By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 9:6-12
A few years back I was meeting with a young woman exploring ministry. She was a very bright young lady and very creative. Her passion was reaching new people for Jesus in non-traditional ways. It piqued my interest. I think changes in our broader culture are going to compel the church to think outside the box in coming years if we are going to be effective in “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
She had devised a graphic that expressed the fundamentals of living as a follower of Jesus… what we in the Church might label as spiritual practices; things like prayer, contemplation, service, studying scripture, etc. But there was one thing deliberately missing from her graphic: worship. She said she really didn’t believe that God wanted to be worshiped. It seemed to her a rather narcissistic idea that a God so focused on grace, on giving, would be so demanding.
Of all the spiritual practices Christians engage in, worship just might be the most challenging to explain to someone who isn’t familiar with religious practice. Personally, I believe God does desire our worship but I also think we might need to expand our understanding of worship and that’s where this morning’s message is headed.
But first, some historical background – the “situation in life” – for this morning’s scripture from 2 Corinthians...
Not long after the death and resurrection of Jesus, a zealous Jewish Pharisee named Saul had a somewhat mystical encounter with this Jesus whose followers he had been rounding up and charging with heresy. That encounter with Jesus radically changed the course of Saul’s life and the future of the Jesus movement. Saul became Paul and he experienced a compelling call to take the message of this Jesus beyond the Jewish community. It’s impossible for us today to comprehend how crazy Paul must have sounded to those early Jewish Christians. And yet, these seeds of Gentile inclusion had begun with Jesus. Even Peter, the most prominent of Jesus’ followers had received a vision from God that communicated this truth that Jesus was not the exclusive property of the Jewish people. Who Jesus was; what he’d proclaimed and what he had done was a message for everyone.
Still, it was a radical idea and not all the early church board members were on board. We know that, ultimately, Paul’s thinking prevailed because… well, here we all are and some of us may have even eaten bacon for breakfast this morning. But it is no easy thing for Paul to communicate this message of a Church that is open to everyone where legal standards like kosher food and circumcision no longer apply. Paul proclaims an inclusive Church, but it is a hard sell.
Now, for a variety of reasons (and a topic for another day), those early Jewish Christians who lived together in Jerusalem after Pentecost were pretty poor folks. So, Paul’s vision of an inclusive Church was accepted by the board members in Jerusalem with a couple of caveats, one of which was this: that these new Gentile converts, as a demonstration of unity and solidarity, would help provide for the financial needs of the Christians in Jerusalem. Now, this was a proposal Paul embraced with zeal. And so, the letters Paul wrote to the congregations he founded in these Gentile cities are regularly peppered with references to this collection for the poor Christians in Jerusalem. It was a mission project that took years for Paul to complete. For Paul, this monetary collection was more than an assignment from his superiors. For Paul, it was the greatest symbol of what makes the Church the Church: the idea that, no matter who we are or where we are, we are bound to one another; bound together as one body in Christ. Church is all followers of Jesus without regard to where we live or the culture in which we are embedded. And Church, as one body means we have an obligation to care for one another; not just the folks we worship with each week; but even Christians we will never have the opportunity to personally meet.
As Americans that is sometimes hard for us to accept. And let me just clarify: this goes deeper than charitable contributions; it goes beyond that once a year donation we make to feeding hungry children in Africa or Central America. Paul’s teaching, the teaching of our scripture, is about a willingness to make personal sacrifice to meet the needs of people we may never meet AND a recognition that we, through our faith in Jesus, have obligations to one another.
So again, I say, this kind of mutuality, this kind of interdependence, is not something that comes naturally to us as Americans. Our nation expanded westward spurred by the value of rugged individualism. We have clichés about people pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. We raise our children to be independent and we value self-sufficiency. But the reality is that our very identity as Christians depends on our willingness to admit that we’re not self-sufficient; that there is, at the end of the day, nothing any of us can do for ourselves to get into God’s good graces. Retired United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon points out that, while our faith teaches us to see our lives as gifts, we don’t like to see ourselves as dependent, needy or empty-handed. We strive to stand on our own and take charge.[i] Methodist founder John Wesley said, “Nothing is more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace.”[ii]
But like it or not, we need God and we need each other. And so as Americans, we live in this tension between the popular American expression “Charity begins at home” (a cliché that implies that our obligations end at our line of sight) and our denominational heritage of John Wesley who said, “The world is my parish.” Wesley and Paul were definitely on the same page.
Paul’s message to the Corinthians is this: that if we are so blessed as to have more resources than are essential, it is God’s doing not our striving; and it means that God has blessed us with a surplus in order that we might share it with those in need. And when we take that risk in sharing – when we make that sacrifice – we do it from a place of trust in God and one another. We give sacrificially with the full recognition that, when we give so freely and generously, there is always the chance the day might come when another Christian will need to come to our aid and that – should that occur – it would not be a reason for shame but a reason to rejoice and give thanks to God.
Friends, Paul’s sense of “enough” is not for the purpose of self-sufficiency and independence; but in order to be able to help others. He tells the Corinthians: “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.” Paul affirms this “enoughness” as a gift from God, not something gained by earnest self-discipline. Thought of in this way, the very act of giving becomes a witness to and a celebration of God’s grace.
That same message, by the way, was communicated by John Wesley. Certainly one needs to provide their family with food and shelter and clothing. But when we have more than is needed, it ought to be shared with those in need. Sometimes in our consumer driven culture, it is hard to accept that enough is enough. Culture encourages us to want more than we need; that’s how we propel the economy. But, Scripture admonishes us to be as generous with those in need as we possibly can be.
Paul makes clear to the Corinthians that God blesses us so that we can bless others. Although I only shared a few verses this morning, Paul spends two chapters of this letter to the Corinthians discussing this collection for the poor Jerusalem Christians.
In chapter eight he reminds those Corinthians of the story of the ancient Israelites wandering through the wilderness. God sent them manna; bread from heaven and they were given clear instructions to collect as much as was needed each day for those living in their tent. They should only collect as much as they needed that day because God would send a fresh batch the next day. And really, who likes stale bread? God was clear: they weren’t to try and hoard the manna; squirreling it away, tucked in some corner of their tent. This would be a test to determine if they would trust God. But some of them did try to keep it overnight and when they brought out the leftovers the next morning, it had gone bad; so bad there were worms in it. But perhaps the most astonishing part of the manna story is that, when the people collected the manna, no matter how much they grabbed, they all wound up with the same amount. They measured it and everyone’s batch measured the same. And so, the apostle Paul reminds the Corinthians of that ancient story of God’s faithfulness and generosity, by quoting from the Book of Exodus as he writes to them, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”[iii]
Somehow, in the economy of God, everyone got exactly what they needed AND everyone learned – some the hard way – that hoarding out of fear or selfishness never pays off in the end.
Yet equally as important for those ancient Israelites and Paul’s Corinthian congregants, was the message that through generous giving inspired by trust in God, they honored God, they even worshipped God. See; I told you I’d come back to this theme of worship.
After all, what is worship anyway if not the offering of thanks and praise to God for being who God is: creator, sustainer, and provider; and, our words mean little if they’re not backed by action. Worship is more than what we say or sing; worship is what we do.
Friends, the church is more than us in this room. The Church spans the globe and we have just as much responsibility for those who are half a world away as we do for the person at the end of the pew. Paul proclaimed God’s economy: that, when we have more than enough, it is for the purpose of bringing blessing to others. For Paul, that collection that gathered together the resources of Christians spread across the Roman Empire was the greatest symbol of what makes the Church the Church: the idea that, no matter who we are or where we are, we are bound to one another.
And that is our heritage as Methodists. Because Methodism is connectional, our giving changes the lives of children just an hour south of us at the United Methodist Children’s Home. Children who – without the giving of us and others – might never know or experience the affirming, compassionate love of Christ expressed through adults who take care of you, and teach you, and encourage you, and guide you.
Because Methodism is connectional, our giving has changed the entire continent of Africa. Africa University, a United Methodist school brings together young adults literally from warring tribes to live together, and learn together, and worship together, and learn to love one another.
Because Methodism is connectional, donations to the United Methodist Committee on Relief are, right now, responding to the needs of Haitians whose lives were destroyed and upturned by Hurricane Matthew.
Friends, this is Stewardship month at Trinity but it is about more than funding our annual budget and it should not be confined to one month out of the year. It is, instead, about our recognition that, as John Wesley taught, when we earn all we can and save our money, not wasting it on things our culture tells us we should desire. Rather, when we spend carefully and purposefully, we can discover the joy that God is able to provide us with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, we may share abundantly in every good work because – when we do – we change lives and we give honor and praise to God.
[i] From Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas; Plough Publishing House; December 14 devotion.
[iii] See Exodus 16:18
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