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First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

October 6, 2019

Sharing in the Gospel

Jeremiah 17:5-8; Philippians 1:1-11

In 1980, Gordon Cosby “was minister of a small Baptist congregation in a railroad town outside of Lynchburg, Virginia. One day [his] deacon said to [him], ‘We have in our congregation a widow with six children. I have looked at the records and discovered that she is putting into the treasury of the church each month $4.00 – a tithe of her income. Of course, she is unable to do this. We want you to go and talk to her and let her know that she need feel no obligation whatsoever, and to free her from the responsibility.’”

Cosby said later, “I am not wise now. I was less wise then. I went and told her of the concerns of the deacons. I told her as graciously and supportively as I knew how that she was relieved of the responsibility of giving. As I talked with her the tears came into her eyes. ‘I want to tell you,’ she said, ‘that you are taking away the last thing that gives my life dignity and meaning.’”

What exactly was it, I wonder, that so inspired that widow to give, such that permission not to give was, for her, a cause for grief? What was it about giving that gave her life dignity? How could she have thought that $4.00 per month was the difference in her life mattering?

Welcome to the season for generosity. Actually, we called it the season for generosity last year, but that was confusing because we had always called it the season for stewardship. So, this year we’re calling it the season for stewardship and generosity, which are the same thing. And next year we’ll call it generosity and stewardship, and the next year just generosity, because by then you will know what we’re talking about.

When the Apostle Paul began his letter to the Philippian churches, he began with an exuberant thanksgiving, reminding them that he prayed joyfully for them all the time, and this was the reason: because of their sharing in the gospel with him. It’s one of the distinct blessings of being a pastor that you witness the generosity of other people. You see officers turn in their pledge cards at the September joint meeting, actually before the generosity season has kicked off. You see officers commit to time on a Saturday in the fall to learning more about how we give, and how we can give more. You see people give to the ministry of the church in an interim season, when everything is uncertain and it would be easy to sit on the sidelines and wait for whatever comes next. You watch the financial reports each month, and you see the commitment to this ministry. I’ve always counted it a blessing to witness real generosity, a kind of generosity that indicates to me a mindset like that widow’s. What is it about giving that gives the giver a sense of dignity and meaning? Maybe it has something to do with sharing in the gospel.

There are plenty of studies of giving that demonstrate an important fact: people who attend worship regularly are people who give regularly, and give generously (Giving USA Foundation report). That makes perfect sense for lots of reasons, but I’m going to suggest one: people who worship regularly hear the gospel regularly. They hear the good news. They remember that God still loves the world, that the risen Lord Jesus is at work still, that he will not rest until earth and heaven are one. So, they share in the gospel. They invest in what God is doing in the world, in the best way they can: the church.

My theology professor, John Leith, was particularly adamant that preachers remember there was one job the church has that no other institution has: the proclamation of the gospel. No other group is entrusted with the stewardship of this message, that the Triune God who made the world has reconciled it to himself and will surely redeem it at the end. Imagine for a moment if the church disappeared. Imagine if there were no body of people with the solemn charge to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It’s hard enough to maintain a hopeful attitude as it is; take away the promise of the gospel, and frankly, I’m not sure what reason I would have to care about anything other than whether the Braves will beat the Cardinals today. Dr. Leith said that if God didn’t raise Jesus from the dead, then we seminarians should quit school and go do something honest for a living, like sell insurance. He was right. If God didn’t raise Jesus from the dead, then you shouldn’t give a dime to the church. You should invest all your money in something else, because nothing else the church does matters, if Jesus isn’t Lord.

But if God did raise Jesus from the dead; if Jesus is Lord, then you can invest in nothing more significant than the gospel. It is the world’s hope, so much so that even a poor widow in rural Virginia finds her dignity in sharing it with the world.

Abigail Marsh is a psychologist who studied two very different types of people and what they have in common: psychopaths and altruists. What they have in common is their sensitivity to fear. Both psychopaths and altruists are especially sensitive to fear in others. Psychopaths sense that fear and feel no sympathy; altruists sense that fear and act unselfishly to come to the aid of the other. She tells amazing stories of altruistic people who seem almost wired to come to the aid of people in need.

Now, as a pastor, it’s my hope that altruism is possible for people who aren’t seemingly wired for it. It’s my experience that there are people who give for the sake of others, even when they get no obvious reward for doing so. I think it’s connected to the mysterious experience of grace, of realizing that you have received from the Lord not what you deserved, but simply God’s goodness. I think it’s inspired by gratitude, which no one can manufacture alone. That’s why, when it comes to my appeals to you to give, I prefer to focus on your sharing in the gospel. Though it might be possible to twist your arm into giving, or guilt you into giving, since God loves a cheerful giver, I would rather remind you that you are partners in the gospel. If you feel in your bones gratitude for what God has done, then you will want to give. If you worship on a regular basis, then you love the good news and want it to be spread and you want it to persist through the years.

I was reminded this week that the same Greek word can refer to grace and to gratitude, depending on the form. The Greek word for grace is charis, the Greek word for “give thanks” is eucharisto. It’s beautiful to me, because that reflects our experience of giving and receiving. You’ve felt that, haven’t you? Think of times when you have given – really given out of joy and love, with no expectation of return. It sounds weird to say it, but don’t you feel as if you’ve received as much as you’ve given? Isn’t it a joy to you when you evoke thanksgiving in others? I suppose a person could cynically look upon that and conclude that there’s no such thing as unselfishness, but I think such a person would be wrong. I think the experience of joyful giving connects us to others, and reveals to us the essence of our humanity.

Author Carll Tucker said this years ago: “Every periodical, talk show, and advertisement harps on how to increase satisfaction and gratification. But contentment depends on feeling needed, and to be needed one must give another something uniquely one’s own, be it love, advice, support, wisdom, solace, entertainment, education, leadership, or care. Contentment depends, in short, on connection, and the more connected, the more cohesive a society is, the more likely it will work together for the benefit of all” (July 15, 1979, cited in Context).

You can’t really separate the experience of giving from the experience of receiving. Grace and gratitude are woven together in life, and God forbid that we imagine dividing them. God forbid that we sully the joy of giving by cynically explaining it away as some form of selfishness. No. God has made us in such a way that the grateful heart wants to give, and delights in giving, and feels profoundly contented in giving. God has made us in such a way that our giving to others inspires gratitude in them, and they in turn want to give. Giving is contagious. The gospel is the message that God so loved the world that he gave his Son. And every person ever captivated by that message has wanted to give in return.

The prophet Jeremiah was not thinking of Jesus when he uttered the words of chapter 17, but he made similar point. In contrasting people who trust in the Lord to people who trust in flesh and blood, he concluded that blessing and abundance, fruitfulness and longevity are the marks of those who trust in the Lord. He describes such people as being like a tree that is dug up from dry ground, transplanted to good soil next to an ever-flowing stream, and sends out its roots to soak up the water. Dry seasons will not bother it, but it will produce its fruit faithfully.

You see, fruitfulness is a mark of a church’s trust. Is there joy in evidence? Love? A sharing in the gospel? Do people volunteer to build a house for someone they don’t even know? To spend a night in wintertime with total strangers, so they won’t suffer in the cold? Do they commit themselves to providing for the future, so that their grandchildren also will hear the gospel? These are the marks of a grateful people who know they have received grace. They couldn’t really tell you where the line is between giving and receiving, because it’s all wound together in chords of love. They are like a widow in Virginia who finds her dignity in a $4.00 per month contribution, because it is a sharing in the most important work of all. It is the best investment she could imagine.

By the providence of God, our church enters into this season of generosity knowing who our next pastor will be. We know that he is a minister of experience, of intelligence, and especially of great commitment to the gospel. We know that we are receiving a partner in the gospel. If you are one of those people who marvels at what God has done; if you feel gratitude for receiving not what you deserve, but only God’s goodness; if you want to invest in the most important thing of all, then give. Pledge.

Craig Barnes spent time last year with old friends who were dying; both were pastors. He noticed that what they talked about in their last days weren’t the capital campaigns nor the new programs nor the numbers of members who joined in their times of service. No, they remembered being at the graveside with grieving widows, teaching confirmation to antsy adolescents, and preparing for weddings with couples who had no idea what they were getting into. Barnes says that it’s about the work of sharing the gospel in ordinary life. “This is what the old pastors remember, and why they are so grateful at the end of their lives. They got to spend their years functioning essentially as angels who keep saying, ‘Behold!’ They knew the ground of the church was holy even when it was a holy mess” (The Christian Century, 01/16/19).

God forbid that anyone rob you of the gift of this dignity: of sharing in the gospel. On the contrary, may God grant you the abundant gratitude that overflows in giving. Where one ends and the other begins, who could say?

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