This is a transcript from the May 19, 2019 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.
I want to talk today about something called first fruits. The idea of first fruits, especially in Old Testament, and sometimes still practiced today is that the first of your crop, when it was harvest season that you got, you would give the first fruits of that. It didn't have to be fruit, it could have been grain or something like that. You would give that first crop to God as a thank you for the bountiful crop that you receive, and to center yourself on why you're receiving that crop in the first place, but it's all because of God.
Sometimes in church, we use this, and sometimes these pledge campaign Sundays or days where we talk about stewardship at churches tend to, dare I say, go into territory of guilt and shame about giving money to the church. Churches nowadays, we tend to do that. We want people to feel like they have to give money, that they're bad Christians if they don't. That's how it goes sometimes in churches. How many of you have been at a church before and you felt that was the message to you when you've gone to that church, about money.
We haven't found a great way to talk about money yet. The best way is just being real honest and clear about it. I think our board of stewards has done that, our finance committee has done that well, where we're just honest about what our costs are. Today, I just want to talk about first fruits in a slightly different way so that we can think about how it betters our lives and also how it changes the world.
When giving goes wrong, I have found out that sometimes giving goes wrong, it has to do with people having strings attached to the gifts. Maybe you've been a recipient of one of these gifts before, where you've received something from someone and you felt like, "There's something behind this." How many of you have felt that way at one time? That somehow behind it, somebody is expecting something in return by giving you that gift. It happens with institutions a lot, that I want to give money and it should just be allocated to this, or it can't go towards this person. It can go towards this church, but not this denomination because I don't agree with these stances that they have.
I had a wonderful gentleman at a church I worked at, and he would give money to our youth group for a mission trip. It was great, but the string that was attached to it was I'd have to come and have breakfast with him on Tuesdays at 6:00 AM. 6:00 AM for a seminary student was not fun. Then he would talk about what he thought I should be doing with the youth. I know this man, I know his heart was good and in the right place, but somehow, that was the invisible string behind it.
Another way with money that we deal with in churches, or just in general, is we're constantly worried with how that money is going to be used. I would say that's not uncalled for because people have abused money before that has been given to them, but in our world, sometimes, I think the best way to describe this is as I was growing up in a small town, Iowa, there's not a lot of visible poor people, but out here in the city, it's more visible.
You see people at the stoplights panhandling. If you go down to 16th Street Mall, you'll see people. It's a lot more in your face, it's a lot more relevant, it's there. As I grew up, I was taught in certain ways, not by words by my parents or family, but by the actions that I saw, was you don't give them money because they could go spend it on drugs, alcohol, you name it, gambling. Don't give them money because that just encourages it. That's another problem of giving, is that you worry about how it's going to be used.
What's underneath all of these things is this feeling of wanting to control all of it. You want to control your gift. You want to control how it blesses somebody's life. I think this is somehow a problem with our giving nowadays. We've created a power dynamic with generosity, that somehow when we give, that we have some kind of power because we gave, over the person or the institutions that we gave to.
The anthropologist Marcel Mauss, wrote all about this in his essay, The Gift. Mauss wondered why did exchanging an object produce such strong feelings of obligation in the recipient and of entitlement in the giver. He described how it was as if part of the giver's soul went with the gift, that it was never completely separate from the giver, and to reject a gift, ought to be to reject the social bond between the giver and recipient. We sometimes give then to gain social status. We sometimes give to one-up someone else. They gave a gift to a place that you often give gifts to, now you have to give a better one because you don't want to be outdone by them.
You gave to control a situation, to gain power over someone, to gain something in return. This is how we end up giving sometimes. Like I said before, this isn't without reason, there's been times where recipients have abused the gifts we have given them, but this is how our minds have been set. What does our text teach us today? Before the text that we read today, Paul, in verses 15 through 21, is talking about the evil things in our lives. The things of the flesh, the things that we do selfishly, and he talks about self-seeking, envy, dissension, uncontrolled temper.
Then in 22, through 26, Paul is mirroring these with attributes from God. Good attributes. The lovely things as they're said in the Bible, fruits of the Spirit, compassion, peace, serenity, affection for all people, and a conviction that holiness permeates all things and all people, and that we no longer have to have a need to try and force things. Somehow we become more generous, loving, and free people when we lean into these fruits of the Spirit. They're available to you, as Paul says like fruit appears in an orchard. How are these formed?
If we think about an orchard, if any of you've worked in an orchard, or if you've worked in fields, or if you have a garden in your backyard, you know that these things take time, commitment, and attention to build, to grow. These aren't just going to grow on their own, or they can, I guess, but they grow better with attention and love and care. Just like an orchard, in your own lives, in your own hearts, these are things that need to be tended to, things that you have to work at to help grow in yourself, peace, generosity, love, compassion. It just doesn't happen.
Nothing is quick and easy when it comes to the heart because some of us have very, very strong walls built around our hearts. Thinking about this, thinking about the way we think about money or giving it or being generous and the scripture today, I thought of a time when my wife and I first moved to Castle Rock, and my in-laws were visiting. We were at Walmart and there was somebody there asking for change. My mother-in-law asked me, "Jordan, as a pastor, what would you say to someone about giving money to somebody like that?"
Of course, the same concerns came out that I had been taught my whole life, of they could just go spend it on booze or drugs or on gambling. Have you ever had one of those moments where you say something and you impress yourself?
I did that that day. I'll call that the Holy Spirit so I don't give all attribution to myself. In the moment it just clicked in my head. I said, "I think in some ways, we need to let go of how we're worrying about how it's going to be used. Because when you are giving, you are creating a bigger and more compassionate heart as you do that. The person that's receiving your gift is not the only one that's growing from it. The more generous you are, the more you give, the more your heart grows, and the more you see Christ in all things and in all people."
Giving changes your heart, first and foremost, but what also can it change? There's a video I'm going to show and they did a little experiment having to do with generosity. You can look this up on YouTube. It's called SoulPancake, generosity test or generosity experiments. They have like three more videos about different experiments they did with generosity. One of the things some of the science behind this, and I got this from Ted Talk, Wendy Steele is her name, she says the science behind this is that when you give your brain gets a shot of oxytocin. That's the same chemical that mothers get after they give birth. That's a powerful chemical of feeling good that you did something good.
Oxytocin suppresses stress. Guess what? Stress is one of the things that suppresses generosity. Stress makes you less generous. The more you release this chemical, the more you give the world actually benefits. Because not only will you benefit, you release oxytocin.
Once you release that chemical, it's not just you benefiting, but the person who's receiving that chemical is being released and the people who are witnessing it, that chemical is released in their brain. Not only you but now generosity seems to be contagious. That is, it's spreading through people like you saw on that video. Some people said if the person before me decided to let me play with the puppies rather than take the 50 bucks I should do that too. That's a snowball effect. Generosity spreads, it's contagious.
Now for those who practice generosity daily, Wendy Steele makes an argument that teaching our kids and adults, this is some of the health benefits that come from it. Those who practice generosity daily have more self-esteem, feel more connected or less likely to have depression or more creative, better at problem-solving, have higher levels of empathy and act in a more ethical manner throughout their life. If this can be contagious to those around us, if we continue to open our hearts more and more to have more peace, love, compassion, it spreads and it's actually changing the world.
Let's give another illustration of what this looks like since I'm from Iowa, here's a story about corn. There was once a farmer who grew award-winning corn. Each year he entered his corn in the state fair where it won first prize. One year a newspaper reporter interviewed him and learned the farmer's strategy for growing winning corn. What was it? Simply this, the farmer shared his seed corn with his neighbors. How can you afford to share your best seed corn with your neighbors when they are entering corn in the competition with yours each year the reporter asked?
"Why?" said the farmer, "Don't you know? The wind picks up the pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbor's corn or if my neighbors grow inferior corn cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn."
The lesson for each of us is this. If we are to grow good corn, we must help our neighbors to also grow good corn. When you give, you're creating a space in your heart for the fruits of the spirit. You're creating room for the spirit to work within you to become a more compassionate and loving person. This isn't just benefiting the person you're giving too, but it's benefiting you also.
You plant that seed and others at the same time. Because more than likely what they're going to do is do the same thing for someone else. You are actually changing the world by being generous. I want to end with a quote by Winston Churchill. He said, "We make a living by what we get and we make a life by what we give"
Today as you think about it in your own lives, and this isn't just for the church, it's not just for our pledge drive, that's not what this is all about. This is for you throughout your life, whether it's giving time to somebody, whether it's visiting someone, whether it's giving money to someone, but just being a more generous person opens your heart to the spirit of God that you may look more and more like Christ. Amen