16th Sunday after Pentecost

Phyllis Anderson—September 24, 2006
Trinity Lutheran Church, Fresno, CA

Philippians 4:10 - 20

Last Saturday morning I was in my office thinking about this sermon. I had my bible and books laid out on the table in front of the French doors that open out on a view of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. Your seminary in Berkeley is a very beautiful place! I was interrupted by a first year student wanting to slip a note under my door. She had written to thank me and my husband for a dinner party in our home the night before —for students who have been displaced from the dorm while we wait for the contractor to finish the renovations of the bathrooms.

We talked for a while in my office, this student and I. After she left, I sat for a moment smiling to myself. I felt happy. I liked the student. She will be a good pastor. That was part of it, I’m sure. The note was very nice. It is nice to be thanked. But it was more than that. I thought back to how good I had felt laughing and eating with those students. I remembered the satisfaction I felt cleaning up the kitchen afterward. It’s not that I was congratulating myself. It just felt so good to be able to meet a need, to be connected across all kinds of possible barriers, to share what I had in abundance and to have it received with joy.

And I said to myself. That’s it! That’s what this lesson from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is all about. It’s about the joy we get out of giving, the profit that accrues to US when we are generous. You know how it feels when you splurge on a gift that lights up the face of someone you love. Bill Gates knows this kind of satisfaction on a huge scale: the pleasure that comes from making a gift that meets a need and makes a difference. Giving has become as compelling to him as making money and building a business… More compelling at this stage in his life.

The congregation in Philippi was very special to Paul. They had been the most supportive of all the churches he had started. They sent him care packages and gifts of money, not once but often. He wants to thank them. He wants them to know that their gifts are helpful and appreciated. But he does not want to appear to be asking for more. In fact, he says that he has learned to get by with less.

He shifts the focus away from himself and his needs. He cares about their well-being, the well being of the gift-givers. He wants to affirm their pattern of giving—not for his sake, but for their sake. Paul says:

It is not that I am eager for the gift; rather I am eager for the profit that accrues to your account.

I think we know Paul well enough to be sure he is not talking about some heavenly account of merits, where God gives us rewards in proportion to our philanthropy. Paul is not like one of those “prosperity preachers” on TV, who promises you health and wealth if you give your life to Jesus and send your money to the address flashing on screen. We know most clearly from Paul that God’s love is free and unconditional. It flows out of God’s own goodness. We are forgiven, restored, saved, blessed by grace, by grace alone.

But when the beloved people of God give for the sake of the other—for the sake of the neighbor in need— something wonderful happens to us as well. First is that good feeling, the joy that floods OUR hearts when we give. Deep satisfaction and freedom is evident in people who have developed a pattern of generosity in their lives.

The Women of the ELCA know something of this joy in giving. It is evident on this Thank Offering Sunday.

I see this joy on the faces of those who make gifts to support the seminary. This week we had another dinner at our house, this time honoring donors to the seminary. I invited them to talk about why they do it—why they give—and what they get out of it. The answer was not about getting their name on a plaque or having people telling them how wonderful they are. They talked about a sense of participation in something important, something they value, contributing to the future of their church. They talked about the way their lives are enlarged by the connection with the seminary and with the remarkable men and women who are preparing for ministry there, who will carry the faith to a new generation. They did not think that their gifts were remarkable. One of them said, “A light goes on and you think, I can do this. And you do!” Another said: “Giving is a fun thing to do; a happy thing to do.” Giving is what Christians do!

The good feeling is only part of the benefit to the benefactor. Our lives are enriched and expanded when we share what we have to meet a need beyond themselves. That is part of the profit that accrues to your account. I met a woman after the first service, who knew exactly what I was talking about. She has taken in an international student from Saudi Arabia. She thought she could help and earn a little money besides. What she has discovered is that her world has been dramatically enlarged by getting to know this young Muslim student. She hadn’t anticipated how much fun it would be; how much she would gain from the relationship.

I talked to Bishop Mullen shortly after he returned from visiting Rwanda this summer. He was overwhelmed by the depth of the need at every turn. They need tin roofs for their churches. They need the investment of capital in small businesses. They need schools to bring up a new generation of children who can end the cycle of poverty and violence. They need food so that those children will thrive.

He hoped that people of this synod would find ways to relieve the suffering of the people in our partner synod in Rwanda. But just as strong was his longing for those of us who live in Fresno and Berkeley and Sacramento to know the joy of participating in the lives of these far away Christians through our gifts. Those who give grow in their capacity for human sympathy. When we make our gifts so that others may be free and safe, we break away from the confinement of our small lives and enter into a larger life, a richer, fuller world.

The quilts draped over the communion rail this morning will take a part of us to far off places we cannot go. They make the connection. I know a woman who was overcome with joy when saw one of the quilts she had made in a video that was shown at a synod assembly. It was keeping a sick old man far away warm. Who knows who received more, the man who received the quilt or the woman who saw her quilt used?

Rich-world Christians and congregations that take the risk to side with the poor will find that they gain far more than they give. They receive from those who have nothing a continual revelation of reality. They know in a way they could not know before something of evil at the deepest level. And through the ones who have nothing they experience hope at its most sublime.

God has chosen to reveal the truth about God and about humanity at the point of supreme suffering, on the cross and in all the echoes of the cross in the cries of the poor, our neighbors in need. Those who do not stand with the poor at the cross will never fully know what it means to belong to humanity or to God. They are the most impoverished of all.

We become more fully human and our faith flourishes when we extend ourselves beyond ourselves in our giving. And the more up close and personal that giving becomes the better for those who receive and for those who give. We gain the most when we give of ourselves.

You are spending one whole month learning and praying about giving. Hopefully you are not just thinking but acting too! You have reflected on stewardship in the wonderful devotional booklet prepared by members of this congregation.

You know that we give because God first loved us.
You know that we give because it is good for others.
You know that we give because it is God’s will.
You know that we give because giving is what Christians do.

You know why we give. Today I just wanted to remind you how much fun it is. God wills for you the JOY of giving. God wills that your heart and your minds will be enlarged by your giving. God is eager for the profit that accrues to YOUR account.