Give to Live

Give to Live

Gracious God, we pause in this moment to thank you for your abundant love that fills us and blesses our lives in so many ways.  We thank you for this community of faith and for this time to worship together.  May your Spirit be our guide and our inspiration, bringing to each of us what we need this day.  Amen.

The month of October is dedicated to our stewardship season as a church.  As you heard from Linda Sumpter last week, our Business Affairs Commission has sent out a letter this week inviting your participation in our annual stewardship campaign as they prepare the 2024 operating budget for our church.

A steward is a caretaker – one who tends to the wellbeing of that which is in their care.  As members, friends, and active participants of this community of faith, all of us are invited to be stewards of our church.  And we do so in various ways: tending to our collective ministries that serve both our congregation and the wider world, caring for our facility, and managing our resources so that this community of faith can thrive and do good work in the world.

So, today we begin a new sermon series that focuses on stewardship as a spiritual practice: Give, Serve, Grow: Sowing Seeds for Tomorrow.  Today we will focus on giving and, more generally, on how the practice of generosity can enrich our lives and bring a greater sense of connection, community, and hope.  This sermon is about supporting our church, but it’s about more than that too.

Giving, sharing, and generosity are at the heart of our faith.  One of the ways we express our love to God and to our neighbors, near and far, is by giving – sharing our financial and material resources, sharing our time and our abilities, offering our acts of service, care, and compassion, and sharing our willingness to simply be present to one another.  We practice generosity through all of these modalities of giving.

And the practice of generosity has been central to our faith tradition from the beginning.

In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus encouraged his listeners to store up treasures in heaven rather than becoming overly preoccupied with and consumed by their material possessions.  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” he said. (Matthew 6:21) Jesus urged his followers to “store up treasures in heaven.”  One way we can do that is to invest our lives in God’s priorities.  That takes shape in a lot of ways – in how we spend our time and prioritize the important things in life.  And one of those ways is by giving – using some of our material treasure to serve others.

To give some of what we have and to invest our resources in something worthwhile is an act of love.  When we invest our gifts and resources in people, communities, and organizations that work to bring more of God’s love, peace, and justice into our world, we become partners in building up the kingdom of God in our midst.  Investing our resources, time, and efforts in something bigger than ourselves expands our hearts, gives concrete expression to our love of God and neighbor, and builds community.

The Apostle Paul encouraged the church in Corinth to give and share of their resources with one another as well as with the church in Jerusalem and with the wider church that was beginning to spread all around them in the Mediterranean region.  Sharing of resources was a hallmark of the early church.  They gathered for communal meals and those with more resources helped out those with less.  They didn’t always practice this perfectly, but sharing and generosity were central to the way these communities gathered together and lived out their lives.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 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… You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.” (2 Corinthians 9:6-8, 11-12)

Paul is encouraging them to trust that God will provide for them and for their community.  And Paul proclaims that they will be blessed in their practice of generosity.  I think it is important to note here that he’s not just talking about material gain.  Paul is not a prosperity gospel preacher who is promising a magical windfall if they give.

Instead, I think Paul is trying to encourage the Corinthians to reflect on how their individual lives, their relationship with God and one another, and their sense of community are strengthened, enriched, and deepened by their mutual giving and sharing.

Give joyfully, freely, and intentionally.  You’ll be blessed in the process.  You’ll be glad you did.

Giving generously can feel pretty countercultural in our society that often prioritizes individual success and financial gain.  But giving away some of what we have is actually good for us.  Generosity is rewarding on a lot of levels.

We know this is true from our own experience.  A lot of people talk about how helping others and contributing to worthwhile causes brings joy and helps us feel more connected to others.  We feel good and find fulfillment when we make a positive contribution to the world around us.

There is also scientific evidence that generosity actually increases happiness.  I read about one study that divided participants into two groups.  One group was told they would be given a certain amount of money to spend on themselves.  And the other had to spend the money on others.  They did brain scans as they asked people to publicly pledge how they would spend the money.  And those that talked about giving to others had more activity in the parts of the brain associated with contentment and happiness.  That same group also self-reported higher levels of happiness than the others in the study.

I think giving brings us joy, in part, because it is an expression of love.

I’ve wondered at times if human beings are naturally more self-focused or community-focused.  Are we naturally generous?  Are we naturally selfish?

The evidence suggests that, overall, we are both.  People and the social structures we form are complicated.  We know that.  As a species we have evolved to have some self-preservation tendencies.  That makes sense.  We needed to watch out for ourselves in order to survive.  But we’ve also evolved to be generous.  We are a social species that interacts with one another and relies on one another.  Sharing resources has been necessary for our collective survival.

We’re not the only species that understands the value of sharing, of course.  The animal kingdom is full of examples of groups and herds that share with one another, so everyone has enough.  Here’s your spooky season example: vampire bats.  They’re blood donors!   For real!  They share food after a hunt, so every individual has enough to survive.  A little gross, but fascinating!

For us humans, generosity starts at a young age.  There has been a considerable amount of interesting research in this area too.  Studies have shown that toddlers tend to help others solve problems when given the opportunity (such as handing a researcher a needed object that is out of reach).  They also tend to share resources equally with others when in groups.

As we get a little older this gets a little more complicated.  Context matters.  Different situations bring about different responses.  There are many social and cultural factors that help shape our tendency towards generosity.  And as social groups get larger and societal structures get more complex, our ability to share gets more complicated.

But I find it hopeful to remember that part of our very nature as humans is an inclination towards generosity.  And that also tells me that generosity is something we can put some energy into and strengthen in our lives.  Giving generously in various ways can be for us an intentional spiritual practice that is good for ourselves and good for others.

For one, giving generously, freely, and intentionally grounds us in God’s love.  It’s an act of gratitude for God’s abundant love.  It’s also an act of trust that God can and will use our collective resources for collective good.

Giving is also an investment in our core values and in our community.  It is an act of love for our neighbors.  Giving is an act of hope that our gifts will make a difference in people’s lives, bringing joy, support, and belonging, bringing help and hope.

When we give, when we practice generosity, we are practicing openness to the world around us.  It takes us beyond ourselves and our individual concerns and brings us into deepen communion with others.

All of these things are true when we give to our church.

Your giving makes possible our weekly worship service (including our inspiring music program) not only for yourself, but for the person sitting next to you.  Look at your neighbor and pretend to be Oprah if you want to – you get a brass quintet, you get a brass quintet…

Your giving provides a supportive and caring educational environment for our children and youth where they can grow spiritually and develop their faith.  You’re investing in your own spiritual growth too.

Your giving supports our outreach into the broader community.  There are hungry people in Long Beach who are fed because of you.  There are organizations in our city and beyond who are providing essential care and services to those in need who depend upon our support as a church.

You are also giving the gift of community to all who gather here in various ways – all of our various church groups and programs, as well as a whole host of community groups who utilize our facility.  I can tell you, having talked to some of the folks in our twelve-step groups over the years, this church means a great deal to them because it has been a place where they have found a needed sense of community and support in their journey.

So, thank you for these gifts and your generous spirits!  This is a generous church.  I’ve seen your generosity over and over again.  You are blessing the lives of many, many people through your support of our church and our various ministries.

And finally, I invite you, as you think about your own giving, to church and to other people and organizations, to think about giving, to think about the practice of generosity, as an investment in hope.

I recently heard a definition of hope that I really like from Quaker writer, Parker Palmer.  When we think about hope we acknowledge that there is a distance between everything that is and everything that could be and should be.  “Hope is everything we do each day to shorten the distance between the two.”

We can practice hope.  We can invest in hope.  And when we give out of a place of hope and inspiration, we do so joyfully.  It’s not about guilt or obligation.

Thank you for the loving gifts of hope you offer to this world in so many ways.

May you be blessed with hope in your giving.  And may God multiply your joy as you do.