Scripture: 2 Corinthians 8:1-15
There once was a rich man who became quite distressed over the prospect of not being able to take his riches with him when he died. So he prayed about it, and the Holy Spirit gave him an answer. He went to his bank, exchanged his savings for gold bars, and rolled them out in a suitcase. When he died, he appeared at the gates of heaven with his suitcase in hand. St. Peter looked at him, amused, and asked, “What’s in the suitcase?” Proudly, the rich man opened his bag and showed the gold to St. Peter. “Just what we needed!” said St. Peter. “We have a few pot holes to fill.”
Yes, I’m afraid we’re talking about stewardship today. Pastor Boswell had his shot back in March, and now it’s my turn! Ushers, lock the doors. Don’t let anybody out. In our passage for today, Paul has his own stewardship campaign going in the churches he helped to start. One of Paul’s long-term projects was an ongoing collection for the church in Jerusalem. We know from the book of Acts that after the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost, the saints in Jerusalem, led by the apostles, were devoting themselves to worship, fellowship, and discipleship, and that no one claimed private ownership of any possessions but everything they owned was held in common. They were selling their possessions and goods, distributing the proceeds to all who had need, and enjoying each other in community with glad and generous hearts. And wouldn’t you know, this way of life attracted people! Acts Chapter 2 ends with “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
It wasn’t long, however, before this renegade band of Jews who called themselves “The Way,” fell on hard times in Jerusalem. Religious and political leaders began to persecute them and on top of that, there was a famine in Judea, which put them into dire straits. So Paul had made it his mission to collect money and resources from the Body of Christ all across the Roman Empire to meet the needs of the saints in Jerusalem, without whom these other churches would not exist. Ironically enough, the man who had led the persecution against them, was now leading the relief effort. In this section of 2 Corinthians, Paul is following up on his initial request, and asking the Corinthians to finish what they started a year ago by excelling in their giving as much as they excel in other aspects of their Christian life. He uses another church involved in the collection, the church in Macedonia, as a positive example of generosity, saying that even though they were poor, they begged to be given the opportunity to provide for the saints in Jerusalem. The Corinthians have big shoes to fill. Paul’s rhetorical tactics here are rather genius; he puts the wealthy Corinthians to shame by pointing out the generosity of the poor Macedonians, hoping to capitalize on their competitive culture for the good of the kingdom.
Now the sensible investor from 1st-century Corinth or 21st-century America might be thinking that if only the church in Jerusalem hadn’t been so careless when they sold all their property and possessions and gave the money to the poor among them, they might not have gotten themselves into this situation to begin with! Wouldn’t it have been wiser to put a portion of the proceeds into the stock market, or a savings account, or a 401K? This is where we have a lot to learn from the economic practices of the early church. They who were close to Jesus understood his teachings on how money should be used in Christian community. “Don’t worry about tomorrow,” Jesus said. “Look at the birds of the air.” “Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven not treasure on earth where moth and rust destroy.” Jesus taught his disciples that if they lived lives of generosity and truly cared for one another as brothers and sisters without counting the cost, God’s abundant provision would be enough for everyone. Or to put it in Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “give out of your present abundance” so that “the one who has much does not have too much and the one who has little does not have too little.”
You might also be thinking that this sounds an awful lot like “socialism” or “income redistribution” or some other buzzword that has been politicized in our country’s polarized climate. I will say that if you believe this country is founded on “Christian values” and also believe that “income redistribution” is incompatible with those values, you might want to reread the New Testament and reconsider your position on either America’s Christian values or on income redistribution. Perhaps its time for Christians to stop organizing their lives around contemporary political ideologies that usually confuse the issue and look to our own tradition for guidance. The problem with both sides of the aisle on this and many other issues is that we too often expect the state to do the church’s job for us. This confusion of roles allows us to believe we are doing all we can as long as we agree with a certain policy, rather than forcing us to provide a compelling and real alternative in the church. This is what Paul is advocating here—something much more radical than a way of structuring the state economy. Paul is calling the Corinthian church and us to make the kingdom of God real; to live differently than the world; to provide that holy alternative to the way the world functions that emphasizes abundance, grace, mutuality, and equality, rather than scarcity, competition, and inequality. Paul is reinforcing the fundamental principle of God’s economy—in God’s economy, no one has more than they need, and no one lacks.
There is no doubt that early Christians in Jerusalem practiced God’s economy and that the church has often lost sight of it, preferring the economies of our national politics to the economy of the kingdom that Jesus and the apostles taught. We have bought into the lie that there isn’t enough to go around, that we have to compete with one another in order to survive, that the weak and the vulnerable and the marginalized don’t deserve what the strong and the rich have. At the root of all these sentiments is a lack of faith in God’s provision, and it will continue to divide us from our neighbors until we reject it and put our faith in the God who provides and who promises us abundant life if we choose the life we have been freely offered in Christ.
Paul’s exhortation to complete the generous work begun among you is certainly a word for us as we enter July, knowing that if we continue to be faithful and sacrificial in our giving, we can fully subscribe our budget—a feat that Steve and the Finance Committee will assure you looked like it would be impossible back in January. We’ve done great work since March and even though we haven’t completely closed our budget gap, we are in the black when you look at receipts over actual expenditures so far. Just like the Corinthian church, the generous work has begun but there is more to do to reach our goal. Paul challenges his audience to show the genuineness of their love by being generous in all things because they follow the ultimate example of generosity, Jesus Christ, who although he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich. I don’t know about you, but when it’s put in those terms, I get pretty convicted about my own lack of generosity. It’s almost enough to make you throw up your hands, knowing that you can never measure up to the generosity of Christ.
But we should let Christ’s example compel us to action rather than paralysis. As Christians, we believe that modeling our lives after Christ leads to abundant, everlasting life. Christ did not consider the infinite wealth and privilege of his divinity as something to be exploited but emptied himself, becoming a slave for our sakes. How incredible! Christ went from the place of highest wealth and authority to the place of greatest poverty and suffering to show us that even though we often misunderstand, God has always been about this kind of radical love. We Baptists love to talk about the cross; its imagery pervades our beloved hymns. At the cross, at the cross… Nothing but the blood… I’ll cling to the old rugged cross… Draw me nearer… But what if we started taking the life of Christ as seriously as we take his death? The cross isn’t just the way Jesus was executed, it is the way he lived as well! The cross is a metaphor for how we are to live—as people unafraid of the powers of death that enthrall the world—violence, greed, hatred, pride, deceit, exploitation, indifference. As people who believe so strongly that God is in control that we know that even death is not the end, that our God has conquered death. That truth allows us to see these powers for what they are: illusions that lead to emptiness rather than abundant life.
A few years ago, Christian author, speaker, and leader of the Red Letter Christians movement Tony Campolo was invited to speak at a women’s conference with about 300 in attendance. Before he spoke the president of the organization stood up and read a moving letter from a missionary in which the missionary expressed a need for $4,000 to take care of an emergency. After reading the letter, the president said, "We need to pray that God will provide the resources to meet the need of this missionary. Brother Campolo will you please lead us in prayer?" Campolo, calmly replied, "No." Startled, she said, "I beg your pardon!" to which Campolo replied, "No, I won’t pray for that. I believe that God has already provided the resources and that all we need to do is give. Tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to step up to this table and give every bit of cash I have in my pocket. And if all of you will do the same thing, I think God has already provided the resources." The president of the organization chuckled a little bit and said, "Well, I guess we get the point. Brother Campolo is trying to teach us that we should give sacrificially." Insistent, Campolo replied, "No, that is not what I am trying to teach you. I’m trying to teach you that God has already provided for this missionary. All we need to do is give what God has already provided. Campolo then reached into his pocket and pulled the $15 out of his wallet, placed it on the table, and looked at the president. Reluctantly, she opened her purse and took out the $40 she had and put it on the table. One by one the rest of the women filed by and put their money on the table as well. When the money was counted they had collected more than $4,000." Campolo said, "Now, here’s the lesson. God has always already supplied abundantly for the needs we see in the world. The only problem is we keep it for ourselves. Now let’s pray and thank God for provision rather than requesting something God has already done.”
When Paul says that the question is one of “fair balance” between the Corinthian church’s abundance and the Jerusalem church’s need and vice versa, Paul is subtly critiquing the wealth of Corinthians; he is reordering the values of their society. They may have an abundance of financial resources, but their foot-dragging reveals that they lack the generosity and zeal of the poor, Macedonian church that Paul is using as an example for them. They may have money, but that means nothing without the faith given to them by the saints in Jerusalem. Everyone has worth in God’s economy; everyone has something to offer. The trick is that we have to figure out how to connect our abundances with others’ needs and how their abundances might meet our needs. This kind of reciprocal generosity is the hallmark of God’s kingdom.
How might we begin to think creatively about connecting abundance to need in our own community? God has provided, but do we have the vision to connect abundance and need? 31% of food that reaches the retail market in America is thrown away. That’s 1250 calories per American per day, more than half of the calories that the average healthy person needs to consume. And yet, 49 million Americans are food insecure. Why? Sadly, you can hear Christian people argue that it will damage the US economy to give away all the food that we throw away. God has provided, but do we have the vision to connect abundance to need? We recently had a member of our community lose his home because of medical bills and start sleeping in his car, and yet most of us have at least one empty room in our homes. God has provided, but do we have the vision? God’s Spirit calls us to live creative, generous lives that reject the fear of scarcity that divides neighbor from neighbor for a life of abundance in the Body of Christ. And the Spirit is on the move at GFBC.
I hope you made it to the Dorcas presentation this morning before worship. Maybe you can tell by now, but I am fired up about what is happening around here. If you couldn’t make it let me give you the cliff notes: Dorcas, Ben, and 14 other pastors from across Cary have been dreaming together about beginning an emergency housing ministry in our town. The services in Cary that help homeless people are good, but they aren’t enough to take care of the growing need and there is no permanent shelter for homeless people anywhere in western Wake County. Dorcas has been putting up homeless families in hotels because the shelters in Raleigh are full and there is nowhere for them to go. But this group of pastors and people around Cary got together to dream about a solution; and it just so happens that we have the perfect building for a shelter, Dorcas has the staff and training to run one, and with the financial and spiritual support of churches across denominations in Cary and grants from the town of Cary and other organizations, getting the building ready for use won’t even cost us anything. Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, and Non-denomninationals, all coming together around a vision to make sure homeless women and children in Cary have a place to sleep, eat, and get back on their feet. That’s the kingdom of God folks and its going to happen right here, on our grounds, at Greenwood Forest!
Over the past year, while we were busy trying to survive, living month to month and worrying about our debt and our budget, God’s Spirit was doing a work among us. Just think about how God is rewriting the story of our church: We had a plan for Building A—“Phase 2”—a vision for how this new space would meet the needs of our congregation and our community. But because of many factors including the economic downturn, church conflict, and mismanagement, our plans never came to fruition. We thought our dream of using Building A for ministry in our community was dead, or at least, a long, long way from being realized. However, we should never forget that our God raised Jesus from the dead, our God brings dry bones to life, our God is in the resurrection business! Here we are, five years later, with a new group of passionate ministers, a new energy among the lay people, a new and exciting momentum, and an incredible new mission for Building A that will change the course of this church forever.
What do we have an abundance of? Well, we have an extra building sitting over there. What do people in our community need? Well, some of them need a place to live. What do we need? We need friendship and community with the outcasts in our community because Jesus promised us that they would inherit his kingdom. What do they have in abundance? The faith to rely on God’s provision. The understanding that they can’t make it on their own. Kingdom vision. With a little imagination and a lot of God, our abundance is preparing to meet the needs of our community, and God is preparing to use the homeless in our community to teach us about the kingdom. People often misquote these words of Paul’s from the letter to the Romans, but I think this is the perfect time for it: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”
It’s time to finish what we started. It’s time to complete the generous work that God began among us. God is taking our mess, and resurrecting it into something beautiful. God is taking our failures and turning them into kingdom miracles. God is using our abundance of space for the needs of our community and will bless us with friendships and faith we desperately need in order to live abundant lives here and now. And the amazing thing is, all we have to do is say “yes” to what the Spirit is doing and dive in! If we are able to do that, if we are able to let go of our fear of scarcity and welcome God’s abundance, then God promises us that all will have what they need, that we will experience resurrections we can’t possibly imagine, and that we will know Jesus, who became poor for our sake, that we might become rich.