SCRIPTURE – 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 –
Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you[d]—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. 8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 9 For you know the generous act[f] 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. 10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— 11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. 13 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 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.15 As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
October 11, 2015
I owe you an apology right up front. A few weeks ago, I told you we were going to take a break from our sermon series on the Bible so that we could share a couple of sermons in conjunction with our stewardship campaign. I apologize because that implies that our stewardship sermons have nothing to do with the Bible, which is clearly not the case. I was creating a false dichotomy between spirituality and stewardship that shouldn’t exist in our own lives and certainly doesn’t exist in the Bible.
This passage from 2 Corinthians is a great example of the point the Bible makes that how we use our resources is a reflection of what we believe about God. Paul is writing to the Corinthians to encourage them to participate in a stewardship campaign he’s conducting to raise money for the widows and orphans in Jerusalem. Paul plans on collecting the pledges from the church in Corinth and delivering them to needy, so this passage we have today is his appeal to the Corinthians to give. And unlike a certain preacher who shall go unnamed, Paul doesn’t say, “I’m going to take a break from talking about Jesus so I can talk about money.”
Just the opposite! Notice the crafty way Paul ties those two things together: “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.” Paul labels the incarnation, Christ making himself poor by coming down and dwelling among us, a generous act. We serve a generous God, one who has given over and over again so that we may know the love God has for us.
I said a few weeks ago that the Bible, at its essence, is a story, a love story between God and God’s people. One of the tension points of that story is the counterpoint between God’s offering of abundance and our attitude of scarcity. It is this thread that is woven throughout this story. At the very beginning, we see the abundant creativity of God, who fashions all of creation, lavishing it with wildflowers and butterflies, sparing no expense when creating the blue whale and red rose. God creates this garden and tells Adam and Eve, “It’s all yours! Except for that one tree.” And they think, “All this isn’t enough, we need that tree, too.”
From that point forward, the story is this liturgy of God’s abundance, as God blesses Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and how each of those, in one form or another, live like God’s blessing isn’t good enough. Following suit, when Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the Promised Land, what’s the first thing they do? They grumble that they don’t have enough. So God provides them manna, just enough for each day. If they tried to gather more than they need, it went bad. That had just what they needed for each day, and it was enough.
But that didn’t stop the Israelites from grumbling. They settle in the Promised Land, which God so graciously provided for them, a land abundant with milk and honey. The Israelites have so much! But they start to hoard their blessings, forgetting to take care of the widows and orphans and poor and homeless. You can hear the refrain echoing through the whole Bible from God’s people: we need more, we have to make sure we’re going to be OK, we don’t have enough. And God’s saying, “Really? Haven’t I blessed you enough?”
This polarity between scarcity and abundance was one of Jesus’ favorite topics. Remember the parable about the farmer who had a bumper crop, but instead of sharing it, he built bigger barns to hold it all? Or the story about the rich folks who threw a few dollars in the offering plate, but the widow who gave her very last quarter? Jesus was keenly aware that those around him were living from a perspective of scarcity in culture of abundance.
Do we still do that today? I read a story recently about a family that wanted to see how long they could live on the food they already had in their house – in their freezer, their fridge, their pantry. As a way of testing their definition of abundance, they wanted to be good stewards of what they had and use it all up before going to Kroger and buying more. How long do you think you could last on the food in your house? How long do you think this family lasted? A week? Two weeks? This family of four was able to eat for seven weeks without going to the grocery. Does that remind you of the loaves and fish story? Do we have enough?
I think the key point to that question is how we define “enough.” Webster’s says it means, “as much as is required.” Ah, but isn’t it interesting that our perception of what is required changes, doesn’t it? What I required to live in college is a whole lot less than what I require to live today. Some of that is necessity; I now have a family to take care of, a car to keep on the road, a house to pay for. I need those things. But I also think I need a lot of other things, like a full pantry and stocked refrigerator. Isn’t it interesting how things that used to be conveniences or luxuries – dishwashers, extra bathrooms, heated seats – are now necessities? How much is enough?
I remember going to breakfast one time with a minister friend of mine. I ordered first and got the things I wanted: a bagel with cream cheese, a muffin, a hot chocolate. My bill was $5. He ordered half a bagel with a free pat of butter and a glass of water. His total was $1.25. I ordered my definition of enough, never even considering that there was an alternative. His definition of enough and my definition of enough were very different. How much is enough?
I think our answer to that question is greatly skewed by our society, which will always define “enough” as “just a little bit more than you already have.” “Enough” becomes the carrot we chase which always stays just outside of our grasp. We are conditioned to believe that in order to live the kind of life we deserve to live, we need certain things, and until we have them, we won’t have enough. And underlying that line of thinking are two false beliefs that insidiously worm their way into our psyche: First is the false belief that we can ever have enough, that we will eventually be able to satisfy our desire. And second is the false belief that being good enough and having enough are tied together. If I can just have enough, I’ll be good enough – as a spouse, as a worker, as a parent, as a Christian. But if we don’t believe we are already good enough, we’ll never have enough. That’s living from scarcity.
When we strip away all of our culture’s distortions about what it means to have enough, we realize we do indeed have enough. More than enough, really. We are rich beyond measure. There may be times when we don’t feel like it, but we are rich. How do I know? If you recently upgraded your phone from version 5 to version 6, you are rich. If you push a button to dry your clothes rather than waiting for the sun to dry, you are rich. If the coffee you drink has a name other than “coffee,” you are rich. If your pet is wearing the same outfit you are wearing, you are rich. If you know what “wi-fi” means, and even if you don’t but you still use it, you are rich. We are rich.
So what do we do with this abundance? If we follow the example of the Israelites, we hoard it, building bigger barns to sock it away just in case we need it. We can fill our garages and our shoe racks and our patios because…well, because we can. And there’s nothing wrong with living comfortably. Remember, Paul says in this passage, “I don’t mean that you should give so much that you yourself become poor.” Instead, he says, there should be a balance between our abundance and someone else’s need. And then he quotes from the manna story: “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”
Which one are you? Yeah, me too. The one who has too much. And I’m reminded every day that there are those around me who have too little. The Corinthians, a very affluent congregation, were the same way. So Paul appeals to them to excel in their generosity. I heard another writer put it this way: “Build a portfolio of generosity in which the goal is not to make the most money, but to have the most significance.” What would you put in your portfolio of generosity?
Our Stewardship theme this year is “Your First Gift,” which refers of course to the gift you give through your pledge. But it also refers to the gift you already have. In several places in scripture, Paul talks about the spiritual gifts that we are given by the Holy Spirit. Some of the gifts are pretty specific, like speaking in tongues. But other gifts are more universal, gifts that everyone has. One of those he mentions is generosity. I believe we all have been given the gift of generosity. The question is whether or not we’ve chosen to use it.
We’re finishing up a Capital Campaign to renovate and expand our Children’s Wing. We just built another Habitat House, which you helped pay for. We just took up a collection for the Crop Hunger Walk. And now, we are encouraging you to consider your pledge for 2016. Jesus said, “To whom much has been given, much is required.” Have we been given much? Do we have enough? And Paul said, “Now as you excel in everything, so we want you to excel in this generous undertaking.”
To excel in something is to be exceptionally good at it. It’s the root of the word “excellence.” If you excel at something, then you are gifted in that area. We have been given a first gift, the gift of generosity, so that we may strike a fair balance between our present abundance and the needs of those around us. We have been given so much! The abundance we have is not for us to keep, but for us to give away. What will you give to God through Crestwood so that others also have what they need? At Crestwood, we strive to excel in our fellowship, in our service, in our education, in our music. May we also excel in our giving, so that others experience the grace and love and welcome and divine generosity of God through us. We have enough, don’t we? Thanks be to God.