St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (June 26, 2016)
2 Corinthians 8:1-15 – “Gracious Giving”
This being the last Sunday in June, we’re taking our last crack at 2 Corinthians. It’s been interesting to me, and I hope to you, to wiggle around in the thoughts of the Apostle Paul and the context of one of the early Christian communities.
Before I read the lesson, a little background to what is happening here: Paul is trying to raise money. He doesn’t use the word “money,” but being the good preacher he is, the word is implicit. He’s walking on eggshells, so to speak, because the fundraising project he’s trying to accomplish is a delicate one. The Jerusalem church is extremely poor and Paul has been soliciting contributions from the congregations in areas that line the rim of the Mediterranean.
He’s walking on eggshells for two main reasons: 1) As we’ve noted a lot this month, there’s was a lot of tension between Paul and Corinth, so it’s awkward for him to ask for money from folks he’s also scolded; and 2) He’s asking for coin from Gentile believers for Jewish believers, and those groups were in perpetual conflict. It could be that the Corinthians were collecting this money at their weekly gatherings, but then stopped because of their conflict with Paul or doubts about his honesty or apostleship. Either way he’s planning to visit soon and hopes to find a substantial haul when he arrives. Let’s listen to what he has to say:
Brothers and sisters, we want to let you know about the grace of God that was given to the churches of Macedonia. While they were being tested by many problems, their extra amount of happiness and their extreme poverty resulted in a surplus of rich generosity. I assure you that they gave what they could afford and even more than they could afford, and they did it voluntarily. They urgently begged us for the privilege of sharing in this service for the saints. They even exceeded our expectations, because they gave themselves to the Lord first and to us, consistent with God’s will. As a result, we challenged Titus to finish this work of grace with you the way he had started it.
Be the best in this work of grace in the same way that you are the best in everything, such as faith, speech, knowledge, total commitment, and the love we inspired in you. I’m not giving an order, but by mentioning the commitment of others, I’m trying to prove the authenticity of your love also. You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Although he was rich, he became poor for our sakes, so that you could become rich through his poverty. I’m giving you my opinion about this. It’s to your advantage to do this, since you not only started to do it last year but you wanted to do it too. Now finish the job as well so that you finish it with as much enthusiasm as you started, given what you can afford.
A gift is appreciated because of what a person can afford, not because of what that person can’t afford, if it’s apparent that it’s done willingly. It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties, but it’s a matter of equality. At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit so that in the future their surplus can fill your deficit. In this way there is equality. As it is written, “The one who gathered more didn’t have too much, and the one who gathered less didn’t have too little.
As a stewardship strategist or fundraising professional, Paul was terrible!
For whatever reason the Corinthians had stopped or at least sloped off in their collection for the Jerusalem congregation. So what does Paul do? He says to them, essentially, “The Macedonian congregations, the ones in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea, who are running-on-empty-broke, donated “bookoos” to this collection. And not just that, but they begged us to contribute to the fund! You’re wallets are way thicker than theirs. What’s the deal?”
But then he drives it home. “You’re good at so many other things, Corinth, why not be good at this too?” Then he get’s all theological on them (don’t you hate when people do that?) by appealing to Christ. And he lays it on thick: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Although he was rich, he became poor for our sakes, so that you could become rich through his poverty.” Paul’s rationale is basically this: “Jesus gave up everything by leaving heaven to come to earth, by becoming human, by living and dying as one of us, and he did it for you. He gave us salvation; why can’t you give your brothers and sisters in Christ in Jerusalem a little money?”
As Ernest Best put it, “He takes an electric drill to make a hole in a piece of paper.”
But, on the other hand, you have to give Paul credit for being bold. He had a purpose: to unite the church across geography and culture. To show the Jerusalem church that Corinth cared, that Philippi cared, that Rome cared, that Gentiles cared about Jews. If Jerusalem swallowed its pride and accepted their help, it would honor the Gentile congregations. And if all of this was accomplished, these very different communities would solidify as the one body of Christ.
He’s also bold for talking about it directly, which is difficult because people don’t like talking about money. Money’s “icky.” The English poet George Herbert penned this over 350 years ago:
Money, thou bane of bliss, and source of woe,
Whence com’st thou, that thou art so fresh and fine?
I know thy parentage is base and low:
Man found thee poor and dirty in a mine.
Paul fails the techniques test for raising it. There are, for sure, a lot of prevailing techniques out there that Paul did or did not use.
- Guilt is probably the oldest one in the book. Paul tries to shame the Corinthians into giving. “I’m not giving an order, but by mentioning the commitment of others, I’m trying to prove the authenticity of your love also,” he wrote.
- He compared theirs to others’ giving levels. “The Macedonian presbytery gave way more than you did!” That comparison technique works sometimes. Last week I read in Lee Gustus’ history of St. Mark’s that sometime in the 70s, the Stewardship Committee pointed out that if the whole church was on public assistance and tithed, they’d have more money in the coffers than they did at solidly middle class income levels.
- He could have given them charts and graphs to show how poor Jerusalem was or cited statistics about how Corinthian giving declined over the last year.
- Paul could have relayed a heart-wrenching story about a poor, desperate child in Jerusalem, or how the congregation couldn’t afford an organist.
- He could have mandated that everyone needs to give a certain fixed percentage, regardless of income or financial circumstances. But he didn’t. He simply wrote, “A gift is appreciated because of what a person can afford, not because of what that person can’t afford, if it’s apparent that it’s done willingly… it’s a matter of equality.”
Paul’s main point is not a strategy but to lay out a basic truth: giving is an act of grace. We respond in gratitude for what God has done for us. When we give, we trust that God works through our offerings.
You didn’t expect a stewardship sermon in June, did you? Well, the text went there…
I’ll follow Paul’s lead and not try exact any techniques on you in hopes that you’ll keep giving to St. Mark’s or give more. The truth is that this is an extremely generous congregation, and I’m grateful for that. We give for an infinite number of reasons, reasons that are particular to each of us, but they boil down to two main points:
- As people of faith, we give as a spiritual discipline, as a practice of regularly returning thanks for all we’ve received. We count our blessings and practice gratitude and generosity in response.
- We pledge specifically to the church because we believe in the work that goes on here. That’s it. To quote our purpose statement: “Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God’s love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.” We give to a purpose, not a budget, a purpose that is accomplished here in countless ways.
I say often that I wish I could carry around a GoPro© or video camera with me so that you could see St. Mark’s through my eyes. There are so many wonderful, beautiful, amazing things that happen around here during the week, and not just on Sunday mornings.
There are obvious, public ministries like 4th Wednesday Suppers, or our support of the Young Adult Volunteer Program, or choirs and bands led by our phenomenally talented music staff. But there are also these little “gems,” these less obvious ministries impacted by our giving, in which we participate by extension:
- By contributing to our Administrator’s, Sue Collins’ salary through our pledges, we all interact compassionately with someone who walks into the office off the street– hot, tired, and thirsty–and receives respect, kind words, and a bag of food.
- Through paying the utilities, we reach the Tucson community by offering space and hospitality to 20+ outside groups to meet and do their work on this campus: Narcotics Anonymous, Tucson Organic Gardeners, Gun Violence Prevention AZ, you name it.
- And, speaking personally, I like to think that when I’m at a rally or protest or community forum, that you’re all there with me in spirit, speaking the truth of the gospel to power.
I could go on and on, but my point is that what was true in Corinth is also true on 3rd Street in Tucson: giving is an act of grace. We respond in gratitude for what God has already done for us and we trust that God works through what we offer. That is certainly true here.