Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Climbing Down

2 Corinthians 8:7-15

by Daniel Harrell

When I first arrived at Park Street Church in Boston in the mid 1980s, one of the many practices still in place from the 1950s occurred on what was affectionately called, “Money Sunday.” On their version of Stewardship Sunday, members of the congregation made financial pledges of support to the life and work of the church, as we here at Colonial will do next week. But back then, as the pledges were collected, the senior minister opened each one and read them aloud from the pulpit. “Here’s one for $50,” he’d say, “another for $100. Here’s a $10 pledge, and one for $1000!” Occasionally a pledge came in for, say, $10,000, eliciting all sorts of oohs and aahs from the congregation (which I imagine made those 10 dollar pledgers feel pretty puny). But that was nothing compared to when a pledge for $50,000 or more came in. As the minister enthusiastically gushed that amount aloud, the organist leapt up from his seat, dashed over to the console and blasted a rousing verse of “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” pulling out all the stops. (What do you think about that Charles?) The congregation rose as one to sing glory to God, and incidentally to the big giver too—puffing up the big giver even bigger. Meanwhile, a couple of accountants with old style adding machines tallied the pledge sums at the communion table and reported a running total. At the end of the service, if the financial goal had yet to be reached, the senior minister would send the offering plate back around instructing everybody to empty their pockets of everything except the subway token they needed to get home.

OK, so I was shocked. Appalled actually. I thought at the time, “No way I’m going to work at this church.” It was like being in some money-grabbing religious televangelist show. Granted, the money raised went to support all kinds of wonderful work—from urban ministry to missions and outreach to everything that made the church a strong community and viable witness for Jesus in our city. But still, the ends do not always justify the means. In this case, the means made the ends look really bad. I came to find out later that the senior minister himself hated Money Sunday. He only did it that way because it was always done that way before.

Mercifully we ended that practice soon thereafter. As Paul will write in chapter 9, “God loves a cheerful giver,” not one coerced by guilt or pride. Raising money for church ministry and mission is essential, but you shouldn’t have to shame or puff people up to do it.

So then why does Paul himself resort to both shame and puffery to raise money here in 2 Corinthians 8? First he flaunts in the Corinthians’ face the superior generosity of the Macedonian Church so as to embarrass the Corinthians into giving; and then he flatters them for all of their excellent Christian virtue so as to spur them to give even more. [Verse 7]: “Just 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” or as most translations put it, “in this grace of giving.”

For much of 2 Corinthians Paul has been busy defending his apostleship from false accusations, most of which had come from his detractors but some of which came from the Corinthians themselves. Their association with his detractors had contaminated them and caused them to compromise their allegiance to Paul and to the gospel. Seeing how hazardous this association had proven to their spiritual health, Paul inserted a stiff warning against being unequally yoked to unbelievers, which Jeff ably preached about last Sunday. “Do right and wrong have anything in common?” Paul rhetorically asked. “Can light share anything with darkness? Can Christ agree with the devil?” “Really, I shouldn’t?” Presumably the Corinthians recognized their sin and repented with “godly sorrow,” in chapter 7, compelling Paul to bury his holy hatchet. He accepted their apology and acknowledged their reenergized devotion to Christ. “And now,” chapter 8, it was time to match that reenergized devotion with reenergized obedience.

Throughout 2 Corinthians, Paul’s major concern has been one of spiritual integrity. Faith and works of faith must match. What you believe is not what you say you believe. What you believe is what you do. You can tell a tree by its fruit. And among the fruits of Jesus-rooted Christianity is the fruit of generosity.

For reasons we can only guess, the Christian mother ship in Jerusalem was in financial trouble. Their distress may have been due to persecution or famine or economic recession, but whatever the reason, the reality was that the church needed help and the Corinthians weren’t helping. This was not right. Therefore Paul, using both shame and flattery as leverage, cajoles the Corinthians to cough it up. “Now I am not commanding you to give,” he writes; “but I am testing you to see how genuine your love is in comparison to others,” which actually feels worse than a command. Paul was clear back in chapter 5 how all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ to account for the way we lived our lives. Now he appeals to Christ again, this time using a line from an ancient hymn to exalt the extreme generosity of Jesus. [Verse 9:] “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.”

“Oh great, so you’re testing to see whether we give like Jesus? Talk about being doomed to fail. Nobody can pass that test! Nobody can be that generous!” Nobody, that is, except those in whom Jesus resides. Through the dying and rising of Christ you are a new creation, remember. The old self was narcissistic and selfish, but the new self no longer lives for itself. Invaded by Christ, your heart has been pried open toward God and toward your neighbor, and even toward your enemy. Paul fully expects the Corinthians to display this openness by opening their wallets.

Why is giving so important? Because the God whom we worship—the God who in Christ died and rose for us, the God who by his Spirit now dwells inside of us—our God is a giver. While to be a Christian is to be a recipient of grace, to be a recipient of grace is to become a conduit of grace. To be given grace by God makes us into givers ourselves—whether that giving looks like forgiveness, love, words of kindness or acts of generosity. To hoard grace for yourself is to act as if you never received it in the first place. But if in fact you have received grace, then you know it is impossible to hoard. In this way grace is like gossip. You just can’t keep it to yourself. Therefore Paul’s test is a test you can’t help but pass. If the grace of Jesus is really in you, it won’t be able to stay there.

Still, Paul goes on to coach the Corinthians. [Verse 11:] “Finish what you started so that your initial eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.” Again Paul emphasizes spiritual integrity. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but good deeds alone won’t get you into heaven. Motivation matters. God loves a cheerful giver; eagerness and giving together are evidence of Jesus inside. And inasmuch as Jesus is the eager giving standard, how can anybody hold back anything?

“Uh-oh,” you’re thinking. “Hang on to your purses! Watch your wallets! The preacher’s going retro on us. It’s Money Sunday in Minnesota!” I am tempted, if only for the sake of experiencing what it would mean to give like Christ. But even Paul knew that nobody can give totally like Christ. You are not the Christ. You can’t divest yourself of divinity in order to take on humanity no matter how big your Messiah complex. You can give your life but it won’t save the world. “Finish what you started,” Paul writes in [verse 11,] “match actions to your eagerness, but do it, according to your means.” (Whew! That was close.) As long as you’re eager, Paul writes, “give what you can.” (Alright!) Because if you’re eager, you’ll give all you can. Hang on! Paul’s not giving anybody an out. He’s giving us a boundary. You give all you can, [verse 12,] but just not so much that you become financially needy yourself. “If the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have.”

The goal of giving is not a vow of poverty but a vow of generosity for the sake of a equality, [verse 13]. Relief for others should not be pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and others’ need, or their abundance for your need. Fair balance. Sufficiency. Justice. Righteousness. It’s not right that a few hundred billionaires now own as much wealth as the world’s poorest 2.5 billion people. It’s not right that nearly three billion people live less on two dollars a day. It’s not right that 30,000 children die every day due to poverty. It’s not right that on any given night in Hennepin County there are over 3000 homeless people, a third of them children with a quarter of them even employed. It’s not right that in our own congregation of relative abundance, there is a struggle on the part of many to make ends meet. It’s not right.

I read a recent sociological study about how twenty percent of committed Christians in America, the ones who go to church weekly and say they live like Jesus daily, 20 percent of committed Christians give nothing, no money to the work of God on earth. [O] Zero. Zip. According to this same study, the rest of us who do give only give something like 3%. [OMG] Even though Jesus warned us not to store up our treasures on earth and to be generous toward the things of God, we mostly spend all of our money on ourselves.

Do you know what we could do if committed Christians in America simply followed the Bible and gave a measly mustard seed of their money (which by the way is all God asks)? If just the committed Christians tithed [10%] their after tax-after debt payment income, there would be an extra 46 billion dollars a year available to fund, for example, 150,000 new indigenous missionaries and Christian workers; 50,000 additional theological students in the developing world; 5 million more micro loans to entrepreneurs; enough food, clothing and shelter for all 6,500,000 current refugees in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East; all the money needed for a global campaign to prevent and treat malaria; enough resources to sponsor 20 million needy children worldwide.

Of course as far as Christians go, equality and justice are not just measured monetarily, but relationally too. Christ died for all, Paul wrote in chapter 5, in order to reconcile the world to himself. Giving and forgiving go hand in hand. Certainly the Jerusalem church was in dire need of financial assistance, but don’t let it escape notice that Paul’s appeal for help was directed at Gentile churches. Justice is both economic and relational—even racial. Reconciliation is the reason Christ died. Reconciled to God, giving to your neighbors and forgiving your enemies, living at peace and without any need because everyone’s needs are sufficiently met; is there anything that feels closer to heaven? No wonder Paul laid it on so thick, using every lever he had at his disposal. Shame. Guilt. Flattery. Tests. Fear. Whatever it took to get the Corinthians to give because to eagerly give shows you’ve been reconciled to God.

But wait a minute. How can the Corinthians become cheerful givers if Paul has to twist their arms to make them do it? If motivation matters, forcing me to give only makes my motivation fake. You may be able to scare me or guilt me into giving, but you can’t guilt me into being cheerful or eager to do it.

I told you about my trying to start a homeless outreach group in Boston. Having heard a number of people express frustration with our downtown church being all talk and no action when it came to the homeless, I finally decided I’d throw together a small group to do something rather than simply sit in a circle and discuss it. However you may remember what a hard time I had getting this group together. Despite the number of people who expressed frustration over being all talk and no action, actually moving from talk to action proved way too scary. Now frustrated myself, you’ll remember my describing how I decided to bring up this resistance in a couple of sermons to see if I couldn’t shame at least a few people into signing up anyway. The guilt worked to the point that four years later there’s still a full cadre of folks out on Boston Common every week serving food, providing clothes, nurturing relationships and offering a pretty decent outdoor worship—even in the winter.

Now if you think that being shamed to serve could never result in the joy of service, you’d be wrong. As it turned out, the pressure to give did not tarnish our motivation. The pressure to give merely pushed us to be true to who we are in Christ. 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. And as is the reciprocal characteristic of grace; to give grace gets grace in return. You heard Kevin describe how his own giving makes his own cup runneth over. Many of you experience this as a well in a variety of ways too—there’s our Operation Christmas Child campaign in the Common and an opportunity to serve next month at Calvary Baptist Church. Karen Larkin shared in a Wednesday night class recently about how her family’s mission trips to Peru resulted in a Peruvian couple from Kikihana (?) making a surprise trip to Minneapolis—surprising in that they showed up two weeks before Christmas for a two-week unexpected stay at the Larkins. Far from being put out they were happy to put their guests up and it was great.

There remains plenty of inequality, as well as plenty of inability on our part to do all we wish that we could. But still, by doing what we can, we experience a taste of heaven. As it is written, [verse 15,] “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” The citation from Exodus 16 refers to the bread from heaven God gave the Israelites in the desert on their way to the Promised Land. God gave to all. “I am the bread of life;” Jesus later declared, “whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Christ died for all. Enough bread for everybody. Grace begets grace; generosity begets justice; reconciliation occurs along every line. It is the fruit of belonging to Christ.

I’ll admit that I do want to twist your arm a bit. I want you to be a cheerful giver. Next Sunday is Colonial’s Money Sunday when we’ll offer our pledges of financial support to the ministries of this church together, congregationally and ceremoniously—albeit without reading them and without Charles running to the organ. However stewardship is not a Sunday, it’s a lifestyle. It’s being who you actually are in Christ. If the grace our Lord Jesus Christ is really in you, it won’t be able to stay there. Though he was rich, for your sake Jesus became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich and share that wealth that is now yours to share.

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