Giving: A Pound’s worth of Preaching?
Holy Communion Service led by our Minister in celebration of All Saints
This sermon is taken from Isaiah 6, verses 1-8; 2 Timothy 1, verses 3-14
The Holy Habit of Giving "A Pound's Worth of Preaching?"
In the second of the Anne of Green Gables books, a new neighbour called Mr Harrison comes to live on the farm next door. Mr Harrison is a grumpy soul who responds very ungraciously to his neighbours.
At that time- Canada, at end of the nineteenth century- local churches tended to pay their Minister’s stipend themselves, with everyone in the congregation expected to contribute. But when Mr Harrison was asked how much he was prepared to give, he said that he would wait to see how many dollars’ worth of good he gained from the Minister’s preaching. He did not believe in buying “a pig in a poke,” as the saying went.
No. I am not about to invite you to ask each other whether you think you are getting your money’s worth out of the preaching here. I am not that brave or that stupid. But it was Mr Harrison’s comment that gave me the title of the sermon. When we give to the church or to charity, do we always feel that we are getting our money’s worth?
Our Moderator, writing on our Synod website about the Holy Habit of Giving, chose to take up the thorny topic of ministerial deployment. The days when local congregations paid their Ministers’ stipends are long gone. Now each URC congregation is asked to give a carefully assessed amount to the central funds and each Minister receives the same stipend. Fair enough. It evens out the difference between what wealthy congregations could afford to pay compared to poorer ones. BUT the number of Ministers is going down sharply and the number of congregations is not. The vast majority of churches now have to share Ministry with at least one other congregation, often three or four. The amount St John’s Church contributes would pay the stipends of three ministers, yet we are scoped for only one and considered fortunate to have that scoping. Most Synods now have a policy of “no single pastorates” no matter how much money a single church contributes. And the Moderator admits that people do consider this unfair. “Why are we not getting our money’s worth?”
People become disappointed in their church for other reasons. Maybe decisions are made which they find hard to accept; money is spent on a project in which they have little faith; they feel unsupported during a hard time and so think “this is not fair. I have given a lot to this church and I am getting very little back.”
People become disappointed in God. They do their best to live a good life; they support their church faithfully; they give generously to help others; and then they get cancer or someone they love is taken from them and they think, “why? I have given so much to God. Surely I deserve better than this from Him?”
Giving to charity can disappoint us. Years ago, when I was in the church in Purley, we were anxious about the numbers of young people roaming the streets at night, open prey to drug dealers and violent crime. Church members gave huge amounts of time, thought and money to setting up a Youth Centre on their premises. Yet even as they were doing this, the church windows would be found smashed and some church members were asking, understandably “is it worth our giving so much to such unworthy people?”
A pound’s worth of preaching? A pound’s worth of faith? A pound’s worth of charity donation? Do we get our money’s worth from what we give?
The Bible has no praise for people who waste their money or their resources. It has plenty to say about good stewardship. Wise men and women are expected to take care on how they spend their time and their money. So, whilst giving generously to the religious life of the community is highly praised; the squandering of that money on over-elaborate rituals or greedy priests is condemned. And whilst giving to the poor and needy is highly praised; supporting a political or social system that creates poverty and injustice is condemned. It is made clear that one of the blessings of human maturity, bestowed by God, is that we do eventually learn what is worth spending time and money on and what is not.
BUT- there is a difference between buying and giving. Buying is about bargaining. We have our money in our hand (or on our credit card) and decide whether what the retailer is selling is worth that money. We expect, quite rightly, to get our money’s worth out of what we buy and generally we are guaranteed that we will get our money back if the goods are faulty or unsatisfactory. Buying is about us. We are in charge. We decide what to pay and where to shop based on our assessment of the promised reward and if we do not believe that we are getting our money’s worth then we have every right to complain.
Giving, on the other hand, is not a bargain. Once the gift is given, it is out of our hands. The Holy Habit of Giving, as the Bible understands it, is not about what we personally hope to gain or to control from our gift. It is about giving to God or to others in the name of God, without expecting any personal return.
The two people in our readings-Isaiah and Timothy- were both giving their time, their gifts, their lives in the service of God. Did they get anything back?
Isaiah became a religious leader to his nation and by all accounts, it was a pretty thankless task. He was warned that the people would not listen to him; they would find it almost impossible to understand what he was talking about and that they would far rather be left alone. His country was on the brink of collapse, with a super-power poised to invade and when the crash came, the people would blame Isaiah and say, “why has not God saved us?”
Timothy, likewise, was becoming a Christian minister at a difficult time. The Christian church was very new and struggling through all kinds of teething problems. The culture was largely pagan and Christianity was looked on with suspicion. Even as Paul, Timothy’s mentor, was writing this letter, he was under arrest and facing the death penalty for his faith. Could you honestly say that either Isaiah or Timothy looked set to get their money’s worth out of their faith and ministry? They were giving everything but gaining next to nothing.
Look again. Both readings highlight not what these men are asked to give but what they have already gained. When Isaiah calls out, “here I am, send me,” this is his spontaneous response to the most awesome experience of God. He has seen the Lord. He has witnessed for a brief moment the glory of God filling the heavens and the earth. And he wants to share this. He has seen a level of beauty, truth and hope in life and he wants to get out there and tell despairing, hopeless people all about it. His story begins not with what he gives but with what he is given and the greatness of what Isaiah is given is overwhelming.
In the same way Paul is celebrating with Timothy all that Timothy has been given. Timothy has been given the gift of faith. He has been given support and encouragement to explore and to grow in faith from his mother and his grandmother. He has been saved from fear and despair and cynicism by the love of God reaching out to him in Jesus Christ. He has been affirmed and welcomed as a leader of God’s people by the “laying on of hands.” (You may have seen this done as people are confirmed or Elders and Ministers ordained. The hands were believed to be the means of transferring power-whether in healing or blessing or receiving the gifts of God’s Spirit. As Christians lay hands on a person in worship, they are stating their belief and trust that this man or woman is being blessed and gifted by God.)
Timothy, then, has received so much that is precious and indestructible. And, like Isaiah, it is in response to what he has received, that he will give. Their giving is not a bargain but a spontaneous gesture of joyful gratitude.
You see, the Bible stresses over and over again that God gives and gives freely. In Jesus Christ, God gives himself, without first asking if the human race is worth the effort. Salvation, peace with God is not a bargain but a gift of God’s love. We do not have to save up enough money or enough good works to be able to afford it. It does not work like that. We are people who have been given God’s grace and living as people who have received puts a whole new perspective on life.
First: Shakespeare wrote that “in the course of justice, we none of us should see salvation.” None of us has earned God’s love. It has been given freely and this enables us to forgive. Our need for mercy makes us able to show mercy to others and forgiveness is far more powerful than just saying, “there, there, never mind.” It generates hope for relationships, families, communities and nations. It breaks the vicious cycle of revenge.
Second: living as those who have received makes us tolerant of those who are different. Being aware that we have received and will continue to receive God’s blessing stops us from being scared that someone different might rob us of what we have. It takes us out of our territory, our comfort zone and creates a more inclusive society.
Third: Living as those who have received gives us confidence. Paul reminds Timothy that God did not give him gifts to hide away and feel embarrassed about. You are free to use what you have been given joyfully and confidently. And this confidence is not simply “self-esteem”- what we think of ourselves. Building up our own self-esteem is fine until we make a big mistake and then we cannot forgive ourselves and go straight down to rock bottom again. Confidence that is founded on God’s love for us and belief in us can remain high even when we mess up.
Fourth: Living as those who have received offers us hope. We are free to give because God will continue to give to us. We are able to make our gifts in a spirit of hope for our church, for the world and for the human race.
Sara Maitland wrote that “gambling on the God who has so gambled on us does not seem so risky in the end.” We have already received our pound’s worth of grace and our giving is our joyful response to what we have been given.
This Sunday is the festival of All Saints- the time when we give thanks for the men and women of faith who gave their gifts of time, love, talent, skill, money in abundance because they knew themselves to have been richly blessed by God and they wanted others to experience and to understand this blessing.
Some created faith communities- like the small group of Christians who, ninety years ago, felt called by God to begin a church here. Since that decision was made, hundreds of Christian men, women and children have given generously of time, talent and money to establish and maintain this building, to join in acts of worship, to encourage one another in Faith development, to nurture children and young people in the faith, to support each other with pastoral care- making a space in which people could pray and learn and grow in their knowledge of God. We have received from them, which will inspire us, in our turn, to give.
Some Saints went out to the poorest, neediest people, giving generously so that these men and women could have homes and jobs and a chance to lift themselves out of poverty; some went to those who were sick in body or mind, learning how to heal and how to care; some challenged social structures that were unjust and in some cases managed to change the system; some wrote books or composed music or created artworks that spoke to others of the glory of God. Even the most cynical of non-believers today will admit that Christianity, despite its many mistakes, did have a hugely beneficial effect on our society. And although there is much about our culture that worries and frustrates us today, we are keenly aware that we are a privileged people with freedom, services and opportunities that millions in the world cannot even dream of. And as people to whom much has been given, so we are inspired to give.
Let me finish with a little story from Laura Ingalls Wilder (Little House on the Prairie). When she and her sister, Mary were little girls living in a log cabin in the woods, they sometimes visited a neighbour who would always give them each a most delicious cookie. As they walked back home they would eat their cookies but not all of them. Both Laura and Mary would each save half of their cookie to give to their little sister Carrie back home. Even at the age of six, Laura could see that there was something not quite mathematically fair about this arrangement. Mary ate half a cookie; Laura ate half a cookie; Carrie then had a whole cookie. But if Laura ate all of her cookie and Mary and Carrie had only half each, that would not be fair either. Or if Mary ate all her cookie and Laura and Carrie only had half, that would not be fair. So they just carried on as they had been- each received the gift of the cookie with gratitude and delight and each felt it right to give half to Carrie.
Giving is not the same as buying. There is no bargaining; just giving because we are people who have received.