Sermon 04/30/2017 Living Generously, The Joy in Freewill Offerings

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Sermon by guest preacher Teresa Boshart Yoder.

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Opening prayer

Good and loving God, source of every grace and blessing,
We bring you thanks as we gather today for the many gifts you have given us.
We seek to be good stewards, Lord!
Bless us as we gather here to share your gifts.
Send us Your Spirit and be present among us — in the mouth of all who speak, in the ears of all who listen
at the heart of all we say and do.

The freewill offering model introduced: Exodus 35:1 – 36:7

The first recorded fundraising effort was a huge success. It was to raise money to build the tabernacle. It’s a great model of what can happen when God’s people come together for a common cause. If you have time, read the full story from Exodus 35:1-36:7.

Exodus 36:5b – 7, a fundraiser’s dream

God ordained giving before there were even needs that could be met with money or possessions. Mixed messages abound on the topic of giving and tithing, leaving you in the pews confused and discouraged, unfortunately this can lead to disinterest or giving up.

Jeff Anderson relates in his book “Plastic Donuts” that we use the idea of “acceptable gift” rather than tithe. In the Bible, acceptable gift means “pleasing’”. He argues the ten percent standard was never a biblical standard, but it can be a helpful tool and lead to meaningful spiritual experiences. Jeff found when he did a deep dive into biblical texts about gift occurrence (like when the widow dropped her two coins into the temple treasury, or Moses gave instructions for the animal burnt offering), he counted roughly 2,000 mentions from Genesis to Revelations.

People often need some vision for giving systematically, and the tithe provides a clear, measurable benchmark for action. But the tithe can unintentionally set a standard in motion and when applied in the Christian faith, legalism creeps in, tithing becomes about rules and regulations. This may lead to guilt and shame for those under this standard, and pride and complacency for those at, or above, this percentage.

God gives us freedom of choice to determine our gifts. But since giving to God is not a small matter, the amount we give matters to God. God measures our gifts based on our unique abilities and respective heart condition. I believe God views our gifts more broadly than a one-size-fits-all standard like the ten percent tithe.

It doesn’t take much awareness to realize that our society is obsessed with money and financial gain. Up-to-date stock quotes are available over the internet. Bookstores are filled with books on how to make money and numerous entire magazines are devoted to the same goal. That doesn’t even address all the ads….and ads….. And ads urging us to spend money as fast as we can make it or even faster if you use your credit card. Not surprisingly, savings in America is at a low while debt is soaring (especially credit card debt).

The church isn’t immune to this. Often, our Anabaptist heritage makes money a taboo subject—especially in a church setting. For many of us, money and the church are completely separate subjects and never the twain shall meet. But, while we are reluctant to talk about money, the bible isn’t. Stewardship themes on money and possessions are addressed more frequently than any other subject in scripture, with the exception of the “Kingdom of God”.

Now– I am a nurse and worked for 35 years as Director of Women’s Health divisions for health systems. I have had to tell women they have breast cancer and walk with them on their treatment journey. I have had to perform CPR on newborn infants and work with parents whose children were getting bone marrow transplants because it was their last hope for life with their cancer. I joined Everence; a faith based financial institution just about 2 years ago, calling it my second career moving toward retirement. When they told me I would be expected to preach sometimes and the topic would be mostly stewardship, including money, I wasn’t sure I could do it. Think about that… maybe that is why Jesus felt it was so important to talk about money and stewardship…. None of the rest of us wants to.

The world of religious giving is experiencing a seismic shift. The world of religious giving in which many of us grew up is not the world of giving today. Since 1970, giving to religion has not been keeping pace with inflation. There is some good news though; studies show that people who attend church, mosque or synagogue weekly are 2-4 times more generous in their giving than non-church goers. But the religious marketplace is changing; it has been altered by many new providers of religious goods and services that compete for those usually provided by traditional denominations. Non-profit charitable organizations registered with internal revenue went from 865,000 in 2001 to over 1.2 million in 2010, an increase of almost 50%. A lot more organizations and groups are asking for our dollars and getting them, the congregational church is often not asking. Another interesting statistic is that 10% of church members provide over 65% of those churches dollars. At least one out of 5 American Christians (that is 20%) gives literally nothing to the church, religious organizations or other charities.

Giving patterns and practices evolve from one generation to another. Clif Christopher in his book, Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate, discusses relevant information for those involved in congregational leadership who are looking to keep the vision for giving alive. Some of his ideas are edgy. But as he describes early on in his book, society, the church and the offering plate of the Church of the 21st century has seen dramatic changes. As a result of these changes how the church addressed generosity and stewardship issues 50 years ago may not work today. We see a diminished loyalty to the local church as well as an increased sophistication in fund raising efforts by para-church and civic organizations which, like it or not, are competing for your hearts and dollars. Christopher challenges us to reflect on what we have been doing and asks ourselves if we think it will keep us financially solvent in maintaining current ministry needs and as we add new initiatives for future outreach.

One of his challenges to us is we have become too complacent in general about the expectations for our members. He feels leadership needs to be more assertive with challenging church members towards greater stewardship faithfulness in the ways we earn, save, spend and share with our financial resources. Christopher notes that the churches that are growing today are those who have raised the expectations about giving and regular church attendance. Congregations that shy away from these subjects tend not to attract seekers looking to grow and be challenged spiritually. I admit when I read this part of the book I got a little squirmy. How would I feel to hear this from my pastor over the podium.

I read an article about a young youth pastor who was serving a large congregation in an exclusive community. The senior pastor was concerned that the congregation’s giving was below expectations. As a thank you he hosted a meal for the top contributing families. (Nonprofit and charitable organizations do this all the time, did some of you react when I mentioned the church did this?) The youth pastor was stunned that he received an invitation, he was a top giver! It dawned on him that the fancy cars that his teenagers and their parents drove might well be purchases on credit, they may have high incomes but also had high expenses. This helped him focus conversations with the youth and their families about articulating one’s purpose and defining priorities, two keys to a generous mindset.

Can the church compete with the clamorous claims of contemporary culture? Are we equipping disciples to live each moment with an awareness of God’s abundance and to respond generously? How are we transmitting Jesus’ great love command and our call to live out these words to the best of our ability by grace and through the gift of the Holy Spirit? In what ways are we encouraging families with children to foster gratitude and thankfulness that will counter the individualistic messages of consumer culture?

Scientific proof now exists that human beings are hard-wired to be generous. It’s part of our very core of being. Researchers in psychology, neuroscience, and sociology are finding compelling evidence that children — infants even — are predisposed towards altruism and kindness. Our Creator God has lovingly equipped us to be faithful stewards, to care for one another and for creation, but this happens in real life, not in an uncomfortable effort that’s tied ball-and-chain to a budget. People want to make a difference, and we are willing to be generous when given the right opportunities and reasons for doing so.

In a book by Henri Nouwen: The Spirituality of Fundraising. Nouwen says that if you are really passionate about something — about a cause, about Jesus, about your faith community — then inviting others to give money to it is a gift to them. This simple thought can move us from a mentality of scarcity to a mentality of abundance. I have been reading a devotional “Why Give” by John DeVries. In it he notes; Scrooge, that old miser in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, was a miserable old man until he learned how to give. By the end of the story, he is dancing and giggling through the village, having discovered the joy of giving. My prayer is for you to find something very like that joy.

I want to share a story by a member here at CMC:

CMC Member story:

Even though my childhood family was very poor, I grew up with a strong sense of tithing and stewardship. I was taught by my parents, by both words and deeds, that giving back to God is foundational in our Christian belief and commitment. My memories from childhood are that when we had income, from sale of a crop, for example, the first thing we did was to set aside a tithe to give to our church. No matter what our financial circumstances might be at the time, setting aside to give came before necessities such as groceries or clothes, paying any debts we might have, etc. I remember when I got an allowance of ten cents a month. My dad would give me a nickel and five pennies so I would have a penny to put in the offering plate at church.

The summer after my high school senior year I worked hard to earn money for my freshman year at EMU and, true to my teaching, I tithed my earnings. When I left for EMU in the fall, I had not yet given all the tithe money I had set aside. I brought it back to EMU with me, probably between $50 and $100, in a jar. During the fall semester, as financial “needs” arose, I dipped into my tithe fund. I’m sure I thought of it as borrowing and I would pay it back when I could. But when the school year ended I still had not paid it back, a matter which caused me considerable guilt.

The next four years brought marriage and the birth of two children, all the while continuing my education. While I/we continued to tithe during those years, it seemed there was not enough money to give beyond a tithe to pay back the tithe money I had “borrowed.” Eventually, though, we were able to give above the tithe. Since that time I have repaid that “loan” thousands of times over. We are grateful to be able to give over and above a tithe. And when we do, I frequently think that I am still repaying what I “borrowed” during my freshman year in college.

Cultivating a mindset of generosity should impact all aspects of the congregation's work. A mindset of generosity encourages seeing everyone—members, staff, pastor, friends—as people with all kinds of gifts to share. Money is only part of the equation, but a necessary part. Where are the signs of generosity in our congregation now? How can you participate, encourage and lift up those signs and missions? What else can you do to reframe current practices so that they reflect a more generous spirit?

As Jennifer shared last week:

First fruits giving means that we begin with the end in mind; we prioritize giving over accumulating; we place the needs of others before our own; we acknowledge that resources may be currently in our grasp and directed by us, but they belong to God. Our whole lives belong to God–who is our beginning and our end.

The tithe is a very controversial matter today and you will hear conflicting views. I personally don’t see value in time spent debating the tithe, but would seek to gain unity in generosity and heart giving or giving of your own free will. I think we would want to share materially to where we are fed spiritually. I think we should commit to giving faithfully and you need to think about what feels joyful to you for giving to the church. I think we need as a church, as parents and family, to teach on giving. Actually tithing can sometimes be supported as a “tenth belongs to God”. I challenge us that all things belong to God, are given to us as stewards of all Gods gifts and possessions.

I leave you with the verse from I Peter 4:10—like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.

God looks for, and delights in, our freewill offerings. Free will means what it says. It does not mean something that has been manipulated or demanded from us, or given because guilt or condemnation has been placed upon us.

So again, I wish for all of you like Scrooge that old miser in A Christmas Carol be dancing and giggling through Harrisonburg, having discovered the joy of giving.[/otw_shortcode_content_toggle]

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