort and security in our material possessions, rather than trusting in God’s providence and care for all of life. Remember the birds, and the lilies, and the grass of the field? Does God forget about them? No! God knows what we need, and delights in providing for us.
Imagine God’s delight in providing for the widow and her son, in displaying such a providential miracle of oil and flour that didn’t run out. What if she had missed out on that? What might we miss out on, if we resist God’s call to give, not just out of our abundance, but of our substance?
I’m not suggesting that sacrificial giving is rewarded with financial or material wealth. That’s not the gospel. But when we give with open hands, our open hands and open hearts are able to receive blessings that clasped hands simply can’t hold onto.
What a blessing to see an immediate impact that our giving can make, or even to trust the impact that we may never see. As a pastor, I’ve had perhaps more opportunity to see how the mission and ministry money of the church impacts others, such as the families in need of heating oil, or the communities who receive an outpouring of support and assistance through the Presbyterian Disaster Agency. To these people, the money and help is literally a God-send. And isn’t it, after all, sent from God?
Another reason that God calls us to be generous givers is because it reminds us of where our help comes from – the Lord, who made heaven and earth, who clothes the lilies and feeds the birds. We recognize that what we have is not simply ours to give, but that everything belongs to God. We are entrusted with great resources not for our own gain, but to practice wise and faithful stewardship of God’s bounty. Giving back a portion of what we have helps to remind us that all that we have belongs to God.
Giving is also an important spiritual discipline. It helps us to cultivate lives and attitudes of generosity. We have been created in the image of a God who is lavishly generous, having freely given us all that we have, and more importantly, that which we could never secure on our own – grace, mercy, and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, who gave his very life in the ultimate show of loving generosity. Having been created in the image of such a generous God, we, too, are called to be generous people.
Those are all good reasons to give. But there is another very important one that we don’t often consider. We live in a society that is ruled by a mindset of scarcity. The message that we hear in society today is that there simply is not enough for everyone to have what they want or need. We hear this in the political rhetoric. We see this scarcity mindset at work in the economy. Executive compensation in the richest companies is as high as it ever has been, and economic disparity in the country is epidemic. Is there really not enough?
The scarcity mindset has very little to do with actual scarcity. In fact, studies routinely show that Americans with the lowest incomes – including those below the poverty level – give a higher percentage of their income to church and to charity than do those in any other earnings bracket. Those who genuinely have the least may struggle with scarcity, but by and large they see that there is still enough to give. The only correlation between true scarcity and the mindset of scarcity is that living in the mindset of scarcity encourages us to hoard and look out for ourselves, which really can diminish the resources available for the most vulnerable in our midst.
Our culture says that there is not enough. We hear it everywhere we turn. And we hear that more and more in the church. Many churches are struggling with budgetary concerns, having to cut down to the bare bones. We see this in congregations, in the Presbytery, and at the Denominational level. It’s easy to say, “There simply isn’t enough.” Of all the cultural lies that the church might buy into, this is perhaps the most pervasive, and the most damaging. Not only does it impact the ministries that the church can do, it also perpetuates a lie about God.
When we say, “there isn’t enough,” we deny the sovereignty of God. When we say, “there isn’t enough,” we deny that through God, all things are possible. When we say, “there isn’t enough,” we deny that it is God who calls us to, and enables us for, ministry as the body of Christ. I honestly believe that if God is calling us to particular forms of ministry, that God will provide abundantly all that we need and more than we can imagine.
I heard recently of a church in a very poor, urban area that has developed a huge outreach to the neighborhood, even though most of the people that attend the church live at or around the poverty level. One ministry of this church is a health clinic that houses a doctor, a nurse, mental health counselors, and more. The doctor who serves in this ministry was making good money in a private practice, but felt that God was calling her to do more. This doctor now joyfully gives of her time and money in full time work at this clinic. It actually costs her $12,000 per year personally to work there. A while back, it looked like funding was finally running out. The pastor of the church, meanwhile, had a lunch meeting that had been set up by someone in the church with a local business person. The pastor shared about what was happening in the life of the church, and the business person asked, “What’s got you down?” The pastor responded, “Well, we have this great clinic, but it looks like we’re going to have to close it unless we get some money, and soon.” This business person responded, “My company is looking for a place where we can make a charitable contribution. Perhaps we can help!” Later that afternoon, the pastor returned from the corporate office with a check for $5000, exactly what was needed to keep the doors open.
That isn’t to say that we have unlimited resources to do whatever we want. But if God is calling us to do something, there is enough.
It is remarkable that there are enough resources in the world to go around, so that no one would be without the basic necessities of life. God, who created the world, gave us everything we needed for life to be sustained and enjoyed. And yet, we don’t need to look far to see that there are so many people who do not have what they need. And maybe we start to believe that there just isn’t enough.
I am sure you have been moved by the images coming out of the eastern seaboard this week, particularly in New York and New Jersey. Some areas are receiving the aid that they need, while others are being ignored. Emergency supplies run out. The answer: there just isn’t enough. I’ve also heard inspiring stories of neighbors helping neighbors. They might not have much to give, but they are giving what they have. They aren’t worried about there not being enough; they are more concerned with sharing what they have.
In one way or another, we constantly hear the message that there simply isn’t enough. Because there isn’t enough, we have to compete for what we want, hold onto it tenaciously, and not let go. But we worship a God who created all that we have and all that we need, a God who, throughout history, has demonstrated abundance in the face of scarcity.
We already heard about the widow and her flour and oil. There wasn’t enough. There also wasn’t enough food for Jacob and his family, but they found abundance and reunion with Joseph in Egypt. There wasn’t enough food and water in the wilderness, and yet the Israelites had all that they needed – water from rocks, and bread and meat from heaven. In fact, if they tried to save it, to build up a stash, it rotted within a day. These Israelites, who left slavery in Egypt, had nothing, and yet when it came time to build the tabernacle, riches beyond the wildest imagination were brought forth as joyful offerings. There wasn’t enough food to feed the crowd of thousands who gathered to hear Jesus, and yet when one little boy brought forward his meager lunch, it was enough. Time and time again, the mindset of scarcity is trampled by the truth of God’s abundance. There is enough.
There are many reasons for us to give generously to and through the church, but perhaps one of the most important reasons is because it is an affirmation of faith. Our generous giving affirms that, contrary to what our cultural wisdom tells us, there is enough. God is sovereign. God calls us to faithful discipleship and action in this world. And for that call, God gives us all we need. Our generous – and perhaps, at times, sacrificial – giving, is a resounding, “Yes! There is enough.”
In a few minutes we will celebrate communion. Back in the early church, a full Eucharistic meal was shared from the gifts and offerings brought by the people. Leftovers were sent out to the sick or shut in. This was part of the way that the early church insured that everyone had enough to eat. The message at this table was, “There is enough.” We also understand this table to be a foretaste – just a hint – of the great feast that awaits us, the Messianic banquet, when Christ’s reign is established once and for all among us. We believe that there will be a greater abundance than we can ever imagine: abundance of life, of joy, and of justice. One day, there will be far more than we can imagine. But for today, there is enough.