St. Alban’s Episcopal Church
November 7, 2021
Rev. Jim Stickney
God loves a cheerful giver.
Those of you who have known me for a long time may recall this verse from St. Paul
about cheerful giving. When I was the rector here, I’d often use this verse
as a refrain during the annual sermon encouraging financial support of the parish.
Many years ago, when I was visiting various churches, I was quite surprised
by the number of times I would show up right on the Sunday when the pastor
chose to preach about money, and of the need to support the church financially.
We don’t like to talk very much about money in church, not because we’re stingy,
but because worship gives us at least one sacred space in our lives without advertising pitches!
The deeper truth is that we all have a deep need to be generous with our resources.
Jesus taught his followers a great deal about having a right relationship with money.
To a few of his followers, he gave the ultimate challenge of giving all their money away.
But with most of his followers he urged them not to put their trust in mere wealth, but in God.
Jesus enjoyed using paradox. He looked past the externals, and went to the heart.
And so we have today’s Gospel: a pageant of public support of the temple in Jerusalem.
Viewed from outside, the rich are doing what it takes to keep the temple in good repair.
And Jesus does not pass judgment on the wealthy who make their large public contributions,
Instead, he has his followers look at the poor widow — living on God knows what.
“She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
Viewed from the outside, she seems imprudent. But Jesus has us imagine her heart —
which includes her need to give something away, to show her faith in God.
Our first reading also tells us of the faith of two widows, one old and one young.
The old widow Naomi is giving counsel to her daughter-in-law Ruth.
The book of Ruth can be viewed as a love story, of two women looking out for each other —
and the attached story of the stirring of love between Ruth and her kinsman Boaz.
But it’s also a financial story — as Naomi states in the first verses we heard this morning:
“My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, that it may be well for you.”
This is quite different from the Gospel story of the widow giving away her small copper coins.
Ruth and Naomi have no resources, but they work out a plan for financial security.
Whether it’s acquiring wealth (like Ruth and Naomi) or giving it away (as the Gospel widow)
the point is to work for a healthy relationship with what money we do have —
we need to give some wealth away to show ourselves that our money does not control us.
God does love a cheerful giver.
An old New Yorker cartoon shows two robed disciples of Jesus walking along a path.
One says to the other: “OK, so the meek shall inherit the earth, and the rich will have
a hard time getting into heaven. But really, what about the middle class?”
That’s the suburban dilemma we face. How do the middle class support their church?
We’re not like the super-wealthy of the Gospel story, dropping off bags of shekels.
And we’re clearly better off than any of the widows we heard about this morning.
If only the Scriptures provided us with some practical guidelines for us.
Perhaps you have already can guess where this line of thought is headed.
When we do hear of the Biblical standard of giving — the tithe, or ten percent —
we often react, or make excuses, or think that’s only for those other people.
I have come to think about it this way: “I firmly resolve to keep, for my own use, no more
than 90% of all the financial resources I have each year.” That’s the tithe! So —
no panic, please! You are already giving some portion, some percentage, to this church,
and to other agencies doing God’s work in the world. You’re already generous!
And please, do not “give until it hurts.” That approach is flawed from the start.
Pain is a sign that something is wrong with the body, crying out for healing.
If a person has been away from physical exercise for a while, it hurts only at first.
When the body gets accustomed to healthy exercise, it makes us feel good.
Mere guilt is a poor motivator for authentic Christian giving. It might work short term,
but in the long run we need to give from a cheerful and peaceful and steady heart.
God loves a cheerful giver.
When St. Paul tells the Christians in Corinth that “God loves a cheerful giver”
he’s speaking from the experience of being transparent about how a person grows
in generosity of spirit. When we see our babies learning to talk, we rediscover
that the little word “mine” is much easier for them to learn than the word “share.”
We might say that the child who learns about sharing is growing in maturity.
And as adults of whatever age, we find that we need to exercise generosity to others.
When I started to worship at an Episcopal Church, I went through some stages.
At first I would contribute like a visitor paying “admission” to a sacred prayerful play.
Then I made my first pledge, becoming a sort of patron of the church’s work.
The next stage was as a member, with the insight that the church I loved was supported,
not from outside, but from within. Our church in turn supports the larger church.
And yet the final stage of giving to the church is as a member of the spiritual family,
where we want to do all we can to help the other members keep the church vibrant.
Of these four stages (visitor, patron, member and member of a spiritual family).
the last stage is where we’ll find people who are on a path that will lead to tithing.
God loves a cheerful giver.