Sunday, January 17, 2010

(Stewardship) Extravagant Generosity - To Possess Loosely Matthew 6:25-34 and Matthew 6:19-24

Last week we began our annual focus upon stewardship. And our theme for this year is an expansion of the last practice from the Methodist Way - Extravagant Generosity. God calls us to be faithful stewards, no matter our circumstances and to be as generous with others as He has been with us. So our focus is looking at steps we can take in our lives to help us get towards being more extravagantly generous: to live responsibly, to possess loosely and share gratefully. Last week we looked at the parable of the talents to learn how to live responsibly, realizing that God is the owner, that our job is faithful management and that a day of accountability is coming.

Growing up my family, financially, was blessed. While we were not rich we had enough to live comfortably. My brother and I were involved in a whole slew of activities and my parents were always able to provide the cleats, bats, balls, running shoes, letter jackets, and even classic cars when my brother and I both earned our Eagle Awards by age 16. We were always able to go on a two week vacation every year; but all of that was because we were blessed. As a family, my parents tithed off their salaries and my brother and I off any money we earned babysitting, doing yard work or whatever, we tithed. Well when I turned 21 it came time for me to move out. Living the way I had for most of my life was something that I had gotten used to. But what I did not fully realize that when I left the comfy confines of my parent's home I also left behind their salaries. I also should have left behind my lifestyle…but that did not happen. Whatever I wanted or felt I needed, I bought….on credit. It was not long before I had huge credit card debts and no idea about how I was going to pay it off.

I was very worried about how I was going to make ends meet. I had purposely waited to move out so I could save some money and not have to admit failure and move home. However, there I was broke, in debt, and worried. I was also stressed because I was not tithing either and I had grown up being taught by my great-grandmother, grandmother, grandfather, and parents that tithing was not an option, it was what you did. But there was no way I could give up one red cent if I was going to be able to pay all my bills. Praying to God and letting my parents know the situation I was in was not an option…I was not going to admit failure. One day when I got home from work and listened to an answering machine full of creditors that I fell to my knees and told God that I gave up. I failed. I could not do this anymore. I needed God's help. I immediately felt a sense of peace and began to look at what I could change to get my finances…and my stress, under control.

Jesus Tells Us Not To Obsess Over Things (Matthew 6:25-34)
How many of you are worried this morning? How many of you are anxious about something? Statistics show that between 20-30 percent of all Americans will live today under significant stress, worrying about marriages, children, jobs, mortgages, health, grades, friends or a host of other issues. Is it possible to be “worry free”? Not likely. But it is entirely possible to become less dominated by our fears and more motivated by our faith.

Contrary to popular belief, our culture has not invented stress and worrying about the circumstances of our lives. Even 2000 years ago in Galilee, people were often worried about their material possessions, often to the exclusion of concern for God or neighbor. And so Jesus had a lot to say about our priorities and how to deal with worry and the sort of anxiety that takes the joy out of life. Perhaps better known than any other word on this subject is our passages from Matthew this morning, part of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus questions why we worry about what we will eat and drink, about our bodies and what we will we wear. He says our lives are about more than food, and our bodies are about more than clothes. And then he gives us two wonderful examples from creation of how much God loves and cares for what he has created. The birds of the air – they are fed, even the littlest tiny bird is taken care of by God. The lilies of the field – the grass itself is beautifully clothed, and it doesn’t even have a long life span. We are certainly more valuable to God than the birds and the grass – for after all God sent his only Son into the world to die that we might have life with him.

God knows our needs. Scripture tells us that he’s our Creator and knows every hair on our heads, so certainly he knows what we need. But he doesn’t want us to be consumed with worry in trying to work them out for ourselves. Because all the worrying in the world can’t change our circumstances or as Jesus puts it, add a single hour to our lives (v. 27). God’s plan? – for us as believers to possess things loosely and to seek God’s kingdom first. In return, He promises to see to the needs of our lives.

We Let Go By Shifting Focus – Temporal vs Eternal (Matthew 6:19-24)
Most of us can probably agree in theory that God is the giver of every perfect gift and that everything we have is because of God’s generosity in our lives. However, it’s the practice of this that causes a problem for many. That’s because if you love things and have an inordinate desire to have them, it can weigh you down and impede your spiritual progress. So we need to be liberated from our need for things; to possess them loosely. And we first let go by shifting focus – from the temporal to the eternal.

Jesus made this clear when he said: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” In other words, wherever your focus is, that’s what becomes the important priority in your life. The lyrics of an old gospel song help bring the point home to us - “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ thru. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.”

This world is not our home. It is temporary and so is all of the stuff we have. We can’t take any of it with us. But we certainly can invest our monetary, material and personal resources in a way that will outlive us and have eternal significance. God is not opposed to our enjoying His blessings upon us. It’s not as if God is leaning over the balcony of heaven waiting for us to enjoy something so that He can say, “Cut that out!” No, the Lord is pleased when His children find pleasure in what He has given. However, our attachment should be to Him and not to the things themselves.

A Practice Designed to Help – Tithing
One practice designed to help us possess things loosely and make the switch from a temporal perspective to an eternal one is the practice of tithing; giving a tenth of all one makes to God. Tithing helps reprioritizes lives and helps people distinguish what is lasting, eternal and of infinite value from what is temporary, illusory and untrustworthy. Instead of giving God the leftovers at the end of the month, tithing is a spiritual discipline that puts God first. It’s a practical way of saying, “God really is Lord of our lives, and we do not give into society’s expectations, our possessions, or our appetites.”

The practice of tithing goes all the way back to Abraham, who after defeating a pagan army, gave God a tenth of everything (Gen. 14:18-20). Later the people of Israel were given the law and instructed that “a tithe of everything…belongs to the Lord” (Leviticus 27:30). It didn’t become His when it was given – remember we already established that everything belongs to God and we are just the managers. So not to tithe, not to give, was to rob God of what was rightfully His and rob ourselves of a blessing in the process.

Tithing is God’s most basic financial plan and it cannot be improved upon. Biblically understood and practiced, tithing is human response to divine grace. We give to God because he has already given to us. We bless God because he has already blessed us. He is no poorer if we fail to tithe, but we are the ones who are impoverished. He is no richer if we tithe, but we are enriched. But we do not give in order to get; we give because we have received. Tithing takes enormous trust in God and the practice of tithing strengthens faith.

It took me many years but I eventually got my finances back under control. I quit buying the things I did not need, I quit eating out as much, and I got some great financial advice. It was not long after this experience that Debbie and I got engaged. Now I had to think about not only providing for myself and keeping myself out of debt but I had to do my part to make sure Debbie and I would be okay financially. We both grew up in homes where tithing was practiced and when we got married we decided to do the same. We had both witnessed numerous occasions in our own families where God had provided in difficult circumstances when our parents had been faithfully giving. That didn’t mean it is always easy for us. For the majority of married life we lived on one income – I was working while Debbie was in seminary and Debbie worked while I was in seminary. There have been many times when we have struggled financially. I remember one very pivotal moment that helped erase any doubt in my mind about whether or not we should tithe. Debbie was nearing the end of seminary and had to write a check as a deposit to hold an internship spot as a hospital chaplain. She needed the internship to graduate and we didn’t have the money for the deposit. She called me at work and asked what we should do and I told her write the check we will figure out a way. I then told God here it is… I have no money, I gave you all I had, and you better take care of us because I do not know what else to do. Debbie wrote the check knowing it would bounce and drove the whole way home praying about how to come up with the money. When she opened up the mail at home she found a card from my Aunt Doris, she is really my grandfather's sister, and she is a women that I had probably spoken to twice in my entire life for a grand total of about 4 minutes. Her letter said that she had come into some extra money and felt that God was telling her that it was not for her but that she should give it away. She began thinking and remembered that her brother's grandson had just gotten married and was living with his wife in Kentucky. Inside that letter was a money order for $200, the exact amount of the check that Debbie had written just an hour earlier. She also told us that if we would be okay with it, she would send us a check for that amount for the next nine months. Not only had God taken care of us, but God put this plan and this letter in place before we even knew we had a need. He provided that way. We've still had our ups and downs over the years with our finances, but every time we have been down God has never, never failed to provide. I could stand up and tell you story after story after story of his faithfulness. And because of that we have never missed an opportunity to invest a minimum of 10% of our income in God’s kingdom. I could never in good conscience stand up here and ask you to do something that I’m not willing to do myself.

God Says Put Him to the Test
It’s easy to understand at times the idea of possessing things loosely, to think about the principles of giving and the reasons that we should tithe. But we often find it hard to give and put the things we understand into practice. And that’s because we’re scared. Stewardship ultimately comes down to a question of faith: “CAN WE REALLY TRUST GOD TO TAKE CARE OF US?” It would seem that Jesus’ answer for us in the Gospel of Matthew is absolutely yes. That’s certainly been mine experience over the years.

For those of you who may have never taken that step before and feel like it’s an impossible stretch, did you know that this is one area of your life where God says you can put Him to the test? We find this in Malachi 3:10, where God says, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse that there may be food in my house. Test me in this and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.”

So let us all take the leap of faith and learn to possess things loosely and put on that eternal perspective with the practice of tithing. For what you will find is that God is faithful to catch you and care for all you need.

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