Sermon: FIRST & BEST
October 22nd, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passage: Matthew 22:34-40, 2 Corinthians 9:6-14
For those of you who are members of this church or attend this church regularly, you received a letter from me in your church mailbox this week. There will be another letter coming next week from Greg Sawtelle and the Stewardship Committee of our church. It is the time of year to think about our stewardship, and the first letter includes a summary of the church’s finances through the third quarter. The second letter will include a pledge card for your support commitment for the coming year. Stewardship is about managing one’s resources – so our Stewardship committee’s responsibilities include managing our financial resources, our building resource, and our land resource. This fall we are going to take 5 Sundays to focus in a broad way on the stewardship principles of discipleship, on how we can live like Jesus and follow Jesus, in areas that guide our living and our giving – giving of our time, our talents, our money, our other resources. The series is based on a study titled “Living Generously” from the Reimagine Group and with videos on RightNowMedia that each one of you can also access through the church’s membership. If you do not have access to that website already and would like to, please write your name and email address on one of the cards in the pew and pass it on to me or leave it by the door.
First and Best
As Christians we look to Jesus as our example. We can be sure that Jesus and his disciples would have given offerings and sacrifices to God. To do so, they would have followed the laws of the Hebrew scriptures as their guide. The book of Leviticus lays out in great detail the kinds of offerings people should bring to their place of worship. There were burnt offerings and meal offerings. There were sin offerings, peace offerings, fellowship offerings and on and on. There were rules about these offerings. The grain cakes that were part of a thank offering at harvest time were to be from the finest of flour and the first pressing of oil. The grain should be taken from the first sheaf harvested from the field, and brought as an offering first before they ate any of the harvest themselves. A lamb was to go along with the grain. That lamb was to be perfect, without any defect. Just as the sheep or the goat or the bull for other sacrifices was to be perfect, without any defects. It was to be the best sheep of the flock, not a stinky sheep, a runt or sick one that the shepherd wanted to get rid of anyway.
When Jesus became our perfect sacrifice on the cross, the perfect offering to God on our behalf, the old system of offerings and sacrifices was forever changed. There are no more rules in the New Testament about 2 year-old rams or about grain cake recipes. Instead, we see teaching that focuses on our hearts. As we heard in the reading from Matthew, Jesus said that all of the Law and the teachings of the prophets hung on just two commandments: to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. We heard in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth that they should give cheerfully and generously. What a difference! No more lists of do and don’ts about our offerings; just a call to give a life of generosity. Stewardship is not primarily about checklists or dollar amounts. It is not ultimately about our wallets. It is about our hearts.
There was a family that attended a church which was involved in a ministry to refugees, helping to welcome refugee families and support them as they got settled and learned how to function in America. Cassie has signed her family up to host a dinner for the refugee family’s first night. That day, as Cassie was cooking the meal, her husband Frank came into the kitchen bemoaning the fact that she had signed up for the dinner on the night of a Packer’s game. Trying to get him to change his attitude, Cassie suggested to Frank that perhaps he think instead about something he could give the man of the family that evening as they would have many needs. Cassie and Frank’s son, Evan, overheard this conversation as he was in the next room playing with his favorite toy, a small red airplane. Frank went to look through his stuff, and found an old watch that had been sitting in his dresser drawer since he gotten a new watch for his birthday several years ago. He slipped it into his pocket. During the dinner, Frank waited for a good time to give the watch to the new arrival. Finally, after dinner, when the women were clearing the table and the children had gone to play, he thought he had his moment. Just as Frank was reaching into his pocket to offer the watch, his son Evan and the young boy in the refugee family came chasing through the room. To Frank’s surprise, the young boy was holding Evan’s airplane – the toy that Evan had not allowed any friends or family to play with, or even touch, before. Evan, seeing the expression of surprise on his dad’s face, whispered to him, “Dad, he wasn’t able to bring any toys with him. If he is only going to have one toy, he needs the best.” Frank let the old watch fall back into his pocket, struck in that moment by the generosity and selflessness of his son, and suddenly feeling convicted by the less-than-best watch in his pocket.
Video – #2 Teaching Moment (“Living Generously”, The Reimagine Group)
Let’s watch a short video from the “Living Generously” study that reflects on this story.
Ways of Giving – Revealing the Heart
There are several different approaches to giving. In the video, the speaker Re mentions re-gifting. That is one approach to giving: passing on something that you didn’t want in the first place. Now, I have to confess that I have sometimes re-gifted things. Re-gifting is not all bad, and in fact sometimes re-gifting can be good when someone else needs an item I don’t – perhaps I already have one, and they don’t; or perhaps it’s not my style, but it is just the style of my friend. Re-gifting keeps something I don’t want or need from being wasted. So what is the problem with re-gifting?
In the video, Re referred to a story about King David in 2 Samuel 24. A plague had come upon the people of Israel and 70,000 had died. King David was responsible in large part for the disaster because he had been feeling so confident in the power of his people and his army to protect themselves, that he had ordered a census of all fighting men so he could quantify his resources and strength. But one of his prophets, a man named Gad, had come to David with the message that God was not pleased with David’s measuring of his strength by counting numbers. Gad told David that if he recognized the error of his reliance on his military strength rather than God’s strength, and made a sin offering to God, he could stop the loss of life that had come in the plague. What David needed to do was to build an altar to the Lord and worship there, on a piece of land just north of David’s city, land that belonged to a farmer named Araunah. David felt convicted and went to do just that. When Araunah saw King David and his entourage coming toward his place, he went out and bowed down before the king and asked, “Why has my master the king come to see me?” David answered, “To buy your threshing floor so I can build an altar to God here and put an end to this disaster.” Araunah replied, “Take whatever you want and use it. Here’s an ox for the burnt offering. Here are the ox yokes and threshing sleds to use for wood on the fire. I’ll provide you with everything you need.” But David refused the offer, recognizing that he would simply be taking Araunah’s gift and re-gifting that to God. He said, “No, I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” So he bought the land and the ox and the wood for the fire at full price – fifty pieces of silver. The plague was stopped and that land David bought eventually became the site of the Jerusalem temple.
When I thought about how that might apply to my giving, I recalled what often happened when my children were young. When it came time for the offering, I would pull out my purse and hand down the pew to each of them a few coins for them to put into the offering plate. Unfortunately, what I was teaching them was to give to God an offering that cost them nothing! If our giving to God primarily consists of re-gifting what cost us nothing, what does that say about our hearts?
Another way of giving is giving out of the overflow of our abundance. This is the kind of giving in which we give our leftovers after we’ve had our fill. It is the kind of giving that happens when you harvest all the tomatoes in your garden, have a big day of canning and freezing, and then after all your jars are filled, you give a few to a friend and bring what is left to the Harvest Table at church. Again, like re-gifting, it is not bad in itself. It prevents waste; it is sharing. (And I’d like to note some of you clearly brought your first and best to the Harvest Table, not just the leftovers.) But if our giving to God primarily consists of giving that which is leftover after everything else is taken care of, what does that say about our hearts? Or about our ability to trust God?
When David and I lived in India, there was a custom that often made us feel awkward when we were invited to someone’s house for dinner. After a time of sharing conversation and appetizers, the main meal would be served… just to the guests. The hosts would stay with us, watching and serving the food, but not eat with us. The hosts would eat later, after we had eaten our fill, perhaps even after we had gone home. It seemed strange, but actually teaches a wonderful lesson of making your guests such a priority that you would give them the first and the best, and wait to have the leftovers yourself.
Another way of giving is finish-line giving. This is the kind of giving where one gives after reaching one’s own goals first. “I’ll give when …” I’ll give when I’ve paid off my car loan. I’ll give of my talent when I’ve practiced enough to be perfect. I’ll give of my time when I’m done caring for my mother. I’m in the middle of a project, I’ll give when I get done with that. Of course, you know the problem with that kind of giving – there will always be something else that comes along, another goal, another demand, another and another.
I believe it is especially hard in our culture as we try to balance the American Dream with the call to follow Christ. The American Dream tells us that if we work hard enough, take initiative, be determined, we will eventually achieve success and prosperity. We cling to that dream, and many people postpone their giving to the day when they’ve made it big, when they hit the jackpot, when they get that huge tax refund check, bring in the bumper crop, … then I will give… when I’m retired, when I’m rested, when I’m well… But Jesus modeled a different dream and a different way of giving. Jesus did not wait to give until his goals were reached – while we were yet sinners, before we even recognized our need for him and his gift of forgiveness and grace and life, he gave his life. Jesus’ dream was that we would not waste our lives loving lesser things, rather that we would commit our lives fully to loving God.
An Attitude of the Heart
In the portion of the letter to the church in Corinth that we heard read earlier, Paul was writing about an offering they were collecting to send to those in need in the Jerusalem church. Paul knew the needs were great and he knew that the people in Corinth were not rich. But what he also knew was that what was most important about that offering, that gift they were collecting, was not the amount of the offering but the love that motivated it and the attitude of their hearts in the giving. He wanted their hearts to be so filled with love and gratitude to God that they gave willingly, joyfully, generously. It was not about the numbers but about their hearts. If their gift showed that they truly loved God with all their heart, it would bring a response of praise and thanksgiving and glory to God whose goodness and generosity prompted the giving to begin with.
Do Something About It
Where is your heart today? Does your heart take joy in an opportunity to honor God through giving? Or does it search through dusty drawers and leftovers to find what it will give to God? We all have resources that we are stewarding – time, talents, gifts, resources of money or food or other things. How we give reflects our heart, our relationship with God. The gift reveals the giver.
This week I invite you to pray, asking God to reveal your heart. Are you giving God your first and your best? If not, ask God how you might make Him your priority. How you can better express your love for Jesus. Ask God to show you areas you need to be more generous. Then trust God’s promptings in giving, whether it is with your time, your resources, or your talents. And watch God work! In you, and through you.
Closing Song: “Take My Life” #568