5. Pentecost: Excellent Generosity

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

1 July 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

Excellent Generosity

Based on 2 Corinthians 8: 1-15

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            Whether we are ready or not to talk about money in church, the Apostle Paul was – and sends his message to us across the centuries. Writing to the Church at Corinth, in Greece, he reminds the congregation gathered there of the offering they began collecting for the Church in Jerusalem a year prior. St. Paul urges the Corinthians, “Now finish doing it.” In urging the Corinthians to complete the offering he goads them a bit, by commenting on how generous another congregation in Macedonia has been, that surely they can match the gifts of their poorer neighbors.

            St. Paul was one of the three primary leaders of the early Christian Church. It is believed that he had an agreement with St. James, the brother of Jesus, and St. Peter, chief of the disciples, that Paul would minister with Gentiles (non-Jewish believers), while James and Peter would work among the Jewish Christians. Peter would take charge of the Church in Antioch and Rome, while James would be the bishop of the Church in Jerusalem. Paul would minister across the Gentile churches in the Mediterranean and Near East. It was St. James’ community in Jerusalem for which the offering was being received. Many early Christian congregations lived together in community, holding all their property, goods, and money in common. The Jerusalem Church particularly lived by this precept. Like many urban congregations yet today, they found themselves in poverty and in great need of assistance from their brothers and sisters in Christ.

            The churches across the Mediterranean and Near East would gather an offering in support for the Jerusalem Church, a center of Jewish Christian life. Not only would it show support of a congregation with fewer resources, but a sign of unity among the burgeoning Christian community. There was often tension between Peter and Paul, and those Christians who continued to follow Jewish practices such as circumcision and ritual cleansing, and those Christians of pagan origin who did not. Paul’s offering for James’ church showed a gesture of unity and love across different modes of Christian practice. Even in the first century of Christianity there was diversity in the way the Christian life was lived out, but in that diversity, their leaders managed to support each other and find unity.

            It’s important to note here that since the very beginning of the Church, congregations have needed to provide support and encouragement to one another. In quite similar ways, when our congregation contributes funds to the wider United Church of Christ, it not only supports national and conference staff, evangelism, outreach, and justice work – but also provides funds for new churches like Nu Vizion UCC in Toledo, Ohio – an inner-city congregation that rehabbed a  formerly closed UCC church, and has a special ministry helping ex-convicts reintegrate into their community. I am reminded of the ways in which we have been supported by other congregations, especially following the softball debacle – of several churches reaching out to us to play with their softball teams, of Pilgrim UCC and St. Paul’s UCC in St. Louis, which sent us letters of support, and of course Grace United Methodist Church from Sullivan which sent a wonderful delegation of nearly 20 people to worship with us several weeks ago. Since the very beginning the Church’s local communities of faith have needed to stand with each other and support one another.

            St. Paul told the Corinthians, “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 apostle commends the Corinthians for their faith and knowledge, saying they excel in everything, and urges them to demonstrate their love and faith in a concrete way – by being generous in giving of their financial gifts. He reminds them that “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” For Paul giving generously of one’s wages and labor is necessary  not merely because it is good to share with those who have little, but centrally because of what Jesus Christ has done for us. Here he speaks of poverty and wealth not in a literal sense, though as an unemployed carpenter Jesus was likely poor. Rather, as the Son of God, Jesus gave up his seat at the right hand of the Creator to live among us on earth, born in a trough in a barn and crucified as a common criminal. For our sake, Christ endured the worst of humanity in order that we all might be redeemed. It is because Jesus had the humility and love to do this for us, that we should also share sacrificially of ourselves.

            St. Paul asks the Corinthians to complete the offering, to support their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem “according to your means. 12For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have.” He is essentially saying ‘Give what you can.’ He isn’t asking them to place themselves in the same poverty as those in Jerusalem, but to share what they can out of their own wealth. He reminds them “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.” Because Corinth and Jerusalem were bound together as Christians, and because today we are bound to those both inside and outside our denominational fellowship we are called to share our resources when we have an abundance, so that we may also receive assistance when we are in need. Rev. Douglass Key, a Presbyterian pastor in South Carolina, writes that “For Paul and for us, generosity is not a choice we make, not a calculation in which we weight  what we are giving up against what we gain in order make ourselves available to the work of God’s kingdom. It is a  mark of our identity in Christ. When we are baptized into the one who is self emptying we take on that self emptying genereosity for ourselves. It becomes who we are, not what we do. The people of this God, known to us in this self emptying Christ are self emptying people. It is a mark of our union to Christ, who himself laid down his divine glory and became poor for us t so that we might know God’s love and grace and redemption.”[1]

            Several times a week I receive calls from people in our community seeking assistance for food, rent, gas, and other bills from the church. Sadly, all too often I have to turn away those seeking help because we simply don’t have the funds available. We are not a wealthy congregation, but to be fair we do have substantial resources, particularly when we consider that worldwide over 1 billion people live on $1 a day or less. St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians echo to us. We each can give what we can out of our own abundance. Some of us have more abundance than others and therefore can afford to give more. Sometimes we are in a time of need rather than abundance and need to receive the gift. But as St. Paul reminds us, we are to give according to what one has. When the Church, when our church is able to assist those in need of food, help keeping a roof over their heads or transportation to their jobs, we make an impact on our community. Not only that, but more importantly, we live out what we believe. We put our faith and love in action. We show that we believe Jesus Christ came for all of us, rich and poor. We continue Christ’s ministry to the least of these. If the only interaction such persons ever have with the Church is that they were offered food and shelter in their time of need – at least they can say that the Church was there for them. We can begin to counter all the alienating and harmful experiences people have had with exclusionary churches by offering warm compassion and love in tangible ways.

            With all the messages of consumerism and materialism around us, bombarded at us from advertising and commercials and billboards, the message of generosity is countercultural. It seems that we are told to hoard all the money we can so we can attain more stuff, and that the more stuff we have the happier we will be. As much as we might know intellectually that this is wrong, it can be difficult to act against it. But try we must, because our things won’t save us, but Christ who gave up everything for our sake, does save us. In the Christian community, we are our brother and sister’s keeper. We do have responsibility to care for one another. When we are baptized we are forever knit into the Body of Christ, and we are to aid all the parts of the Body that the Church might be a healthy, transforming, loving force for justice and peace in the world. Out of our abundance, no matter how large or small, we can tangibly demonstrate that connection, that relationship Christ forms between each of us. We are each called to share in the work of building up God’s kingdom on earth.

We must make this work and we must make the Church a priority in our lives. We have to take the needs of our community and those beyond it throughout the world seriously. It takes a sacrifice, but any monetary gifts we make pale in comparison to what Jesus Christ has done for us. Let us give out of gratitude for the abundant life that has been given us.

To God be the Glory. Amen.

 


[1] Key, Douglass. Christian Century, June 27, 2012.

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