FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, NASHVILLE
DR. TODD B. JONES
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 36, 2003
“Life in Full”
A number of years ago I served on the Board of a YMCA in a growing community. We judged that we needed new facilities and began planning for a major capital campaign. We paraded in a series of professional fundraisers to make their presentations to the Board. One fellow was one of the slickest fundraisers you have ever met! We decided against him, but one of his comments stuck with me. Someone asked, “What is the minimum amount we each need to give in order to get this thing built?” He replied, “I never suggest to any prospective giver a sum as a minimum contribution. For a minimum has a funny way of turning into a maximum.” As I pondered these words of Jesus in Luke, which suggests there are sound spiritual reasons to engage in generous giving, I recalled this fundraiser’s comments. Whether he knew it or not, he was speaking of the two kinds of living we all end up choosing: Minimum living or maximum living. He was suggesting a far-reaching truth: That a minimum has a funny way of turning into a maximum. There is a world of difference between the question, “What must I do?” and the question, “What can I do? What is possible?” What kind of living do you do? Are you engaged in minimum living, where you simply satisfy what has to be done; or maximum living, where you search for what can be done, for what is possible? What a difference in life it makes!
There is hardly a realm of life where we are not prone to do the minimum, and find that it tragically turns into our maximum. It is the number one question of all kids: “What is the least I can get by on?” What self-respecting kid will wash behind his ears if only washing your face with do?! As a kid, I was a picky eater. And trust me, the required minimum of five spears of broccoli or asparagus became the maximum I would ever eat! In the classroom, a required minimum has a dependable way of turning into a maximum ever attempted! What teacher or student has not acted out this scene? “How long must our papers be?” “Ten pages.” “Is that single or double-spaced?” “Double.” “Does that include the bibliography or do we have to add it?” “Add it!” “How wide can the margins be?!!” And how often does the required reading for a course become the only reading we ever do? As a result, so many students of life never get mentally or spiritually to the boiling point, where life is really full! It isn’t until we pass the threshold of what we must do, and enter into the exciting realm of what we can do, what is possible, that life becomes an adventure. Most of the fun, the deep satisfaction in life comes after the minimum requirements have been passed. And yet, how often do we ever really get beyond the minimum – doing what we must? Too much of life is spent just getting by, not living!
Think of the tragic implications of this tendency in our most important relationships… There is a legal minimum of obligation in a marriage, or a family, or a friendship, for that matter, that a person must give to keep a relationship going. But what an unmitigated tragedy it is to ask of ourselves: “What must I do to keep this going?” or “What do I have to do to keep her 2satisfied?” You see, no minimum law can maintain or protect a relationship. Only love can do that, and love knows nothing of minimums. What a ghastly thing life on a minimum level would be in the home! Yet tragically, there are dreary homes where the least amount required is the most ever given!
We all know that there is nothing more repulsive in life than a miserly, selfish person. Yet how often we each end up being just that! The wisdom of the world brings to our lives a scarcity mentality. “The more you give, the less you are going to have. (For there is only so much to go around.) A dollar spent is a dollar lost. (Especially if it is spent by giving it away!)
But Jesus calls this worldly wisdom of minimum living into question. Instead of a scarcity mentality, Jesus brings an abundance mindset to life! “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over…” Jesus is speaking using the image of an overflowing grain harvest. He says our lives will overflow if we engage in what one scholar calls “the stewardship of irony.” (That is, it is in giving ourselves that we gain life!) But these are not just words Jesus gave us – his life was a maximum life. It is impossible to find any satisfied minimum of self-giving in the life of Jesus. He goes to extremes. Jesus is extravagant! “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” I sensed something of that spirit when I went to hear the Berlin Philharmonic String Quartet. Talk about energy and effort! They gave themselves to that performance. And I was especially interested to learn that the Beethoven string quartet they played was at first not at all popular – it seems they expected less – something simpler and easier to hear. But Beethoven gave more, not less, than was expected of him. Isn’t that always the secret of true greatness?
I want to discuss three areas of life briefly where the danger of the minimum becoming the maximum can be a disaster. The first is in the area of faith. A minimum faith is one that asks, “What must I do?” not, “What can I do?” It lives by law, which requires of us a minimum, instead of by grace, which inspires of us our maximum. A minimum faith thinks in terms of duty. It compares itself carefully to others, it may even attend church regularly. But it brings little joy and even less power.
When we ask only, “What must I do?” in our faith, our spiritual life consists more of duty than delight. Someone said, “Too many people have Bryl Cream religion. You know – a little dab will do you!” No, it is when we pass the minimum in prayer and study and worship and service that faith really starts to be exciting, that it becomes a source of joy!
The story is told of a fine family who lived near a church whose members worshipped with loud, boisterous enthusiasm. They drew up a petition to present to city council stating that the church was disturbing the peace. Thinking that their neighbor, a faithful Jew, would readily sign, they took it first to him. He replied, “I’m sorry, I cannot sign it. If I believed as these Christians that my Messiah had come, then I would shout it from the rooftops with such enthusiasm that you would have to arrest me!”
It is when we stop asking, “What must I do?” and start giving our whole hearts to God that the life of faith starts to be an adventure! That is maximum living, “For the measure you give will be the measure you get back!” 3 This minimum/maximum principle comes close to us again in the realm of our personal and family relationships. It is truly a royal journey to go from a spare minimum to a maximum in sharing ourselves with others, not as an obligation, but as a direct way to abundant living. We all know the minimum here – people who carefully measure out their attention to others, as if with a medicine dropper … people who are always calculating. We can see them making their rounds, with exacting precision. One drop here. Maybe two required there. “And this one is important. He can help me … better give him five.” And life can become as sterile as a medicine dropper, blighted by the sin of scant measure! There is nothing pressed down and running over in such relationships. Love is the one commodity the more of which you give, the more you have to give!
Jesus gave a great word on this: “He that loses his life will find it.” It is a word illuminated and validated by His life. The rewards the person of the generous spirit has are joy and peace that cannot be had on any other terms. Louis Pasteur said it so well when he said, “Self-seeking has no centennial.” Those who seek self-gain end up being either hated or forgotten. That is why Pasteur sought to use his gifts for others. How about your home? Is it a place of minimum or maximum love?
Now we come to the final area where minimum verses maximum living can make or break our souls: What we do with the money God has entrusted to our care. How many of us today make a religion of preserving our money? And like that unknown woodsman of so long ago, of whom Isaiah wrote, take care of ourselves first, and then try to build our faith on the residue or leftovers of our material blessings.
I am concerned about what goes on in your hearts as you decide whether you will be a minimum or a maximum giver in life. I am not concerned nearly as much for the church as I am for you. What rule will guide you as you make your commitment to Christ’s Church this year? Will it be the rule of minimum living – “What do I have to do?” or “What is the average gift around here?” or, still worse, “How little can I get by on giving and not feel guilty?” If you give in that way, you will cheat yourself out of the joy of maximum living, which asks instead, “Lord, what can I give to you this year? What is possible?”
What if we decided to practice maximum living in our giving this year? What could we do? And where would we stop? H.E. Fosdick gives a helpful rule on this: “Just give until the Lord stops giving to you.” The tithe is a good place to start, but who knows where we would stop?!
You see, our lives are mirrors of our priorities. And sometimes our calendars and cancelled checks tell a sad, ugly tale about our real priorities. And we wonder why our faith is so void of joy overflowing! “Give, and it will be given to you,” is the spiritual law of life here and everywhere. One wag put it this way: “People who want by the yard, but give by the inch, need sometimes to be kicked by the foot.” “The measure you give will be the measure you get back.” By what measure are you going to give? Will it be determined by the minimum rule of living? Will you end up once again offering God your leftovers? I hope not! I hope that this year we enter into the abundant joy of maximum living, and bring our best, our finest, our highest to God! What will it take for you to do this? 4 I read about a wealthy Texas rancher who was giving a big party in his backyard. The pool was filled with sharks, and the rich man made this wager with his guests: “If anyone can swim from one side of the pool to the other, I’ll give him his choice of my house, my daughter’s hand in marriage, or $1,000,000!” All of a sudden there was a guy swimming furiously across the pool. Somehow he made it safely to the other side. When he got out of the water, the rancher asked, “Well, young man, what will it be? My house, my daughter, or $1,000,000?!” The swimmer replied, “None of them. I want to know who pushed me into the pool!!”
Do some of you need to be nudged into pool this year? You see, I am convinced that the healthiest, most joyful thing you can do for yourself this year is to learn the joy of generosity. And what better place to start than in your church? That is maximum living, and it turns life into an adventure!
No matter what the world may teach, no matter what you practice in your life, Jesus’ words are true: “Give, and it will be given unto you; good measure pressed down, shaken together, running over. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
I didn’t say it. Jesus did. But that’s how I want to live. How about you?