October 27, 2013

Open Handed or Tight Fisted?

Passage: Deuteronomy 15:7-11, Matthew 6:19-21
Service Type:

Over the last several weeks we have taken a deeper look at the subject of stewardship. Stewardship is a matter of how we use our most valuable resources; our time, our talent, and our treasure to enable us to accomplish God’s plans both as individuals and as a church.

Each of the last two weeks I have asked you to reflect on some very important questions. First as we looked at time. Our symbol was the clock and I asked you: How are you using your time? I asked you that question because how you use your time is a matter of stewardship. Last week we looked at talent. Our symbol was the staff because as we saw in the life of Moses the staff represents our talents and abilities and my question to you was the same one God asked Moses: “What’s in your hand?”

This week as we come to commitment Sunday our symbol is the treasure chest. And I have to admit I have really struggled with my approach and what question to ask you.

Honestly ask almost any pastor, ask any Finance committee member and they will tell you the same thing. This subject is always one that causes a great deal of stress and worry every year.

So I thought, you know I could take the low key approach – people don’t want to hear another sermon on giving, people are going to give what they are going to give. No. Not really an option.

Maybe I need to apply a little pressure; use guilt approach – Ask you, “Do you want us to have turn off the heat or lay off a staff member or cut one of our ministry programs?” No, that’s no good.

Or what about the educational approach – Ask you, “Did you know that there are 2350 verses on money in the Bible? And, “Did you know that giving and stewardship is an outward expression of our relationship with the Lord?” No, you’ve probably heard all that before.

Or how about the business approach – show you a lot of charts and graphs of income and expense and budgets and ask you, “What is fair share in helping us out?” No that totally misses the mark of what stewardship is all about.

Then I had a brilliant idea! Last week I asked you, “What’s in your hand?” This week I would put on the Viking helmet, pick up my sword and ask a question you’ve probably heard a million times: “What’s in your wallet?” I even put in a call to Alec Baldwin and unfortunately he couldn’t make it. So I abandoned that idea and finally decided to go back to a theme that has been woven throughout our messages this fall and talk with you today about something very personal -- your hands.

Hands are fascinating. They are capable of acts of intricate and amazing dexterity such as performing surgery or playing a musical instrument. They are capable of acts of great force and power like lifting objects weighing hundreds of pounds or throwing something very far. They can be used to deliver a violent blow or for the most gentle caress. They are used for more purposes and in more ways than we may imagine. Hands can be used for the earthiest of tasks like changing a diaper or picking up after your dog or for the most sacred of purposes such as receiving the bread and cup that remind us of the death of Jesus on the cross for our sake.

There is a saying, "I know it like the back of my hand." How well do we know our hands, really? Without looking, can you picture your hands? What do they look like -- could you draw them? Where are the freckles, the scars, the calluses? Which joints are swollen? Which finger is no longer content to go straight and is heading off in a new undesired direction?

Look at your hands. Did you look at the back of your hands or your palms? What do you see when you look at your hands? Think of all the things your hands have held. Think of the people who have touched your hand through the years of your life. Remember grandparents or grandchildren who held your hand as you crossed a street or walked on the beach. Think of holding the hand of someone you were growing to love and remember the electricity that flowed through your body and made your heart race. Can you imagine even a little of the emotion, love, friendship, comfort, and playfulness that your hands have conveyed to other people through the years? Try to picture how your hands have grown and changed. Those of you who are like me can think of how hard it would be to speak without using our hands!

Now close your hand and make a fist. Do you feel your muscles tightening and tensing up your arm? When do we make a fist? When we're angry, mad, scared, or feeling threatened. When we want to hold onto something and not lose our grip. In baseball, you don't want to hold the bat too tightly or you tense up and your arms don't extend as well through the swing. I had a coach tell me once if you can see too much of the whites of your knuckles you are holding on too tightly. Sometimes in life we hold on too tightly, we live with white knuckles and wonder why we feel tense and up tight.

An 80's rock song by 38 Special included the advice, "So hold on loosely, but don't let go. If you cling too tightly, you're gonna to lose control."

Do you still have your hands in a fist? If you do, you may find they are starting to get tired. If you try to keep your hand in a fist you will find your hand gets tired eventually no matter how fit you are. Your hands want to relax.

Now open your hand and extend your fingers as far as you can, can you feel the muscles in your hand and forearm working and stretching? This also takes energy and gets tiring.

What is the most relaxing way for your hands to be? Neither stretched to the max nor closed in a fist, but open in a position to receive or give without holding on too tightly.

Listen to what Deuteronomy 15 has to say about our hands and how we are to use them, in particular with regard to our neighbors.
"If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, "The seventh year, the year of remission, is near," and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, "Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land." - Deuteronomy 15:7-11 (NRSV)

This wonderful passage from Deuteronomy elicits the question that I want to ask you this morning: “Are tight-fisted or open-handed?” You see the reality is that this question contrasts two ways of living -- being tight-fisted or open handed.

Why is this question so important? Because our hands are an expression of what’s in our hearts.

Think about it. When I do this (make a fist) what am I saying? A clinched fist conveys anger, hostility even hatred. I can’t say, “I love you. I care about you.” with a closed fist. Why? Because my hands, my body language betray me. My mouth may say one thing, but my hands tell a totally different story. My hands are an expression of what’s in my heart.

And here’s where our second scripture comes in and it gets very serious. Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In other words, your hands express what’s in your heart, and where your heart is there is your treasure.

Hands – Heart – Treasure.

Where is your treasure? What has your heart? Where have you opened your hands?

I am proud to say that for many of you the answer is this church. Why do I say that?

Well I want to be honest with you this morning. In many ways this has been a difficult year for our church. We have been through a painful time of transition that saw two of our clergy move to other assignments. We have also struggled for the first time in my ministry here with budgetary challenges that have led to frustrations of not being able to accomplish some of the goals we had set as well as the inability to fill the Congregational Care Ministry position.

And yet through it all God has is faithful! Through all of the challenges and the difficulties we have been compelled to rely even greater on God and to trust Him in the midst of the storm. God has been present in ways I couldn’t have imaged and sometimes I didn’t even see at the time. God is in control and He has been present to bring about healing and even renewal. God continues to make all things new! We have come out of that time of difficulty even stronger and I believe positioned to even better and more effectively accomplish God’s desires for us as a congregation. We have gone through this and come out the other side a stronger and more focused church.

We have already begun to see very encouraging signs of vitality and growth. We have received 47 new members in the past year. 25 of those members have come through profession of faith. There is a noticeable increase in our worship attendance. The spirit of missions and outreach has never been stronger. We have even seen an increase in the willing support of volunteers. New clergy and staff members have come on board and have made an immediate positive impact with their talent, energy, enthusiasm and attitudes. We continue to expand our outreach into the community and around the world through our missions ministries, this year launching a GRACE ministries site that has served an average of 28 families in its first 2 months. Our children’s and youth ministries have never been stronger.

How is all of this possible? It has happened because many of you have continued to open your hearts and open your hands. It has happened because of the faithfulness and generosity of God’s people. So many of you have invested your time, talent, and treasure in the work of the Lord, and what has been the result? God has provided the increase!

And do you know what that says to me? Your open hands, your open hearts? It says that there is something valuable here. It says to me that there is treasure here.

It also proves to me that when we do our part, God will do His part. When we are faithful to Him, He is faithful to us. When we make the investment, He provides the return and the increase. We know that intellectually. We know that God’s Word teaches us and promises us that and yet sometimes we are surprised when we see it come to pass.

I believe that we are at a crossroads. We are at a critical juncture in the history and life of this church. So much has been accomplished, but there is so much more to be done. The question is will we step forward and see our dreams become a reality and our ministry and influence for the cause of Christ continue to expand, or will we step back and risk seeing our ministry wither and die? Will we seize the wave momentum and allow it carry us to further growth, or will we let the wave pass render ourselves obsolete and ineffective?

Or let me put it another way. Will we approach the future with a tight fist, trying to hold on, trying to control things ourselves? Or will we open our hands, let go, release ourselves to Him and allow God to use our gifts; our time our talent, and our treasure to further His work in this world, to build His kingdom?

There’s a familiar story of two prisoners who shared the same small jail cell, a cell with no light except that which came in through a tiny window three feet above eye level. And, with little else to do, both prisoners spent a great deal of time looking at that tiny window. As one man looked, he saw only the bars; those obvious, ugly, metallic reminders of the reality of his imprisonment, and with this grim perspective, from day to day he grew increasingly discouraged, bitter, angry, and hopeless.

By contrast, the other prisoner looked through the window and focused on the stars beyond. As he gazed at those sparkling points of light, hope welled up in his heart. He began to think of the possibility of leaving the darkness of his cell and starting a new life in freedom some day.

Now understand, these two prisoners were looking at the same window, but one saw bars while the other saw stars. And this difference in their vision made a huge difference in their lives!

Friends this morning we are looking at a window of opportunity. As things continue to change around us …

The question that we have to answer as a church and as individuals is will we see only the bars, only the limitations, only the barriers and obstacles and allow them to imprison us? Or will we instead choose to gaze at the points of light and with faith and hope step forward and see our dreams become a reality? Will we choose to see our ministry expand, or will we risk seeing our ministry wither and die?

In just a moment I’m going to give you the opportunity to respond. I’m going to invite you to make your commitment and join your brothers and sisters in investing in the ministry of our church so that we can make our dreams a reality through the growth of mission, ministry, and changed lives in the coming year.

I hope you have given some serious thought and prayer to this. What does it say about your hands? What does it say about your heart? What does it say about what you treasure?

Friends the stakes are high. Not because we are trying to raise a budget, but because we are seeking to minister to people, people the Lord has already given us and people who are out there waiting for someone to reach them with the Good News. There are so many things in this world in which you can invest your time, your talent, and your treasure. But where else does that investment reap an eternal reward? Only in the church. Only by investing in the things of God. I hope you will join me in this most worthy endeavor.