Sunday, November 23, 2014

This Generation

1 Timothy 6: 17-19
November 23, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

As we complete our stewardship season this year, and prepare to dedicate our pledges, the selected Scripture reading is pretty short. It comes from the book of 1st Timothy, a letter to the church that was presumed to have been written by Paul, but was probably actually from a later writer. First and Second Timothy and Titus are often neglected books, in part for the directives about women which, taken in a modern context, are restrictive and oppressive. But the books were written to help churches order their lives. These books are source material for much of the way churches now organize and govern themselves. So this brief directive near the end of 1st Timothy comes in a larger context, a set of instructions about how to be church in this generation.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us today from 1 Timothy 6:17-19

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. 

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

Since our stewardship theme this year was “Generations of Generosity” I thought it might be helpful for us, as we look at these verses, to review the generations we considered in the past few weeks. One of the underlying ideas for this series was that all of our stories make up the generations of generosity that characterize our church. So we have been attending to the stories of God’s word, and our own stories.

We started with that story of the supplies for the temple, “Heaps and Plenty.” You remember that? I will never forget it. It was the first and only time I’ve ever seen a congregation cheer for that under-appreciated character from the book of Chronicles – Hezekiah! Yeah, let’s give it up for Hezekiah! He was the Old Testament leader who cleaned up a rundown temple, straightened up the teaching, restored order and made sure that the people supported their place of worship. Like the people of Hezekiah’s faith community, we’ve cleaned the building up and spruced up our surroundings. And like the people of Hezekiah’s time, we’re called once again to bring the first fruits – the first and best of everything we have – in gratitude to God.

The next story we had came from the book of First Kings, the story of Elijah, on the run from Jezebel. Elijah lived by the wadi and was fed by ravens until the drought dried up the stream. So he went to Zarephath, in Sidon, as God commanded. There, God’s prophet was cared for by a widow who was down to the last of her oil and meal. She was ready to cook one small cake, feed herself and her son, and then lie down and die. Elijah came to her asking for some bread, which she baked for him, and the oil did not run out, nor the meal, and they ate and were sustained until the drought had ended.

It’s a compelling story of God’s provision, a story Jesus quoted to remind the people how God uses all kinds of people with whatever they have. Since it was our anniversary celebration, we also heard some of the stories of our generations. All of our own stories of our congregation are, after all, pieces of that bigger story. So we recalled that service on November 4, 1844, when union services were held, each family bringing its own candle to light the church. Each family from every part of town, from other denominations, brought their own small light, until the whole sanctuary was aglow. The following Sunday, the story was about a later generation, and another widow, during the time of Christ. Jesus watched as rich people put large sums into the treasury, and as a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, everything she had, all she had to live on.

We heard the stories of two other widows, from our generation, who gave all that they had on behalf of others. We reflected on the small change the widow brought, and the need for small change in each of us. We continued last week with a story Jesus told, a parable, a story intended to make us think and reflect. Do you remember – it was about the owner of a vineyard who hired people through the day, then paid them all the same. We rejoiced in the reality that God is not fair, and God does not give us what we deserve.

Now we come to this passage in first Timothy, a tiny excerpt from a letter to the young church, giving order and direction to them, even as Hezekiah ordered the temple all those hundreds of years before. This address is not to those whom we would consider the one percent. They are wealthy beyond our wildest imaginings. These words are aimed at people who are rich compared to most others in the world, people with ample resources who have the freedom to make decisions about how they will use those resources, people who are comfortably well off, people like us.

Well, actually, people like us if you mean the generations up to and including the baby boom. The generation born during and just after the Depression in the 1930s were certainly upwardly mobile, after the severe privations of their childhood. This generation –my generation – the baby boomers - are those born after World War II up to about 1965. We’re the big bulge in the population charts. We’re the big bulge in everything – schools, colleges, jobs, and now Social Security and Medicare recipients. We’re the ones who have that song – “Talking “Bout My Generation.” We are more likely than any generation before to exceed our parents in wealth and upward mobility.[1]

But after that, if we talk about this generation as Generation X - those born between 1965 and 1980, we find people with higher family income, but less wealth.[2] That’s because their debt, on average, is six times higher than that of their parents. And for those born after 1980, the Millenials, the financial future is even more uncertain. So when we talk about “generations of generosity” we have to consider that each generation’s generosity looks different.

Jesus talked about his own generation, and not kindly. He called them a generation of vipers, a wicked and corrupt generation. Our text addresses the generation after that – the people in the first century church, people of moderate means. You’ll notice that the reading does not direct church members to sell everything they have and give the money to the poor. “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share,”

The wealth of a generation, in God’s kingdom, is the wealth of good works, sharing and generosity. The writer of this text understood the culture and beliefs of that generation. They were surrounded by Stoics and Cynics – the philosophical schools, not the traits named after them! Those philosophers taught that contentment and simplicity were high virtues. They cautioned against greed and social climbing. In the same way, the young church, newly formed and finding its way, cautioned its members against acquisitiveness, or miserliness.

This teaching was more purposeful than those Stoics and Cynics, because it came with a reason, two reasons, actually - a rationale greater even than the common good. Our true wealth is in generosity and good works and sharing, the writer of Timothy says, first for the future - the treasure of a good foundation for the future; second for the present – that we may take hold of the life that really is life. Generation after generation, the layers of righteousness accumulate. Sure, there are some sad and even tragic stories in the history of Christianity.

But the aim, the core, has ever been the same, for faithful people, in whatever generation. For Hezekiah, it was a blessing for the people as they piled up gifts and heaped up their gratitude, a blessing for today, and for the future generations. Like them, we know that because God who is so generous, and God in Christ has given so much to us, it is easy to give our time, our lives, our gifts, and our love.

For Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, generosity was a testament to the assurance of God’s provision. What little the widow had, she shared with God’s prophet, and it became plenty, enough to sustain them. The same truth sustains us, in this congregation, where all our individual lights gather to set the world aglow. We bring our pledges today, and whenever we give to our church, for the future generations, those Presbyterians who are yet to come, yet to be part of this congregation.

And like the widow who gave her all, we bring our pledges knowing that we will receive much more than we give: a small increase in our generosity results in a big increase in our joy; a small increase in our budget means a big increase in what we do for others; a small increase in pledges leads to a big increase in our love.

We bring these gifts in gratitude for God’s grace and justice. We do not bring our gifts to show off, or to curry God’s favor. We bring from our hearts, whatever we can give, trusting that God will use them to restore what was broken, to fill what is empty, to find what was lost and bring it home rejoicing.

We bring our gifts for the work of the church in this time, for this people, and for ourselves, that we may store up treasure in heaven so that we may take hold of the life that really is life.

We bring our pledges with hopes for the future, hopes that through the power of God, this church will stand for generations yet to come, as a testimony to the grace and mercy and love of Christ for all time and for all people, now and forever.

Thanks be to God! Amen!



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