Sermon on Generosity
Listen to this sermon at Generosity Sermon audio recording. You may want to skip ahead to minute six, where I am introduced. And at minute nine, my talk actually begins.
Ok, so today’s talk is about generosity. And so in preparation for the talk I did something rather risky. I went to my wife Shannon in one of those lulls of parenting. I approached at a time when I knew she could be focused and honest. And I asked her, do you think I’m a generous person?
That’s a vulnerable question. Do you think I’m a generous person? Take a moment and think how you would feel if you asked your spouse or son or daughter or parent, in a moment where they could be totally honest, whether you were a generous person. It’s risky because this other person knows you so intimately. You feel that a negative answer would reflect on your character. It might even bring up past hurts and negative experiences.
My wife and I have butt heads in some of my most selfish moments. So, I honestly expected an answer from her like “sorta, well, pretty much.” You know the kind of answer that’s neutral and then moves toward positive because of the awkwardness.
There was a pregnant pause after I asked the question. My heart sank a little into my stomach. I saw her look away and think for a moment. And then she turned and looked me in the eyes and said, “yes, I think your generous.” Phewf. My first two thoughts were, thank God for that answer and I’m never asking that again. I mean, I got the right answer so I’m going out on a high note. I’m done.
For a lot of us here today, discussing generosity is risky. Discussing it in a church context is all the more risky because of the intimacy of this space. The partners around you, know you. We pray for one another. We worship together. There’s a spiritually significant part of life that we walk together. And so it reflects on our character when we discuss generosity.
In the Spirit of acknowledging the difficulty of generosity this morning, I’d like to open today with prayer. Would you pray with me:
O Lord, the generosity of your Spirit is so easily taken for granted, How hard it is for us to see ourselves as you see us. Some of us have great material wealth because of you. Let us remember how you have raised us up. We were all once dead in our sins and transgressions but you gave us new life. We confess the difficulty of a topic like money and generosity today. I hope we are up to the task of your calling. May we have ears to hear and eyes to see. In Jesus name, Amen.
So the risk in not discussing generosity, is, I think, three things. First there are some of us who are really very generous. Some of us delight in generosity and our handling of money reflects the compassionate heart of Jesus. But when we don’t discuss generosity, we don’t share the ways in which we are generous. We don’t share our stories and disciplines of generosity.
Second, I think there are more of us who recognize greedy feelings in our hearts. For many of us, the truth about our generosity is not such a pretty thing. And we don’t want to talk about it. Our feelings and actions are wrapped up in “I should have”s and regrets and failings. There is a part of generosity that works and feels like sacrifice. And all of us struggle with the cost of sacrifice. There is no way around that cost. And I think we doubt it will be worth it. I doubt it too sometimes.
Finally, when we don’t discuss generosity we risk not seeing the truth about God. God has been so generous with us. His calling to generosity is meant to reflect his character and his great love.
In that moment when I asked my wife whether I was generous, I was thinking about a lot of things. And my mind went back to a time when I was just a boy, probably ten or eleven. My parents started giving me an allowance at an early age and along with it came a cash box. I remember being very excited to get that cash box and I immediately put everything valuable that I owned inside it. This amounted to coins, a few dollars, and some nice looking rocks I had collected. Immediately, I wanted to lock it all up and keep it tucked away. Nobody had to teach me that. As they say, it came naturally.
Maybe that sounds average to you. But it gets a little more embarrassing. Like all youth, I turned to various things for comfort when I was hurt or lonely. One of those things, was the cashbox that I kept up in my room. So literally, when my feelings were hurt, I would run upstairs to my room, take out the cash that I tucked away and count it over and over again. I can still remember sitting next to my bed, taking the ones, fives, and tens out of the cashbox and counting them. Ten, twenty, thirty, thirty-five, forty, forty-one, forty-two, forty-three. And again and again I would recount my stack of bills.
Can you imagine doing that? Why do you suppose counting my money made me feel better?
Do you have a cashbox that you turn to today? Are there dollars that you’re counting over and over again?
It’s no stretch then to say that I love money. I love it a bit too much. And you love it too. Maybe not as much as me but you’ll admit there’s something alluring about it.
I was listening to a sermon by Timothy Keller, a notable pastor at Redeemer Church in New York City. At the time he gave his sermon, he had been in ministry for nearly twenty years. And in all that time, he said no one had ever come to him and confessed greed. He’d heard lust and sloth and pride and adultery confessed. But no one ever admitted they were materialistic or greedy.
There’s something subtle about our desire for money. It’s a comfort to have it. It’s meaningful and it’s significant. Jesus knew that significance and it’s reflected plainly in his teachings. Money is one of those top-three topics that Jesus repeatedly teaches about. I think the gospels record an interesting interaction where greed catches a rich young man by surprise.
I want to look at two scriptures today that have both had a profound impact on my life and thinking. The first is a story and it occurs in each of Matthew, Mark and Luke. I’m going to present from the gospel according to Mark. This comes from chapter ten, verses seventeen through 22.
17 And as he [Jesus] was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.
19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”
21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
I love Mark’s recording of this interaction for a couple reasons. The first is how the man approaches Jesus. It says he ran up and knelt before him. There was in this man an urgency and a humility. This man knew what he wanted, eternal life, and he knew that Jesus could lead him there. My own heart connects with the character in these first two lines. The man was onto something.
My second favorite part of this narrative is in verse 21. It says that Jesus took notice of him and loved him. Wow. There is an aching in my heart to have an experience like that. I think many of us here long to be acknowledged and loved by God. This man has that experience in the flesh.
I think the gospel writer also includes this line to frame Jesus’ message to the man. Jesus doesn’t say what follows as a challenge nor as a curse to him. His command to sell everything and give it to the poor, is a loving command. It is meant as good news. But for that man he doesn’t hear good news. He is described as disheartened and sorrowful. I get the feeling of a wrenched gut for a moment. And we see in that last verse, that the source of the wrenched gut is the man’s many possessions.
We don’t know what happens next for this man. Some say he’ll find his way back to Jesus but there’s little evidence of that. Jesus could cast out demons and could heal the sick. He could even raise the dead to life. But he could not turn this man from his possessions. And it does not seem he pursued him much after. How frightening to think that we may be left to our self.
One night about seven years ago, before Shannon and I came to The River, I was studying these verses in a small group with a man named Libin. We debated long into the night how seriously we were take the message of these verses. I mean is Jesus’ invitation to give everything away to be taken literally? For hours we debated that topic and could not reach resolve. At the end we gave up and were walking home. Libin was walking a little before me and he held his head low. I called out to him, “he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions,” and Libin’s whole body slumped like the wind were knocked out of him.
Libin called me the next day and asked if we could have lunch. We met up and his first words to me were, I did it. You did what, I asked. He said, I gave everything away. What do you mean? He said, I wrote a check for my next month’s rent and the remaining balance of my savings account I gave to our support fund for missionaries. I was speechless at this point. I knew Libin wanted his money to further the church. And I knew he didn’t have a lot of money. And that made it all the harder to hear. Why? I asked. He answered, because of what you said last night. See Libin realized that he was that young man. Jesus was making an invitation to him and his heart was walking away sad. Libin felt trapped by his riches and his desires. Finally I asked, how can I help you now? He said, you can start by paying for lunch.
Libin’s story forces me to take these verses seriously. Even literally. As he continued in his job and received paychecks, I know he built his savings account back up. He bummed a lot of meals off his friends for that first month but we were glad to support him. Libin had identified greed and materialism as a heart issue. In his heart, he felt trapped and at first, Jesus invitation to him didn’t sound like good news. But by being generous, and giving all that he had away, he came to trust that Jesus’ invitation to him was an invitation to freedom and an invitation to participate in the Kingdom of God on this earth.
So is generosity good news? It wasn’t good news to the rich young man. It brought him sadness and I wonder what it does today in our hearts? Jesus invites us to be generous but generosity is costly. Were it not for generosity, I could probably have a bigger house, nicer cars, an earlier retirement, and a better career. Our material wealth is in jeopardy when we trust God with it. As C.S. Lewis describes the character of Aslan in his Narnia series, God is not safe, but he is good. God is not as tame as we would like.
For most of last year, Shannon was pregnant. And we experienced the ups and downs of our first-born child. On September 29th we welcomed Bethany Jenks into this world. The wealth in this little infant astounds me. Never have I done anything to earn as much as she is worth. There is something in us that is awestruck to look at a newborn child.
But Bethany came at a difficult time. See, I work for myself. I am a founding partner in a business that historically has done well. But on September 1st, something changed. I watched on as revenues fell and the future viability of my business came into jeopardy. It was a painful, gut wrenching, experience of powerlessness as I lost footing in my market. If ever there was a wrong time, this was it. My hours went up at work but I saw little immediate results.
Feeling panicked I cried out to God. Surely, he loves family and would care for us financially. Surely, God would be receptive to my feelings of abandon and powerlessness. I doubled-down in long hours of work and morning prayer. I wasn’t hopeful so much as I was desperate.
Repeatedly in those mornings of prayer, God brought to me the second scripture that I want to share with you today. God had to bring this repeatedly, because it felt at first so discomforting. This passage did not quickly bring solace or assurance. It is recorded in a couple of gospels, these verses come from Luke chapter twelve:
32 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.
34 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
How tenderly does Jesus start his address. “Fear not, little flock.” I imagine him as a mother hen gathering us up as little chicks. And He affirms that God is pleased to give and share with us his eternal Kingdom. We do not strive for his approval to enter. This is not climbing the corporate ladder. This is God, like family, welcoming us to a dinner table filled with delicious food.
Then we see that generosity to the needy in this life stores up a treasure in heaven. I don’t know exactly what that treasure looks like. But I know it is secured by more than the FDIC. No market collapse or great recession or identity thief can rob us of this treasure. As we break our ties to materialism now, there is a wealth that awaits us in Heaven. How we spend our money today echoes in eternity. And so that last line follows as a summary. Our heart is with what we treasure.
It was that last line that wrenched my gut. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Jesus knows that this issue of generosity is a heart-issue. It’s a soul-keeping problem. Indeed you can lose your soul if you put your heart in money. And today Jesus knows that some of us are at risk.
So I chewed on that verse again and again. And finally I wrote it on a post-it and put it before me on my desk at work. Everyday I see it saying, “For where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” At the beginning I felt scolded by God. It was like I had come to him expressing my financial need and he had turned me away with a lesson about greed. But slowly it began to sink in that he cared more about my heart and that there was a great treasure he wanted to share with me.
Generosity is the pathway to the treasures of God’s Kingdom. And how great has the treasure of our first child been. I have been generous toward Bethany with my time as I trust God with our financial needs. My business is not back to what it was before September. But God is inviting me to something greater. The invitation is to trust him, to be free from anxieties about the future and to participate in his eternal Kingdom today. Everything else will pass away. But God’s Kingdom will live on forever. What a great honor to be a partner in God’s business.
Sometimes, in the most childish of ways, I want to take back my giving. One year, around tax time, I can remember our family wanting to replace our SUV. We wanted to trade in our decade-old car for something more reliable and with more space for our growing family. Nothing too fancy but something suitable for our needs. We looked around at the options and I can remember coming up with a dollar amount that we needed. As I filled out my taxes that year, I can remember it was the same number I had given away. I paused for a long moment and I stared at that number. A part of me wanted to trade it all back. A part of me felt justified in doing so. But I couldn’t and I didn’t try. I stared at that number and knew the cost. We continue to make-do without a reliable car that fits the whole family and its stuff.
The car thing really hit us around Christmas. We traveled down to SoCal last year to spend a week with Shannon’s parents and family. It was a great time. But with a newborn we had a lot of stuff. The pack-and-play. The swing. The stroller. The Christmas gifts. The dog’s pen. Our suitcases. And more. It quickly became apparent that not everything was fitting in the car. And there were tears as we felt the stress of leaving our comforts behind.
I wondered: Why is giving making things harder on us?
So we crammed as much as we could into our sedan and it was really squished. The trunk was so full that when you opened it, things just started falling out. We were cramped and there was a long drive ahead of us.
And the long drive actually went quite well. We were cozy but with each other. And when we arrived we were joined by family and friends. And the wealth of those relationships far exceeded the comforts a larger car might’ve carried. It looked nothing like a Norman Rockwell painting but I treasured the time with family and friends.
So we were down in Southern California for Christmas and one of our traditions is to watch the Muppet’s Christmas Carol. It’s really a very close-to-the-book portrayal of Charles’ Dickens Christmas Carol. And every year it tells the same story of Scrooge who is visited by three ghosts of Christmas: past, present and future. And Scrooge reflects on his life and turns a hundred and eighty degrees and he becomes a very generous person and everyone lives happily ever after. The end.
But this year I saw a different message. Scrooge starts as the miser and the grump. And the good news is, it’s not too late. Scrooge can change. Scrooge does change. The opportunity to be generous is before us. God is making the invitation to you.
Generosity is really the message of Christmas. That God so loved us and was so generous with us that he gave us his son. Jesus is Emmanuel. This is God with us. Jesus represented the wealth of an only child who came that we might know freedom and live in his kingdom forever.
Where the path of generosity will lead you, I do not know. But in my own life, Jesus has lead me to give away more than ten percent of my income. He has lead me to be a volunteer leader with the youth and young-adult ministries at The River. And it was God’s teachings that motivated me to buy a house that cost much less than our loan approval. I have many more stories of generosity that I would love to share with you in a personal context.
You know, I think tithing is one of those easy indicators of a generous heart. Giving away ten percent of your pre-taxed income to the church is something of a biblical benchmark. Rather than a goal, I think it’s more of a starting point. Rather than creeping up to ten percent, I suggest you jump. Consider for yourself, what it would look like today for you to risk being generous with a tithe.
Does your tithe reflect a trust in God and a desire to see his kingdom grow?
Back when we bought our house, I found it remarkable how much information I shared with our mortgage broker: tax returns, savings accounts, credit pulls. I mean, this broker knew more about our finances than any accountability partner or close friend or even family. And it concerned me when they shared our loan approval amount and I realized they may not have my best interests in mind. The amount of debt they offered me would’ve been crushing to my soul.
Today consider, do you own too much house? Or too much car? Or too many credit cards?
One of the best contexts for these conversations is in small groups. And about a year ago, the young-adult small group that I lead went through a series on money. It wasn’t too fancy. I didn’t have a grand plan. We chose difficult bible passages about money and studied them together. I did a variety of activities, like burning a one dollar bill or charging a ten dollar entry fee. The point was to foster conversations about money and to break down barriers around it.
The most meaningful part of our series was the invitation to share our experiences around money. We all have a money-history and I invited folks to share how they grew up with money and what their present finances looked like. Present finances included details like your credit card statement or your receipts from a week of purchases. It also included big-picture numbers like how much you make, how much you give, how much you have in savings, and how much you have in debts.
Yes, it was risky to share those things and only a few people shared everything. That was fine. There was no shame. Only an invitation to be vulnerable and intimate. I spoke with a number of staff and leaders as I prepared the series. Many of them warned me that what we were doing was dangerous. But all of them said they would love to be a part of a group like that.
Wherever you are on the spectrum of great wealth and great need or of great confidence in generosity and great doubt, I hope that you will talk about money and generosity with your family and friends this year. Many of you who are very generous, need to share your experiences with us who have doubts. And many of us who have great wealth, need to become friends with those in great need. Community and the church is God’s design for those exchanges of witness and money. I hope that you will participate in one of those exchanges this year. The context for our contribution is community.
If you know already that you want to be part of a small group context that discusses and shares about money, would you email us or tell one of the leaders today. Please email email@example.com so we can be in touch.
As we close today, I want to invite the worship team up to the front.
I know it’s scary. I know change is hard. But God will help us. Jesus will be with us. If we ask, he will change our hearts and relieve our fears. God will inspire us to new possibilities. If you read on after the story of the rich young ruler, Jesus affirms that all things are possible with God. Today you may begin by simply turning in prayer. Ask God to change your heart. Ask God to turn you toward his generous path.
I hope my words today stir up your thoughts and feelings. I’d like us to capture those thoughts and feelings for a moment and offer them to the Lord. I’m not going to ask you to share any of these thoughts. This is simply between you and God.
If we were to stretch out a scale so that on the one side would be a greedy heart and on the other side a generous heart. Then just reflect for a moment where your heart would be on that scale today. Are you closer to the greedy side of the scale or the generous side of the scale? Take a moment and picture yourself on that scale.
Now, if you were going to summarize your feelings this morning in a word. What word would that be? Do you feel joy? Or sadness? Do you feel threatened? Do you feel angry? As I’ve been speaking today, what feelings have come up in your heart and mind? Take a moment and find that word in your heart.
Finally, is there anything you want to say to God today? Maybe if you’re feeling threatened, you want to cry out for help. If you’re feeling joy, maybe you want to embrace a generous destiny. As you lift up your heart and soul to God, may I make a suggestion? Let us pray, Lord, I want to be free. Lord, I want to live in your kingdom today. I invite you to lift up your prayer in this moment.
Friends, I hope we receive the invitation to be generous as good news. God wants us to be free and to participate in his kingdom. That God was so generous, he gave us his son, and through Jesus we can have eternal life is the message of the gospel. Amen.