Sunday, 29 April 2018

The integrity of Giving

2 Corinthians 8.16-24

We continue our theme on giving looking at 2 Corinthians 8 and 9.

The background is this: there is a serious famine in Jerusalem. The churches of Asia Minor and Macedonia, including the church in Corinth, have agreed to raise funds for famine relief.

In chapter 8.1-15, Paul has spoken about our motives for giving: that we give out of gratitude to God for what he has given us, and that is a response to the Lordship of Jesus. He is now into practicalities. He commends to the Corinthian church three people who will visit them in order to receive the gift and take it to Jerusalem. We need to remember that in the first century there were no notes, no cheques and certainly no bank transfers. If people were giving money, they were giving the hard and the heavy stuff!

So who are these three people?
There is Titus, Paul’s colleague and co-worker
There is ‘the brother who is famous among all the churches for his proclaiming the good news; and not only that but he has also been appointed by the churches to ravel with us while we are administering this generous undertaking’ (v18f). Some commentators think that this might be speaking of either Luke or Barnabas. But that is not really important.
And there is (v22), ‘our brother whom we have often tested and found eager in many matters’.

And in these verses Paul speaks about:

1.      The need for integrity in dealing with money

Paul writes, ‘For we intend to do what is right not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of others’ (v21).
Paul is concerned that not only should he do what is right, but that he should be seen to be doing what is right. There is to be no hint of any scandal. When we come to money, this has to be Caesar’s wife stuff. She must not only be chaste, but she must be seen to be chaste.

For churches, this is particularly important. We need not only to be people of integrity, but to be seen as people of integrity.

Billy Graham died a few weeks ago. When he began his work as a small-time evangelist, he was dependent on many small gifts. But as the work grew, and the gifts grew, he realised that he needed some sort of system. He set up a business, paid everyone on the team – including himself – a fixed salary, and published his personal accounts each year.

In the UK and the US there is often pressure on politicians, and particularly on senior politicians, to publish their personal accounts. That pressure is often resisted.

But I wonder what it would look like if your personal accounts were published
-          where you got your money from
-          how you spent your money
How would it look if everybody could see where your money came from and how you spent it?

As believers we are called to the highest level of integrity when it comes to handling our money.

There are three questions that we need to ask.

1.      How did we get it: legally or illegally?

And even if we got it legally, did we get it because we exploited other people or took advantage of their weakness; did we get it because we destroyed something rather than created something. Or can we put our hand on our heart and say that how the money came to us was right.

2.      What do we do with it?

How do we spend our money? On what do we spend our money?

Do we pay our taxes?
Jesus speaks twice about the need to pay our taxes (Matthew 17.24ff, and Matthew 22.15ff), and Paul writes about paying our taxes in Romans 13.6-7.
It is part of the idea of the common good. Somebody has to pay for schools, police, hospitals, social security, defence. And if you or me don’t pay for it, then either those services cannot be provided or others will need to pay for them.

I understand that the introduction of the 13% flat rate of taxation in Russia was because people were not paying taxes. It was felt that if a simple low flat rate was brought in, people would pay/ But, for westerners (and in the UK we are used to a normal rate of 20% taxation and 40% for higher earners), it is low. For those who are wealthier, it is low.
And I would argue that those who are wealthier, or those who find themselves in a situation in which they cannot pay taxes, then those who are wealthier have a far greater responsibility to give over and above the 13% for the common good – whether that is supporting a hospital or a school or a place of worship or whatever.

And do we give?
Last week I spoke about the biblical guideline of tithing – giving away 10% of what we receive. I said it is only a guideline: some of us here should not be tithing; most of us probably should at least be tithing, and there will be some who should be handing on far more than a tithe.

But we need to remember that as Christians, as people who have given our lives to God, everything that we have belongs to him.

The story is told about the delivery man who never delivered anything. They went round to his flat and found it crammed full with TV’s, clothes and groceries. As they were taking him away, he said, ‘But why did they give me all these things if they didn’t want me to keep them’?

As believers we’re delivery men and women. We’ve been given everything that we have in order that we can then give it on.

A minister received a letter from a little girl in the congregation, in which were a few coins. She had written, ‘This is my thieving money’. It was alarming. Had the Sunday school started to send out the children Oliver Twist style to do a bit of pick pocketing in order to raise funds? But when he spoke to her, he realised that she has misspelt ‘tithing’. If we are not giving what we can afford, or even over and above what we can afford, then we are – like that delivery man – guilty of thieving.

A godly sister from a local ladies monastery was being taken up the drive of an oligarch. It was a vast estate, a tree lined avenue, and at the end a huge English style mansion. ‘Oh’, she said, ‘so this is what our Lord would have done if he had had some money’.

Think on it!

3.      And this is in fact probably the most important question:

This is the question that Jesus asks people time and time again. He urges them not to be controlled or slaves to money.
Next week we’ll look at Luke 12, where a person asks Jesus to arbitrate in a dispute about a will. Jesus says to him, (Luke 12:15) ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions’.
And when Jesus tells someone to sell all that they have and come and follow him, it is not an invitation to a life of poverty, but an invitation to a life of freedom

We become like those objects that we worship. And if we worship money, if we make our God, then we will become like money: cold, hard and calculating.

Pray for us as a church that we will have integrity in dealing with money that has been given – that if we say something is something, it will be used for that.
And pray for yourself and for me – that we will treat the money that we have with integrity, not as our money, but as the Lord’s money.

2.      This collection, and those who administer it, are working for the glory of God.

v19: ‘While we are administering this generous undertaking for the glory of the Lord himself’
v23, ‘As for our brothers, they are messengers of the churches, the glory of God’. Most commentators say ‘glory of God’ refers to the messengers and not, in this case, to the churches.)

This is quite an encouragement for me.

I’m British and fairly reserved, especially when it comes to asking people for money. I feel that it is a bit mucky and embarrassingAs a pastor I should be focussing on other things.
But it seems that Paul disagrees! He is saying that asking people to give to a God-cause, to something that is good and right and God honouring, and managing that money, is to the glory of God.

And what intrigues me is that one of the three people who have been sent by the churches to Corinth is well known as a preacher of the gospel, as an evangelist.
Why? Why send him?

Giving – if it is done for the right reason – is good news

If I tell you that you must give, you must tithe, because it is a law, and it will make God love you more, then it is a lie and a false gospel
If I tell you that if you give you will become materially prosperous, then it is a lie and a false gospel
If I try to get you to give by taking you on a guilt trip, because you are well off when others are starving, it is a false gospel.
(It reminds me of the argument that we sometimes tried to use with our children: ‘Eat your brussel sprouts, because there are starving children in the world who would love to have food’. It is using guilt to try and make your children eat everything up. It never worked! The usual response was, ‘Well they can have it!’)

But if I tell you that God loves you and that you can give nothing to make him love you more; and if I tell you that Jesus died on the cross so that you are completely and freely forgiven, and you need to give nothing in order to make him forgive you more; and if I tell you that God calls you – yes you – to know him personally, to be a follower of Jesus Christ and to receive his Spirit, and you receive that gift, then you will want to give. Giving is the signature of the Trinity. It is the signature of the believer. It will be giving as a response to his love. It will be an act of gratitude and an act of submission and trust, to the one who loves you.

I think of Zacchaeus. He was a tax collector who lived in Jericho and used his position to exploit people and take from them what he wanted. He heard that Jesus was coming to his home town, and he wanted to see Jesus. But so did everybody else and there was a crowd. As he tried to shove his way through, they wouldn’t let him. So he climbed a tree. And when Jesus walks past, he looks up into that tree and he looks up and says, ‘Zacchaeus, come down, because I’m going to stay at your house’.

The crowd are unhappy. What had Zacchaeus done to deserve that? He was a thief. He was unclean. He was a traitor. In the UK it would be like Jesus going to the home of a known paedophile who had made a lot of money by exploiting children on the web. But Jesus goes. He shows the love of God, even to a someone who had been a nasty, grubby, greedy little man. And no doubt he speaks of the love of God, of the welcome of God. And something happens. Zacchaeus could have rejected Jesus, and rejected the love of God, but instead he receives it and he commits himself to be a follower of Jesus. And we are told that as Jesus leaves, Zacchaeus takes his money and says, ‘Lord I will give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay him back four times’.

That is gospel, good news giving, and it is the sort of giving which brings glory to God.

So what about you?
Have you received the gospel, the good news of Jesus?
Have you heard of how much he loves you?
Have you, as a response, given your life to him – your relationships, hopes and fears, time, home and stuff to him?

Because when you do, you will realise that we are just the delivery man or woman. And you will want to be trustworthy and you will want to give; to give to society for the common good, to give to people in need, to give to the Church for the work of proclaiming the good news of God. And you will give: freely and abundantly.

And that will bring glory to God.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

A talk for St Mark's day

Mark 13.5-13

Mark or John Mark is the writer of the gospel. He is not one of the 12 apostles, although he was probably personally associated with Jesus and his first followers. It is possible that he is the ‘young man’ who flees naked from the site of the arrest of Jesus. It is a strange incident only recorded in Mark’s gospel (Mark 14.51-52).

John Mark “was a Jew and, according to Paul’s letter to the Colossians, cousin to Barnabas. He accompanied Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary journey. Afterwards, he went to Cyprus with Barnabas and to Rome with first Paul and then Peter. Mark’s gospel is generally regarded as the earliest and was most likely written whilst he was in Rome. It was probably based as much on Peter’s preaching of the good news as on Mark’s own memory”.

It is an interesting gospel reading that has been chosen for today (Mark 13.5-13), but on reflection, it makes a lot of sense

Jesus is speaking here about how hard it will be to be a disciple - and Mark is personally very aware of that. If he was in Rome, then it is likely that he was writing at the same time that Christians were experiencing savage persecution. Nero had lined them up as the fall guys for the Great Fire of Rome
And Mark 13 is a call to the first Christians to persevere, to recognise that even if the political situation gets bad - and it got really bad in Israel with the siege, capture and destruction of Jerusalem; even if there is bitter opposition and persecution; and even if families are irreconcilably divided - the believers are not to be deceived. They are not to surrender to some sort of non-gospel, but to remain faithful to Christ and, through it all, they are to continue to witness.

It was hard then. It is hard now.

For 70 years in this country, believers suffered persecution - and at times it was savege.
But today it is also hard - in a different way
I find that it is so much easier in our secular society to speak to somebody about church, or about our services or about Anglicanism, or even about some forms of spirituality (being at peace, mindfulness, a sense of oneness with creation) - than it is to speak with someone about Jesus Christ.

It is hard to say that I believe in God who I cannot sin. That I live my life based on the assumption that the Palestinian peasant, Jesus Christ, is the eternal Son of God, that he died for my sin, that he rose from the dead, that he is alive now, and that he will one day return as judge and establish his kingdom.

If non-believers really hear what I am saying then they should look at me as if I am mad.

It is so far from the assumptions of our society: which treats religion as a leisure activity, something that is OK for you to do so long as it doesn’t impact on anybody else. A bit like Morris dancing, or train spotting. Although they have a bit more credibility.

And if people listen to what I am saying, they will realise that if what I believe is by any chance actually true, then it challenges everything that they put their trust in and how they live.

It is hard to be a witness to Jesus and a follower of Jesus, and Jesus throughout Mark’s gospel warns us that it is hard. Living as a Christian is about taking up our cross, denying ourselves and following him.

But these are good verses to summarise Mark’s gospel. Because they not only tell us that it will be hard. They also speak of hope.

1. Mark speaks of the political chaos, of the earthquakes and famines, as birth pangs. In other words, they are intensely painful, but it is - if those who have given birth allow me to speak in this way - a good pain. Out of it will come something amazing and wonderful. Out of this suffering will come new life and joy.

2. He speaks of how we will speak before rulers - and that the Holy Spirit will speak through us. I thought that meant that we would suddenly be inspired to preach a perfect sermon without any preparation. How I long for that! But actually I wonder whether what Mark is saying is that God will be glorified and we will witness to Jesus even in our stumbling words. God uses not our strengths but our weakness to bring him glory. So if you stand there and stumble over your words - whether you are standing before rulers or speaking with your hairdresser when they’ve asked you what you believe, and you lose all power of communication and stutter out the words ‘Jesus is my Lord’, the Holy Spirit will use that.

3. Mark tells us that the message of Jesus will be taken to all nations. It is a very simple verse: ‘And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations’ (v10). That, if you think about it, is a staggering claim - especially in a day when there was no regional means of mass communication, let alone global mass media. And today, 2000 years later, this is a prophecy that has almost been fulfilled.

4. Mark tells us that the one who endures to the end will be saved.

So the message of the Mark, and the message of these verses, is that it will be hard - but that there is hope.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Motives for giving

2 Corinthians 8:1-15

For the next four weeks we are going to be looking at what the bible teaches about giving. And I hope that what we discover will be both liberating, and life transforming. 

I’m always slightly nervous when I speak about giving, because most people think that the only thing that the church wants is your money.

Story of three men in the trenches. About to go over the top. The sergeant says to one of his men, ‘This is really bad. Tell us a bible verse, say a prayer’. The man replied, ‘I don’t know any bible verses and I don’t know any prayers, but if you want me to do something religious, I’ll pass the plate around’.

We quite like it like that. It makes God and religion manageable. It means that if we give our 50 or 100 roubles, or even our 1000 roubles, we think we’ve done our bit. I’ve put the money in the basket – so its OK and I’m OK.
But if that is our attitude, then we are not giving, but we are paying for a good conscience.

So, let’s look at 2 Corinthians 8.1-15. They teach us about a right motive for giving.

Paul is writing to the early Christian community in Corinth. They’ve said that they are willing to collect money for the church in Jerusalem and Judea, who are experiencing severe financial hardship. And Paul is writing to them to encourage them to do what they have said that they will do.

And the thing that strikes me about these verses is the emphasis on the freedom and the joy of giving.

Paul speaks of the giving of the Macedonian Churches.
Look at the words he uses: “their abundant joy; overflowed in a wealth of generousity; they voluntarily gave; begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry”.

This is about abundant voluntary generous giving.
It reminds me of the woman who took a jar of precious oil, equivalent to the value of a labourer’s wage for a year – about half a million roubles – and she poured it on Jesus.

This is about being voluntary, eager, earnest, willing and joyful givers. This is a million miles away from the guilt inducing campaigns of many charities and, for that matter, churches. And it is a million miles away from the scrabbling around inside our pocket or purse to see what we’ve got left over to put in the collection plate!  

So how can we become eager, earnest, willing and joyful givers?

1.      We give ourselves first to God

Paul writes of the Macedonian Christians, “They gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us” (v5)

This is so important. If we wish to discover the joy of giving, then before we give our money, we need to have first given our life to Jesus Christ. It is about saying to the Lord Jesus, ‘I love you and I trust you, and I commit my life to you. I will go where you want me to go, I will do what you want me to do. I will live for you and I will live with you. I will die for you and I will die with you’.

Jesus is the heavenly highwayman who stops us in our tracks and who doesn’t say, ‘Your money or your life’, but says ‘Your money and your life’.

Of course, we need to constantly surrender ourselves to God.
If you’re anything like me, you have moments of conviction when you hear the call and you respond: Yes. You kneel down before him – literally or metaphorically - and offer everything to Jesus.
I’ve told of how Archbishop Burnett of South Africa speaks of how he went through every part of his body – beginning with the toes on his feet and ending with the hair on his head - dedicating each part to Christ’s service.
But then the circumstances of life overtake us, and temptations overwhelm us – and we need to renew that commitment. That’s why communion is so precious. We come again to receive the love of Jesus, to ask him to fill us with his Holy Spirit, and to offer ourselves afresh to him.

And when we give ourselves to Jesus, he will begin to transform our desires. We discover a new place to put our identity and our security.
Some of the things that we thought it so important to have will become far less important. And there will be new and different motivations.

And of course, if we give ourselves first to Christ, it means that we give all we have.

People sometimes ask, ‘Well how much should I give?’
The answer is, ‘everything’.
I think of the rich young ruler who asked Jesus what he should do to gain eternal life, and Jesus said to him, ‘Sell all that you have, and give to the poor, and come follow me’.
And maybe that is the radical calling for some, to sell all they have and join a monastic community.

But for most of us, we are called to live in this world.
And so God gave his people in the Old Testament the command to tithe – to give a tenth of everything you receive.

It is something that Jesus speaks about (Matthew 23.23), and it is a very good principle to follow. It is one that I have followed all my life: literally the very first thing that comes out of my salary is the tithe that I will give. When I was in the UK it was by standing order. Here we go to Sperbank and take the money out, and put it aside for Sunday.
But I emphasise that in the New Testament, everything we have belongs to God, and so all our money belongs to him – and tithing is only a principle, a suggestion, and it is not a law.
I note that here Paul doesn’t tell the Corinthian Christians to tithe. Instead he tells them of the Macedonian Christians who gave ‘according to their means’ (v3).
He is far more concerned with motive that amount: ‘For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have’ (v12)
And that means that some people should not be tithing, and others should be tithing and then giving far more.  

The important point here is that before we give our money, we need to have first given to the Lord Jesus our life.

2.      We give because giving is the logic of the gospel

At the very heart of the Christian gospel is the supreme act of giving: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich”. (v9)

Everything that we have is a gift. Life is gift. This world is gift. Our place in this world is gift. Our upbringing, talents, opportunities we are given, and the ability to make use of those opportunities is gift. Our possessions are gifts. We did nothing to deserve them.

And how much more is the gift of a relationship with God, of forgiveness, of his word spoken to us, of the Holy Spirit and His presence with us, of membership in his family, of the promise of eternal life, of the kingdom of God and ultimate fulfilment and joy. Not only did we do nothing to deserve that – we actually did everything we could to dis-deserve that.

But because of the love of God, Jesus left heaven and came to earth.
He gave up intimacy and peace with God so that we who were alienated from God could become intimate and have peace with God.
He gave up his life, and died, so that we who will die, might have life. 
He gave up heaven for earth, so that we who were destined to go under the earth, might have heaven.
He gave up everything for us, so that we who had nothing, might be eternally united to him and have everything.

It is all gift. The logic of the gospel is gift

And when a person gets gripped by the logic of the gospel, when they realise all that God has given for them, and when they receive the gift, then they will begin to live by the logic of the gospel. They will be eager to give – and they will give.
Why? Because the Spirit of Jesus, who was rich but became poor so that we might become rich, lives in them.
Why? Because we want to become like Jesus, who was rich but became poor so that others might become rich.  

Let me put this very simply.
If you are a believer, if the Spirit of God lives in you, and if you are being guided by the Spirit, then you will want to give.

And if you do not have that desire to give, or if when the plate comes round you give simply because you feel you ought to, then I’m going to make the radical suggestion that you do not give, at least to the work of the ministry of the church. God won't love you any the less, and you will feel much happier about it.

I like the story that is told of the mother who wanted her daughter to learn about giving. As they went to church she gave her a R10 coin and a R100 note. She said, 'You can put either into the collection and keep the other'. As they were going home, mum asked her which she had put in. She said, 'Well at first I thought I would put in the R100, but then the preacher said that God loved a cheerful giver, and I thought I would be much more cheerful if I had the R100. So I put in the R10'.

But the astonishing thing is that if you decide not to give, and you then realise that God still loves you, and that you are absolutely welcome here, you might begin to realise a little of what grace actually means. And you might discover that what you really desire to do is to give yourself to him. He really does want your life.

And if you do desire to give:
1.      Be wise! Tithing is a great principle, guideline for giving, but nobody should be overburdened.  
2.      If you want to give, don’t let things come in that stop you from doing what you really want to do, from what you were made to do. Don't let forgetfulness, or laziness, or procrastination, or fear or spiritual drowsiness get in the way. Go home, even today, and put aside the money that you want to give. Do it.

A man called Richard Stearns writes, "In 1987, one of the largest, single-day stock market crashes since 1929 took place. In one day my wife, Renee and I lost more than one-third of our life's savings and the money we had put aside for our kids' university education. I was horrified and became like a man obsessed, each night working past midnight, analysing on spreadsheets all that we had lost, and the next day calling in orders to sell our remaining stocks and mutual funds to prevent further losses. (Of course that turned out to be the absolute worst thing I could have done.)

I was consumed with anguish over our lost money—and it showed. One night when I was burning the midnight oil, Renee came and sat beside me. "Honey," she said, "this thing is consuming you in an unhealthy way. It's only money. We have our marriage, our health, our friends, our children, and a good income—so much to be thankful for. You need to let go of this and trust God." Don't you hate it when someone crashes your pity party? I didn't want to let go of it. I told her I felt responsible for our family and that she didn't understand. It was my job to worry about things like this.

She suggested we pray about it—something that hadn't occurred to me—so we did. At the end of the prayer, to my bewilderment, Renee said, "Now I think we need to get out the chequebook and write some big cheques to our church and ministries we support. We need to show God that we know this is his money and not ours." I was flabbergasted at the audacity of this suggestion, but in my heart I knew she was right. So that night we wrote some sizeable cheques, put them in envelopes addressed to various ministries, and sealed them. And that's when I felt the wave of relief. We had broken the spell that money had cast over me. It freed me from the worries that had consumed me. I actually felt reckless and giddy—"God, please catch us, because we just took a crazy leap of faith."