Joyful and Generous

A sermon based on Psalm 100 and Acts 9:36-43 preached on October 11th, 2015.

Sermon audio

A few weeks ago, there was news off the coast of San Francisco of a female humpback whale who had become tangled in hundreds of yards of rope line. It was wrapped around her body, her tail, fins, and well as some trapped inside and tugging at her mouth. Rescuers had to dive into the water to get to all the parts of her that were tangled up. It took them several hours to free the whale from all that had bound her. They used curved knives to cut away the rope, piece by piece, until she was freed.

Once her rescuers had cut the last of the fishing rope from her, she swam away… but then came back to them. The divers said she swam in what seemed to them like joyous circles. She then came up to each and every diver, one at a time, and nudged them, as if to thank them individually. The rescuer who cut the rope from the whale’s mouth said her eyes were following him the whole time, and in them he saw gratitude.

There are many things in this life that we come across that bind us up—so many ways for us to get tangled up, make us feel confined to something—even in wide open spaces, there are things that make us feel constrained, locked down, captive. That is, unless we come across someone who is willing to take the time—hours, days, maybe even longer—to tend to us, to help us cut away at those invisible ropes that keep us feeling caught, less than free. Those who are willing to lend their careful and patient presence to us until we’re strong enough to start swimming again, under our own strength.

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Tabitha was like those rescuers. She spent her days, doing what she was best at—making tunics and other clothing—and by doing so, she rescued many widows who were bound up in the sorrow of losing their husbands.

But before she was a rescuer, she was rescued. Tabitha was a widow herself who knew the pain of losing her husband. She knew how hard it was to live in her day as a widow—with no rights of her own, no leg to stand on, ignored by everyone around her. So, she vowed to help other widows in the ways she would have loved to be helped herself. She decided to become the sort of person the world was sorely in need of. She did that by starting a clothing ministry for her fellow widows. She made tunics and other clothes. She dedicated herself to her craft because she saw an unfulfilled need in her community, and she knew she could help. So she started sewing.

During those times, threads were woven into cloth on a loom made from a long wooden beam supported by two posts. The threads were hung from this beam, each strand weighted down by stones to keep them steady, and then the sewer would weave a cross-thread back and forth, back and forth, to make the cloth. It was not easy. It was thoroughly time-consuming. Tabitha must have spent hours a day making each of those garments. Every one of them made at her own expense, weaving her time, her talent, her treasure into this clothing ministry, and giving everything she made away for free. She threw 100% of herself into it. It was her duty but also her delight, and no matter what kind of money she spent on all those supplies, it was far outweighed by the joy she got out of giving out her clothes to the other widows in her village. It was her ministry, and she reveled in it!

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Money is such a hard thing for us to talk about with company. It’s one of those things (maybe even the greatest thing) we keep to ourselves—within our households. One of the ways to define the word sacred is “set apart.” In that sense money is sacred. It’s a private concern and anyone other then your bank our retirement specialist, who asks you about your finances takes a chance of stepping over some of our boundaries. But how we spend what we have is sacred in a far greater sense.

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Pastor Mark Allen Powell tells the story of the Gauls. The Gauls were a warrior people who in ancient times inhabited parts of what is now France and Belgium. By the time of the Christian era, they were taken over by Rome. Christian missionaries from Rome ventured into Galic territory and converted the Gauls to Christianity.

When Galic warriors were baptized in a river or stream, they would hold one arm high out of water whenever the missionaries dunked them under. The missionaries had no clue why each of the Gauls were doing such a thing, but one day they found out. It turns out that the Gauls kept one arm dry because if a battle ever broke out, the warlike Gauls could pick up their swords, clubs, or axes with that dry, “unbaptized” arm, and use it to kill their enemies.

Of course, the Gauls didn’t understand baptism very well. Baptism is 100% or nothing. Imagine making an effort to keep some aspect of ourselves free from the promises of baptism! What aspect of your life would you try to keep dry?

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This is the first Sunday of our Stewardship season. It is good to carve out special time to reflect upon our call to stewardship. It’s right for us to spend October reflecting upon all that has been given to us, all the gifts we’ve been given, and to show our gratitude for it by giving back. But we all know that stewardship is not a seasonal invitation. It’s a 365 lifestyle. Christian stewardship isn’t about giving a part of ourselves to God. It’s about giving 100% of ourselves to God. It’s about getting every bit of ourselves wet. Stewardship is what we do after we believe. It’s about what we do with all that we have, all the time.

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In the gospels, we hear Jesus utter the familiar phrase,

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

There are many who misunderstand this saying. Christians everywhere, pastors everywhere, get this saying backwards. We hear these words, and we think Jesus is saying,

You can tell what people really care about by how they spend their money.

or,

Where people put our money reveals where their true values are.

Now, maybe there’s truth in that, but it isn’t at all what Jesus was saying.

Jesus didn’t say,

Where your hearts are, there your treasure will be also.

He said it the other way around. He was saying,

Wherever it is you put your treasure—that’s where your heart will end up.

Jesus wasn’t a fundraiser. He talked about money a lot because he knew that more than any other thing in our lives, it’s money that has the most power to affect us spiritually. So with that saying, Jesus was trying to tell us that how we spend our money determines the sort of people we become.

Inside this one phrase is an invitation that none of us have been able to hear. And the invitation is this: Give where you want your heart to go, and your heart will follow you there! Don’t just give to things you care about. Give to things you want to care about, and see where that takes you. And this invitation doesn’t just have to do with money. It’s also about how we spend our time and our energy—all the resources of our lives. We can steer ourselves toward the things we would most like to care for—start acting like the people we would most like to be—see where that takes us, and then let our hearts and lives catch up to it. Where your treasure goes, there your heart will go also.

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I bet Tabitha never saw herself spending her days sitting in front a loom. I bet she never thought she’d rise up from her own overwhelming circumstances of losing her husband—suddenly becoming the widow that everyone felt sorry for—and then using her grief and loss to do something life-giving for others just like her.

Tabitha is the only female in the entire New Testament who’s referred to as a disciple. Tabitha found her purpose, her love, her calling to give 100% of herself in stewardship, in joy and generosity to God, by making clothes, freeing her fellow widows from the ropes that bound them up way too tight. And the early church, as it turned out, couldn’t live without her. In fact, it came alive because of her.

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Stewardship is 100%, 100% of the time. Where do you see and unfulfilled need? Either here in church or in our community? What stopping you from putting yourself in that role—first giving your time, your money, your energy to that thing, and letting your heart catch up?

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There was a pastor who told a story about the joy and generosity of Christian stewardship. When he was small, his mother would send him to the florist down the street to pick up flowers for the dinner table. He had to carry the flowers through town all the way back home, and sometimes his friends would see him and make fun of him. He got so embarrassed by this. But a few years later, when he was a teenager, he walked down to the same florist and bought a bouquet of flowers for a girl he really liked, and he carried them all the way through town without an ounce of shame. He said, he was just thinking of her and how happy she would be to get flowers, and how happy he would be to give them to her. There’s the connection between loving and giving. When we love someone, we want to give them things. It’s not that we’re obligated to give. It’s because it’s our greatest desire to give. That’s what giving to God should be like.

Maybe we’ll have to teach ourselves the value of giving of our time, our talents, and our tithes and offerings before we see the treasure in it—letting our hearts catch up to it. But there is abundant treasure in giving. And if we practice giving long enough, it may even untangle us from all that drags on us, and will make us the joyful and generous people we have always longed to be!

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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