How Much Are You Willing to Give?
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
The gospel lesson for today contains three of the more difficult sayings of Jesus:
“If anyone comes to me, and doesn’t disregard his own father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he can’t be my disciple. Whoever doesn’t bear his own cross, and come after me, can’t be my disciple… So therefore whoever of you who doesn’t renounce all that he has, he can’t be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-33)
They’re difficult sayings, not because they’re hard to understand, but because they’re almost impossible to accept. Did Jesus really expect his disciples to turn their backs on their families and to give up everything they owned? Is this what he expects of us today?
Like most preachers, I begin my sermon preparation by studying the scriptures and listening for God’s Word. I also read Bible commentaries, other preachers’ sermons and my own sermons from the past, and I can tell you the broad consensus regarding the text for today can be stated in three words: Count the Costs.
Christian discipleship comes at a hefty price. It requires letting go of the things of this world and serving Christ and Christ alone. It even involves giving up your own life for the sake of the gospel.
The last time I preached from this text, I used Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an example. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany who was part of the Nazi resistance movement. He openly challenged Adolf Hitler and plotted to assassinate him. As a result, he was arrested, sent to a concentration camp and hanged.
I also talked about Pope John Paul II. He gave up his life in a different way. When he was elected Pope in 1978 he took the name, John Paul II. That’s how the world knew him for almost thirty years. Most of us forgot – or never knew in the first place – that his given name was Karol Jozef Wojtyla.
Only as we die to the things of this world can we hope to experience new life in Christ.
That was the message back then. It still is today. In the words of an old gospel hymn, “All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give …”
And yet, let’s be honest: Aren’t we talking hyperbole here? Don’t we really mean all that we’re able to give – or think we’re able to give – at the moment?
Leta Hays was a member of my church in Prosper, Texas. One of her favorite expressions was, “He’s as good a man as he knows how to be.” It was something she often said about men in general, but it was something she almost always said about John Smith (not the real name).
John Smith was the owner and operator of the John Smith Grocery Store and Filling Station downtown, a primitive little convenience store where, in one stop, John would fill your tank, sell you a pound of bologna and fix your flat tire.
I would say it was a Mom and Pop grocery, but I don’t ever recall seeing a Mrs. John Smith. That may have been because ole John was a little rough around the edges. He was known for wearing the same overalls day after day and for taking a bath about as often as he changed clothes. What’s more, he dipped snuff, and there was usually a trail of tobacco juice oozing out of one corner of his mouth and over his stubby whiskers.
The upshot of it all was that John Smith made for an easy target. He was the brunt of a lot of jokes. But not for Leta Hayes. She’d smile and say, “He’s as good a man as he knows how to be.” As far as she was concerned, that was all that needed to be said.
Well, this is what I think we need to hear about the gospel lesson for today: Yes, Jesus demands our all. Only as we die completely to the things of this world can we hope to experience the full power of his resurrection from the dead.
In the meantime, he accepts whatever we’re willing to give at the moment as a sort of entry level to discipleship. And that’s what I’d like for us to think about this morning: So, you’re not yet ready to lay down your life for the gospel, to fork over all of your earthly possessions. What part of your life are you willing to commit? How much are you willing to give to Christ and Christ alone?
To be honest, we all fall somewhere on the scale. This is why I’ve never been one to criticize those who only come to church on Christmas and Easter. Hey, that’s two Sundays out of the year! If the service is uplifting and inspiring, maybe they’ll add Pentecost next year and, the year after that, Palm Sunday, and, before they know it, they’ll be here on a regular basis. You’ve got to start somewhere.
The same thing goes for money. Jesus said, “So therefore whoever of you who doesn’t renounce all that he has, he can’t be my disciple.” (Luke14:33)
Most of us are not willing to do that. But we are willing to give something. The question is how much? And the truth is, generally speaking, our giving grows over time. We become better stewards as we practice better stewardship. We may start off giving nickels and dimes, but, as we feel the satisfaction and reward of being part of something greater than ourselves, we find ourselves giving more. Giving becomes a pleasure, so that, the more we give, the more we want to give.
As most of you know, I believe in tithing – that is, giving one-tenth of your disposable income, off the top, before taxes, to the church. Whatever you may give to the United Way or the Salvation Army or any of the other worthwhile causes is in addition to that.
Of course, I wouldn’t preach tithing if I didn’t do it myself. But I want you to know I haven’t always tithed. For years, I didn’t think I could afford it. But as I gradually increased my pledge and found that I actually had more to live on than before – and don’t ask me how that happens – I gave more and more.
But I still don’t give everything that I have. I doubt that you do either. So, does that mean we can’t be disciples of Jesus Christ? I don’t think so. I think the Lord is pleased with whatever we’re willing to give. I think he accepts whatever level of commitment we’re willing to make until we, of our own volition, are willing to do more.
Mayme Porter was a member of my church in Sherman, Texas, who taught at Austin College. She used to say, “Consider the possibility that, in any given situation, the other person is doing the very best he or she knows how.”
I used to hate it when she’d say that. “But they ought to know better!” I’d say. As a parent, I was constantly telling the boys, “You can do better than that.” And it’s true, there are times when we don’t give our best effort, but, often, when we fall short, it’s not because we want to, it’s just that we don’t have the necessary skill or knowledge or strength to get the job done. We’re doing the very best we know how.
I work out most mornings these days at The Gym on Hervey Street. Lately, a woman with two young children has been coming in while I’m there. The little boy – I’d say he’s about eight – appears to have some sort of handicapping condition. She and a fitness trainer work with him on the various machines. I watch from a distance. I’m guessing he can bench press about twenty pounds. I’m a perfectly healthy adult, and I can bench press about eighty pounds. Most men my size can bench press a hundred and fifty pounds. So what? If someone is doing the very best he or she can do, what more can you ask? As for this little boy, I’m pulling for him. I hope he’ll surpass us all some day.
Yes, Jesus wants the whole tamale. In the meantime, he accepts what we’re willing to offer where we are at the moment. That’s what I hear in this passage. Not so much in the words that he speaks, but in the larger context of his life and witness. For example,
• He told his disciples, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
• He told Nathaniel, who spent every waking moment studying the Torah, “You will see greater things than these!” (Jn. 1:50)
• When the people brought their children for Jesus to bless, his disciples told them to buzz off. After all, what do children know? What do they have to offer? But Jesus said, “Allow the little children, and don’t forbid them to come to me; for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to ones like these.”(Matthew 19:14)
• And to the thief on the Cross, who still had plenty of room for righteousness to grow, he said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Let’s face it: Most of us will never be called on to face a firing squad, or go to the gallows, or be put on trial for being a Christian. We’ll be tested in much small ways. The Good News is every time we choose Christ over the things of this world, a little part of our old nature will die and a little part of Christ’s New Creation will be born in us.
Like the Velveteen Rabbit, it won’t happen overnight. You remember the story, right? Once upon a time there was this little stuffed rabbit who lived on a shelf in the nursery, who wanted, more than anything else in the world, to be real. So he asked the Skin Horse, who seemed to be the oldest and wisest of the bunch, and the Skin Horse said,
“It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
That’s how I understand Christian discipleship. We grow in the grace and love of God, little by little, and, as we experience God’s grace and love, we give more and more of ourselves in return – a thank offering, if you will, for what we’ve received.
Yes, Christ demands our total allegiance – to love him and serve him above family, friends, property, even life itself. The more we entrust ourselves to him, the more we experience the fullness of his grace and love. We get there one step at a time.
Well, this is what I hope you’ll remember: There will always be more of the kingdom for us to experience, and there will always be more of ourselves to offer in return. In the meantime, we’re invited to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and taste the first fruits of eternal life. As Sarah’s song this morning put it so well, “It’s all because of God’s amazing grace.”
So, the question is, at this point in your journey of faith, how much are you willing to give? Whatever your answer – however much or little of yourself you’re willing to commit to Christ and his kingdom – just remember this: Christ has already given himself for you. Let your response reflect the spirit of Howard Grose, who wrote,
“Give of your best to the Master,
Give of the strength of your youth;
Throw your soul’s fresh glowing ardor
Into the battle for truth.
Jesus has set the example,
Dauntless was he, young and brave;
Give him your loyal devotion,
Give him the best that you have.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2007 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.