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Christian Giving

June 29, 2015

“Christian Giving” 2 Corinthians 8:1-24 © 6.28.15 Ordinary 13B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Imagine you are a member of a congregation of about 120 members, with a core leadership of a dozen or so. The church is struggling to believe the promise of God for its future, but everyone is afraid of what tomorrow will bring. Prayer meetings are held almost around the clock, asking God to send a revival that will sweep the land and the town.

One day everything changes. The renewal urgently asked for happens, almost without warning. Suddenly the little church is overflowing with new people. They’re hungry to know the power of God in their lives. And as they come for baptism and present their children as well, you realize that these folk have great needs of other sorts. The majority of them are poor; though there are more and more coming into membership each day, the offering plates are not overflowing. Yet the number and kind of ministries the church must provide keep growing. There is the soup kitchen and the clothing closet, the Bible study and the day care, the benevolence fund and the building fund. With growth now exponential, it’s obvious that more staff must be added; volunteers need to be trained. And it all takes money that most of the members do not have.

It was just such a congregation that Paul and his colleagues now had the challenge of supporting. The mother church in Jerusalem needed the help of her children, the newer communities of faith, in Greece and Asia Minor. Some of them were prosperous, like the group at Corinth. Others, such as the churches in Macedonia to the north, were not so fortunate. But those poorer folk had given because they had known the grace of God in Jesus Christ. So, despite different languages and customs, they felt connected with their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem; they knew a bond that transcended barriers of every kind.

The Corinthian Christians had also enthusiastically pledged their help. But now, months later, they still haven’t paid up. How can Paul motivate them to give? What can he say, especially since they hadn’t been getting along so well? Fundraising is hard enough, but his situation was made all the more difficult because there were those in the church who strongly opposed Paul, questioning his motives and his credentials. The congregation was badly divided; their gaze was thus turned almost exclusively inward. They had plenty of money, but could they find the will to share it? That was the situation that confronted the apostle as he dictated this part of his letter.

There are any number of reasons people give money to causes. If you have ever worked in any sort of fund-raising for schools, the arts or other non-profit organizations, you are especially are aware of them. Someone has provided a useful summary of such motives. In no particular order, they are: nobility (“show how kind and good you are”); human solidarity (“we are the world”); demonstrated need (“there are children starving”); personal recognition (“get your name mentioned on the air”); inner satisfaction (“you’ll be so glad you did”); competition (“x challenges y to match the gift”); earthly or heavenly reward (“God will bless you richly”); loyalty to someone or something (“This is your community”); rivalry (“you can do better than they did”); reputation (“we know you’re a pillar of the church”). I can add others. There’s the hope of gaining power, so that nothing can happen in the organization without your say-so, whether you serve it in an official capacity or not. And there’s any combination of duty, guilt, and shame: “You ought to give. Think of how much you have compared to these others.”

Paul had all those available to him, and I think he used at least a couple of them. There’s surely a little shaming going on as he tells the Corinthians how poor the Macedonians were, but how they gave anyway. And when he says that he is testing their love against the earnestness of others, that’s surely competition. Even a little flattery—often known by a more earthy term—is going on as he lists the areas in which the Corinthians excel.

But he knows none of those tactics is quite worthy of his cause. There’s a better reason for Christians to give. At root everything we do as believers, everything we are, goes back to what we believe about what God did when he sent Jesus Christ. Everything—including what we do with our money. Here is Paul’s idea for the best and right motivation for offering our resources in the cause of God’s kingdom: “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.”

When the apostle speaks of our Lord’s poverty, he isn’t talking about Jesus’ bank account. We actually don’t know what sort of personal resources Jesus had, though there are clues here and there in the gospels. Paul is using “poor” as the Old Testament often does, to mean “humble.” The poor are those who know that their lives depend on God, whose lives are centered in God’s rule. Paul means that Jesus lived a life like that. But he intends more. According to the ancient hymn sung in Philippi and elsewhere, the Son of God lived in heaven, unconfined by the limits of human flesh or ability. But in becoming human, he emptied himself of privilege and became a humble servant, obedient to God. Whatever pain and trouble we know, Jesus knew, along with the considerable joy and wonder of being human. Whatever we must endure, whether temptation or heartache, Jesus experienced. His humanity, from his birth to his cruel death, was a supreme act of obedience to God. It was the most generous act the universe has ever known.

The motive for Christian giving comes from this gift of Christ. We certainly do not give to gain power or to pay for services rendered. But even purer motives miss the point. We might say that Christian giving is about easing suffering or expressing our connection with other people. Those are important reasons, but they still do not go deep enough. The ultimate and most abiding motivation for sharing our resources is because Christ has first given himself to us, and we are eternally grateful. As Paul says, in response to our Lord’s graciousness, we “give ourselves to the Lord.”

But the apostle goes on to make what seems a pretty big leap. The Macedonians, he observed, not only first gave themselves to the Lord, but “by the grace of God” also to Paul! How dare he connect his project with the will and grace of God?! What makes him think he can claim that Christ chooses to be known and served through the collection for Jerusalem or whatever it is the church might be doing? Asking such questions assumes there is no connection between flesh and spirit. But that’s not the case in Christian faith. The central fact of our belief is that God became human. And in practice, that means that God chooses to be known through human beings. Fallible, vulnerable, arrogant as we are, he still puts treasure in earthen vessels. So, as A Declaration of Faith has it: “We dare not despise or abandon the church.” We may leave one congregation for another or even go to a different denomination than our current one, but the Church, capital C, is still worth our energy and resources. Because it is in and through this community of people committed to Christ that the work of the kingdom goes on. As the religious book editor Michael Maudlin has observed: “this combination—real humans, impossible expectations—makes churches fragile and sometimes explosive, but it is also why they are so important. Where else can we even try to work out our ideals and dreams and try to see them enfleshed before us?… Church is where we experiment and try to work out how [the] divine-human combination is supposed to work. We stumble, fail, wound, and get wounded, but every once in a while, whether by accident, by grace, or by the perfect committee-led three-year plan, a ray of light shines through and even someone like me, an introverted editor, can tell that God is present” (http://www.newsandpews.com/why-we-should-not-give-up-on-the-church/) And Paul was urging the Corinthians to make good on their promise to join in such good work.

The apostle is not naïve, though. He knows that even the most generous person acting out of gratitude is going to take his or her resources elsewhere if certain principles are not respected. If people covenant with the church’s leaders to give, then the leaders need to covenant with the donors. And that’s what Paul did.

The first principle is fairness. There are a couple of parts to this. One is that every gift is respected and treasured. Those who have little are treated the same way as those who have a lot. It’s the attitude of the heart, what Paul calls “eagerness,” that matters. The other side of fairness is that those with larger incomes ought to give more because they are able to do so. “To whom much is given, much is required,” Jesus said. Give according to your means. It’s a way of being connected with others and also of taking the long view. One day, Paul says, you may be without means and those currently impoverished may be coming to your aid. The point is to achieve a balance.

Next Paul insists on trustworthy stewards to deal with money. This was especially important in his situation, when rivals questioned his means, his motives, his character. Those who were coming to Corinth to oversee the collection were people appointed not by Paul, but by the churches. Their names were known; their character unquestioned. Paul is bending over backwards to avoid even the appearance of scandal or impropriety. I suspect he would have done this even if his reputation were not being trashed at every opportunity by his opponents.

Those who give have a right to expect that their donations will be handled with respect and care. In any day, in any situation in which money is collected for a cause, those in charge have to make sure that “no one should blame us about this generous gift that we are administering,” so that people will know that what is being done is “right not only in the sight of the Lord but also in the sight of others.” That’s why the Book of Order includes specific financial procedures and why every Presbyterian church has to have a Manual of Operations in which the session “provides by rule” for how things are to be done.

Finally, giving in the church needs to have an element of excitement and anticipation. Did you notice how the apostle teased the Corinthians with the promise that he was sending “the brother who is famous among all the churches for proclaiming the good news”? I can imagine that there was a different atmosphere in the church for awhile. Maybe they all worked together for once to get ready for this famous preacher’s visit, dusting off the red carpet, selecting the best chicken for frying. They had a goal, a focus. And just maybe that carried over some little bit in helping them learn to join in mission in other ways. So what’s the goal of our giving? How do we join in mission?

During Vacation Bible School one summer in my pastorate in Kentucky, the kids were promised they could water-balloon me on Wednesday if they met half the mission fund goal by then. They could cover me with shaving cream on Friday if they met the full total of $250. The kids and parents gave with abandon! I wondered to myself several times how the spirit of excitement and anticipation that prevailed throughout that event could be carried over into every aspect of my congregation’s life. What could generate that kind of glee in giving during the fall or any time? I didn’t arrive at any answer; in good Presbyterian fashion, I decided to refer the matter to a committee.

Perhaps on further reflection all that’s really needed to bring fresh excitement in our lives and our giving is the sense that in Jesus’ name we are making a difference. And that this good news of our Lord’s generous act is going out to all the world. We give because we have been gifted. We give that others may know that they also are loved and cared for by God in Christ. We give, and say with the hymn-writer: “O what shall I render for love so unbounded that led thee, dear Savior, for sinners to die? Receive, I beseech thee, my heart’s humble offering: thanksgiving and praises my glad heart upraises to thee, Lord, on high. I ne’er can repay thee with gold or with silver for all thou didst suffer, dear Savior for me; there’s naught I can give thee for thy love so boundless. For joy I am singing, my gratitude bringing an offering to thee” (“O What Shall I Render?”).

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