If you are looking for a post on All Saints Sunday:
Committed to Christ Series
We are in week five of a six-week series called Committed to Christ. We are reviewing, as we try to do each Fall, the basics of the Christian faith. This week’s topic is what Bob Crossman calls Financial Giving. I would prefer to call it generosity.
My weekly blog posts for these six weeks are going to focus on six aspects of discipleship:
- Bible Reading
- Financial Giving
The goals of this series are:
- To engage the entire congregation in praying and growing together in faith
- To develop small groups that grow faith and bond the congregation together in strong
- To welcome newcomers and close the back door of the church
- To grow faith and generosity
The key components of the series are:
- Daily devotions
- Weekly home groups
- Sunday worship
In many of our congregations, the first Sunday in November is All Saints Sunday. Some will choose to observe All Saints and pick up financial giving/generosity the following week.
If you are looking for a post on All Saints, click one of the three links above.
Genesis 28:18-22 – Jacob’s tithe
2 Corinthians 9:6-8 – God loves a cheerful giver.
Luke 19:1-10 – Zaccheus
Is there anything so central to Christianity as giving? Jesus spoke more about giving more than just about any other topic in the Bible. In addition to this, he warned about materialism as a threat to our spirituality. Just think of all the Bible stories about giving.
- Give and it shall be given to you, pressed down, shaken together, overflowing.
- The Parable of the Talents
- The Parable of the Rich Fool
- The Widow’s Penny
The Bible talks a lot about money, and people are all struggling with money. It’s already on their minds when they walk through the door. Most of us are working to live within our means, and those who are independently wealthy are spending their time managing their money and tending to their assets. People want to talk about this stuff, but it’s taboo in our society. The church is a place we can talk about use of wealth, faithful management of wealth, and people will be very interested in hearing about it if they sense we really care about the big picture, and not just how much will come to the church. The minute you bring the church budget into the sermon, you will indicate that you’re more concerned about your budget than their lives. And most of them are struggling mightily.
Consider this information:
- 76% of U.S. Americans live paycheck to paycheck (2013, CNN Money article)
- 819,240 bankruptcy filings in 2015. (This is good news actually, as it is down 10% from 2014 according to the American Bankruptcy Institute. But personal bankruptcy filings are up this year. Total bankruptcies are expected to reach 1.1M this year according to NBC News).
- 75% report being depressed after a bankruptcy (Gallop). Now there’s a real shocker. Most struggle to recover from the emotional toll of bankruptcy according to a 2013 S. News and World Report.
- In 1929 only 2% of homes had a mortgage. Today most homes have a mortgage (71%). 14 million people are under water, that is, they owe more than their house is worth, according to The New York Times.
- The typical household has $90,000 to $132,000 of debt. Statistics vary. Fox Business says $90,000. Nerd Wallet says $132,158, $15,675 in credit card debt.
- 1/3 Americans have saved nothing for retirement. 56% have saved less than $10,000 according to TIME Magazine, reporting a GoBankingRates report conducted with three Google Consumer Surveys.
- Personal savings rate today is 5.4%, up slightly, but down from 13% in the early 70s (Huffington Post).
- Personal finance is the number one personal stress factor in the workplace, and the number one thing divorcing couples say they argue about (USA Today).
This is the financial landscape in which people live and give. How do we invite people to lives of generosity when they are in debt up to their eyeballs? Two things that won’t work, at least in the long term:
- Ignoring the reality of the situation will not work. It is unrealistic. If we really want to help people discover the true joy of generosity, we will need to help them with the realities of their situation. Classes on budgeting and workshops on debt reduction will help people out of the hole. I’ve seen people get out of debt because of classes they took at church, and they were deeply grateful. When you help someone out of hole, they tend to respond with gratitude. “Whoever is forgiven much, loves much,” as Jesus said.
- Second, an appeal to guilt or the law of tithing might work for the moment, but guilt erodes trust, and it fades with time. This is not to say that we shouldn’t speak of the tithe. We should, through the lens of grace. But, if we hit people over the head with the “should” stick, they may respond at first, out of fear, but in the long term more damage is done, resentment will set in, and you might introduce a spirit of self-righteousness. We are people of grace. We know that the law is a curse that cannot bring us to a right relationship with God. We believe that the gospel is more likely to bring us closer to the heart of God than the law anyway.
What if we invite people into a different way of relating to money? We live under the impression more is better. Most people think they would be happy if they just had 10% more. Part of the preacher’s job is to unveil the futility of this. How much is enough? Just a little bit more. And yet, people seem to spend 102% of their income no matter how much they make. If your income rises significantly, you’ll just get a better car, a bigger house, and find ways to spend it and more.
This is not to celebrate poverty. Jesus doesn’t exalt poverty. He teaches his disciples to fight it, by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and so on. They say money can’t buy happiness, but if you’re living in destitute poverty, it actually can. But once you have the necessities of life, food, shelter and health care, statistics show that there is no correlation between wealth and happiness. People making $150,000 a year are no happier than people making $70,000 a year.
So, where is true joy found? I would suggest to you that giving people are happier people. Generosity gives people joy. If you want to find joy, if you want to encounter the divine, practice generosity and see what happens.
Giving opens up something within us. Think of a time that you gave generously and selflessly to someone or some cause. How did you feel?
We practice generosity because we follow Jesus who taught giving, and who practiced it, by giving everything, even his life on the cross. He taught the way of generosity, as seen in the story of Zaccheus.
Jesus walks into Jericho and sees something curious: a man in a tree. Zaccheus has been collecting taxes for an occupying army. By making his personal fortune off the stifling taxes of others, and thereby supporting the pagan overlords, he is not a popular guy. The religious elite would have considered him a sinner because of what he was doing.
Tax collectors had the strength of the army behind them. They made a bid to the authorities for how many taxes they could collect and send to Rome. Then they charged over and above to make their own income. Zaccheus probably had the nicest house in Jericho. The system was rife with corruption. Zaccheus even admits that he had been cheating people (Luke 19:8).
Entering Jericho, Jesus goes right over to Zaccheus and invites himself over for dinner, and, if I’m reading this fairly, to stay. Jesus goes over to the richest guy in town, with the biggest house, a sinner who has been bilking people, collecting taxes for an occupying army, and he cozies up to him. Imagine the scandal. With all his concern for the poor, Luke’s Jesus has no problem talking to rich folks.
We don’t know the content of the conversation. Luke doesn’t tell us. Perhaps he doesn’t know. But this we do know. Zaccheus agrees to give away half of his possessions to the poor, and he agrees to pay back all that he has defrauded 400%. Perhaps Jesus simply asked him. We know Jesus was not afraid to ask rich people to give away their stuff. Consider Luke 18:18-25
A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’” He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” He replied, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”
If this makes you cringe a bit, well then, good. I’m sure that’s what the story was intended to do for Theophilus, Luke’s wealthy patron (Luke 1:1), and the rest of his audience. Even the people in the story seem to understand the problem. If we must give it all up and if it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom, then who can be saved? Who stands a chance? Jesus responds in a way that seems to indicate: “No one. It’s impossible really. But for God, all things are possible.” Once again, Jesus drives us to grace by raising the law.
And then later, in Luke 18:33:
Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.
Luke’s Jesus is nothing if not consistent. I have no trouble seeing Jesus ask Zaccheus for the same things. Those who love much, give much. This seems to be the point that Jesus makes with Simon the Pharisee after the woman with the alabaster jar anoints his feet. Luke 7:44-47:
Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
Jesus’ approach is not the water of the law: a tithe, 10%. Jesus approach is the wine of the gospel: generosity, joy, the 50% to the poor, 400% to the cheated of Zaccheus, and 100% of the poor widow. All of this is greater than the law. This is not a tithe; this is so much more. It grows, perhaps, from being welcomed and accepted by Jesus. It comes from the grace he has experienced, not judgment. This is the generosity in the gospel of grace.