Summary: Lay Sermon on Stewardship. The focus is on the historical and social responsibility of being a Christian and giving and does not mention biblical tithing.
"The Challenges of Being a Cheerful Giver"
Sermon Preached by Joseph A. Betz
Setauket Presbyterian Church, NY
October 22, 2006
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 9: 6-15
The Apostle Paul writes, "God loves a cheerful giver." The original Greek word he used was hilaron for cheerful, which translates into English as hilarious. Actually I prefer hilarious, because it is a word that goes way beyond cheerful, as if we can’t control some inner outpouring of emotion. It also tickles my funny bone and I can’t help but try to spread some of the hilarity around as I begin this sermon on Stewardship, a topic generally considered to be "no laughing matter."
There’s an old stewardship joke about the minister who encouraged the congregation to "Give until it hurts!" Unfortunately, the congregation had a very low threshold of pain. And then there’s the one about a visitor to a church, who asked a congregant the question, "What do you stand for in this Christian church?" The congregant answered, "We stand for three hymns and the doxology."
In all seriousness, often humor challenges us to look at the heart of an issue. How much do we give and why do we give? These are not easy questions and there are no simple answers. What does it mean to be a Christian in today’s society? What do we do after we say, "I believe… you know…, I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth." Do we have an active responsibility to make a difference in the world? What does it mean to us collectively to give, and more specifically, what does it mean to you as an active disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ?
I’m pretty sure by now you have heard the standard Stewardship Sermon. It goes something like this. Everything we have comes from God: the air we breathe, the water we drink, life itself, our planet and the universe, God’s love, his gift to us of Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins, eternal life everlasting, and the list could go on and on. Then why can’t we just give back to God what is God’s? Seems simple, doesn’t it? I don’t know about you, but the problem for me is that I always seem to fall short. I somehow forget that basic truth in the pressures of every day living—and then there’s my rational mind and academic training that get in the way. It takes a huge amount of faith. And where does that faith lead me to? I keep on searching: to be a better husband, to be a better father, to do the right thing, to make a difference in the world and ultimately it returns me to where I began: I’m searching to know God better.
I wonder what it is that God wants me to do. How much does God want me to give? The problem with trying to answer that question directly is that we never know enough about God to be able to say what he wants. Our assumptions just fall short; they lack the beauty, the mystery and the grandeur that only God can give. The only thing I know for certain is that God loves us.
That love for us is the most difficult for me to express when I try to describe it to my children. It’s like trying to describe the most bountiful, most majestic valley whose breath, width and depth is infinite and immeasurable. It’s a thing that keeps giving and giving, sustaining our bodies and souls. All of my words, my descriptions and images just fall short of what it is that I see and feel before me. But it is a love that is so strong, an act of giving so large that its example is there to show us the way.
Those familiar words, "am I my brother’s keeper?" or "love thy neighbor," haunt me for obvious reasons; what is the limit of our responsibility for giving and caring for others? God’s love for us seems to be about giving and caring unconditionally. Unfortunately it doesn’t come with a rule book of numbers at Stewardship time.
Sometimes I try to listen to what the Holy Spirit tells me about giving. Well, to be honest, I’m afraid that I’m somewhat too cerebral as a Presbyterian to hear the number the Spirit has for me; or not Pentecostal enough. "Spirit, could you give me the exact number, round it off to the nearest dollar, tell me exactly what to do." But if the Spirit answers, I don’t seem to be able to hear it.
I often think about what Jesus would say to us about giving? Would he challenge us to give everything away and follow him or was it just that rich man he was talking to? He’d probably tell us it’s not really ours anyway. This option never seems too attractive to any of us unless we truly want to follow in the footsteps of someone like Mother Theresa or any other universally acknowledged modern day saint. I worry that the loving Jesus I learned about in Sunday school would be more like that Jesus the iconoclast, with a capital "I". I know what he’d say: "we don’t do enough; we don’t love enough, give enough, care enough, heal enough, speak out enough and stand up enough." With all of our failings, I often wonder if Jesus would even join our church today; I don’t know.