I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Before I begin today’s sermon, I want to pause and recognize a small milestone in our relationship with one another: Today’s sermon is the 100th sermon that I’ve had the honor and privilege to preach to you. 100 Sermons is not a whole lot in the life-span of a minister (my hope is to preach at least 1,000 sermons to you before I’m done!). It’s even less in the lifespan of a church as long lived as ours (Assuming there has been one sermon each week since we started, that’s at least 6,864).
Still, for a new pastor, 100 seems like a lot. I preached my first sermon here four years ago in 2010, as part of my internship while I was still in seminary. That sermon was on Amos chapter 7, and was titled “I am no prophet.” My favorite sermon so far was in November of 2012, called “David’s Sacrifice: Counting the Cost.” The sermon that received the most positive feedback from you was in March of 2014, called “Job’s Wife: Bless God and Die.” I’m proud of many of those sermons, and I’m sure just as many were complete duds, although you have been gracious enough not to point those out to me! All told, I’ve preached 190,431 words, which is slightly higher than the word count in John Steinbeck’s novel, Grapes of Wrath (and hopefully slightly more uplifting!).
I say all of this not to brag, but rather to say thank you. Thank you for listening; thank you for encouraging me; thank you for adding your own voices, music, and responses; most of all thank you for allowing me to proclaim God’s word to you every week, for letting me tell and retell the story I love, to the people I love, in the city that I love. 100 down…900 more to go!
According to the bulletin, today’s sermon is on generosity. That’s because I really thought I was preaching on the spiritual gift of generosity mentioned in Romans 12:8. So you can imagine my surprise when I begin to study the scripture passage and suddenly realize that the word “generosity” doesn’t appear anywhere in this passage!
Yes, I realize that the NRSV translation we’ve been using has the word generosity, as do the NIV and a few other modern translations. But none of the older translations (King James, Wycliffe, Geneva) use the word, and in this case, they seem to be the more accurate translations. The key word in question here is the Greek word ἁπλότητι (haplotati). Strong’s dictionary of Biblical Greek defines the word as “simplicity, sincerity, or purity.” Literally, “not folded” like a piece of unfolded cloth that has no wrinkles, no complexity. Hold onto that thought, we’ll come back to it later.
But first, why is it that the newer translations get it wrong? Usually it’s the other way around―newer translations have access to better resources and scholarship. But, in our era of mass-marketing the bible in Christian bookstores, they often make sacrifices in the name of “readability,” or trying to make the text “flow” better. I think this is one of those places. The three gifts that immediately precede this one have that kind of flowing repetition, starting in verse 7: “ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in…well whatever word goes here should be somehow related to giving, so “generosity.” It makes sense.
But not all the gifts in our lists follow that pattern. Notably, the first gift, “prophecy” (which is proclaiming the good news) is connected to faith. Next week’s gift―leadership―is connected to diligence (although there are some translation issues there, too), and the final gift, compassion, is connected to cheerfulness. I think this week’s gift―giving―is more like these last two: The gift is connected to a seemingly unrelated attribute, and part of the challenge is figuring out the connection between the two.
Unless you’re joining us for the first time today, by now you’ve already caught on to the fact that all of the spiritual gifts are available for all of us; they are not special abilities or superpowers possessed by a few. Nor are they something God gives to us―rather they are what we give to God, and to God’s people through the ministries of the church.
So today’s sermon is not about generosity, but it is about giving. And I do have one story about giving: There was a new pastor, who, after going through the church’s giving records noticed that a certain wealthy businessman in his congregation had been a member for over 30 years, but had never once made a financial contribution to the church. So the pastor went to visit him, and after they were done with small talk, the pastor made exactly this point. To which the wealthy businessman responded:
“Did the church records also tell you that my mother is ill, with extremely expensive medical bills? Or that my brother is blind and unemployed? Or that my sister’s husband died, leaving her broke with four kids?” By this point, the pastor felt lower than dirt. He began to stammer out an apology to the church member, but the man cut him off, saying, “So, if I don’t give any of them any money, what makes you think I would give any to the church?”
I want to make an important clarification here, in keeping with Paul’s teaching in this passage which downplays the individual and elevates the community, the body of Christ. We do not give TO the church. We ARE the church, and we give to each other, and to our community. That’s an important distinction. I think that too often, we tend to see our relationship with our church in the same way we see our relationship with Wal-Mart, or UTEP, or the dentist. We give the church money, and in return, we get spiritual goods and services for ourselves and our families. That’s not giving, that’s buying, and this church isn’t for sale.
A healthier way to look at giving and the church is this: We are a team, working toward a common goal. We pool our resources, our finances, our time, our talents, all according to our various abilities, and together we give a gift to El Paso and to the world. That gift is First Presbyterian Church. That gift is the good news of the gospel. That gift is Jesus Christ.
So then HOW do we give? Apparently not generously (I never imagined myself saying that in a sermon about giving!). According to Romans 12:8, in its original meaning, we are to give simply, sincerly, purely, like an unfolded, uncomplicated piece of cloth.
The more I think about it, the more I like this notion. Generosity is good, but in our culture, it tends to be associated with the quantity of the gift. When a billionaire donates millions of dollars to a charity, we talk about what a generous gift has been made, even though it often amounts to only a tiny fraction of his or her wealth. On the other hand, smaller, more consistent gifts given at great sacrifice over a lifetime often go unnoticed, and are rarely labeled generous. Generous sounds big. It sounds hard.
Simple on the other hand, sounds like something you or I could do. Attainable, reachable. It puts the emphasis back on quality of giving, rather than quantity. It frees us to focus on the act of giving itself, rather than the size or shape of the gift. Simple is good. But sometimes, in our complicated, complex lives, the simple approach is not the most obvious or intuitive. How do we actually go about giving with simplicity? I’d like to share with you how we can do that in just 23 simple steps. Just kidding, I only have three.
1. Be consistent. The simplest things in life are the things we do over and over again on a regular, consistent, routine basis. Like breathing. It’s simple. It’s a reflex. You don’t have to think about it, you just do it. Big, once-in-a-lifetime gifts get all the attention, but I would much rather have smaller, consistent gifts over the course of a lifetime. Those kinds of gifts are what make the church go ’round, and perhaps the world, too. So if it’s a gift of your time, schedule it. If it’s a gift of your talent, schedule it. If it’s a financial gift (and you are as schedule-challenged as I am) set up an automatic payment. Whatever you do, do it consistently, until it becomes a simple, reflexive habit.
2. No strings attached. Strings over-complicate things. Whether it’s a gift to the church or a Christmas present to a family member, don’t give expecting something in return. Remember: That’s not giving, that’s buying. If you want the church to act a certain way or treat you a certain way because of your gift…try going to Wal-Mart instead: You’ll get better results. A simple gift is one that is forgotten as soon as it is given. If you find yourself fretting about how your gift is or isn’t being used, or constantly checking up on the person you gave it to, that’s a good sign that you never really gave it away at all…you’re still holding on to the gift.
3. Follow your heart. Jesus says in Matthew 6:21 that “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” That teaching was a warning not to store up treasures on earth. But instead of letting your treasure dictate where your heart is, try letting your heart dictate where your treasure goes. In other words, give your time, your talent, your treasure to the things you truly love. Keep it simple. Dare I even say this? If you don’t absolutely love First Presbyterian Church…then don’t give us a dime or a minute! Because if you’re giving out of guilt, shame, fear, peer pressure, coercion, or any other less than sincere motive, you’ll just be resentful in the end. That won’t help you, and it won’t help us. We’ll be ok. And you’ll be a lot happier giving to something you’re passionate about. But if you love this church, if you love this family, and if you love the mission that God has called us to in this community…then follow your heart.
One final comment, and then I’ll close with a poem. Earlier we focused on the Greek word ἁπλότητι, which means simplicity, and explains how we are to give. But the word right before it is from the Greek word μεταδίδωμι. The word δίδωμι does actually mean “give,” but there’s an interesting prefix attached to it: μετα-δίδωμι. Again, Strong’s dictionary of biblical Greek:
Metá (a preposition) – properly, with (“after with”), implying “change afterward” (i.e. what results after the activity). As an active “with,” (metá) looks towards the after-effect (change, result) which is only defined by the context.
The implication here is that this kind of giving, this spiritual gift, has an impact; it creates a change, not just in the person receiving the gift, but the person giving the gift as well. Giving transforms us and shapes us; it draws us closer to God the Father and Creator, who gives us everything; to the Holy Spirit who gives us comfort and encouragement, and to Jesus the Son, who gave us his life that we might live…fully, simply, eternally.
Joseph Brackett was a man shaped and transformed by God’s love, and he knew a thing or two about giving, and simplicity. These are his words:
‘Tis the gift to be simple,
’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.