The Gift of Generosity

2 Corinthians 8:1-12
Ordinary Time
Michael Miller

Peace Presbyterian Church has passed the test of whether we could survive our early life to become an official congregation.
We are told that only one in ten New Church Developments gets this far.
We will celebrate the meeting of that live-or-die challenge on October 18, when our snowbirds will be back, and we will be chartered.

Peace now enters a new set of challenges.

There will be Physical and Financial challenges.
We will need to meet our budget, without ongoing help from Presbytery and other local Presbyterian congregations.
We will need to grow in our financial giving, in this time of a down economy.
We will need to raise the funds to build a building, in addition to meeting our regular budget.
We will need to grow in numbers and in our giving, to get that building built fast enough to get ahead of the next wave of growth of Lakewood Ranch.
The next phase of Lakewood Ranch to be developed, as you know, is immediately to the east of Lorraine Road, where our building will be built. We want to be there to welcome the new neighbors when their neighborhoods are built out, and they move in.

There will be Vision challenges.

We will be tempted, as we get deeply involved in fund-raising and construction, to turn our attention and energy toward our own physical and financial needs, and away from our emphasis on meeting the needs of others.
In 2008, Peace gave to others – to causes and individuals outside ourselves – more than $56,000, an amount equal to 25% of our budget.
We don’t want to lose that emphasis on meeting the needs of others, especially in this time in which we are told that 1 out of 6 people in the world goes to bed hungry, every night.
We will be tempted, as we grow, to lose the intimacy, the authentic relationships, which have been our greatest joy and our greatest appeal to those who visit us and who immediately want to be a part of what God is doing here.
We don’t want to lose that kind of relationship which goes beyond superficial friendliness to genuine caring and compassion for each other and for others.

At root, there will be a Spiritual challenge.
We will be challenged to substitute institutional promotion and process, in place of personal spiritual faithfulness, transformation, and growth.

One thing we will need, in order to meet these challenges, is the spiritual gift of generosity, including generosity of spirit, along with generosity of our time, our talents, and our treasure.

We aren’t the first Christians to face this spiritual challenge.
Today’s passage from II Corinthians lets us know
that this problem goes all the way back to the first century church.

* * * * *
Paul wrote today’s passage in a letter to the church at Corinth.
The mother Jewish Christian church at Jerusalem
was in need of financial help.
Paul had instituted an offering among the Gentile Christian churches, out in the provinces, to provide that help.

The Christians at Corinth at first had loved Paul.
And they had signed on early, perhaps the first congregation to do so, to support the offering.

But others had come behind Paul, criticizing him and his work.

He had written a stern letter to the Christians at Corinth, because they failed to understand and follow some basic aspects of Christian life, though they excelled at others.

Most people, even Christians, don’t like having their shortcomings pointed out to them. That happened at Corinth. The result was that affection for Paul, and enthusiasm for the offering, had taken a hit.
The honeymoon between Paul and the church at Corinth was over. They still loved him. But the honeymoon was over.

Paul wanted to address and solve both problems with this letter. He especially didn’t want the Corinthians to renege on their commitment to the offering.

Paul correctly saw that, whatever their feeling toward him might be, the failure to carry through with a commitment to help those in need, especially Christians in need, and especially those Christians in the place where the faith had been born, was more than a matter of personalities.
It was a matter of spiritual health.

Paul made several types of arguments about the Corinthians’ carrying through on their commitment to the offering.

He complemented them for their excellence in many matters of faith – their faith itself, their speech, their knowledge, their earnestness, and their love for him and others in the faith. He challenged them also to excel in the grace of giving.

Paul made clear he was not commanding them to give. Giving should be from the heart, not from command.

But Paul did challenge the believers at Corinth, to show the same earnestness and enthusiasm for the offering as other congregations were doing, especially those in Macedonia.

Paul made a theological argument, reminding his readers that Christ gave everything for them, and that they should give generously for others.

Paul finished today’s passage with a word of advice, rather than command.
He advised the believers at Corinth that their enthusiasm and desire to be involved at the beginning, should be matched by the discipline to carry through with the work, at the end.
“For if the willingness is there”, he wrote, “the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have”. II Cor. 8:12.
In other words, give all you can, from what you have,
with enthusiasm, and the gift will be acceptable.

But Paul wrote, even before making these arguments, about what the Macedonian churches had done concerning the offering – churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, and elsewhere.
Those Macedonian churches were not wealthy and comfortable congregations, with plenty to give without noticing it.
They were congregations experiencing “severe trial” and “extreme poverty”.
Nevertheless, as Paul made clear, they had given beyond their ability, and with overflowing joy and rich generosity.
They urgently pleaded for the privilege of participating in this service to the saints.

How were the Macedonian churches able to do that, to become models for others in supporting the offering? What was going on, among them, and in them, that made this possible?

Paul speaks of the “grace that God has given the Macedonian churches”. II Cor. 8:1.
They “gave themselves first to Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will”.
II Cor. 8:5.

Paul was sending Titus to Corinth, to assist with the offering, “to bring to completion this act of grace on your part.” II Cor. 8:6.

* * * * *

With this background understanding, let’s read the passage aloud together.

NIV 2 Corinthians 8:1-12
And now, brothers and sisters,
we want you to know about the grace
that God has given the Macedonian churches.

2 Out of the most severe trial,
their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty
welled up in rich generosity.

3 For I testify that they gave
as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.

Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us
for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.

5 And 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.

6 So we urged Titus,
since he had earlier made a beginning,
to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part.

7 But 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.

8 I am not commanding you,
but I want to test the sincerity of your love
by comparing it with the earnestness of others.

9 For 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.

10 And 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.
11 Now finish the work,
so that your eager willingness to do it
may be matched by your completion of it,
according to your means.

12 For if the willingness is there,
the gift is acceptable according to what one has,
not according to what one does not have.

The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

* * * * *

So what does this passage have to do with us at Peace Presbyterian today?

I suggest to you that we – along with the Corinthians in the first century, and with all Christians in every century– are called to the kind of spiritual life exhibited by the churches in Macedonia.
How? How can we do that?
We can't just conjure up generosity of spirit, and the spiritual gift of generosity, from within ourselves.
John Baggett, in a lecture at Kentucky Wesleyan College, correctly said if we attempt to imitate Christ, or to take on His spiritual character, by human efforts alone, we put ourselves on a road that ends either in self-deception and hypocrisy, or in failure and despair.
As Paul wrote, genuine gnerosity of spirit is a gift.
It's a gift we work at, yes. Some would say we are called to "fake it till you make it". Devout Christians always will be vulnerable to the claim of hypocrisy, because we always will be called, and always will be trying, to live a lifestyle of which we are incapable on our own.
The authentic life of generosity, as any other aspect of authentic imitation of Christ, is possible only for those who are undergoing spiritual transformation, and who are being guided and empowered, whether they are aware of it orno, by the Holy Spirit.
That was the real challenge facing the church at Corinth.
And that is the real challenge facing Peace Presbyterian Church.
We are not called to carry through on a commitment to and offering for a church at Jerusalem.
We are called to carry through on a commitment to live our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ, at this time and in this place, whatever the specific details of that calling turn our to be.
How can we do that?
We are here, in worship.
God transforms us, guides u, and empowers us, as we turn to God and open ourselves to God, in worship.
You remember the story about the iron filings scattered on the table top.
It is very difficult, if not impossible, to get hold of each little filing, and to move each one of them into some sort of order.
But if you put a magnet near them, they all line up.
In some way we do not understand, when we “turn first to the Lord”, as Paul put it, God’s power and Presence have that kind of effect on us.
We find ourselves lining up with our own best nature, with each other, with others, and with the earth, in the kind of life we are intended to live.
God’s power not only lines us up. It also kindles and nurtures the Christ life within us.

We are getting ready to participate in the Lord’s Supper.
We may disagree with our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers as to whether the grape juice or wine turns into Jesus’ physical or spiritual blood.
But we agree with them, and with believers everywhere, that the living Christ is present among us and at work, in some mysterious way we can’t comprehend, as we eat the bread, drink the juice, remember the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord,
and open ourselves to mystery and to miracle.

Here, and away from here, we are about the task of caring for each other, and for others.
And throughout the centuries, people of faith walking that road have found themselves surprised, from time to time, to be aware that the living Christ was among them, walking along with them, blessing and multiplying their efforts, and transforming them into His image.

There is a story about a sculptor.
He wanted his life’s work to be crowned by a statue of Jesus that would bring people face to face with the resurrected and living Christ.
He chipped away at stone in a first effort.
When he was finished, those who saw it said, “He must have been a very kind person”.
The sculptor destroyed the statue.
He chipped away at stone a second time.
Those who saw it said, “He must have been an extremely powerful person”.
The sculptor again destroyed his work.
He chipped away at stone a third time.
This time, those who saw the statue, knelt before it.
The sculptor had succeeded in his task.

Our task is to chip away at our selfishness, our pettiness, our lack of trust in God, our own self-interest, our misunderstanding of who we really are, until what is left is something God can fill with the all the gifts of the Spirit, generosity and all the rest.

Then we will have succeeded in living lives which will lead people to kneel, not before us, but before the One who has made something holy out of human lives, even our lives, and our life together.

Can this really happen in a twenty-first century world?
Absolutely! It already is happening!

Our survival this far is God’s work.
All we have done is to keep chipping away at our fears and anxieties.

Our understanding of ourselves as God’s children in this place is God’s work.
All we have done is keep chipping away, through studies together such as the one Judy is leading, at the culture’s attempts to tell us who we are.

Our generosity last year is God’s work.
All we have done is keep chipping away at our sense of how much we need to hold onto, in order to feel secure.

Our love for each other is God’s work.
All we have done is keep chipping away at the idea that it’s all about ourselves.

* * * * *

In the children’s class Godly Play, the children are asked about the Bible story for the day, “Where are you in this story?”, or “Where are we in this story?”
We at Peace are called to be the Macedonians, in today’s story.

We are called to be the ones who beg to participate in helping others, who give more than we are asked, whose hearts are in loving God, in loving each other, and in loving neighbors near and far.
For the task, we already have been given a measure of the gift of generosity.
And as we keep chipping away, God intends to make that gift more and more a part of our lives.

Will we have challenges? You bet!
Bring them on!

God, Who began this good work in you, intends to complete it!

Thanks be to God!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen