9:30AM Sunday School
11AM & 7PM Worship

2203 San Antonio St.
Austin, TX 78705

The Only Reason to Give

K.C. Ptomey Jr.

November 11, 2012
Exodus 35:4-9, 20-24; 36:2-7; II Corinthians 8:1-9

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My alma mater, like so many small, private, liberal arts colleges, is under constant pressure to raise money. One of the tools the school uses in fund raising is a publication that lists all the gifts to the college.  Givers are placed in various categories depending upon the size of the donation.  There is the Diehl society, named for former president of the college. This is one of the highest categories of givers.  There is the Red and Black Society,  the Circle of Honor, ,the Sustainers, the Loyalists, and the list goes on.

The pressure to move into a higher level of giving is subtle but effective.  I receive the publication and the first thing I do is look for my name to be sure they put me in the correct category. Then I look to see who else is in that category. Then I look at the categories lower than mine to see who doesn’t give as much as I do.  I congratulate myself for my generosity.  Then finally, I look to see who gives more than I do. This never fails to cause me to consider if perhaps I could do better.  Truthfully, I secretly would like to be in a higher category so that fellow alums will be aware of my generosity.

As you know, among other things, I teach a course in stewardship.  So, the other day I am working on a lecture for that course and close at hand on my desk is a copy of my alma mater’s magazine with its categories of givers. I began to fantasize day about what it might look like to use my college’s technique in a local church.  We could have categories with Biblical designations.  At the highest level would be the “Apostles.”  This group would consist of those who basically give everything to the church. This would be an exceedingly small group. Then there would be the “Good and Faithful Servant Society,” based on the parable of the talents.  These people would be those who have taken what God gives and managed well and returned a generous portion to God. Of course, we would also need a “Pretty Good and Faithful” category. Then we could have a Zacchaeus Society.  These would be the people who like the Biblical tax collector, at one time engaged in unethical business practices, have had a change of heart, and are making amends by returning a large portion of their ill-gotten gains. This, of course, would be an  anonymous group. Then, we would have a “Rich Young Ruler” group: people who talk a lot about their devotion to Jesus but when the pledge cards are passed out just can’t bring themselves to sign on the dotted line, so they go away sad.

So we would have these groups and would list all of you in the proper category. The Apostles, the Good and Faithful Servants, the Pretty Good and Faithful Servants, the Zacchaeus Society, and the Rich Young Rulers.  We would post these on the church website.  It’s an absolutely absurd fantasy, of course. No pastor in his or her right mind would think of approaching stewardship in this way.  Surely no annual campaign committee would approve of this motivational strategy.

Yet, everyone who has worked in a church campaign has asked the question: what motivates giving?  Of course, there are all sorts of motivations.  Take the story we read this morning from the book of Exodus.  As the story goes, Moses reminds the people that God has commanded them to set aside the seventh day as a Sabbath to the Lord.[1]  As part of keeping the Sabbath, Moses calls for an offering.  Now, it is important to note that Moses does not require people to give.  Rather, he says, “(L)et whoever is of a generous heart bring the Lord’s offering….”[2]  The storyteller makes it very clear that the offering is purely a matter of each individual’s willing response.  “All who were of a willing heart….” is the turn of phrase that is used.[3]

This story, of course, is a campaign committee’s dream come true.  The people are willing – more than willing – indeed enthusiastic about giving.  They cannot restrain themselves.  They want to give.  They can’t wait to give.  They’re dying to give.  They love to give. The people were so willing, so overwhelmed with generosity, that – can you believe it – Moses had to ask them to quit giving!

It has been 45 years since my ordination to ministry.  In all this time, I never once faced the necessity of preaching a sermon begging people to stop giving.  I wonder if San ever felt compelled to preach such a sermon?

The giving had gotten out of hand, so Moses says, “No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering….”[4]  I read this sermon of Moses’ and I think to myself, wouldn’t it be wonderful…?!  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find a congregation it which the giving is out of control? I have never known a congregation like that. But wouldn’t it be wonderful…?!

This, of course, raises the question: what is it that motivates such generosity?  The text doesn’t explain.  But here is what we know: The nation was in Egypt in slavery.  The people were oppressed, suffering, without hope.  They cried out to God and God heard them and delivered them.[5] Once free and out in the desert they would have wandered aimlessly but for a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.[6]  God was with them to guide and direct them. When they were thirsty, God gave water.  When they were hungry, there was manna aplenty.[7] God gave them, also, the Ten Commandments.  Not restrictions or oppressive rules, but guidance as to how to live fully and joyfully in community.[8]  When the people sinned, making for themselves an idol to worship, God was gracious and forgave.[9]

Very simply stated, I think that the generosity of these people was out of control because they experienced grace and goodness from God that was out of control, that was out of all proportion to what they deserved.

What motivates generosity. Awareness, deep awareness, of the abundant and undeserved goodness of God.  Slick stewardship messages won’t do it.  Guilt won’t do it.  Four color brochures won’t do it.   Sermons won’t do it – at least not sermons from visiting preachers!  Encouraging people to compare their giving to that of others won’t do it.

Awareness, deep awareness, of the abundant and undeserved goodness of God. That’ll do it!  Did you hear what Paul said about the Macedonian Christians from whom he was soliciting an offering? We’ve been reading the words of his Corinthian correspondence for the past two Sundays. He says they are poor but are begging him to allow them to participate in the offering he is taking for the sake of the Christians in Jerusalem.  He says that the Macedonians count it a privilege to be able to give.

What does Paul say motivates the generosity of the Macedonians?  He says it is, “…the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich.”[10]

Moses and Paul make the same case. Though they lived hundreds of years apart and ministered in radically different circumstances, their appeals are identical.  They do not cajole. They do not beg. They do not encourage us to compare ourselves to anyone else. They do not promise that if we give we will be blessed. They do not threaten that if we do not give generously we will go to hell in a hand basket, break out in painful sores, or suffer a reversal in our investment portfolio.  They simply say, “Look at how generous God has been to you. Check it out.  Count your blessings.  That’ll do it; that simple exercise will elicit generosity.

Look at the loving happy faces of your children and grandchildren. Take a walk in a cool crisp morning such as we have had here in Austin these last several days.  Take the hand of your spouse or partner and savor the joy of companionship, caring, love.”

That’ll do it.

Bask in the beauty of this sanctuary; remember the babies you have baptized here, the weddings you’ve celebrated, the services of Witness to the Resurrection in which you have given thanks for the lives of the saints who have lived and served faithfully in this place.  Remember all the times you’ve gathered at the Lord’s Table to be reminded of and give thanks for God’s greatest gift to us, God’s own Son.

That’ll do it.

Stand in the middle of your wonderful new Great Hall and think of the strong bonds of love in this community, the connections you have made, the fellowship you have around the table while sharing a meal.

That’ll do it.

Think of the opportunity God has given you to use that fellowship hall and new court yard not simply to strengthen the ties that bind you together but to connect with and serve guests whom you welcome from the street every week. Ponder the deep satisfaction that comes from being part of a congregation that cares for one another and cares deeply for God’s children to whom you reach out beyond these four walls.

That’ll do it.

One of my favorite authors is Frederick Buechner. Somewhere with an economy of language, he puts stewardship in proper perspective. He writes,

Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily believes certain things…Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily does certain things. Such as going to church. Getting baptized. Giving up liquor and tobacco. Reading the Bible…Some think of a Christian as just a Nice Guy…A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank.[11]

You’re on the way at UPC. Count your blessings. And remember whom to thank.

© 2012 K.C. Ptomey, Jr. All rights reserved.

[1] Exodus 35:1-2. Subsequent references are to Exodus unless otherwise indicated.

[2] 35:5.

[3] 35:22.

[4] 36:6.

[5] 3.7

[6] 13:21.

[7] 16.13-21; 17.1-7.

[8] 20:1ff.

[9] 32:11-14.

[10] 2 Corinthians 8:9-10.

[11] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking:  A Theological ABC, (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973), p. 14, emphasis mine.