Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
November 4, 2018
Psalm 112: 5-9
It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice.
For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever.
They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord.
Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes.
They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor.
2 Corinthians 9:6-15
The point is this: 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. As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” 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. 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. 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, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
I would imagine that most of you have seen the musical Les Miserable. I like to tell the story that I should have seen it twice but haven’t seen all of it once. One time many years ago Laura and I got tickets as a Christmas present but on the night of the show both girls were sick and we gave the tickets away. The second time we at least made it to the theatre in Salt Lake City. But Laura took ill during the first act and when I walked out to check on her at intermission, she was laying on a lobby bench with medical personnel surrounding her. As you can see, Les Miserable has been a bit of a jinx!
Nevertheless, there is a scene in the musical that takes place between Jean Valjean, the bishop, and the magistrate judge. Jean Valjean was befriended and given lodging by the bishop. Later however he stole the bishop’s candlesticks. The bishop reported the theft and the magistrate is brought in to question Jean Valjean. As the scene unfolds, it is clear that everyone understands who stole the candlesticks. Valjean is headed for jail. Surprisingly, the bishop retracts his charges and offers an excuse for the missing candlesticks. He tells the magistrate that he offered them to Valjean as a gift. Jean Valjean is stunned. When he and the bishop are alone, he asks, “Why did you do that? You know that I am guilty.” The bishop replies, “Life is for giving.” That is the principle that we recognize as our theme for Consecration Sunday this year. That is the principle of generous living.
A few weeks ago, Marilyn Sullivan told me about a visit she had once made to a Panera restaurant. This was not your typical Panera or typical restaurant however. At this Panera there were no absolute prices on the menu board in front of the customers, only suggested prices. Customers were asked to pay an amount as they felt moved to offer based on their appreciation of the meal and based on their concern and ability to help others who may come to the restaurant to eat but can’t afford to pay the full cost. The concept, called Panera Cares, was offered in a handful of restaurants nationwide, including one in Dearborn and one on the east side of the Metro Detroit area. It was introduced several years ago as a way to fight hunger and to bring the awareness of hunger issues to a larger community. I knew that this concept was practiced at a few privately owned eateries across the country but I was excited when Marilyn told me about it happening at Panera. I thought it would be a perfect sermon illustration on Consecration Sunday. After all, that is the philosophy that we advocate for stewardship giving. You give, not out of obligation, not because you are told to give but rather from an appreciation of the gifts that you have received and from a need to offer thanksgiving to the giver.
As I prepared to write this sermon I did some research on Panera Cares restaurants, hoping to find a lot of fodder to nourish and inspire you as you consider your own giving to the church. When I googled the program, I found some disappointing news. According to a news release from June of this year, the program, with the exception of one Panera Cares restaurant in Boston, is no longer in existence. And there went my planned sermon illustration! Despite the best of intentions, a suggested donation restaurant did not seem to work. People who work at Panera Cares offered their theories. One was that regular customers simply did not want to eat with those who could not afford a meal. The prospect of sitting next to someone in a soup kitchen type atmosphere was not terribly inviting. Secondly, those who were hungry did not visit Panera Cares. Thus, the program did not reach those whom it was designed to serve. Perhaps the poor did not feel welcome or accepted there. The restaurant limited clients to one reduced cost meal per week thus not really providing a meaningful solution to change the conditions of deep need.
But there was a third reason offered for the business failure of Panera Cares. That reason was that the suggested menu pricing left potential customers uncomfortable. The article specifically mentioned the word “trust.” Those who entered the doors found it difficult to trust the concept of paying what they felt the meal deserved. Customers preferred to be told exactly how much to pay. Some wondered, “Did I pay too little, considering that I am also supposed to be paying for someone else’s meal?” Other worried, “Did I pay more than I needed, something that allows others to take advantage of me and am I better off eating someplace where I know exactly what to pay? People who were willing to give the restaurant concept a try were not really willing to trust in the concept: trust in the other customers, trust in their own uneasy conscience, or trust in the ability of the idea to really work. The author of the article I read, from the Washington Post and Fast Company said that Panera Cares became a place of anxiety and uneasiness rather than welcome and trust. People did not want to go to eat where they were either uncomfortable givers or uncomfortable recipients.
The theme for this year’s stewardship campaign is “Living Generously.” These words are taken from Psalm 112 where the Psalmist assures us that it is well with those who deal generously and who conduct their living with a sense of justice for all. Essentially this Psalm reminds us that true happiness is to be found in a life that honoring the intentions of God and that such living will produce blessings of its own. Our lives and our future are shaped by the way we mirror the grace of God in our own actions. Our generous dealing and just affairs, our compassion for the poor, our sense of priorities in life should be described in terms of God’s intention for the use of our resources of time and money and energy.
The second lesson this morning is from Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth. In this letter Paul shares some basic lessons on the Christian faith, including instruction on living generously. Paul reminds people that generous living reaps a harvest in return. If you sow sparingly, you will also reap sparingly, and if you sow bountifully you will also reap bountifully. Paul writes that God’s love is poured out on those who are cheerful and joyous in their giving. Blessing comes when giving is not an obligation, not a rational exercise that determines when enough is left over to be generous. Giving in joy and without coercion is what God desires. Giving generously, giving in cheerfulness, enhances the value of the gift and provides a sense of worth that can’t be measured by a price tag or menu board.
Finally, and this comment speaks directly to the idea of giving without obligation, Paul writes “you will be enriched in every way for your great generosity.” Paul implies that if we really trust God with all that we are and all that we have, there should be no anxiety about whether we are giving too little or offering too much.
Church stewardship consultant and architect of the idea of Consecration Sunday, Herb Miller writes, “Giving is not so much a matter of being generous as it is an act of trust. We do not feel secure financially because we have things. We feel secure financially because we trust God to continue providing what we need.” Giving generously then is an act of mature faith, of discovering and acting upon the realization that if we are willing to risk giving, God will supply whatever we need. Instead of the anxiety of waiting until someone tells us what to give, instead of the weariness of giving out of a sense of duty, we give generously knowing that life with God calls us to give and that in our giving we will grow closer to God and find greater joy.
Last week, noted author and minister Eugene Peterson died. I will remember Peterson specifically for one story that he liked to tell. He was observing some birds learning how to fly. Three young swallows were perched on a dead branch that stretched out over a lake. One adult bird got along side the chicks and starting pushing them toward the end of the branch, moving them with gentle force. One chick fell off but somewhere near the branch and the water its wings started working and it flew away. The same thing happened to the second one. The third chick however was not to be bullied. At the end of the branch it gripped its talons tightly, holding on even if it swaying unsteadily. The adult bird pecked at the chick’s desperately clinging talons until it became more painful for the little bird to hang on then to risk falling into the lake. The grip was released and the wings started flapping. The third chick flew away.
Peterson observed that the adult bird knew what the chicks did not- that they could fly and that there was no danger or risk in doing what they were designed to do. He wrote, “Birds have feet and can walk. Birds have talons and can grasp a branch securely. They can walk and they can cling. But flying is their characteristic actions and not until they fly are they living at their best, gracefully and beautifully. Giving is what we humans do best. It is the air into which we were born. It is the action that was designed into us before our birth.”
Perhaps we try so desperately to hold onto ourselves and what we have to guard against the future, to protect ourselves from uncertainty, to be sure that we are safe. It is common for us to make careful and measured choices about our resources of time and energy and money. But generous living calls us to use the sometimes untested wings of giving. We don’t live generously because we haven’t tried, clinging to a safe place while missing the opportunities to soar. Yet Jesus showed us and the words of Paul teach us that life is for giving. Trusting in God to provide we are to risk that with which we have been blessed, mirroring the deeds of our Lord. Life is for giving. Let us find more way to give of ourselves generously.