The sermon for week October 30, 2011
GIVING, Matthew 23:1-12, I Thessalonians 2:5, 6, 9-12
Some things you do just because it is the right thing to do, and if you are a Christian, because you are a follower of Jesus Christ. There needs to be no other motive than that you have been asked, that it follows the example of Jesus Christ, you have the ability, and your doing or giving supports an important value in which you believe.
I have a friend with whom I have remained in contact since he was in high school and I was the youth minister of the church his family attended. That was many years ago and now he is a successful attorney in a Chicago law firm, having a corner office with floor to ceiling windows on the 29th floor and a skyline view of the city. A few years ago when I was visiting in Chicago we met for lunch in the loop. He took me to a restaurant with oak paneling on the walls and oriental rugs on the floor and I had lobster bisque.
At one point in the luncheon he said to me, ďDavid, do you mind if I brag a bit,Ē and I said, ďno,Ē expecting to hear about another career achievement or a trip to Europe or the purchase of a new luxury car.
Instead he told me that he had just been elected as chairman of an ecumenical group in Chicago that was seeking to build a multimillion dollar camp for the most underprivileged of Chicagoís children. Later, he bragged again and told me of a committee of which he was a member in his local church that planned seminars and workshops and scheduled speakers, all of which focused on childhood and youth development, helping the church and parents minister to these age groups.
Of all the things he could have bragged about these are the things he choose and if you were to ask him why I am sure he would say to you, it is because these are the things that are important to me, and if you were to further press and ask him why he did these things, he would say, because I can, and because I am a follower of Jesus Christ.
This morning is Pledge Sunday. In a little while, as an act of dedication, you will be asked, as a member or friend of Sylvania United Church of Christ, to bring your pledge card forward and put it in the basket at the front of the sanctuary. My part generally as a pastor, is to encourage your participation, and if I can, inspire you in your response. It is a legitimate function of the pastor, to inspire and enlist, but I am always uncomfortable with it, especially when it comes to talking about money.
It seems to me the motivation not often used comes either from inducing guilt or promising a reward, neither of which I believe in when it comes to asking people to give of their money, or their time or their talent. To do so is to come dangerously close to the sin of the scribes and Pharisees which Jesus lays bare in a series of ďWoesĒ pronounced against them in Matthew 23. Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, and what he calls them on is both their outward display of religiosity and the burdens they placed on others. They wanted rewards for their faithfulness and at the same time they were adapt at inflicting guilt on others for their lack of piety and devotion.
I donít want to use guilt or the promise of rewards. I would rather say to you, donít expect anything in your life to change if you make a pledge or increase your pledge, than to say to you, if you make a pledge God will reward you or we will reward you by our praise. I would rather approach you as Paul who wrote reminding the Thessalonians, ďAs you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery...Ē
So, if it is not the promise of reward or a means of absolving guilt, why then do you give? You do it because you believe in this kind of church. You do it because you believe in what this church is doing and the kind of church it is seeking to become. You do it because for many of you this church has become a last refuge in seeking a church that incarnates your values and has provided a place where, at last, you have found a place where both the mind and the spirit are respected and nurtured, and at the same time neither the body or the need for fellowship or community is neglected. In other words, you give because you want others to be able to find here, the same welcome and affirmation you have found here.
You give because it is in the spirit of Christ to desire for others what you have found here. When the Apostle Paul wrote both the church in Rome and the church in Thessalonica, he didnít seek to coddle or entice them, but with all boldness he spoke of Christian character and directed them to aspire to these virtues that for him mirrored the image of Christ in them. He said,
Let love be genuine
Love one another with mutual affection
Outdo one another in showing honor
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit
Serve the Lord
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering
Persevere in prayer
Contribute to the needs of the saints.
There is no mention of any return reward. You donít do these things because of what you hope to get in return. You do them because God asks you. You do them because it is your responsibility, your duty. You do them because of who you are and who you follow. In other words, you do them simply because it is in you and it is the right thing to do.
It is like rediscovering in whose image you have been created. Why would we make a pledge? Why would we take part of our hard earned paycheck and put a portion of it in the offering? Why would we give up sometimes significant portions of our time and talent to serve on a community board or sing in a church choir or teach a Sunday School class? The answer is, we give, we do the good we do, and we make the pledge we make, because that is what is in us to do. We cannot be ourselves and not give. We cannot be all we are meant to be, and not be a person who shares, a person who reaches out, a person who extends himself or herself for the sake of the common good.
And the reason this is so is that who we are is created by God, in Godís own image, a child of God, with Godís Spirit dwelling in us. It is how you are wired. Anything less is to deny the imprint of Divinity upon you. It is in your nature, it is in your spiritual DNA, to give of yourself, as God gave of Godís self in giving us Godís Son.
And following upon this, looking to the One who has restored us to our rightful image, as a Son or Daughter of God, we give because we are a follower to Jesus Christ.
We donít need to be inspired. We donít need to be convicted of a need before we give. We give because weíre walking down the same road as Jesus Christ and as we are walking we are watching Jesus and he is showing us the way and he is showing us how to live as a disciple, and what we see, step by step, in following the man in front of us, the one we have elected to call Lord and Savior, is that giving isnít an elective, it is the core of being a Christian.
And here at Sylvania United Church of Christ is where this spirit was awakened in us. We rediscovered or found for the first time the awareness that indeed we are created in the image of God and by Godís breath we were given life. And, here is where we found that Yes, that I can follow Jesus Christ and be his disciple.
Perhaps it was in learning the stories of the Bible in Sunday School.
Perhaps it was in the seriousness with which we enter into worship.
Perhaps it was in realizing it is not a point in time but a journey and this church affirms the journey, including its questions and doubts.
Perhaps it was here for the first time a church was found that affirms your sexual orientation, your gender, your ethnicity as a part of your wholeness created in the image of God.
Perhaps it was in the friends you made, where you met Jesus face to face in the midst of fellowship.
Perhaps it was in the universal quest for peace and justice in the mission projects that affirm that all people are Godís people and created in Godís image.
You came, you saw, you entered in, and your life changed and now, it is not out of guilt, it is not out of the promise of reward, but it is because you can, because you believe, because you have been asked, because it is in you, and because you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you offer up your best, you share, you give, and you make your pledge.
And, whether we are liberal or conservative, gay or straight, inclined toward the intellectual or the spiritual, growing old or just beginning, we all sing the same chorus, ďWhat a wonderful change in my life has been wrought, since Jesus came into my heart.Ē
Bill Chidester was your pastor for twenty five years. Through his leadership and wise counsel many of you found here a place you would come to call your church home. I want to end my sermon this morning by reading part of an Intercom article he once wrote and was shared by Sharon in a note to the congregation. It is a summary of his aspirations, and to me says better than I can, what I have sought to say this morning, the spirit behind our giving, as we consider our pledges, that it is not what we seek to get out of it for ourselves, but to be in Christ, is to be part of something bigger.
Here are Billís words and with these words I close:
ďEach of us brings fears and hopes with us today, but here is a power in the spirit of God which means more than any amount of money, and weapon, any cure or treatment in responding to those hopes and fears. It is a power for life in its fullness as God intended it to be.
I will try to use that power in my life in such a way that whenever I die, and I hope thatís not for many more years, people remember me not for what I accumulate or did, but for what my life stood for: truth, righteousness, peace faithfulness. And I do not so much care that people remember me, but that I might be a part of creating with you and other people of faith a world community which reflects more clearly the society God wishes for us and which we can experience through our faith.Ē
This is the spirit we have been taught and the spirit in which we seek to live and share our lives. I have saved those words of Billís and keep them close at hand because they are the words to which I aspire. I would like to read the last sentence one more time: ďAnd I do not so much care that people remember me, but that I might be a part of creating with you and other people of faith a world community which reflects more clearly the society God wishes for us and which we can experience through our faith.Ē Amen and Amen.
In this spirit we make our pledges this morning, live out what it means to be created in Godís image and follow the one we call the Christ.