I have a confession to make… I am not much of a gardener. In fact, I am not a gardener at all. One of the only times I have ever done any kind of extensive planting of seeds is when we had a house built in a new neighborhood in South Carolina. Part of the package in purchasing the house was landscaping for the front of the house, including beautiful green sod. However, no landscaping for the back yard came with the package. Thus, we had to do it all ourselves.
When we moved in, the back yard was perfectly raked and graded. It was a beautiful patch of level dirt. My plan was to plant grass seed. I thought, “How hard can it be?” Unfortunately, I waited a while before I got to work, and the rains came, and that beautiful, level lot that was our back yard, started to slope downhill. I thought, “I better get to work soon.” So as soon as the rains stopped, I bought some grass seed and got to work. I followed all the directions, scattering the seed, and then covering it all with straw. But the next time the rains came, all the grass seed ended up at the bottom of the downward slope, all in one corner of the yard. It was a beautiful lawn in that one corner.
What did I do next? I planted grass seed again, and covered it over with straw. And I kept repeating the process until we began to have a lawn growing, however sparsely, over the entire back yard.
Three things I learned for certain, from that exercise: (1) I am not a gifted gardener. (2) As a result, my lawn was very imperfect. And (3) if I had never planted any grass seed, we never would have had any lawn.
So, even though I am not a farmer, and I am a very imperfect gardener at best, I can relate to some of the stories in the Bible that talk about planting seed. We have one of those stories in Paul’s second letter to the Church at Corinth, in chapter nine, beginning with verse 5. Listen for God’s word to you….
The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9 As it is written,
“He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
his righteousness[b] endures forever.”
his righteousness[b] endures forever.”
10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.[c] 11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14 while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.
I think there are at least seven things that Paul tells us in this brief passage about Christian giving. First, Christian giving is bountiful. Actually, Paul says that Christian giving is like sowing seed. If you sow bountifully you will reap a bountiful harvest. If you sow sparingly, you will receive a limited harvest.
This is the third in a series of stewardship sermons I have been offering this month. All of our members and regular attenders should have received by now the pledge and year-end giving appeal letter from our Stewardship Team. In addition, we have placed pledge cards and envelopes in the bulletin today so that you might make a commitment to giving to the church in 2018.
This passage in 2 Corinthians is part of Paul’s stewardship letter to the Church at Corinth. Rather than trying to raise money for one particular church (remember the early church at this point did not have buildings or paid staff to support) Paul is trying to raise money to help the poorer Christians in Jerusalem.
Bryan Wilkerson explains:
The believers in Jerusalem were being persecuted and were suffering financially. Paul recognized this need as an opportunity for the Gentile churches around the world to come alongside the Jerusalem church, so he started a collection from churches around the empire. In response to his earlier letter, the Corinthians had pledged to support the Jerusalem church by taking an offering and sending it on to Jerusalem. But as of yet, they had not followed through on that pledge. So Paul wrote this letter, in part, to remind them of their commitment. We don’t know why they hadn’t followed through. Maybe times had gotten tougher in Corinth, and they were concerned for their own financial needs. Or maybe there was no hardship, and they just wanted to keep the money for themselves. Whatever the reasons, they were reluctant to part with the money they had committed.
I imagine that each one of us here today fall into one of four categories in relation to giving to support Stowe Community Church:
1. Some of you made a pledge last year and you have been faithfully fulfilling that pledge, and you plan to pledge for next year as well. To all of you in this category, I say thank you on behalf of the whole church.
2. Others of you perhaps made a pledge last year and have struggled to keep up with that pledge. Whatever your circumstances, God understands. But if it is possible for you to still fulfill that pledge this year, I, like Paul with the Corinthians, would urge you to follow through on that pledge, and make a renewed pledge for 2018.
3. Still others of you here today may be members or regular attenders who have never pledged to SCC. I would invite you to consider doing so today. I will talk about why in a minute.
4. And then the rest of you here today, who do not fall into one of the first three categories, are probably visitors. I know it is kind of a bummer when you happen to visit a church when the pastor is preaching about money. Of course, we would welcome any donation to our church you can make today, but if you are a visitor here, we do not expect you to give. You can sit back and relax. But I hope that while you are relaxing, you might think about what God would have you to do to support your church back home, wherever you come from.
When I think of a bountiful harvest, I think of that sod in my front yard in South Carolina. When I think of the kind of harvest I can produce on my own power, I think of how my lawn in our back yard looked. As we consider our giving, we need to consider not simply what we can do on our own power, but what God can do through us.
On January 13, 2005, a local Christian radio station, JOY FM, set out to raise $75,000 for “Homes for Hope,” an organization that builds houses for those displaced by the tsunami that had recently occurred in India. In India, a 10 x 15 foot structure, smaller than the size of some of our garages, can be built for only $1,000. JOY FM’s goal was 75 homes. By the end of that day the amount raised was over $750,000, ten times the goal amount.
One caller said, “We wanted to build houses. God wanted to build a city.”
I wonder, what kind of bountiful harvest might God produce through our giving if we would only let him?
A second thing Paul tells us about Christian giving in this passage is that it is thoughtful. Paul says, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind.”
I don’t think God wants us to give to the work of the church in a thoughtless way, simply throwing into the collection plate whatever loose change we have. That’s OK, but I believe God really wants something more. I believe God wants us to think and pray about what he would have us give, and put some planning into it. That’s where pledging comes in. Pledging to the church not only helps your church board to plan what we can do in a given year, it gives you the opportunity to think through your giving and plan in the way God wants you to do.
A third thing Paul tells us here about Christian giving is that it is voluntary. Paul says we are not to give reluctantly nor under compulsion. I don’t believe God wants us to give out of a sense of obligation or being “guilt-induced” to give. Our giving needs to be of our own free choice. Not compelled.
In his book, Overcoming, Steve Mays says,
… there are three types of givers in life. One type is a flint, another is a sponge, and the third is a honeycomb. To get anything out of the flint, it must be hammered; even then, all that results are chips and sparks. To get anything out of the sponge, it must be continually squeezed and put under pressure. Finally, there is the honeycomb, just overflowing with its own sweetness.
I think Paul is telling us that God doesn’t want us to be like the flint or the sponge when it comes to giving. He wants us to be like the honeycomb that just oozes out the overflow of God’s blessing.
That leads to a fourth thing Paul tells us about Christian giving; it is cheerful. Paul says that “God loves a cheerful giver.” The word that is translated as “cheerful” in this passage literally means “hilarious”.
The story is told of a mother who gave her child a one-dollar bill and a quarter. “Sweetheart,” the mother said, “you can place either one in the offering plate. It’s entirely up to you.”
As they were driving home, the mother asked the daughter what she had decided to give.
“Well, at first I was going to give the dollar,” said the daughter. “But the man behind the pulpit said God loves a cheerful giver, so I felt like I would be much more cheerful if I gave the quarter instead.”
We can probably all identify with that story. However, I think God can enable us to experience more than just cheerfulness over what we get to keep. God can give us hilarious cheerfulness over what we get to give.
In this regard, I think of Scrooge in Dicken’s wonderful story, A Christmas Carol. Remember how miserly Scrooge is before he is visited by the three ghosts of Christmas, and how Scrooge overflows with hilarity after their visit and he discovers he hasn’t missed Christmas after all? Scrooge overflows with cheer because he hasn’t missed the chance to give. That’s the kind of cheer God can put in our hearts if we have had an encounter with him through his Son Jesus Christ.
That leads to the fifth thing that Paul tells us about Christian giving. Paul tells us that Christian giving is empowered. Paul says, “And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”
In other words, it is God who gives us the ability to give. Again, when I give under my own power, I think my giving tends to look like my backyard lawn in South Carolina. When I give under God’s power, the harvest it produces looks more like the lawn in my front yard in South Carolina.
A sixth thing Paul says here is that Christian giving is God-glorifying. Paul says, “Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others…”
Christians give not to be seen by others, and not primarily to make themselves feel good, but to honor God. Our giving is the natural overflow of hearts that are grateful for what God has done for us in Christ.
And that leads to the final point Paul makes in this passage. Christian giving is thankful. Paul ends this section of his letter by saying, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.”
What gift is Paul talking about? He is talking about the gift of God’s Son Jesus Christ. What bigger gift is there than that in the whole universe? It is partly because of the size of that gift that you can never out-give God.
If you have experienced the love and forgiveness of Jesus, then you will naturally want to thank God. You can’t help but thank him. And that thanksgiving will naturally overflow into giving—not just giving to the church, but giving to others and to God in every way that you can find to give, every day of your life.
My first position when I graduated from seminary was in a large church near Charlotte, North Carolina. I did a year-long internship in that church, working with youth.
Halfway through the year, I had a mother approach me and ask if I would meet with her 15-year-old son and his friend for Bible study. I gladly agreed to do that. Robbie and Tim and one other guy named John met every week. We started with the Gospel of John. We would read a chapter a week and then talk about it. Tim was especially enthusiastic and kept inviting friends to attend our Bible study. One week, one of Tim's friends, Stephen, prayed to receive Christ after one of our studies. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Tim went home and did the same thing that day on his own.
When we got to the end of the Gospel of John, I asked the guys what they wanted to read and discuss next. "The book of Revelation" was their answer. And so we started into a reading and discussion of one of the most challenging books in the Bible. By that time it was summer and we would often sit outside on the grass for our Bible studies together. After reading Revelation 4, with its beautiful picture of the rainbow around God's throne in heaven, Tim said to me, "I can't wait to get there!"
The next week, Tim was away visiting his grandparents near Asheville, North Carolina. In the middle of the week, Robbie's mother called me and said, "Tim's in the hospital in Asheville and we are going to see him." I immediately dropped everything and drove to Asheville. By the time I got there, Tim had been diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis. Despite our many prayers for him, Tim died in a matter of days.
Afterwards, one of the nurse's told me that when Tim entered the hospital he asked her if he was going to die. The nurse told him, "No, we're going to take good care of you." And Tim said, "It's alright, even if I die, because I know where I'm going."
Tim's death received quite a bit of coverage in the local news, and one day the local Christian radio station called to interview me about Tim. I shared how Tim had received Christ as a result of our Bible studies together, and at the end of the interview, the radio station played this song by Ray Boltz:
I dreamed I went to Heaven
You were there with me
We walked upon the streets of gold
Beside the crystal sea
We heard the angels singing
Then someone called your name
You turned and saw this young man
He was smiling as he came
And he said friend
You may not know me now
Then he said but wait
You used to teach my Sunday School
When I was only eight
And every week you would say a prayer
Before the class would start
And one day when you said that prayer
I asked Jesus in my heart
Thank you for giving to the Lord
I am a life that was changed
Thank you for giving to the Lord
I am so glad you gave
© 1988 Gaither Music Company
I wonder, will there be someone in heaven to thank you for giving to the Lord, whether that be giving of your time, talent, or treasure? As you invite Jesus to live in your heart and work through you, I believe that not only one day will you hear that "thank you" but you will hear these words of Jesus:
‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’