March 6, 2011

"The Sacred Art of Giving"
W. Gregory Pope, preaching

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Series: The Sermon on the Mount
The Good and Beautiful Life: Jesus’s Vision for a New World

Matthew 6:1-4, 19-24
(Holy Communion)

As we continue to make our way through the Sermon on the Mount, we are simultaneously beginning a series of sermons and Wednesday night studies on Ancient Spiritual Practices. 

We are following an Ancient Practices Series of books published by Thomas Nelson.  The publishers have chosen seven spiritual practices common to the three major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  They are: Giving, Fasting, Prayer, a Sacred Meal, a Liturgical Calendar, Pilgrimage, and Sabbath.

A couple of weeks ago on a Wednesday night I offered an introductory session to the goal of spiritual practices based on Brian McLaren’s book Finding Our Way Again, which introduces the series.  It’s a book I encourage you to read.  It will soon be available in the church library. 

Over the next eight days, we’re going to look at three of these practices that Jesus mentions in the Sermon on the Mount.  Next Sunday is Prayer.  This Wednesday, during our Ash Wednesday Service, we will consider Fasting (and not just from food).  Today we consider the spiritual practice of Giving.

It has been said of these three practices that they are all practices that bring freedom:  prayer frees us for God, fasting frees us from ourselves, and giving frees us for others.

There is a beautiful symmetry I see in talking about giving today as we celebrate the generosity of Betty Ann Potter and her gift to the church of $168,000 with more to come.  We are meeting after worship to prayerfully decide ways in which we can minister and serve others with this money.

The book on giving in the Ancient Practices Series is entitled Tithing, by Doug LeBlanc.  I have also been helped in my recent study of giving by Lauren Tyler Wright and her book Giving - The Sacred Art.  She begins by offering up a dictionary definition of giving as “voluntarily transferring something from one person to another without expecting compensation.”1  Sounds rather biblical to me.


When we talk about giving in church, tithing, giving away ten percent of one’s income specifically to God’s purposes, always enters the discussion.  Tithing is a common practice in the Hebrew Scriptures.  In most churches, members are not required to give ten percent, but the tithe is used as a guide in giving.

Lauren Wright talks about six different ways of giving, one of which is giving as “holy obligation,” that is, giving because we are commanded to do so as part of our religious tradition.  The purpose and goal of holy obligations in our faith tradition is to give us our identity as Christians and transform us into the likeness of our generous God.  All three of these practices Jesus mentions in Matthew - giving, praying, fasting - he speaks of as obligations and expectations.  In each case, Jesus says, “When you give, when you pray, when you fast.” Not if.

Some might ask, “Should we give if our heart’s not in it?”  And the answer is yes, we should.  A lack of desire is all the more reason to embrace an obligation, for that’s one of the purposes of an obligation - to get us to do something that is important and right even when we don’t feel like doing it.

As Christians who have become “spoiled by grace” are the least obligatory of the three major religions.

In Judaism, tzedakah (righteous giving) is an obligation to fulfill God’s will.  It is sometimes thought of as participation with God in the distribution of income to the poor. Tzedakah is so essential to Jewish identity that being a Jew means practicing tzedakah.2

Fasting, praying, and giving are three of the Five Pillars of Islam.  And there are requirements of giving based on your wealth.  The purpose of giving, called zakat in the Muslim tradition, is to grow in purity.  The money given helps fight poverty, poor education, and unemployment.  The Prophet Muhammad said, “He who sleeps on a full stomach whilst his neighbor goes hungry is not one of us.”3

The goal of giving in each tradition is to be formed into a person of generosity, not just a person who practices individual acts of generosity out of obligation.  But in order for us to become a generous person, we must regularly participate in acts of generosity out of obligation in order to train our desires.  In the words of the poet Walt Whitman, “The habit of giving only enhances the desire to give.”

Wright says the spiritual practice of regular giving is to move from the question, “How much do I have to give? to the more transformative question, “How much do I need to keep?”4

The Hindu sacred text, Bhagavad Gita says “Giving simply because it is right to give, without thought of return, is enlightened giving.  Giving with regrets or in the expectation of receiving some favor or of getting something in return, is selfish giving” (17:20-21).

Randy Alcorn, a Christian, calls tithing “a set of training wheels for people who want to become serious about their giving.”5

Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, a church with a budget of $5 million and a very small endowment continually challenges his congregation to tithe and then adds, “I hope I’m not asking too little of you.”6

Giving as Art

Again the goal is to move away from giving and tithing as a legalistic obligation and more toward the creation of a generous heart within us.

I like to think of giving as an art because it can be done in so many creative ways.  You do not have to compare your generosity to the way other people choose to practice their giving. 

Jesus offers some guidance on the art of giving:

            A Warning Against Vainglory

Part of the art of giving, Jesus says, is to do it without the need to be seen by others.

The Orthodox church speaks of eight deadly sins, adding vainglory to the traditional list of seven.  Vainglory is essentially rooted in insecurity and is driven by our need for affirmation from others.  If we do something well and no one notices, we are deflated because we have lost the thing we want most - acknowledgment and praise. 

Jesus is not criticizing the act of public acknowledgment.  There’s nothing wrong with giving praise; in fact, we should; but there is a problem in doing good with the intention of being praised because we have to have it.  James Bryan Smith says, “(Vainglory is) the only vice that actually needs a virtue in order to exist.”7

Jesus criticized three vainglorious acts common in his day - giving, praying, fasting.  In our day there are others like singing, preaching, and performing (but I don’t want to go there because it gets too personal for me!)

All three of these practices, when done rightly tune our hearts to God’s kingdom.  However, they can be done in a way that actually harms us.  In chapter five of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus mentions some bad things that get in the way our life with God (anger and murder, lust and adultery, divorce, lies, and retaliation).  In chapter six we are confronted with good things that can get in the way of our live with God (giving, praying, and fasting) when done in order to be seen by others).

If we do something in order to be seen by others, then when they see it, mission accomplished; you got the reward you were looking for, says Jesus.  You wanted an audience, you got it.  We end up being theater for others, performing for others because we need the attention.

Have you ever been tempted to let others know about your good works?  Most of us have.

Jesus offers us a corrective.  He says, Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.  Sounds like sort of a Zen haiku.  It’s a statement of consciousness.  It’s reaching the point where you act generously without even knowing it; it’s just who you are.  Those who are most generous do not go around announcing their generosity. 

Others may find out about your generosity.  They most likely will.  And if so, fine, they can see your good works and glorify God.

For Jesus, it’s about the motive.  It’s the difference between attention and intention. 

There is a Puritan saying that perfectly reflects kingdom living: “Live for an Audience of One.”  Many of us spend our lives playing for an audience of many, fixating on what others are thinking or saying about us.

Jesus is encouraging us to do good things with absolutely no concern about what others will think of us. Just act and forget about the rewards or fruits of your action.  Act for the truth of the action itself and not for human approval or the flattering self-image.

Are you giving up something for Lent this year?  Don’t do it to be theater for others.  Perhaps this Lenten season you may want to attempt to do one intentional act of kindness every day that lifts someone’s burden.  The particular aim, however, is to do it in secret.  If you get noticed, don’t lie; simply say, “I just wanted to help you out.  It was no big deal.”  But try to get away with it.

            The Pursuit of God-Glory

We give not to be seen by others and gather glory for ourselves.  Rather, we give as an act of worship, to acknowledge that our lives and what we have is not really our own.  We give out of gratitude to God for life and its gifts, and we give in ways that honor God and give God glory.

            Giving as Discipleship

We give as an act of discipleship.  Jesus just assumed his disciples would be generous:  “When you give,” he says.

The goal of discipleship is to become imitators of God by living in an intimate relationship with God.  One of the best ways you connect with this God who is fundamentally defined by generosity is to be generous yourself.  Being generous to others also helps them experience the generous God.

            Giving as Stewardship

As disciples we are also stewards.  We give as a matter of stewardship because we know we are only managing God’s resources in this world for the benefit of the world.

Andrew Carnegie was a nonreligious philanthropist.  He believed that people of wealth were responsible for acting as trustees of the needy and were obliged to redistribute their assets.  “Surplus wealth,” he said, “is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his (or her) lifetime for the good of the community.”8  That’s biblical stewardship.

One of Oprah Winfrey’s best-loved episodes is her annual “Favorite Things” show, where she spotlights her favorite (and often expensive) holiday gifts, and then lavishes each member of the audience with those gifts.

One day, however, Oprah replaced that episode with one called “Oprah’s Favorite Giveaway Ever,” in which she gave each member of her audience one thousand dollars - to spend on a total stranger in just one week. 

Audience members seemed a bit confused at first - spend it on someone else?  But before long a sense of excitement washed over their faces at the invitation and freedom they had been given.  The money wasn’t theirs to begin with, so the typical reservations and objections that come with giving away money did not apply.  They weren’t losing anything by giving it away.

This is stewardship: using someone else’s money to help someone besides yourself.

Well, creativity broke lose with Oprah’s audience.

One participant paid it forward by buying plane tickets for parents of sick children to visit their kids in the hospital; the airline donated an additional forty tickets on the spot.

Another audience member from a small town of fourteen thousand people decided to give her $1000 to a dad with a brain tumor who has a family of nine children to support.  With a few phone calls and an ad in the local newspaper, town locals added to her gift and raised $72,000.

A first grade teacher from Pittsburgh returned home and decided to use her $1000 to buy new shoes for the kids in her school.  They enlisted the help of local shoe stores and the townspeople to raise $63,000 for the elementary school.

Two Atlanta sisters turned $2000 into $200,000 for a battered women and children’s shelter.9

In all these cases generosity caught fire and multiplied the initial gift.  All because of a stewardship realization:  What I have is not mine.  It is something meant to pass through my hands to make the lives of others better.

And you don’t need a gift from Oprah to practice generosity.  Albert Lexie has been shining shoes in Monessen, Pennsylvania for over forty years at local businesses and the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, living on $10,000 a year.  He has donated over $100,000 of his tips to the hospital, providing financial assistance to children who need treatment but cannot afford it.10

Betty Ann Potter and CHBC

Today after worship, which will actually be a continuation of our worship, we will have an opportunity to practice stewardship in a way I’ve never known a church to be able to do.

In her own act of generous stewardship, Betty Ann Potter has entrusted us with the opportunity to practice stewardship: to do something with money that is not ours, to reach out to our community and the world, and do something good. 

It is true of all our money.  None of it belongs to us, not even the ninety percent left over after a tithe.

To engage in the spiritual practice of giving can bring you joy.  It can remind you of the purpose of life.  It can provide you a profound connection with humanity.  It can give you the power to change someone’s life.  And it will powerfully transform your own life.  Giving frees us from our possessions for the sake of others.  Giving reorders our priorities.  It helps replace the narrow perspective of “me” with an expansive view of “we.”11

So, how are you using what you have (how ever much or little that is), for the benefit of others?  How are you touching lives with what you’ve been given?

As we consider the season of Lent that begins this Wednesday, it may be that you will want to give up or simplify one basic element of your lifestyle for the sake of having some additional money to give away.  It may be that you want to practice giving things away throughout Lent that would be of some value to someone else.

Perhaps all of us every day throughout Lent could ask ourselves:  What can I give to make the world a better place?  What can I do with my life for others? 

It’s what Jesus did.  And it’s what brings us to this table.

1. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary,, as quoted in Laura Tyler Wright, Giving - A Sacred Art, Skylight Paths, 2008, ix.
2. Wright, 22, 59
3. Wright, 61-62
4. Wright, 64
5. Douglas LeBlanc, Tithing, Thomas Nelson, 2010, 11
6. LeBlanc, 115-116
7. James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful Life, Intervarsity Press, 2009, 140-141
8. As quoted in Wright, 28
9. Wright, 26-27
10. Wright, 49
11. Wright, xii-xiii