Sermons 2002

Sermons 2003

Becoming Generous People

Ephesians 5: 15-20

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 17th August 2003

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

The highly-respected Barna Research Group, a firm that keeps tabs on religious trends in the United States, recently released a new report that confirms what has always been the case.  There is a link between faith and money.  How we use our financial resources says something about our trust in God.  What this study made explicit was something that had been generally assumed. The study compared “upscale” and “downscale” families.  “Upscale” families (college-educated and with a household income of $60,000 or more) were compared with “downscale” families (families with no college education and household earnings of less than $30,000).  Fifty-six percent of downscale adults said that their faith is constantly growing, compared to 44 percent of upscale adults.[1]  Upscale adults seem to have lower faith commitments than downscale adults.  Maybe upscale families have less need for God, because knowledge and money, it seems, serve as a substitute for God.  Downscale families are precarious, perhaps, and therefore are more prone to reach out to God, to really trust God to provide for their every need.

We live in precarious financial times, whether one is upscale or downscale.  There are a lot of unknowns.  Will the market rally?  What if there’s another terrorist attack that will try to put a dent in our economy?  What then?  Will we have enough to retire?  Will we have enough money to maintain our current standard of living?  How will we afford college tuition?  The Barna Research Group also notes that tithing (those that give at least ten percent of their income) in churches is down 62% in the past year.  Even born-again, evangelical Christians, who represent 38% of the nation’s population and who proportionately give more to the church than theological moderates or liberals, sustained a decline in generosity in the last couple of years.  It’s more difficult to really trust in God when the market is tumbling.  Liberal Christians, Barna notes, curiously, tend not to tithe.[2]  I think it’s fair to say, these days, both the theological conservative and liberal struggle with their relationship with money.

Today’s Common Lectionary reading from Ephesians focuses upon the way Christians live together in community, how they share their lives.  We know from Acts that after becoming a follower of Jesus, “all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having goodwill to all the people. (Acts 2: 45-46)” The Ephesian letter is addressed to a similar kind of church where people are encouraged to live with prudence and sobriety.  Instead of getting drunk on wine, they should be drunk with the Spirit.  And then drunk in the Spirit, they would be free to worship and come to true life:  singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, “singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.(Ephesians 5: 19-20)”  With generous hearts, making melody in their hearts to the Lord, their lives were distinctive and striking in the way they cared for one another and other people in a spirit of gratitude.  What made these Christians so unique was the depth of their generosity, the degree to which they were willing to share their resources for the common good.  They did so not out of duty or compulsion, but because they wanted to.  It was a natural response that flowed from the well-spring of their hearts, hearts that had been filled by the love of Christ.  A grateful heart produces generous people.

Christians are generous.  Throughout our history Christians have demonstrated this generosity.  Think of the money invested in schools, hospitals, and universities.  Think of money invested in communities and in people.  Think of the way Christians clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and care for the needs of the poor (and the rich).  When a need is identified, people respond.

This is particularly true of Catonsville Presbyterian Church.  When a need is identified, you rally.  When a special offering is taken up, you write out a check.  This is a generous congregation.  Since January of this year, you have responded to our special pleas regarding the budget for 2003.  In 2002 we received a total of 119 pledges.  For 2003 we received approximately 150.  We began the year with $198,000 pledged for 2003.  As of the end of July, we have received more than $270,000 in pledges for 2003.  But you are generous in other ways, too.  You are generous with your money, but also generous with your time:  serving on committees, visiting members, making phone calls, extending care, offering support, and driving folks to a doctor’s appointment.  You are generous with your talents:  sharing your professional and personal skills and interests with the church – music, finance, personnel, and mission.  All of these resources are needed in the life of the church – especially this year.

Financially speaking, this is a critical year for us.  We are being stretched in many different ways, ways that are necessary for the growth of this church.  If this church really wants to grow – in both numbers and commitment to Jesus Christ – then we need to step up to the challenge.  When session proposed that we re-establish the associate pastor position here, we began with a two-thirds time position, with the understanding that we will make it full-time.  Our expectations for Dorothy Boulton as associate pastor fill are unrealistic; it is more than a two-thirds time position. In addition to investing in staff, we need to invest more in our programs.  We need to be investing in our ministry areas:  

  • Mission:  we are doing a lot, but we need to do a lot more; 

  • Adult education:  did you know that we spend less than $500 a year for adult education?  That’s it; 

  • Ministry to children and their families

  • Worship: we would like to have more instrumentalists throughout the year besides Easter and Christmas.  And the organ is going to need a major overhaul; 

  • Outreach:  we need to be advertising more, getting the word out about this community;

  • Buildings and grounds: the trustees are doing a great job in upgrades and improvements, such as the new parking lot.  But more work   needs to be done, such as air conditioning for the sanctuary!  These are just some of the things we could do with more resources.

In the Christian life there is never a sense of arrival, there is always room for growth.  The Holy Spirit loves to stretch us.  Just when we get comfortable, the Holy Spirit stretches us in order that we grow, so that we can step-out in faith.  We are a generous people, but Christ is continually urging us to become even more generous.  One of the ways we grow in faith is through the way we spend our money, the way we share our resources.  That’s why God instructed the Israelites to tithe everything they produced and received.  The first ten percent belonged to God.  Actually, it all belongs to God, but the ten percent is a reminder that it’s all God’s.  By giving that ten percent to God was a way of acknowledging that all that we have really belongs to God – we have received it as a gift.  To tithe means to step out in faith and trust that God will provide for you.  When you hold back, you are basically saying that I trust God, but I don’t trust God that much.

When Israel wanted to keep some of the tithe for themselves, God said, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. (Malachi 3: 10)”   Some of us tithe, others do not.  For some it’s easy to tithe, for others it’s just not possible.  Either way, we should always be trying to increase the percentage of our yield that we give back to God.  For some it’s easy to write a check, in which case going downtown and working in a soup kitchen or tutoring inner-city youth might be your growth area.  For others, it’s easier to give time, but because you value the monthly balance in your checkbook, your growth area might be writing a larger check to the work of God.  “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:21)”

A leading Old Testament scholar once challenged a group of laity and clergy by saying, “I’m not interested in your ‘story of faith,’ I want to know about your ‘story with money.’”  In other words, “Show me your checkbook, and I will tell you what you believe.”[3]  “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  These are sobering statements, I know; words that go right to the heart of our living, right to the heart of our being.  We all sit in judgment and we’re all guilty of this because our hearts are often in the wrong place. 

Part of the problem, what makes all of this immensely difficult as Christians, is that we live in two worlds.  We have one foot in the Christian world; and the other foot is in the secular world and our hearts are divided.  It’s not surprising that we have this frustrating, ambiguous relationship between faith and money.  On the one hand, there’s what the Bible says about money; on the other hand, there’s American society says about money, where money means status, influence, prestige, security, and the source of happiness.   The guilt or judgment that we might feel has to do with the fact that maybe we have sold our souls to the spirit of the age.  In her book, Real Wealth:  Redefining Abundance in an Era of Limits, Sarah van Gelder observes, “The [United States] is among the wealthiest countries in the world, and yet it is filled with people, rich and poor, who are anxious about their future and who feel that they don’t have enough.”[4]   People, rich and poor, have this anxiety that it’s never enough.  It’s this anxiety that is dangerous and destructive.

 The Bible, on the other hand, is not ambiguous.  It’s very clear.        Everything(!) that we have belongs to God – plain and simple.  There’s more than enough and then some – for everyone.   To rely more upon money than upon God is idolatry – plain and simple. If money gives you more pleasure than God, then it’s idolatrous – plain and simple.  To not share what you have with others is sinful – plain and simple.  To not provide for the needs of the poor – is an abomination before the LORD (Deut. 15:11).[5]  “Those who are generous are blessed,” says Proverbs, “for they share their bread with the poor. (Proverbs 22:9)” Most of Jesus’ teachings have to do with money and the potential evil that ensues when money isn’t shared in the work of the Kingdom.  Money is not evil; it’s what you do with it that counts.  Money can be used for the sake of the Kingdom.

Perhaps the most pervasive and insidious sins committed by Christians in the church and in the work place has to do with our relationship with money.  Think of the Enron scandal.  Think of the thousands of people who had their life savings stolen from them.  Think of that economic tragedy.  The senior executives who were robbing the people blind were sitting in church pews every Sunday.  Yet, the church remained (and remains) strangely silent.  It’s easier to argue about whether or not certain lifestyles are sinful or not, than to name the fiscal sins of our time.  I don’t understand this.  The richer are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer – and the church must speak out.  Why isn’t the church – all the churches, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Catholic – calling for economic and financial redemption, addressing the parts of our lives that really affect the way we live?  Perhaps it’s all a ploy of the Evil One to divert us from what really matters with regards to the gospel.  The poet and essayist, Wendell Berry writes, “The breath of God is only one of the divine gifts that make us living souls; the other is the dust.  Most of our modern troubles come from a misunderstanding and misevaluation of this dust.”[6]

The misunderstanding and misevaluation are related to what’s going on in our hearts.  It all comes down to our hearts again.  Last week, we looked at the relationship between our language and our faith and the way our hearts produce our speech.  What comes out of your mouth is a good indication of where your heart is.  What you say to people and say about people, what you say to God, speaks volumes about what’s really in your heart.  Similarly, the way the Christian spends money is also an indication of what’s in one’s heart.  Our hearts will dictate how generous we are.  It all comes down to the redemption of our hearts.  A heart that is grateful for the love of Christ will be generous, eager to share.  It will come naturally.  A heart that is open to the love of Christ is open to the needs of people and to the world.  A heart that is thankful, will be giving thanks to God at all times and in everything – including our money – thankful for the world and our lives within it.  A heart that is thankful has the capacity to transform the world.

[1] See the Barna Research Group website:  www.barna.org.

[2] See the Barna  Research Group website:  www.barna.org.

[3]Cited by Sharon Daloz Parks, “Household Economics,” in Dorothy C. Bass, ed. Practicing Our Faith:  A Way of Life for a Searching People (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 1997), p. 46.

[4] Cited in Parks, p. 46.

[5] “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and need neighbor in your land.’”

[6] Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy and Community:  Eight Essays (Pantheon, 1994) cited in Parks, p. 47.