“Generosity Is Serious Business”
2 Corinthians 9.6-8
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
15 October 2023
Most of you are probably unaware that your senior minister is a closet Parrothead, who mourned the death of Jimmy Buffett early last month. Now, you may ask yourself why I’m opening a hard-hitting, serious stewardship sermon talking about the singer best known for “Margaritaville.” (I do like a good margarita, but that isn’t the reason I’m talking about Jimmy Buffett this morning.) Buffett was an amazing storyteller, and his songs were laced with wisdom and humor that sometimes go deeper than you might assume. One of his songs, “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” is among my favorites, and it contains this line that I think we should adopt as the church in the 21st century: “Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes, nothing remains quite the same. With all of our running and all of our cunning, if we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.”
Even when things seem deadly serious, if we couldn’t laugh we WOULD all go insane. Think about it…every church in this nation has gone through a rapid free-fall during the pandemic and its aftermath. Those were very difficult years at Plymouth for a variety of reasons, and we’re starting to pull out of it into a new normal. It’s easy to sit there and wring our hands, but that would surely drive us toward insanity, so you have to laugh! That’s a lesson I learned going through cancer treatment…if you can’t laugh about it, your outlook will eat you up.
Something else you may not know about me is that I have a shadowy past in university development, which is a euphemism for fundraising. In my 20s, I worked on building Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford and before that I was director of development communications at UC Santa Barbara. In fact, that is something I share with one of our members, Julie Karbula, who finished her career in development at UCSB. And she and I can tell you, generosity is serious business. Deadly serious business. But if you can’t laugh about it, you’ll be on your way toward insanity.
What’s so funny about stewardship? Isn’t it kind of a crazy concept that a bunch of people get together to worship an invisible deity and support one another and try to make a difference in the world…and that we try to fund it based on the faith of our members? Imagine what would happen if we had a high-profile consultant from Bain or McKinsey do a feasibility study on the church. (“No, I’m sorry, Paul, our study shows clearly that this idea of a church is economically untenable. The return on investment is just not predictable enough to warrant deep investment. You should probably stick with your tent-making business.”)
The apostle Paul didn’t have a lot of business sense, did he? Here he is working with a bunch of Greek-speaking folks trying to raise money for Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. That’s not an easy sell. Can you imagine the side conversations among those early Greek-speaking Christians? (“Why are we giving our hard-earned money for a bunch of people in Jerusalem we don’t even know?” “Are you sure that Paul is going to do what he says with our money? I’m not sure we can trust him.” “We didn’t get to vote about where the money is going!” “That Paul…all he ever talks about is money!”) The joke is on us because that squirrely business plan worked…with a little help from the Holy Spirit. The church is 2,000 years old, and I can’t think of any corporation or dynasty or empire that has persisted so long.
And what about this notion that “God loves a cheerful giver?” That is serious business! Does that mean that God doesn’t love a grumpy giver? Of course not! God loves all of us without exception and without condition. But it’s a heck of a lot more rewarding to give cheerfully than dolefully. It is far more meaningful to derive a sense of joy in your giving rather than to give grudgingly or resentfully. (But if you REALLY want to pledge grudgingly or resentfully, we’ll still accept your pledge card next Sunday.)
Mother Theresa said that we should give until it hurts. I like to think she meant that it hurts in a good way, like when your physical terrorist, I mean physical therapist, is grinding away on your inflamed muscles and tendons. Oh, it hurts so good!
But seriously, folks, I prefer to give until it feels good. I literally do this, and I encourage you to do the same if you are confused about how much to pledge for 2024. Look at yourself in the mirror and say out loud what you are planning to pledge. If you say $4,000 and no smile comes to your face, try saying $5,000 and keep on going until you see your dour New England Congregationalist scowl turn into a smile. And not just a humorous smile, but one that reflects a deeper sense of joy…one that evokes a grateful breath, a big smile, and the word, “Yes!”
Our Stewardship Board this year made a specific request in their letter to you this year, and it is because we need a little more help from everyone in order to keep our congregation vital and sustainable. And last Sunday, we had a bulletin insert with a little frog on it asking you to consider striving toward pledging five percent of your income. Those are suggestions, not demands or rigid rules.
I have a hunch that for many of us, giving does feel good. It feels rewarding, knowing that you are able to put your money where your faith is, and that it makes a difference not just to those who benefit from our mission and ministry, but to you, the giver. That’s another laughable idea: that giving away your hard-earned cash makes you feel good. In fact, giving a profound spiritual discipline that releases a sense of joy in you, the giver.
Generosity is a key Christian value, because it means sharing the experience of supporting God’s mission and ministry on earth. It feels good to emulate the role of God the giver of every good gift. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of feeling your heart swell as you gave just the right gift to a child or you mom or dad or a grandchild or spouse. (Can you create an image of giving such a gift in your mind’s eye right now?)
A study by psychologists at Northwestern and the University of Chicago (more serious business!) found that, “If you want to sustain happiness over time, past research tells us that we need to take a break from what we’re currently consuming and experience something new. Our research reveals that …[giving] may matter more than assumed: Repeated giving, even in identical ways to identical others, may continue to feel relatively fresh and relatively pleasurable the more that we do it.” My assessment of their conclusion can be summed up in one word: DUH! Of course giving results in joy! But now we have evidence-based studies to confirm common sense.
Has it ever occurred to you that the reason God loves a cheerful giver is that She wants YOU to experience the joy of giving? Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “I came so that you might have life and have it in abundance.”
As Ebenezer Scrooge learned, the only way we turn abundance into JOY is by sharing it.
Paul offers more common sense: “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” I have seen this happen at Plymouth and in my own life. It may feel scary to go out on a limb and sow bountifully. It was really scary to switch careers when I was in my 30s…but it resulted in a bounty of joy. I see the most generous of people here at Plymouth, and I don’t see their faces pinched in worry. I see them offering more of themselves in all kinds of ways, and I see joy written on their faces.
May you be joyful knowing that you are graced by God’s abundance. May you find the ability to laugh at circumstances, at deep generosity, and even at yourself. May you be one of those who has the joy of giving written on your heart…and across your face, even if you aren’t wearing a red nose.
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.