What happens when you give?

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Illustration from If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson.

My church, Fremont Presbyterian Church, is currently in their Stewardship season where people are encouraged to commit to giving for the next year. When churches and pastors start to talk about giving, things can often get a little weird. Many pastors hate talking about money and asking people to give. Those attending church often are uncomfortable when they are asked to give. Words like “stewardship” or “tithing” can cause even the most devoted member to check out. Everyone has to balance their own checkbook which brings it’s own amount of stress. Most people don’t respond well when it feels like the pastor or the church is asking them to squeeze a little bit more out of an already tight budget.

I think most people understand that giving is good and that we should try to give often and with as much as we can. So, I am not here to talk about why you should give or even how much you should give to your church. Both of those questions are often personal questions that you have to answer on your own. What I would like to explore a bit is what happens when we give to your church. What should we expect to happen with our money and our time that we offer to support the church?

I think one of the parables Jesus told will be helpful to open up what we should expect to happen with what we offer. In the midst of teaching about the Kingdom of God, Jesus tells this parable in chapter 4 of the Gospel of Mark:

“What’s a good image for God’s kingdom? What parable can I use to explain it? Consider a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.”
Mark 4:30-32 (CEB)

Jesus was a fan of agricultural illustrations and parables. They can sometimes be lost on those of us who do not really have an agricultural background. But, there are a few reasons why I like the Parable of the Mustard Seed to help us understand what happens when we give.

First, the mustard seed is small.

People will often struggle and strain over how much to give. Should we give 10% of what we make? Gross or our net income? What about investments? What about gifts? What if I win the lottery? The people in the Old Testament offered the first fruits of their crops, should we give what we grow in our gardens? While these are interesting questions, I think they miss the point when it comes to giving. The size of the mustard seed does not equate to the outcome of the parable. It’s human nature to expect big things to cause big results and little things to cause little results. The power of this parable in illustrating the Kingdom of God is that the littlest of things can become something great. Regardless of what amount you give, God can use that amount to do great things. If you give a little, great things can happen. If you give a lot, great things can happen. The important thing is that you give.

Second, the seed is planted.

Something very strange happens when you give. Suddenly you are connected to what you have given. There is a relationship. To continue with the agricultural metaphors, one might say roots have been put down. The illustration above is from a beautiful children’s book called, If You Plant a Seed. It opens with the lines, “If you plant a tomato seed, a carrot seed, and a cabbage seed…in time…with love and care…tomato, carrot and cabbage plants will grow.” The growth only happens after the “love and care.” When we give, we demonstrate that we love and care about what we are giving to. Giving our time and our money means we are putting roots down, we are planting ourselves in the community and we want to see that our church is taken care of.

Finally, the birds of the sky are able to nest in its shade.

As I read this verse again, this part really stuck out to me. Often when something is given, we expect something in return. A payback, recognition or some kind of reward can sometimes be expected. But the unique thing about the conclusion of this parable is that the one who planted the seed and tended the plant is not the one receiving the benefit. The plant ends up being used by birds who are able to nest in its shade. When we give to our church, it is important to realize that the giver is often not the beneficiary. The real benefit may come months, years or even decades later. And, the beneficiaries may not even be people who sit in the pews on Sunday. The birds did not plant the mustard seed, they did not tend it, they aren’t even human and the farmer does not “shoo” them away. They are the recipients of the blessing of the mustard seed.

I pray that this has helped you think in a new way about what happens when you give to your church. If you attend Fremont Presbyterian Church, you can commit to giving through their website. I would encourage you to consider committing to give to Fremont, or your own church, in the upcoming year.

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Standing in the Gap

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It seems a bit cliché to say, but this election is one that will go down in history. While many pundits and commentators are wringing their hands with what the historical importance will be, you can feel it in the air that this election feels different than many others. Coming after our first African American president this election featured two significant firsts as well. Hillary Clinton was the first, major party, woman candidate for president and Donald Trump is the first president-elect to have never held a government office or even a military position.

So many firsts mean that our country is culturally, economically, demographically and in many other ways shifting in front of our eyes. In a sense, to use another cliché, everyone’s cheese is being moved. Some will benefit from these changes and others will feel pressure from them. Some want these changes while others will feel pushed aside.

Change is hard.

The church has felt this change and pressure as well. Many churches are probably just as split as the popular vote was in this election. On Sunday, Christians who supported Trump will sit in pews and sing worship songs with Christians who supported Clinton. Pastors who supported Trump will preach to parishioners who supported Clinton. And parishioners who supported Trump will listen to messages from pastors who supported Clinton.

No doubt this will continue to deepen the divide many churches are feeling. Trump supporters celebrate as Clinton supporters mourn what could have been. There will be calls for unity but this will mostly be calls for people to unite around Trump since the democratic process and voice of the majority has spoken. Or, Clinton supporters will demand compromise in order to be willing to unite. Both sides will essentially be asking the others to move towards their side but, often, neither will be willing to cross over on their own.

You know, like Congress has been acting the past few years.

Thinking about this, I was reminded of the image of Christ and the cross bridging the gap of sin in many tracts and evangelism materials. The concept is that Christ bridged a gap we could not bridge on our own so that we could be reunited with God and in right relationship with him. It seems to me that this provides a good example for how to “bridge the gap” after this election. Philippians 2 gives us some help:

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.

But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.

When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:1-8 (CEB)

Jesus had all the power and rights as God. If he was chosen in our process, one might say he had won the popular vote, the electoral college and had a “mandate” as the pundits like to say. Yet, Jesus chose to not exploit that status, and instead took the opposite route of that power. He chose life as a human, ultimately ending in death on a humiliating cross. About the last thing you would ever expect God, or any god for that matter, to do.

To bridge the gap, Jesus didn’t demand people to come to his side. He instead moved towards sinful humanity and stood in the gap so that we might be reunited with God.

If you’d like a current political example of someone doing exactly this, take some time and listen to the story of Beth Fukamoto over at Rob Bell’s podcast (the Robcast). Beth was a democrat who lived in Hawaii which is a pretty solid “blue” state and regularly votes democrat. Beth saw a bit of an issue with this as the republicans in Hawaii essentially did not have any representation in the House and Senate. So, she chose to run as a republican in order to give those people a voice.

Yes, a democrat ran as a republican in order to give a voice to those who didn’t seem to have one. And she won.

Beth stood in the gap. Rather than demand that republicans move towards her and her party, she instead moved towards them and worked so that their voices could be heard. She doesn’t agree with everything, but she works hard for who she represents.

The example Jesus gives us is not ascending some ladder so that we might exert our political and ideological might on others. The example of Jesus is descending the ladder of power so that we might serve those who have no voice and now power in the systems of our world. As Paul states in his intro, this is the path towards true unity. Not through power exerted, but in humility, selflessness, and looking out for the benefit of others.

So, for Christians who supported Trump, pray for, listen to and look out for those who feel ostracized, afraid and swept aside by the election of Trump. For Christians who supported Clinton, pray for, listen to and look out for those who felt ostracized, afraid and swept aside and believed Trump was the man to turn that around.

The only way to end this deep polarization and begin to heal these bitter wounds is to move towards the other side, not draw back and entrench deeper. Having the mind of Jesus is not mainly about voting the right way and checking the right box, but about not exploiting our power, position and authority for our own sake. But in grace and humility, listening to, looking out for and learning from others for their benefit.

Grace and humility. Now wouldn’t that be a nice change?