Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 8:1-9, 13-15, for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost. "Growing in the Grace of Giving"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today’s text from 2 Corinthians 8 might surprise us with how Divine Arithmetic works. We might be surprised at how things add up when God is involved. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church about the grace of giving; about charity. And he shows a positive example in the Macedonian church. But what’s surprising is the kind of Divine Arithmetic that was at work among the Macedonians. This is the equation that Paul describes in Macedonia: Severe affliction + abundance of joy + extreme poverty = believers overflowing with a wealth of generosity. How does it all add up? Today we’ll see how God helps us to grow in the grace of giving. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Certainly severe affliction combined with extreme poverty should add up to little or no giving at all! Since when does extreme poverty produce a “wealth of generosity?” Perhaps now is a particularly good time to think about that, with the way the worldwide economy has so many in a panic. While probably none of us could say that we’re in extreme poverty…especially when you consider what that means in some third-world country…probably everyone is feeling the pinch in some way. Some of us have lost jobs, or experienced pay cuts, others have less hours to work, some have lost significant savings or retirement investments, while at the same time seeing costs of living and other expenses rising. Financial security seems to be in doubt for so many people. And these are real concerns for us.

But shouldn’t we count our blessings? As great as some of those losses may seem in our perspective, there are billions around the world who can only imagine the luxuries we enjoy. Having a permanent shelter over our heads, having a car, having the promise of regular meals on our table—even if we only had mac-and-cheese! Even the thought of having any money in savings at all! This alone ought to make us realize how blessed we are, putting our “losses” in a global perspective makes us realize they’re not quite so large. Yet at the same time other afflictions may hit us. Whether related to the stress of those concerns or not, we may experience tension in relationships, health problems, loss of a loved one. It’s not hard to find people who face severe tests of affliction, like the Macedonians. So how could such circumstances possibly be accompanied by an abundance of joy and an overflowing wealth of generosity?

While we don’t know the details of the Macedonian church’s severe affliction or their extreme poverty, we read that they actually earnestly begged Paul to let them participate in giving to support the relief of the saints. So Paul and Titus had come to the Corinthian and Macedonian churches to collect a freewill offering for the saints in Jerusalem, who were apparently in worse straits and in desperate need of help. The Macedonians were so eager to help, that they gave even out of their extreme poverty. It was as if they said to Paul, “Please don’t leave us out of this opportunity to give generously to those in need!” Paul says they gave “not as we expected.” But he doesn’t mean that he expected more of them, and they gave less. Rather he was surprised to find that they gave not only according to their means, but gave well beyond their means—out of their own free will. They gave so generously it was beyond what he thought they could afford to give.

Paul showed this example to the Corinthian church, not to command them to give in this way, not to make them feel guilty about their own amount of giving, but so that they might witness the genuineness of the love and Christian charity of other believers. So they would see how their poverty welled up to a wealth of generosity. But this grace of giving that the Macedonians excelled at was because they gave themselves first to the Lord, and then by the will of God to Paul and Titus and the others. It was their commitment to the Lord that had allowed them to grow in this grace of giving. If guilt is driving your giving, then it’s better not to give at all! God loves a cheerful giver, not a stingy or reluctant one. It’s always amusing to me that we would think that God depends on our giving, as if He couldn’t accomplish what He wants without it! Don’t forget that God is the one who uses the widow’s mite to accomplish great things! Don’t forget that God owns all things, and that all that we have is a trust from Him, a stewardship of His gifts! Don’t forget that God is an expert of making scarcity turn into plenty!

So if it’s not guilt that drives our giving, what then? And how do I overcome my reluctance or unwillingness to give? As Paul wanted the Corinthians to excel in every way, in their faith, speech, knowledge, earnestness, love, and also this grace of giving, so also God wants us to grow in this grace along with those other things. We at Emmanuel have done well in giving for a small church, and have often shown extra generosity at the end of the year when things are tight. But that doesn’t mean we don’t still have much room to grow, both as individual givers, and as a congregation. In order to grow in this grace, we first need to break free from our old sinful patterns of thinking, and second, we need the grace of God to come in and shape our lives. We need the infinite, intangible, inexplicable abundance of joy that God gives, that makes His Divine Arithmetic work. We need God in the equation to throw the balance from empty to overflowing. Without God, poverty remains poverty, and empty remains empty. And I mean more than our financial resources…I mean our hearts!

The grace of giving is something we grow in; we aren’t naturally very generous givers. Giving can be painful to our sinful flesh. We feel tied to the money we have, no matter how much or little we have. There’s always something more important to put that money toward: some bills, an extra furnishing around the house, some new clothing item we want to splurge on, the latest technology or book or movie, whatever it might be. God can have what’s left at the end of the month. So we practice “last-fruits” or “leftover” giving, rather than “firstfruits” giving.

But on the other hand, we can resolve to practice “firstfruits” giving. One way is to set aside a certain amount of money, a percentage of every paycheck, before we do all our other spending. And there can be a sense of release in giving it, knowing that it was never really ours in the first place. It’s a recognition that the whole reason we can give at all is because God blessed us, and it’s all His anyway. “We give Thee but Thine own, what e’er the gift may be. All that we have is Thine alone, a trust O God from Thee.” (LSB 781) When we give from the top, as firstfruits giving, we begin to learn the joy of giving, and understand the “abundance of joy” that overflowed in a wealth of generosity from the saints of Macedonia. And we’ll find that we begin to grow in this grace of giving, and will desire to seek ways to help others who are in need. That we won’t want to be left out of the opportunity to help other saints in need. We’re still free to give whatever amount we choose, and should do so according to how our heart moves us.

Someone has said that the way we give is an indication of how much our personal wealth matters, and can reveal whether it has become an idol for us. So what does your giving reveal about the spiritual richness or spiritual poverty of your heart? Even large sums of money can be given from a spiritually poor heart, if they are given reluctantly, selfishly, or as our “leftovers.” Again the example of the widow’s mite shows that even pennies can be given from a spiritual richness of heart filled with open generosity. I know that for me it was hard initially to form that regular habit of giving, and that there’s still always that little questioning voice that wonders what extra things I could have or would be able to buy if I hadn’t given this to the church. But once you determine in your heart what you want to give, and set your mind to giving it, then you can begin to experience the joy of giving and not worry about what you would have spent that money on. And you may even find yourself opening up to new opportunities for giving that you hadn’t seen before, but that you participate in because of that growing grace of generosity.
God rewards giving, but the reward isn’t that we will be richer physically, but we will be richer spiritually. We can discover the joy of giving and seeing someone else helped. But we should also do our giving in such a way that others don’t see it, or that we don’t do it for show. Our giving should be an act between us and God. You cannot fully know the grace of giving until you experience the joy of giving.

As God breaks down our old patterns of self-centeredness, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ builds up this grace of giving within us. For we cannot know or truly understand giving apart from God’s giving to us in Jesus Christ, and how Christ gave Himself for us. Paul describes where this grace comes from, the grace that filled the Macedonian church. He says, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich.” Again, the miracle of Divine Math! From Jesus’ poverty, we become rich! Though He was rich, Jesus became poor, for our sake. So the Macedonians’ genuine love was really just modeled after Jesus’ love, who overflowed with a wealth of generosity from His own severe test of affliction, from His extreme poverty, and most of all His abundance of joy. He emptied Himself of every earthly possession (Phil. 2:1-11) and all His heavenly glory, to walk the earth in dusty sandals and to sleep in deserted places or borrowed beds, all so that He could give His riches to us.

Not that He wants to make us materially rich, and give us more money and possessions—the very things we’re so prone to idolize. But rather He wants to make us spiritually rich—to have the blessings of salvation and life that only come from Him. He wants us to know the kind of abundant joy that is the intangible factor that can change what seems like a hopeless situation of poverty or affliction into a time where we can count our blessings, and even overflow with generosity to those less fortunate than us. I would suggest that we as a church identify some pressing need here in our own community, so we can join together to help those less fortunate than us. We have been made spiritually rich! Many of us have also been made materially rich! God has given this for us to share and to use in the service of our neighbor, whom we’re to love. Whether in poverty or in supply, we can still give from our hearts as Christ has moved us.

This grace of God is simply His undeserved favor and love for us. We did nothing to earn or deserve His love, but He generously pours it out for us. He forgives when we do wrong, even though we don’t deserve it. And this is the grace that He gives us, the grace that motivates giving. Even the kind of Macedonian giving-beyond-our means. The kind of giving that trusts in God and His provision for us. Of course God cannot give beyond His means, because He is the possessor of all things, and His generosity is endless. But He alone can create that kind of giving in us, because He can supply everything beyond what we could ever ask for or imagine.

When we’re wrapped up and surrounded with the amazing generosity of God, when we have Christ’s riches pouring out through all our life, drowned in the forgiveness of sins in Baptism, dwelling on the riches of His peace, and growing in His grace for us—then we’ll experience the abundance of joy that the Macedonians knew in their poverty and affliction. We’ll experience the overflowing wealth of generosity that moves us to give from the spiritual richness of the heart. By giving in this way, we’ll become participants in the generosity of God, as our hands are extended to help beyond even our ability to do so. For with God in the equation, joy and generosity are bound to happen! Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:

1. What is the surprise of “Divine Arithmetic?” How did in show among the Macedonians? What explains how they “begged” Paul to let them participate in giving even beyond their means?
2. What are the struggles and afflictions you face in today’s economy? What are your blessings even in the midst of this? Name them or write them down. Read Phil. 4:12-13
3. How did God turn scarcity into plenty in these Biblical examples? Who was it that provided when there was need? Genesis 41-46; Exodus 15:22-17:7; 1 Kings 17:1-16; Mark 5:30-44; Mark 12:41-44.
4. What does our giving reflect about our hearts? Is guilt an acceptable motivation for giving? How do we grow in the grace of giving then? What turns the tables (and our hearts)?
5. What’s the difference between giving from what’s left and “firstfruits” giving? What steps can we take to move in that direction?
6. What is one nearby human need in our community that we could support as a congregation?
7. How does Jesus’ becoming poor make us rich? What is the wealth He offers to us? Define “grace.” John 1:17; Rom. 5:15

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