Sermon for Sunday, July 1, 2012

2 Corinthians 8:1-15

“An Overflowing Wealth Of Generosity!”

This summer’s sermons will explore evangelism through the lens of basic Christian theology.  Today: Stewardship

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, OH ~ http://www.FranklinCircleChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

To hear this sermon on Podcast, click HERE:  120701SermonPodcast

To watch a video of this sermon, click HERE: http://youtu.be/SyYnvUGyIr4

Today we ask two questions from our worldly seekers.  The first, “Does God provide?” flows naturally into the second, “How much am I expected to give back to God?”  The short answers are easy: “Yes, absolutely!” and “Everything.”  But these are very hard responses for folks within the church to hear, much less those who look in upon us to see how they should shape their lives according to the values we proclaim.

From the very first stanzas of creation’s song, God answers the question, “Does God provide?”  Like a magician miraculously drawing out rabbits and doves from her magic hat, God brings forth every living creature of every kind into creation, from the birds of the air to the fish of the sea to the creeping, crawling, walking, and dancing beings on the earth.  (see Genesis 1:1 – 2:3) Jesus, God incarnate, reminds us of this built-in sufficiency when he teaches us to worry not about what we will eat, drink, or wear as he points to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.  The question of whether or not God will provide for this wondrous creation God has wrought has been answered unequivocally, undeniably, and irrevocably “Yes!” (see Matt. 6:25-34)

The question that remains on the table like a ticking time bomb in a mystery movie is not, “Will God provide?” but “Will we care for and share the rich provisions of God’s good earth so that all will have enough?”  Which is another way of asking our second seeker question: “How much am I expected back to give to God?”

Now, the seeker (as well as the vast majority of those of us who attend church) have limited the question by translating it in our minds as “How much am I expected to give to the church.”  It’s a crafty move, even if unintentional, as it most surely lessens our debt and eases our obligations.  By equating “giving to God” with “giving to the Church,” we have summarily dismissed the divine from the vast majority of our lives!  For no matter how much any one of us might feel we “live” here at Franklin Circle Church (jokes about needing a cot to spend the night notwithstanding) none of us spends the majority of our time here at church.

Giving to the Church may be part of what it means to give back to God, which may be part of what it means to care for and share God’s abundant creation.  I certainly hope to God that it is, or the Church should just shut up its doors and walk away slowly and sadly.  However, here at Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I believe that truly it is the same thing: Giving to the Church does, in fact, care for God’s creation and share God’s abundance with God’s people.  But this doesn’t deal with the fact that most of our lives are still up for grabs.

And yet, the biblical, reasonable, and right answer, “Everything you are, own, possess, use, have responsibility for, and everything you have ever or will ever be, own, possess, use, have responsibility for is to be given back to God,” is hard.  Even when the Apostle Paul puts it in flowery language, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” it is tough to hear and problematic to even imagine carrying out.  Everything?  Really EVERYTHING?

Well, yes, pretty much everything.  The early Church tried its best to live this out… with mixed results.  In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, we read of how the very first believers interpreted this mandate:

“Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:43-47)

And as if this wasn’t clear enough, it was reinforced:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:32-35)

And, as if this wasn’t clear enough, the consequences for not sharing everything you had was reinforced:

“But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. ‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!’ Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died.”

And the same thing happened to his wife.  (Acts 5:1-11)

And it is here we turn to today’s text.  It is an attempt to find a middle, reasonable way to “give everything to God.”  One of the constant though often overlooked themes of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journey was to raise funds to help support the founding church in Jerusalem.  Paul did this partly for strategic reasons, as Paul grew more and more aware that his message of Christ’s redeeming love would quickly and successfully extend to the Gentiles, and the Jerusalem church was staunchly Jewish in heritage.  But, truly, the Apostle did it mostly for compassionate reasons as the small community in Jerusalem genuinely struggled to survive.  Paul decided to solicit contributions from the churches he had planted and nurtured, which were often larger and wealthier than the Jerusalem church.

With the exception of one, the church in Macedonia.  A small and struggling community, beset with “a severe ordeal of affliction,” as Paul describes it, the Macedonia church would not have been expected to give much, if anything, to the “Jerusalem Mission Offering.”  But they did give, and they gave beyond the proportion of other, larger and wealthier congregations.  “Their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity,” Paul writes to the Corinthian church, a congregation constantly in conflict and at each other, and Paul’s, throats.  And not only did the poorer, struggling community give, they begged Paul to have the “privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints.”

Now, Paul, not known for his reservation, tries very hard not to make an example of this smaller, poorer church to the larger, richer congregation.  But he cannot help but at least point out the irony.  He simply encourages the Corinthians to “excel also in this generous undertaking.”  Paul tempers this by writing,

“I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 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 has thus come to a theological conclusion that we do not give back to God out of obligation or duty, out of fear of being struck dead, or out of coercion.  We give because God first gave to us.  God gave us creation.  We give in gratitude for this abundant creation.  God gave us freedom.  We give in gratitude for this abundant freedom.  God gave us the law, wisdom, grace, justice… we give in gratitude for this abundant law, wisdom, grace, and justice.  And, of course, God generously, ultimately, gave us love incarnate in Jesus Christ, who “though he was rich, yet for [our] sake he became poor, so that by [Christ’s] poverty [we] might become rich.”

My beloved, will God provide?  Yes.  Yes, but God’s provision is intricately woven into our response to it.  God will provide, because we will gratefully, humbly, and eagerly give back to God all that we are and all that we have, not just by giving to our church, as important and effective as that is, but by giving to God’s blessed creation and our neighbors, in every way we possibly can.  This is stewardship.  Grateful, abundant, humble, and eager stewardship of what God has first given us.

Will this extreme self-giving appeal to and attract seekers?  If done with grateful hearts, and a deep awareness of the abundance of God’s great gifts, I think so.  I believe so.

Amen.

This sermon, as so many others I preach, was inspired in part by the article Enough Is Enough, by Walter Brueggemann, From The Other Side Online, © 2001 The Other Side, November-December 2001, Vol. 37, No. 5.  Found online at “John Mark Ministries” at http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/1181.htm

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