Sunday, October 31, 2010

This Gift of Love – Part III: “Not as an Exaction...”

This Gift of Love – Part III:

“Not as an Exaction...”

copyright © 2010 by Robert J. Elder

October 31, 2010

Psalm 112

II Corinthians 9:1-7

If we were organizing Paul’s appeal, we could have done things a lot differently than he did. The first change we might consider could be an appeal to people’s sense of obligation.1 We could report that everyone else is doing their share. We might encourage Paul to emphasize the institutional view of obligation. After all, your name is on the membership role, so you should do your part. This is like a more or less voluntary taxation or per capita apportionment. Someone said to me a while ago, “Sure my church pledge should go up, but all my other taxes are going up and I have no say over them.” My very thrifty Scottish grandfather, a certified public accountant, was sanguine about this sort of thing. He paid taxes in some depression years when acquaintances found ways to pay little or nothing, and when asked why he didn’t investigate avenues to avoid taxes, he usually responded saying something like, “I never mind paying taxes, it means I’m making money.” Taxation has been called the price of civilization.

This sort of appeal focuses on giving as paying dues, doing one’s bit, being a loyal member of a society or organization. Some people really respond to this. Others do not. Some people will respond when we make them sense an obligation. Others will become irritated and say we are trying to lay a guilt trip on them. Unfortunately, I can’t get very enthusiastic about stewardship efforts that press the issue obligation or duty, so I would have had a hard time trying to convince Paul to use such a method.

So if appeals to obligation fail, we might think to encourage Paul to consider appealing for gifts so that people might find self-satisfaction. Knowing we have done something for someone else can give us a warm inner glow. Never mind that though such gifts are certainly commendable, they are by this method a thinly disguised way of giving ourselves a gift. It is a proven way to raise money. Some people – when made aware that a gift to this cause or that is really a gift to themselves, because of all the self-satisfaction it will bring – will become extra generous, and so the gift might be larger than we even anticipated. Even so, a warm inner glow only goes so far. Some folks might need some satisfactions that are a little more public.

So, if we were running Paul’s first commitment program, we might appeal to people’s sense of prestige. That would be a stewardship program for those who care enough to send the very best. I once visited a church in the Northeast that had a large leather book lying open on the chancel steps. I looked at the page to which it was opened and read, “Members who have pledged $2,000 or more to our Church.” And the page wasn’t blank, either! It can be good to be proud of our giving, but it always can be a danger too: that the purpose of the gift turns into a way to advertise the greater glory of the giver. I haven’t the resources to be the most impressive giver anyway, so this sort of a fund-raising technique wouldn’t get me very excited either.

Apparently Paul had it right all along. He ignored what we might call fund-raising methods. Paul persevered on the high road with a theme that he raised at the beginning. Where the world might make its appeals for funds on the basis of need, obligation, self-satisfaction, prestige, sympathy – in short, on something people have done – Paul focused his energy almost entirely on what God has done.

Paul used an important word in the first verse of today’s reading. Our translators have given us the phrase “offering for the saints”. Paul’s word was diakonía, the root of our word “deacon.” We may hear “offering,” and think of a Sunday collection. But the Corinthians heard diakonía and thought of service or ministry. Paul was literally saying, “I write to you about the service – or ministry – for the saints.” Paul set the service to the poor within the context of service to God. It’s a reality the church must always keep foremost in our prayers and actions, otherwise a congregation could degenerate into little more than another in a long line of fund-raising organizations.

I remember once talking with a young girl in my congregation who was busily engaged in selling some trinkets to raise money for some school organization. I asked her, “What is the purpose of your organization?” She looked blankly at me for a moment. “Purpose?” Then, looking at the bag of goods she had grasped in her hand, she brightened up and said, “We make money – and then we spend it!”

The church could be in danger of becoming just such an organization should the perennial temptations to find better fund-raising techniques ever overtake our calling to be faithful hearers and doers of God’s Word. Fund-raising has its place within our community. Money is needed to do good works all over our world, and it must be raised or good things will not be done. But our purpose is not to raise money and spend it. Our purpose is more foundational.

At the core of things, we are gathered together as a community of God’s people to preach Christ and minister in his name. Paul called the offering he was taking a “ministry,” for that is the only way in which he ever would have involved himself with it.

Our committee looked at the ministries which our church anticipates for the coming year. What will we be doing? Why? What do we need to make these ministries in Jesus’ name a reality? All our budget permutations flow from that single perspective, so forcefully described in the words of the apostle.

Paul said that he hoped the gift the Corinthians had promised would come “not as an exaction but as a willing gift.” On a casual reading we might think that the word “exaction” sounds enough like the dentist’s term “extraction” to go ahead and use it to make the point even clearer. But Paul wanted no part of an offering that was to be coerced out of people, an offering that required a good shot of Novocain so that the folks wouldn’t holler quite as much as it was yanked out of their clenched hands. His interest was in nothing less than a willing, exuberant, thankful gift, one given in response to the gifts of God and to the need of others.

Think of the way Paul went about motivating the Corinthians to respond to God’s gift of grace with their own ministering gifts2:

1. His appeal was tactful. While saying “there is really no need for me to write,” he wrote anyway, just as we preachers often say, “You’ll remember the story about…” and then tell it again anyway since it is good to be reminded even of the things that are familiar. Response to God’s grace is a constant need of God’s people, and we need reminding.

2. His appeal was positive. “I know that you are willing to help…I boast about you to the people of Macedonia.” Paul was confident in the strength that God could give to the Corinthians, just as I am confident of the strength that God is ready to give us. Our church is engaged in countless acts of wonderful ministry, and I was boasting to some of my colleagues in ministry about this church at a conference just this past week. It is a foundation upon which we can build, and God is ready to give the energy supplied in our response.

3. His appeal was honest. What Paul said about the Macedonians and the Corinthians was true. Each – knowing of the strengths of the other – could be stimulated to renewed strength of purpose. The Macedonians were prepared to give in spite of their poverty. The Corinthians expressed their willingness to take part in the offering before anyone else. These were strengths worth building on. This approach was so typical of Paul.3 He would not lift up weakness in order to criticize one church to another; he lifted up strengths in order to praise one church to another. It’s not a bad idea to try as we look around our own church for the many strengths that can serve as an inspiration to others as well as to ourselves.

4. His appeal was direct. And of course, being direct is where pastors are sometimes said to go from preaching to meddling. In so many churches, stewardship programming follows this pattern4: [1] the committee is organized and meets regularly; [2] assignments are made and carried out; [3] budgets are developed; [4] the ministry of the church is interpreted; [5] sermons on stewardship are preached; [6] challenges are extended. This sounds like a complete stewardship program. But one crucial element is missing. In some fashion, members of the congregation must be confronted with an inescapable decision to make regarding our personal commitment. “To inform and nurture the people of God without confronting them with the cost of discipleship is to show ourselves as poor stewards.”5 This is no less the case in stewardship than it is in our decision to follow Jesus. At some point, someone has said to us, “Who is your Lord and Savior?” And we have responded, “Jesus Christ.” Now Paul follows that call for decision with this one. Each year, when we are asked to make pledges of support to the church, we have an opportunity to declare again that we will be faithful, giving members of Christ’s church. I hope all of us are preparing ourselves to respond.

5. His appeal called for heartfelt, not guilt-driven gifts. God accepts our gifts not as an exaction – or an extraction! – on the basis of what we have to give, not on what we don’t have. That is how it must be with our pledge commitment. The only really driving force comes from within, inasmuch as the love of Christ claims and controls us.

This day, and in the days to come, we are a called people, called to respond to the gracious love of Christ with hearts, minds, hands, and, yes, even pocketbooks that are open to the leading of his Lordship. Let us prepare in these days to give mighty thanks and praise to God for his inexpressible gifts to us.


1 See The Letters to the Corinthians, William Barclay, Westminster Press, p. 259.

2 See This Service of Love, by M. Landfried, Pub: Synod of the Trinity, 3040 Market Street, Camp Hill, PA 17011, ©1978, pp. 66-69.

3 Barclay, Ibid., p. 259.

4 Mark Landfried, Ibid., p. 68.

5 Think Piece No. 2, “A Transcendent Task", by Clarence Cave, United Presbyterian Support Agency, © 1975, p. 67.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

This Gift of Love – Part II: “Give Proof Before the Church”

This Gift of Love – Part II:

“Give Proof Before the Church”

copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder

October 24, 2010

Acts 20:32-38

II Corinthians 8:16-20

This is the second in a series of sermons on Paul’s New Testament words concerning stewardship. Each time we manage to survive another tax season, 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!” As we move now through the final quarter of another year, 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. Now, having pased my 61st birthday, while I still entertain hopes that I have something to offer the church of Christ for a while yet, it is a useful exercise to consider if there is a single affirmation that 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, given to us by way of Paul’s rich testimony. 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 Jesus 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 hockey pucks in their throats? Give!

Finding comes through losing, riches arrive through generosity, kings are remembered best for having been good servants of their people, look out for the one who not only may 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 are very rarely compelling except to the 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 American Heart Association, 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 take so much blessedness, after all!

In spite of all our pious platitudes about the blessedness of giving, honesty surely compels us to admit how very much like Junior we really are most of the time. 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 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 intimately 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 others.” 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 the erection of temples made with human hands 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 you have a commitment committee here at First Church that is busily making plans, working at their assignment 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 2011. Much of this, of necessity, 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 financial needs they are laying out for us for the health and growth of our congregation.

Stewardship is a lifestyle, not an emotion. Jesus did not speak of the Good Samaritan as one who was compassionate on impulse. He urged compassion as part of the esential discipline of believers. Compassion is more like a sacrificial, substantial pledge to the church commitment effort than the five dollars in the plate which may be given entirely on impulse. We must not rely on spasms of concern, and occasional impulses to share. We must make them our lifestyle, part of our core discipline as believers. I be lieve 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.

[1] Hoover Rupert, in Presbyterian Outlook , April 7, 1980.

[2] see Acts, a commentary by Gerhard A. Krodel, Augsburg Press, 1986, pp. 381-393.