(Exodus 35: 4-22, 36:2-7; 2 Corinthians 9: 1-15)
Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough in your life to know someone like Oseola McCarty. Ms. McCarty was a Mississippi washerwoman, born in the early 1900’s. She had to drop out of school in 6th grade to help take care of her family. Oseola began doing laundry and ironing people’s clothes for money – anywhere between $2 and $10 a bundle. She put all the money she earned in a savings account at the First Mississippi National Bank and never took any of it out.
At the age of 87, after almost 75 years of washing people’s clothes, the balance in Ms. McCarty’s account stood at $150,000 – which she promptly gave in its entirety to the University of Southern Mississippi for scholarships for needy students. When asked why she gave every bit of her money to a school she had no ties to whatsoever, Ms. McCarty responded that she wanted others to have an opportunity she never had herself. And when asked why she didn’t spend at least some of the money on herself, her answer was always the same: as far as she was concerned, she had.
Or maybe you’ve heard stories like the one Bishop McCabe used to tell. At the time, Bishop McCabe was leading a rather large congregation in the throes of a huge capital campaign – the goal of which was to raise a million dollars for a new missions initiative. All the plans had been made, the campaign information sent out, the sermons preached, and now it was time to wait for the response.
Each day Bishop McCabe received dozens of letters, some of them from disgruntled members who scoffed at the lofty goal. One day, though, he came upon a letter from a 7-year old boy in his church. As he opened it, out rolled a badly battered nickel. The letter, scribbled in handwriting only a child could appreciate, read: “Dear Bishop McCabe, I am so glad you are going to get a million dollars for missions. Here’s a nickel. It’s all I’ve got now, but when you need any more, call me!’
So what is it about people like Oseola McCarty and the 7-year old nickel boy? What is it about people who give, and give for all the right reasons – not for notoriety or to earn “brownie points?” What kind of people give of their time and talents and treasure in such selfless and amazing ways?
I mentioned before that, in planning this Fall Stewardship sermon series, Grace and I chose to have the “main” Stewardship sermon fall on the Sunday before Response Sunday, rather than the Sunday of. And as you have seen from the Stewardship packet you received a few weeks ago, as you’ve heard from our wonderful Minutes for Stewardship, this year’s Stewardship theme is Our Future. Our Faith. Our Time. Our future, our faith, our time. We are excited about the bright future we have here at Trinity. We recognize that everything we do here is squarely rooted in our faith. And we understand that now is the time to make it all happen.
We’ve been looking at how we are “rooted in faith” and the ways we grow in for the past few weeks now – growing in love, growing in hospitality, growing in discipleship. And today, probably not surprisingly, we look at growing in generosity.
And as we do, I must confess to you that until recently I was not aware of the story I read earlier from Exodus – about the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, part of their 40-year sojourn, and what happened when Moses challenged the people to grow in generosity.
It’s amazing, really. Moses saying to the people: Gather an offering for God. We’ll take whatever: gold, silver, bronze, fine linen, goats’ hair (yes, we take goats’ hair), acacia wood, lamp oil, spices and incense. We’ll even take your skills, because it’s not all about money and possessions. It’s about time and talent as well. We need all of it to build a tabernacle, a church, to worship God during our journey in the wilderness. We need you to be generous and to give extravagantly.
And scripture says when they came back, they brought all kinds of things, whatever they had, whatever was needed. Women and men, young and old – all of them brought something to the Lord. So much of it, in fact, so much of it that Moses actually had to tell them to stop.
You heard me right. Moses had to tell the people to cease and desist, not because they were giving the wrong things, not even because they were giving for the wrong reasons. Moses told them to stop because it was absurd how much they were giving, an absurd amount of gifts, an absurd amount of time and talents. It was too much. Too much!
Can you imagine a Sunday morning in our church, a week or two after Response Sunday; Brent Mullis our Stewardship chair coming up during announcements and saying something like this:
Good morning. I come before you today to ask a favor. And while I know “money talk” is often frowned on in the church, what I have to say needs to be said. And that is this: we need you to stop giving so much money. We had no idea when we put this Stewardship season together that you all would respond like this. If I can be honest, it’s obscene, really; the giving you all are doing. It is so much, we don’t know what to do with it. We have no clue. So we are respectfully asking a percentage decrease in your giving going forward. If you could do that, that would really help us out. Thank you.
Now I want to be clear, because I’m friends with Brent and I want to stay that way: this is not an actual Stewardship announcement. No one is asking you to decrease your pledge; we all get that, right? What I am saying is that this is the announcement that Moses made for his people in our scripture today: please stop your giving, it’s too much!
And all I want us to do with this is ask ourselves a simple hypothetical question: what if, what if that were us? What if this church really did engage in that kind of extravagant, absurd, and obscene generosity?
Grace read a passage from Second Corinthians earlier. Paul was many things – missionary, theologian, spiritual leader – but here he puts on the Stewardship chair hat. Listen again to what he says to the Corinthian church about not only what they should give, but how:
Each of you must give as you have made up your mind,
not reluctantly or out of compulsion,
Because God loves a cheerful giver.
I remember in a former church, an older gentlemen would always show up to the office on the first Monday of every month with his monthly pledge. Except he didn’t call it his pledge. He called it his “dues,” like he was paying his membership at the local country club or something. Dues. While I was grateful for his faithful giving, I did try to equip him with more theological language, but it never stuck. To him, church giving was always about satisfying an obligation.
Paul tells it differently. Our giving should not be done “under compulsion” or “reluctantly,” because, he says, “God loves a cheerful giver.” Extravagant, even absurd generosity, Paul seems to be saying, cannot be reduced to a simple transaction. Rather, our giving is a response to the wonderful things Christ has done in our lives and in our world. That is why the offering in worship every Sunday happens after scripture is read and good news proclaimed – it undergirds the essence of extravagant generosity, that our giving is not repayment or prepayment, not transactional. It is a joy-filled and cheerful response.
I wonder if that’s what’s behind those extravagant generous folks I mentioned earlier. I wonder if that’s what led Ms. McCarty to donate her entire life savings to a single school, or a little boy to give a simple nickel out of his piggy bank toward a million dollar campaign. And I wonder – I wonder if that’s the kind of extravagant generosity that you and I are called to engage in right here. Our future. Our faith. Our time.
A few weeks ago I said as much at our college of elders dinner. We talked about the fact that it has been a whirlwind of a year here, with space transitions and construction and of course the land sale. And I shared with them a concern I have; that some might look at the land sale in particular and say in this Stewardship season, “you know, the church got a lot of money from that land sale. They probably don’t need my giving this year.”
Here’s the thing – and if you know me, you know I like to think in metaphors – so imagine Trinity before the land sale as a sailboat out on almost breezeless water; heading away from shore and trying to get back. The land sale is what I like to call a “trajectory-changer.” It does two things: it turns the sailboat around in the direction we want to go, and it also gives our sails an initial burst of air to propel us forward. Which is a huge thing for our church; it’s great. But if we let the land sale be our only response, if we stop there, that initial burst of air dies out – and it doesn’t matter one bit that we’re facing in the right direction. We can look at that shoreline all we want, but it’s not going to get any closer if we’re just sitting there.
My friends, I want to humbly submit to you today that our regular, consistent giving is the constant wind that fills our sails and takes us forward. Which is why, as I told the college of elders the other night, this Stewardship season on the heels of our land sale is not at all the time to ease up. Rather, it is the perfect time – it is our time – to respond cheerfully with extravagant generosity.
Because you and I worship and serve a God whose entire essence is grounded in extravagant generosity. And all we need to do to see this in action is look up here – to this table, and this meal that you and I are going to share in just a minute. There is no greater giving, there is no more extravagant generosity than that.
And our God, whose faith we are rooted in, our God is calling us to respond to this generosity with our own. To follow the lead of Oseola McCarty and a 7-year old boy. To be one of Paul’s “cheerful givers.” To aspire to be the kind of gathering where Moses himself would have to show up one day and make his shocking announcement. To prayerfully think about our future, our faith, our time; and how each one of us can do our part to fill the sails of this great church with a sustained and mighty wind.
And I am asking you to join me next week, on our Response Sunday, in doing exactly that.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation