(2 Corinthians 8: 1-4, 7; 9: 6-8, 15)
Before I begin, I’m going to ask some helpers to pass out something. They are small envelopes. When you get it, please do not open it. I repeat: do not open it. Everyone here needs to get an envelope – all children, youth, adults. If you have a child in the nursery, take one for them. If you have an immediate family member who is not here today but otherwise would be, take one for them. If you’re a guest visiting today, take one for yourself. But again, do not open it! Put them aside for the moment.
As they’re going that, I’ll remind you that we are in the midst of a five-week sermon series, “Signs of Community;” and we are wondering what makes a community a community, and what barriers to community we need to overcome. Today we look at another sign of community as we read selected verses from the 8th and 9th chapters of Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. The reason there’s a second letter is because his first letter apparently did not take. So the tone of this one is a little more forceful, a little edgier. He’s trying to make his point more emphatically this time around.
As an aside I should also mention, particularly for any guests today, that we as a church are in the thick of our fall Stewardship season; and with Response Sunday just a couple of weeks away, today’s sermon is the stereotypical “Stewardship sermon,” where the pastor talks about money. Now I say this not only for guests but for our members as well, because as your pastor I believe that how we put our resources to use in the life of the church says a lot about the spiritual well-being and health of our church, as well as ourselves.
So with all of that, I invite you to listen now to God’s word for us today:
We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity. For they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry. Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.
The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift!
Lord God, may we hear what it is you are trying to say to us, through all the noise and clamor, so that we may draw closer to you, closer to our church family, and closer to our neighbor, in Jesus Christ we pray, AMEN.
We want you to know, brothers and sisters of Corinth, about the abundant generosity displayed by the churches of Macedonia…..
Don’t you just hate it when people do this – elevate another at your expense?
Are we really having this for dinner, Mom? You should’ve seen what Jerry’s mother fixed when I was over there last week!
Your fourth quarter reports were okay, but the Atlanta office is setting the bar pretty high. Just sayin.
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 Corinthians in our passage today. The Corinthian church was located in one of the most vibrant and wealthiest port cities in all of ancient Greece. It was an established church; it was blessed with resources aplenty. But despite that, they were not supporting the work of the church at the level Paul thought they should. There was so much more they could be doing. They were selling themselves short.
Meanwhile, the churches up in Macedonia, oh my gosh! Y’all, they were tearing it up! Which was saying something because they, unlike their Corinthian counterparts to the south, were not strategically located for success. Think Macedonia’s “rural” to Corinth’s “urban.” These churches lacked access to resources. They really didn’t have much to work with.
And yet, they were thriving. Paul lays it out: during a “severe ordeal of affliction” (which is Bible-speak for “a really rough time”), their abundant joy and extreme poverty overflowed in a wealth of generosity. They not only met their challenge head-on – they exceeded it.
And that’s saying something, isn’t it? Typically one does not expect to up their game during a rough patch. That’s when folks tend to be more cautious, more reserved, holding back, playing it safe. Businesses do this. Families do this. Churches do this.
Which is why the Macedonian churches stood out so much. Their thriving and growing and generosity happened not in spite of their struggle but precisely because of it. Because of a thing Paul mentions over and over again in this passage – charis.
What does charis mean, you ask? Well, it kind of depends on the context. In our passage alone it translates all kinds of ways: grace, generous undertaking, thanks to God, generous act. We find charis all over the Bible, even when it’s not mentioned specifically. I think of the Feeding of the 5000 that British read, and how charis is an apt description for what Jesus does – looking out over all those people and “having compassion for them.” That word “compassion” – it’s not charis, but it’s a close relative. It literally means “to suffer with.” Caring that stirs you to action. To give back. To go all in.
Which might be why charis and compassion are so darn hard to actually do.
I remember hearing about a study at Princeton Seminary, where students were read the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus’ story of someone stretching out of their comfort zone to help someone 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, though, 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 to help him.
Now were the other 60 percent bad people? Doubtful. Were they heartless? Probably not. So what was it that kept those good, caring folks from engaging in a little charis?
What is it that keeps any of us from stopping to help someone in need, from speaking out when we witness an injustice, from taking on acts of generosity that have the power to transform more than just the other person? I have to wonder if one of the biggest enemies of charis in our day and time is the one thing that can pull the rug right out from under acts of care and compassion and generosity – and that is FEAR.
And I’m not talking about the kind of fear we get in the middle of horror movies, or the fear that takes over when our well-being is threatened in some way. No, the kind of fear I’m talking about is more elemental than that. 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 the death spiral that kind of thinking perpetuates in our politics, in our religion, in our institutions and in our very 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 seeing the overwhelming abundance and joy that is all around – and instead replaces it with the illusion of scarcity and limitation and failure.
I mean, just imagine: what if Jesus had let fear creep in with those 5000 hungry people; and instead of pressing his disciples into the realm of charis, instead he said: yeah, you know, you’re right, there’s really not much we can do for these people, they need go find their own food. See ya…..
Or what if those disciples didn’t even bother bringing those five loaves and two fish in the first place, because, well, it’s five loaves and two fish! And good Lord, we’re talking about thousands of people, and come on, there’s no way we’ll ever feed the masses with this sorry excuse for a meal, and all we’ll do is aggravate the situation, probably start a riot or something….
Or what if those churches in Macedonia, the ones Paul loved to brag about, what if they let their struggles dictate their vision: whoa, slow down, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Have you seen the bottom line? This is not the time to take on new initiatives. We’ll just wait – wait until we turn the corner and get in better shape, and then we’ll give generously…..
Or what about our church?
You’re aware that Stewardship is being done a little differently this year. We’re asking people to turn in their pledge cards before Response Sunday at the end of this month. We’ve also set a pledged dollar goal and made it public in our literature and “steeple” posters. Now to my knowledge, Trinity has never set a pledged dollar goal for its fall stewardship season. Tell me: is it really surprising that we’ve never met it?? This is in contrast, by the way, to other instances in our church when we’ve been very open and transparent about the amount of money we’re trying to achieve – think the capital campaign some seven years ago, or the hymnal drive of 2015, or even the smaller and more recent courtyard beautification projects, made possible by givers who chose to participate above and beyond their normal pledged giving. In every one of those instances, when we openly shared our goal, we not only met that goal, we blew it out of the water.
And yes, there was a little bit of concern, hesitation – just a little – about publicizing our $525,000 Stewardship goal: what if we don’t make it? It’s that voice of fear creeping in, as it is prone to do; seeking to define us by who we are not rather than who we are; by our scarcity instead of our abundance. But in the end, your leadership chose charis over fear; for which I as your pastor am eternally grateful.
I love the quote by author Marianne Williamson – have you heard it before? It goes like this:
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.
You are a child of God.
Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
We are all meant to shine,
As children do.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God within us.
That is charis. And it is contagious. It happened to the Macedonian churches – so much so that Paul bragged on them to the Corinthians. Did they catch it? One wonders – given that there’s no third Corinthians, at least that we know of, maybe they did. Maybe those Corinthians chose in the end to be defined by their charisinstead of their fear and exude the kind of fearless generosity they were fully capable of and called to.
That certainly is my prayer for our church as we work toward our $525,000 goal this Stewardship season. And for what it’s worth, this pastor thinks you are more than up to the task. If we truly believe that now is the time to live into the vision God has set before us; if we truly believe that building the kingdom of God on earth is of prime importance, then fearless generosity is where we are always going to wind up. There is no other destination! Our calling, our mandate is to give and give generously to God’s work through God’s church, without fear or 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.
You cannot help but recognize charis when you see it. I once saw it in a former church member of mine. We’ll call him Pete. At the time, Pete was 61 years old and suffered from a crippling form of schizophrenia. He lived in a special home outside Chapel Hill. During my ten years at the church I only met Pete once. But I was reminded of him multiple times. That’s because every month or so, I would get a letter from Pete. Always on small yellow legal pad paper, written in blue ink. I struggled reading his handwriting; but most of the time, as best I could tell, he was writing about something in the news, something on his mind, something he wanted to share with me.
But there was something else that came with Pete’s letters. Folded in the creases of that yellow pad paper were two well-worn dollar bills. Every single time. Two dollar bills. He never said in the letter what they were for, so I gave them to our financial secretary who counted it as his gift to the church.
Now I had no idea why Pete did this. His mother, an active member of the church, had no idea. There was nothing I had done to “earn” this gift; there was nothing his church had done to earn it. He just gave it. And over time I realized that Pete “got it.” Every time he sent those two dollar bills, it brought him joy; the simple act of charis. He just got it.
And the truth is, every time I opened one of his letters and found those two dollar bills, it brought me joy, too. Even though I knew they weren’t for me, it brought me joy. And it invigorated my own generosity; I found myself being a more generous person because of it.
It’s contagious, this fearless generosity. It’s something all of us should experience. So I want to ask you to go ahead and pull out those envelopes you got earlier in the service – get those out. Everybody got theirs out? Okay, go ahead and open them.
Inside you will find two dollar bills. These two dollars are yours, but they come with a few caveats. You cannot keep them for yourself – because generosity doesn’t work that way. Your task is to give these two dollars away sometime in the coming week. And I’m going to strongly encourage you to resist the temptation to put them in the offering plate in a few minutes, because that’s getting off too easy.
What I want you and your family or you and your friends to do is think about how you can give these two dollars away in the coming week to make a difference in someone life and share your fearless generosity. You can buy a canned good or two and deposit them in our Loaves and Fishes bins. You can donate them to a local organization. You can pool your money with others and buy dinner for one of our homebound members, or a sandwich for the guy at the corner with the “Needs Food” sign. You can supplement with your own money and do bigger things if you’d like. You can do anything that involves giving these dollars away to someone in need, sometime this week.
And I should probably mention, cause I’m sure some of you are wondering, this is not my own money. It comes from our Stewardship line item, a line item we are well under on in our budget, with approval from our Stewardship and Finance chairs. So it’s all good.
Here’s my hope with this little exercise: I hope you never let go of that surprise and “abundance of joy” you felt when you first opened that envelope. I hope that joy will grow as you give thought to the good your two dollars can do. When you do that good, I hope you’ll share that joy on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram with the instructions in your envelope, using the “fearless generosity” hashtag, so that your joy will be felt by others. And then I hope you and your family will further engage that joy as make your pledged gift to God’s church, as we work toward our $525,000 goal for 2020.
My friends – may the fearless generosity of this congregation become so obvious that the apostle Paul himself would brag on us too, if he were still writing letters.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, 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.
 Brene Brown, Rising Strong.