Sunday, October 11, 2009

Trusting God and giving from abundance

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Mark 10:17-31

Amos was living happily in the kingdom of Judah (the Southern Kingdom), taking care of sycamore figs and herding sheep when he heard God speaking to him. “Go to Israel (the Northern Kingdom), and tell the people there what I tell you to tell them.” So he went.

The people in Israel were living much as the people of Judah were, with the rich and powerful getting richer and more powerful every day, and the poor getting poorer and more oppressed every day. Amos issues warning after warning to the wealthy people: “Seek the Lord and live, and the Lord will be generous to you. Or continue in your abusive ways and you will be punished.” Amos preached and shouted like this for about a year. Few listened to him, however, and the priests and prophets of the establishment tried to get rid of him. In 721BCE the Assyrians conquered Israel and the people were scattered into exile, never to return.

In the Gospel reading, a rich man approached Jesus. The man first tries to butter up Jesus by kneeling before him. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. Jesus engages him in a discussion about obeying the commandments. Well, he’s done all that; he’s been a good boy all his life. Jesus replies, “That’s good. There’s only one more thing for you to do then. Sell everything you have, and give the money to the poor. When you have done that, come and follow me.”

I imagine the rich man had a vision of giving up all the comforts of home. No more soft mattress and comfy chairs. No more servants. No more rich food, cooked by his favorite chef. No more rings and fine clothes. No more fancy chariots. Only one or two simple tunics, sleeping in other people’s homes or on the ground outside, the pot luck of food quickly prepared, walking everywhere. Eternal life was not worth giving up all of the good stuff. Even though he could note give up his belongings, Jesus still loved him. Jesus wanted the best for him – a closer relationship with God. But the man declined the invitation.

We read and listen to these stories and tsk, tsk, because we point our fingers at the wealthy people and compare ourselves with them. Surely, we think, we’re not like them. We don’t have so much wealth; especially lately, we’re just barely hanging on. Our retirement accounts and IRAs took a big hit last year. We’re supporting our children, who are out of work and living in another state. For many of us, such economic uncertainty has been a constant feature of life, and this downturn is nothing new.

But we all know people like the rich man in the Gospel story. A pastor friend tells the story about one of his wealthy parishioners in a previous parish. “Pastor,” the guy begins, “I’m afraid I won’t be able to give as much as I pledged to the church. I’ve had some other expenses come up.” The pastor says, “Oh, that’s OK. I understand how that happens.” They talk for a few more minutes, and the parishioner excuses himself. He walks down the hallway and calls to a friend. “Hey, Joe! Come and look at the new Lexus I just bought for my wife.”

Jesus challenged the rich man to give away his material wealth because he knew the man valued it more than he valued a trusting relationship with God. Jesus would have loved to challenge that parishioner, in the same way.

Jesus challenges us to give out of our abundance, and to not be so attached to what we have that we can’t give it away. When we are so attached to our personal wealth and fine possessions that we fear life without them, we place wealth and possessions higher than God in our lives. Our wealth becomes our God, and we worship wealth, instead of trusting and worshiping God.

October is our financial stewardship campaign. We are being asked to help the finance team and council plan for next year. How much income will we have? What ministries will we fund?

A key question is, how do you decide what you give to the ministries and mission of the church? Some people give proportionately, intentionally offering a percentage of their income to the church. A few people in every congregation I have served give 10% or more.

I started out as a young mom giving a dollar or two whenever I attended church. After a while, I was able to raise my giving to a percentage of my income, and then slowly increased the percentage to 10. This didn’t happen over night, but came through a growing conviction that it was essential for my spiritual well-being. I had to trust God enough to give away 10% of what I received.

Dan, our Arkansas son, once told me he and his wife Sarah learned by experience that they can’t afford not to tithe. Every time they used their offering money for something they wanted, something happened that cost them a lot of money, like car or home repairs. The repairs were always more than the amount they should have given to the church.

How do you decide what to put in the offering plate? In your bulletin, there is a chart which tells how many households give certain amounts each week. I invite you to look at it. If you give monthly or twice a month, your figures are converted into monthly amounts. We see that 15 families give less than $5 a week, and 15 families give between $5 and $9 a week. The higher the giving amount, the fewer families there are. 2 families give $150 or more a week to the church.

Where are you on the chart? Are you giving as much as you can? One way to think of giving an offering is to give until it feels good. Does the amount you give make you feel good? If every penny you receive is budgeted for expenses, and you are giving everything you possibly can to the church, God knows this, and blesses you for it. You should feel good about your generosity.

If the amount you give does not make you feel good, what can you do? Could you move to the next step in giving and not miss too much? For example, if you give less than $5 a week, could you give between $5 and $9? Could you even make that $10 a week, and jump two steps on the giving chart?

You might look for ways to rearrange your budget to increase your giving. One family has told me that they have chosen to give up one meal out a week, and are putting what it costs them in the offering plate.

Another suggestion is to try for one month to give a higher amount. At the end of the month, you can evaluate how it felt to give the higher amount, and if you missed the money you gave. When we trust God with our whole lives, including our finances, we feel so much better about ourselves and our choices, we really don’t miss what we’ve given away.

I know there are a lot of generous people here, based on the number of gift cards I receive, each time I ask for them to help the poor. Many of you frequently bring in food for the food pantries. You happily fund youth events and Vacation Bible School, and you fill and support the Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes.

Jesus calls us to recognize the abundance God has given us, and to give out of our abundance. When we look at everything we have, home, car, furniture, job, retirement income, family, friends – everything – as God’s gift to us, it’s easier to share those gifts with others.

On October 25th, we’ll have a potluck dinner as a celebration of our stewardship campaign. We hope to have every family’s estimate of giving card turned in then. Your challenge for the next two weeks is to not quickly decide how much you will put in the offering plate each week, but to pray hard about your decision. Open your hearts to God, and seek to trust God with all that you receive from God’s bounty. If you have already turned in your packet, you can submit a new one if, after praying for two weeks, you decide to raise your gift to the church.

Please pray with me. God of abundance, we often take for granted your gifts to us. Help us to share them with others as generously as you share your gifts and your very life with us. Amen