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A Cheerful Giver

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

October 13, 2019
2 Corinthians 9:1-15

A Reading from the Second Letter to the Corinthians

Now it is not necessary for me to write you about the ministry to the saints, for I know your eagerness, which is the subject of my boasting about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia has been ready since last year; and your zeal has stirred up most of them. But I am sending the brothers in order that our boasting about you may not prove to have been empty in this case, so that you may be ready, as I said you would be; otherwise, if some Macedonians come with me and find that you are not ready, we would be humiliated—to say nothing of you—in this undertaking. So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you, and arrange in advance for this bountiful gift that you have promised, so that it may be ready as a voluntary gift and not as an extortion.

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. As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift!

In her book The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist tells a story from very early in her career as a fundraiser for nonprofit called the Hunger Project. One morning in the course of this work, she finds herself called to the office of the CEO of a huge food company, which is not her usual beat — she’s used to working church basements, not corporate boardrooms. But this food company has found itself in a bit of a public relations nightmare. They’ve been in the headlines in some unfortunate ways. And Lynne has word that they think perhaps a gift to her organization would go a long way towards helping this company clear up its image. So Lynne goes into this office, and she meets the CEO, and she goes into her spiel. She does the whole thing. She talks about the mission. She talks about the passion. She talks about the urgent need. And when she finishes talking, the CEO opens his desk, pulls out a pre-printed check for $50,000, and hands it to her.

I have never held a check for $50,000. But this one feels pretty heavy to Lynne. “It was clear that he wanted me gone as quickly as possible. The perfunctory presentation and the tone of his voice told me that he had no genuine interest in our work. This was purely a strategic move” she writes. Of course, she knew that everybody back at the Hunger Project would be thrilled with the income. But as she puts the check in her bag and walks to the elevator, she says, “I felt dirty, and sick to my stomach. I felt the guilt of the company coming right across that desk, with the money.”

As it happens, she goes right from this meeting right to the airport, right to New York, for a scheduled event in Harlem, back in a church basement, comfortable territory, meeting with some community leaders. This scene was much different. Well, you know. You’ve been in a church basement before. This one was a perfect specimen. The rain outside was leaking in. There were buckets around the floor to catch the drips. It was not the sort of room that feels wealthy. Lynne was the only white face in the crowd, and she gave her pitch the best she could, but she did it with the sort of detachment of somebody who has already dismissed the moment.

She makes her big ask. The room goes quiet. And then, from the back, an older woman stood up tall and took the floor. “Girl,” she said, “my name is Gertrude, and I like what you’ve said, and I like you. I ain’t got no checkbook, and I ain’t got no credit cards. I have fifty dollars in my purse that I earned from doing a white woman’s wash, and I want to give it to you. To me, money is a lot like water. For some folks it rushes through their lives like a raging river. Money comes through my life like a little trickle. But I want to pass it on in a way that does the most good for the most folks. I see that as my responsibility. It’s also my joy.”

You might guess what happens next. The whole room erupts with offering, fives, tens, twenties. All of a sudden, Lynne can’t hold all the bills in her hands. Of course the total won’t be a drop in the bucket compared to the $50,000 check sitting in her bag. But it came with joy. It had, she writes, “a sense of integrity and of heart. Gertrude’s fifty dollars felt more valuable to me then the check for an amount one thousand times more.” So, after the meeting, and after wrestling with the meeting, Lynne took the $50,000 check and she put it in an envelope and sent it back, with a letter attached, suggesting that the CEO find a cause closer to his heart.

Cue the Apostle Paul. “God loves a cheerful giver,” he writes to the Corinthians.

Paul’s situation is not so different than the one Lynne faced; the apostle is also is a bit of a professional fund-raiser. The tail ends of many of his letters contain an appeal for what he calls the Saints of Jerusalem, the home base of operations. But, perhaps surprisingly, Paul the fundraiser has some serious moves. First, he tells the Corinthians that he already knows how eager they are to give. He doesn’t even have to remind them about the Saints of Jerusalem, which he then does. And then he tells them that he’s been bragging about their generosity to all the other churches and of course, they wouldn’t want that boasting to have been in vain for them, or for him. And then in my favorite part, he sort of reminds them that the guys who brought the letter in the first place are there to collect. “I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you, and arrange in advance for this bountiful gift that you have promised, so that it may be ready as voluntary gift and not as an extortion.”

I think the line between a voluntary gift and an extortion might depend on the size and strength of the guys who brought the letter. But this idea of a voluntary gift sticks with Paul. “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion.” And at this point, I think Paul’s done with fundraising tactics at this point. I think Paul the evangelist has come out. And he is trying to preach the gospel. “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance,” Paul says, “so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” The way you share, Paul preaches, is meant to be a reflection of the way God shares. The way God creates. The abundance with which God creates. The beauty with which God creates. The joy with which God creates. When you give, Paul says, what you are really doing is participating in the joyful abundance of creation, the way that it moves, the way that it flows, the way that it trickles.

Maybe our money really is like water.

When we lived in Virginia, on unscheduled Saturdays, I would take Charlie to this place called Amazement Square, which was a children’s museum in Lynchburg, right down by the James River, and a much better children’s museum than it really had any right to be. And as soon as we would get in the door, every time, Charlie would make a beeline for the best exhibit in the place, on the very top floor, which was a forty-foot-long chest-height model of the James River ecosystem, as it flows from the mountains of central Virginia down through all the locks and dams that have been built up over time and finally into Lynchburg itself, a city which was built to be a transportation hub. So at one end of this display the water comes out of the mountains, and as it flows down through these river gorges, and the kids can take these little wooden boats meant to represent old shipping barges and float them down the river all the way to the city docks at the end.

But the fun was not just in floating your boat down the current. Part of the educational purpose of the exhibit was to teach kids about how locks and dams work, and so along the side of the display, the kids could come and manually open and close the doors of the locks all up and down the channels of the river on both sides. If you closed the downstream door of a lock, the water would build up behind it. If you closed the upstream door as well, your boat could sit there peacefully and pretend to be loaded or unloaded. But of course when those doors were closed, the current disappeared on both sides. Even boats that were already downstream would slow down simply because the water flow underneath them had been reduced to a trickle. Close up your doors, and the boat twenty feet away stops moving. The whole thing was interconnected.

But the very best part wasn’t racing your own boat or even playing with the locks. The best part was when enough water made it all the way down to the bottom. At the bottom of the whole thing, there was this elaborate model of downtown Lynchburg, the old transportation hub, and I’m sure underneath the table somewhere there were pipes pumping that water back up to the mountains to begin again. But some of that water was getting pumped above our heads, to a series of water tanks mounted to what was effectively a sprinkler system hanging over the whole exhibit. So when enough water came down the mountain and through the locks. And when the kids were all standing around ready for the big moment. And when the staffer at Amazement Square decided it was time to pull the magic cord. Then, the whole place would rain. It would rain over the whole city. It would rain over all of these kids screaming through the morning. It would rain over that whole interconnected system. One river. One water. And all the water wanted to do was to move.

I wonder if our money isn’t just like that water. I picture that CEO standing at the James River mockup at Amazement Square, making sure that the doors on his locks stay absolutely shut. And behind him, there are boats that can’t move. And downstream, the current has slowed to a trickle. And then here comes Lynne Twist making her big ask, and what the CEO does is he takes an eyedropper out of his pocket, and he picks up a drop or two out of his lock, and he puts them in her bucket. But he doesn’t open the doors. He doesn’t sense the joy of the whole. He doesn’t get to watch the water flow with abundance and generosity. And of course, it hardly matters how much water he has managed to accumulate. The problem isn’t the volume of water in his lock. The problem is that he has brought the whole system to a standstill. Because the water wants to move. It wants to flow. It wants to bring rain down on the whole community, the whole city, just and unjust alike. It just needs him to open his doors. It needs him to share abundantly in every good work. It needs him to make his own offering.

Actually, I wonder if that is even the right word. Maybe offering is in some ways, the wrong word for what we do when we take time during worship to put money in the plate and give thanks to God. Because making an offering sounds like something that used to be mine that now I offer it to you. It sounds like I’ve come to church with my own bucket with some water in it, and I’m going to put some of it in the church’s bucket and maybe today I’ve brought a big ladle with me and maybe today I brought an eyedropper, but the point is it used to be mine and now it belongs to you. But if the water really wants to move, then the point is not to put a drop in the bucket at all. The point is not to keep the water in a bucket in the first place. The point is to put all the drops in the river. Which means that here in the presence of the God who created all things with joy, in the presence of the God who moves through all things with grace, in the presence of God who shares in all things with abundance, we don’t really make an offering of our money. We just release it.

Some of y’all are still thinking about that $50,000 check.

Five years later, Lynne Twist gets a letter in the mail from that CEO. She was still working for the Hunger Project, which had made quite a more substantial name for itself in the intervening years; the CEO on the other hand, had retired. And in his retirement, he wrote Lynne to tell her that her returning of his check was one of the most disrupting and interrupting events of his career. It had broken all the rules he had learned in corporate boardrooms. It had suggested that there was something in the world that was more important than profit. He also admitted that in retirement he had been given a substantial exit passage, much more than he had any need of. And so out of his own conviction, he released some of it. He wrote a check and enclosed it with that letter. Now, as it happens, that check was for an amount far greater than $50,000. But that is hardly the point. The point is that he opened his doors. And the joyful abundance of God came rushing through.

And the whole of God’s thirsty city said, thanks be to God.