Saturday, May 5, 2012

Thoughts about Giving, Part 1

Does it worry you when you see the minister is going to talk about giving? Does it worry you even more when you see the title is “Thoughts about giving, Part 1”? How many parts are there going to be? Is he going to tell me that I need to give more to the church? Is he going to try to manipulate, or guilt me into something?

I plan to talk on this subject 2 more times. I am reluctant to tell you when, because you might not come to church on those days.!

I am not going to try to manipulate you, or guilt you into giving more to the church. Even if I thought it might work I would not do that. I would see that as an abuse of the power of what we do here together. Our worship services are meant to gather us together around the sense that God is with us. We are here as a faith community to quiet ourselves enough to sense God’s presence, and to hear and see what God has for us, and how we are to respond to God.

It all begins with God, and what God gives to us. God gives us all that we really need to live. So much of what God gives, comes to us freely, with no strings, or obligations, or price tags attached. My wife and I went for a long after supper walk last evening. The sky was a shining robin’s egg blue. There were clouds cutting puffy furrows across the sky. The contrast of blue sky and white cloud was dazzling. We walked streets in the neighbourhood around our home, and saw purple, and pink, and white lilacs, and tulip trees in full glory. We saw other trees budding and leafing out. There were people out walking, and talking. There were kids at play in the park. There is so much that is good.

We live in a society in which everything is turned into a commodity - packaged to be sold as a product. We humans can manage the land, and decide what grows where, and we can build fences and barriers to limit access to different areas. We can convince ourselves that we are creators, or controllers, of the world around us. But the truth is that we did not make any of it. This world, and its beauty, and the life that persists and thrives, often in spite of our human activities- all of it is this amazing generous gift from God. The fact that we breathe, and live, and move, and can see and appreciate all that is, the gift of life itself- comes from God.

Seeing how amazing this world is, and remembering it is all a gift from God, is a good place to begin when thinking about giving. We have really have nothing to give, that did not first originate in God’s gifts to us.

How incredible it is that God gives everything so freely. Part of my role as your minister is to somehow represent God’s grace, and God’s generosity. But there is no danger that you would ever mistake me for God. I am clearly not as free and generous with my love as God.

Having cleared that up, this morning I want to do something totally out of the box. What I am about to do is my doing. I do not have the permission of the worship committee, or the church council, or anybody- because they do not actually know what I am about to do.

What I have here in this box is enough loonies for all of you. Everybody gets one. I wish it could be a toonie, or a ten dollar bill, or something even bigger- but this is what I am able to do!

(Wait until everyone has one.)

You can tell that I am not God, for lots of reasons. Today especially you can tell that because there are limits to my generosity. I decided that my limit for today was that I could give everybody here only a dollar.

But there you have it. A totally free gift. No strings. It is yours. A reminder of the generous God who gives us all so much more than money.

Each of us is able to give of ourselves, because of all that God gives us. When we give our time, our attention, our love, our work, our loyalty, our friendship, our compassion, our patience, and yes, even our money- we are able to do our giving, because of all that God has freely given us.

How does it feel to have that free looney in your hand? I know it is not much, but please accept it as a symbol of all that God gives us every day. Later in the service, we will share the bread and cup of communion, and be reminded that these are sacramental symbols, of all that God offers and gives us through Jesus.

When we practice giving of ourselves, what we give can be like a sacramental symbol of God’s love. It can be a celebration of all that God has given us.

When we give, it can be an act of worship, of gratitude to God. It can also be an act of rebellion, against the forces in the world that would have us believe that selling is better than giving, and buying better than receiving.

I prayed about this out of the box thing we are doing here today. I prayed that I could feel free and joyful, and generous, as I handed out money. (Please know that this is money from the coin can in my house, and is not coming from the church. My wife knows what I am doing today.)

In the Jewish religion it is taught that giving is a relationship between God, the receiver, and the giver, in that order of importance. You can’t really be a giver, unless there is someone to receive. And without God, there would be nothing to give or receive in the first place.

The act of giving can be transformative. When I give something away, the very act allows me to embody God’s generosity, and follow God’s command to give.  Jews and Christians call that “imitatio deo”, the imitation of God. The same idea is expressed in Islam as “taking on the qualities of God”.

One of the ways churches, and synagogues, mosques, and temples, and other places of worship help the faithful, is to give them a way to channel their generosity, in ways that can also be effective at doing good in the world. Jews call this righteous giving, and it is meant to show devotion to God. There are similar concepts in Islam.

It seems to me that in Christian churches, the idea of righteous giving- giving because it helps us be better, more God-like people as we practice generosity, gets lost in all the anxiety over meeting a budget, or paying the bills.

We lose track of something very important when we reduce the notion of giving to meeting a budget. In our lives of faith, and God’s work in us, and in the world, giving is not only about keeping the church going.  We have mostly moved away from giving as a spiritual practice that is good for us, and fallen into the habit of seeing giving as an obligation- something we would rather not do, but do grudgingly, if absolutely necessary.

The other problem with making that strong connection between what is needed to run the church and its programs, and what we give- is that it actually sets a limit on how generous we should be.

God does not set limits on how blue the sky is, or the brilliance of the pink and purple and white lilacs that are in bloom this week.  God does not hold back on beauty, giving us only enough to get by on. God just gives, and gives, and gives. Amen