Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Some of you have heard me share my dad’s favorite line these days. It’s the deceptively simple question, “Compared to what?” It’s useful in all kinds of different situations. Admittedly, it became a favorite line back when we were going through a really tough time as a family, when my mom was battling cancer. “How was your day, Dad?” “Well…Compared to what? Compared to Mom’s day? Or compared to before we got the new medication for her? It’s going fairly well.” That kind of thing. But the same line has come in handy for us as a perspective-giver in all kinds of different settings since. “How was your week, Dad?” “Well, it was a little crazy, but on the other hand, compared to what? Compared to those dealing with hurricane clean-up? Or to families who lost their homes in the fires in Northern California? Then I had an incredibly easy week.”
I told Dad I thought this would be a helpful line to use on Pledge Sunday this year, because whenever we talk about money or giving in the church, it’s important to keep things in perspective. So I’m going to ask for your help saying this with me a handful of times this morning – “Compared to what?” (repeat; explain it’s also sermon title and I’ll cue them to say it as we go along)
It’s not always easy to keep a healthy sense of perspective about pledging and giving. Because anytime someone asks us to give money, whether it is to the church or to another worthy cause, we naturally think about whether we have enough money to give them, and whether giving money away will require that we sacrifice anything ourselves.
And I don’t want to oversimplify here, because we have a wide range of income levels in this congregation. We would never ask anyone to forgo feeding their family to give to the church! Let’s be clear about that!
But even for those of us who, if we’re honest with ourselves, actually have plenty, or even more than enough…With so many voices in our culture inviting us to compare ourselves to those who have more than we do, it’s still easy to feel we don’t have all that much. Especially if our focus is on the salaries of professional athletes or celebrities, or if we spend a lot of time walking by the mansions on Magnolia bluff. But is that really the way we should be thinking about how much we have?
So let’s try our refrain on for size here. How much do we have? “Compared to what?” Well, compared to Bill Gates, not so much. But perhaps a better reality check is to compare ourselves with the guys carrying their trays through the dinner line at Operation Nightwatch, or to parents who can only feed their kids by showing up on a certain day at Ballard Food Bank…or we could compare ourselves to Syrian refugees, fleeing their homes with only the clothes on their backs, or to the thousands upon thousands of kids in Africa trying to raise themselves and their younger siblings with absolutely nothing. Now how much do we have? Let’s try saying our refrain again: “Compared to what?”
There’s a second comparison I find helpful on a day like today. I personally really like turning in my pledge card every year, and like being generous to the church, and to other organizations doing good work in the world. In fact, my husband Ken and I try to give at least 10% of everything we earn in our jobs back to God through the church, and then we give additional money to other groups we like to support as well. But I can run into a different kind of danger. And that’s feeling a little too confident about just how generous I am. You may have heard the expression, “you can’t outgive God?” And it’s true, right? No matter how much I share with others, I won’t come anywhere close to being as generous as God is. Any percent I give back to the church is just that – it’s a percent, a fraction! – of what I’ve been given. We are invited to be generous only because we ourselves have been the recipients of great generosity.
Selfishness and stinginess – those are human inventions. The God we meet in the Bible is all about piling on the gifts! Abundance, not scarcity, is the name of the game. We’re talking about a God who is like a farmer planting seeds, except that he’s a sower wildly tossing seed all over the place, without worrying that it always falls on perfect soil. Or we’re told God is like a father who throws an enormous party and a huge feast to welcome home a prodigal son. This is a God, the Bible says, who throws lavish banquets for anyone and everyone, for that matter – if the expected guests don’t come, no worries; open the doors to those no one thinks to invite to their own dinner parties: the poor, the sick, and the friendless. For that matter, confronted by several thousand hungry people, Jesus doesn’t just provide enough food for them to eat, from a few small loaves of bread and a couple of fish, he makes sure there are 12 big baskets full of leftovers! That’s quite a meal.
Even beyond the Scriptures, all you have to do is look at the wonders of creation for further reminders of God’s over-the-top, ridiculously generous spirit, and to remember the crazy abundance with which he’s constantly throwing gifts at the world. Think about the trees this fall with their breathtakingly brilliant colors. Or do you know I just read recently there are 25,000 species of orchids! 25,000 species of a single type of gorgeous flower? Seriously, God? Now you’re just showing off!
So if I ever catch myself thinking I’m ‘all that’ because I of how much I give, what I really should be doing is asking myself – and here I’ll have you help me by saying our refrain again: “Compared to what?” Compared to greedy, selfish people who seem to grab everything they can get their hands on, and keep it all for themselves? I’d hope we’re all pretty generous compared to that! But compared to God? Not so much. God is the Giver we can never out-give.
I love today’s passage from 2 Corinthians because it reminds us, when we give, to do so cheerfully. The God who so clearly loves to give doesn’t appear to be at all interested in having to twist our arms or drag us kicking and screaming toward the offering plate. God is very interested, though, in giving us opportunities to give… and that’s because God knows how much fun it can be to share! God knows how much joy it can bring our hearts to approach the world from the standpoint of abundance rather than scarcity, and to be able to make a real difference in God’s name. “God loves a cheerful giver, and God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that … you may share abundantly in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:7-8)
So this morning when we bring our pledge cards forward at the end of service, I hope you’ll join that “pledge parade” as a joyful giver, a cheerful giver. For how much, really, do we have? [Refrain: Compared to what?] And how generous could we ever possibly be? [Refrain: Compared to what?]
Our middle school and high school students may not know this, but I’ll bet there's an adult or two here this morning who knows that churches are sometimes accused of talking about money too much. It’s an interesting complaint, as I’ve yet to meet a church that talks about money as much as the Bible does. Really! If you simply flipped through looking for references to wealth and poverty, business transactions and money, gifts and giving, abundance and generosity? Or if you even just limited yourself to the words of Jesus, when he talks about money? Try it sometime! You might be surprised how often these things come up.
So how much do churches talk about money? [Refrain: Compared to what?] Compared to what would make us more comfortable, compared to what would make us squirm less in our seats on a Sunday morning – like maybe not talking about money at all? Well, sure, we have a bit to say. But compared to how much the Bible talks about all of this? As I say, it would be the rare church that’s actually keeping up on that score.
Though, to be fair, some are finding memorable ways of trying. In one of the congregations my daughter Alina and I visited this summer, when it was time to collect the offering, they first invited everyone who tithed, or gave 10% of their income, including kids giving 10% from their weekly allowance, to walk to the front of the church and put their offering in the baskets there. And then, as they began to pass the regular offering plates around the congregation, like we normally do, the pastor explained that this was the Sunday they were collecting for their outreach ministries, so he wanted to be sure everyone understood this meant they were really collecting two offerings that day. Now I’ve been to lots of churches over the years, and it’s not at all uncommon to combine offerings like that, so Alina and I each put into the offering plate, as it came by, what we considered a reasonable amount to give to both their general fund and their outreach ministries… only to discover what the pastor actually meant by two offerings was that the plates were coming back around the entire sanctuary a second time! So first people walked forward with gifts to the church, and then the plates came around. Twice! That’s three, count ‘em, three offering collections in a single worship service, and I haven’t even told you yet about the special givers’ covenant (or promise) the whole congregation recited aloud together, before they even began this whole process. They stood together and made promises, declaring the importance of giving their offerings generously to God, promises I think they say together each week.
So … how much do we talk about money, and giving, and pledging here at MPC?
Are you ready for one final refrain? “Compared to what?”