This sermon is part of the sermon series "Generosity". See series.
It is ironic that this book entitled Generosity has my name at the bottom of the cover. That God would link me with generosity makes me want to laugh out loud, because some people out there didn't know me as a young person. I grew up in a home in which there was little teaching about money, except that we didn't have much of it. Over those early years, my view of money was pretty negative. I didn't appreciate it. I didn't know how to manage it. I'm not sure I do now, but I have other people in my life. I didn't understand what you were supposed to do with money. I was anything but a generous person. I was far more on the take than on the give. If you're going to be a follower of Christ and you have those attributes, something has to change. It is an anomaly to say, "I am a follower of Christ," and not know what you're supposed to do with your money.
A friend of mine, Philip Yancey, who's one of the foremost Christian writers of our time, wrote about his own attitude toward money, which is similar to mine. He said this:
Many Christians have one issue that haunts them and never falls silent. For some it involves sexual identity. For others it's a permanent battle against doubt. The issue that haunts me is money. It hangs over me. It keeps me off balance, restless, uncomfortable, nervous. I feel pulled in opposite directions over the money issue. Sometimes I want to sell all that I own and join a Christian commune and live out my days in intentional poverty. At other times I want to rid myself of guilt and enjoy the fruit of our nation's prosperity.
I gave you this quote because I want you to see this next sentence or two. Yancey writes: "Mostly I wish that I did not have to think about money at all. But I must somehow come to terms with the Bible's very strong statements about money." I read that to you because those two sentences typify me in my own spiritual journey and, I suspect, more than a few of you.
For the first thirty or forty years of my life I had to come to terms step by step with the Bible's teaching about money. If I were to look back at my giving record in the first 20 years of life, I would call myself an impulsive giver. Every once in a while I might throw a quarter in the collection plate or give a dollar to the Salvation Army or find some other place where for a moment I was stimulated and persuaded, and I'd empty my pockets and take out a coin or two, or a dollar or two, and I would put it in. And I called myself a follower of Christ. That really doesn't work. Impulsive giving is not something that the Bible teaches whatsoever.
I graduated from impulsive giving to what might be called obedient giving or basic giving when I met my wife, Gayle, 51 years ago this next week. We fell in love in the first hour of our meeting. We were engaged three weeks later and married four months later. I'm a quick decision maker when it comes to wives. Many things drew me to Gayle. She was a very strong woman with deep convictions, and I must have intuited back in those early days as a young adult male that I needed a partner in life who would build a spinal column of convictions in me in various areas of the Christian life. One of those areas was giving.
Gayle and I went off on a brief, cheap honeymoon, because when we got out of our wedding we had 93 dollars to our name. Even in those days that was not much money to begin a family life. We had this brief honeymoon, and then we came back to our little apartment. We had decided that Gayle would be the money manager in our marriage. This was one of our first great decisions. There always has to be someone who's better at managing the cash. Whether that person is male or female makes no difference. In our case it was Gayle.
We've gotten home from our honeymoon. The first night we're home and unpacked, Gayle sits down at our little desk to write out checks for our first bills. Because it was such a significant moment I looked over her shoulder to see what she was doing, and I saw this brand new checkbook—001. She starts to write the check. First the date, and then the "To" line. And she writes it out to our church. Then on the next line she puts in the amount—nine dollars. I say, "Sweetheart, we only have 93 dollars in the bank. We can't afford to give the church that much. Write a smaller check." My sweet wife looks up at me—calm, composed. She says, "Do you intend to preach the Bible for the rest of your life?" I say, "Of course." "What does the Bible say about the standard of giving?" I say, "The Bible talks about tithing. It says that ten percent of all you earn ought to be given back to the Lord for his purposes." "If you really believe that stuff, then you will not mind my writing out this check for nine dollars." The case was closed.
That day I learned that no matter what you have, if you're going to be a basic follower of Christ you must be a basic giver. The Scriptures tell us all the way from Genesis to Revelation that basic giving involves something according to the standard of the tithe, ten percent. So I graduated from an impulsive giver to a basic giver. I must confess to you that a large part of that graduation came under the influence of a godly wife.
A few years later I discovered that I wasn't far enough along in the journey. I came to that insight in a way that probably will not impress you at all, but for me it was a big moment. For some of you, a similar moment may happen one of these days, or needs to happen, and it will be a little moment to people you tell about it, but to you it will be a big moment. My moment came one weekend when a missionary visited our home. He was going to speak in our church, and he was a godly man. When he came through the door of our home for the first night's visit, I immediately noticed his clothes. He was wearing a very cheap sport coat that had seen better days. The threads were so bare on the elbows you could look through them and see the shirt underneath. The lapels were tattered. And it was the only sport coat he had.
I was shocked. I went to my wife later in the evening and said, "We have to buy this man a new sport coat. There's a sale going on." And I named the store. "We can get him a new sport coat for 39 dollars." Gayle said, "That's a great idea." I believed in that moment that my idea had come from the Spirit of God. There are those moments that a follower of Christ has when he or she experiences that strange, mysterious nudge, and something in you notices a need, and you say, "I have to meet that need." That night I experienced that nudge.
Later in the evening, Gayle said, "Your idea of buying a sport coat is wonderful, but we can't do it." "Why not?" "Well, we only have one credit card. That's for Sears & Roebucks, and it's maxed out. We owe Sears & Roebucks about 1,000 dollars." That was astronomical in those days for a young couple like us. We bought all of our furniture and all of our appliances, and we had no more credit. And furthermore, we were living on next week's paycheck.
I got very disturbed when Gayle told me that. I had never faced the reality of our spending platform till that moment. We couldn't do what God had moved us to do. Well, let me break the story off for now by saying that before the weekend was over, we found a way to get those 39 dollars. We bought the sport coat on Monday morning and sent him on his way a very appreciative man. I want to come back to that story in a few moments.
I told you those little tales because I think they're common experiences that many, many followers of the Lord have as they make their way through this learning-to-give process: from impulsiveness to basic giving to what your pastor calls extravagant giving and what I call generous giving.
The economic component
For every one of us who is serious about being a follower of the Lord, there has to be what I'll call—and this is a kind of an academic phrase, so hang with me for a moment—an economic component. I got that phrase from an anthropologist who has spent his career going up to the Arctic Circle and studying the lives and habits of the native North American Indians who live up there. When he was telling me about what he did, I asked, "What's the first thing you do when you study a group of people in an Indian village?"
He said, "The first thing an anthropologist wants to know is what the economic component is like among these people. What do these people consider to be wealth? You and I consider wealth, first of all, to be how many dollars I have invested in my bank account. We think about net worth. Other cultures may not use dollars or even currency, but they have other ways of measuring wealth.
Then he said, "The second question we want to know is, How is that wealth created? What do they do to build that wealth? The third thing we want to know is, What do they do with that wealth and how do they share it beyond themselves? In other words, is there any concept of giving in this culture or is it all taking and holding? And finally, when this wealth is exchanged, what are the results?"
Every human relationship really isn't a relationship until you can identify its economic component. For example, let me go back to marriage for a moment. In the weeks and months that Gayle and I met, fell in love, dated, that was basically a relationship that started with and was built on words. But when you get married, you have to come to terms with your economic component. Every marriage has an economic component.
Every friendship has an economic component. You know who your closest friends are by your ability to go deeper and more openly about money. I have five or six close male friendships. Over the years as we have gotten closer together as friends we have found ourselves able to talk more and more about money, until now we all know what the others make. Most men will never talk about how much money they make, and I suppose women wouldn't either. It's only among your closest friends that you discuss these kind of things and feel free to tell each other when you're financially hurting or when you've been financially prosperous. That's saved for special relationships.
A church has an economic component. Unfortunately in the past it was often reduced to discussions about budgets and fundraising and pledge campaigns, and we considered the notion of money to be a dirty subject. But something is changing in the church across America. We're beginning to realize that money is not a dirty subject. If I am a true follower of Jesus Christ, if I am a part of this church community, if I say these are my people and I intend to live my Christian life in conjunction with them, we begin to look at money differently. We see it as part of our worship. We see it as part of our commitment. We see it as part of the exercise of our Christian growth. That's light years away from the way many of us were trained 50 years ago. The economic component is not just business; it's discipleship. It's a way of measuring the closeness I have in my walk with Jesus Christ.
This is a new idea in the American church. It's a great idea. It may be the cutting edge of the whole revolution that's coming in the 21st century in the way Christians carry themselves in this new culture. Our people should be known by their generosity, by their extravagant giving. That may become our brand in these coming days.
If that does happen, it's not something that's brand new. If you go back to the first three centuries of the Christian movement after Jesus ascended into heaven and the apostles finally died off and left this Christian movement flourishing across the Roman empire, and you look at what the Christian movement was like, you may be startled to learn that the mark of the Christian movement that most impressed the people of that time was not the preaching. I'm a preacher. That's a bit insulting to me. But in the first three centuries, the Christian movement was known for its generosity. Just as McDonalds has the golden arches, just as Nike has the swish, just as Apple has the apple with the bite taken out of it, so the brand of Christians for the first three centuries was they were always on the give.
There was a man in the second century by the name of Dionysius who wrote about common life among people in the pagan culture of that time. In those days in the Roman Empire every town, every village, every city faced a major calamity on average about once every thirteen years. By calamity I mean an earthquake, a fire, a plague, or a military conquest. Because cities in those days were constructed with such flammable materials, a fire could sweep across the whole city and devastate it. Or an earthquake would bring all the buildings tumbling down. There was no medicine for plagues. What did the pagans do when these catastrophes hit? Dionysius says, "The pagans thrust aside anyone who began to be sick and kept at a distance even from their dearest friends. They cast the sufferers half dead into the ditches and left them unburied."
If you read the history of the Peloponnesian Wars written about the second or third century BC, you will find vivid descriptions of how people in those days ran whenever there was danger. They didn't care about their children. They didn't care about their aging parents. They didn't care about their neighbors. They just ran to save themselves. That was one of the core notions of a pagan view of life—save myself.
Now let me read to you something from a Christian leader in the third century. His name is Eusebius of Caesarea. Eusebius writes this:
The Christians were the only people who amidst such terrible ills showed their fellow feeling and humanity by their actions. Day by day some would busy themselves with attending the dead and burying them. Others gathered in one spot all who were afflicted by hunger throughout the whole city and gave bread to all. When this became known, the people [that is, the pagan population] glorified the Christian God and convinced by the very facts confessed that the Christians alone were truly pious and religious.
Those words may leave you a bit cold, but in their core is a powerful statement. The only people in those days who genuinely stood up for what they believed in and acted out of charity and love and generosity were the Christians. For three centuries the Christian movement expanded in one of the most dramatic periods of growth in Christian history. The countries of the Mediterranean world became filled with communities of believers, and the secret to it all was they were known for their generosity and their service.
How did this happen? How was it forgotten? I would suggest to you that across the world today, the Christian movement is not well known for its generosity. It's known for other things, but not necessarily for its generosity. How did it get that way?
Jesus on generosity
You have to start with Jesus. You have to look at the three years that we know about his public life upon the earth and the twelve disciples that he trained and a few more beyond that. You have to look at what he started with when he recruited those disciples. They were basically selfish men who were asking, What's in this for me? They were people who found it easy to turn children, old people, crippled people, sick people away from Jesus. They were people who were romanced by where the money was, where the power was.
Yet Jesus was the opposite. He said one day to some would-be disciples, "You have to understand the Son of Man doesn't even have a place to lay his head." For a large part of his public life, Jesus only had one piece of clothing to wear. As Christian writer Amy Carmichael said a hundred years ago, "We Christians follow a stripped and crucified Savior." Jesus chose poverty. He didn't choose wealth. Over three years he burned that message of generosity into his disciples, so when we see these apostles in the book of Acts three, four, five years later, they are totally different from the day they met the Lord. Something transformed them from being impulsive givers to being extravagant, generous givers.
How did Jesus do it? First of all, he modeled it. Second, he gave instruction. The Bible has wonderful places of teaching where Jesus talks about generosity. The stories he told have the economic component in them, both to the positive side and the negative side. We find a story of a rich young ruler. We don't know his name. He was a young man who in contrast to the rest of the population is very wealthy. He approaches Jesus one day and says, "Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" And the Lord looks into this man's heart and sees instantly what grips this man and holds him in a tight harness. It's his wealth—how he feels about it and how he uses it for his own grandiose kind of living. And Jesus, putting his finger on this blockage, says to this young man, "If you want to follow me, go sell everything you have. Give it to the poor. And when you've done that, you can come back and join my team." The Bible says the man looked at this choice and rejected it because money was more important to him than following Christ. There's a story with an economic component.
The rich man and the beggar
Jesus tells the story of a rich man who lived in a spacious home and ate the best gourmet foods every day while just a few feet away from him, just outside the front door, was a beggar who spent every day in the dust and the dirt filled with sores. Jesus draws this graphic picture contrasting the man who has everything but will be generous with none of it, except a few scraps from his table, and this beggar. This story is very disturbing to any of us who take it seriously, because you know where the rich man ends up. Jesus says of the beggar, "The angels from heaven came when he died and lifted him into heaven right into the presence of God." What do you do with a story like that? Do you just pass it off? Or do you say, "The Son of God said something powerful to people in those days, and 21 centuries later I have to take it seriously, too"?
The generous Samaritan
In the familiar story of the good Samaritan, the religious figures come down the road and do everything they can to avoid a man who has been beaten and robbed and left in the ditch. Then comes a Samaritan. When Jesus used that word "Samaritan" you can imagine his listeners just went red in the face. They hated Samaritans. Why would you pick a Samaritan to be the epitome of generosity? Jesus slowed the story up. If this story were a movie, he would put it into slow motion. He says the Samaritan saw the man in the ditch. He went toward him. He put oil and bandages on his wounds. He put the man on the back of his donkey. He took him to an inn. He nursed him back to health. When he had to get on his way, he gave a blank check to the innkeeper and said, "Do anything you need to do with this man. When I return, I will make good on it all." You hear those words? "When I return." That's generosity to its fullness. Jesus says: You want to know what generosity is, you want to know what the economic component is of following me? Look at the Samaritan. He'll tell you everything you need to know.
The Pharisees and the widow
There's one other story that Jesus tells, and this is the one I wanted to leave you with and fix it into your soul and mine. In Mark 12 there is a brief description of Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem. On that particular day, the temple was packed with people going to and fro to this and that. It was a mad place like rush hour in the middle of a big city. Mark writes, "Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury." A sentence like that is worth stopping for and asking, What's going on here? Why didn't Jesus go to the sanctuary, to the altar? Why didn't he go to the library or some other place in the temple? Why did he choose to sit at the place where people gave their offerings? This is the economic component again. Because in the midst of all the religion, Jesus is measuring the faithfulness of people by their giving.
So we read this, "Many rich people threw in large amounts." Historians say those collection retainers—this is my imagination when I read the history—those retainers were like upside down French horns with the big bell of the horn facing upwards. These rich Pharisees would come to these containers, and they would put their offering in. They would make their large offerings into as many coins as possible, so that when they emptied their sacks of coins into the top of the French horn it made as much noise as possible. If you could make more noise than the next guy, you were more admired. You were said to be more religious, more faithful. Jesus watched these people making all this noise. I would call these kind of people obligatory givers. They gave their money according to the strict standard of what the law says they had to give. None of them really want to give, and they're finding all kinds of loopholes to give less, if possible. They're trying to deal with the minimums.
The story goes on, "But then a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, 'I tell you the truth. This poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth, but she out of her poverty put in everything, all she had to live on.'"
Now this is what you would call a rabbinical story. This tiny story is stretched to its furthest extremes to make an important point. Amidst these men trying to make a statement with their coins comes this woman. When Jesus says a widow, he's putting his finger on the most obscure, the most powerless, the most relatively unattractive person in all of society. In those days when you wanted to talk about the poorest of the poor, you talked about the widow and the orphan. They were the most vulnerable. They had no rights. So in this moment Jesus is putting the camera's eye first upon the wealthy, powerful, impressive people, and then in contrast he's putting his eye upon this widow.
If you crawl under the story, I imagine the disciples were milling around looking at this and that. I can't imagine all the things they were doing as they were wild with excitement and energy in this crowded temple. Jesus said to his disciples, "Come over here for a minute. I want you to watch something." So all the disciples gathered around, and Jesus said, "Watch what that woman does." No one else noticed, but she came along and dropped in those two tiny coins which were probably worth less than a penny in our currency today. Then Jesus said the most incredible thing: "She's given more than anybody else, because she has put in everything she had." These other guys gave out of their wealth. They carefully measured what they had left over, so that they wouldn't have to diminish their lifestyle. But she started from the other end, and she gave everything.
When Jesus said, "She gave everything she had," he was electrified about this thing because he had come to give everything he had. There is a strong sense in which Jesus Christ and this widow are the same. They share in common this notion of generosity. They gave everything they had.
Giving it all
Have you ever been in a position to give everything you have, to put all of life on the table? I've only had the experience once in my life, and it changed me forever. When the planes went into the Twin Towers in New York back on 9/11, for the first 48 hours I, like everybody else, was almost in a state of depression. I couldn't believe it. I was born in New York City, and I took that very personally.
Finally after two days I said to myself, I have to do something about this. I made a phone call to a friend of mine who's a higher-up officer in the Salvation Army that I knew would be in New York at Ground Zero. I said, "Bill, it's Gordon calling. Could you use me at Ground Zero?" I'll never forget his reaction. He said, "How quickly can you get here?" I said, "I'll be there before the day is over." My wife Gayle was right behind me listening to this conversation. She said, "If you're going, I'm going, too." And within a matter of hours we were at the edge of Ground Zero with the Salvation Army.
Gayle built a first aid station right at the entrance of the pit on the west side where the firefighters were going in. I found myself in the middle of the rubble with those firefighters and those policemen on our hands and knees. We had very little equipment going through all the rubble, looking for body parts, listening carefully to see if we could hear the sounds of any survivors still deep in the rubble. Gayle and I stayed there for seven days. We were there for almost twenty hours a day and only left for a few hours because they made us go.
People told us that the buildings on either side were in such bad shape that it was possible they would topple on us. But none of us cared. We weren't going anyplace. People told us the air was polluted with toxic chemicals, and we might pay the supreme price with diseased lungs. Nobody cared. We weren't leaving.
On occasion Gayle and I would get together during the day, and we'd go off into some alley, and I'd put my arms around her, and we would have a few moments of prayer and just nuzzling each other, hugging, kissing. I remember more than once whispering into her ear, "I was made for a moment like this. This is the greatest moment of my life." Now I know to some tiny extent how the great saints felt when they put their lives on the line and gave everything they had. They didn't care if their actions would cause their death. They were caught up in something so great that they were ready to put on the table everything they had, including life itself. I have never been the same since those days at Ground Zero. I now know what it means to be ready to give everything you have. That what this widow did, and Jesus elevated her above all the other people of her generation and said to the disciples, That's what I want you to be.
Generous giving, extravagant giving, is above basic giving. It's when one gets caught up, as we did at Ground Zero, with such a mission that your whole life is on the line. Nothing is more important than the achievement of what you're there for. When I think about generous giving, I think about three things.
I think, first of all, that generous giving is done voluntarily. No one has to persuade you to do it. No one begged me or Gayle or any of the other firefighters or policemen to go to Ground Zero. We were there because a mission absorbed us. What is it that consumes you? We went there voluntarily. We went there sacrificially. We were ready to put our lives on the line, if necessary. We went there redemptively. We wanted to make a contribution to something that needed to be changed. No one has to plead with you and appeal to your guilt or your emotions. You just know it is right to be a generous giver.
Second, generous giving is about being sacrificial, not just giving out of your wealth so that nothing changes in your life, but limiting lifestyle so that one can do more things with one's money than would have been done ordinarily. Generous giving is about being redemptive. I want to use part of what God has given to me to change the lives of other people.
And, third, I am generous when I give systematically out of the financial resources with which God has blessed me. A few moments ago, I told you about the missionary with the need for a sport coat. When he left our home, Gayle and I sat down and asked ourselves, What happened here? The Holy Spirit spoke into our lives to be generous, and we were not able to do it in the ordinary way. I said to Gayle, "I never again want to be in a position where, when I feel the move of God upon me to do something with our resources, I am not in a position to be obedient." And so we sat down over the next few days and built a financial plan for the rest of our lives together. This was 45 years ago.
1. Reflect on your history with money.
The first thing we determined to do was to come to terms with the history of money in our lives. Growing up in a relatively poor home I was afraid of being broke. I didn't want to be generous because I wanted to keep it all for myself. Gayle, in her own way, looked at money and recognized that she was a little bit ashamed of money. We both needed to be corrected. So we spent some time looking back into our lives. What's the story of money in our lives and where do corrections need to be made?
2. Get out of debt.
Second, we determined we were going to remove ourselves completely from debt. It took us almost two years to reverse our financial stream, but we finally were able to look each other in the eye and say, with the possible exception of a house mortgage, "We don't owe anybody anything." From that day forward, we have never purchased anything that we could not pay for within thirty days. That has meant that at times we've gone without for a while. But as a result I have never gone to bed once in 45 years worried about money.
3. Don't go over the 80 percent mark.
Third, we decided we would live underneath the 80 percent mark of our income. Whatever our income was, we were not going to spend over the 80 percent mark in the way we live. That was a great decision.
4. Provide for children's education.
Fourth, we determined that when our children went off to college, we would provide them with a debt-free education. I'm not sure we could do that today.
5. Save for future ministry.
Then we determined that we would put money away each month to accumulate so that when we reached our current age we could obey God's call to serve here and there without worrying about whether there was to be financial remuneration.
6. Start with a tithe.
And finally, we determined that we would start every year's giving plan with a tithe, and each year we would try to build incrementally above that, giving more and more as God blessed.
That plan has made all the difference in the world in the quality of our marriage, in the quality of our following Jesus, and in our faith. It has changed everything and has given us much of the life that we so dearly wanted to have together.
That's my concluding point to you today. You as a congregation have gone through four wonderful weeks, with over three hundred groups meeting to discuss generosity, and reading my little book on generosity. Now you must determine what you're going to do with this accumulated information. If you finish this month without sitting down with the principle people in your life and forging a plan for the future that leads you toward the level of extravagant giving, if you don't do that, then this month has largely been wasted. But in the coming weeks if you and your spouse or you and your friends work hard on the notion of a plan, then God may use this particular time to take this great contemporary idea of generosity and make you part of the cutting edge of the Christian advancement in our country and in this world.
Remember what Philip Yancey said, "Mostly I wish I did not have to think about money at all. But I must somehow come to terms with the Bible's very strong statements about money." As Yancey says that about himself, so we need to say about ourselves. May God bless you as you think about the future and work your way in the direction of what Jesus once called generous giving.