Sermon preached at FBC Worcester
The Second Week of Celebrationtide
When it comes to your sex life and your politics, research shows there’s only one thing you’d hate talking about more:
Now, I made a calculated guess as to which of those three options you preferred I preach about this morning.
There’s something deeply personal about our money, isn’t there? Obviously, there must be with research findings like that. In many ways it’s not just “ours”–our money, our savings, our retirement accounts, our bills, our debt, our earned income, but it’s us. A part of us.
Of who we are, of how we see ourselves, of how we base our worth, and justify our decisions. Even more than our faith at times, money dictates what we should do in life, for ourselves, for others. It’s as if we find our purpose by our money.
It’s no surprise then, that politics and money are so deeply intertwined. Who will help us keep the most of our money, or make more of it? It’s also no surprise that talking about our money is as private to us as our sex lives. Few of us speak about something so deeply private and intimate.
We treat money like it’s an extension of who we are. How much wealth we have determines how well we’ve managed it or how hard we’ve worked to earn it, and thus what kind of character we have—whether we are responsible, hard-working, frugal, wise, and so on.
Conversely, those without much money or wealth, must have wasted it, or not tried hard enough to find a job or keep a job or get an education that would help them find and keep a job. Their character is so often tied to their financial situations.
It’s almost as if money is causal for us. Money shapes our character based on how we use it.
But looking at the reading for today, when famine strikes, and people are in need, or perhaps when a hurricane strikes and people are in need, the church rallies and collects their goods and resources and money, and sends it to those in need.
It’s as if there was something deeper the church came to grips with first, something more existential, that reveals that money is not causal in terms of character-shaping, but symptomatic of our ever-shaping character.
They gave because they were being shaped, being changed, together.
They, like the other churches along the way, began to pool their resources and share everything, to work together, to find common ground, and from that, they learned that there was enough. They began to see that life and God are abundant, even if resources aren’t always in abundance themselves.
Their mindset of scarcity shifted to one of abundance because they were living in community together, concerned for one another’s well being, willing to value each other more than their own wealth.
It’s what the author of Acts is criticizing about Ananias and Sapphira several chapters before this, when they lied and kept more of their wealth from the collective church. They operated from a scarcity mindset, and in so doing, they were trapped in the death spiral of spiritual poverty.
So, existentially, it seems, we must first come to terms with the reality that life is finite and it will end, but that there is enough to go around.
At least that’s what these churches in Acts would have us do.
And it’s what the authors of The Paradox of Generosity, would also have us do. In their insightful and enlightening book, sociologists, Hilary Davidson and Christian Smith, unpack the research they collected from surveys of 2,000 Americans from across the country. They set out to try to understand why it is that by giving we also receive.
And what they found was something they already knew intrinsically, that generosity is paradoxical. That “As we give ourselves away, we flourish.”
Along with the social and emotional and mental health benefits that come from being generous people, Smith and Davidson found correlations between physical health and generosity. Indeed, among those who were extremely generous, right around 50% were in excellent health, whereas only 15% or those who were extremely generous were in poor health. Conversely, the number of people in poor health doubled to 29% among those who were extremely ungenerous.
They found that practicing generosity dramatically enhances personal well-being. They make distinctions between a random act of generosity, a moment of kindness perhaps, versus lifelong practices of generosity: like regularly volunteering, or giving faithfully to your church or to non-profits you believe in. These are the people who are experiencing well-being.
And they discovered that the people who most often succeed at being extremely generous people, are the ones who have shifted from a mindset of scarcity to a mindset of abundance.
Indeed, it seems that our relationship to money has less to do with our material wealth and has more to say about our spiritual health.
You can see how the people of God in Acts, in spite of persecution and oppression, are able to find joy and meaning in life, as if their purpose comes from something deeper. Because they know their value isn’t found in wealth but in the One who Provides; they are able to part with the wealth entrusted to them for a time.
To be fair, the story of Acts reads like an ideal of what the church could be or was, but lest we dismiss the power of generosity to shape and change us because of some idealized version of it in these readings, let me tell you about the First Church of Somerville.
In 2003, they were down to 35 people in worship and $200,000 in their endowment. For context, that’s as much as we draw on ours annually. They were running annual deficits of $30,000-$50,000 dollars, meaning they were down to about 5 years left.
Today, their giving has quintupled, with pledges alone totally over $250,000 a year, which for context again, is right around where we’ve been at the past few years. They went from 6 children in Sunday School to almost 100.
First Church didn’t wave a magic wand or pray a special prayer. They did the hard work of coming to terms with their reality, and the reality of life in faith. That the God who provides, wants to do so through us. They started hard conversations about something we don’t like to talk about: money. How to start giving if it’s never been a practice of yours, how to keep giving even when times are tougher for you financially, how to hold one another accountable by being transparent and open about money instead of giving it all the power by keeping it secret. And they came to the realization that they couldn’t live off the legacy of the past any longer. They had to do it for themselves. Like us, that included budget adjustments for a season, building rentals and sales, and an increase in pledges.
They came to believe that spiritual wealth is more valuable than material wealth, and that they would rather fail spiritually rich than spiritually impoverished.
We have begun this journey as a church, too. A lot of faith and a lot of hard work. We’ve shrunk budgets and staff salaries; we’ve increased our revenue from rentals, and we’re beginning to see an increase in pledging, too. We also came to the realization that First Church in Somerville did about our endowment. We can survive off the legacy of the past for a time, or we can flourish on the generosity of one another in the present.
Like so much else with our church, we aren’t done yet. 205 years into this experiment, we aren’t a finished product, and we never will be. And that’s part of the reality churches must come to terms with. It’s all finite, life ends, and churches close, but we press on making sure there’s enough to go around. Enough to get by and keep going and have a purpose. That purpose might take on different shapes, but it remains the same, too. We are a people who love God by loving our neighbors, and we do that by our generosity.
It might be the money we collected in 1896 for a missionary to Burma to buy sewing machines, or the money raised by this church to start the first Sunday School program in the region in the 1820s. Or the money given to help support Displaced Persons from war-ravaged countries in the 1940s and 50s. Or it might be the money given to start Newton Theological Institute that later became Andover Newton in the early 1800s. Or the money given to the budget annually in the 1920s, that almost 80% of when to missions either globally or Stateside. It might be the 79 people in the 1930s who gave what they could, even when it was the price of a pack of gum on a weekly basis.
Or maybe it’s the money you give on a weekly basis that equals one latte from Starbucks—or excuse me, Dunkin Donuts.
Or the $2000 we’ve received so far for Hurricane Harvey relief, or the money you give to help with our serving at the Mustard Seed, or to help with bus passes at Ascentria for refugee families, or laundry cards for the same people, or the money that you offer that goes to help Jeremiah’s Inn, and Abby’s House and Dismas House and Jericho Road, and on and on to the many important ministries in our city.
How we relate to money, whether we’re willing to talk about it, how we spend it, if we save it, how cheerfully and willingly we give it away, all of it reveals what we value—or don’t. As individuals and as a church.
Money doesn’t make us; it doesn’t make us happier or healthier. It isn’t causal. It’s symptomatic of what is in our hearts.
People who move from a worldview of scarcity to one of abundance, are the ones most able to practice generosity for their entire lives, and they are also the ones who experience the most well-being.
Put another way, what we come to terms with existentially and theologically, is what generates our generosity.
How do we do that?
Well, it takes time. Like most everything else, believing is a process, changing isn’t automatic. But we begin the process by opening up about our finances. Asking ourselves if we hold too tightly to our money, and why? Are we afraid we won’t have enough to pay child support, or your car payment, or your credit card bill? Is your income fixed now, and in your retirement you can see an end to the money?
What would it look like for you to begin to trust in the God who Provides? How would that change your relationship to your money?
It takes time. Changing is a process.
It also takes practice. Practice might not make you perfect, but practicing generosity will perpetuate your faith that God will provide enough for you.
Start small. Anything is always better than nothing. And you’ll feel good about it. And anything grows into something a little more.
Consider increasing what you’re giving. Some of you have given faithfully for your entire lives; I think you’re the ones this book highlights. You are the examples for us.
Others of you might give regularly, but you know you could give more.
And we want you to. As a church and as your friends in community together. Try it. What would it look like for your budget to give 1% more this year? Many of us won’t feel 1%, but together, as a body of people pooling their resources together like those first churches, 1% more begins to add up to a lot of new ways to make a difference in our city.
Time and practice.
We began our service today with celebration. We celebrated baptism. As Baptists by tradition, we have not typically viewed baptism as a saving act or sacrament. It doesn’t cause us to change.
Instead it’s a symbol of the inner work of God already at work in our lives; a metaphor of the new person we are already becoming by following the Way of Jesus. It’s an act of public witness to the faithfulness of Christ in the person’s life to this point and onward, and to the faithfulness of the individual to continue following the Way of Jesus. It’s a collective event because conversion, changing, is a communal process that’s never ending.
And so it is that practicing generosity, too, is an act of public witness to the inner work of God within us. And just as we celebrate baptism, we should celebrate generosity, and the ways that we can love our God, our church, our neighbors, and yes, even ourselves, by it.
What would it mean for you to be a cheerful giver? To find enjoyment and purpose in giving more?
Friends, in this Season of Celebration at FBCWoo, let us find ways to celebrate the generosity of God, by practicing generosity together.
 Christian Smith & Hilary Davidson, The Paradox of Generosity, 36.