Sermon for Sunday, October 30, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem PCUSA
Rev. Dr. William Hess
What is it that most influences our personal giving to the work of Jesus Christ? United Methodist Bishop Wil Willamon served as the chaplain at Duke University for many years. One Sunday during the Stewardship season, he preached a sermon based on the text of the rich young man who had asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit the kingdom of God. Jesus told the young man to love the Lord God with all of his heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.
The young man felt that he had done that. So Jesus said, “Sell all you possessions and give them to the poor.” The young man walked away sad.
Rev. Willamon preached at Duke University Chapel that Sunday on that text. The next day in the campus cafeteria, while Wil was getting his lunch, one professor,
the head of the English department came over to Wil and said, “Tough sermon yesterday, Wil. Usually you are quite good. You were due for an off Sunday.”
Wil humbly swallowed that criticism.
A few moments later, another professor said to him, “Wil, the Spirit was missing yesterday. The service was flat. The choir must have been off-key or something.”
Wil just nodded, intentionally chose to not respond.
Then a student approached him. He was a forestry student. He asked politely, “Rev, Willamon, can I talk with you about your sermon yesterday?”
Sure, lets sit together.
The student began, “I couldn’t sleep all night. I’m wealthy. My parents are paying for everything. I have no student loans. I have new clothes. I have the best sound system in the apartment. I have a new titanium bike for on campus. I couldn’t sleep all night. I have decided I am going to contribute my bike to the Salvation Army. But I know I have to do more – far more.”
So why did the biblical text fly over the heads of two professors, but directly into the heart of one forestry student?
That is a good question for all of us as we contemplate our commitment to the work of Christ’s church.
What is it that most influences our personal giving to the work of Jesus Christ?
It should begin with self-examination. Billy Graham has said: “You are rich if you had a meal today. God has given us two hands – one to receive with, and the other to give with. We are not cisterns made for hoarding; We are channels made for giving.”
I have been blessed to see much of this world: From Stonehenge to Mayan ruins, from the pyramids to the Parthenon, I’ve ridden on the Rhine, the Nile, the Danube, and Venetian canals. I’ve been in the tallest building in Taipei and the most beautiful temples in Kyoto.
On and on I could go – but nothing compares to standing on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee – and looking out on the grassy hillside – the natural amphitheater where thousands gathered to hear our Lord preach and teach.
This is where the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It was here that Jesus taught with wisdom and authority – the Sermon on the Mount.
How incredible it must have been to listen to Jesus teach – The Beatitudes – the fundamental ethic of love even for one’s enemies – and the new doctrine “you have heard it said – but I say unto you . . .”
Jesus addressed stewardship. We should not give like the hypocrites – sounding the trumpet to be praised by others – Jesus taught – “Truly I tell you they have received their reward.”
He instructs his followers to give not to be seen by others, “And your father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Many years ago I heard a speech by a Scotsman from Edinburgh commenting upon the perceived notion that the Scottish people were cheap and miserly. He cited many instances of the generosity of people from Scotland – but made it clear that Jesus words from the Sermon on the Mount were taken quite literally – to not give to be seen by others.
One story involves Andrew Carnegie and his wife. They were the sole supporters of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Someone understood the danger in this, and wanted to develop a wider base of financial support for the orchestra. He approached Andrew Carnegie with the new idea of matching funds – asking that Mr. Carnegie agree to match the amount given by other supporters – one for one.
He reluctantly agreed and posted half of the orchestra budget. To his surprise, just a few days later he was informed that the other half of the Orchestra’s budget had been raised.
He was amazed and inquired about how they had accomplished this. He was informed that the other half of the support was pledged by his wife – who did not like the idea at all.
Jesus taught – “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven . . . ”
“Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.”
What is it that most informs our personal giving to the work of Jesus Christ?
For many years the late Rev. Dr. William Sloan Coffin spoke to the students in the economic department at Harvard University. He would begin his lecture the same way each year – asking the question: “To whom does the earth belong.”
Then he would say – “Until you answer that question accurately, everything you do with economics will be a deception.”
Psalm 24:1 – “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.”
Everything we have belongs to God and is a gift from God. We are either good or poor stewards of what God is allowing us to use for this brief moment in time.
What is it that most influences our personal giving throughout our lifetime?
As a young Christian growing up in Pittsburgh – I recall being taught in Sunday school about the advice of Andrew Carnegie: “Give 10% – Save 10% – Live on 80%!”
I remember when Bev and I were married – 1973 – I was 21 – she was 20 – I had graduated from college – she had one more year – and we moved to Ohio where I started seminary and she transferred to Kent State University. I worked as a security guard at night. Bev worked weekends at a facility for mentally & physically challenged children.
We lived at the low-cost seminary apartments – our furniture was purchased at the Good Will industries.
From the beginning we gave 10% and saved 10% – lived on the rest – some student loans. Our savings were with the Presbyterian Minister’s Fund!
That decision was the best decision we ever made. It made it possible for me to retire early and then freelance as I sense God’s call – where can I help?
What has influenced you the most with respect to your personal giving to the work of Jesus Christ?
The Apostle Paul offered this great advice to the believers at the church in Corinth:
“Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” – II Cor. 9:7
We are asking you today to consider something very important.
– To think about your giving – identify your giving accurately and honestly.
– To make up your mind – prayerfully.
– To give cheerfully.
This is an important time in the history of the church. I choose to be loyal to Jesus Christ through the church of my ancestors – a church that throughout history has consistently been on the right side of social issues.
When the Rev. John Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence, he did so as a Presbyterian who was willing to risk everything to stand up against the prevailing biblical interpretation of the Divine Right of Kings.
When our Stated Clerk Eugene Carson Blake marched side by side with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – he did so as a Presbyterian once again standing up for justice and social righteousness.
When our ancestors approved the ordination of women to all offices of the church, they did so as bold Presbyterians respecting the rights of women.
There is schism today – but I choose to financially support the church of my ancestors – at a time when my church needs my support more than ever.
But make no mistake – the Christian church is larger and wider and deeper than any one denomination. The Holy Spirit that touched the heart of that forestry student at Duke University is not the sole property of the Presbyterians.
In fact, I suppose that, other than the words of Jesus, the most meaningful statement to me about stewardship comes from the Father of American Methodism – John Wesley. He wrote:
“Gain all you can, without hurting either yourself or your neighbor in soul or body; Save all you can, by cutting off every expense which serves only to indulge foolish desire; and give all you have to God. Render to God not a tenth, not a third, not half – but all that is God’s.”
I am pretty sure the Psalmist had something of this in mind when he wrote: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.”
May we be good stewards of all that God has entrusted into our hands.