Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 28, 2015

2015.06.28 “The Gracious Work of Giving” – 2 Corinthians 8: 7 – 15

Central United Methodist Church
The Gracious Work of Giving
Pastor David L. Haley
2 Corinthians 8: 7 – 15
June 28th, 2015

Jesus

Now as you excel in everything — in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you — so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something — now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has — not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,

“The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little.” – 2 Corinthians 8: 7 – 15

 

Looking back over forty years of ministry, if there’s one area I wish I had understood better from the beginning, it is money and finances.

If – during my education or preparation for ministry – someone had said, “You realize of course that you’re in for forty years of stewardship Sundays, financial campaigns, apportionment payments, budgets, fund-raising, and finance meetings, most of which will be spend trying to bridge the gap between income and expenditures.” If someone had told me that early on, I might have said: “Really, which way is the door?” Mercifully, some things are best not known ahead of time.

Partially, I attribute my ignorance to my upbringing. Money and finances in my family were invisible; my father took care of it. I never saw nor learned how it worked. Nor did I ever receive any instruction about it in high school or college. Neither finance nor financial administration was mentioned in seminary; I understand the present the situation is not much better. I’m not sure most students graduating from seminary – often deeply in debt – know how to fill out a tax form, and definitely don’t understand the complications of clergy taxation and finance.

But it’s not only the mechanism of finance, what I wish I had also learned early on was the value of giving as a means of grace and an important way of helping those in need, both essential components of the Christian life. Like most of us, it’s something I’m still learning, especially as I grow older.

As it turns out, the importance of giving and the even harder task of getting a congregation to dig into its pockets has never been easy; it is as old as Christianity itself. As a preacher once said to his congregation: “The good news is we have all the money we need; the bad news is, it is still in your pockets.”

This is the issue today addressed in the reading from the 2nd Letter of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians. Let’s see what we can learn about our own giving, through what Paul told the Corinthians long ago.

The situation was this: in the mid decades of the first century, some 20 years after Jesus, famine hit the area around Jerusalem, and the Mother Church, which consisted primarily of Jewish Christians, was in dire need. It thus became an important project for Paul to raise money for them from among the Gentile churches he founded and visited throughout Asia Minor. He did this first and foremost, because it was the right thing to do, a charitable gesture toward the poor of Jerusalem. But it also had great symbolic significance in the solidarity it expressed between the Gentile Christians of Asia Minor and the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem. If successful, the collection would serve as a strong symbol of unity between all Christians.

However, raising money in church has never been easy – not now and not then – and Paul especially had an uphill climb.  First, if you remember, there had been a breach between Paul and the church at Corinth, and it’s even more difficult to ask for money when not everybody is happy with you anyway.

Second, consider that Paul is fundraising for the Jerusalem Church, who didn’t care much for Paul, because of his outreach to Gentiles, whom they also weren’t that enthusiastic about, due to their failure to observe Jewish laws and rituals. So the Corinthians were supposed to be enthusiastic about giving to these Jerusalem Christians, who doubted the authority of their founder and the authenticity of their faith? To me, this would like Metropolitan Community church, an inclusive community of gay Christians, fund raising for Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, the right wing church who hates them.

So, perhaps due to these or other reasons, by the time Paul writes chapters 8 & 9, the Corinthians’ enthusiasm had flagged, along with their giving. It was Paul’s task is to convince them to make good on their intentions.

As it turns out, chapters 8 & 9 constitute the most extensive set of remarks in any of Paul’s writings concerning the question of giving, and for this reason, they still provide a resource for us modern Christians who sometimes need to be challenged to contribute financially to worthwhile projects.

I can’t help but wonder, when the Christians of Corinth gathered for worship was there a six-foot thermometer on the wall indicating they had only achieved 45% of their goal? Were there heart-rending, guilt-inducing posters of widows and orphans? Did they get notices from the Jerusalem Bishop’s office of the percentage of apportionments due? Were they competing against other churches for the Bishop’s Trophy of “who gives the most?”

Like modern fund-raisers and pastors, Paul used a variety of motivations and appeals, some not so convincing, others – one in particular – very compelling.

First, he reminds them of the example of the Macedonian churches, who had given generously even though they were in no financial position to do so, kind of like the Red Bird Missionary Conference, in Appalachia, today, which – though the poorest – has the highest per capita giving of any Annual Conference. Paul refers to the Macedonian Christians, or the province of Macedonia, 16 times in six of his letters; did the Corinthians say of the Macedonians that Paul “always loved you best?” Although Macedonia enjoyed certain economic advantages, Christians there were extremely poor and had experienced some kind of severe trial. Yet when faced with the opportunity to help the beleaguered church in Jerusalem, their response was magnanimous. So Paul held the Macedonians up to the Corinthians.

Would that motivate you? A little friendly competition? Shall I compare you to the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City?  Evanston First? The Red Bird Missionary Conference? How are we doing? (Actually, not too bad, considering all the appeals we ask of you. Sometimes we feel like the church who prayed for more Sundays in the year, because that is the only way we are ever going to get in all the Special Offering Sundays the United Methodist Church asks of us.

Failing competition, Paul is not above a little guilt to attempt to motivate them. Paul reminds them of their earlier commitment, what they had pledged on their Commitment Cards. And since – like modern Bishops and Superintendents, Paul wasn’t above playing his churches against one another – he had used them as an example for the Macedonians, and thus therefore eager for them to come through. Perhaps it was the controversies in the church that had diverted their attention. Maybe their Log Cabin needed renovation, or the windows in their Education Building needed replacing. There is never a lack of good causes in churches.

Nor is Paul above flattery, which after all, will get you everywhere. In terms of what they did have – like us – the Corinthians were rich! Not so much in money – but in every other way: “Since you excel in everything — in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you — see that you also excel in this grace of giving.” Well done, Central! (Wait – am I flattering you again?)

The worst now behind – Paul realistically addresses their fears. How much should they give? “Give out of what you have, not what you don’t have.” Realism – that’s an important ingredient in every financial campaign, isn’t it? We should never make unrealistic commitments we cannot keep, not even under pressure from some flattering preacher. As Paul stresses – the point is:

“not that there should be relief for others and a burden on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.”

The point is “equality” or “fairness” or “balance.”  As the Reformer John Calvin put it, what Paul is talking about is “not the kind of equality where “each side gives an equal amount” but rather a “fair apportioning,” according to our means, as we work together to help those in need. No wonder Christians in the know, like Pope Francis, talk increasingly about the worldwide problem of wealth inequality. When Pope Francis does that, he’s not meddling in politics or economics, as some has accused him, he’s simply being “Biblical.”

Because, as Rob Bell would remind us, “Everything is spiritual.” What Paul is really talking about is replacing fear with trust; moving from the crippling fear that if we share our abundance with others there won’t be enough for us, into joyous trust that the God who gave us Jesus Christ will ultimately provide for our needs. In regard to our giving, as in every other aspect of the Christian life, replacing FEAR with TRUST is the most challenging and most rewarding transformation of all.

Finally, moving from the ridiculous to the sublime, Paul plays the trump card: he reminds them of the example of Christ.  In the chiastic formula of one of the most beautiful verses in the New Testament, Paul does not so much quote a quotation as paint a portrait before them, when he says:

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (verse 8, NIV)

According to this, extravagant generosity is not defined by giving a large enough sum to earn naming rights for the new educational wing; rather, it begins with humble gratitude for God’s gift to us in Christ. We give of ourselves and our substance, because we have extravagantly received. Could there be a Christian sitting in church anywhere – either in Corinth or in Chicago – who does not understand this? All our giving is therefore “giving back” for the blessings we have received. By our giving, others are helped, and our lives are even richer for it.

Here in mid-summer in Chicago, amidst congregational wandering, a time when giving traditionally ebbs in the church, I can’t help but wonder how those Corinthians turned out? Did they send out a congregational letter? Did they have a spaghetti supper (or in their case a Greek Festival)? Did a special donor pitch in, or did they all step up, so that they made good on their relief offering for their brother and sister Christians in Jerusalem, whom they had never met? We’ll never know.

But what we do know is this: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, so that we through his poverty might become rich.” Rich indeed we are; may God grant that our lives and our giving may reflect it. Amen.

 

 

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