My Dad’s a numbers guy, and you know what happens to numbers people at church. They get put on the stewardship committee. Every year, Dad was asking people how they could commit to God more deeply. I’ve forgotten most of the speeches, but one of them stayed with me. I call it the pie pan speech.
It goes something like this. I’ve been on the church stewardship committee a couple of years, and this is what keeps happening. This is what our giving looks like. (Small pie pan). And our leadership asks us to take a bold step for our future and expand our giving. And they say, we’d like to set our goal to give this much (regular pie pan). And the congregation says we’re scared, we’ll never be able to do that, let’s just give this much (slightly smaller than regular pie pan). And the finance team and the leaders say we’ve prayed about it, we’ve got big things we think we can accomplish, and we really believe that we can do this much (regular pie pan). And we want you to come with us and believe in it, because you’re gonna love it. And the congregation says, well can’t you do it with this much (slightly smaller than regular pie pan)? And we go back and forth, between this much (regular pie pan) and this much (slightly smaller than regular pie pan). But then when the time comes to give so that we can expand the ministry of the church, here’s what happens. We ask people to open their hearts and listen to what God wants. We take in our gifts and offerings and pledges, and do you know what we have? This much (cartoonishly large pie pan). Don’t put a limit on what God can do. Trust what God can do.
I think the reason that I remember that speech is that I’ve heard it so many times. Dad only gave it once, but God does it over and over and over in Scripture and in our lives, and today’s Old Testament story is a perfect example.
Now I confess that I am not privy to the budget discussions between Moses and the elders on session (Exodus 18). But I do know how the previous conversations with Moses have gone. Moses says, “God wants to bring you out of Egypt” The people said, “that’ll never work, don’t try.” Moses says, “God will get us across the Red Sea.” The people said, “We’re gonna die.” Moses said, “God will get us through the wilderness.” The people said, “We’re dying of hunger. We’re dying of thirst. We’re tired of manna and we want meat.” So I think we can imagine that this conversation went when Moses came down with plans for the Tabernacle and started asking for money. “Moses, do you think we could do something a little more modest? A pup tent for God?
And Moses says “Do what you can for the God who brought you out of Egypt.” And the people do. The people take their jewelry, their fine cloths, their wood-carvings. They don’t just bring their things; they bring their talents. The people who can sew, sew, the people who can build build, the people who can gild gild. And by the time Bezalel and Oholiab get to it, they’ve got so much more than they can ever use. They have this much (cartoonishly large pie tin). Don’t put a limit on what God can do. Trust in what God can do.
This happens all the time with God. A little boy brings five loaves and two fishes, and everyone says, that’s not enough. But Jesus gives thanks, and trusts God – and its enough. Elijah asks a widow to make a cake for him out of her last little bit of flour and oil. She trusts and it lasts for three more years. The whole Exodus story fits this pattern. They tell Moses, “You’ll never get us out of Egypt, we’re going to get killed in the Red Sea, we’re going to starve out here in the wilderness, the promised land is full of giants and we’ll get slaughtered.” But Moses trusts and God does get them out of Egypt, God parts the waters, God provides the manna and the quail, and God sends the walls of Jericho tumbling down. Don’t put a limit on what God can do. Trust in what God can do.
So why is it that we can’t seem to believe that God will do the same thing in our lives? Why are we so unwilling to trust that if we commit ourselves to serving God with our hands and our feet and our wallets, God will take care of us? The problem is fear. We’re afraid of not having enough. What if we give and then we aren’t able to provide for our children the way we want to or retire the way we want to? We’re afraid of failure. What if we give it our all and it doesn’t work out? It will feel like a waste. We’re afraid of success too – what if this works, and God asks us to do even more? What if God asks us to do something braver than we want to be? What if God asks us to take up our own crosses and follow?
And so we put limits on what God can do, because we are afraid. But do you know what the most common command in the Bible is, the one command that shows up more than any other? Do not fear. Because however uncertain the world may be, God is a certainty. And when we fear, we discount what God can do. Don’t let your fear put a limit on what God can do. Instead, trust what God can do.
Remember the pattern of God. This is what Moses tells them to do when they get to the Promised Land. He gives them a liturgy for bringing your offering to the priest. “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor, he went down to Egypt, and became a great nation. When the Egyptians treated us badly, we called out to God and God delivered us, sustained us through the wilderness, and brought us here to the land of milk and honey. So I bring my first fruits to you.” Remembering the pattern of God helps us replace our fears with trust.
Because over and over again God shows that God can be trusted. Good things happen when you trust in God. Now I know what you’re thinking. You’ve plucked this obscure story out of the Bible, and you’ve pulled a few examples, but those things happened thousands of years ago if they happened at all, and I haven’t seen any manna in my life.
But if you start to trust and pay attention, you’ll see that it happens all the time in our lives too. The reason my Dad gives the pie-pan speech is that he had a moment in his life when it was true. He quit a good job to go to grad school up North. That first semester, they just had no idea how they were going to pay for it. Dad was just trying to get to Thanksgiving. If they could make it to Thanksgiving, Dad could work over the break and they’d be able to get by for a little longer. But they weren’t going to make it. The week before Thanksgiving, Dad got a $50 bill in the mail. Just enough to make it to Thanksgiving. The return address said his sister Joyce, but in our family we all talk about the true source of that gift. But that wasn’t all. That Christmas, Dad got a call from a club he was in in Jr. High that wanted to give him a scholarship. He didn’t expect much, but anything helps. When he got there he found out it was a full ride. Don’t put a limit on what God can do. Trust in what God can do.
I remember I was working in Texas in this tiny little church. And we had the same session meeting like clockwork every couple of months. Somebody would mention that the roof was shot. What are you going to pay for it with, we don’t have the money. We need a new roof. We don’t have the money. I don’t know. Same conversation over and over and over. I was coming out of one of those meetings, and I went down to the nursing home to visit somebody.
“Howdy Pastor, how are you doing?”
“Well, I just got out of a session meeting, and you know how it is. There’s never enough money to do the things we need to do.”
“Reach into the drawer, Pastor, and pull out my checkbook.” He wrote the church a check for $1,000.
You’re thinking, that was a tiny church indeed if a thousand dollars took care of the roof. It didn’t. But it helped me to remember not to put a limit on what God can do. And sure enough, God did take care of it. A hailstorm came through and beat everybody’s roof to hell. But our roof held up one last time. Not a drop of water in the sanctuary. When the insurance adjustor came by, he surveyed the damage, and gave us a $17,000 check. Just enough to cover the roof. Don’t put a limit on what God can do. Trust in what God can do.
Sister Norma Pimenthal is the director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. She’s been helping to take care of refugees on our border for years. It’s not a political thing, it’s a Christian thing, she’s been doing it since 2014, when border agents started releasing people from months in the camps with nothing but the clothes they’d crossed over in. And you know what happened, people stepped up. She got a church to share its fellowship hall. Other churches brought volunteers. And pretty soon, they’ve stone-souped themselves into a real operation. People whose bus isn’t until tomorrow can spend the night. They’re serving three meals a day. People can get fresh clothes. And then sister Norma gets a call from the city. They are going to send an inspector down to take a look. And she shows them where they are serving meals. And where people are sleeping every night. And the whole time she’s terrified. They haven’t got licenses to do these things, they’re just trying to love their neighbors as themselves. And she gets to the end of the tour and she says, “Well, that’s what we’re doing.” And the inspector wipes a tear from his eye, and he says, “What can we do to help?”
“Showers,” she said. “We need showers.”
And not too long after the city of McAllen brought over some emergency shower trailers and set them up in the parking lot.
Look y’all, I can keep telling stories about the pattern of God, and we can eat lunch at dinnertime. But what I want you to do is think back and remember your story. When did a twenty-dollar tip mean you could pay your rent that month? When did somebody fill up your freezer? When did you think, “there’s no way we’re going to have enough” and then had more left over? I want you to look back at those stories and see the pattern of God in them. God who is generous. God who does great things. The God who is there for us.
God’s gifts require trust. God didn’t give the Hebrews a granary in the wilderness. Hoarding is Pharaoh’s work, not God’s. God gave them their daily bread for forty years. They had to trust. God asks us to do a lot. But God takes care of us one day at a time. It always looks impossible. That’s how you know it’s worth doing.
Don’t put a limit on what God can do. Trust in what God can do.
Today we’re going to make our pledges for the next year. It’s a big moment for the church because it determines how much ministry we can do in God’s name here. What we do with our money is ultimately a spiritual decision. Giving is an act of trust in the God who gives. It is a statement on what we value, and who we trust. We’re going to conclude this service with a time of prayer, and you’ll be asked to write how much you will give to support God’s ministry in 2020. And the stewardship team has been asking if you can step up your giving. Can you do a percentage of your income this year? Can you increase your percentage? Or make it a tithe? If you can’t donate money can you donate time that saves the church money or expands its ministry? Can you commit yourself to support the congregation in prayer?
What I’ll ask is similar. As you make your decisions today. And tomorrow, and the next day. About what you do with your money, what you do with your life, what you do with your hopes and your dreams. I want you to remember the pattern of God. In the Bible, and in your own life, and trust in what God can do.