(2 Corinthians 8: 1-7; 9: 6-8, 11-15; Mark 6: 30-44)
We want you to know, brothers and sisters of Corinth, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia…..
Don’t you hate it when people do stuff like this?
Are we really having this for dinner, Mom? You should’ve seen what Jerry’s mother fixed him!
Your fourth quarter reports were okay, but the Atlanta office is setting the bar pretty high. Just sayin.
Of course you’re special. It’s just that she’ll always be my favorite daughter.
Hey pastor, sorry I missed your sermon on Sunday, but I stayed home and got to watch Joel Osteen bring it!
That’s pretty much what Paul does to the Corinthian church here. And it wasn’t like things were all that great between Paul and the Corinthians to begin with, mind you. His second letter had a little more bite than the first. Paul was frustrated with them, and while we don’t have any letters from the church back to Paul, I can only imagine what they might have said.
Still, the point he was trying to make was valid. The Corinthian church was located in the most vibrant and wealthiest port city of ancient Greece. It was established, blessed with resources aplenty. But they were not living into their calling as a church, at least in Paul’s opinion. There was so much more they could do. They were selling themselves short.
Meanwhile, the churches in Macedonia, oh my gosh! They were amazing! Interesting because they were not exactly strategically located for success like their Corinthian neighbors to the south. Think “rural” to Corinth’s “urban.” And yet, their church was thriving. Energy, effervescence, vision aplenty. Paul lays it out: During a severe ordeal of affliction (which is weird Bible-talk for “during a really, really rough time”), their abundant joy and extreme poverty overflowed in a wealth of generosity. Take that, Corinthians!
Now Paul could probably improve on his bedside manner a bit, but again, he’s got a point. Typically one doesn’t expect a church to up their game in a rough patch. That’s when folks tend to be more cautious, more reserved, more conservative. Holding back, playing it safe, going into survival mode.
Which is why the Macedonian church is so worthy of note. The way Paul tells it, their thriving and growing and generosity happens not in spite of their struggle but precisely because of it. Because of a term Paul uses over and over again in this chapter – CHARIS.
CHARIS is a heavily-nuanced Greek word, taking on any number of meanings depending on the context. In this passage alone, the NRSV translates CHARIS in five or six different ways – grace, generous undertaking, thanks to God, generous act, just to name a few.
We find CHARIS all over the Bible, even where it isn’t mentioned specifically. I think about the Feeding of the 5000, the passage we’ve been journeying with throughout this Stewardship season, and I think CHARIS is a great way to describe what Jesus felt as he looked out at all those people, all those hungry people who’d found their way to him. As he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. That word “compassion” – it’s not CHARIS, but it’s a close relative. It literally means “to suffer with.” Love, caring that stirs you to action. To give back. To go all in.
Which is perhaps why CHARIS and true compassion are so darn hard for us to actually do.
I remember a study done years ago at Princeton in which seminarians were read the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus’ story of someone stretched out of their comfort zone to help someone else in need. After reading it, they were asked to go across the street, one at a time, to preach or teach the passage. Unknown to the seminarians, an actor was stationed on the sidewalk feigning distress. With their heads full of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, only 40 percent actually stopped and assisted the person in need.
Were they bad people? Highly doubtful. Were they uncaring? Probably not. So what was it that kept those good, caring folks from exhibiting CHARIS?
I have to wonder if one of the biggest enemies of CHARIS in our day and time, and throughout human history, is the one thing that can pull the rug right out from under acts of care and compassion and generosity – and that is FEAR.
It’s funny – you know, Halloween’s coming up and sometimes we tend to think of fear as simply what we feel when we’re watching a horror movie, or when some guy in a clown costume jumps out at us at Scarowinds. Jumps and bumps in the night, ghosts and goblins and lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
But fear is much more elemental than that. It permeates every aspect of human existence. Noted author Brene Brown claims that the central question of our culture for the past decade has been: what am I supposed to be afraid of and who is to blame for it. Think about that – the death spiral that kind of thinking perpetuates in our politics, our religion, our own selves: what am I supposed to be afraid of and who is to blame for it.
Fear is the antithesis of CHARIS precisely because it blinds us from the overwhelming abundance and joy that is all around us – and instead we are left seeing only our scarcity, our limitations, our failures.
I mean, just imagine: what if Jesus had let fear creep in, and instead of challenging his disciples, simply agreed with them: yeah, you’re right, there’s not much we can do for these people, they really need to leave and go find their own food. See ya…..
Or what if the disciples didn’t even bother bringing Jesus the five loaves and two fish, because, well, duh, it’s five loaves and two fish! And good Lord, we’re talking about thousands of people, and come on, there’s no way, no way we’ll ever feed the masses with that sorry excuse for a meal, and all we’ll do is aggravate the situation, probably start a riot or something….
Or what if that church in Macedonia, the one Paul loved to brag about, what if they let their struggles and poverty dictate their vision and capacity for growth: whoa, slow down, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves, this is not the time to take on new initiatives, we’ll just wait until we turn the corner and get in better shape, and then we’ll give generously…..
There’s a reason that the phrase “Do Not Fear” appears some 60 times in the Old and New Testaments. Because the story of our faith is a story of God’s people coming once again to that seminal moment, that intersection of grand potential and great risk. And God knows us well enough to know that when we get to that intersection, our inclination is to take the easy way out. Because when left to our own devices, our default is preservation, not vision. Holding on, not letting go. That’s why God gave us this story, full of prophets and poets and even Jesus himself; their collective voices telling us over and over and over again: Do. Not. Fear.
I love the quote by author Marianne Williamson that you may have heard before. She said:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. And as we are liberated from our fear, our presence liberates others.
That’s CHARIS. It’s contagious. It happened to the Macedonian church. It’s happening here.
Which is why, on this Response Sunday, we’re talking about fearless generosity. Because that is where this journey with CHARIS inevitably leads us. If we truly believe that now is the time to start living into the vision God has for us; if we truly believe that our spiritual growth as individuals and as a church is of prime importance, then fearless generosity is where we will always wind up. There is no other destination. Our calling, our mandate to step up our game with our time, our talents, and yes, I’m going to say it, our treasure; giving to the mission and vision of God’s church without fear. Without hesitation. Not out of a sense of scarcity, but out of a sense of abundance, because the abundance in our midst, viewed through CHARIS eyes, is so overwhelmingly obvious.
That is why Grace and I both came here, my friends. We came to Trinity because we saw that abundance from Day One. And we want to tell you about it. I want to invite Grace to share a few words about the abundance she sees here at Trinity…….
Seven months ago I had the great joy of flying down from cold groggy Princeton, NJ to meet with seven wonderful people who made up the APNC. I met with a group of people who shared so wonderfully about the church they loved not simply by telling me about it but by being it. When I left Charlotte after my interview I had an incredible feeling of excitement, a feeling of great joy and happiness. As I continued to pray hard over this decision, I kept coming back to the wonderful place that is Trinity.
Some of you may have heard of the excitement I got to share with the APNC in calling them to accept the call to serve as the new Associate Pastor at Trinity. It was a moment of absolute bliss—a feeling of truly accepting God’s call of being certain of the place and the people I was being called to.
There are three things that jumped out to me about Trinity then and now—three things that continually made me sure I was answering and still am answering God’s call to serve here: Trinity is a place where people love each other, Trinity is a church that has fun together, that loves one another, that cares for one another. As we sat around that table in March it was so clear to me that this is who Trinity is—a people who know how to have fun together and who know how to be together lovingly. This is a family.
The second thing that so stood out to me was as simple as a job title. The title of my position is incredibly unique—I scoured the church personal ads looking for similar positions and they don’t exist. Trinity is as Goldie Stribling quoted in her Stewardship talk truly a place now “going into the future with banners unfurled.” That is how I felt when I read the description of this position—that it was a church that recognized where not simply the future of the church is but what the church is. Trinity uniquely recognizes that mission is not a program of the church but it is the church. That is pretty cool.
Lastly—the overwhelming encouragement and presence of the Holy Spirit in this place. Without a doubt, I felt God moving amongst our conversations, with the APNC, with the people I have met since coming here. The Holy Spirit moved and worked and helped me to see the church that Trinity is and the church that Trinity is growing to be.
Since arriving at Trinity—these three things—the fellowship and love of the congregation, the open and eager eyes looking into the future and the Holy Spirit have been present here with me serving at Trinity.
Thank you, Grace. Now it’s my turn! Three instances where I have seen God’s overwhelming abundance in our church:
First, I see the abundance of a church that has a strong sense of vision and purpose for its future – a vision and purpose that has and will undoubtedly continue to change lives. No one wants to commit to a church that’s simply existing, that’s just getting by for its own sake. We’re a lot like the Macedonia church – out of some struggles in our past, we are a church now on the move. And like the Macedonian church, people out there are talking about us; talking about the good things going on at Trinity, talking about us for all the right reasons.
Second, I see the abundance a church that uses its resources wisely and intentionally. No one wants to commit to a church that makes shortsighted financial decisions, either by spending too much or not spending anything at all. That’s why I’m glad we have smart, spiritual people who take your fearless generosity and put it to use in a way that honors both the gift and the vision God has given us here.
Third, and this is a big one, I see the abundance of a church that has assembled a strong, strong staff leadership team. No one wants to commit to a church where the ministers and staff are in maintenance mode or aren’t communicating well or have self-serving agendas. That’s not us. I mean, think of what we’ve done in just the past three months! We’ve called Grace. We’ve hired Chris and Michael. And we’re searching now for a Director of Christian Formation and Youth. This, on top of our stellar support staff in the office and on the grounds.
I want to tell you something that happened back in February, when I was in Kansas City for my annual “By The Vine” preaching group. One afternoon the twelve of us spent a few hours with Tom Are, lead pastor of the 6000-member Village Church where we were meeting. Tom fielded questions from us about every aspect of ministry, offering wisdom in his humble, unassuming way. When my turn came, I said, “Tom, our church is currently searching for a new associate pastor. We’re about ready to start face-to-face interviews. As a head of staff, what things should I be looking for in the candidates the committee is interviewing?”
Without hesitation, Tom said, “Steve the most important thing is to find someone who is better than you.” I want you to know that I fervently believe the staff leadership team we’re assembling here at Trinity is exactly that – and I cannot tell you how much that excites me!
A church with a vision that changes lives. A church with a strong staff leadership team leading the way. A church that uses its resources wisely and intentionally. My friends, we are the Macedonian church waiting to happen! And that’s why I need your help. I need us all to commit to a now vision, commit to growing spiritually, commit to fearless generosity on this Response Sunday. Thank you for what you’ve done already and what you will be doing. Thank you for being fearless in the way you commit. Thank you for your CHARIS, this day and always.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 https://sojo.net/magazine/february-2008/going-your-gut#sthash.BQKUIeKK.dpuf, visited 10.14.2015.
 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/15/what-is-fear-dr-brene-brown-and-oprah_n_2876633.html, visited on 4.19.2015.
 https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Marianne_Williamson, visited on 10.14.2015.