6/4/17: The Scandal of Giving, 1 Corinthians 12:3-13
The Scandal of Giving
Last in the series: Scandalous Good News
First Lesson: Acts 2:1-13
Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
Rev. Scott Dickison
Over this season of Easter, as we’ve continued to meditate upon the mystery of resurrection and ask what it means for us today, we’ve done so in the sermons each week under the theme of “Scandalous Good News.”
The story of the resurrection, after all, is scandalous. A man being raised from the dead, appearing to his followers and then being taken up into heaven? Scandalous. And the whole gospel message that Jesus both taught and lived, that the Kingdom of God is at hand, a world where the first become last and the last first; where poverty is a kind of wealth and weakness is suddenly a strength. A world where light is stronger than darkness, life is behind death and love always wins in the end—this is all scandalous. It offends our sensibilities, what we’re told is true and not true about the world, about other people. It's all scandalous.
And it all points to the larger truth that has a direct impact on how we live our lives and individuals but also should shape a common life together as a church, which is the resurrection promise that if Christ has truly been raised from the dead, then all things are possible. That if death no longer has the final say, then in the end we having nothing more to fear. We can truly live with our hearts, our minds, and our hands open. We’re free to live lives guided not by competition but compassion. Not judgement but mercy. And, finally this morning, not scarcity but abundance; because there’s nothing more scandalous you can do in this world than to give generously of your money.
And this has always been true. This is one of the ways the ancient world is not so different from the world today. What’s the more scandalous of Jesus’ commandments, when he told the crowd at the sermon on the mount to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them, or when he told the rich young man to give away all his possession and follow? If given the choice between the two I think most of us would find our heart strangely warmed toward our enemies. You, know, maybe they aren’t so bad after all! On second thought, I can see where she’s coming from. Who am I to judge, after all?
Generosity—true generosity, which means generosity that costs us something—has always been scandalous, because it cuts against the prevailing fear of scarcity, this notion that we never have enough, that we might need more down the road, that we’re in constant competition for resources and business and customers and worshippers and respect and love. The fear the tells us we need to hold on tightly to what we have and always be on the lookout for ways we can get more. Generosity throws this up in the air by suggesting there’s an alternative way of living that’s motivated not by fear of not having enough, but trust that God will provide. And even more, recognizing how God already has provided; seeing all that we have and seeing it as a gift from God, given to us to do good with—understanding that we’re instruments of God’s blessing int the world. You see, generosity is rooted in a deep faith that God will provide, and the way in which God will provide is through each of us for each other.
This kind of generosity has always been one of the great scandals of life in Christian community. In the book of Acts, the defining feature of this new community that would be called the church was their sharing of resources. “All who believed were together,” it says, “and had all things in common; they would share their possession and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
It was the hallmark of the early church, how they were known in the ancient world. And it should come as no surprise that it was one of the things that raised suspicions of the surrounding culture and authorities. It’s a scandal to live in this way. It’s strange to those on the outside. But this was how the early church saw to it to live resurrected lives together.
And it wasn’t easy, mind you. They routinely fell short—in fact, no practice in the early church is written about more in the letters of Paul than the sharing of resources and the giving of money in support of the church. Churches have always struggling with how best to be faithful to Christ and each other with their finances. And it’s part and parcel with his image of the church as a body, that we know so well, where Christ is the head and we all have our part. Paul says this is what makes the church the church: that all are valued and celebrated for the gifts they bring, but also that we belong to each other. We all commit to providing for each other. For Paul, being faithful to each other and our shared mission and ministry as the church is the most immediate way we’re called to be faithful to Jesus. It’s the first way we live out our mission of living out the Kingdom of God here on earth: by sustaining the church together. Having the church be a visible witness to this scandalous gospel we claim has changed us and has the power to change the world.
So let’s talk about our finances here at the church. As you know, over the past few years we’ve been recalibrating our budget to bring it more in line with our needs as a church, and also the wishes of the congregation expressed in our visioning process.
Our budget and giving have both grown each of these last few years, but not at the same pace. While giving to our budget last year was the highest since 2010, and among the highest ever, we still ended with a shortfall of about $22,000. Even so, last October our congregation approved a budget increase for this year of around $34,000, or 4.8%.
Why did we do this? Well, first of all know that it this decision wasn’t made lightly. It was a direct result of the visioning process, discussed in multiple committees and at the church budget conference. But it was a decision we felt compelled to make because it was the right thing to do. The increases were mostly due to the addition of a benefits package for the staff, so that we could offer health insurance and retirement benefits for the first time since we left the SBC program decades ago. It was one way that you, we, the congregation decided to live out our shared life together, by providing for our ministers in this way.
But even though we agreed this increase was the right thing to do, there was some risk involved—that’s always true in living a life of faith. Would we fail to meet expenses again? By how much? What hard decisions would we have to make then? The rough numbers suggest that in order to meet our expenses this year, we will need to raise around $60,000 more this year than we did last year. Not a small number, but not an unachievable goal either.
Our Stewardship and Finance Committees have discussed ways to emphasize stewardship in worship and education this year. But we’ve also discussed a way to challenge the congregation to meet this need of an additional $60,000 toward the budget this year. Here’s the plan:
- We have roughly 200 “givers” as a congregation, either families or individuals that give to the church.
- If each of us were to contribute an additional $300 over what we gave last year to the budget, it would total $60,000
- This would break down to $50 a month starting in July.
That’s it. Isn’t it remarkable what small gifts, added together, can do? We can call it the “One Body, Many Members” campaign.
Of course, some won’t be able to do this, and that's okay. But we’re hoping some can do more, perhaps much more. The important thing is that we all do what we can—that we use the gifts God has given us to live out our common mission together. I want you to know we pitched this plan to our deacons and church council last week and as of today they have already pledged over $12,000.
And I realize this kind of talk is awkward. We’re like most churches, and really, most people, in that we have a hard time talking about money. It’s very intimate and feels invasive, it feels very close. But that’s exactly why we have to do it. Because when we talk about money, we talk about what’s most important to us. Where your treasure is, Jesus says, there your heart will be also. And for some, these conversations are altogether new; not all of us have grown up giving regularly to a church. And many of us whose parents did, didn’t talk much about it. Giving in this way doesn't come naturally. In fact, at times it cuts against some of our deepest impulses and insecurities: will there be enough? Can we afford it? Will others help us share the load? Audrey and I struggle with this, too. Giving is something we've grown into.
We made our additional pledge with the church council and deacons last week, but I also want to share with you that we had a conversation last fall about what we could give this year. We were so grateful that the church would care for us and our family by providing health insurance when the market was so up in the air, and helping us put money away for retirement and our boys' education. We knew we were expecting another little one and the hospital bills would be coming, along with diapers and all the rest of what we’ve learned it takes to care for these little rascals.
But we also knew that when he or she came, this place and its people would be a big part of their life. We knew that you would love him and take care of him, and take care of us as you’ve taken care of us in the past. So we talked about it and prayed about it, and decided to up our giving.
Tithing is something that we grew into our first years of marriage, but over the last several years we've worked to make a priority. These last couple of years as we’ve increased our budget for staff benefits, of course, but before that for increases in nursery staffing, we’ve felt a special call to give more, seeing as we’ve been doing our part to keep the nursery stocked! So we’ve done our best to add a small percentage each year. Now, Audrey is a contract worker so this gets hard to plan for exactly, but we’ve done our best using tax returns and estimates for maternity leave and so forth. And I’ll tell you we choose to tithe on the gross, before taxes, to help remind us it’s not just another bill. It’s worship. It’s offering God and our church our first and our best.
And I’d like to say we haven’t even felt it. But the truth is that we have felt it. We have felt it, though not how you might expect.
We’ve felt it, and it feels good.
It feels good to contribute to a place that blesses us in so many ways. You are our community, our friends. Our home away from home. Our surrogate grandparents and great-grandparents. It feels good to know we’re contributing to a place and people that are important to us, that we care deeply for and know cares deeply for us. We’d only been in Macon eight months when my father died of colon cancer, and about 2 dozen of you made the 5 hour drive to Charlotte to be at the memorial service. And most of you were in church here the next day. When people ask me what my church is like here in Macon, that’s the story I tell them.
It feels good to support a church that is committed to being a vital part of the community—a church known for its support for places like Habitat for Humanity and Daybreak snd Rebuilding Macon that do important work in our community.
It feels good to support a place with a vision, and then the commitment to go through a process to refine it and then put it into practice. I’ll be the first to admit that this visioning process we’re still unpacking has been more work--and committee meetings--than I imagined. But it’s bearing fruit.
It feels good to support a church that’s truly unique in Macon—that has been given a unique mission in this community, occupying a unique place in the spiritual fabric of our city. A place known for the variety of its gifts, ranging from it’s exceptional music program—which other folks have told me is the finest in the city. Other folks besides Stanley and Marie. A place known for its children’s ministry, with the fantastic minister who writes for the local paper. But also for the way we’ve been a part of the city’s conversations about race and racism. A church that's had the courage to look more closely into our history around these things. We’ve still got plenty of work to do, but folks are noticing that we’re making an effort. It’s been humbling, and a reminder of how much this work is needed, and how little is being done, for our egg hunts and potlucks to be newsworthy. If we won’t do it, who will?
Of course, that’s not the only challenging conversation we’ve opened up. A couple of weeks ago Bonnie Chappell and Chuck Dumas sent out a beautiful letter informing the wider church of a conversationour deacons and church council have had since the first of the year on how we might be more outwardly welcoming to all people regardless of their sexuality or gender identity. Those meetings were truly remarkable; to witness people sharing their testimonies, their struggles, their fears, but to see the best in each other through it all. Trusting that we all were doing our best to live out the gospel.
The final conversation, which ended with motions to put this spirit of openness into action, took place on a few weeks back after worship. We were down in the Fellowship Hall until about 2:30, but we’d also planned our church picnic down at the river—complete with a river baptism. It was a long day of church. But that afternoon I looked around at the park and saw virtually everyone who’d stayed late for that meeting. Folks on different sides of the vote, still there. Going through the buffet line, laughing, playing, wearing their church t-shirts. Being church together, same as they would have without a vote. I felt good to be part of a church like that.
And I know conventional wisdom would say that taking on hard topics like race and sexuality is not recommended during a stewardship campaign. Some would say it’s risky or even foolish. Some might say it’s scandalous. And they’d probably be right.
But this church has decided it’s the best way we know how to live out the gospel. It’s trusted in the gospel promise that if the resurrection is true—if Christ was truly raised from the dead—then we have nothing to fear. We’re free to live lives of compassion and honesty, of joy and grace. Lives of love and generosity, trusting that the gospel we proclaim, and the Holy Spirit we claim is alive and moving among us, promises to be much more scandalous still.