Thanks and Giving
Scriptures: Genesis 14:17-20; 28:18-22
I have a confession. I hate stewardship sermons, sermons about giving and pledging. Partly because they seems so self-serving. For a pastor to preach a sermon about giving is like the ultimate a conflict of interest.
But my real problem with stewardship sermons is how bad many of them are. This week I read message about giving on the website for Joel Osteen Ministries. Now I know that some of you like Joel Osteen, and I have seen some good stuff that he has written. But this message on his website, written by Lisa Comes, is really bad. She starts out with a story:
One time God spoke to my parents to give a $5,000 offering. They always tithed, but this was an offering over and above their tithe. And it was a lot of money! My brothers and sisters were young at this time. I remember Daddy gathered all of us around him and said, “Kids, God spoke to us to give this offering, and we are going to pray over it. I just want you to know that God is going to bless us in return.” He wanted us to see how God works. Well, a few weeks later, a lady from another state called my dad’s office. She said she was going to fly her own private plane to Houston because she had something to give him. Daddy met her at the airport, and she hand delivered a check to him for $5,000. She told him that God spoke to her to give him that money. She got back on that plane and went home.
I want to know what kind of stewardship it is to fly a private plane across the country just to give someone a $5,000 check. The plane trip could have cost that much. But that is not the lesson Lisa drew from the story. Here is what Lisa said about the story:
God wants to bless you and prosper you in your finances and in all areas of your life, but there is a spiritual principle that we must follow in obeying and giving that unleashes God’s supernatural provision! … Tithing is the key to financial blessings. Oftentimes, we want to receive the latter part, the overflowing part! And God wants us to! But we have to be faithful and obedient with the first part, giving.
Did you notice how similar that is to Jacob in our first scripture reading? Jacob says to God, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.”
For Jacob, as for Lisa Comes, giving is a way of making a deal with God. If you give to God, God will give to you.
Friends, that is not stewardship; it’s bribery, it’s manipulation—the same kind of manipulation Jacob tries throughout the book of Genesis: manipulating his father to give him the blessing instead of his brother Esau, then later trying to buy off his brother’s anger with waves of presents. Jacob is always trying to manipulate people, and he does the same thing with God. But he has missed the point. God blessed Jacob, not because Jacob made a deal with God, but because God chose to bless Jacob even before he was born. Jacob cannot and does not need to buy God’s favor. He has already received it as a gift of God’s grace.
And that brings me to Abraham. Genesis 14 is a remarkable story of how Abraham organizes an army of 318 troops to defeat the armies of four kings and rescue his nephew Lot. On this Veterans Day weekend here is another little reminder that freedom does not come cheap. It requires courage and sacrifice. But then Abraham on his way back from this victory meets a mysterious priest/king named Melchizedek. This is the first appearance of Melchizedek in the Bible, and also the last. We are told nothing about him except that he is a priest of God Most High and that he comes from Salem, which is probably an abbreviation for Jerusalem. It may be that Melchizedek is a symbolic figure, who anticipates the later priesthood that served God at the temple in Jerusalem. The New Testament also suggests that Melchizedek is a symbolic figure anticipating the future priesthood of Jesus. But none of that is mentioned in Genesis. In Genesis, Melchizedek shows up, provides a meal for Abraham, and blesses him.
But here is the part of the story I find interesting. Abraham gives Melchizedek a tithe, one-tenth, of everything. Abraham does not give this offering—for that is what this is, a kind of offering to God—in order to gain blessing for himself. He gives it because he has already been blessed by God. God blessed Abraham with an incredible victory including the safe rescue of his nephew. Unlike Jacob, and unlike Lisa Comes, Abraham does not give a tithe to God in order to obtain God’s blessing but to give thanks for it.
And that, I believe, is the proper understanding of stewardship. We don’t give to God in order to get God’s blessing. We give in thanks for all the blessings God has already given us.
If you give for the reasons Lisa Comes suggests, you are not experiencing gratitude, you are experiencing greed. Giving money to God in order to get more back does nothing to help us overcome greed in our hearts; it only reinforces it. And if you give for the reasons Jacob gave, out of anxiety or fear, your gift will not help you overcomes those fears and anxieties. Jacob continued to be plagued by anxiety and fear throughout the rest of the story. Giving out of anxiety or fear does not remove those emotions from your heart, it only reinforce them, because you are still depending on yourself, on your own strength and resources. People who give out of guilt, anxiety, or greed will never experience blessing. Because they will always be experiencing more guilt, more anxiety, and the desire for even more money.
The antidote to greed is gratitude. The antidote for guilt is gratitude. The antidote for anger and resentment is gratitude. When we practice gratitude, we push aside the restless desire for always wanting more. When we practice gratitude, we push aside the fear and guilt of never being good enough for God. When we practice gratitude, we push aside our jealousy and resentment over what others have, replacing it with thankfulness for what we have. Gratitude is the channel on which God’s blessing flows to us, and giving, rightly understood, is no more and no less than the practice of gratitude.
So this year, as you make your pledge for the coming year, don’t give just to support the church budget. Don’t get me wrong. I care about the church budget as much as anyone. But don’t give for the sake of the church budget. Don’t give out of fear or guilt or even less out of a back-handed desire to wring a blessing out of God. Give because God has already blessed you. Give because you have a heart pumping blood through your body and it is bursting with gratitude. Give because you know where your next meal is coming from and want to help those who don’t. Give because of all the important people in your life on your cell phone contact list or because of those precious dependents that you list on your tax return as a deduction. Give because you have both the strength and the freedom to be here this morning. Give because when the day comes that everything in your life has changed—when the day comes that your job is over and your house is sold and your friends are gone and neither your body nor your mind work the way they once did—on that day your life will still be in the hands of a loving God who will never let you go, and that is the reason to give.
The only true reason for giving is gratitude, and gratitude is itself part of the blessing that God wants to give us.