It was in the fall of 1968... I interviewed for a job with the Iowa Commission for the Blind. I was sitting across the desk from Kenneth Jernigan, Director of the Commision and President of the National Federation of the Blind. "How much do you want?" he asked, and I said, "$6800." It was strange question for him to ask, but my answer was even stranger. Indeed, it was foolish... because $6800 a year wasn't enough money, not even back in '68. In any event, he hired me (at a slightly greater wage), and I absolutely loved my job! I loved visiting my clients; I loved teaching white cane travel (although I never taught it particularly well), and I lcved selling White Cane Candy in the factories of Dubuque and on the streets of Fort Dodge. Although I didn't earn much, I had a purpose that seemed bigger than money to me, and I threw myself into my work. It wasn't long before we moved to Omaha, where I would earn more money per month than I did in a year with the Commission... but the feeling of using what energy and talent I had to open doors for others... was priceless! Giving, I learned, could be a source of joy... when you're in love with a purpose or a person. I loved the idea of helping others find dignity and opportunity. I loved working for a "cause," and I loved the infectious "we're out to save the world" culture that permeated our workplace. I can still see the factory workers in Dubuque pulling out dollar bills as they came to their parking lots. Yes, we sold our White Cane Candy for a dollar a box, but it was a priceless transaction to me. Joyful giving stems from love, which is why God "loves a cheerful giver."
Now, in the fall of 2013, I'm a pastor in the Presbyterian Church, and it's "stewardship time" again. Year after year, we hand out commitment cards; year after year we ask you to pledge because commitment is an important thing; year after year, we ask people from the congregation to tell you why it's important to give generously; and of course, we always set aside a Sunday (or two, or three) for a stewardship sermon. For those who are practically minded, we'll cite our budget and the expenses we have to pay- which, given the size of our building, are very real. For those who are program-oriented, we will note that it takes money to fund Learning Centers and Tutoring programs, and it does! For those who are committed to "the rules," we will anchor our requests for money in Biblical terms, and for those who see giving as an investment, we will lift up all the things that God can do with our contributions. There is merit to each of these reasons for giving. We do have bills to pay. God will bless our giving, and there is no doubt that God commands us to give. However...none of these reasons for giving will accomplish much.... without love! Unless we give out of our love for Jesus, we will only... and always give on our own terms. We will never give sacrificially... unless we are in love! This is a spiritual axiom, and it's corollary is this: if we are in love, no power on earth can keep us from giving all that we are and all that we have... to the person or object we love!
Unless you're passionate about the person or cause of your giving, "joyful giving" will forever be an oxymoron, and the notion that we will gain our lives by losing them for his sake... will never make sense. In a phrase, love is the key to stewardship because love demands giving. Tell a man who has fallen in love with golf... to play the game just every once in a while. Tell him, and you will find that he won't listen and that he will gladly spend money on lessons, equipment, and as many rounds of golf as he can. Why? Because he's enthused, en fuego, in love. Tell a young man who has fallen in love with the woman of his dreams... to quit buying her flowers and other tokens of love... and see how that works! A family introduces a young girl to the piano, and it steals her heart. So she forsakes all others, even the boys, and plays by the hour, without ever being nagged... because she finds deep joy in giving to what she loves. Tell a Christian who is on fire for Jesus, to "cool it," and you'll find that you might as well be talking to the wall... because... only love is strong enough to sever the delicate cord that connects the heart and the purse. This nerve, as you might suspect, is very sensitive to the touch, and if we even mention it, people get nervous... which is why attendance often falls off in October and why people dread the annual stewardship sermons. Even the best of church members are prone to give in a measured way... unless they are "in Christ," but if they're "in love," they will give and give and give and count it all joy.
When Paul started new churches, he invariably asked them to give money to the struggling church in Jerusalem, whose poverty seemed to be always on his mind. You can read about Paul's concern for the Jerusalem church in his letters to the Galatians, the church in Rome, and in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians. Paul was never afraid to ask others to give, and he often asked others to give generously- even sacrificially- in every way they could. He asked people to give their time, their talent, their treasure, and their lives... to Christ, and he did it unapologetically. Of course, he gave them reasons to give, and he cited specific needs, just as we do. He gave them reasons why they should give... because there is real power in specificity... but beneath the reasons why, Paul knew that meaningful giving... flows from love. He knew that only those who know themselves to be saved will give from the heart, because giving is an act of gratitude!
Those who give because they have received will find "joy" in giving, and this brings us to our passage in 2 Corinthians. In an otherwise rather sober letter to the church in Corinth, Paul could hardly contain his excitement (2 Cor. 8) when he talked about the Macedonian churches because their "great joy and severe poverty overflowed in a wealth of generosity." Paul, who had been challenging the Corinthians to commit to Christ, challenged them to show their commitment in their gifts to the Jerusalem church, just as the Macedonians had done. They gave "beyond their means," Paul attested, and they "begged for the privilege of sharing" because they were excited and alive in Christ. Those who give in response to the gift that God gave them in Christ will give until they bleed...and consider it a blessing! Paul gave the Corinthians reasons why they should give- he explained that they had an obligation to help other churches- but in the end, Paul knew that their giving would be in direct relationship to their spiritual maturity. Thus, he concluded: "Give as you made up your mind, and not under compulsion or reluctantly... for God loves a cheerful giver."
At the end of the day, the only gifts that matter are those that come from the heart, and the only gifts that please God are those that are given joyfully. Unless giving gives us joy, we will never do much of it, and it will only give us joy... if we truly believe that, in giving, we will become rich. So, our stewardship campaigns always take place in the midst of a conundrum: if you are on fire for Christ, you don't need the fundraiser, but if you aren't in a place spiritually where "joyful giving" makes much sense to you, all of the reasons why won't move you much, Thus, when all is said and done, we simply remind some of you that it's time to give joyfully, and encourage others... to discover the joy of generous giving by tippy-toeing into the waters of faith, If you are at a place spiritually where you can't give joyfully, let me suggest that you give more than you gave last year. Give 1, 2, 5, 10% more than you are comfortable with...and discover how rich you feel. Amen.