3rd Sunday after Epiphany
January 22, 2017
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The text that engages us today for the start of my sermon series on stewardship is today’s Gospel lesson from John 3.
My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,
DON’T ANYBODY MOVE! Yes, I just said the word “stewardship.” Now…before anyone panics…this is NOT a sermon series that ends with you filling out a pledge card. It does NOT end with me asking you how much you give every week or month. Instead, this series on generous giving is a call to re-discover your understanding and motivation for stewardship as found today in the familiar words of John 3:16.
I have something special here. This is a pencil rubbing of the name Bruce Carlyle Anderson; my uncle Bruce killed in Vietnam (1969, 22 years old, KIA, 8 months in country). You’ve perhaps been to the Wall in Washington DC., or at least seen pictures of it. It was originally quite a point of controversy, because it’s so dramatic – a long, low wall of black granite with almost nothing on it but names, lots and lots of names. But it’s that stark, black simplicity that makes The Vietnam War Memorial so powerful. As you walk past the long granite wall inscribed with all those names, you are very aware that these are women and men, daughters and sons, husbands and fathers and wives and mothers, who made what most call the “ultimate sacrifice.” These are Americans who died while serving in the military forces of our nation.
As your eyes fall on each individual name etched into the memorial, words like duty, honor, courage, patriot, sacrifice, and love come to mind. It reminds me of being at Sarasota National Cemetery; you don’t need to have known every person. The conclusion is overwhelming. There is no greater patriotic love than to serve and lay down your life for your country. The freedoms and privileges that we enjoy in this nation come at a very great price – the flesh and blood of America’s fallen.
Now, think about the words of John 3:16, a verse that like the Lord’s Prayer is “tragically familiar.” Are you still engaged by the same thoughts and emotions as you consider the so-familiar truth of God’s Word: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son”? When you consider the cross of Jesus Christ – His flesh and blood price – do words like hero, honor, courage, sacrifice, and love come to mind, or has John 3:16 also become “tragically familiar”? The cross is the ultimate act of love and generosity. I want to suggest a simple idea to you to consider these next four weeks: you can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.
Today when most people think about giving, especially in church, love is not the immediate thought that follows. Money is the first thought. “How much?” is the first question. As a starting point, that premise starts you on the wrong foot, so to speak. It is the unspoken tension of “I’ve got it, you want it, but I don’t want to give it to you.” I want to say clearly, first and foremost, that generous giving is not just about money. John 3:16 teaches that giving is God’s demonstration of sacrificial love and boundless generosity. God loved and God gave. Generous giver, generous giving not out of compulsion or need, but love.
Are you familiar with the children’s book The Giving Tree? The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein, is a wonderful story to some and misunderstood by many. Published in the 1964, the basic story describes the relationship between a young boy and a tree in the forest. The tree loves the boy and throughout the boy’s childhood, adolescence, and young adult life, the tree gladly, generously gives without reservation to meet the boy’s needs: shade from its leaves, limbs on which to swing and play, apples to eat and sell, branches to build a house, and its trunk to build a boat. Finally, the tree is only a stump, and the man sails away. Many years later, he returns. Now he is an old man at the end of his life. He asks the tree for a place to rest. The tree (stump) offers itself as that resting place. The old man sits down on the stump, and the tree is glad. To many, including myself, the tree represents perfect, selfless, unconditional, sacrificial love…like God gives to us. God loved sacrificially, and God gave with boundless, unparalleled generosity. You see, you can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving. When you love you cannot help but give back. Why? God so LOVED the world that He GAVE…
Now, what does this mean for me? What does this mean for the Church? How does this new reality affect the way I think and act, believe and live—the way I understand generous giving? The change that God empowers is to understand that the center of my universe is not me. The primary focus of my thoughts and actions is not me. The finances, abilities, and resources of my life are not solely for my consumption. My generosity is a response to his generosity. Stewardship is about more than your checkbook. It is about ALL giving – time, talents, and yes treasures – and is a radical check of your heart and then a change of life priorities.
“God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” This giving is very intentional. Intentionally, Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Intentionally, Jesus lives as one of us. Intentionally, Jesus dies on a cruel cross. Intentionally, Jesus rises to life and his tomb is found empty. Intentionally, Jesus gives His body and blood in, with, and under the bread and wine; an intentional gift with an intentional purpose: forgiveness, salvation, life! Generous giving is intentional. It is not a casual afterthought. Generous giving is intentionally choosing to love and give. Why? Because…you can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.