II Corinthians 8:1-9
Sept 27, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
While traveling all over the ancient world starting churches, preaching the gospel, getting driven out of town or thrown in local jails, and maintaining a lively correspondence with numerous people, Paul spent his spare time gathering a collection for the churches of Judea. The people of Judea – the region around Jerusalem — had at some point in the recent past experienced a devastating famine leaving the people impoverished and so Paul decided that he would raise money among all of the congregations around the Mediterranean to bring relief to the Judean churches. In fact, he spent quite a bit of his third missionary journey around Asia Minor talking about this collection and working with other church leaders to make arrangements to get the donated monies back to Judea. The collection appeared to be a pet project of Paul’s and in order to encourage the participation of the Corinthian churches, in his letter to them he coyly stirs their competitive spirit by reporting the incredible generosity of the churches in Macedonia, their neighbors to the north, who gave an offering beyond their means. And then Paul adds, “Now as you [Corinthians] 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.”
Paul deliberately flatters his audience: “You surpass those Macedonians in every other way; I bet you can surpass them in generosity as well!” Paul may be a little ham handed in his fund raising tactics but he is sincere in his belief that generosity is an important part of the Christian faith. He carefully lays out the theological case for the centrality of a generous spirit, and thus pens a passage her in II Corinthians which has become a favorite selection for pastors preaching their annual stewardship sermon.
“Ah, yes, my friends,” the minister intones, “I ask you to consider making a substantial raise in your church pledge this year, because, as Paul says, generosity is the proof of the genuineness of one’s love.”
Now, you don’t have to worry. I am not going to be hitting you up for money today not only because our stewardship campaign is still months away but also because I think that relegating this passage to a stewardship campaign misses the reason that Paul so wanted this collection to succeed, a reason that undergirds his understanding of the purpose of generosity.
Have you ever asked yourself what the purpose of generosity is? Why was Jesus so concerned about what we do with our money? Why does the gospel proclaim that giving to others must be central to our understanding of faith?
To push this question, I want you to imagine for a moment that you read about a church that has a vibrant worship life, holds three services every Sunday with stellar preaching and high quality music, conducts dozens of bible studies and prayer meetings for its members each week, and has a whole wing of its building devoted just to their youth. Here certainly, you think, is a vital and flourishing ministry that is working hard to communicate the gospel and provide a strong faith life for its congregation. As you read on, however, you discover that this same church spent a million dollars to build an indoor swimming pool for members only while at the same time refusing to donate a cent to the establishment of a homeless shelter in the impoverished neighborhood around the church. And if you think this is a hypothetical scenario, I once met some members of just such a church who told me that every Sunday, they wore their bathing suits under their clothes so they could head right to the pool after the Benediction. You would probably say as I did (or thought), “It seems they are not so Christian after all,” and yet they were providing worship, and bible study, and prayer, so why does their choice to be selfish with their money affect the nature of their faith or the legitimacy of their ministry? Why was Jesus so concerned about what we do with our money? Why did Paul spend so much of his time trying to convince the churches of Asia Minor to donate to the relief of the churches of Judea?
This is an important question for the times we are in right now because in the midst of a pandemic and national upheaval where everyone is facing uncertainty over the future, most reasonable people would say that the best thing you can do is hunker down, stock up, and protect what you have because you don’t know when it might be gone. If we believed that generosity was just an option for the Christian that could be chucked when the going got tough, then we could shut our wallets up tight until the pandemic is over and our faith would be none the worse for the wear. Paul said, however, that generosity is not optional; as Christians, we are called not to stock up but to share; not to hunker down but to reach out; not to protect what we have but to give what we have to relieve the suffering of others. True generosity isn’t something that we turn on when it is convenient and turn off when we don’t feel like giving, but is a mark of the Christian life. But again I ask, why? Why is generosity so important to our faith?
If we are to understand Paul’s view of generosity, we have to remember what drove Paul’s ministry, the one consuming passion behind everything he did. Paul saw himself as the apostle to the Gentiles who would bring them into the church with the Jewish Christians of Judea so that they could all become one body of Christ.
“In Christ there is no Jew or Greek,” he said, expressing his belief that both the Gentile Christians of Asia Minor and the Jewish Christians of Judea could be brothers and sisters in Christ in spite of their different backgrounds, beliefs, and traditions. Unfortunately, Paul discovered quite quickly that not everyone was as enthusiastic about his koinonia vision of community as he was because human beings being what human beings are, the people in the churches spent more time pushing away those who were different from themselves than welcoming one another. Paul needed to find a way to help them see one another as fellow human beings before he could even begin to get them to see one another as fellow Christians. And what better way to get them to open their hearts to one another than to first get them to open their wallets to one another? When we give money to try to help relieve another person’s suffering, our eyes are opened to their existence; we may not have ever given them a second glance but now we are now invested in their healing. When Michele Hluchy asked our church to help her students bring water to Navajo lands, it was the first time I realized that many native people in our own country don’t have access to clean water. Her request for our generosity brought a whole people’s experience into my awareness and broadened my world. And after George Floyd died, I researched the work being done in racial justice and decided to support both the young protestors of Black Lives Matter and the staid and steady NAACP by setting up recurring monthly donations to both organizations on my credit card, and now every time I get my charge card statement, I am reminded that I am literally invested in the welfare of people of color in our nation. My generosity has not just helped others; it has also forced me to broaden my world.
Generosity isn’t just a redistribution of wealth; it is a reorientation of relationship. Generosity says, “My brother and sister aren’t just those men and women who are biologically related to me but are the men and women with whom I have shared my resources, my money, and my time. I may not share the same skin color with those people or the same experiences or opinions or traditions or languages or way of loving or way of thinking, but when I am generous toward them, or they are generous toward me, by golly we now share an investment in one another. Our worlds have become interdependent and thus our differences have become less consequential.”
Or as the author Patti Digh said, “Being generous often consists of simply extending a hand. That’s hard to do if you are grasping tightly to your righteousness, your belief system, your superiority, your assumptions about others, your definition of normal.”
Generosity is the mark of the Christian faith because generosity as we open our wallets, we will inevitably find that our hearts have been opened as well. Our worlds become bigger, our understanding of family expands, and we take a step closer to God’s realm where all people are God’s children.