The Question of a Fair Balance
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
First United Methodist Church, July 1, 2018
Pastor Toni Carmer
I've seen it as I've traveled from place to place, but you don't have to go very far to see that some of us have more than others of us.
There are times when we can attribute that difference to work ethic: some work harder and longer or more efficiently to get what they have, while others—for whatever reason, don't. There are some who are limited by illness or other physical or mental or emotional factors. There are some who are limited by their culture (they didn't learn some of the tools needed to do well. Their parents didn't have the skills needed to teach the next generation and so their limitations were passed on). There are some who simply don't live in a setting where they can flourish and they have no way out, or no way of even imagining another possibility. (Over the years we have all seen the pictures of adults and children struggling to get by on barren land, in the midst of drought or some other environmental factor, in war or political oppression). Sometimes we wonder—how was I lucky enough to be born into the family I was born into, in this place and in this time? Wasn't anything I did. And sometimes things just happen. If a person didn't have bad luck they'd have no luck at all. They're going through a rough time.
The church of Jerusalem is going through a rough time. We're not sure exactly why. Looking back in history, it seems there was a famine somewhere during this timeframe, but we also know that the early Christians experienced persecution for their newfound faith. It could be a combination of these things. What we do know is that the Corinthian church had made a commitment to participate in a monetary offering to help the poor and needy in Jerusalem, but they have not yet fulfilled that pledge. Their delay may be related to the relationship issues between the church and Paul that we talked about last week: false teachers who disrespected his ministry and in their teaching tarnished the relationship between he and the church that he'd built. Or it could have simply been, "out of sight, out of mind." It seemed like a good thing to do, but life had pressed in on them, they've been busy, and the offering had fallen down on their list of priorities.
Their relationship newly restored, Paul seeks to get back to the work they had set out to do. He begins his appeal to the Corinthians, listing out their gifts—naming the things they do well. "You excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in your commitment and in your love." These things you do so well! Then he challenges them—"see that you excel as well, in the grace of giving." It's a gift no less important than the others.
Paul is specifically asking for their monetary gifts. For a specific need. The church had earlier said yes, but they haven't yet opened their pocketbooks.
Paul frames his request in a way to encourage their giving. In the verses preceding today's reading (v. 1-6), Paul tells the Corinthians about the Macedonian church and about their generosity in giving toward this collection. He tells the Corinthians about how the other church's faith in God had motivated them to give to the cause and how glad they were to do it. Even though they were going through a difficult time themselves, their "overflowing joy and extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity"(v. 2). It almost sounds like a parent telling an older child not to be a slouch: if you don't get it together, your younger brother or sister is going to surpass you in whatever it is they're talking about [makes for great sibling relationships].
Then, in the verses following today's reading (v. 16-24), Paul lays out the method by which the money gathered for the collection will be handled. Here is what they'll do: Titus, along with two other persons well known by the churches, will accompany Paul as they carry it to its destination. They want to do what is right. They have set up safe-guards so that everyone knows that the money will be handled responsibly and carefully.
After telling them this, for whatever reason, Paul throws in another tidbit that the Corinthians might want to know: because of the generous pledge you made a while back, I boasted on your behalf to the Macedonians. 'See what the Corinthians have pledged! Cool, huh?' Your enthusiasm contributed to their enthusiasm and resulting generosity. You don't want to be unprepared, do you? You don't want your word to be considered unreliable, do you? Perhaps you ought get going: start the fundraisers, pass the collection plates, it's time to put your money where your mouth is.
So these are the things you need to know, Paul tells the Corinthian church: we have a plan laid out to responsibly carry the money, AND—you need to know—your younger brothers and sisters are counting on you do be true to your word. You've been an example to them and you don't want to let them, or us, or yourselves down. But even more important than these things—at the heart of today's reading—is the greater reason for them to give: Christ gave it all up for you. Everything that he had, he gave for you. For your sake he became poor so that you could be rich. In other words, Paul is telling the church: be like Christ in the way you give.
Give out of your faith in him.
Give because he first gave to you.
Give willingly, according to your means. If the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have. The expectation is not that your giving will deplete you, but that your giving will lift someone else up. That there will be a fair balance. At this present time your plenty will supply what they need. In time, their plenty will come to supply what you need. Paul then tells this Gentile church about what the Israelites learned in the wilderness: God provided manna, giving them what they needed every day. If they gathered beyond their need it spoiled and was unusable, but what God provided was sufficient and carried them through.
God provided in the wilderness, God had provided for the young church in Corinth, God would provide for the poor and the needy in Jerusalem through them, and God continues to provide today.
Do we trust that? Do we trust in God's provision—that God will provide what we need? Are we committed to mission and outreach, to partnering with others to make a difference, to build up the Body of Christ, here and in other places as well? Is it a reassuring word, when Paul tells the church that the desire isn't that we have financial difficulties as a result of our generosity—but that we give according to what we have and not according to what we don't have? The questions we always have to ask ourselves, of course, is what is enough? And what more do we really need? That difficult balance of weighing wants and needs…while remembering the manna that went bad when more was taken than what could be used…
More questions to consider: are we responding to the opportunities God lays out for us? Are we listening? How often do we get distracted, and for whatever reason, step back and not respond in situations where we might? I think that had a lot to do with the Corinthians and their giving at this point. They had what they needed, they were fine and they had (once) intended to give generously.
But then they were distracted by other things…
There are times when the need for a generous spirit is overwhelmed by the daily pressures of life. Peter Chin, who blogs on a Christianity Today site called "Third Culture," tells of being in a busy grocery store, a place he hated to go because it was always so crowded. But he needed a can of chicken stock, so he'd come to the store. After getting the can from a shelf, he headed for the checkout lines, scanning them for the one that looked like he could get through it most quickly. He settled on Aisle 4, which was limited to 15 items or fewer, and where only two customers stood between him and his escape. He soon decided, however, that he'd chosen the wrong line. The couple at the front of the line was apparently having some problem with their purchase, and the clerk removed items from the belt as the pair dug through their pocketbook.
Chin says, "I pursed my lips and peered around the customer in front of me to catch a glimpse of the couple who had so perfectly sabotaged my exit from this purgatory. I could see little of them except their dark curly hair and ill-kept clothes. Their heads were down as they continued to fiddle with their pocketbook, and the attendant took more canned items off the belt and placed them in a cart next to her. I didn't really know what was going on, but frankly I didn't care. They had more than 15 items and shouldn't have been there in the first place. I had no compassion on people who couldn't do something as simple as making a purchase at a grocery store. I rolled my eyes as the attendant took their final item off the belt. Finally, the couple shuffled on their way, heads down, their empty shopping bag swinging at their side. All that time, and all for nothing. I shook my head in disbelief, and cast a disapproving look at them as they walked away."
After they left, the man ahead of Chin in line made his purchases quickly, so it wasn't long before it was Chin's turn. As he paid for his can, he saw what the couple had been trying to buy: Similac. Baby formula. Chin quickly surmised that the couple had probably been trying to use one of the city programs like WIC or SNAP, only to learn that the type or size they were trying to purchase wasn't covered. And when they'd looked into their pocketbook for cash, they didn't have enough to buy even a single can. Chin had images of a baby going hungry that night.
Chin was suddenly struck by the callousness of his own impatience. Leaving his own paid-for can on the counter, he ran from the store, hoping to find the couple and buy some cans of baby formula for them. But, of course, they were gone. He ran from one end of the parking lot to the other, even jumping up periodically to see above the heads of the people around him, but with no success.
Eventually Chin went to his car, in which he sat down in shame. He realized that it wasn't selfishness that had prevented him from helping this couple feed their baby -- he'd have gladly paid for the formula had he been aware of what was happening. No, it wasn't selfishness; it was, in his words, "enslavement to my own convenience." A more generous spirit would have caused him to at least try to understand what was happening to the couple ahead of him in line, instead of viewing them as obstacles to his quick departure from the store.
Paul urged the Christians to be like Christ in the way they would give. "Although he was rich, he became poor for our sakes, so that we could be rich."
May we, too, be rich in our generosity. Amen.