A vicar got up one Sunday and announced to his congregation: “I have good news and bad news. The good news is God has provided us with enough money to pay for our building repairs, parish bills and employ a youth worker. The bad news is it’s still out there in your pockets.”
I’m going to be speaking about giving today. Not because we’ve given out the leaflets about the Schools worker programme, although that is an excellent cause. Nor am I thinking about Norton church funds particularly, because Christian giving is much more than keeping church buildings going. It’s about supporting God’s work, giving to those in need. But I’m preaching on giving because it’s in the reading set for today from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. And because it is such an important part of Christian discipleship.
It’s not very English to talk about money and our attitudes to it. Jesus had no such inhibition – he talked about finance a lot. Allegedly he talked more about money than he did about heaven. ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart is also’. He knew that our attitude to wealth and how we spend our money is a real indicator of how much we have allowed our faith to transform our lives.
In the reading, St Paul is organising a whip-round. There is a famine in Jerusalem, fellow Christians are suffering. As followers of Jesus they have been expelled from the synagogues which means they are cut off from one of the sources of welfare. Nor was there a welfare state in those days. People paid tax but it did not go to help those in need. So Paul appeals for help from the churches he has founded. As we read his request we see much guidance for us about our giving, not just to the church but for all kinds of charity.
Those Christians had never met each other. Many in Corinth were Gentiles, most in Jerusalem Jews. The Jewish church kept the Old Testament Law, the Gentile church did not. That was a point of real friction. By comparison, it puts many of today’s arguments into the shade. And yet they were committed to supporting one another. They helped people miles away they had never met, with whom they didn’t entirely agree, because they were brothers and sisters in Christ. Generosity bridges gaps. And in parishes which regularly support a charity it’s wonderful to see the benefit the parish receives.
In v.7 Paul writes: ‘As you excel in everything, so excel in this generous undertaking.’ He’s saying that giving is a privilege and a joy. If you passionately support something you like giving to it. I know a financial advisor who doesn’t exactly love giving tax to the government, but he pours money into his golf club. In the children’s hospital there are many homemade posters for fundraising events – a family has had a child endure a rare illness and now they’re putting heart and soul into raising money for a cure. If we have the resources to make a difference to something we care about then that is a gift from God. So what do you care about enough to support?
The act of giving can be a joy. I’ve seen a video of a church in Africa taking a collection. When we take the offering in England we pass around a little bag solemnly and people look rather glum as they drop an envelope into it. In Africa everything is done with joy and celebration. People dance up the aisle bearing their gifts. Cash may be scarce. So the gift might be vegetables, grain, even a live chicken. Sometimes the chicken makes a break for freedom. It is colourful, chaotic, filled with laugher. They delight in giving. And while that may not be the British style, perhaps we could learn from that pleasure in supporting what we believe in, enjoying being able to make the world a better place.
Part of the joy comes from it being a free gift. There should be no compulsion in giving, no guilt or emotional blackmail. As we have seen in the tragic case of Olive Cooke, unethical fundraising is wicked. In v.8, Paul writes: ‘I do not say this as a command’. Now in the Old Testament the tithe was a command. You were supposed to give 10% of your income, and indeed many Christians do that today, seeing it as a good principle. But it is not meant to be legalistic. Some are able to give more, some less. Whatever we give must be our own free choice. Made in a spirit of prayer, realism and open generosity
I must say I’m very impressed by the way this Diocese asks PCCs for money. In many other places it is a kind of church tax – each parish is given a figure. If you don’t pay it they come after you. My parents’ parish has years of debts to pay off. But here in the Diocese of Bristol each PCC is asked to pray about it and decide what we can afford. We give what we want to support God’s work.
The church authorities didn’t need to do it this way. It’s a huge risk. But they’re putting a Christian principle into practice. They’ve got a vision, showing the way towards greater maturity and interdependence. What a step of faith and trust! It’s been fascinating to see how some of our parishes took a brave step last year in raising their parish share – and how God has been faithful and blessed them with the best fundraisers they’ve ever had!
The apostle teaches: when you give, give what you have decided freely in your heart. We should consider wisely, pray about it and plan. Standing orders are great as they allow an organisation to plan and stop one’s giving being haphazard. Think about the charities you give to. Don’t just respond to the emotive appeals which fall through the letter box, but seek out things you really believe in. I don’t respond to chuggers, phone calls or mailings, and as a result I don’t get hassled much. But I do give to the things I believe in.
Things which make the world a better place. For example our PCC often gives some income to charity. When we had a fundraiser we gave part to the Water Aid project in Uganda. They use local organisations, which are much less susceptible to corruption than governments. And providing people with wells and pumps gives them the ability to help themselves out of poverty. As the well-known quote goes: ‘Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man how to go fishing and he eats for the rest of his life.’ Wisely used, our support can transform lives.
Ultimately we give because God gave to us. Christian giving is inspired by the creative love of God and the redemptive love of Jesus. In v.9. Paul writes: ‘for you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’ Jesus left the glories of heaven for a harsh life on earth. The Son of God submitted himself to death so that we could be forgiven. He gave up everything he had for us, he died for uoi and me, and what we give can never repay that. When we really understand that, when we grasp the depths of Jesus love, that sets our hearts free to give.
Are there any guidelines about how much we should give? Two animals, Pig and Hen, were asked by the Vicar’s wife to contribute towards the Harvest Meal. It was a ham and egg supper. ‘Ooooh’, clucked Hen, ‘Isn’t it good to be able to help the church?’ Pig wasn’t so sure. ‘You make a donation,’ he grunted, ‘but I make a sacrifice.’
Ten pound a week may be a huge sacrifice for a widow on a pension but only a drop in the ocean for a successful professional. So in v. 12 Paul teaches that ‘the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have’. In other words, we should give according to our means. God looks at the heart; the intention, the generosity, what it means to us.
So we should try and give realistically. From time to time our income and expenses change so it’s good to review our giving regularly – say once a year. Remember to allow for inflation. When I was a child a pound was a lot of money. But what can you buy for a pound today? It’s worth 25% less than it was ten years ago.
Because of that we may think we haven’t got enough income to give some of it away. And in a sense that’s true – we’ll never have enough for all the things we could desire. Those who hoard everything to themselves never have enough. And those who wait until they’re rich enough never get there. But the people who give a proportion of what they earn find out what they real priorities are. They receive God’s gift of contentment.
For if we give according to our means then the last two verses in our reading come true: ‘The one who had much did not have too much and the one who had little did not have too little.’ Those who are hard pressed are relieved and those who have plenty are blessed in helping them. God provides for us when we are generous.
This is Christ’s vision, that we should follow his example of amazing generosity. That in giving to those in need we may find joy in doing good. That in supporting his work we ourselves may be blessed. Being able to give is a gift, may we discover it. Amen.