We Give Thanks
A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time, October 16, 2011
1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10 Matthew 22: 15-22
Giving is the nature of God. From the moment God chose for there to be something rather than nothing, God has been trying to share with all of creation the goodness that is God – to give God’s very life to us. But from the Garden to the golden calf, from Jeremiah’s “Woe to you” to Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, from the psalmist’s cry “Have mercy on me” to Jesus cry from the cross “Father forgive them,” our Bible testifies that we (humankind) have resisted the fullness of God’s gift, preferring to own life on our own terms, the secure our own good, and to shape life to our own advantage.
And so in time, God gave us Jesus, in whom we see the giver, the gift and a life lived in thanksgiving, all rolled in one. We participate in this life, his life, when we come to the table: we willingly receive the goodness that God is always and everywhere trying to give; we share in Christ’s life of thanksgiving, and with God working in us, we become God’s generous and hospitable people giving ourselves in service to the world.
One of my favorite definitions of Christian stewardship is that “stewardship is the re-enactment of Christ’s life in Christ’s people.” (T.A. Kantonen, 1956). Stewardship is the re-enactment of Christ’s life in Christ’s people. We give of ourselves, of our time, talents, finances and influence, because giving is the nature of God, and God is alive in us. Giving is what this life looks like.
I want to outline three principles of financial stewardship this morning, and ask you to keep them in mind as the Stewardship Team reaches out to you in the coming weeks with our vision for this congregation’s future and as we ask for your financial commitment for 2012.
First of all, financial stewardship is an act of worship.
I mean this, of course, in the sense that each time we gather in worship we have the opportunity to give of ourselves, to recommit ourselves to God and God’s kingdom, to join with others in the hard work of transforming a fearful and broken world with God’s justice and peace. We have a whole section of worship service, from the announcements about our common life to our prayers for ourselves, our community and our world that we call “Responding to God’s Word.” Our response to hearing God’s Word is our central act of worship. This includes the weekly placing our gifts and tithes into the plate as an expression of our financial commitment to the ministry and mission of this particular congregation and to our mission partners around the world.
In our first reading today we hear the apostle Paul addressing the assembly in Thessalonica, an intimate letter which we will hear more about next week. Paul’s love for this congregation is manifest. “We always give thanks to God for all of you” he writes, “for we know, sisters and brothers beloved of God, that God has chosen you.” Paul knows this because of the example they have set for believers everywhere. As Lynn pointed out in the children’s message – leading by example is powerful.
My earliest memories of church involve watching my parents participate in worship, my father singing in the choir and my mother playing the organ. As I grew I watched them put their offering in the plate each week, and in church school I received my own offering envelopes into which I put the quarters or dollar bills my parents gave me. These were collected in a small wicker basket passed around at the beginning of class.
When I was a child, though the national Presbyterian Church officially welcomed all baptized children to participate in the Lord’s Supper, my congregation still held to the much older practice of withholding communion until young people were confirmed. So on communion Sundays, when the congregation partook of the mysteries of our faith, I participated by placing canned goods by the front door of our house which my sisters and I would carry to worship and deposit in a box marked “Jones’ Center,” our local food pantry. Though I was not welcomed to the table, the connection between receiving sacramental food and giving daily bread was a powerful lesson.
My congregation also regularly welcomed mission partners from around the world. The occasion of my first “men’s breakfast” was the result of an invitation to hear a visiting missionary from Nicaragua. That breakfast is my first memory of a “free-will offering,” a spontaneous offering of Christian charity to support community in another part of the world. By high school I was spending an evening each month with my mother, offering hospitality to homeless men in a moving, emergency shelter program. Volunteers like my mom and I spent the night with the men; we prepared breakfast in the morning and sent them out with a sack lunch for the day ahead.
I said at the beginning of the sermon that giving is the nature of God. Well, giving thanks is the nature of God’s people. We are people shaped by the Eucharist, our table fellowship with God, one another and all creation. Eucharist comes from the Greek word, eucharistomen, which means “we give thanks” or “Let us give thanks.” We are a thanks-giving people. When I was confirmed in the eighth grade, I said that I knew God loved me, that I was shaped by God’s love, because what I wanted most to do with my life was to give – to give as I had been given to, by my family, my church, and, as I was just beginning to understand, by my God. As we will sing shortly: “Gifted by you, we turn to you, lifting up ourselves in praise.” Giving is an act of worship.
The second principle I want you to keep I mind in the coming weeks is that if financial stewardship is first of all an act of worship, it is also an expression of faith.
In our second reading today we see the faith of Jesus contrasted with that of the religious leaders of the day. The Pharisees and Herodians come to Jesus with a question, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God is accordance with truth, and show deference to know one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what do you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” We are told that Jesus was aware of their malice, which doesn’t require any son-of-God special sense: the Herodians and Pharisees had nothing in common at all; to see them in league together would raise anyone’s suspicions. But their dislike of each other is overcome only by their dislike of Jesus. So Jesus asks the authorities for a coin of the realm, which they quickly produce.
Now it is important to note that this encounter takes place within the confines of the temple, because Jewish law prohibited Roman coins within the Temple precincts (hence the necessity of the moneychangers). When one of the Pharisees produces the denarius, he defied Hebrew law. He was, accordingly, exposed as the hypocrite Jesus has just called the lot of them. But to finish off this very public humiliation, Jesus asks them to name the image on the coin. It is the image of the emperor, he is told. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” he replies, and all are amazed. 
As well they should have been. While the details of this encounter are themselves fascinating, Jesus deftly avoiding a trap which was set for him by turning the tables on the leaders, his reply evokes the central conviction of our scripture that everything is God’s. “All things come from you, and of your own have we given you,” says the Chronicler (1 Chronicles, 29:14). “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it; the world, and those who live in it” says the Psalmist (24:1). Or again, ‘Know that the Lord is God, it is he who made us, we are his” (Psalm 100:3). All we have, and all we are, belong to God, to be used for God’s good purposes, to serve God’s people. “What we have is not our own but God’s loan to us,” to use for the common good. Or as the hymn puts it,
We give thee but thy own,
Whate’er the gift may be;
All that we have is thine alone,
A trust, O Lord from thee.
Financial stewardship is an expression of faith because it asks us to place our whole trust in God to provide for us and for God’s people, by placing ourselves and all we have in God’s hands. It is not just our gifts to the church, though they are important, but our whole manner of life: our vocation, our consumer choices, our decisions about how we spend our time. Like manna in the wilderness, like bread multiplied on a hillside, God’s people trust that God intends abundance where we can only see scarcity; that God intends our lives to be lived together and not on our own; that God intends a just distribution where we grasp and hold tight, and look askance at those who would ask for anything. Sharing all that we have and are, putting it at the disposal of our community, is a way of turning away from ourselves and opening ourselves to others. And in so doing we are transformed. Financial stewardship is an act of trust; it is an expression of faith.
Finally, if financial stewardship is an act of worship and an expression of our faith, it is also a spiritual discipline.
Biblically, the basis of financial stewardship is the tithe, the giving of ten percent, the best ten percent, the first ten percent to God. It is an offering of “first fruits.” Several of you have told me that you have had the experience of watching a parent cash a paycheck and then place the first dollars in an offering envelope for the church. Or receiving an unexpected gift and immediately giving a proportion of it away. Such disciplined giving practices help us establish our priorities and live by them. I have written in our church newsletter about my own practice of tithing, so I will not repeat myself here except to say that our family budget is based on what is left after we make our commitment to God’s work in our church. Such practices set examples for the next generation to follow (our first principle of stewardship). And they reflect our trust in God’s goodness (our second principle). But they also help us make visible Jesus teaching “Where your treasure is, there your heart is also.”
Taking care of self first and others second will always shortchange the others. Intentional, proportional giving, at least sets our families financial practices in the right direction. The testimony of your Stewardship Team, which I hope you will all hear, is that they have never regretted giving money away, especially when it was done sacrificially, and that resources given away always seem to return when they are needed the most.
I want to end with another story from my own adolescence. Perhaps one of the most lasting impressions about congregational life came from the year that the church I grew up in used the Pony Express as a way of eliciting financial commitments for the following year. If you have never heard of this program, the Pony Express was a stewardship gimmick that placed all of the stewardship materials (budgets, pledge cards, visions for future ministry) in a “leather-textured” bag shaped like a horse’s saddle bag. Materials for about a dozen families were placed inside each bag, with the names of each family written on the outside. The saddle bags were then delivered to the first family on each list by the Stewardship Team, who encouraged the family to consider their commitment to the congregation, pray about it, fill out their pledge card and place it back in the bag. That family was then to repeat the process, delivering the bag to the next family on the list and making a similar appeal.
You see the problems already, don’t you? The entire stewardship campaign depended on every member of the congregation not only to deliver the materials (half the congregation never did get them) but to make a personal appeal for financial generosity, whether or not they had made such a commitment themselves.
What I remember is the saddle bag coming to our house. No stewardship appeal was made, just a hand-off after worship on Sunday. No family discussion took place about how much or by what principles we were going to give. The bag just sat there on the kitchen counter, until it was set on top of the microwave and thus out of sight. When my parents finally did fill out the pledge card, we had trouble finding the time to visit the home of the next person on the list, who we did not know well, and eventually simply returned the bag to the church. But what I remember vividly is my anxiety throughout the process that the success both of the stewardship campaign and the future of the church depended on families like ours. What would happen, I thought, if everyone in the church was making their decisions the way we were?
This week, if you are a member or regular friend of this congregation, you will receive an envelope of stewardship material from the Stewardship Team with an invitation to consider your financial commitment for 2012. I encourage you, as you study the information and consider your resources, to remember: financial stewardship is an act of worship, an expression of faith, and a spiritual discipline. And it is life-transforming.
Giving is the nature of God. From the moment God chose for there to be something rather than nothing, God has been trying to share with all of creation the goodness that is God – to give God’s very life to us. We enjoy this life in us, when we too, become generous with our lives. So let us stand and proclaim together, transforming power of God, as we sing, “God Whose Giving Knows No Ending.”
God whose giving knows no ending, from Your rich and endless store,
Nature’s wonder, Jesus’ wisdom, Costly cross, grave’s shattered door:
Gifted by You, we turn to You, offering up ourselves in praise;
Thankful songs shall rise forever, gracious donor of our days.
Skills and time are ours for pressing toward the goals of Christ, Your Son:
All at peace in health and freedom, races joined, the church made one.
Now direct our daily labor, lest we strive for self alone;
Born with talents, make us servants, fit to answer at Your throne.
Treasure too You have entrusted, gain through powers Your grace conferred;
Ours to use for home and kindred, and to spread the gospel Word.
Open wide our hands in sharing, as we heed Christ’s ageless call,
Healing, teaching, and reclaiming, serving You by loving all.
 David Mosser, The Stewardship Companion: Lectionary Resources for Preaching. WJK Press, 2007.
 This schema is developed, though in a very different way, by Mark Allan Powell in Giving to God: The Bible’s Good News about Living a Generous Life, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006.