1 Timothy 6:17-19
Enough: Defined by Generosity
(The structure/content of this sermon is shaped by the book Enough (Stewardship Guide), by Adam Hamilton, and adapted for use in the context of Liverpool First UMC)
A couple of weeks ago we celebrated All Saints Sunday, and I asked you to share the names of the saints in your life. I was deeply touched by all the names that you brought forward, by this great cloud of witnesses that you lifted up. How truly blessed we are to be so shaped by the people that God has put into our lives for different seasons. I have two saints in my life that I particularly carry in my heart with me. First is my Grandpa, Millard Mudge. Grandpa died fourteen years ago, which seems impossible, so vivid is his memory in my mind. And you’ll hear about him a lot over time, I suspect. But today I particularly want to share with you a bit about my Great Aunt Clara. She died in January after a struggle with lung cancer that caught us all off guard, because she was just a vibrant, full-of-life kind of person, and it was hard to believe she’d really gotten sick. My Aunt Clara lived a pretty colorful life, and at different times over the years she was either what I (as a child, at least) considered quite wealthy (something I measured as a child by the fact that she had an in-ground pool complete with a cabana for changing), and also quite broke, living in questionable apartments in questionable neighborhoods. But no matter what her situation was, Aunt Clara was always incredibly generous. There was just no way you could leave her house empty handed. She wouldn’t have it. If you came to her home, she had to give you gifts. It was hard to express your like of any of her possessions, because you would be afraid she would just give it to you, from the shirt she was wearing, to the sheets on her bed, or the curtain in her windows. When it seemed like she had everything, and when it seemed like she had nothing, Aunt Clara always had enough to give something to you, and it was clear that giving to you gave her incredible joy. Refusing her gifts would be the quickest way to hurt her feelings. Aunt Clara was defined by her generosity, a trait others could easily see and recognize in her. What a way to be remembered! How about you – what do you hope to be remembered for? What are your defining characteristics?
Today, as we wrestle with this theme of “Enough” for the last week in our series, we are looking again at 1 Timothy, picking up where we left off on our first week with this theme. The text reminds us that our security does not come from our things, from riches, from accumulating stuff. Instead, our hope rests on God, who fulfills promises even beyond our hopefulness. We’re called to “do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share,” so that we might store up the kind of treasure that is eternal, and take hold, the author says, “of the life that really is life,” rather than the cheap imitations of real life we are too often willing to accept. Are you living the life that really is life? What characteristics define who you are? Are you marked by the good that you do? Are you rich in good works? Are you always ready to share? Are you defined by generosity?
God has created us not only with a willingness to give, both back to God and to others, but with a need to give. We’re meant to give, to be generous. When we do give, the joy we experience is transformative. How many of you have had more fun, been more full of anticipation about a gift you planned to give, rather than a gift you were hoping to receive? And yet, we find, every day, that voices in our life tempt us, war within us, leading us to selfishness, greed, holding on tightly to what we have. There’s the voice of fear: we fear what might happen to us, and want to feel secure, and we think that accumulating money and things will make us secure, and so we fail to be generous. But our things, our money – none of that offers us any real security. None of it is guaranteed forever.
There’s also the voice of self-gratification. Our culture tells us that our lives consist of our stuff and pleasurable experiences, and so we find ourselves thinking, “if I give, there won’t be enough left for me.” I’m reminded of a story I learned first as a camper at Aldersgate as a child – the story of warm fuzzies and cold pricklies. People had bags with warm fuzzies that they could give out – an endless supply of them. And you would never keep a warm fuzzy – you would always give it away – always share it. But eventually, someone convinced them that that they would run out of fuzzies, and so people started hording them, turning their warm fuzzies into cold pricklies. Of course, being a camp story, people eventually realized in this village that you had to give fuzzies away for them to stay warm fuzzies, and that you would never run out of them. But even though it’s a children’s story, I’ve always felt it has a message we need to keep hearing. We let our fears about not having enough for ourselves keep us from giving to God and one another – and then, everyone loses.
So how do we defeat these voices? How do we stop letting fear and insecurity overtake our call to be generous? Of course, we ground ourselves in Christ, seek to follow his example, and search the scriptures, which are full of guidance on these very issues. I find it interesting that we hone in on all sorts of controversial issues that the scriptures may address for a handful of verses, but we tend to overlook some of the major topics. Did you know that almost 40% of what Jesus talks about in the gospels is related to money and stuff and how we use it? It must be pretty important, don’t you think? Jesus speaks repeatedly about the way we are called to live, a way that flies in the face of the messages we find most anywhere else. The first will be last. The humble will be exalted and the exalted will be humbled. If you want to save your life, you have to lose it. You lead by being servant of all, not master of all. To be a disciple, you have to take up the cross, the symbol of the ultimate sacrifice, and follow Jesus.
There’s a theme, isn’t there? In losing ourselves to God, we find life. Because our very lives are gifts – everything belongs to God. Very early in the Bible, we encounter people giving back to God. You’ve heard Pastor Aaron use the phrase “first and best tenth” when he is talking about the offering – that’s a tithe – giving our first and best tenth to God. It’s a practice we find in the Old Testament, when people would offer their first fruits to God – the first and best tenth of their flocks or crops or income. Not the last, and not what’s leftover. As followers of Jesus, living together under the new covenant, we’re not bound by the rule of the law any longer. But tithing is a pretty good guideline for us when we are thinking about giving.
Do you remember a children’s sermon I gave back in the summer about putting God first, where I showed how rice, representing all the things in our life, could fit in the jar with a big rock, as long as you put the rock in first, and everything else after that? The point was that our lives could be full like we want them, as long as we keep God first, not try to shove God into our lives last. That’s what my own experience with tithing is like. When I first started in ministry, I made a pledge to tithe, but found that every month, I would need to spend more than I expected, and I would end up only giving a very small portion of what I had planned – whatever I had left over. So, instead, I started having my tithe directly withheld from my paycheck. And suddenly, because it came first, I no longer had an issue making my tithe again, giving to God what I meant to give to God. Let me show you this video from Adam Hamilton, and see if it resonates with you. *VIDEO*
Tithing can be challenging. But it is a good biblical goal for us as we seek to be defined by our generosity. If you aren’t able to tithe right now, God understand where you are at, what you are facing, and perhaps you can take a step in that direction, a step towards deeper generosity. If you are already tithing, ask yourself if God is calling you to grow beyond a tithe, to offer your gifts to other projects in the community and beyond that are important to your faith.
We are created by God to be generous, and our giving affects not just us, but our giving affects God, too. Adam Hamilton shares this story: Eight or nine years ago, our family took a camping trip to the Grand Tetons. We arrived on my birthday and set up our little pop-up camper. After we were settled, we told each of our daughters that they could have $20 spending money for the three days we would be in and around Jackson Hole. We then went to the gift shop before heading out on a walk around a small lake. We had no sooner walked into the gift shop than Rebecca started looking at ball caps. She found one, tried it on, and said, “Dad, what do you think of this hat?” I said, “Becca, it’s really cool. But all you have is $20, and that hat will take all of your money. Why don’t you wait and make your money last for the next few days.” But she said, “Dad, you told me it was my money and I could get whatever I want. And I really want this hat!” As hard as I tried to talk her out of it, and to convince her that she would have other opportunities to buy a cap in town, she would have no part of waiting. Finally, exasperated, I said, “Okay, Becca – but this is it. You’re not getting any more money the next three days.” I gave her her $20, and she bought the hat.
We went for a walk around the lake, and then came back to watch the sun set from a park bench. That’s when Becca handed me the hat and said, “Daddy, I bought this for you. I love you. Happy birthday.” I sat on the bench, took her in my arms, and started to cry. That hat is among my most treasured possessions, my most often worn hat to this day because every time I wear it, I think of Becca’s sacrifice for me. All these years later it still touches me to think about how my little girl gave up all her spending money because she wanted to tell her daddy that she loved him.
That’s how God looks at your offerings. They are not financial transactions or business deals. Your offerings are a way of saying, “God, I’m returning to you a portion of what I have and what I’ve earned to say thank you and I love you. I hope you’ll use this somehow to make a difference in the world.” When we give, we don’t give because God needs what we have. We give out of love, and God who loves us, loves our gifts because of what they tell God about how we feel, because of what they say about our desire to be in relationship with God, because of what they say about how we want to care for the other beloved creations of God in this world.
We do not give because we think God will give us back what we gave with interest. Our giving to God is not a loan program to God, where we’ll get a good financial return on our investment. That’s an abuse of what it means to give with a generous heart! And frankly, it goes back to that issue of safety and security. God doesn’t guarantee that giving – tithing or beyond even – will mean that you will never lose your job in the future, or have struggles. But when we live lives that are defined by generosity, the “unmistakable blessings of God” of all kinds flow into our lives. When we give generously, our hearts are filled with joy. They grow larger through the very act of giving. And in turn, we are yet more generous! It’s a cycle that keeps us growing in faith and love, a cycle that leads us to taking hold of the life that really is life.
Let us pray: Oh God, we thank you that you have given us life, that you sustain us by the power of your Holy Spirit and that you gave Jesus the Christ who showed us how we are to live in relationship with you and with our neighbor. We thank you for the abundance that we have in our lives. And we pray that you would help us. Help us, oh Lord, to honor you with our tithes. Help us to care for the poor and those who are in need. Help us to recognize that it is more blessed to give than to receive. We offer ourselves to you. Help us, oh Lord, to do your will. Lead us, we pray. In your holy name. Amen. (prayer adapted from Enough Stewardship Guide)