Sunday, March 10, 2013

Poverty and Generosity (2 Corinthians 8:1-3) (Sermon for March 10th)

Our theme this Lent is the joy of Christian generosity. Our text is two chapters from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians – chapters eight and nine. In these chapters Paul is writing to his Christian friends in the Greek city of Corinth, encouraging them to get involved in a giant fundraising project he’s organizing for the benefit of the poor in Jerusalem. As I’ve already said in this series, we don’t know why the Christians in Jerusalem were going through a time of such extreme poverty, but we do know that Paul obviously felt it deeply and wanted the Gentile Christians all over the world to come together as the Body of Christ and help out.

So we’ve been exploring different themes in these two chapters as we’ve gone through Lent. We started on the first Sunday of Lent by looking at Jesus as the greatest example of gospel generosity. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 8:9 ‘For you know the grace 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’. Grace means unconditional love, and so as we follow the example of Jesus and give of our time, our talents, and our money, our giving will be unconditional, not dependent on the worthiness of the recipient. We also noted that there is a ‘downwardly mobile’ element to Christian giving; Jesus’ giving to us made him poorer, and so we should expect as Christians to have a lower standard of living than others who make the same income we do, because we are learning the joy of generosity.

On the second Sunday of Lent, Susan helped us look at giving as a part of the balanced Christian life, of Christian commitment. Paul talks about his Christian friends in Macedonia who were poor themselves, but who were also very generous. The secret was their commitment to Christ: ‘They gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us’ (2 Corinthians 8:5). It’s our commitment to Christ that leads us to embrace generosity as a way of life; we know how much he has given for us, and in our gratitude we long to learn the same joy of generosity.

Last week, the third Sunday of Lent, we talked about the principle of Kingdom equality. Paul says in chapter 8:13-15 that this is not about the Jerusalem Christians taking unfair advantage of their Gentile friends, but rather it’s about a fair balance. At the moment, he says, you Corinthians have plenty and the folks in Jerusalem have little; in the future it might be reversed. But God’s ideal is that there be equality: that everyone has enough and no one has too much. This is a revolutionary idea in our modern world where there is such glaring inequality, but we looked at a couple of Old Testament stories that confirmed that yes, this is indeed what God wants to see, and so we need to think carefully about what that might mean for us in practice as modern Christians.

Today, on the fourth Sunday in Lent, our theme is poverty and generosity. This is a little counter-cultural, because modern fundraising techniques tend to lean heavily on wealth and generosity. Professional fundraisers tend to stress the importance of finding a few potential ‘big givers’ early in a fundraising campaign – people who can give big dollar amounts that impress other potential givers and so serve to ‘shake more donations loose’. But as we’ll see in this passage, Paul doesn’t follow this fundraising philosophy; the examples he uses are in fact people who are quite poor, but who are generous anyway. In this, of course, he’s following the philosophy of Jesus, who told us that the poor widow woman who put two copper coins in the collection box gave more than all the rich folk, because they gave their spare change, while she gave all she had to live on.

An interesting fact that researchers have discovered is that when it comes to Christian giving, wealth is not a reliable indicator of how much people will give. We might assume that rich people will give more generously than poor people, and in terms of dollar amounts they often do, but when giving is worked out as a percentage of total income, the poor often come out surprisingly well. And if we think of sacrificial giving, as Jesus did in his story of the widow and her two pennies – in other words, if we ask the question ‘What has the giver had to give up in order to give this gift? – then we often discover that the poor are miles ahead of the rich.

My personal experience bears this out. Over the years, many Christians have told me that they couldn’t afford to give 10% of their income to God, even though I could see boats and SUVs in their driveways, and they regularly went on holidays to warm places. On the other hand, I also remember a couple in our first parish, in about 1980, whose net income for the year was around $1600, who told me that they couldn’t afford not to tithe, because God’s promise to support them was far more secure than money in the bank!

The idea that ‘I can’t afford to be generous right now, but later on, when I’m doing a little better, then I’ll be able to give’ is a myth. It never happens. Rather, the principle that we see in 2 Corinthians 8:1-3 is generosity in the midst of poverty. Look with me at 2 Corinthians 8:1-3:
We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means.

Who are these ‘churches of Macedonia’? They are the Philippians and the Thessalonians, the residents of the cities of Philippi and Thessalonica. Geographically, if you remember that Greece is west and north of the Aegean Sea and modern Turkey is east of it, Macedonia is north of the Aegean, and Corinth is west, just southwest of Athens. When Paul and the early missionaries brought the gospel to Greece they had travelled from Turkey by land, and so they had come to Macedonia before Athens and Corinth, so the churches there were slightly older than the Corinthian church, but only by a few weeks.

What we know is that comparatively speaking the Christians in Macedonia were poorer than the Corinthians. In fact, Paul uses the term ‘extreme poverty’ to describe them. Also, they were apparently going through some sort of persecution because of their Christian faith – that’s what ‘a severe ordeal of affliction’ means.

Now this is very interesting. Here we have a group of Christians who are experiencing extreme poverty, and are also being persecuted for their faith. Paul apparently comes to them, tells them about all the sufferings of the Jerusalem Christians, and asks them to give generously to help out. What do you think would be their natural reaction? I would think it would be quite reasonable for them to respond by saying, “Sorry, Paul, but we’ve got troubles enough of our own – do you think you could add us to the list of people you’re fundraising for?” Isn’t that what you would expect? In fact, if Paul had contracted with Corinthian Fundraising Services, Inc., to do a feasibility study for a fundraising project in Macedonia, they would probably have said, “Don’t waste your time – those folks can’t afford to help!’

But this is not, in fact, what happened. Paul says that there were two things that came together in the experience of the Macedonian Christians, with the effect that they gave generously to the Jerusalem relief fund. These two things were their ‘abundant joy’ and their ‘extreme poverty’.

‘Joy in Christ’ is obviously what Paul means here. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians tells us that the story of how the Thessalonian Christians turned from idols to serve the true and living God has been told all over the Christian world – their conversion story was real and dramatic. In Philippi there wasn’t even a Jewish synagogue, but Paul and Barnabas preached at a place of prayer by the river, and God opened the hearts of a few people to turn to faith in Christ. Obviously the Holy Spirit had been at work in them, because ‘joy’ is listed in Galatians as one of the ‘fruits’ of the Spirit. And here’s the thing: you can’t be joyful and stingy at the same time. Scrooge was not a joyful person! Mean spirited people who are always trying to protect their wallets from scroungers don’t tend to be joyful people either! Joy and generosity go together, but misers don’t tend to be very joyful.

But the other decisive element in the experience of the Macedonians was their own poverty. They knew what it felt like to have very little. When Paul told them the story of those Jerusalem Christians and all the sufferings they were going through, it wasn’t hard for the Macedonians to sympathize with them. Their love leapt across all the barriers of geography and race, because they were parents trying to feed their kids, and Paul was telling them about other parents in the same situation. And what was the result? Paul says, ‘they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means’. I find it very interesting that Paul says very clearly that the Macedonians could not afford to give, but they did so anyway, and God honoured them for it.

How much did they give in actual money amounts? We’re not told. I’m guessing that if Paul had persuaded four or five of his rich Corinthian friends to give generously, those four or five might have given more than all the Macedonians, but they would still have been giving out of their spare change. But Paul chose to use the Macedonians as an example, because they gave not only joyfully, but also sacrificially.

So what do we learn about Christian generosity from this passage? Let me conclude by pointing out four truths.

First, the joy of Jesus melts hard and ungenerous hearts. Why is this? Because the fundamental Christian experience is the experience of the unconditional generosity of God. ‘Amazing grace – how sweet the sound – that saved a wretch like me’, wrote John Newton. He knew himself to be a sinner – he was very conscious of all the evil things he had done – and yet God had loved him anyway, had drawn him into a living relationship with Christ, had poured out his love on him. What an act of amazing generosity! And we too, if we’re honest, are well aware of how far we fall short of what God wants us to be. And yet God continues to love us and be patient with us, and we are aware of his presence and his help, despite our many failures. God is so generous to us! How can we be aware of that and fail to be transformed into generous people ourselves?

First, the joy of Jesus melts hard and ungenerous hearts. Second, people who have themselves suffered can more readily sympathize with those who are suffering. This is so obvious that I don’t really need to comment on it. Obviously, if you’ve had the experience of wondering where your next meal is going to come from, you can more readily sympathize with people in that situation. And if you’ve been helped in your suffering by the generosity of others, you can more readily appreciate how vital that generosity is.

Third, it’s a myth that we’ll start giving generously when we can better afford it. When will that day come? What actually happens, in practice, is that the more my income increases, the more my lifestyle expands, and I still won’t have enough! I’ll need two cars and an RV and a newer computer and so on, and I’ll always be able to find a good reason for why I need them. If I wait until I can afford it, I’m never going to start. Because do you know what’s happening here? What’s happening is that the false god of wealth is quietly wrapping his chains around my heart, and the richer I get, the more surely I’m going to be hooked. The truth of the matter is that if I don’t give generously when I’m poor, I probably won’t give generously when I’m rich either.

And that leads to the fourth thing: the time to start learning the joy of Christian generosity is always now. The biblical principle is this: “Those who are faithful in small things will be faithful in big things”. The time to learn to give to the poor is now - no matter what my level of income may be. If I consider myself poor, then I should rejoice that I can learn the joy of Christian giving before the love of money has me hopelessly hooked. And if I’m rich - and remember, in terms of the whole world, every one of us here is rich - then I need to get started as quickly as I can, before money chains my heart to the earth even more securely. It’s not a question of what I can afford. It’s a question of my priorities, of who comes first in my heart. If I wait until I can afford it, I’ll never start. Start now. That’s the fourth principle.

Let me go round that one last time. First, the joy of Jesus melts hard and ungenerous hearts. Second, people who have themselves suffered can more readily sympathize with those who are suffering. Third, it’s a myth that we’ll start giving generously when we can better afford it, and therefore, fourth, the time to start learning the joy of Christian generosity is always now. This fourth week of Lent, let’s think prayerfully about these things, and ask the Lord what the next step is for us in learning the joy of Christian generosity.

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