Monday, January 10, 2011

Extravagant Generosity

This morning I do not wish to speak to the sacrificial Christian who has already learned, and participates in, the joy of extravagant generosity.  Nor do I wish to speak to the hard-hearted materialist, who holds everything he can as forcefully as a tenacious toddler with a pacifier.  Nor do I wish to speak to the one whose every thought of money is how it may be used to control others.
Rather I would speak to those of us who know in our hearts that the idea of generosity holds a promise for us of something greater than selfishness; we would “jump-in” the river of God’s blessing through giving, if only our hearts were not so fearful.
Once, a man said, "If I had some extra money, I'd give it to God, but I have just enough to support myself and my family."  And the same man said, "If I had some extra time, I'd give it to God, but every minute is taken up with my job, my family, my clubs, and what have you--every single minute."
And the same man said, "If I had a talent I'd give it to God, but I have no lovely voice; I have no special skill; I've never been able to lead a group; I can't think cleverly or quickly, the way I would like to."
And God was touched, and although it was unlike him, God gave that man money, time, and a glorious talent. And then He waited, and waited, and waited.....And then after a while, He shrugged His shoulders, and He took all those things right back from the man, the money, the time and the glorious talent.
After a while, the man sighed and said, "If I only had some of that money back, I'd give it to God. If I only had some of that time, I'd give it to God. If I could only rediscover that glorious talent, I'd give it to God."
And God said, "Oh, shut up."
And the man told some of his friends, "You know, I'm not so sure that I believe in God anymore." [1]
The bottom line about faith is that when you really do believe, you begin! 
C.S. Lewis once said, I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give.  I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.[2]
Paul assured us that we would be enriched in every way for your great generosity.  This is an understood reality – God provides, and will meet every need.[3]
One Question

For a Christian, why is Extravagant Generosity in giving so important?

Bishop Schnase’s simple explanation is also the profound starting point from our heritage as Wesleyan believers in Christ: 
John Wesley and the early Methodists practiced generosity as a necessary and indispensable aspect of discipleship, essential for the maturing of the soul and for the work of the church.  Wesley taught Methodists to ‘Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.’[4]
Restated, extravagant generosity in our giving reflects the nature of God.  Reflecting that image is part of the purpose for which we are created.  There is a lot of talk about “putting God first”.  Extravagant generosity is perhaps the singular practical way of putting our appetites, possessions and society’s expectations in their proper place…under God!  It’s how we make Him LORD of our lives.
Again, Bishop Schnase wrote: 
First-century Christian communities, the Methodists of the 1700’s, faith mentors, and models of Christian living today – all have discovered a truth as sure as gravity, that generosity enlarges the soul, realigns priorities, connects people to the Body of Christ, and strengthens congregations to fulfill Christ’s ministries.[5]
Most of our objections towards the “giving” aspect of living-out our faith as a follower of Jesus Christ fall in two general areas, big fear and small faith.  Either we just cannot see any way to accomplish being extravagantly generous, or we fear the consequences of letting go of resources.  In our time now, with economic uncertainty and much ado about unrest in the world, it is commonplace to be tenuous and overly cautious.  Scarce resources create a “jungle mentality” that wants to pounce on what’s available and keep it near.  Big fear, small faith!
Overcoming our lack of faith and our fears is a matter of maturation in the faith; we grow up in God and our fears begin to fade.  Our faith becomes stronger and the fear is starved to death.
Every parent who has taken his or her toddler-child to the doctor for the “dreaded shot” understands that the child doesn’t understand.  The needle looks so big and scary; it is going to hurt like a train wreck!  But the parent knows better, and we also know that in a few years that little one will have grown enough – seen enough of pain and sickness, that the “dreaded shot” is now the welcome medicine.  It just takes maturing to understand.  And so it is with overcoming our fear and lack of faith in giving.  We may wince at letting go at first; ultimately, as mature followers, we can’t wait to put things in God’s hands
Sense of Mission
The difference between Christians of small faith/big fear as opposed to those who are mature and extravagantly-generous, is often simply buying-into mission.  That means we honestly adopt the reality that God has called us into a partnership of doing things for Him in this world.  We are in partnership of mission with God.  When you have a mission, fear is dispelled by faith.
What’s a Mission?
Mission comes in all shapes, colors, sizes, locations and languages.  One of the noun-definitions of “mission” is calling; another is purpose.  What is your purpose?  What is your calling? 
Now, don’t limit yourself.  God called me into pastoral ministry, but He also called me to other purposes – I’m a husband, father, grandfather, neighbor, citizen and more.  Where, in all of that, is a “calling”?  What purpose do I serve, or even see in those important components of my life?  Where is my mission?  What am I passionate about?  Where will I choose to extravagantly invest my life in purpose?  For the Christian believer, the serious follower of Jesus Christ, these are questions with which you must wrestle – this is at the core of who you are, and why you take up space on this planet. 
Let’s wrestle a little this morning; consider your sphere of mission:

Mission to YOUR WORLD

Whenever we talk about missions, especially when it comes to giving, the most natural picture that leaps into our minds is of African villages and the “strange ones” who have left the good ol’ USA to live with those poor folks over there.  And you might just be THAT strange; God might have tapped you on the shoulder to be a foreign missionary.
But the mission to your world isn’t only “over there” – it is a sense of continuing the faith for the next generation, and the next after that.  Again, Bishop Schnase writes about
…making a difference in the lives of people.  Every sanctuary and chapel in which we have worshiped, every church organ that has lifted our spirits, every pew where we have sat, every communion rail where we have knelt, every hymnal from which we have sung, every praise band that has touched our hearts, every church classroom where we have gathered with our friends, every church kitchen that has prepared our meals, every church van that has taken us to comp, every church camp cabin where we have slept – all are the fruit of someone’s Extravagant Generosity [mission, purpose].  We have been the recipients of grace upon grace.  We are the heirs, the beneficiaries of those who came before us who were touched by the generosity of Christ enough to give graciously so that we could experience the truth of Christ for ourselves.  We owe the same to generations to come.  We have worshiped in sanctuaries that we did not build, and so to us falls the privilege of building sanctuaries where we shall never worship.[6]
Do you sense the pull of God’s Spirit towards the next generation – is working with children, youth or young adults to build sanctuaries in which you’ll never worship the purpose for which God moves blood in your being? 
This picture is from the “Impact” website of the United Methodist Church; it has many different outlets for mission to your world – in every picture, notice, it is to people that mission flows, and it is in people mission blossoms!
 They are the sanctuaries you build as you work out your purpose, as you are in mission to YOUR WORLD; these are houses for the dwelling-place of God.   Is this where you find your purpose, your calling? 


The world can sometimes not have a face on it; it can be vague, unspecific.  But your next-door neighbor is hard to forget.  It may be that your calling – your most urgent urging of the Spirit is closer to home than Alaska or Africa. 
This past week when Darrell and Tammy Smith’s house burned, they lost nearly everything.  It was a mess!  And it was a stark reminder that we are all vulnerable.  On a chilly winter’s morning you get up to go to work, and your home is filled with reminders of family outings, growing kids; you notice the vase grandma gave to you, the afghan she crocheted for your first child.  When you come home all your memories are engulfed in flames.  Suddenly there is nothing about your world that makes sense. 
In the midst of tragedy like this, in the next week there are never less than a dozen people all around the ashes, helping to sort out things, finding treasures in the soot, carrying boxes and bags, bringing food and hugs.  There are more offers of help than you know how to accept.  Darrell said it simply to me, “I could not ask for better neighbors”. 
One of our church’s children, upon hearing about the fire, and how there was great need, went and got some food gift cards to McDonalds that she had gotten.  She brought them to her Mom and said, “Here…they need these.”
Is it mission to YOUR COMMUNITY that pulls the extravagant generosity cord that’s attached to your heart?

Mission to YOUR FAMILY

Perhaps the hardest to envision as “mission” is the family where you live.  The reason is that those people know you, and home is an uncomfortable place to do “churchy-talk”.  But, perhaps that is the point; being real is mission, or purpose.  False fronts and platitudes are empty clouds, only a vapor of promise.  And, perhaps this is where genuine mission ought to start.  Unfortunately, this is the one place where the mission or purpose of God is most neglected
There is an older song entitled, My House is Full, But My Field is Empty; the lyrics are so revealing about how failing to accept God’s purpose or mission in our lives (particularly in our own homes), thwarts what God wants to do in this world:
There is peace and contentment in the Father's House today
Lots of food on His table and no one is turned away
There is singing and laughter as the hours pass by
But a hush calms the singing as the father sadly cries

My house is full, but my field is empty, who will go and work for me today?
It seems my children all want to stay around my table
But no one wants to work in my field, no one wants to work in my field
The Father’s “house” in that song is here…the church house; singing, food, good friendships.  Did you notice our display of tools here at the altar rail?  We may try to avoid getting too close to them…they represent blisters, sunburn and the stain of harvested tobacco, or the cuts of picked cotton.  Tools are for work!  Our Father is in the fruit business, and business means tools, which means work.
The problem with those tools is that they won’t work by themselves.  Unaided, they will never leave the tool shed.  They need skilled hands to pick them up and get busy.  It is the same way with our stewardship – it’s not someone else’s job; there is no generosity, extravagant, mediocre or tiny that someone else can offer which will replace yours.
In the household of my youth I learned by my parents’ example that the “mission” for them involved:
·        worship as a way of being trained and inspired
·        honesty and kindness as an attitude for the mission
·        tithing as our expression that HE was God, and we are not!
I learned that in our home because that was Mom and Dad’s mission.  And I saw that worked-out in a hundred ways, as they carved out ways to be generous to family, community and the world.
But that was THEIR mission.  Later, when I was married with a family, it became my responsibility to lead our family in extravagant generosity.  I recall the first time Elizabeth and I became part of a church – the pastor came at our invitation to talk with us about the “nuts and bolts” of being a church member.  When he got to the tithe, I took a big, fearful, lack-of-faith gulp and tried to tune out that part.
Somehow, even though I was trying hard not to hear enough so I’d be accountable for this “pick up the tools of tithing and extravagant generosity” part, God got through to me, and I’m so glad he did.  As Elizabeth and I have tried to be extravagantly generous and faithful in the mission to which God has called us, we have been blessed beyond measure.
Invitation to Extravagance
Perhaps the greatest illustrations of extravagance in generosity are these:
·        The Widow’s Mite – You would recall that this woman, poorest of the poor, came to church one day.  Jesus said her offering was only two “mites” – such a small amount of money, we have no comparison.  Yet Jesus said she gave out of her need…her poverty…and that made her offering more than a ton of gold from excess.
·        The Alabaster Box – Another woman came to Jesus and made a gift of precious ointment; the cost of which was an average working man’s wages for a whole year.  This anointing could not be described as anything but extravagant!
·        The Cross – God is never outdone in the giving department.  It is one thing to give in church like the widow, or to a great prophet/teacher like the woman with the ointment…but to give the gift of a redeemer to a world full of sinners – and when that gift is your own innocent son – this is generosity of the highest extravagance.

How to Respond to Such Extravagance
How shall we respond?  If you are sensing in your own heart that you should do something to respond to God’s extravagant generosity, let me tell you how you can respond, by way of a fairly well-known story.  The offering was being taken in church.  As the ushers passed the plates, one small boy, obviously from a poor family stopped an usher and asked him to put the plate on the floor.  The boy then stepped into the plate.  It was understood – the boy was giving himself to God; he was responding.
What if I have big fear and small faith?  What if I’m afraid or life has just beaten me up so much I just don’t know if I can do it?  There’s a precious story about Henry, a farmer and his milk cow, Beadie.  It’s way past milking time, and Beadie is exceedingly ready to be relieved of her burden.  Henry had an awful day chasing strays, mending broken fences and seeing the old tractor die for the last time.  Late in the afternoon he got caught in the rain for two hours getting another animal unstuck from a tight place.  As Henry dragged himself into the barn, he took one look at Beadie and sat down, totally exhausted.  Beadie moved over toward Henry and nudged him.  With tired eyes the old farmer stared at his milk cow and said, “Beadie, girl, I just can’t move another muscle”.  Beadie looked at Henry and said, “That’s alright, dear, I’ve got this one…you just grab on; I’ll jump up and down till we’re done!”
Don’t be fearful or lacking in faith to begin with God.  You just hold on to Him.  Give yourself to Him like you’re stepping in an offering plate, and He’ll show you your mission…and there will be a way.  He makes the way! 
Father, be our way.  Some travel this journey with so little faith.  Our fears stop us short of your glory; help us to find the joy of extravagant generosity.  In the name of the Father, Because of the Son, Cooperating with the Spirit…Amen!

[1] God is No Fool, 1969, Abindgon Press.
[2] "C.S. Lewis." Gledhill Enterprises, 2011. 6 January. 2011.
[3] Philippians 4:19
[4] Robert Schnase quoting John Wesley (The Use of Money, 1744), Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2007), 111.
[5] Ibid., 106
[6] Ibid., 116

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