Our sermon today incorporates three other sources. I’ll be quoting a reflection on our second Scripture lesson, a reflection by Rev. Douglass Key, Pastor of Clover Presbyterian Church, in Clover, South Carolina. And an article on verse 7, from the Parish Publishing newsletter, “Christian Giving.” And a sermon by Rev. Sarah Bird, Pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Nashville, Tennessee, on our first Scripture lesson today. And I’ll be bouncing back and forth among all three sources and my own words, so I won’t be able to keep you up-to-date on which sentence comes from where; if you want to know exactly who said what, see me some time after the service and we’ll sort it out together.
In those periods of the church year when church financial income is at low ebb, it can be a comfort to remember that the Apostle Paul too had stewardship issues in his churches. It’s not a new phenomenon. It turns out that every generation of Christians has managed to find something else to do with their hard-earned money besides offer it to the work of the body of Christ. Every generation of Christians has struggled to balance their own needs and financial security with the needs of the church.
The stewardship sermon is as old as the church itself.
Paul had a problem in Corinth. The collection that he’d been gathering from the churches in Macedonia and Achaea, which was an important symbol of the legitimacy of his gentile mission, had hit a roadblock. It seems that some of the Corinthians were withholding their financial support from the larger church. The year before they’d been eager to lead this campaign for the Jerusalem church, but now their zeal had waned. For whatever reason, their contributions were not living up to their promises. They were sitting on their wallets.
Now, there are several reasons people do not give to their church as they could; some are better than others.
- One is apathy. Perhaps you heard about the man who was asked which was worse, ignorance or apathy. He replied, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” Certainly apathy affects giving in a church. If people are not excited about the mission and ministry of their church, they will not support it financially to the fullest extent possible. If their church has a “caretaker” mind-set and is more occupied with keeping the building in order and maintaining the status quo, if there is no vision for reaching the community with the good news of the Gospel, their financial support can mirror what is happening (or not happening) in their church.
- A second reason is misinformation, or lack of information. People like to know what is going on in their church. They like to be informed concerning the needs and how funds are being used, In fact, some would go so far as to contend that members of a congregation have a “need to know” about the financial picture of their church. If the church does not share its financial picture with the members, or it if does so only when there is a crisis, then financial support may be lacking.
- A third reason is a negative past experience. If members give liberally to a specific project in a church, only to see that money used elsewhere instead of for the project, their level of trust concerning future projects is greatly diminished. If financial irregularities or questionable financial practices have been the norm in a church, then the level of financial support is reduced proportionately.
- A fourth reason is ignorance, of the many passages in the Bible which address the subject of money. As a rule, most people do not know what the Word of God says concerning their material possessions. They are ignorant of the truths of Scripture concerning their talents and money. They do not know what God says about giving. For Scripture has much to say on this subject.
For example, there are more verses in the Bible that have to do with money, material possessions and giving than there are that have to do with heaven and hell combined. Jesus spoke more about this subject in his parables than about any other subject. In fact, half of the parables deal with money, material possessions or giving. It is obvious that this is an important subject if we are to declare the whole counsel of God.
Most pastors, though, are in a “no win” situation concerning the “treasure” aspect of what might be described as “total stewardship.” If they preach on “time” or “talent,” the response from their people probably will be positive. If, however, they preach on “treasure,” people can complain.
- A fifth reason is not being regular or disciplined in our giving. A person who is not giving what he or she has, will not give liberally if a large amount of money should suddenly come into his or her possession. As the old poem goes,
It’s not what you do with a million
If riches should e’er be your lot;
But what you are doing at present
With the dollar and quarter you’ve got?
And some people cannot give because of their employment situation. Perhaps they are unemployed. It’s tough to give without any income. These folks may have to wait for a time when God provides employment; then that child of God can honor God with what God has entrusted to him or her through work.
Whatever the reason was in Corinth, Paul needed a good stewardship sermon. But he was careful not to threaten or coerce the Corinthians. He did not say that their failure to participate in this collection indicated that they had no part in Christ. He did not say that his words were a commandment, or that the people were required to give in order to be included in the body of Christ and be saved. He made no impossible promises to them. Paul did not suggest that their well-being was in any way tied to their eagerness to contribute. He never said that things would go better with them, that they would be blessed or that any reward would come to them as a result of their generosity. He did not preach the prosperity gospel, that contemporary lie that suggests that if you give money to God, then God will give money back to you in some divine multiple—as if stewardship were really venture capital with a guaranteed return.
Paul did not manipulate them or threaten them. He never said they had to pay their fair share, or that they owed him something for all he had done for them. He didn’t sell the naming rights to a new fellowship hall in Jerusalem, or offer them a plaque on the communion table or a baptismal font in memory of their grandmother. He didn’t sell bricks on the sidewalk outside the sanctuary in the old city or propose a donor roll to hang in the hallway. He resorted to none of the fund-raising techniques that are commonplace today.
That’s not stewardship. That’s not why we contribute to the work of the saints and the life of the body of Christ. Paul is certain about that.
What Paul does, and does for every stewardship preacher who comes after him, is tell the story. He tells them about Jesus. He rehearses the gospel. He reminds the Corinthians who they are and grounds their generosity in the incarnation. “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.” You remember, don’t you, says Paul, that Jesus gave up the power and riches of heavenly glory in order to take on human flesh to set you free, to ransom you from sin and death, to redeem your lives from slavery to the flesh, to make this abundant and blessed and hopeful new life possible for you. Christ left the palace to live with you in the village; he emptied himself of the treasure that was his at the right hand of God in order to make the treasure of his spirit available for all people, even you gentiles.
Paul also appeals to the example of a particular group of Gentiles, the Macedonians. I’m sure you’ve heard of the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses,” or for you more hip and trendy folks, “Keeping up with the Kardashians.” But who on earth are the Macedonians? Let’s look at a little bit of background.
Paul, the apostle, sent to churches near and far to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, has just returned from a conference with elders in Jerusalem. After what I’m sure seemed like the longest church committee meeting ever, the leaders came to an understanding that the Gentiles were to be considered an equal part of the church with the Jews. No longer could the Jews look down on the Gentiles or insist they abide by all of their purity laws in order to become Christians. No, they were all one in the Body of Christ.
It is one thing to make this pronouncement. It is a completely different thing to live it. So as a way of living into this unity, Paul is taking up a collection for the Jewish church in Jerusalem. He is traveling to Gentile churches across Macedonia and Achaia (Achaia is where Corinth is located) and he is asking them to give generously to the church in Jerusalem – to their Jewish brothers and sisters. This church is made up of people these Corinthians will never even meet. That would be like me preaching to you today asking that you give money for a church somewhere out in Buford, Wyoming. You don’t know those folks; the Corinthians didn’t know the church in Jerusalem.
And yet, Paul is asking them to give, for Christ’s sake. Look again at 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.” Paul is using unique forms of rhetoric to convince the Corinthians to give. He begins by comparing the church in Corinth to the churches in Macedonia (namely Phillipi and Thessolonica). This method of rhetoric is called exemplification. Because what he is doing here is setting the Macedonians up as an example of what the Corinthians should strive to do and how they should be giving.
So what if we too were trying to “keep up with the Macedonians?” What if we sought to outdo one another not in what we achieve, not in what we accumulate, but in what we give?
Our generous God has put it in our hearts to be a generous people. So when we cling to our resources, we are not fully living our identity as children of God. Children who trust their Father to provide for their every need. Children who seek worth not in what they have but in how they love. Children who find peace and joy in holding on to the things of this world loosely, and clinging to Christ himself.
If we wait to share and give until we have a surplus, we will never give. Because we will never have “enough.” The more we accumulate, the easier it is to lose sight of what is genuinely “enough.”
There is a story about J.D. Rockefeller, who in the 1900’s started Standard Oil Company and became America’s first billionaire. When a reporter once asked him how much money was enough, he responded, “just a little bit more.” This way of thinking was just as prevalent in the ancient societies of the Macedonians and the Corinthians as it is in ours today. They were also taught to strive and struggle for what they wanted. So in this letter, Paul’s tactic is to once again remind them of who they are and where they came from, to retell the ancient narrative of God’s provision and abundance.
Can we stop trying to keep up with the Joneses or keep up with the Kardashians in our striving to accumulate more and more? Can we instead be a church that seeks to keep up with the Macedonians, giving more and more of our time and gifts to Christ’s mission in grateful response to God’s love?
For Paul and for us, generosity is not a choice we make, not a calculation in which we weigh what we are giving up against what we gain in order to make ourselves available to the work of God’s kingdom. It is a mark of our identity in Christ. When we are baptized into the one who is self-emptying, we take on that self-emptying generosity for ourselves. It becomes who we are, not what we do. The people of this God, known to us in this self-emptying Christ, are self-emptying people. It is a mark of our union to Christ, who himself laid down his divine glory and became poor for us so that we might know God’s love and grace and redemption.
A congregation that is able to gather the resources to extend itself into the community in new and unexpected ways is not the result of trustworthy leadership or well-executed campaigns. Faithful generosity is a sign of people who know the gospel, who remember who they are and are determined to follow the self-emptying one and share in the life that Christ offers them.
Our challenge is not stewardship – we are very good at math; we know what we can afford. We can calculate what percentage of our hard-earned money we think the church deserves or needs or can get by on. We know what is in the church budget, where the money goes and what we aren’t able to afford.
Rather, our challenge is about who we are – a people who are self-emptying people because we are joined to a self-emptying God. Generosity is not just a discipline; it is part of our character. It is who we become in baptism and who God calls us to be, together, for the further glory of God’s holy name.
Let’s pray: God, as we enter this particular part of our stewardship year, when we concentrate a little more on money and pledges and commitments, please keep in our minds the story of Jesus, and all that he first did for us. Amen.