Our Eucharist readings for today align around the theme of generous giving. Read the texts:
Extracts from Psalm 112
1 Blessed are those who fear the Lord, who find great delight in his commands.
3 Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever.
4 Even in darkness light dawns for the upright, for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous.
5 Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice.
9 They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor, their righteousness endures forever; their horn will be lifted high in honor.
Extracts from Matthew 6
1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2-4 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Extracts from 2 Corinthians 9
6-8 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.
10-11 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
Key lessons about giving generously
God consistently and insistently calls us to generosity. This giving is to be sacrificial, in other words, we give until it hurts a bit; we give so that we feel the loss a little.
Givers will be rewarded according to their generosity. There is a kind of economy of giving, with a return on our investment, possibly in this life, and certainly in the next.
Giving should be done freely. We should not give grudgingly, reluctantly or out of obligation. We should also not give in order to obtain a reward or recognition – indeed, we should give privately, secretly. Our generous giving is rather motivated by our response to God’s generous giving to us.
Tonight is Maundy Thursday, when we co-celebrate Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet and Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper (also known as the Eucharist or Mass). This year we read about these events in John 13:1-17 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. (I’ve preached about some of this before in a chapter in my book entitled the Kenotic U.)
What stands out for me this year is the extent of Jesus’ willingness to humble himself and serve humanity. Remember that this is God the Son we’re talking about. Not just a Rabbi, not just a priest, not a Bishop, not the Pope – God in human human form! Yet, Jesus, knowing his identity, gets up from the dinner table and strips down to his undergarments and dons a towel and washes the feet of his disciples. Peter, is so uncomfortable with this demonstration of humility from his master. And one wonders about Judas, who has already decided to betray Jesus, and Jesus already knows this – yet Jesus washes Judas’ feet also.
And he offers them his body – broken for us – and his blood – shed for us – for our salvation. He calls us to remember this every time we sit down for a meal. For Christians who follow the sacramental tradition – like us Anglicans – we celebrate this Eucharist at least once a week, because we regard this as the central demonstration of God’s love for us and so we re-enact Jesus great service to humanity.
Jesus whole stance, throughout his life, was one of servanthood. He is the lamb of God, foreshadowed by the Exodus story in Exodus 12:1-14. A life of sacrifice, of service, of humility, of love, of other-centredness.
After washing their feet, Jesus gets up and dresses again and takes up his place at the table and teaches them:
“Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
And shortly thereafter he summarises his entire ministry (John 13:34-35):
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
May God give us the courage to walk his path of service.
In Luke 11:42-44, Jesus issues a series of ‘woes’ (or warnings) against the Pharisees, who were a group of highly religious, devout Jewish people. They were also religious leaders, so these woes are issued against both those who think of themselves as highly religious and against those who are occupy leadership positions in the church (including both clergy and laypeople).
Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.
Jesus draws a contrast between tithing (specifically tithing of food, but we can apply it equally to tithing of money) and justice (which can be considered the love of neighbour) and the love of God.
Jesus draws this contrast frequently in the Gospels. It is the contrast between the inner (heart) life and the outer (public) life. He repeatedly calls for alignment between these two, and he speaks out particularly harshly against those who emphasise the outer life and neglect the inner life.
The story of the widow’s mite in Luke 21:1-4 illustrates this very nicely:
As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
While outwardly, the rich gave more money than the widow, they gave only a tiny percent of what they had, while the little she gave was all she had. The percentage of what is given is more important than the absolute amount that is given. The motivation for giving is more important than the absolute amount given. The external appearance of the money is not important; rather, the inner heart out of which the money is given is what is important to Jesus.
Jesus also emphasises social justice in this passage, as well as love of God. In Luke 10:27, Jesus answers the question about what we must do to inherit eternal life with the Great Commandment:
“ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”
This vertical and horizontal love is absolutely foundational to what it means to be an authentic Christian or follower of Christ. Jesus issues these woes against the Pharisees because they had neglected these fundamental expressions of authentic faith – they had neglected to love God and they had neglected social justice.
We would, however, be wrong to conclude that Jesus is saying the outward expression of faith is unimportant, and only the heart is important. NO! In fact, Jesus stresses that BOTH are important! He wraps up this verse:
You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.
Tithing – giving of our material resources – remains important! He wants:
Today we begin a four-part series on stewardship. The notion of stewardship, albeit not named as such, comes from the creation narrative in Genesis 1 and 2. After God has invested tremendously in creating the heavens and earth, God entrusts God’s creation to humanity. In Genesis 1:28, we read,
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
And in Genesis 2:15, after a detailed account of God’s creation of the Garden of Eden, we read:
The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
In both, narratives, the first thing God does after the creation of humanity, is to place humans in a position of responsibility to take care of what God has made. Later in this series we’ll talk more about taking care of the world itself, but these narratives are speaking not only about the earth, but about everything that God has created. And since everything that exists was created by God, stewardship is about everything!
During this series, we’ll look at four things God calls us to steward:
Today we start with stewarding ourselves.
It might seem strange to think about stewarding ourselves, because we normally think about stewarding other things. But since we are God’s creation, we need to steward ourselves. A lovely passage that speaks about this is Romans 12:1-2:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
The ’offering’ or ‘sacrificing’ of ourselves that Paul speaks about here is comparable to what we are calling ‘stewarding’. In a sense, we give ourselves to God. In this brief passage, Paul speaks about offering our bodies, offering our spirits and offering our minds. This aligns with the classic way of understanding the components of a person: body, mind and spirit. Paul is really saying that we need to steward the whole of ourselves.
Let me briefly suggest three ways that we can do this:
First, we can focus our mind, our emotions, our will or intention or purpose on God. All too often, we carry out the business of living our life as if God does not exist. We just live life, like any person who is not a follower of Christ. But stewarding ourselves means that we focus ourselves on God; in other words, we recognise that we exist because of God and that we exist to please God. God becomes central in our thinking and in our intentions. This is the sense of surrendering ourselves to God in a way that is ‘holy and pleasing to God’ that Paul speaks about in Romans 12.
Second, how can we put that first point into action, to take it from an idea to something tangible and practicable? Perhaps we can ask ourselves every morning as we wake up, “How will I serve God today?” Stewarding ourselves doesn’t just fall out of the sky; it’s not going to ‘just happen’. We have to choose to make it happen. Imagine if, before we did something, we asked ourselves, “Will this please God?” And imagine what our lives would be like if, having realised it would not please God, we chose to not do it or to change the way we do it – into a way that is pleasing to God. Or imagine if we asked ourselves, “Does what I’m doing now reveal the heart of God?” If our words and actions are not revealing who God is and what is most important to God, then we are not stewarding ourselves for God – we’re just doing what we feel like doing. But when we shape the way we behave so that it is pleasing to God and reveals the character of God, then we are stewarding ourselves.
Third, we can put the gifts that we have into God’s service. We all have gifts. Some people are friendly and find talking to strangers easy. (This is something I’m not good at.) Some people can cook or sing or fix things or manage money. These are (perhaps) what we could call natural gifts. And there are also what Paul calls spiritual gifts (e.g., 1 Cor 12) which are given to us by Holy Spirit when we make a personal commitment to Christ. These include some supernatural gifts like prophecy, tongues, healing and so on. But whatever gifts you have – whatever you are good at – are gifts that we can steward, by putting them to work in building God’s kingdom. Of course, as a church, we’d love you put these gifts to work in the church; but you can also put them to work anywhere and everywhere – at home, at work, in your community, in your family.
As we journey through this coming week, I encourage you to put a note up in a place where you’ll see it every day – perhaps on your mirror in the bedroom or bathroom, or next to your kettle. Write on a slip of paper, “How will I serve God today?” Make an effort to remember this little question and to keep looking for ways to serve God. It does not necessarily mean doing something extra; it usually means changing the way we do what would have done anyway.
When you do that, you’ll be stewarding yourself for God.
This is the order Jesus gives for Christian life: we find the treasure, this fills us with joy, so we sell all our possessions (which are worth a fraction of the treasure), and we acquire (take ownership) of the treasure (Mat 13:44). The treasure is there at the start and the end; the joy is the immediate consequence of finding the treasure; and the sacrifice of possessions is really no sacrifice at all. This is the Christian life. Let’s find our joy in Christ!
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
This passage offers us two sets of verbs:
Offer, sacrifice, worship – which speak to giving ourselves to God
Transform, renew – which speak to an inward-focused process
The passage also offers us two nouns:
Our bodies – which speaks to the embodied being that we are, crafted from clay and in-breathed by God’s Spirit
Our minds – which speaks to the immaterial being that we are, mind, emotion, thought, spirit
Together, these two verbs and these two nouns call us towards a complete offering of ourselves – a surrender, a relinquishment – to God.