II Corinthians 9:6-15
It’s Homecoming Weekend and there was a gathering of current and former presidents of the University last week. So this is a good time for a story about Congregational Church member and former University of Iowa President, Sandy Boyd.
In his memoir, A Life on the Middle West’s Never-Ending Frontier, Sandy tells of a time of great excitement and happiness, of energy and hope during his early years teaching at the Law School.
Sandy was the chair of the dedication committee for the new Law School, which as he says, “consisted of an inadequate addition to the 1930’s Law Commons dormitory on the site now occupied by the College of Public Health.” At the dedication, United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren gave a major address. UI President, Virgil Hancher, called it the most impressive University occasion he had ever attended.
So, Sandy thought that this time of good will and looking forward would be a great opportunity to start a campaign to raise money for the Law School Foundation. On Monday morning he went to Mason Ladd, then dean of the Law School, and, as Sandy tells the story, “Asked him to consider what the Iowa Law School meant to him and to give accordingly.”
Sounds simple and straightforward enough.
And who could resist Sandy Boyd?
“A few days later,” Sandy continues,” Allan Vestal and I were driving to work when Allan said the dean wanted me to get off his back.”
I guess it didn’t go so well.
But sometimes givers—or potential givers—“wish to be left alone,” as Ebenezer Scrooge once expressed his desire.
I told those who were here last Sunday that stewardship—the wise use of all that has been entrusted to us;
stewardship—the day in and day out decisions about how we will spend our money, how we will use our time, how we will best put our individual gifts and talents to good use;
Stewardship is heart work. It is.
What kind of heart work to we need to do in order to become cheerful givers?
The lesson from Proverbs that we heard this morning helps us as it reflects on the heart and on wealth and poverty. It encourages us as we do the “heart work” of stewardship in these days.
Commenting on those sayings, one person suggests they tell us that: “What is in one’s heart will come to the surface, where it can be seen….A troubled heart quenches the inner energy and drive by which a person succeeds in life.”[i]
In contrast, “A cheerful heart has a continual feast”—even if that feast is vegetables with love rather than a fatted ox served with a generous helping of hatred.
The human heart lies open before God. And in the heart, that innermost spring of life, we might discover the resources to overcome the outward circumstances that thwart and cut down.
This is nothing less than the grace of God in our lives. Earlier in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul expressed it this way: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” That is to say, we have inner heart resources to draw upon in challenging times.
It is God’s grace that enables us to continue living with a purpose even when we think everything has been lost. It is God’s grace that allows us, who have all received so much, to be generous in return. This is, Paul tells us, an “indescribable gift.”
Even if we can’t fully describe this, we take our stand near Paul and with him shout: “Thanks be to God!”
Here’s what happens next—sometimes it unfolds quite naturally and we see it coming; sometimes it takes us by surprise:
The heart work of thankfulness leads to a liberal sharing. Gratitude moves us toward a desire that an ever-expanding number of people would enjoy all the good things of life.
As a generous heart grows within us, we discover something, perhaps unexpected, perhaps something of a paradox: God gives generously to each of us but does not compel our response. God gives freely so that we can be—if we desire—like God at least in this sense: free, generous, and cheerful givers ourselves. The theologian Miroslav Volf says that freedom in giving is so important because “the gift consists more in the freely undertaken choice to give than in the things given…the ‘eagerness’ of the giver matters more than the magnitude of the gift.”
No rules govern God’s love for us. And no rules govern the love we offer in return.
There is nothing that forces our giving—to another person, to another institution, to this church. Each of us, as Paul suggest, must decide for ourselves—without reluctance, without compulsion. That’s heart work. And after we have done that, after we make that “freely undertaken choice to give” we discover within ourselves the cheerful heart that is loved by God.
When the guideline for giving is your happiness—your cheerfulness—that changes things, doesn’t it?
We used to encourage people to “Give until it hurts.” But we found out so many had a low threshold of pain.
How much do you need to give—and again, I’m not talking simply about giving to the ministry and mission of this congregation; that’s never my ultimate concern—How much, then, do you need to give before you feel good? So many people are walking around feeling miserable. When we stop and think that miser and miserable come from the same word, maybe there is a connection between giving and happiness. God loves a cheerful giver. That seems to be our only guideline for giving.
“The point is this,” Paul writes, quickly getting down to business. “The point is this: you reap what you sow.” And if that's not direct enough, he makes it more specific: “The one who sows sparingly will reap sparingly; the one who sows bountifully will reap bountifully.”
Now, this is no secret guideline that will guarantee prosperity. Paul's words aren’t absolute. But this general piece of folk wisdom is borne out in nature and in life often enough that we might want to listen when the point is made.
Put yourself into a project, do your utmost to get it started in the right way—and you have a good chance for it to grow. A marriage, a family, a friendship—it’s just possible that those who sow love bountifully also reap bountifully.
Paul is encouraging heart work here. And it comes with a challenge: Give thanks for the indescribable gift of God and sow bountifully. That's the point. It might seem simple at first, but if you take up this challenge, it can change your life. Give thanks for the indescribable gift of God and sow bountifully.
A funny thing about the giving that grows out of gratitude: it makes us better off. “You will be enriched,” is how Paul puts it. Your own life judges the truth of what Paul says. Recall you own generosity. My guess is that your grateful giving has left you better off in many ways.
God gives to us so that we might give to others. We are not only receivers. We are all givers as well. And so stewardship is not an elective for people of faith; giving is not an optional activity.
We give because we have received—and often we have received more than we are ready to admit. God has given each of us time, potential, and opportunities so that our lives can fulfill a purpose, and at the same time, strengthen the work of Christ. God’s giving is not determined by our giving. God is the continual giver who waits for our response to those gifts.
So, yes, as I’ve said many times, stewardship is more than a matter of how much we’re giving to the church each week. It's about how we are living each day. It’s part of how we learn to do good and seek justice. It is a joyful response to the God who gives generously.
It is—you know this by now, don’t you?—it is heart work.
Certainly, be a steward of your finances.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, put it simply: “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Good stewardship of our money requires that we make it and save it. It also requires that we give it away. As one person put it: “Giving should make some difference in how we as religious people experience life from day to day. If giving to your congregation is similar to writing a check at the end of the month to pay the phone or electric bill, and then forgetting about it until the end of the next month, you are not giving enough. Similarly, if you take spare change or a dollar or two from your pocket or purse for the weekly collection and never notice the difference, your giving has too little meaning either for you or your church.”[ii]
Earn. Save. And give honestly, give generously, give regularly. Be a steward of your finances.
Be a steward of your time.
Examine how you use your time. Give some thought to your calendar as well as your checkbook. Your calendar speaks volumes about what you think is important. Time is the great equalizer. Rich or poor, young or old, we all receive the same amount of time to use as we choose. And unlike our money, we can’t earn time. We can’t save time, really. But we can give our time. Where do your values challenge you to change your calendar? Be a steward of your time.
Be a steward of your health.
God has given us minds to be used to their fullest capacity and bodies in which to accomplish God’s work. Both mind and body are to be treated with respect. Take care of yourself. Be a steward of your health.
Be a steward of relationships.
Our relationships with others are also a gift—and a measure of our stewardship for God. Stewardship at home means living and growing together as a family. Stewardship at work involves us in showing coworkers an example of Christian behavior in the best sense of that phrase. Be a steward of your relationships.
Being a steward—wisely using all the resources that we have received—leads us to generous giving as an expression of God’s love for us and our love for God.
Usually when churches are seeking pledges for the coming year, ministers at some point will follow Sandy Boyd’s lead and ask people to consider what this congregation means to you and to give accordingly.
I’d like to do that.
But I fear that you, like the Law School Dean, would just want me to get off your back.
Instead, let me simply suggest three things you might do—some heart work that could lead to a cheerful heart.
Let me suggest three things that you might do to continue on that path.
- Manage your resources wisely—your time, your talent, your income and possessions. Remember, the question isn’t “How much should I give?” The question is “Am I giving all that I can?”
- Focus on serving God and others. It was John Wesley, again, who put it this way: “Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
- And take an active role in the life of this church. In joining this congregation you covenanted walk together in the ways of Jesus Christ, made known and to be made known to us. Perhaps now is the time to renew those vows.
[i] Raymond Van Leeuwen, NIB, Proverbs 15:13-17, pg. 150.
Congregations of Generous People, pg. 38.