(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on May 15, 2016)
Even though most George Fox classes (other than May term) have ended, other schools are still in session…so I’m going to start today with a pop quiz.
What are some of the attributes or characteristics of God? The nice thing about this pop quiz is that we get to work together, it’s a team effort. What are some of God’s attributes or characteristics? [ASK]
When you look up the classical theological definitions of God’s attributes, it’s a whole long list of things that God is, but that we cannot be. We aren’t omniscient or omnipresent, we aren’t perfect or unable to sin. Many times when we think of God, we think of things that we cannot hope to be.
But the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 5 that we are to be “Imitators of God.” How, exactly, am I supposed to do that if my entire definition of who God is includes only the things that I cannot be?
It was about a decade ago that I had a bit of a revolution in how I thought about God. I read a book that made the case that one of the absolute core attributes of God is that God is a giver. God is a giver! It’s right there in the most famous verse of the bible, the one they put on signs at football games or next to street preachers: John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that God GAVE…”
God is a giver! Giving is the practical expression of God’s love, which is one of the things we are most likely to think about when we think of God. God expresses love by giving: giving life, giving Jesus, giving gifts, giving community, giving presence. God is a giver!
And when we focus on giving as one of God’s core attributes, something amazing opens up: we can be imitators of God by learning to become givers ourselves.
In fact, God’s purpose for giving is to make us givers ourselves. It’s all through the bible, starting when the first humans were given the beauty and wonder of the garden of Eden, and told to be fruitful and multiply…to create others who can experience this gift as well. It’s there with Abraham, whom God blesses in order that he will be a blessing to the entire world.
It’s there with Jesus, God’s supreme gift, who in the giving of himself is the example for us to do as he taught: to go the extra mile, to turn the other cheek, to love your neighbor as yourself. It’s there with Paul, who reminds us that each one of us who takes Jesus as the Lord of our lives is given a spiritual gift, but it isn’t a gift for me…it’s given to be used in and for the body of Christ, for others, for the world.
God is a giver, and God gives in order to turn us into givers ourselves. One of the best ways we can be imitators of God, one of the best ways we can prepare the soil of our spiritual lives to allow God’s seed to sprout in us, is to make a conscious and intentional practice of being generous givers ourselves…money, time, skills, presence. There are all kinds of ways to give, and to do so is to become ourselves a little more like God.
Turn with me to Luke chapter 19 to find a very tangible and specific story about someone who was transformed TO give and was transformed BY giving.
Luke 19:1-10, the story of Zacchaeus.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore- fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.’ (Luke 19:1-10, TNIV)
I like going back to these stories that I learned as a kid, because I often completely missed the point looking at the bible through a child’s eyes. It’s the children’s song, of course, that introduced me to Zacchaeus. The song taught me he was short, that he climbed a tree to see Jesus, and that Jesus saw him and invited himself for dinner at Zacchaeus’ house.
That’s not a bad message. Being seen by Jesus, even when you are a social outcast like Zacchaeus the chief tax collector was… being seen by Jesus is something crucial for us to hold on to. Hospitality, table fellowship, intimate connection with ones who weren’t the “right people” for good Jews to be associated with…those are also important messages to take to heart.
But the song misses the transformation. Key to this encounter with Jesus is that being seen by Jesus, being in right relationship with Jesus, causes Zacchaeus to make a major life change. He’s gotten extremely wealthy through legitimate and not-so-legitimate business dealings.
Literally the only thing history ever records Zacchaeus saying is a promise of radical, generous giving. It’s an act of repentance, where he rejects his unfair and unjust way of living. It’s an act of justice, where he is doing his part to make a difference for the poor in his society. And it’s an act in which he is imitating the limitless generosity of God.
Encounter with Jesus, relationship with Jesus, the presence of Jesus, sharing a meal with Jesus…this leads Zacchaeus to change his actions and move toward generosity. He puts, as the saying goes, his money where his mouth is. We’ll talk about giving more than money today, but money is where I want to begin.
How well do we as Christians do in being givers like God is a giver?
Some of the evidence is very positive. (The following graphs taken from here: http://www.philanthropyroundtable.org/almanac/statistics/)
This graph compares people who attend religious services at least every 2 weeks with those who never attend. A higher percentage of regular attenders give, even to non-religious charities, and they give more money as well.
If you look at all households in the United States, 2/3 of us give something to charity in a given year.
Most studies show that the average person gives 2.8% of their income, but that’s averaging in those who give nothing at all. This graph helps us see that of those who give, the average gift is 4% of their income…and when you average that out with the “zeros” of the other third, it’s consistent with what many studies show, we all average out to giving 2.8% of our income.
I think most of us assume that if we had more money, we would give more of it away. That’s not actually what statistics show us.
What increases as income goes up is the percentage of households who give something. For those with income under $25,000 a year, only 37% manage to give money. By the time income rises to $125,000 a year, over 90% in that bracket give something.
But look at the bottom. They don’t actually give a higher percentage of their income-in fact, lower income people who do give are more generous by percentage of income. Once the income level rises to at least $50,000 per year, we hit that average gift of 2-3% of income. So chances are, more money wouldn’t actually cause you to raise your percentage of giving. Perhaps giving is a challenging thing to do at any income level.
Now, that graph distinguished lower levels of giving. Look at one that separates out much higher levels of income. (Source)
What’s fascinating to me here is the lowest givers by percentage are the households that make between $100,000 and $1,000,000 per year. The bottom of the chart here is $45,000-$50,000 of income, and those give an average of 4% of their income. That doesn’t get beat until you get to the super rich, those who make over $10,000,000 a year. In fact, the more money people make up to $250,000 per year, the lower the percentage of their income they give away. Then it slowly reverses itself, increasing as more is made.
I think I could make the argument here that our culture of consumerism wins over the influence of God’s generosity on us.
Now here’s an interesting one: who do you think gives more to charity, Republicans, Independents, or Democrats? [ASK] Turns out an equal percentage give moderate amounts to charity, $100 to $1000 per year. But when you look at heavy and light charitable giving, striking differences occur.
Only 4% of Democrats and 3% of Independents gave more than $5000 per year…but 12% of Republicans did! On the light-giving end of the spectrum, only 19% of Republicans gave less than $100 per year, but 29% of Independents and a whopping 35% of Democrats gave less than $100 per year! If you’re registered as a Democrat, it is time to step up your giving! 🙂
I know I just made that a competition between political parties, but the reality is, I’d love for us to see giving not as an obligation, not as one of the “shoulds” of life.
Instead, I’d love for us to see generous giving as a way for us to imitate God, who gives with limitless resources! I’d love for us to see giving our money, our time and our skills as a privilege, as a way we get to join with what God is doing to make the world a more just place.
We can be like Zacchaeus…we can see the act of giving as an act of repentance, as a tangible act to fight my selfishness. We can see the act of giving as an act of justice, doing our part to make the world more equitable and just.
But some of you may want cold, hard facts that generous giving has tangible benefits. Elaine asked me if there were any studies on this, studies that examined the effects of giving on our health and well being. And there certainly are!
Studies show that giving more is correlated with lower blood pressure, increased self-esteem, less depression, lower stress levels, longer life, and greater happiness. A 2006 study hooked people up to MRI machines, and they discovered that giving to charity actually activates the parts of our brains associated with pleasure and social connection.
Here’s where it gets more interesting: giving time and using our skills by volunteering does some amazingly positive things for us as well.
This is far broader than just financial. One study tracked the same people from high school graduation until the end of their lives. Those who demonstrated a wide range of behaviors that were other-directed, rather than selfish (the study called them “altruistic” behaviors)…those who demonstrated altruistic behavior were happier and lived longer. Dr. Donald Moynihan who conducted the study analysis said:
“Our findings make a simple but profound point about altruism: Helping others makes us happier. Altruism is not a form of martyrdom, but operates for many as part of a healthy psychological reward system.”
Many studies have been done on older adults who choose to volunteer their time, like so many of you here at NFC do. Over and over again, the studies show that older adults who volunteer are in better health and have fewer physical limitations, and these are studies that followed the same people over time, so it’s not just that those in better health are able to volunteer more. Even more remarkably, volunteering for older adults has proven to significantly lower the mortality rate compared to those who don’t volunteer–it actually keeps you alive longer!
I love finding practical results like this that show us imitating God, living as Jesus taught, actually makes for a better life!
Generous giving is a way we imitate God, and it has a way of tapping into God’s unlimited resources. The whole idea of “paying it forward” is actually God’s example and God’s idea! God’s original generous giving continues, and as we learn to be like God, it multiplies.
I generated a simple list of generous giving I’ve seen just this week from people in our community. People helping others with homework, driving to medical appointments, pulling out garbage cans for neighbors, mowing lawns. I think back to times I’ve delivered money and gift cards to people in our church as anonymous gifts from others in our church. I think back to teachers who buy supplies for their students, to families who have opened their home to young people kicked out of their homes, to people who sponsor children through Compassion or World Vision.
I think of Volunteers on Wheels laying cement for sidewalks around our church and at Twin Rocks, of people caring for flower beds around the church, of Sunday School teachers and youth group volunteers, of people building Habitat for Humanity houses and Faith in Action volunteers shopping for senior adults in our Newberg community.
I see many examples of our community giving generously! May we keep finding ways to imitate God’s generous giving.
I’ll close with some more tangible goals, for those of you who like measuring sticks.
If you don’t like this sort of thing, I give you permission to tune out and focus on the types of ways you like to give. But for those who need specific goals…
26% of adults in our country volunteer in some way. When you volunteer, you put yourself in the top quarter of the country! 🙂 The average volunteer puts in 233 hours per year, which is a little less than four and a half hours per week. Could you find some way to offer your time and skill to someone else? Maybe you could make 5 hours a week your goal, and beat the national average.
When it comes to money, Newberg Friends is already pretty generous.
The national average for religious giving per year is $2224, and here at NFC our average gift per year is $2700. I’m so grateful for that!
We obviously don’t have everyone’s income information, so we have no way of knowing what percentage of income people give. But perhaps you could try either beating the national average of giving 4% of your income, or you could try in 2016 to increase your total giving (not just to NFC or other church causes, but all your charitable giving) 1% higher than you were able to give in 2015.
Or perhaps you’d like a more direct example. The average price of a coffee drink in America today is $2.70. If you gave up one coffee per week, you would have $140 this year that you could find creative ways to spend on somebody else: pick up the tab when friends go out to eat, or make lunches to keep in your car to give to those in need, or who knows how God might prompt you to give to someone else?
The bottom line is this: to give generously is to imitate God and to participate in love and justice for the world.
What practical steps could you and I take, beginning this week, to be more generous givers?