Yesterday’s message …
- Began with a tug of war demonstration;
- Explored Paul’s use of jealousy to motivate the Corinthians to generosity;
- Paved the way for the people of Good Shepherd to offer prayerful pledges of their support in 2019;
- Landed at this bottom line: When you see that giving is a privilege, the gift becomes a pleasure.
The subject of money & church – giving & congregation – is usually fraught with frustration and anxiety. On the part of both preacher and preached. It’s one of the few subjects about which IT IS ASSUMED that pastor and congregation start out on the same team (maybe) but on different sides (certainly). And the reason people make these kind of assumptions – that preacher starts HERE and preached over HERE (demonstrate) – is the thought (conscious or not) that I & other preachers are up here trying to GET from you something that you don’t want to GIVE. Or GIVE UP. It is a great big Tug Of War like I want to show you with my friend Jacob Hay, a DEFENSIVE END / BEAST / FOOTBALL PLAYER.
You want to hold, to hoard, to resist, and I and my brethren and sistren in preacher land want you to loosen, to relinquish, to release. And these basic assumptions – unstated but probably felt – lead to image in the back of most of our minds that talking about money in church is just a giant tug of war between clergy and congregation. It’s led to all kinds of witticisms like you can’t get blood from a turnip or even that old yarn that I’ve used a time or two in 30 years of ministry about the Strong Man Contest at a county fair in which the Andre The Giant figure squeezes all the OJ out of an orange and then challenges the audience to see if anyone there can squeeze one more drop out. And an umimposing, unimpressive man comes down, accepts the challenge, and with a minimum of efforts, gets that last drop out. “How’d you do it, little man?” asks Strong Man. “Oh, I do it all the time,” he answers. “I’m the church treasurer.” Yeah, that’s what we think happens. You get squeezed, cajoled, even tomfooleried to do something that deep down you don’t wanna do because it feels like such a burden.
Yet after all that – and, honestly after preaching and teaching in that way about money for the bulk of my time in ministry – I have realized in recent years just how misguided that approach really is. I’ve realized how positioning the whole topic this way makes you believe things about yourselves that simply are not true. Even worse, it makes you believe things about God that aren’t true. And one of the great places to have assumptions revealed for the banalities they really are is in 2 Cor 8 and a group of churches called the Macedonians. Here’s what is going on. Paul is writing his SECOND letter to the church in Corinth (in Southern, Coastal Greece, sort of the LA of the Greek Empire). It’s a second letter because the first one didn’t really work. So he has had to spend a lot of time in this letter defending his own bona fides as a pastor and leader worthy of the Corinthians’ respect.
And much of that self-defense is prolog to asking the Corinthian church – like LA the city, a place and a people of means and resources – to be part of a special offering to help the struggling Xns in Jerusalem. Ethnically Jewish, deeply persecuted because of new found faith in Jesus Messiah. And Paul knows that he can’t INSIST on Corinthians generosity; he can only INVITE it. He can’t EXHORT them to give; he can only EVOKE a giving spirit within them. To do that, he resorts to the oldest trick in the book: jealousy. He tells the Corinthians (southern, prosperous) about the Macedonians, who were from Northern Greece, long time cultural rivals of the Corinthians, and ppl going through hard times. So Paul is like, “Yo Southerners! Take a look at how the Yankees are giving!”
Three churches: Corinth, Macedonia, J-town. Look at how it begins in 8:1:
And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches.
Oh, Lord. As a preacher, I KNOW how “happy” I am to hear great news about other churches! Look at 8:2:
2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.
Extreme poverty there more literally means Rock Bottom Poverty. Gut wrenching deprivation. But look again: the trial and the rock bottom poverty did not lead to Help Us! but instead to How can we help out? And then 8:3-4, two counter-intuitive yet thrilling verses:
3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.
READ. I love that in 8:4 – they urgently pleaded to be allowed to give. Like one of you saying, “Talbot don’t even THINK of a Sunday without those giving baskets!” Or: “If you don’t make it easier on me to give online, there will be hell to pay!” Or: “I’m leaving this church unless you start talking MORE about money!” All things, I guarantee, I’ve not heard. Yet that’s what the Macedonians were like with Paul and the others.
And why are they pleading, begging, to give? One word: privilege. Gulp. Not punishment. Privilege. Not burden or obligation or necessity or squeeze it out of you. Privilege. Honor. Makes me think of those athletes who get chosen to carry the flag of their nation in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies. What a privilege!
Or it’s like that time, closer to home, when my brothers and sisters asked me to speak & lead at my dad’s funeral. What a privilege.
Or when you get asked to represent your school at the band competition, in the all star game, on the community stage. An honor not given to everyone, an opportunity not available to all, it’s special, it’s unique, it’s a privilege.
Or when you get to influence and love and persuade someone to faith and then you help baptize them. What a privilege.
And that, my friends, is how the Macedonians – the Greek Yankees! – regarded it every time they passed the plate in church. Or, if their churches were really happening, every time they walked past the giving basket. What a privilege! Giving is itself a gift! Paul actually underscores the Macedonian attitude and his teaching in 8:7:
7 But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you[a]—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.
The grace … the gift, the privilege. Not obligation. Opportunity.
Do you see how we’ve been wrong all these years? Do you see how church treasurer squeezing the last drops out of reluctant church members totally misses the mark? If you want to believe lies about God – that he places a burden on you – and if you want to believe lies about you – that you are naturally resistant to generosity, by all means, go ahead! But I choose to believe what is true. I chooses to look at something as ordinary as this (giving basket) as the honor & privilege it is and to recognize that deep down, in your natural self, you wanna be generous. It’s just that somewhere along the way you heard and believed it’s unnatural. Nope. It’s your design.
Because here is what thrills me. When you understand what the VERB is – the actual act of giving – then it transforms the NOUN – the thing you give. Here’s what it is: When you see that giving is a privilege, the gift becomes a pleasure. It’s not longer something you give up! No longer something you endure. The gift isn’t root canal. It’s Ruth’s Chris steak! (AVs). It’s not like you have that job they used to have in the circus of cleaning up behind the elephant; it’s like a ride in a carriage (AV). It’s not longer something you do against your better judgment, but with your deepest faith.
My whole approach to preaching, church, and money changed when I read 2 Cor 8 closely and understood that I’m not trying to get you to do what you don’t want to do; I’m inviting you to live in harmony with who you have been all along. The Macedonians got it, and I love it when the ppl of Good Shepherd do as well. When you see that giving is a privilege, the gift becomes a pleasure.
It makes me think of the bubbling church movement in China that got started amid much opposition in the 20th century. And an observer from the West was visiting a village church in China when the pastor pointed out to him two brothers who were plowing a field and sharing one ox to do it. The pastor said, “They only have one ox now because they sold the other one & gave the money to the church so we could build our building.” “Wow,” the Western observer said, “they must have considered that a great sacrifice.” “No,” answered the pastor, “they considered themselves lucky that they had an ox to sell.” Yup. That’s it.
Or it’s like David Robinson of the NBA (AV) said once in speaking about money: “If I’m holding on to my money with both hands, how can I hug my wife and kids?” When you see that giving is a privilege, the gift becomes a pleasure.
Or, really, it’s like the difference between a flint, a sponge, or a honeycomb (AV, all). A flint, you have to beat on it to get anything out of it. A sponge, like an orange!, you have to squeeze to get anything out of it. A honeycomb? It is overflowing with sticky golden goodness. That’s a reminder that we ought to applaud when we are given the opportunity (not obligation) and the privilege (not punishment) of giving. .When you see that giving is a privilege, the gift becomes a pleasure. I so long for a Macedonian church – that we’d be the kind of people who get mad at the preacher when he DOESN’T talk about money, not when he does.
I don’t know if you’ve ever thought of it this way, but maybe the main reason giving is a gift is that it is a regular (weekly?) protection against selfishness. And selfishness eats you up. I know this. Actually, two things in my life have worked, at least temporarily, to make me less selfish than normal: having kids and regular tithing plus. Because now that my kids are grown I see myself reverting on the selfishness piece but the commitment to generosity is a hard check on all that. Some of you, if you don’t have that regular defense against selfishness you will die of yourself. It’s a deadly disease and I don’t want you to get it. Or keep it. So God extends to us this gift, this privilege of joining him in his work by giving to his kingdom. When you see that giving is a privilege, the gift becomes a pleasure.
This is all why when I talk about money, giving, and church, I don’t want to guilt you into anything. I want to grace you into it. I want you aligned with your true nature and not resisting because you’ve bought into the false. The real you, the genetically wired you, is generous. You’re in God’s image and God so loved the world he ____________. Right! Not TOOK! Not KEPT! Gave. Really, when this or any church receives an offering, we’re just doing you a weekly favor by letting you get in touch with who you’ve been designed to be all along, so … YOU’RE WELCOME. When you see that giving is a privilege, the gift becomes a pleasure.
Because in all this God doesn’t want opponents. He wants partners. That’s why the Macedonians in the middle of their rock bottom poverty looked at the giving basket and thought PRIVILEGE! Because God allowed them to come alongside HIM in helping others.
So today – and all the Sundays that follow it – is no longer a tug of war. Because God already won. We’re simply inviting you to surrender. Surrender to his privilege. When you see that giving is a privilege, the gift becomes a pleasure.
People bring up pledges at conclusion.