Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
When Thomas and I were first married, we were poor! I was still working to finish my music degree after a few too many changes in majors, and the birth of our first two children, and he was still working to finish his PhD. For a few years, we lived as a family of four on one half-time salary. Even after I finished my degree and started teaching, we barley had enough to make ends meet. And so I remember well some of the unexpected blessings that would come our way on a few occasions – a family member would give us an unexpected gift of money or some item we needed, including a car at just the time we needed it. Other people’s generosity touched us in ways that strengthened our faith and increased our gratitude and thanksgiving.
Thomas’ first job after graduate school took us to the St. Louis area, where we began to get involved in a growing church that had a strong outreach ministry. For the first time in our adult lives, we were finally in a position where we could be on the side of generosity – with our time & talents, serving in the various ministries of the church, and finally with our financial gifts. For us, it was a joy to be able to make a commitment to giving to support the ministry and work this church was doing to make a real difference in the lives of so many! About five years into Thomas’ job, though, the economy began to take a real downturn, and his company started to downsize. He was let go from his job, and our only source of income was gone.
Now a family of five, we were worried about our future. Our church family surrounded us with prayer, and we held to our faith in this time of uncertainty. We had a little money in savings, and he had been given severance pay, so we sat down and literally counted our cost of living so that we could stretch the little bit of money we had as far into the future as we could. We had to make choices about what were essentials, and cut out anything we could live without. I remember having a conversation about whether to continue giving our offering at church. We had finally gotten to a place where we had been able to make a commitment to regular financial giving for the first time in our adult lives, so we didn’t want to go back on that. We were being surrounded by prayers from our church family, and we held on to our faith that God would continue to provide for us, just as God had always provided in the past. We decided that withholding what we had promised to give back to God would be like admitting that we didn’t trust in God’s care. So we planned our giving, and added up our other expenses, and we could mark the date on the calendar about six months later when our money would run out.
Meanwhile, Thomas started sending out his resume to anything remotely related to his field, and I began substitute teaching at our church’s preschool. We were sure that Thomas would be able to get another job within a few months, before our money ran out. But as we were approaching the fourth, then the fifth month, we were starting to get worried. The one thing that was draining our resources faster than anything was our COBRA health insurance. Thomas revealed this to one of the men in our church, and the next week, the men’s group let us know that they were going to make the next COBRA payment for our family. And then, Thomas was asked if he would take on a small job with the church, locking up after some evening classes a few nights a week. And the payment for that job covered another COBRA payment. We made it six months, and again it seemed like we were reaching the end of our resources. By now, it was almost Easter. And one Sunday evening, after the youth group ended that Thomas and I helped lead, another youth group leader asked me to come out to her car – she had something for us. She said someone else had asked her to pass these on to us. When she opened her trunk, she pulled out four or five bags full of brand new church clothes and play clothes for our three kids, and toys to fill their Easter baskets. When we brought these home, before we gave them to the kids, I read to them these verses from Matthew, chapter 6:
25 “Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? 27 Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? 28 And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. 29 But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. 30 If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith? 31 Therefore, don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’ 32 Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
The Thanksgiving holiday provides a time each year to be both generous, and grateful; to share out of our abundance with others, and to contemplate our blessings and offer thanks. One is a natural by-product of the other. And so I want to ask you to think right now about a time that you have had the opportunity to be generous toward someone else – either with your time, with your talents or abilities, or with your money. Think about the joy and happiness you felt from being able to give in that situation. I’m going to give you a moment of silence to reflect on that, and then I’ll lead us in a prayer.
PRAYER: Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices, who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices; who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today. (UMH 102)
In our scripture today, the apostle Paul is writing to the church in Corinth. Our scripture reading comes toward the end of this letter in which Paul has been describing the poverty that exists among the Christians in Jerusalem because of a serious and wide-spread famine that has affected Judea. Paul has written to several churches outside of Jerusalem to ask for a special offering to address the poverty which has resulted from this famine. In fact, he brags in this letter to the Corinthian church that the church in Macedonia has already contributed to this offering generously “of their own accord” (8:3) in spite of their poverty. And so, as part of his urging for the Christians in Corinth to also give to this special offering, he lays out an explanation of “joyful generosity” that both results from and leads to gratitude. In this and other passages, such as the one I read from Matthew 6, generous giving and gratitude seem to go hand in hand. As one increases, so does the other! Likewise, as one decreases, so does the other. So let’s talk first about gratitude.
Robert Emmons, a University of California psychology professor and author of "Gratitude Works!," says gratitude is "profoundly basic" to the human condition. According to Emmons, "When we are grateful for something we consider its origins. Where did it come from, who was responsible for it, why and for what purpose does it exist, what should I do about it? These questions,” he explains, “strike me as profoundly religious." His multiple studies of gratitude show that people who pause to count their blessings daily report they are 25 percent happier than people who don't. He also found that thankful people exercised daily, reported fewer illnesses and had higher levels of energy and alertness.
Other scholars have studied the benefits of gratitude — there's even a program on the "science of gratitude" at the University of California, Berkeley — and researchers find that giving thanks regularly improves romantic relationships and can be a kind of natural anti-depressant. Bradley Malkovsky, a professor of comparative theology at the University of Notre Dame, says giving thanks is "spiritually good for us ... a training in connectivity, of getting beyond the ego" which helps us better our relationship with others, and with God. "If we look closely at our lives, we see so much of what we have achieved is a gift," both from other people and from God, he said.
Several of us have begun a book study that meets at 3:00pm on Mondays, using the book, One Thousand Gifts by Christian writer Ann Voskamp. This book the result of her change in lifestyle, which started with a request, or dare, from a friend to make a list of one thousand things that she loved, or that she saw as blessings in her life. You see, Ann had known profound trauma and grief in her life, which seemed to hang over her like a dark cloud! When she was only four years old, she watched with horror as a delivery truck struck and killed her baby sister who toddled out into the road just as the truck came into view. But as an adult who was learning about God’s grace, she was also discovering small changes in her faith and in her outlook on life as she began to make her list, writing down a few blessings at a time, until she realized that she was actually experiencing joy as a result of giving thanks, of reflecting on God’s blessings. And out of that joy, she found she had something to offer others again – she no longer lived out of a feeling of scarcity, as if she was always holding something back in order protect herself; but she was now able to live and to give of herself more generously in terms of giving her time and attention, of feeling more patient with others, of being more willing to overlook offenses and to forgive, and of being able to be more open and loving.
Practicing gratitude can change our lives. It can increase our faith, by helping us become consciously aware of the ways that God, our creator and sustainer loves and cares for us. Psalm 65 describes the way in which, even when we offer our silence to God as a form of praise, or thanks, that God receives all our praise and lavishes love back on us. Then psalm begins with a quiet affirmation, and then goes on to list the ways that God listens to and forgives Gods people, and how God establishes and cares for all of creation, which ends with the mountains and oceans and hillsides coming alive with songs of praise and sounds of joy. God’s lovingkindness is so good that even creation sends back its gratitude. When we reflect on these attributes of God toward us, we become overwhelmed with gratitude as well. This psalm seems to suggest that praise for the Creator is a natural response from creation, one that we can neglect when we allow ourselves to be overcome, instead, with the suffering and insecurity we experience in the world.
But practicing gratitude can change our perspective and restore our connection to God and other. I believe worry and fear are the opposite of gratitude. Worry and fear can build walls between ourselves and others; worry and fear lead to insecurity, which can drive us selfish actions, such as trying to buy and acquire more and more stuff, or to selfishly hold on to what we have; worry and fear can prevent us from living a joyful life. Gratitude, on the other hand, give us the freedom to let go, to open our hands and share, and even to consider new ideas and ways of thinking.
When we practice gratitude, we begin to see the world as God sees it – as an extravagant gift given out of the pure love of God. When we open our hearts to acknowledge life and all of our blessings as the gifts we have received from a generous God, we are more willing to be generous and giving toward others, as well. When our perspective shifts, we can begin to see our world as part of God’s growing kingdom – the already and the not yet. No, things are not always as they should be! There is still evil, and corruption, and injustice in the world. Terrible things are going to happen in the world. But in God’s kingdom, the kingdom which Jesus came to establish and left to us to grow and expand, in God’s kingdom: the hungry are fed; the sick and imprisoned are visited and cared for; the needs of the widows and orphans are met; the homeless are clothed and given shelter. In God’s kingdom, there is always abundance, new possibilities, and potential for transformation. It takes both a grateful and a generous heart to see the truth of God’s kingdom becoming reality.
And that leads me to the idea of generosity. Paul uses the analogy of planting and harvesting to help us grasp this idea. Anyone with an experience of farming or gardening can understand that the amount you are able to grow and harvest is in direct proportion to the amount of seeds that you sow, or plant, or invest. Even business owners can relate to the idea that you have to spend money to make money. So when Paul is appealing to the Christians in Corinth to give generously to the special offering that will provide relief for the Jerusalem Christians, he focuses on several key teachings from the Old Testament about reaping what you sow, and being a cheerful giver. And since Paul is quoting from the Greek translation of the scriptures, when he references Provers 22, the Greek work for cheerful is hilaros, a word which we would not have known had Paul not been using the Greek translation. The word hilaros sounds very close to our English word hilarious, because they share the same root. It refers to being a joyful, or joyous giver. God loves a joyful giver. God loves a hilarious giver! The joy comes from giving that you know will be a blessing to others; from the knowledge that just as God has given generously to us, that we can also be generous like God. That kind of giving can restore our relationship with God and with others, by humbling ourselves to put God’s kingdom and other’s needs above our own fears, worries or selfish ambitions.
Practicing gratitude can be done by journaling or writing down a few of your blessings each day. Or it can be done by setting aside a particular time for prayer that is only to offer thanks, such as we do before meals. John Wesley, who helped form the Methodist movement would pray prayers of petition six days of the week, praying for the cares and needs of others, for the church and for the world, and then one day a week, he would only offer prayers of thanks. However you choose to do it, the point is to make a plan and do it. Practice giving thanks, not just one day a year, but as part of a lifestyle of worship; as a natural response to God to acknowledge God’s goodness, mercy, forgiveness, and abundant blessings. Then see how it changes your life, your faith, and your perspective.
And practice being a joyful giver. What can you give up in order to be more available to others with your time and attention? What non-essentials can you live without so that you can be more generous with your financial gifts in order to help grow and expand God’s kingdom on earth?
You should have received in the mail this weekend a letter about our church’s ministry goals and operating budget for 2019. Along with that, you were given an “Estimate of Giving” card that we are asking everyone to pray about this week. As a church, we can look around and see the first harvest we’ve reaped from your generosity of giving toward the building of this new space. But now it’s time to image how we can use this space to connect with our neighbors, to feed the hungry, and to meet the needs of our community. It will take more than good wishes for new ministries to become a reality. There is much that we can do, as individuals, as families, and as a church, if we can let gratitude be our guide for living and for sharing abundantly – for being cheerful givers, for being joyfully generous!
God’s ultimate gift was the gift of God’s only son, Jesus. It is this gift for which we practice Thanksgiving each time we come to the Lord’s table for the sacrament of communion, or the eucharist. The word eucharisteo means thanksgiving; as Christians we are called to frame everything we do in light of the offering of Christ, so that our entire lives are lived as an expression of thanksgiving. Thanks-living can lead us to joyful generosity. May it be so!
PRAYER: O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us, with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us; and keep us still in grace, and guide us when perplexed; and free us from all ills, in this world and the next. (UMH 102)