Monday, November 22, 2010

Blessed, Broken, Given

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

by Daniel Harrell

My parents’ small town Southern minister told a tale about a well-known, wealthy good ol’ boy calling up the church office one day and hollering to the church secretary: “Is the head hog at the trough?” The secretary, familiar with Southern colloquialisms, politely responded, “Sir, we refer to our pastor as reverend, not head hog.” “Sorry ‘bout that missy,” the rich man replied, “I was just calling about making a big fat contribution to the building fund.” “Well, you’re in luck,” the secretary said as she caught the pastor’s arrival out of the corner of her eye, “here comes the old pig now.”

We laugh at this due to our familiarity with money’s power to adversely transform and twist human demeanor. The Bible declares the love of money to be the root of all evil. However the good news is that giving away money can be the root of all kinds of blessing. Which may be why the Bible says it is more blessed to give than to receive. But receiving can be a blessing too when you’re somebody who needs help. It was wonderful to watch last Sunday as so many took from the offering plate. If you’re visiting today you may be thinking, taking from the offering plate? Is this a great church or what! And it is. Following the service last Sunday—having laid it on thick from 2 Corinthians 8—I hated the idea of folks heading home with cash in their pockets. So we left an offering plate at the back for everybody to unload their wallets with the caveat that those who had no cash—due to financial hardship of any kind—they were to take what they needed in order to make ends meet. Since those in need were hesitant, and maybe a little embarrassed, to take, it was great to see others pillage the plate on their behalf. Paul put it this way in chapter 8: “It is a question of fair balance between your present abundance and their need. Right now those who have plenty can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal.”

Fair balance stretched beyond the bounds of our own congregation. Money was used to buy a car battery for a survivor of torture from Uganda who is part of a quilters group here. Money was shared with several homeless friends. Another knew of a neighbor whose unemployment payments had run out. She took money and matched it with a gift of her own. Several who missed last Sunday dropped off money during the week. And on and on it went. And on and on it goes. Today is our official Stewardship Sunday. I appreciate those who told me that last Sunday’s sermon was the best sermon on stewardship that you ever heard. I guess we’ll know how good it really was shortly. I’m hesitant to preach about giving again for fear I might mess it up this time. Perhaps the Lord was worried too given the weather. But the apostle Paul did write two chapters on giving in 2 Corinthians—so I guess I should at least try.

This is the more familiar passage of the two inasmuch as it’s where we find the welcome verse 7: “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Nevertheless, given the Corinthians’ reluctance, Paul applies plenty of compulsion. You’ll remember that the Jerusalem church was in dire financial straits and the Corinthians were doing nothing to help. So Paul puts the squeeze on. But how can the Corinthians be cheerful givers if Paul has to twist their arms to make them do it? As I mentioned last week, Paul’s pressure to give merely pushed the Corinthians to be true to the new creations they already were in Christ. The same with us. Obligation and obedience push us to do what our Christian new selves would do if our selfish old selves didn’t stand in the way. More than applying pressure, Paul applied a test to see if the Corinthians really were new creatures in Christ. Their generosity would prove their obedience to the gospel and their openness to grace. All giving starts with God, verse 10, “who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food and who will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.”

Still, Paul knows the human heart when it comes to money—even the redeemed human heart. Therefore his encouragement comes laced with caution. Keeping with the harvest metaphor, Paul cites an old proverb, “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” You reap what you sow. It’s a saying that stretches back to the Hebrew Bible. Jesus employed it too. The Biblical correlation is one between giving and judgment—and that’s just if we stick to Jesus’ parables. For instance there’s the parable about the three stewards whose master gave each enormous sums of money—or talents—to put to work. The two stewards who did so were amply rewarded, but the third who buried his one talent in the ground out of fear was cast into “the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then there’s the parable about a rich man who refused to share his wealth with a beggar named Lazarus. Upon their deaths, Lazarus lounges in heaven while the rich man languishes in hell’s fiery furnace. The rich man pleaded for mercy: “Can’t Lazarus just dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, I am in agony in this fire.” But the answer came back “no can do.” “Remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in torment.”

There’s also the parable I mentioned several weeks back about a farmer who hit the jackpot of a bumper crop but wasn’t sure what to do with all of the surplus. With no place to store it and no thought of sharing it, he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones so he could hoard his riches, kick back and enjoy life. It is the American way. We like our barns big and our houses big and our portfolios big too. We like vacation homes and motorized toys. We’re foodies and fashionistas and crave the coolest technological gizmos and games. A Washington State University sociologist once calculated that the earliest humans consumed approximately 2500 calories a day, most of it in food; comparable to the daily energy intake of a 350-pound dolphin. A modern human being uses 31,000 calories a day, most of it in fossil fuel to manufacture and maintain all of the stuff he needs—comparable to the intake of a 1.7-ton pilot whale. The average American? Each day you and me? We each suck in as much as a 40-ton sperm whale.

God appears to the farmer and thunders, “You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you. Now what will you do with all this stuff you have stockpiled and consumed for yourself?” It’s a rhetorical question. Camels can’t squeeze through the eyes of needles. Neither can whales. U-Hauls aren’t attached to hearses. Jesus warned, “This is how it will be with people who store up everything for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

This being the case, I guess I could say “give or you’re doomed.” And according to Jesus at least, I’d be right. God loves a cheerful giver, but clearly he’ll take a fearful one if he has to. Generosity is that important. Why? Because it reflects the character of God. Grace is a chief fruit of the Spirit. It is prime evidence of new creation. We give because God gives to us. “God provides you with every blessing in abundance,” Paul writes in verse 8, “so that by always having enough of everything, you may share it abundantly… and reap a harvest of righteousness.” This is the righteousness of grace: God provides enough of everything to go around so that nobody needs anything. As it is written in Psalm 112, and cited in verse 9, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” At first glance you assume the “he” to be God, but in fact the giver is human. When it to comes to giving God and the giver are one. To cheerfully give is the work of the Lord.

It’s helpful to peek again at Psalm 112 (follow along if you’d like). It provides some of the backfill for Paul’s passion. The Psalm does begin with fear—though not in a way we’d expect. We read, “Happy are those who fear the LORD, who greatly delight in his commandments.” Because obedience gets such a bad rap in our culture, to greatly delight in anybody’s commandments can be a reach. And yet in Psalm 112, obedience pays off big for those who heed the Lord: “Wealth and riches are in their houses.” Yet far from the claims of the prosperity gospel—which insists you get rich for yourself—Biblical richness is always infused with righteousness; it is rich toward others. Psalm 112 describes the prosperous as “gracious and merciful,” they “conduct their affairs with justice,” are “not afraid of evil tidings,” and “deal generously and distribute freely to the poor.” It is this wealth of righteousness that brings the happiness the Psalmist celebrates—as we experienced last Sunday. Many of you approached me with tears of joy at the beautiful expression of our generosity. When’s the last time anybody cried over the offering plate? (I mean in a good way?) It was a beautiful thing. Grace does that. And then there’s the added benefit of the last verse of Psalm 112, so typical of the psalms: righteousness and grace really tick off the wicked: “The wicked see it and are angry; they gnash their teeth and melt away. Their desires come to nothing.”

So if any of this is making you mad… I’m just sayin’.

God loves a cheerful giver. And he loves a fearful one too—though I think that Biblical link between fear and giving is more about the fear of not giving. Fear is why the third steward said he buried his talent in the ground. Richard Foster in his devotional classic, Celebration of Discipline, writes how, “we cling to our possessions rather than sharing them because we are anxious about tomorrow.” We’re afraid that things won’t work out; that we won’t have enough and that God is not good enough to make up the difference and that he doesn’t really care. We’re afraid of loss, despite the fact that in the ironic economy of God loss is the only way to gain. Selfishness plays to our fears. It whispers sweet nothings, tempting you to store up your treasures on earth. Let go and let God and you’ll end up dependent and destitute. You’ll probably experience disgrace and defeat like those Christians of old. Life could get hard. You might suffer. You might have to really trust the God of the actual Bible, you know, the old Bible we used to read before we learned to read it like a self-help book filled with formulas and bullet points on how to be successful, happy, healthy and well-off.

Throughout the gospels Jesus links giving and fear as a means of disabusing us of our selfishness. In the parable of the talents, the third steward’s fear is a mask for his laziness. But again, the point is not to scare us into generosity. In both the parable of the talents and the parable of the ungenerous farmer in their respective gospels, Jesus follows up not just by railing against selfishness and pronouncing doom on our laziness (though he does that too). He follows up by assuaging our anxiety. “Do not worry about your life,” he says, “about what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than fashion. Look at the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. You’re more valuable to God than they are. Why are you afraid? Why do you worry? Can all your worries add even a single hour to your life? A single half hour? Don’t you know that your heavenly Father will take care of you too, O ye of little faith? So do not worry, God knows what you need. Seek after God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness and you will find you have everything you need and more.”

In place of worry and control and consumption and anxiety, Jesus issues a call to faith; a call to believe that God indeed has things under control, a call to believe that God cares, even if that care doesn’t always look like you want it to.

Granted, faith can be scary. It can even feel a lot like worry. Worry and faith both focus on what you can’t see. However worry and faith focus in different directions. Worry aims inward, feeding off your fear of the future and closing you in so tight that you can hardly breathe. But faith points outward, feeding off the guarantees of God that open you up to hope and a future where needles are threaded with camels (and penitent whales for that matter); where no moth nor rust nor thief can touch your true treasure; a future where worry no longer happens. Such a future is new creation itself, a future Paul declares as begun even now. And thus when he writes “you will be enriched in every way” in verse 11, you could just as well read it as your having been enriched already. And for what purpose? “that you may be generous on every occasion which will produce thanksgiving to God.” “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.”

1 comment:

cheerful said...

Yes, God loves a Cheerful Giver! You may want to visit the Cheerful Givers charity ( to learn how you can help by providing a toy-filled birthday gift bag for a child living in poverty on their birthday.