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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

October 14, 2012

 Life’s Unchangeable Law

Deuteronomy 6:10-13

Luke 6:32-38

             In the first church I ever served, the community was growing and the local YMCA, on whose Board I was serving, made the decision to build new facilities.  We knew it would take a major capital campaign to do this, so we interviewed a group of professional fundraisers.  One of them was making his presentation when a member of the Board interrupted and asked, “Let’s cut to the chase; what is the minimum amount we each need to give in order to accomplish our goal?”  He replied, “I never suggest to any prospective giver a sum as a minimum contribution.  For a minimum has a funny way of turning into the maximum someone will do.” 

             As I have pondered these words of Jesus in Luke, which suggest that there are sound spiritual reasons to engage in generous giving, I recalled again this fundraiser’s observation.  Whether he knew it or not, he was speaking of two kinds of living we all end up choosing: minimum living or maximum living.  There is a world of difference between the question, “What must I do?” or “What do I have to do?” and the question, “What can I do?  What is possible?”  We all live one way or the other.  There is hardly a realm of life where we are not prone to do the minimum, and find that it sadly turns into our maximum. 

             It is the number one question of all kids: “What is the least I can get by on?”  What self-respecting kid will wash behind his ears if merely washing your face will do?  As a kid, I was a picky eater.  So my parents would set minimum amounts of things for me to eat that I didn’t like.  Trust me, the required minimum of three spears of asparagus or five pieces of broccoli became the maximum I would ever eat!  In the classroom, a required minimum has a dependable way of turning into the maximum ever done.  Who has not acted out this scene?  The teacher assigns a term paper.  “How long do our term papers have to be?”  “Ten pages.”  “Is that single or double spaced?”  “Double.”  “Does that include the bibliography?”  “No.  You have to add it.”  “How wide do the margins have to be?”  And how often has the required course heading turned into the only reading we ever did? 

             As a result, we never get mentally or spiritually to the boiling point, where life really starts to move!  It is not until we pass the threshold of what we must do, and enter into the exciting realm of what we can do, what is possible, that life becomes an adventure.  And yet, how often do we ever get beyond the minimum – doing what we must?  The real fun in life, the deep satisfaction in anything, comes after the minimum is passed.  Yet too much of life is spent just getting by, not living.

             Think of the sad implications of this tendency in our most important relationships.  There is a minimum of obligation in a marriage, or a family, or a friendship, for that matter, that a person must give to keep a relationship going.  But how tragic it is to ask yourself, “What do I have to do to keep her satisfied?” or “What must I do to keep him reasonably happy?”  You see, no minimum law can ever protect a relationship.  Only love can do that, and love knows nothing of minimums.  What a ghastly thing life on a minimum level becomes in a home!  Yet tragically, there are dreary homes where the least amount required is the most ever given!

             Too often, we bring to all of life a scarcity mentality.  We say to ourselves, “The more I give, the less I’m going to have.”  But Jesus calls this scarcity mindset into question.  Instead of scarcity mentality, Jesus brings an abundance mindset to life!  “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over….”  Jesus is using the image of an overflowing grain harvest.  He is saying that our lives overflow if we engage in what one scholar calls “the stewardship of irony.”  (That is, in giving ourselves, we gain life.)  And Jesus backs up His words here with His life.  Jesus was never miserly or interested in minimum requirements.  He never asked, “What is the least I can offer to God to get by?”  No, Jesus gave himself extravagantly, abundantly!  That is why Jesus blessed the world like no one else who has ever lived.

             I want briefly to discuss three areas of life where the danger of the minimum becoming our maximum can be tragic.  The first is in the area of our Christian faith.  A minimum faith is one that asks, “What must I do?” not “What can I do?”  It lives by law, which requires of us a minimum, instead of by grace, which inspires of us our deepest and our best.  A minimum faith thinks in terms of duty.  “What is required?”  And it compares itself to others, and takes comfort in being better than so many others.  But a minimum faith brings little joy to the believer, and less power.

             Frances Chan, in his New Testament bestseller, Crazy Love, says the real danger of Christianity in America, not Islam, or atheism, or any other outward threat, is lukewarm faith.  “Lukewarm people do whatever is necessary to keep themselves from feeling too guilty.  They want to do the bare minimum, to be “good enough” without it requiring too much of them….  They ask, ‘How much do I have to give?’ instead of ‘How much can I give?’”  He writes, “Lukewarm people are continually concerned with playing it safe; they are slaves to the god of control.  This focus on save living keeps them from sacrificing and risking for God.”  Of course, Chan draws this image from Revelation 3 and the church at Laodicea: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish you were either one or the other!  So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

             In faith, it is when we stop asking, “What must I do?” and start giving our whole hearts to God that life becomes an adventure.  That is maximum, or abundant living.  “For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

             This minimum/maximum living principle comes close to us again in the realm of our closest personal and family relationships.  It is truly a royal journey to move from the spare minimum to our maximum in sharing ourselves with a spouse or a child or a friend – not as an obligation, but out of sheer love.  We all know the minimum here – people who are always calculating – everything is a matter of measuring for them.  Where and to whom can I give so that I get the most back?  There is nothing pressed down and running over in such relationships.  Love is the one commodity, the more of which you give, the more you have to give.  But people engaged in minimum living never discover this joy.  They are too busy calculating what they have to do to get ahead to fall in love and discover that “it is in giving that we receive.”  Louis Pasteur said it so well.  “Self-seeking has no centennial.”  Those who live for themselves end up living totally forgettable lives.  That is why Pasteur sought to use his gifts to bless others.  How about your most important relationships?  Are they marked by minimum or maximum living?

             Finally, let’s look at one last area where minimum or maximum living can either make or break our souls: That is what we do with the money God has entrusted to our care.  How many of us make a religion of preserving our money?  How many of us cling fearfully to it, believing it is somehow capable of making us feel secure?

             I am concerned about what goes on in your hearts as you decide whether you will be a minimum or a maximum giver in life.  What rule will guide you as you make your commitment to Christ’s Church this year?  Will it be minimum living – “What must I do?” or worse, “What is the average gift around here?” or still worse, “What’s the least I can give and not feel guilty?”  If you give in that way, you will cheat yourself out of life’s greatest joy, which is the joy of giving, of real generosity.

             What if we decided to practice maximum living in our giving this year?  Harry Emerson Fosdick gives a helpful rule on this: “Just give until the Lord stops giving to you.”  You see, our lives are mirrors of our priorities.  And sometimes our calendars and cancelled checks tell a sad story of who we in fact are.  “Give, and it will be given to you…” is the rule of life Jesus is offering to us.  “For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”  This is life’s unchangeable law.  That is why one wag put it so bluntly: “People who want by the yard, but give by the inch, need sometimes to be kicked by the foot.”

             Which reminds me of the story I heard of the wealthy Texan who was giving a huge party in the backyard of his ranch.  He announced that he had just filled his swimming pool with alligators.  “If anyone can swim from one end of the pool to the other, I’ll give you the choice of my daughter’s hand in marriage or one million dollars!”  All of a sudden a guy was swimming furiously across the pool and somehow he got to the other side in one piece.  When he got out of the water, the Texan said, “Well, young man, what will it be?  Do you want my daughter’s hand or one million dollars?”  “Neither!” he said, “I want to know who pushed me into the pool!”

             Do some of you need to be nudged into the pool this year?  Are you living life too carefully, maybe even too miserly?  You see, I am convinced that we are never more alive in our faith, in our most vital relationships, and in our stewardship than when we are learning the joy of generosity.  And what better place to start than in your church?

             No matter what this world may teach, no matter what you practice in your own life, Jesus’ words are true: “Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over.  For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”  That is life’s unchangeable law.  I did not say it, Jesus did.  But that is how I want to live. How about you?

                                                                                     Amen.

 

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