Sermon November 9, 2014

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

November 9, 2014
Stewardship Sunday

“The Generosity of God”

Matthew 6:19-34

I believe that central to what it means to know God is to understand the generosity of God. When we realize that all that we have and all that we are is a gift of God’s grace, then we can appreciate how very generous God has been to us. Our Old Testament reading is a psalm of praise. Although we can’t see it in English, it is an acrostic psalm: each verse begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The whole psalm is speaking about the greatness and goodness of God. Life on earth is a trust and we are stewards of what God has given us.

Today is Stewardship Sunday. Let me tell you – the whole concept of stewardship begins with an acknowledgment that we are the recipients of God’s grace. It begins with the generosity of God. Since we have been so richly blessed by God, since we have been gifted by God, we are expected to be responsible for what we do with what we have been given.

We use the word “stewardship” to speak of our financial support for the mission and ministry of our church. As we consider the financial needs of the ministry we hope to accomplish in our church, we are talking about being faithful stewards. I realize that we are talking about money and that’s a very personal topic. You can’t get any more personal than that. It can be a touchy subject.

I read how Mark Twain once visited a church where a missionary appealed for funds to evangelize the heathen in a foreign land. “After ten minutes of a description about their unhappy plight, I wanted to give $50,” Twain wrote. “The preacher kept on another fifteen minutes and that gave me time to realize that $50 was an extravagance, so I cut it in half. At the end of another ten minutes, I reduced it to $5. When at the end of an hour of speaking the plates were finally passed, I was so annoyed that I reached in and helped myself to a quarter.”

Besides our natural aversion to sermons that address how we spend our money, I realize that we spend a lot of time thinking about money. The state of the economy is on our minds. We pay attention to the stock market; we watch what real estate prices are doing; and we keep an eye on the cost of things like food and gasoline. We often hear conflicting reports from economists and political leaders. Money is an important issue and our aim is to make careful decisions about what to do with our money. If there’s one thing we understand, it’s the value of money. However, if there’s one thing we underestimate, it’s the generosity of God.
When we turn to the Bible we discover that it’s not difficult to see what it says about money. It is very straightforward. Jesus spoke more frequently about money than any other subject except the kingdom of God. He told parables like those about a treasure buried in a field; about a servant forgiven an enormous debt who refused to forgive his fellow servant; and about a master who entrusted to his servants ten talents, five talents, and one talent, and expected a return on his investment. He said it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into heaven. And constantly he talked about giving to support the poor. Wherever we turn in the gospels, it is impossible to escape what Jesus says about how we use our money. Jesus wants to transform us into faithful, generous disciples.

Chapter 6 of Matthew is in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, which goes from chapters 5-7. The Sermon on the Mount is a call to all those who follow Christ to be different from the world around us. In the first 18 verses of this chapter, Jesus is saying we ought to be different from religious people who act like hypocrites. Jesus says – Don’t be like them. And in the second half of the chapter, beginning in verse 19, we are implored to be different from non-religious people who idolize money and material possessions. Again, Jesus says – Don’t be like them.

And then Jesus places the alternatives before us. There are two treasures and two masters. The two treasures are the treasure on earth and the treasure in heaven. Jesus said: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.”

Treasure is a way of referring to that which we love most, that which has the biggest claim to our thoughts and affections. Martin Luther said: “What a person loves, that is his god. For he carries it in his heart, he goes about with it night and day, he sleeps and wakes with it; be it what it may, wealth or self, pleasure or renown.”

The reason we want treasure is because we think it gives us security. However, Proverbs declares: “Do not toil to acquire wealth; be wise enough to desist. When your eyes light upon it, it is gone; for suddenly it takes to itself wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven.”

The trouble with storing up treasure on earth is that there is no security. Moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal. The things we treasure aren’t secure no matter what we do. The moth represents the corrosion of nature eating away. The rust represents the corrosion of time eating away. And the thief represents the corrosion of humanity eating away.

Understand that Jesus is not prohibiting us from earning or saving. In fact, the Bible praises the lowly ant for storing in the summer the food it will need in the winter; and it declares that the believer who makes no provision for his family is worse than an unbeliever. We are not supposed to despise the good things God has given us, but to enjoy them. We are to be wise and prudent managers of God’s good gifts.

What Jesus is trying to do is to redirect our ambitions and values. Instead of treasures on earth which are subject to loss and decay, he urges us to store up treasure in heaven. “In heaven” does not mean after we die. It has nothing to do with time. Treasure in heaven means treasure with God. This means to invest our lives, our earnings, our possessions, in those things that have eternal value. These are the things which increase faith, ours and others; which build up hope; which spread forth love. When we tell someone of the love of Christ, when we feed the hungry, when we comfort the sick, when we give hope to the downhearted, when we bring healing to relationships, when we enable God’s people to worship and serve him, when we teach children and adults about God, then we are laying up treasure in heaven. This is the real test of Christian discipleship – “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Next, Jesus talks about two masters. He says: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

A pastor I know traveled to the African country of Ghana to visit the church there. The Presbyterians are the largest Christian group in that country. He said that he learned that in the dominant language of Ghana the only way to ask the question, “What is your religion?” was to ask, “Whom do you serve?” That’s the question Jesus puts before us. Whom do you serve? We can serve God, or we can serve money. We cannot serve both. Jesus doesn’t say it’s not wise to serve both. He doesn’t say it’s really difficult to serve both. Jesus says it is impossible to serve two masters.

The emphasis is on the little word “serve.” It is not a sin to have wealth, to have property and possessions. But we cannot let material things become our master. When we do that, it is idolatry – the same as if we were worshiping a different god. With our money we serve the Lord. Psalm 62 says: “If you acquire riches, do not set your heart upon them.” Jesus is not saying that we cannot have riches. What leads us astray is if we start thinking we own our possessions. We may wake up someday to realize that our possessions own us; that our money is our master and we are serving it.

When we put our money in the offering plate on Sunday morning we are saying yes to God and no to the idols of wealth. That is why the offering is always a part of our worship experience. Giving money is an effective way of showing our love to God because it is so much a part of us. Money is so intimately related to the one who possesses it that you cannot consistently give money without giving yourself. What our church needs, more than people who will give money to support the church’s programs is people who will give their lives to Jesus Christ.

When my pastor friend visited a Presbyterian missionary in Ghana, he found out that the church there was established over a hundred years ago by Scottish Presbyterians. In some ways their worship services still reflect those Scottish roots, but over the years African traditions and culture have been introduced. One example is with the offering. When the offering is collected the people dance. At the time of the offering the music is playing and the people dance as they bring their offerings forward. And they take their time with it. The offering may go on for quite a while because the people are dancing all the way down the aisle. My friend made the comment that this is the time in the worship service when the people are smiling and seem the most joyful. Doesn’t that say something about their sense of stewardship? They are happiest when they are giving their money to God’s service.

In my mind I tried to picture how this might work in our worship service. Can you imagine it? What would it be like if we danced joyously down the aisles with our offerings? What would that say about us, and the God we serve?

The greatest benefit of faithful stewardship is a real, tangible joy. We are called to be people who give to the Lord with glad and generous hearts. This is the joy of generosity. A joy that comes from a faithful stewardship of God’s gifts is a lasting joy that satisfies down deep. I believe that joyful giving is one of the surest signs of the presence of God’s grace in our hearts.

A powerful component of Jesus’ message is his words – “Do not worry about your life.” We are not to be obsessed with the things of the world. Jesus wants us to take our eyes off the anxieties of this world and direct our attention to God. Of course we should be concerned when people do not have food and clothes. We are to be looking out for others. And when we seek first the kingdom of God, then it says that God will supply all our needs. The God of generosity, who clothes the flowers and feeds the birds, knows all about our needs. And God can be trusted to take care of us.

I realize these can be anxious times. We wonder how safe our money is. Security is a big concern for us. But God is generous and he wants us to be generous people. What I want us to consider this morning is that stewardship is a matter of the heart. Do you realize that your offering, your giving to the church, is an act of worship? Our offering is to God, not the budget of the church. Our offering comes from our hearts, not our checkbooks. Stewardship is God calling every one of us to confess the Lordship of Jesus Christ over everything in our lives – over all that we possess and all that we are.

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