The grace of giving (Ephesians)

St Michael’s and St Barnabas 22nd February 2015

Readings – Ephesians 4:17-28; Mark 7:14-23

There are many kinds of adverts that I strongly object to. But I have to say, I have particular difficulty with those charity appeals that ask you to donate just £2 a month by texting this number now. You know the sort of thing; there is an African boy drinking from a dirty puddle, or a poor donkey collapsing under her load, or a dog that has obviously suffered all kinds of cruelty. Yes, I realise the needs are real and urgent, and I accept that too often our response is less than adequate. But what I don’t want is some documentary maker doing all they can to pull on my heartstrings, and force me into an emotional response.

Yet today I am standing here once again and preaching on giving. And it’s very easy, when you preach on giving, to make your congregation feel guilty. You need to give to the church because otherwise we won’t be able to pay our bills; you need to give because otherwise people will never hear the good news; you need to give because it’s your duty. All those things may be right and true, but they are not the ultimate reason why I believe you should review your giving.

The one thing I want you to take away from this morning is that as Christians we give not out of guilt but out of grace. What do I mean by this? Well, if you were here a few weeks back, you will remember that we said grace is God’s free and undeserved gift of love to us through Jesus Christ. We have an incredibly generous God who gives us our very being, and keeps and preserves us all our life through, and who in Jesus Christ gives us the greatest gift of all – eternal life that is stronger than death itself. So we give not because we feel bad about how little we are giving, or because we want to keep the church going. We give because we want to respond in thankfulness and joy to all that we been given, recognising that it all belongs to God anyway.

Grace, you see, should a very real and very direct impact on the way we live our lives, as Paul shows in our reading this morning. It should, for example, affect the way you speak:

Verse 25: Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour, for we are all members of one body.

It should affect the way you react to other people:

Verses 26-27: “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.

And, as you might have guessed by now, it should affect the way you think about your money:

Verse 28: He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands… Why? that he may have something to share with those in need. A sharing, generous attitude is according to Paul the real test that we have understood grace and put Jesus at the very centre of our lives.

So why give? Not out of guilt, but out of grace, recognising, as we say Sunday by Sunday, all things come from you and of your own do we give you.

So how in practice do we give? In essence there are two main options, by cash or through the bank. We haven’t installed a chip and pin machine in church, and unlike some other churches I know, we don’t yet have a Paypal account.

Let’s look, then, at giving by cash. For many people this is the original and best form of giving, and let me stress, there’s nothing at all wrong with giving in this way. Except of course, on the occasions we turn up at church and discover we don’t have any money on us, or we miss a week of giving because we can’t be there.

That’s why, if you are a regular worshipper and give by cash, I would encourage you to use the Planning Giving Envelope scheme. It means you can set aside whatever you decide to give at home, and if you miss a Sunday, you can put two envelopes in the plate next week. It is also helpful to us to know you are putting aside a fairly regular amount since we can draw up a budget knowing roughly how much we are getting in each week.

But increasingly more and more people give by bank, and that too is a good way of giving. Up until now the way you have done this is by drawing up a standing order. It means that once a month your giving is sorted without having to fill envelopes or work out which Sundays you’ve missed. And it keeps the treasurer happy because the amount coming in is absolutely regular and can always be relied upon.

There’s also one other important factor to consider when you are planning your giving, and that’s whether you pay tax or not. By that I mean, whether or not your income is high enough to attract the attention of HMRC, not whether or not you put all your earnings into a Swiss bank account. Because if you pay tax, then the Government will add an extra 25% to the value of your gift for absolutely nothing. So if you give £100 as a taxpayer, then HMRC will pay the church an extra £25. That’s why we encourage anyone who is a taxpayer to fill in a Gift Aid form. It means you are registered with HM government and we can get the extra tax back. If you don’t fill in the form, then we can’t.

Now until very recently the only way the church could receive the money from HMRC was to fill in a huge return at the end of each year. So the Gift Aid officers at both churches have had to plough through a year’s giving, add it all up and send off the figures. It hasn’t been the world’s most exciting ministry, and it always takes a lot of time, so before I go any further, can I publicly thank those who have undertaken this role, because it has helped the churches enormously.

However there is now a new way for taxpayers to give to the church which is both easier for them and also for the poor old Gift Aid officers. It is called the Parish Giving Scheme, a national initiative which originally started in the Diocese of Gloucester a few years back. What you do under this scheme is fill in a direct debit form to the scheme (and once it is set up, cancel your standing order, if you have one). When the people who run that scheme receive the money, they immediately ask HMRC for the Gift Aid back on that gift. And within about ten days we receive the money into the church bank account, with the extra 25% Gift Aid already added to your donation.

This means that instead of waiting for up to a year for HMRC to cough up the money, we get their contribution almost immediately. The cashflow of the church improves, the job of the Gift Aid officer becomes a lot easier and generally giving to the church increases. Not least because at the end of each year the scheme invites you to review your giving and increase it by the rate of inflation, and most people who join the scheme decide to do just that.

If you want further information about the Parish Giving Scheme, then please visit:

http://www.exeter.anglican.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/PGS-EXPLAINED-EXETER-A5-LEAFLET_v180714_LATEST.pdf

Although we have already presented the figures and shown the current position of the church, please do remember the reason why we give is not out of guilt, but out of grace. All this talk of figures and forms can sound terribly boring, but actually it is all designed to help us make an appropriate response to the tremendous love of a generous, giving God who has given us all things in Christ. It can be so easy when thinking about giving to decide that the church needs amount x to keep going. But what if we all decided to increase our giving beyond what the church needs immediately? What new possibilities could open up for mission, for outreach? So please don’t fill in your form mechanically. Think about our Mission Action Plan. Pray for a real vision of what the church could become. And ultimately settle in your own mind what the Lord is calling you to give. We might all just be surprised by the results.

But for this to happen, and this is something we have already considered in our series from Ephesians, it is really so important that every church member takes time to consider their part. One of the problems I find whenever I talk about giving is that I seem to reach those people who are already giving sacrificially and generously. If you are one such person who is already giving in this way, then my message is not particularly directed at you. I realise that you are giving much already, and I want to publicly thank you for your generosity. You have already enabled so much to happen here in this church, and your contribution is more valuable than you probably realise, or indeed have ever been told.

However within any church there are always some people who decide that giving is for other people. They put in an odd bit of change now and again, or maybe they don’t give anything at all. It’s not because they can’t give, but for whatever reason they don’t give. So let me take you back to our reading from Ephesians where Paul tells us: we are all members of one body. What does that mean? It means that for a believer, membership of a church is not an option. We are called together to be the visible presence of Jesus in the world; we are called together to declare to the spiritual powers around us that Jesus is Lord; we called together to be that community of love which draws others to the love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And for us to fulfil that calling, every member is called to give. It really is as simple as that.

So to finish, let me take you to the book of Acts, chapter 4, verses 32-33, where we read:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No-one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all.

Do you see what’s going on? The church is functioning as one body. Everyone is giving generously. And what is the result? The apostles are released to preach the gospel with power. And throughout the whole church grace increases and overflows.

So my question to you this morning is not: how much will you give? But, what is your vision for the church? Spend some time in prayer, not just now but in the days ahead, reflecting on that question. And then reflect on how much the Lord is calling you to give, as a response to His overwhelmingly generous love to you. Dare to dream as you fill out your forms. And let’s together aim to be like this church in Acts where we don’t just talk about grace, but we live by it, to the praise and glory of Jesus’ wonderful and precious name. Amen.

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