November 13, 2022

"Growing Into Giving"

 

Acts 20:32-35

 

This morning's passage from the book of Acts is an interesting one. Here the Apostle Paul quotes a phrase from Jesus found in none of the gospels. "It is more blessed to give than receive. This is undoubtedly an appropriate phrase to focus on for Financial Stewardship Sunday. Why did Paul quote Jesus as he spoke to the church's elders from Ephesus?

As is often the case with Paul, he used himself as an example to teach Jesus's words. Paul recounted to these elders that he, who had served Christ through "tears and trials" (20:19), had given himself to spread the Gospel. Furthermore, he had done so without coveting anyone's silver, gold, or apparel and had supported himself through his work as a tentmaker with Priscilla and Aquilla (20:34). Paul wanted the elders to understand that his motivation for ministry had nothing to do with receiving and everything to do with giving Paul makes that message clear to these elders before heading to Jerusalem for Shavuot, the celebration of the giving of the Torah, and the beginning of a three-year stint in the holy city meeting with the Jerusalem council over the issue of including non-circumcised believers.

How does this saying of Jesus apply to us today, and is it true? Is it more blessed to give than to receive? We had a lively discussion about that this past Wednesday in our Bible study. Many of us talked about our lives as children when we all loved to receive! Giving, it seems, is a learned behavior. Over the decades, I have grown into giving rather than just receiving.

I still remember when my mother gave me a nickel for the offering in Sunday school when I was a child. I wasn't sure what that was for, but it didn't matter much to me, as I was giving someone else's money (my mother's) to someone else (The Sunday school teacher). The rubber met the road when that changed. Mom began increasing my allowance, and then suddenly, the nickel wasn't coming from her anymore. I was asked to give a nickel a week to that offering basket in Sunday school. That is when I am pretty sure I asked her, "WHY? Why do I have to give anything to the Sunday school teacher?" - especially if it meant my purchasing power for candy or model kits would take a hit. That was the beginning of my education on Jesus' words, "It is more blessed to give than to receive.

Many of us at the study also spoke about receiving gifts at Christmas or for our birthdays and the expectation connected to receiving those gifts-that a thank you card was coming to the gift-giver. I remember the drudgery of writing "Thank You" cards as a child. I would sit at the kitchen table with a list every Christmastide and write something rather generic on each card for whatever gift I had been given from a relative. I still remember writing something like, "Dear Grandma Mid, thanks so much for the Cream-of-Wheat bread you sent me for Christmas. " That really did happen one Christmas, and I was anything but thankful for that gift. Grandma Mid always sent interesting and out-of-the-box gifts at Christmas😊. I don't know if Grandma Mid, who was really my cousins' grandma on my uncle's side, ever really expected me to send her a thank you or not. But I did it faithfully for most of my childhood. That is when I began to ponder that sometimes expectations are attached when we give something.

I admit I had expectations when I gave my nickel to the church, asking my mom, "I'll give, but what is in it for me?" She told me I was giving to God and left it at that. I wondered if God would somehow reach a hand down from heaven to collect the nickel.

As I grew into a middle schooler, my allowance increased. I knew that if I gave a quarter to the church on Sundays, I could receive a doughnut and, for another quarter, a bottle of coke as well as a massive sugar rush. That seemed like a decent trade. Then I learned that our Christian Education director, who put together all the Sunday school activities and made sure we had a weekly youth group, was supported minimally by those quarters I put in the doughnut jar and coke machine every Sunday, as was her husband, the pastor. My understanding of giving to the church grew a bit. It wasn't just about doughnuts or soda or a sugar rush anymore. It was about supporting the ministry that I got something out of. I received so much from that weekly .50 cents I gave, which in time became more as I got older in that church. I learned more and more about God and Jesus' teachings and God's love for me. I began understanding the broad concept of stewardship- using our time, talents, and treasure for God's glory. My faith became real to me, and I had a place of belonging- not easy for a junior higher to find by any means. I found myself connected and loved by my church family. I gave, and my understanding of giving changed. I don't know that I expected something from giving so much as I began to have gratitude for what I gave. I gave because I was thankful for what I was receiving (Although I still enjoyed those doughnuts and sodas as well every Sunday😊)

So that was the beginning of understanding that it is more blessed to give than receive. If Paul was quoting Jesus, we do not know the setting for this saying nor whom he was addressing. Why, then, did Jesus say this? What did he mean by it?

I think Jesus said it is more blessed to give than receive because he wanted to give us a glimpse of the kindom. Giving what we can from a place of thankfulness, without expectation, makes our world more on earth as it is in heaven. This kind of giving is also good in that it frees us from the temptation of greed and getting, which in turn helps our hearts conform more to Christ's teachings. This focus on giving from a place of thankfulness rather than the expectation of getting or receiving can also lead us to joy.

As you consider what to give the church and this ministry financially for the coming year, I hope you, too, can give from a place of joy. Now you may give from a place of joy with some expectations attached, and truthfully that is OK. You may expect our staff to do their very best in what we do and to work hard to spread Christ's light and the work of the kindom here in Ashland and out into the world. I want you to know that our excellent and talented staff work to do our best to meet those expectations, which I hope gives you something in return. What might you receive?

One of our church friends emailed me last week while she was away and catching up on Sunday morning YouTube broadcasts. She quoted from the book Search by author Michelle Hansen, who wrote, "Church is the one place that privileges the soul, that focuses upon spiritual values and bases a community on them. " She said that we are offering that here, and I hope you also receive a church that privileges the soul, focuses on spiritual values, and bases our community upon them!

There are times when the church gives to us, and we receive. There are also times when the church gives with expectations attached! That expectation was demonstrated perfectly in a story shared during last week's Bible study by one of our missionaries in the church, Dr. Bill Sager.

Bill told us about a church he attended in the Congo. The worship there began with the loud thumping of a group of drums. Then, the service started with hymn singing and prayers. Once the pastor was thorough with his sermon, the drumming commenced again, and the children from the congregation began processing, dancing joyfully up to three boxes at the front of the sanctuary. One box was to pay the pastor's salary. One was for the upkeep of the building, and one box was for church missions in the world. The rest of the congregation followed the children, dancing joyfully up to the front and depositing their offerings in each box. The service

continued, and church elders counted the offering. If it wasn't deemed enough, the drums would begin again, and the procession continued until the coffers were filled to satisfactory levels! Perhaps Jesus' teaching could have been rephrased there: "It is more blessed to give and give again."

Not only do we not have three boxes up front, nor do we expect you all to come dancing up the aisle during the offering (and I wonder if we Presbyterians could even dance in the first place😊). You may have also noticed that we no longer pass offering plates during worship. Initially, we stopped this practice due to Covid. Yet we have continued this practice as Covid seems to be waning. Why is this? It would help if you didn't feel we were giving you a worship experience with an expectation attached. We would like you to experience a worship service that is focused on God's presence and the teachings of Christ.

Furthermore, we do not want giving to be a barrier for someone to experience the grace and love of God. By passing the plate, people may start comparing what is put in the plate, or some might feel pressured to give and give more. The service's focus should be on God and what God's Spirit teaches you in the service. During our offering prayer, you will hear a request to give something if you feel led in our small model church or online, but not through compulsion or coercion.

 

So, have I grown fully into the person who always believes it is more blessed to give than receive? Truthfully, I still have moments when I like to receive something material, thinking it will bring me lasting joy. I confess to a weakness for video games, particularly old 8-bit rare ones. Yet after finding one such rare gem, after playing the game for a bit, the joy doesn't last. Eventually, it is just another game in my collection.

 

Lasting joy and blessedness comes when I give; when I ask for family members to buy a flock of chicks or part of a well for my Christmas gift through Heifer International or the Presbyterian Giving catalogue instead of getting me something I don't really need in the first place; when I give to my family by providing a home-cooked meal; when I give a gift to someone and see that smile creep across their face; When I have given someone who is on the street one of my coats or a hot meal; when I have given my time building a Habitat Home along with a family in need; when I have given my time traveling to a disaster site helping to clean up and listen to people's trauma or spending my time serving on the board of OHRA; when I have been blessed in remote places like Nicaragua by building an elementary school for a needy village; when I have had the privilege and honor of performing a baptism, leading communion, or journeying with a family through the valley of the shadow of death and grief. In my own giving of time, talent and treasure, I have received so much! May Jesus be with us as we grow more and more into giving. For that is what brings us lasting joy. Alleluia! Amen.

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