Sunday, October 30, 2011

What People Will Do For God

What People Will Do For God
Exodus 35:20-35
October 30, 2011
Stewardship Dedication

And they came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the LORD’S offering to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the sacred vestments.  (35:21)
            If you look around long enough in the Bible, you can find just about anything. Today we find a story about an unbelievably generous offering. Moses has challenged the people of Israel to give to God out of their resources. He asks if anybody has a generous heart. Then he turns them loose.

Pretty soon, the people come running back. They are pushing wheelbarrows full of gold and silver. They bring fine linen and priceless jewels. All of it is given to God. As one Bible scholar says, “This story is a stewardship dream come true.”[1]

I know our church’s stewardship team is optimistic. They believe this can happen again, and today could be the day. The only problem might be if somebody murmurs, “It’s still a dream!”

            This Bible story offers up an extraordinary moment. The people give freely. I scratch my head in wonder, especially after all the events that we have heard from the book of Exodus. Moses is raised against all odds in Pharoah’s family (2:10). He discovers somehow he is a Jew, and murders an Egyptian who was beating up on a Jew (2:12). Running off to the desert, God finds him (3:4). Moses has his burning bush moment, when God sends him back to Egypt to lead his Jewish people out of slavery (3:12). It’s an amazing story.

            God gets the people out from under Pharoah’s thumb (14:30). Then God feeds them (16:13-14). God gives them fresh water (17:6). God protects them from enemies (17:9). Then God gives the greatest possible gift to a tribe of liberated people: God gives them ten Holy Words to guide them in their freedom (20:1-17). It’s a gift of continuing speech.

            But freedom doesn’t begin so well. The people cash it in on a golden calf (32:3-6), in one more futile human attempt to shrink God down to manageable size. When there is every reason for God to blast them back into the sand, God forgives them (32:14). This forgiveness is a gift that reveals God’s character: the Lord is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (34:6).

            All of that leads us to this moment. The God who speaks with Moses is going to set up shop with them. God needs a human meeting place. So what our story reports is the very first Building Campaign for the people of God. It had to be a movable building, for the people will keep wandering in the desert for three and a half more books of scripture. But this tabernacle, this tent, will be the place where God meets them for worship, instruction, and identity. The way it works is this: the people assemble for worship, they learn about steadfast love, and they remember who they are.

            This is the reason why the offering is so overwhelming on the Sabbath in our text. It’s a very simple principle: we give our money freely to anything that gives us meaning, value, and purpose.

            Picture the conversation between a teenager and her father.
  •  “Dad, I need to get a new phone.” What’s wrong with your current phone? 
  • “It doesn’t work so well since I dropped it in the toilet.” Why did you do that?  
  • “But I need a new phone.” What kind of phone do you want? 
  • “Well, all my friends have an Apple iPhone 4S.” What’s so special about it? 
  • “It does all kinds of cool stuff: you can order books on Amazon, check movie times, use it as a GPS, and see how many point the Steelers are behind.” Does it make phone calls, too? 
  • “Sure Dad, you can even do Skype and look at the person you are calling.” Dad: I remember when phones made phone calls. 
  • She says, “Well Dad, anybody who is anybody has the iPhone 4S.” He says, “So this phone will give you meaning, value, and purpose.” 
  • Absolutely! “But that’s what you said about the last phone before you dropped it in the toilet.” She looks at him with big brown eyes. 
  • He starts to thaw. How much does the iPhone cost? 
  • “They are having a sale. If I don’t get the extra memory or any of the apps, it’s only 649.” He considers this; I think I have seven dollars in my wallet. 
  • “Funny, Dad. It’s six-hundred-forty-nine.” That is a lot of driveways to shovel and children to babysit. 
  • “But Dad, I already have three hundred dollars saved up.” (He has seven bucks, she has three hundred.) Dad wonders: Why do you need this phone? 
  • She replies, It’s like you said: it will give meaning, value, and purpose.”
            Does she get the phone? I don’t know if she gets the phone. I do know that people give their money to just about anything that gives them meaning, value, and purpose. That’s why the Israelites were giving their money to God. They know the Source of their bread. They know that, unlike that cell phone, Pharoah no longer owns them. Israel knows that the wrong they have done has been forgiven. The people are free. The best expression of their freedom is their generosity.

            That leads me to notice three important insights that we can learn from this story.

            The first is this: generosity is the name of the game. Generosity is the fruit of meaning, value, and purpose. Generosity is a much better word than stewardship. “Stewardship” is a manager’s word. You take care of what you have; that’s stewardship. “Generosity” means you give it away. You give it, not merely to the church, but to the world! And behind that, to the Maker of the world! When was the last time you made a really generous gift? Not the token amount or the cautious sum – when was the last time you truly emptied your wallet for something or somebody?

One of the awkward things about growing up in American culture is that our culture silently tells you to draw a circle around your life. The circle defines you. It confines you. It declares, “I will share this much, but I won’t give any more.” That’s it. No more. The circle is drawn in fear. Unless God intervenes, we will live inside this circle most of our days.
It happens early, by the time we become little children. Do you remember Shel Silverstein’s “Prayer of a Selfish Child”?  It goes like this:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my toys to break,
so none of the other kids can use ‘em. Amen.[2]

But the generous person knows how to step over the line, to move outside the confining circle. Generosity is a learned habit where we extend ourselves beyond all confinement. Israel discovered that generosity is the primary virtue of God. Rather than hold back in fear or strike back in punishment, God keeps giving and giving and giving.

And even in the desert, they decide they want to be like that! They will not be self-absorbed, self-contained, self-reliant, and ultimately self-centered. They will step over the invisible circle, and they will be generous. “Generosity” is the word.

            The second thing is that generosity is a group activity. It is not the private donation of a wealthy individual but a communal work.

            I know a congregation, sadly, that struggles to understand this. I worked there for five years, and then I moved up here twenty-one years ago. They have the same number of people attending that they did twenty-one years ago, although the contributions are about twenty-five percent less. 

            When you scratch below the surface, you might discover a few reasons why. How did the congregation get started? A wealthy factory owner built the church for his workers. They didn’t have to do a thing. The factory owner didn’t ask them to pay for the preacher. He simply deducted some money from each worker’s paychecks and called it a “pledge.”

            Then they had another millionaire, a man who learned about electricity from Thomas Edison. He went off to Ohio and started Dayton Power and Light. Made a lot of money, but never forgot his home church. He got the notion in his head that the tall steeple should be illuminated at night, so he gave thousands of shares from his company to set up an endowment to perpetually pay for the steeple lighting. Last time anybody checked, the fund was making enough money to pay for the whole electric bill, with more than enough to spare.

            Then they had Jim Fuller, another millionaire, who died and left behind $37 million for his family to fight over. At the request of the family, I did a five minute funeral for which they paid me fifteen bucks. His attorney was so embarrassed that he added another eighty-five. The finance committee at the church wondered out loud if Mr. Fuller might remember the church in his will. After replacing the furnace for them three times, he did not. The congregation panicked; it was running out of millionaires. Fortunately they did not give away much money for mission.

            Well, take a lesson from Israel: there were no millionaires in the desert. Those were the days before Las Vegas, you understand. The account from Exodus 35 is clear. Everybody participated. Everybody gave generously.

And everybody gave different gifts! For those with gold and silver, it was gold and silver. For those with fine jewelry, it was fine jewelry. For those with skill in spinning tapestry, they spun the tapestries. For those who could carve wood or work with metal, they carved the wood and worked with the metal. The point is everybody took part as they had the ability and the opportunity.  Every gift was valuable and costly. Each gift contributed to the greater good.  No one could do it alone; all of them could do it together.

Those of you who ask for money, perhaps for an alumni fund or a marching band, know that participation is the key. Before a foundation gives a nickel to a college, they want to know how many graduates are giving something. The marching band will sell you a small box of oranges, in the hope that next year you might buy another. Each gift matters, and together the gifts will overflow.

In fact, I stopped the scripture reading a few verses early because it keeps going on and on and on about how much the people contributed. The people were so generous that they gave more than Moses needed. So much so that Moses had to send word throughout the camp, “Stop giving! We have too much!”

Generosity is the name of the game (three cheers today for the Generosity Committee!). Generosity is a group activity. And the third insight is certainly the most powerful: generosity changes everybody who practices it. If we are generous as God is generous, God will change us, shape us, make something better of us. That is a promise that we cannot know unless we take the steps to grow in our generosity.

It’s there in our story. Over and over again, there are descriptions of what was going on within the givers.  “They came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the Lord’s offering.” Those phrases are repeated: everyone whose heart was stirred, everyone whose spirit was willing. As they give, something beneficial happens to them. Giving is good for the givers, and it is good for us.

That is why we offer ourselves to God this day. We are taking part in the perpetual gift exchange that God establishes with the world. We receive, we give. That’s the flow of the thing. If we receive well, with thanks and gratitude, we give well – and we are changed in the motion.

Generosity is not a natural inclination. It is a learned behavior that counters our human fear. Generosity undermines all caution. We hurl ourselves into the arms of God because we trust that we will be caught. And we hurl ourselves into the arms of God because we love God so much.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a writer in spirituality, has a great perspective on this. "Abundance," he writes, "is not measured by what flows in, but by what flows over. The smaller we make the vessel of our need, the sooner we get the overflow we need for delight."[3]

There is a story about a husband and a wife traveling around the world. In Korea, they saw a field by the side of the road. In the field, a boy pulled a primitive plow while an old man held the plow handles and directed it through the rice paddy. Both the boy and the old man were singing church hymns. The husband was amused and took a snapshot of the scene. "That's a curious picture. I suppose they are poor," he said to the missionary who was their interpreter and guide.

"Yes," was the reply. "I know that family. When the church was built in their village, they were eager to give something to it. They had no money, so they sold the only ox they had and gave the money to the church. This spring they are pulling the plow themselves." The husband and wife were silent for a few minutes, until the wife said, "That was a real sacrifice."

The missionary said, "They did not call it that. They thought they were blessed that they had an ox to sell."

The two tourists had not much to say. But when they reached home, they took the photograph to the church and told their pastor about it. "We want to give more money to God,” they said, "and we need you to give us some plow work to do. Until we saw that scene and heard the story, we never knew what joy, sacrifice, and generosity are all about. Now we want to find out for ourselves."

How about you?
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, New Interpresters Bible, commentary on Exodus, p. 962
[2] Shel Silverstein, A Light in the Attic (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1981) 15.
[3] As quoted by Martin Marty, in his newsletter "Context."

No comments:

Post a Comment