April 2, 2017

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Proverbs 11:24-25
1 Timothy 6:17-19
Luke 19:1-10

“Extravagant Generosity”

This week we are finishing up our series on “Five practices of fruitful congregations,” and “Extravagant Generosity” is the final practice. If I could have avoided preaching another sermon about stewardship, I probably would have. But it’s one of the themes I committed to preaching through this series. And also, I think that Robert Schnase is right – that fruitful congregations do practice extravagant generosity.

Now, when I think of extravagant generosity, I think of more than just money offerings. Gifts of money are needed to maintain a building, pay staff, purchase resources, support missions, and contribute to the wider ministry of the denomination. But generosity of time, skill, and spirit are also needed to work in the ministries of the church, to spend time in praying for the church and the world, and to engage with our children, youth, and adults (both inside and outside the congregation) to share our faith and spread the good news about God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.

Just think of the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. There were two generous men in that story… Certainly Zacchaeus was generous as he committed to giving away his money and possessions, but Jesus was generous first, as he offered to spend time with this outcast, possibly corrupt man, coming over to the house of Zacchaeus, the tax collector, for dinner.

So, when I think about the generosity of this congregation, I’m not just thinking about the revenue side of the monthly financial statements that we look at during our Board meetings. I’m thinking about the people visiting one another, or calling each other up when someone hasn’t been at church for a while.  I’m thinking about one member guiding another through the education and training process to get into a new profession. I’m thinking about people offering each other rides, whether to church or other activities – sometimes going well out of their way to make sure someone else can be part of the community.

I’m thinking about people making extravagant efforts to reach out and invite someone to church, going the extra mile to listen when someone is struggling, or just doing their best to keep on being kind, and forgiving, and patient with each other despite our human failings and foibles.

I do believe that St. Andrew’s is a wonderfully generous congregation. And I think that many of you believe that too. I’ve often heard St. Andrew’s leadership say things like, “Whenever there is a need, this congregation responds.” And I’ve seen you do it too!

I’m thinking of our Spring-time special appeals for Camp Christopher. We’ve provided a bunch of kayaks, a whole lot of cameras for the photography program, T-shirts for all the campers a couple of times, and last year we re-stocked the camp with about 25 new foam mattresses.  When we asked for donations for a refugee sponsorship, the money flowed in very quickly. We’re still waiting for our family to arrive, but the resources are ready for when they come. And last year, when there was a terrible fire in Fort McMurray, and I invited you to make special donations for the Presbyterian Church in that community, you responded quickly and generously. I think, perhaps, that giving for the General Fund budget of the church itself is not quite as rewarding or fun, as that’s the area that we struggle with the most… but as a whole, you are a generous people.

In his chapter on “Extravagant Generosity” Robert Schnase suggests that generous giving is not just responding to a need, however. He argues that church stewardship programs should avoid the pattern of asking people to give because there is a desperate need. Whether we are saying, “Oh no, we’re not going to balance the budget unless you give a little more…” or “Oh no, someone is in trouble, and we need to take up a special offering to help…” or “Oh no, our missions are going to shut down unless we have more money to keep them going.” Schnase says, “Stewardship rightly focuses on the Christian’s need to give rather than the church’s need to receive.”

Remember Zacchaeus again for a moment. There was no appeal for financial giving as Jesus passed along the roadway that day. Jesus didn’t say, “Look, Zacchaeus, I’ll be happy to come over for dinner at your house if we can talk about what kind of donation you’re willing to make to help the poor in this community. You know that there are a lot of hungry people who need your help.”

Zacchaeus didn’t give away his money and possessions because he recognized a desperate need from those around him. He gave away what he had out of gratefulness and joy in receiving Jesus’ gracious welcome. And I expect that he felt absolutely wonderful, and free, and happy as he gave away what he had for the good of others.

I put some rather unusual questions for your reflection on the bulletin insert today. What’s the most fun you’ve ever had giving money? What made the experience delightful, memorable, and meaningful?

Maybe you’ll fondly remember a friendly competition in an auction fundraiser. Maybe you’ll think of a cause you were able to support that was close to your heart and where you saw that your gift made a real difference. Maybe you’ll reminisce about a person you supported out of love, hope, and possibility for their future.

Robert Schnase says that “Extravagant generosity changes the life and spirit of the giver” even as it helps the person or ministry that receives the gift. And so, our giving is not ONLY to fulfill the needs of the ministry, but we give because it is good for US when we give. Sometimes giving feels absolutely wonderful, delightful, and meaningful. And sometimes it just feels RIGHT because we are living into God’s will and purpose for our lives.

Schnase tells the story of a young couple that discerned that they should move towards the goal of giving 10% of their income to the ministry of the church. When they started thinking about it, they realized that their offerings were only about 2% of their income, and so they slowly and carefully increased their giving over the course of about 5 years.

Along the way, they had to make changes in their lifestyle. They had to have lots of conversations about their priorities. They had to rethink their use of money, and begin to think about their responsibility to be good stewards of every single dollar, making sure that all that they had was used wisely and carefully for God’s glory.

And in the process, they grew closer to each other, and to God, and to the church in which they had deeply invested their lives and their gifts. As they gave more and more away, they learned to put their trust more and more in God, rather than relying on their resources for security.  And they discovered that the proverb is true – that “a generous person will be enriched” – not in the sense of gaining more money or earthly riches, but in the sense of spiritual enrichment and the opportunity to “take hold of the life that really is life,” as the Apostle Paul puts it.

As we think about this final theme in the series on fruitful congregations, we are challenged to consider how God may be calling us, as a congregation, to grow in our practice of “Extravagant Generosity.”  How can we create a culture in which we do not give only because there is a need, but we give out of gratefulness and joy for all that God has done for us… where we give because we want to be good stewards of all that God has entrusted to us… where we give because the giving brings us joy, frees us from fear, allows us to trust in God and put God first, and enables us to participate in God’s life-giving work in the world.

Schnase says that “The practice of Extravagant Generosity changes churches. Churches that nurture proportional giving and tithing among their members thrive. They accomplish great things for Christ, offer robust and confident ministry, and have the resources to carry out ever new and helpful missions. They escape the debilitating effects of conflict and anxiety that are the fruit of a scarcity mentality. They prosper for the purposes of Christ and make a difference in the lives of people.”

We might want to pause today and give thanks for the generous gifts of those who came before us in this congregation and in the Christian Church as a whole. Generous people gave to build churches, train ministers, start programs, begin missions, and pass on the faith to the next generations and to the world. We have received so much from God’s goodness, and from the generous gifts of time, talent, and tithe of those who came before us. And we are invited to continue and build on that legacy, in gratefulness for God’s abundant goodness and grace towards us.

Let me share one more story about a grandfather who was inspired to give: A long-time member and proud grandfather stood at the baptismal font with his family for the baptism of his baby grand-daughter. Another infant from another family that was new to the congregation was baptized at the same service. Following the service, the two families intermingled at the front of the church as they took turns having their pictures taken.

At one point, the mother from the new family needed to get some things out of her bag, and the grandfather from the other family offered to hold her baby. Other church members were mixing and greeting, and several commented on the grandfather with the baby, and he found himself saying several times, “Oh, this one isn’t mine; I’m just holding him for a minute.”

Monday morning the grandfather called the pastor at the church office and said he wanted to see him right away. The pastor assumed the worst, thinking somehow the long-term member was upset about something from the day before. When the grandfather arrived at the church office, he told the pastor, “I want to change my will to include the church, and I want to talk to you about how to do that.”

The pastor was stunned and couldn’t help asking about what brought the grandfather to this decision. The older man’s eyes grew moist as he said, “Yesterday I realized something while I was holding that other baby, the one from the family that just joined the church. I kept telling people that he wasn’t my child, but then it dawned on me that he was part of my family, part of my church family, and that I have a responsibility for that little boy just like I have for my own grand-daughter.

I’ve been a member of this church for more than forty years, and in God’s eyes I’m a grandfather to more than just my own. I’ve taken care of my own children with my will, but I just realized I also need to provide for the children of the church. So I want to divide my estate to leave a part to the church as if the church were one of my children.”

Let us pray…Gracious God, we are so grateful for your mercy and love towards us, for your gracious welcome, for your unconditional love.We are thankful for all those who gave generously from their resources of time, talent, and tithe to pass on their faith to us, and for those who give generously today for our well-being.Open our hearts also, to give freely and even extravagantly in response to your love.And teach us to build a community of growing generosity, for the sake of all you want to do in and through us for your kingdom. Amen.