Stewardship (4)

Here's a woman's touching story.  For the past ten years, a small, white envelope has been stuck among the branches of our Christmas tree.  It all began because my husband, Mike, hated Christmas--oh, not the true meaning of Christmas, but the overspending, the frantic running around at the last minute, the gifts given in desperation.  Knowing he felt that way, I decided to do something different.  Our son, Kevin, was wrestling at the junior high school.  Shortly before Christmas, his team played a team sponsored by an inner-city church.  These youngsters, dressed in very ragged sneakers and T-shirts, were a sharp contrast to our boys in their spiffy blue and gold uniforms and sparkling new wrestling shoes.  As the match began, I was alarmed to see that the other team of boys were wrestling without headgear.  It was a luxury they obviously could not afford.  We ended up walloping them, but as each boy got up from the mat, he swaggered in his tatters with false bravado, a kind of street pride that couldn't acknowledge defeat.  Mike shook his head sadly. "I wish just one of them could have won," he said.  "They have a lot of potential, but losing like this could take the heart right out of them."  That afternoon I went to a local sporting goods store and bought an assortment of wrestling headgear and shoes and sent them anonymously to the inner-city church.  On Christmas Eve, I placed an envelope on the tree with a note telling Mike what I had done as my gift to him.  His smile was the brightest thing that Christmas!  Each Christmas after that, I sent Mike's gift money to a different group--one year sending a group of youngsters with mental disabilities to a hockey game, another year giving a check to elderly brothers whose home had burned down the week before Christmas.  We ourselves lost Mike to cancer.  When Christmas rolled around again, I was so wrapped up in grief that I barely got the tree up.  But on Christmas Eve I placed an envelope on the tree, and in the morning, it was joined by three more.  Each of our children had placed an envelope on the tree as well for their dad (Larson-Elshof).

The apostle Paul knew the value and the power of a gift as well.  In 54 AD, he was making plans to go to Jerusalem with a gift from the Gentile churches.  In Romans 15:30-31, our reading this morning, he asks the Roman brethren to pray that his gift might be acceptable to the saints there.  In our past few lessons, we've looked at the subject of stewardship.  We've seen good stewards, bad stewards, and extravagant stewards.  Today, we want to look at a pattern for stewardship that Paul presented to various Gentile churches.  He did this so that these churches could help their poorer Jewish brethren who had come upon hard financial times.  Paul believes that this gift will accomplish so much good: it will help needy brethren; it will unify the two major ethnic groups in the church; it will show the generosity of the Gentile members; and it will bring glory to God.  Paul's pattern has three parts: a practical purpose, a practical plan, and a practical proportion.  His plan is found in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 (which I'm reading from the Amplified Version): "Now concerning the money contributed for the [relief of] the saints (God's people): you are to do the same as I directed the churches of Galatia to do.  On the first (day) of each week, let each one of you (personally) put aside something and save it up as he has prospered (in proportion to what he is given), so that no collections will need to be taken after I come."  Let's look at this pattern more closely.

First of all, there is a practical purpose.  Whenever Paul wants to go to another topic in this letter, he usually begins it with the phrase "now concerning".  So, we see that he introduces this new topic of money, which is being contributed for the relief of the saints or God's people in Judea.  These funds will serve the practical purpose of helping other Christians who are in financial difficulty.  Several years earlier, an interesting interchange took place between the apostles in Jerusalem and Barnabas and Paul, which is described in Galatians 2:9-10: "...when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.  They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I also was eager to do."  The leaders in Jerusalem had admonished Paul and Barnabas to remember the poor in their ministry to the Gentiles.  How ironic, however, that those poor turned out years later to be those in their own congregation!  And Paul did not forget them.  In fact, he worked for over a year among Gentile congregations in several provinces to bring this gift of financial help to the poor Jewish saints.  Paul worked hard to show these Jewish members the affection, the concern, and the gratitude on the part of Gentile members.  This collection was for the practical purpose of helping other Christians who were in need.

Isn't it wonderful that this is also the purpose of our collection?  The funds that we put into the collection are used to help other Christians and others in need.  Please allow me to describe how our funds are used in a little more detail.  About 60% of our contribution is for the staff here: our associate minister (Lynn), our secretary (Bonnie), our janitor (Jim), and myself.  Lynn and I both have children in college, so you know that we greatly appreciate your financial support!  About 15% more of the contribution goes toward keeping the bills paid: electricity, insurance, worship items, office, postage, etc.  The other 25% is the most exciting part: it goes to help others.  Some goes to help local works in Arkansas, such as the orphans' homes in Morrilton and Paragould, Truth for Today (a world missions program under Bro. Eddie Cloer), and Family First Foundation (a strengthening ministry under Bro. Bill Wheeler).  Just think for a moment how many lives are touched each year through these four good programs!  Then we give to a couple of national works: there's the Search TV program with Bro. Mack Lyon and there's a small congregation in Dubuque, IA, that is being helped by Bro. Mike Demory (and maybe this should be called mission work too because that territory has its difficulties).  And then we have international works: Bibles and correspondence courses are given to others in India through Bro. Peter Solomon and Paul Reganathan, Bro. J. C. Enlow and Global Missions work with other members in Mexico,  Nicaragua, Belarus, and Ukraine.  Bro J. R. Sullins is working with others in Africa, Roy and Kathy Merritt run the Namwianga Orphanage in Zambia, and Ken and Judy Kendalball are distributing Christian literature in public schools throughout South Africa.  That other 25% which we give reaches other people in about 7 states and 7 foreign countries!  To God be the glory, Amen!  Doesn't it make us joyful to know that orphans are being helped, unbelievers are being taught, and other members are being strengthened through our stewardship--God's gifts entrusted to us, but deliberately and cheerfully passed on to the benefit of others!  You know what?  If we'd give more, perhaps more states and more countries could be added to our list of ministries and missions!  Wouldn't it be great to see that 26% climb to 30% !  Yes, the practical purpose of the collection is to help other members and others in need.

Then Paul gives a practical plan for stewardship.  And this practical plan can easily be remembered because Paul explains the when, the who, and how of such a plan.  The Amplified Version gives "the when" of this practical plan by saying "On the first [day] of each week".  It's interesting that about 50 years later a Roman governor wrote to the Emperor that Christians met "on the appointed day" (Pliny's letter to Trajan).  Of course, we know that day is Sunday, the day when Jesus rose from the dead and the day when the church came into existence!  One commentator noted: "There is no fact connected with Christianity any more certain than the apostolic custom of worship services every Lord's day" (Coffman).  This version and the original bear out also that "the when" is EACH Sunday.  One elder has made this interesting observation: "Every Lord's day brings its obligation to every Christian to contribute.  He should give to the church treasury where he lives and where his membership is.  This links up with another divine truth concerning the responsibility of every Christian to be in submission to the elders of a local church (Heb. 13:17).  When will we learn that it is as serious a sin to refuse to give every first day of the week as it is to refuse to be baptized? ... God's plan is weekly because the needs of the church are weekly" (Layton).  So, "the when" is each Sunday.  Then Paul explains "the who."  Our text says: "Let each one of you [personally]". Just as each of us will one day stand personally before God in judgment (Romans 14:12), so each of us has a personal responsibility to use what God has entrusted to us.  Don't you like to watch little children participate in the collection, they often get so excited!  When we train them to give, we are teaching them not only that the work of the church is important but that there is more to living than thinking of our own needs and being greedy.  Isn't that what the parents were teaching their children when they placed their envelopes on the Christmas tree in our opening story?  And wasn't it wonderful to see their children's response out of love for their father?  Our children also see where our hearts are through our giving, don't they?  When we pay $10-20 on Saturday for sports or entertainment, but then put $1 in the collection, we may not be saying anything verbally, but our actions are speaking very loudly about our love for our Heavenly Father!  None of us should ever think: "Well, Bro. White is so well off.  I'm sure his offering will cover for mine."  No, this passage teaches that each of us has an obligation to be helping with the collection.  Now on to "the how" of Paul's practical plan.  Out text says: "put aside something and save it up".  One commentator had this excellent insight: "The word....translated 'in store' means literally "put into the treasury [i.e., the church's treasury]'... If each man had laid by in his own house, all these scattered collections would have to be gathered after Paul's arrival, which was the very thing that he [had forbidden in the latter part of verse 2].  (Layton quotes McGarvey).  Put aside a gift weekly in the church's treasury is the meaning.  Remember that old story about how Elijah stayed with a widow over in Zarephath in I Kings 17 ? When he first met her, he asked for a drink and then asked her for some bread.  She responded that she was gathering sticks so that she and her son could eat their last meal and die.  Elijah tells her that God will supply more flour and more oil IF she will make something to eat for God's servant FIRST.  Although she may have been skeptical, she did what Elijah requested, and God did continue to supply her needs until there was rain!  What does Jesus tell us in Mt. 6:33 ? "But seek FIRST the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things [i.e. food and clothing] will be added to you."  The widow trusted Elijah and was blessed.  Will we trust Jesus and Paul and plan out what we can put aside into the church's treasury each week?  An elder made this observation:  "There is nothing that contributes to cheerful giving as does systematic and planned giving."  So there is Paul's practical plan for stewardship, which explains the when, the who, and the how.  Each of us must take what God has entrusted to us and determine what we will put aside into the church's treasury each Lord's day.  Let's continue to put into practice Paul's practical plan for stewardship.

Now we come to Paul's practical proportion of our stewardship.  Notice again what our text says:  "as he has prospered [in proportion to what he is given], so that no collections will need to be taken after I come".  One commentator gives this good explanation:  "Paul does not indicate a definite amount or definite proportion of one's income that is to be contributed: he leaves it to the conscience of each.  Each should give 'whatever he has been prospered'.   The meaning is then that one's giving should be in direct proportion to the way one prospers, it should be determined as a matter of principle, not something done on impulse.  Paul wants no collections when he comes, he is not looking for a last minute effort with emotional pressure" (Morris).  Since we are under a better covenant our standard of giving should be higher than that of the Jews (Heb. 8:6-8).  We are no longer bound by the tithe, but are given the freedom of proportionate giving based on our ability. Someone else said it this way: "[Giving] is not based on any definite percent set for us by the [new] law, but [it] is a definite percent set by us, computed by the law of love" (Layton).  To give as we have been prospered really puts our faith to the test, doesn't it?  It involves the past, the present, and the future.  We put our trust in all that God has said and done in His Word (that's the past). then we acknowledge that all that we have prospered has recently been entrusted to us by God (that's the present).  And then we believe that God will fulfill His promises and will provide for us after we give to Him (that's the future).  The more He prospers us, the more we should give to promote the work of His kingdom!  Let me tell you two stories about proportionate giving.  One is sort of humorous and the other is more serious.  The first is about a young man who made a vow before his preacher that he would give more than 10% of his income to the Lord.  At the time of his vow, he was making $10 a week.  Over the years, his income continue to increase, so that he was giving $50 per week, and then $100, and finally the Lord was blessing him so much that he was giving up to $500 a week!  At this point, he called his preacher almost in desperation and said, "I can't afford to keep giving this much to the Lord, is there any way that I can get out of this promise?"  The preacher then replied, "I'm afraid we can't get a release from that vow.  But if you really want to do something, we can. We can pray over the phone that God will shrink your income so that you can go back to affording to give a dollar a week!"  We think often that we can't afford to give, but the truth is that we cannot afford NOT to give (Layton)!  Here's the more serious story: " A member of the church once had an opportunity to discuss his religion with a Jew, and he was attempting to convince the Jew that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.  Soon, after hearing his religion downgraded, the Jew replied to the Christian rather bluntly:  "Friend, I don't believe a word you are saying, and furthermore, I don't believe that you believe it either.  To my certain knowledge, you have given [little] to our Jesus in the past 25 years.  You paid more for your car that you drive than you have given to this Jesus in the past five years.  If I believe what you claim to believe, I would make the church for the living Jesus Christ my first love and interest.  I would make it my rule for giving, rather than the exception.  friend, I support my Hebrew religion with more than a title.  Don't talk to me about faith in a living Savior until you are ready to support your religion with your actions."  Are we giving as we have been prospered?  The New Testament sets no percentages, it is truly left up to our consciences.  We have seen how others were extravagant stewards under the old covenant.  Let's follow Paul's practical proportion and be extravagant stewards as well under the new covenant.

In  this series on stewardship, I hope that we have seen that God owns everything, and we are just managers of the wealth that He has entrusted to us.  He has been exceedingly generous towards us, and He prospers us not to raise our standard of living but to raise our standard of giving.  Our hearts follow our money and our values, so let's be sure that we are laying up for ourselves treasures in heaven (then when we come to our life's end, we have something to which we can look forward).  Giving is the solution to greed, and we should withhold nothing from our Lord, who gave everything.  It is He who both taught us and showed us that truly it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).  Let's live and give today in light of eternity and achieving God's will.  "imagine you're alive at the end of the Civil War.  You're living in the south, but you are a Northerner.  You plan to move home as soon as the war is over.  While in the south, you've accumulated lots of Confederate currency.  Now, suppose you know for a fact that the North is going to win the war very soon, and the end is imminent.  What will you do with your Confederate money?  If you're smart, there's only one answer.  You should immediately cash in your Confederate currency for U.S. currency --- that's going to be the only money that will have any value once the ware is over.  keep only enough Confederate money to meet your short term needs.  As a Christian, we have inside knowledge of an eventual eternal victory that will be initiated when Christ comes again.  This is the ultimate insider trading up --- earth's currency and wealth will become worthless at the time of our Lord's return!  So let's travel light, use the wealth that God has entrusted us to His glory, and live out Paul's pattern for stewardship.  "Now concerning the money contributed for [the relief of] the saints (God's; people), you are to do the same as I directed the churches of Galatia to do.  On the first [day] of each week, let each one of you [personally] put aside something [in the church's treasury] and save it up as he has prospered [in proportion to what he is given], so that no collections will need to be taken after I come."

Holy, righteous, and generous Heavenly Father,
We pray that you will help us to be good stewards.  Guide us to use what you have entrusted us so that Your will may be achieved.  Help us not to be bad stewards with wrong attitudes, wrong actions, wrong assessments, wrong investments, wrong accountability, wrong distribution of goods, wrong loyalty, and wrong plans.  Lord, may we be extravagant stewards and give not only our wealth but also our time, talents, and lives with unselfishness, thoughtfulness, recklessness, timeliness, thankfulness, willingness, helpfulness, usefulness, and cheerfulness.  May our leadership have Your blessing as they make financial decisions.  May we practice Paul's' pattern for stewardship, always realizing that earth's currency and wealth will become worthless at the time of Christ's return  Help us to remember that treasures laid up in heaven will be lasting.  Through our weekly collections may others be helped, may unbelievers be taught, and members be strengthened, and may Your Name be glorified throughout the globe, as the result of our personal and collective stewardship.  In Jesus name, Amen.