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Excel in Generosity
October 28, 2012
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Our reading this morning is one of the Bible’s most edifying passages on the subject of Christian giving. In fact, it’s so replete with useful instruction that I’m devoting two sermons to it. Today we raise a why question, and next week we’ll take on the how question. That is, today let’s wrap our minds around the question “Why give to the church?” Then next week, we can tackle the question of how much to give.
Let’s begin, though, with Paul’s outburst of praise for the Corinthian congregation. Before he makes his monetary appeal, he showers the congregation with compliments. He reminds them that they are a vital, healthy congregation, doing many things so well—their faith is strong, they are an articulate congregation of thinkers, and they are knowledgeable and insightful. Their commitment level is high and they exhibit eagerness in nearly every undertaking. Thus Paul opens his stewardship appeal with a sincere slap on the Corinthians’ back, saying to them, “You excel in everything.”
Heartfelt praise is a good place to start any stewardship campaign, especially when there is so much about a congregation that deserves praise. What Paul said about the Corinthians can be said about you, my friends. You are a congregation that is excelling in so many ways. When I first became senior pastor here, Helen Tackett, who was on the pulpit nominating committee, issued a warning. She said, “Pastoring this congregation is like herding cats.” But after almost seventeen years as your pastor, I’ve learned that pastoring this congregation is more like trying to keep up with a stampeding herd of generous, active, inquisitive, and compassionate people. The depth of your faith can be heard in the sound of your voices that fills the sanctuary each Sunday with songs of praise. Your compassion is evident in the many ministries that are undertaken by the congregation. Your dedication to the children, youth, and college students is laudatory. This is a congregation that steps up when a need arises. You give more than eighteen hundred volunteer hours every week. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, you, like the Corinthian congregation, are excelling in so many ways.
Now, you won’t be surprised by the fact that Paul’s praise of the congregation was followed by a request for money. Paul first acknowledges how well the congregation is doing, and then he continues, “so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” The generous undertaking Paul has in mind is an offering for the church in Jerusalem. The churches of that day were mostly poor, but the Jerusalem congregation was especially destitute. Thus, in his travels to the various churches in Asia Minor, Paul made an appeal for the Gentile congregations to help their brothers and sister in Christ who lived in Jerusalem. A year earlier the Corinthians had pledged their support, but apparently their initial helpfulness had waned. Thus Paul appeals to them to finish what they had begun, to excel in this generous undertaking just as they were excelling in so many other ways.
And to further encourage their giving, Paul holds before them the inspiring example of the churches in Macedonia. When we heard Paul asking the Corinthians to measure their giving against the “earnestness of others,” he is referring to the generous offering that the Macedonian Christians had collected for the Jerusalem Church. Even though the Macedonians were a very poor congregation, they gave eagerly and generously. Clearly, Paul hopes that the example of the Macedonians will stimulate a higher level of giving in Corinth.
Granted, Paul’s tactic of holding up examples of giving in order to inspire others is one that is often used in stewardship campaigns. In fact, we’ve done this by asking the church staff, the elders, and deacons to pledge early. Happily, their significant increase in giving sends encouragement to the congregation to follow their example. I guess you could say we’ve simply taken a page out of Paul’s stewardship notebook. Paul first praises the congregation and then challenges them with the example of what others have done. In a seminary classroom, these strategies might be called Stewardship 101.
But listen, Christian stewardship does not rest on fundraising strategies, helpful though they may be. Rather it rests on the generous act of God in Jesus Christ. Paul comes to the heart of the Christian faith when he says, “You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Of course, Paul is thinking theologically, not monetarily. Christ, he reminds us, was rich because he dwelt in union with God in the heavenly realm. But Christ became poor—that is, became human—so that by sharing in the poverty of our existence, we might share in the riches of God’s eternal life. God’s act in Jesus Christ is fundamentally an act of divine generosity and of love. As the Nicene Creed puts it: “He came down for us and for our salvation.” Simply put, we are called to be a generous congregation, because our God is a generous God.
On the one hand, Paul’s appeal for funds was for the practical purpose of aiding the widows, feeding the hungry and meeting other pressing needs among the Christians in Jerusalem. But even more importantly, Paul was inviting the Corinthians to give generously in order to exhibit God’s grace, show God’s love, and share in God’s generosity.
Friends, we have the same opportunity. Yes, we’re making an appeal for a generous offering this fall so that we can sustain and strengthen the many ministries already under way here at UPC. You can see the expansive list of these current ministries on the pew cards in front of you. We’re also excited about some new initiatives for next year that we’ll be sharing with the congregation at the luncheon next Sunday. But at the heart of our appeal is the good news of God’s extravagant generosity in Jesus Christ. By giving of himself, Jesus has made us rich…rich in love, in compassion and grace.
May all our giving—including the giving of our money—be evidence of our joyful participation in the life of God offered to us in Jesus Christ.