Sermon: Giving

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Preached on 17th April 2008
by Revd Malcolm Sellers

2 Corinthians 9.6-15                                                                                 Mark 14.1-9

Having been asked to consider using theme based on idea of giving, I tried very hard to find readings which didn't mean I had to use phrase ‘God loves a cheerful giver'. It would be difficult enough for me to preach on such theme, I thought, without the service being remembered for a phrase that can sound quite trite and can quite easily be taken out of context. You will already have noticed that as far as the readings are concerned, I failed in that aim, but in Paul's teaching on giving, as we find it here in Corinthians, this idea is in fact implicit in all he says.

 

In the reading from Corinthians Paul identifies two types of givers: there are those who give out of generosity and those who give out of grudging obligation.

"He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity..." (II Cor. 9:6-7)

This passage gives us a whole outline of the principles of giving and of generosity.
(i) Paul insists that no one was ever the loser because he was generous. Giving is like sowing seed. The person who sows with a sparing hand can't hope for anything but a meagre harvest, but the person who sows with a generous hand will in due time reap a generous return. The NT is an extremely practical book and one of its great features is that it is never afraid of addressing issue of rewards. It never says that goodness is all to no purpose, that life is exactly same for the person who obeys God as for the person who doesn't. It never forgets that something new and precious and wonderful does enter into the life of person who accepts God's commands as his law.

But the rewards that the NT relates to are never material rewards. IIt doesn't promise a wealth of things; but it does promise wealth of heart and of spirit. What then can the generous person expect? The great expositor,Wiliam Barclay, suggests that he will be: rich in love, rich in friends, rich in help and rich towards God.

(ii) Paul insists that it is the happy giver whom God loves.

There was a rabbinic saying that to receive a friend with a cheerful countenance and to give him nothing is better than to give him everything with a gloomy countenance!

The philosopher, Thomas Carlyle, tells how ,when he was boy, a beggar came to the door. His parents were out and he was alone in the house. On a boyish impulse he broke into his own savings-bank and gave the beggar all that was in it, and - he tells us - never before or since did he know such sheer joyous happiness as came to him in that moment. There is indeed a joy in giving.
(iii) Again Paul insists that God can give a person both substance to give and the spirit in which to give it, speaking of the all-sufficiency which God gives us. The word he uses doesn't describe the sufficiency of the man who possesses all kinds of things in abundance - of great independent means. Rather it describes the state of the person who has not directed his life to amassing possessions but to eliminating needs. It describes a person who has taught himself to be content with very little and never to want anything - a person who has learned to do without things. It is obvious that such a person will be able to give far more to others because he wants so little for himself. But not only that, it is God who can give us the spirit in which to give.

Robert Louis Stevenson's native servants loved him. His boy used to waken him every morning with a cup of tea. On one occasion his usual boy was off duty, and another boy had taken over. This boy woke him not only with a cup of tea but also with a beautifully cooked omelette. Stevenson thanked him and said, "Great is your forethought." "No, master," said the boy, "great is my love."

The Lord has given to us richly, should we not richly give so that He is glorified through thanksgiving? For me this is exactly what the woman in Gospel story does for Jesus, for this story shows an action of generous love.
(i) Jesus said that it was a lovely thing the woman had done.

In Greek there are apparently two words for good - one which describes a thing which is morally good - and yet might also be hard, stern, austere and so was unattractive. The other describes a thing which is not only good but lovely - which can be winsome and lovely.

Love does not do only good things. Love does lovely things.

(ii) If love is true, there must always be a certain extravagance in it. It does not nicely calculate the less or more. It is not concerned to see how little it can decently give. If it gave all it had, the gift would still be too little. There is a recklessness in love which refuses to count the cost.

(iii) Love can see that there are some things for which the chance to do them comes only once. It is one of the tragedies of life that often we are moved to do something fine and do not do it. It may be that we are too shy and feel awkward about it. It may be that second thoughts suggest a more prudent course. It occurs in the simplest things - the impulse to send a letter of thanks, to tell someone of our love or gratitude, to give some special gift or speak some special word. The tragedy is that the fruit of the impulse so often never sees light of day. This world would be so much lovelier if there were more people like this woman, who acted on her impulse of love because she knew in her heart of hearts that if she did not do it then she to would never do it at all. How such extravagant, impulsive kindness must have lifted Jesus' heart!
(iv) Once again we see the invincible confidence of Jesus. The Cross loomed close ahead now but he never believed that it would be the end. He believed that the good news would go all round the world. And with the good news would go the story of this lovely thing, done with reckless extravagance, done on the impulse of the moment, done out of a heart of love.

If you encourage people to define generosity they may come up with a variety of lovely ideas - graciousness; caring; being open; hospitality; without thought of self; listening; giving of yourself; giving freely......... Yet our enthusiasm for the word is not easily translated into deeds, or, to be more accurate, into a generous disposition. We may be provoked into a one-off act of generosity by someone rattling tin under our nose outside the supermarket, by seeing a particularly harrowing news item on the television or by receiving a cleverly presented mail shot. But our struggle, and our hope, is that we should become people who are naturally generous, who want to give, who are free to give and who do give because we are big enough to give.

Giving for the wrong reasons may well benefit others (at least for as long as we can sustain the effort), but in the process the giver can be trapped in snares of self-righteousness and of resenting the people or institutions - including the church - who are making the demands. Worst of all, this sort of giving may cultivate false piety towards God. Material wealth - that is, our income, possessions and savings - can so easily hold Christ's disciples back from travelling along the way of their Master. They bring blockages which have to be faced and overcome if we are to hear and obey his word:-

‘Any who want to be followers of mine must renounce self; day after day they must take up their cross, and follow me' (Luke 9.23)

Perhaps we need to decide that nothing we possess is our own but that everything we have belongs to God. This puts God in His place and us in ours. We are now ready to manage His possessions, not as we like but as He likes. This is real freedom. This gives us a sense of accountability to another - to God. We shall get our life orders not from a whim, a notion, self-impulse or whatever takes our fancy, but from the One who saved us and redeemed us.

So then we must fix it as a positive idea in our minds that we will be generous to people, not for the good feelings that generosity brings, but because we are determined to bless them in some way. You must never be generous in order to get a blessing - you must be generous to be a blessing.

It is God alone who can put into our hearts the love which is the essence of a generous spirit, and so Paul implies that giving does wonderful things in three ways:
(i) It does something for others.

(a) It relieves their need. Many a time, when person is at their wit's end, a gift from someone else has seemed to them nothing less than a gift from heaven itself.

(b) It restores their faith in their fellow men and women. It can too often happen that, when a person is in need, he can grow embittered and feel himself to be neglected and forgotten. It is then that a gift shows him that love and kindness are not yet dead.

(c) It makes them thank God. A gift in a time of need is something which brings not only our love but also God's love into the lives of others.

(ii) It does something for ourselves.

(a) It guarantees our Christian profession. In the case of the Corinthians that was especially important. No doubt the Jerusalem Church, which was almost entirely Jewish, still regarded the Gentiles with suspicion and wondered in its heart of hearts if Christianity could be for them at all. But if people are generous it enables others to see that they have turned their Christianity not only into words but into deeds as well.
(b) It wins us both the love and the prayers of others. What is needed in this world more than anything else is something which will link us to our fellow men and women. There is nothing so precious as fellowship, and generosity is an essential step on the way to real union between people

(iii) Last but not least it does something for God.

It makes prayers of thanksgiving go up to God. People see good things done, as Jesus said they should, and they glorify not us but God. It is surely a tremendous thing to think that something we do can turn the thoughts and hearts of men and women to God, for that means nothing less than that something we do can bring joy to God.

Finally, Paul turns the thoughts of the Corinthians to the wonder of the gift of God in Jesus Christ, a gift whose wonder can never be exhausted and whose story can never be fully told; and, in so doing, he says to them, "Can you, who have been so generously treated by God, be anything other than generous to your fellow men?"

"This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God's people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!" (II Cor. 9:12-15 NIV)

AMEN

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