Sunday, November 9, 2008

This Gift of Love — Part II: “Give Proof, Before the Churches...”

This Gift of Love — Part II:
“Give Proof, Before the Churches...”

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder

November 2, 2008
Acts 20:32-38
II Corinthians 8:16-24

This is the second in a series of sermons on Paul’s New Testament words concerning stewardship. As we survive another election cycle with much conversation about the merits or demerits of taxes, we also might remember the words of the Frenchman who learned that his government planned to impose a tax on dogs: “Poor dogs!” he said. “They want to treat you like human beings!” At times like this, we may be in a good position to recall that while it is good to have money and the things money can buy, it is good to check up once in a while to make sure we haven’t lost the things money can’t buy.1

The book of Acts describes Paul’s ministry in three distinct phases: [1] as a missionary to Jews and Gentiles, [2] as a founding pastor visiting churches on his way to Jerusalem (with the collection for the saints), and [3] as an imprisoned witness defending the gospel from prison in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Rome.2

Today’s passage from Acts was spoken by Paul just before embarking for Jerusalem, where he would begin the long imprisonment phase of his ministry. It was a farewell speech.

During our course of seminary studies, we were once asked to give a title and outline for a sermon we would want to preach if we realized that it was to be delivered as our “last sermon.” I have spent most of my ministry under the assumption that a long future lies ahead of me. I still entertain hopes that that continues to be the case! Still, it is a useful exercise to consider what one affirmation is of such importance to me as a preacher that I would choose to give it as a “last sermon.”

Paul was in a similar position, although for him it was no exercise. He chose to speak on a topic that I’m not sure I would want to leave behind as a farewell homily. Faced with the need to say final words to beloved friends, the 20th chapter of Acts reports that he gave them ... a stewardship sermon!

He had been summoned to Jerusalem, and he suspected that arrest, prison, perhaps even death awaited him. So he stood on the dock in Miletus, with the elders from the church in Ephesus gathered around him. And he spoke of several matters with them before the final parting tears that are so eloquently reported. I think it is more than coincidence that his very last recorded words to them were these:

In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak,
remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said,
‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’

This is the only place in all of scripture that we have these words from Jesus. Paul concluded his church-planting ministry with them. More blessed to give than to receive, more like the Lord Jesus to toil for others than to sit back while others toil away for us; more blessed to serve others than to seek their service; even in our age of going out in search of self-fulfillment, more blessed to lose ourselves for Jesus’ sake than to find ourselves for our own sakes; more blessed to give away than to take in.

For those people in Paul’s day, as in ours, who had become proficient at covering up their greed with religious slogans, this was a distinctive and final word from the Lord which Paul alone handed down to us. When we get right down to wondering what Jesus would have us do, when we have preached all the fine, subtle and complex sermons that a career of witnessing may have given us, when all is said and done, what does Jesus move Paul to say to the elders gathered at dockside — tears streaming down their faces and lumps as big as corn fritters in their throats? Give! Finding comes through losing, riches arrive through generosity, kings are made by being servants for others, look out for the one who may not only not strike you as number 1, but maybe not even as number 100.

More blessed to give than to receive? Easily said. More difficult to do. It’s one of those scriptural affirmations that can so easily be turned into a cliché or slogan; a bedtime admonition around Christmastime for those youngsters who are less than willing to let go of hard-earned allowance to purchase presents for brothers or sisters they aren’t sure they even like: “There, there, Junior, as the Bible says,”

It is more blessed to give than to receive.

One thing about slogans and clichés: they very seldom are compelling except to one who wants to unload a set of expectations on someone else. After Papa has told Junior about the blessings of giving over receiving, he may leave the bedroom, go back into the family room, and flip through the day’s mail. Without so much as an ounce of compunction, regret, or anything even remotely resembling a second thought, he may throw away envelopes containing financial appeals from the Heart Fund, Heifer Project, the American Cancer Society, the United Way, who knows what-all else, and, yes, heaven forbid, perhaps even a letter from the church with a pledge card enclosed — all the while muttering to himself, “All they ever do is say ‘Money, money, money.’”

More blessed to give than to receive? Well, yes, but what is a reasonable standard of giving short of pauperizing ourselves? We can only stand so much blessedness, after all!

In spite of all our pious platitudes about the blessedness of giving, honesty compels us to admit how very much like Junior we really are. Junior may feel as much excitement at the prospect of spending his money on a present for his sister as he might for a walloping case of the Asian flu, just as we sometimes feel as much enthusiasm for our own giving as a person contemplating a root canal. Oddly enough, our own reluctance is one of the keys to understanding Christian stewardship of money.

We cannot make our stewardship decisions based only on emotion; at least not reliable decisions. We live in a time when people do or don’t do things based on whether they feel like it. “I feel good about my church pledge” is a sentence more likely to be heard than “I have disciplined myself to return to the Lord a portion of the bounty God has given me.” But Jesus did not say, “It is more blessed to feel like giving than to receive.” No, it is clear that the blessedness comes from making a decision and sticking with it. Whether it feels good or not is beside the point. It is a matter of decision and discipline. We may not much like that word discipline, but it is the root of the word disciple. The two are connected.

Think of the roadblocks that the church in Corinth threw in front of Paul as he worked at collecting the gift for the saints in Jerusalem. They even accused him of taking up an offering only to enrich himself. So in our passage today we heard about “the brother” who was asked to come along from Macedonia with Paul to serve as a sort of auditor, a guarantor that there would be no funny business with the church treasury.

It is not very exciting to talk about pledges, discipline, church accounting practices. But because suspicion and human fallibility have continued to haunt the church since that first world-wide collection, it is necessary that we do unexciting planning to make certain that we discipline ourselves to give, and that our gifts eventually go to accomplish the work they are intended to accomplish.

Paul said, in II Corinthians, “for we aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of men.” I believe that in the Christian walk, it is important not only to try to avoid evil, but to avoid even the appearance of evil. That is why we have accounting procedures in the church office, checks and balances for financial and property decisons. It is necessary in a fallible, human world to provide assurance to God’s people that their gifts are entrusted into reliable hands, and will serve the purpose for which they were intended. Having provided for just such assurance, Paul was free give a stewardship address to the Ephesians at dockside in Miletus.

This is the boring, unexciting part of financial stewardship. Erecting the mechanisms to receive and expend money is seldom stimulating work. But when you think about it, if financial stewardship is not glamorous, neither is 90% of ministry. Most of the things accomplished in ministry are done behind the scenes, after months — sometimes even years — of planning. But part of genuine care — of the sort that Jesus desires — requires practical management. Love for others that has no concern for planning has been seen too frequently for us to think otherwise. It can lead to unintended disasters: grain intended for starving people rotting on the dock for lack of transportation to move the grain inland; or three agencies created to address a problem that would be more efficiently resolved by one; or — worst of all — gifts given in good faith finding their way into the pockets of those unscrupulous ones who consider air conditioned doghouses and large buildings with their names on the front to be part of a ministry in Jesus' name.

It is not enough to exhort the people of God to generous giving in response to the gifts God has given us. It is necessary to make arrangements. So we have a commitment committee here at Mountain View Church that is busily making plans, working at their meetings every month to let you know in the most understandable way what our stewardship plans are. You have a deeply committed Session and Session committees, laying plans for ministry in 2009. It may not be overly inspiring, it may not lead to parades in the streets, but it is absolutely essential for the health of this church that we listen to them and try our very best to respond to the needs they are laying out for us.

Stewardship is a lifestyle, not an emotion. Jesus did not tell of the Good Samaritan as one who was compassionate on impulse. He would have urged compassion as part of the discipline of believers. Compassion is more like a pledge to the United Way or the Church commitment effort than the five dollars in the plate which are given entirely on impulse. We must not rely on spasms of concern, and impulses to share. We must make them our lifestyle. It would have made Paul happy to think that just such disciplined planning is still going on in our homes and in the Church to which he gave his life, so that Jesus’ message of blessedness in giving can continue to be proclaimed to the world.

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Hoover Rupert, in Presbyterian Outlook , April 7, 1980.
2 see Acts, a commentary by Gerhard A. Krodel, Augsburg Press, 1986, pp. 381-393.