“A Joyful Giver”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

October 14, 2018

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

 

Since today is the launch of our Stewardship program, and since several of you have bravely agreed to share your faith stories, your Stewardship witnesses, in the coming weeks, I thought that today, I would offer you my testimony.  Now, I know that we are good New Englanders, and we don’t talk about money… especially in church.  But Jesus talked about money more than he talked about pretty much anything else, so if he can do it, then I think we can, too.  I am grateful to Cheri and Dana for sharing their stories today, and to Betty and Paula, who will speak in the coming weeks.

 

For me, the moment happened about a decade ago.  I was living in Somerville, MA, in metro Boston, and I had just joined the UCC church in Cambridge where I would eventually be ordained, where Matt and I would eventually be married.  It was the fall, and fall is—in many of our churches—Stewardship season, and so the pastor and the lay leaders started talking about money.

I was in grad school at the time.  I was paying my rent out of my student loan money, and buying my books and my groceries with my work study earnings.  I was sharing an apartment with three roommates.  We put on sweatshirts and hats in the house rather than turn up the heat.  I walked and took the train or the bus to get where I needed to go.  I shopped for bargains and packed my lunch and made my coffee at home rather than pay a premium at the coffee shop.  I was getting by, but I was not exactly raking in the big bucks.  I had enough, but there was not much in the way of extra.

So when they started talking about money at church, I started to feel a little squirrely.  My first response was one of scarcity.  I don’t have enough.  I can’t afford to contribute.  I mean, I put a few dollars in the offering plate every week, but that’s really all I can do.  I slid down a bit in my pew and sort of shrunk in on myself, hoping no one would look at me.

But from my slouched-down position, I watched the facial expressions of the pastors and the lay leaders as they spoke about their practices of giving, and to a person, week after week, they were beaming.  Eyes sparkling, mouths smiling, hands gesturing with enthusiasm.  I heard the tone of their voices, and they were full of energy, passion, even excitement.  I listened to the words they spoke, and those, too, expressed fulfillment and gratitude and delight at being able to support a community they believed in, a community that supported them in so many ways.

And as I watched and listened—I don’t know any other way to say it—the Holy Spirit showed up and did her thing.  As I absorbed the joy that my siblings in Christ were sharing, my heart started to talk back to my rational mind.  I don’t have enough, said the brain.  I want to be part of this, said the heart.  I can’t afford it, said the brain.  I want to share, said the heart.  I shouldn’t take this risk, said the brain.  I want to give, said the heart.

So when the day came to turn in our pledges, I did.  It wasn’t much—I think I pledged maybe $200—but it was a stretch given my circumstances, and it was definitely more than I had ever given away before.  And you know what I discovered?  It felt awesome.  I have to tell you, it was truly transformative.

When I chose to pledge, I felt connected to that community in a new and deeper way.  Now, no one had ever told me I wasn’t part of the community before—it was an incredibly warm and welcoming place.  No one had ever communicated in any way that I was an outsider.  No one had ever presented pledging as a ticket into the inner circle.  But when I chose to participate in that way, I took a step, or several steps, closer to the heart of my family of faith.  I moved from the periphery toward the center.  I opted in, and when I did, my heart was opened in new ways to my community and to God.

When I chose to pledge, I felt like I was making a difference.  When I decided that I would commit some of my money to a community I loved, to a cause I believed in, I felt empowered to do something positive.  Even though it was a small pledge, even though my $200 was a tiny drop in a very large bucket, even though the dollars I gave were small potatoes by any absolute measure, I felt like I could do something that mattered.  I felt like I could make a choice and make an impact.  I felt powerful in a way I had not expected.  And it felt really good.

When I chose to pledge, I felt like I was living out my faith in a new way.  I had read the Biblical stories about the way our ancestors in faith would bring the first fruits of their harvest to God, but I had never translated that into my own life before.  I had made small contributions to organizations whose work I supported before, but I had not understood that as a practice of faith.  Pledging to my church felt like making an offering to God, like using the resources I held—even if there wasn’t much—to give thanks and praise to God and to further the work of God in the world.

Over the years since that first time I pledged, I have worked my way up toward tithing, toward the Biblical call to give away 10% of what we receive, and each step in that direction—even when it has felt sacrificial—has also brought me joy.  But it was that first, smallest pledge that made all the difference.

 

“The point is this,” writes the apostle Paul to the Corinthians.  “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”  There is truth in this, for the more generous we are, the wider we open our hearts, both to God and to one another.

But even when we feel unable to give… even when generosity feels out of reach… even when we feel like we have nothing to offer… scarcity does not get the last word, because it is God we’re talking about here.  The same God who brought forth springs in the desert and manna from heaven in the hungry wilderness, the same God who taught that faith the size of a mustard seed could move mountains, the same God who chose to show up as a tiny, vulnerable infant because that was how the world would be saved.  And with that God, even when we find ourselves sowing sparingly, bounty is surely close at hand.  “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance.”  With that God, when we open our hearts even the smallest of cracks, God’s Spirit of Life will come pouring in and fill us to overflowing.

So let us give joyfully—of our money, yes, but also of our time, of our abilities, of our spirits, of our lives, of our love—and let us trust that in the giving, we will receive.

May it be so.

 


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