A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 11, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Deuteronomy 16:9-12 and John 10:7-10
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            So a guy called the church, the secretary answered the phone, and the guy said, “Could I speak to the Head Hog at the trough.”[i]
The secretary said, “Sir, if you mean Reverend Spencer [it’s just a coincidence that the pastor and I share the same name] you will have to treat him with a little more respect.  You can ask for ‘Reverend Spencer’ or ‘the Pastor.’  But certainly you cannot refer to him as ‘the Head Hog at the Trough.’”
The man said, “I understand.  You see, I was calling because I have $50,000 I was thinking about donating.”
“Hold on for just a moment – I think the big pig is available.”

That’s right, it’s time for my annual money sermon.

There’s an interesting info graphic in the latest issue of “World Ark,” Heifer International’s magazine.[ii]  Giving in 2011 grew by 4% in the U.S.  I don’t know if you can attribute that to improvements in the economy or something else.  It totaled roughly $275 billion (that’s right billion with a B).  The vast bulk of it came from people – just about 80% – and when I say “people,” I don’t mean corporations.  People gave $218 billion and corporations gave only $15 billion.  (The rest, about $42 billion, came from foundations.)

The biggest chunk of the giving – just under a third – went to religious organizations (like churches, synagogues, etc.).  The next biggest chunk, at 13 %, went to educational organizations (like colleges and universities).

You probably won’t be surprised that members of the Silent Generation and older (those born before 1945) are the most likely to give, with 77% giving.  But I was really surprised by which generation came in second.  Between Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials, anyone care to guess?  It’s Millennials (looking at the portion of the generation that’s 20 and older) with 54% giving charitably – ahead of Gen X and 52% and Baby Boomers at only 45%.

They also have a map of the United States, pointing out the top 10 and bottom 10 states in terms of “average donation per taxpayer.”  Anyone care to guess the top state?  Utah, averaging $2,388 per taxpayer.  And the bottom state?  Maine, averaging $612 per taxpayer.  By the way, California didn’t make their list; we must me among that middle 30 States.

But, as I thought about these statistics, I realized that the raw average amount given per taxpayer isn’t comparing apples to apples.  Since average income is different from state to state, the percentage of income being given is going to change, and isn’t that the more informative number?  So I did a little research.  In 2010, income per capita in Utah was $32,595 and income per capita in Maine was $37,300[iii] – actually, not as big a difference as I thought there was going to be, and the numbers actually push Utah’s giving even higher when you look at percentages of income.

The chart does have an important note plopped off the North Carolina coast:  “When calculated as a percentage of income, the neediest are the most charitable.”

“When calculated as a percentage of income, the neediest are the most charitable.”

If everyone gave the same percentage of their income away, the impact of that giving would already be greatest on those with the lowest incomes.  If you make $1500 a month and you give away 10% of it, you’re giving $150 a month, leaving you with $1350 to pay for housing, food, clothing, medicine, transportation, etc.  If you make $10,000 a month and you give away 10% of it, you’re giving $1,000 a month – which looks like a lot more than the $150 a month in my first example – but it leaves you with $9,000 a month to pay for housing, food, clothing, medicine, transportation, etc.

But calculated as a percentage of income, the neediest are the most charitable.  The neediest give away a greater percentage of their income than do those with more to give.

I can’t help but wonder if they have discovered the transformative power of generosity.

You’ve received a couple letters and you’ve heard from a few people as part of our pledge campaign.  We really have two foci this year:  the challenge of figuring out how much you’re going to give; and that there is delight to be found in giving.

I’m going to leave that first focus with this comment:  I recommend you look at the percentage of income that you’re giving and ask yourself if that percentage really represents how you value the church and its ministry and if that percentage is big enough to have an impact on your lifestyle.  The focus on this sermon is on the ways generosity transforms, including the delight to be found in being generous.

Our first lesson comes from the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah.  Deuteronomy is written as Moses reviewing everything that happened in the Exodus and reminding the Hebrews of the rules God has given them just before they start their conquest of the “Promised Land.”  Our particular reading comes amid a review of the festivals the Hebrews are supposed to observe.  Our particular festival is the Festival of Weeks, a harvest festival.

Once you start harvesting your food (an interesting commandment to give a people who are, at this point, nomadic), count seven weeks, then have a big party.  This is how you should party:  bring a portion of your harvest, according to how good a harvest it is, to God (that’s sort of what I was saying about how to decide how much to pledge) and then rejoice with your family and neighbors and even strangers and those with nothing.  That’s what we’re going to do next week.  We’ll receive the pledges during worship and then we’ll gather for lunch with no agenda by rejoicing together.

And the reading concludes with why you should party:  Because God has freed you.  Delight in the harvest.  Delight in the resources you have.  And delight in your freedom.

Now, I agree with the scholars who say that Deuteronomy was written well after the establishment of Israel as a nation.  In today’s reading, there are clues.  The fact that there are directions about farming being given to a theoretically nomadic people is a clue.  The direction to bring the offering to God “at the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name” – in other words, bring it to Jerusalem even though Jerusalem won’t be under their control until David is king – is a clue.

Also, this religious command to “bring your offering to the Temple” might be a little self-serving.  But the reality is your offerings are important to keep the ministry going.  They do real things.  They buy music for the choir and pay the electric and gas bills.  They pay my salary (and, thank you, really) so I can help organize our congregation to make disciples of Jesus to transform the world.  They buy curriculum for our Sunday School and help our children grow.

And that’s not all our offerings do.  Our offerings – not just the pledges we make, but the act of fulfilling them, the act of giving, the spiritual practice of generosity changes things.  They change things in obvious ways for the receiver – like in ways I was just talking about.  And they change things for the giver.

Once upon a time, there was a very wealthy man who had never been known for his generosity to the church.[iv]  In fact, it is possible that he had never given money to the church at all.  One year, the stewardship committee resolved to pay him a visit to see if they could get him to give something to the church.  When the committee met with the man one afternoon, they said that in view of his considerable resources they were sure that he would like to make a substantial pledge to the church.
“I see,” he said, “so you have it all figured out have you?  In the course of your investigation did you discover that I have a widowed mother who has no other means of support but me?”
“No,” they responded, “we didn’t know that.”
“Did you know that I have a sister who was left by a drunken husband with five children and no means to provide for them?”
“No,” they said, “we didn’t know that either.”
“Well, did you know also that I have a brother who is handicapped due to an automobile accident and can never work another day to support his wife and family?”
Embarrassingly, they responded, “No sir, we did not know that either.”
“Well,” he thundered, “I’ve never given any of them a cent.  Why do you think I’d give anything to you?”

This poor guy, rich as he was, was indeed very poor.  He had not discovered the transformative power of generosity.  He had not discovered how the practice of generosity opens up the heart wider and wider.  He had not discovered that the practice of generosity empowers the practice of thanksgiving and opens the eyes of the giver to the abundance of grace and blessings in the world.  He had not discovered that the practice of generosity frees the soul from fear.

The Bible starts out with a liturgy of abundance, a song of praise for God’s generosity.[v]  It keeps saying, “It is good, it is good, it is good, it is good, it is good, it is very good.”

Jesus, filled with God’s generosity, went around to people suffering from scarcity – scarcity of health, scarcity of food, scarcity of acceptance, scarcity of power, scarcity of understanding – and replaced it with a gift of abundance.  Jesus was well schooled in the transformative power of generosity and in the conviction that if you share your bread with your neighbor, the world will be made new.  He knew that generosity isn’t something you just think about.  It’s something you do.

Stewardship presumes blessings and abundance.  Jesus sums up the purpose of his ministry this way:  that we “may have life and have it abundantly.”  When we practice generosity in the spirit of Jesus, we are changed, we are drawn into a life of abundance.

So, in the next day or two, you will receive a third letter from the stewardship committee.  It will have the pledge card in it and it will ask you to fill the pledge card out and bring it to church next week.

My prayer for you, as you complete that pledge card, is that it draws you deeper in the practice of generosity so the practice of generosity can continue to transform your life even as it transforms the lives of others.


[i] Adapted from (no author cited) “Giving,” quoted in an email from sermons.com (6 November 2012).

[ii] “For the Record,” World Ark, Holiday 2012: 5.  The info graphic cites The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University for the data on total giving in 2011 and the breakdown about to what types of organization that given went, The Chronicle of Philanthropy for the data on giving by generation, and The Urban Institute for the data on state by state giving.

[iii] Infoplease, http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0104652.html (11 November 2012).

[iv] Adapted from Staff, “Giving Till It Hurts,” quoted in an email from sermons.com (6 November 2012).

[v] This conclusion is adapted from Doris R. Powell, “Transformative Generosity,” Stewards in the Household of God (Cleveland: United Church of Christ, 2008), 25.