What a Relief!
Grace United Methodist Church
September 20, 2009
2 Corinthians 8: 1-15
1And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. 5And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will. 6So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.
8I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. 9For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
10And here is my advice about what is best for you in this matter: Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. 11Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. 12For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.
13Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, 15as it is written: “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.”
I am in the midst of reading a book written by a Chaplain of the Maine State Warden Service. In her book, Here If You Need Me, Kate Braestrup describes her encounters serving as the spiritual presence in the Warden Service, and raising four children as a single mother after the death of her husband. Late in the book, Rev. Braestrup describes a conversation she had with her oldest son about the love of Jesus Christ and what it is to follow Jesus Christ and seek to live as Jesus lived. As Peter’s mind is opened to the radical love of Jesus Christ in the midst of this conversation with his mother, he comes to this conclusion. “If I really take Jesus seriously, if I really am willing to give up everything I am and everything I have in the service of love, if I really am a Christian…it seems to me I would have to give my place in heaven to someone else, someone who otherwise wouldn’t get to go…Right, Mom?”
Needless to say, Rev. Braestrup’s response to her son’s revelation was stunned silence. What he is proposing is an extremely radical idea that is shockingly hard for any of us to imagine. My first response was that not even Jesus has done that. Jesus still sits in heaven, at the right hand of the Father. But one of the things Paul urges upon the Corinthians in this very passage we heard a few moments ago is that in fact Jesus did give up his spot in heaven for us. “Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Jesus’ sacrifice was not only on the cross, but it began in heaven when Jesus laid aside his glory and consented to come to earth. Indeed, Jesus has made a radical sacrifice on our behalf, and if we take Jesus seriously, we will do the same in our own lives. This is precisely the matter which Paul is pressing upon the Corinthians and all his readers, particularly related to generosity.
As Christians, our lives are marked by the way we reflect Christ. One of the questions I often have to ask myself is this one, “Am I living my life such that if I meet someone new today they will be able to recognize that I am a Christian.” Most of the time, my answer to this question is, “No,” which I am sure is true for many of us. You see, the way we live our lives reflects what we value, and this includes how we use our resources. I think it’s fair to say that for the most part, the way we spend our time and resources does not reflect to those around us our identity as Christians. Despite the messages that are thrown at us each day through commercials and advertisements, we do not exist simply to consume as much as we can and get as much pleasure as we can while we are here on earth. We have a higher purpose. We need to know and understand our life purpose—our vision or mission or calling—and then spend our resources in ways that are consistent with this purpose or calling. As those who claim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of our lives, we are to follow the example that he has set before us; to give of ourselves sacrificially in all ways.
The Bible tells us that we were created to care for God’s creation. We were created to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We were created to care for families and those in need. We were created to glorify God, to seek justice, and to do mercy. All of our gifts and resources should be devoted above all else to helping fulfill this calling on our lives. We are to use our resources to help care for our families and others—to serve Christ and the world through the church, missions, and everyday opportunities. As Paul reminds the Corinthians in celebrating the generosity of the Macedonian church, “they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.” We have a life purpose that is greater than our own self-interests; it is our very commitment to the Lord, and how we spend our God-given resources reflects our understanding and commitment to this life mission. Every encounter we have with another person, even every action we take in our lives, is an opportunity to be a channel of God’s grace.
As Paul writes this second letter to the church at Corinth, he is appealing to their life mission as a way of urging them to generosity in the collection for the poor at the Jerusalem Church. And as an example for the Corinthians and all his readers, Paul lifts up the Macedonian church, which in the midst of “severe trial” and “extreme poverty” has pursued its life mission and been richly generous. Paul’s appeal for the collection for the church at Jerusalem, and more generally God’s call to generosity, is not just an option we might chose to engage in; it is a joyful obligation through which we might share God’s grace with others. As Paul tells the Corinthians, this is not a command. It is, however, a call. And our faith is measured by how we, in free will, respond to this call; particularly in this case to the call to generosity of giving.
In the late 1890s there was a tight-rope walker, a real showman named Blondin, who stretched a tightrope across Niagara Falls and then, with ten thousand people watching and cheering he inched his way from the Canadian side of the Falls to the U.S. side. When he got there the crowd was going wild, shouting his name, “Blondin! Blondin!” Blondin raised his hands and quieted them. “I am Blondin,” he said. “Do you believe in me?” The crowd shouted back, “We believe! We believe! We believe!”
Again Blondin quieted the crowd. “I’m going back across the tightrope, but this time I’m going to carry someone on my back. Do you believe I can do it?” “We believe! We believe!” the crowd yelled. He quieted them one more time and then he said, “I need one more thing to make this performance complete: I need a volunteer that I can carry on my back over the falls. Those of you who said you believe—Who among you will be that person?”
Do you believe God can carry you, and will carry you, in all things? Will you be that person, will you be those people, who show what they believe? Part of our response to grace comes in a faithfulness of returning to God a portion of all that God has given to us. Even in the face of challenges and difficulties, we can give generously as the Macedonians did. And through such giving we in turn know great joy and abundant blessings. But this takes faith. If we are truly giving in faith, it means we will give out of our “first fruits,” not out of our excesses. But we need not fear, as Paul reminds us, we are to give according to what we do have, not according to what we do not have. What a relief! If we cannot tithe, we need not be discouraged, but if we establish a starting point based on what we do have, we can work toward the generosity of giving which Paul calls us to in this letter to the Corinthians. This is called proportionate giving.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says, “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up…your gift to Jerusalem.” As we see in Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church, the New Testament principle for Christian giving suggests that we lay aside a definite proportion for God’s causes first ~ “off the top” ~ and that we grow in our giving as we prosper. The challenge of proportionate giving is first to start where you are now by determining the proportion of income you are currently giving. This can be calculated simply by dividing your monthly gift to the church by your monthly income. You may be surprised to learn that the average United Methodist gives 2% of their income to God’s causes. This is one indication that perhaps our inclination is to give to God out of what remains rather than out of the first fruits of our blessings from God. Yet God is letting us use the money God gives us in order to reach the world for Jesus Christ. What a relief that is! Once we have determined what proportion of our income we currently give to the church, we should seek in the next year to increase that giving by a certain percentage. That could be .5%, it could be 1%, or it could be 5% or more. Just depending on our abilities. Indeed, it is staggering to think about increasing from 2% to 10% in one year, but this is not the most important thing. What is important is seeking to respond to God’s grace in our lives more and more over time. Our giving should increase year after year until a level is reached where you and I, as persons committed to Christ, are completely satisfied and comfortable with our giving level. Like our prayer life, our worship practices, and our spiritual disciplines, our giving to the church should be reflective of our relationship with Christ. And as we grow in grace, so should we grow in generosity to God and others.
Proportionate giving and tithing enables us to look at our earning, saving, and spending through the eyes of God. It reminds us that our ultimate self-worth comes from our assurance that we are children of God; created by God, loved by God and saved by God! Giving increases our faith, frees us from anxiety, and brings us closer in our walk with God.
One Sunday morning a pastor encouraged his congregation to consider the potential of the church. He told them, “With God’s help we can see the day when this church will go from crawling to walking.”
The people responded, “Let the church walk, pastor. Let the church walk!”
He continued, “And when the church begins to walk, next the church can begin to run.”
And the people shouted, “Let the church run, pastor. Let the church run!”
The pastor continued, “And finally the church can move from running to flying. Oh, the church can fly! But, of course, that’s going to take lots of money for that to happen.”
The congregation grew quiet and from the back someone mumbled, “Let the church crawl, pastor. Let the church crawl.”
Friends of Grace United Methodist Church, we can either fly or crawl. We can reflect the generous love and grace of God in our lives, and help the world experience the saving message of Jesus Christ, or we can stand by and hope others will get the job done. We can respond to God’s call and seek to live more fully into our life mission, or we can ignore it. Which do we choose?
Let us show God now what we think of the gift of Grace, and how very, very much we love the Lord and how grateful to God we are for every blessing of our lives. “Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable.”