Saturday, November 12, 2016

Saints Alive

2 Corinthians 8:1-5
November 6, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our scripture reading today comes from Paul’s second letter to the churches of Corinth. Paul had an intense relationship with the Corinthians. He loved them, cared deeply for them, and wanted them to grow in their faith. But there had been disappointments in his ministry with them. They tended to be attracted to other preachers who seemed more glamorous. They didn’t always listen to his teaching. But Paul was intent on helping the members of the church in Corinth live as disciples of the living Christ. This part of the letter concerns the collection that Paul is taking up for the Christian in Jerusalem who are in deep poverty. Earlier in his letters, Paul has instructed the Corinthians about taking up a collection when they gather for worship on the Lord’s day. Now, Paul encourages them to offer their best in support of the church. Paul’s hope and prayer for those Christians was that they would live fully into the overwhelming grace of God. This passage concerns God’s grace and its many levels and layers of meaning, but it is the preamble to a beautiful sermon about the effects of that grace on our lives. Let’s listen for God’s word of grace in 2 Corinthians 8:1-5.

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; 2 for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3 For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, 4 begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— 5 and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

I was doing some stewardship research last week and ran across something I have never seen before. At least I thought I had never seen this before. It was an advice page for fundraising for non-profits, particularly churches. The title of the article was, “Are You Beating the Competition?”[1] It was about how non-profits are competing for the donor dollar, and how important it is to have a competitive edge with potential givers.

See, there are lots of non-profit and charitable organizations who want your money – now, or later. You get those mailings – from your college alumni association, from the Heart Association, the CGH Health Foundation, United Way. They send you a glossy brochure, or a constant contact email, and a slick fund appeal that tells you why you should support them.

And then you get your letter and pledge card from the stewardship committee of First Presbyterian Church. This year, you not only got a letter and a pledge card, but also your very own Flat Calvin. Printed on card stock. In color. Now, THAT is a competitive edge in church stewardship, amiright?

The Apostle Paul was writing to encourage the saints in Corinth to give generously to the saints in Jerusalem, so he tries a competitive approach. Paul isn’t competing against some other church. He’s trying to inspire the competitive spirit of the Corinthians, trying to get them to outdo the Macedonians. Paul just figures these folks in Corinth are so eager to outdo each other that surely they will want to outdo the Christians in Macedonia. He had earlier made a similar kind of speech to the Macedonians, about how eager the Corinthians were to contribute.

It was, you know, kind of a pennant race of financial stewardship. That might be an interesting way to approach this season – set up teams, and brackets, with pledge-offs instead of playoffs. There’s actually fun group online that holds a March Madness for saints – you choose your saints and your brackets, then see how they do.

Fortunately for me, that is not how financial stewardship works. It never has – even in the first century, there was just a letter, encouraging the saints to be eager in giving. No catchy stewardship slogan. No Flat Calvin, of course.

The Macedonians’ generosity surprised Paul, I think. After all, the Macedonians have suffered and struggled. They are in extreme poverty, but even so, they are joyful. They are in a severe ordeal of affliction, but overflowing in generosity. In fact, Paul writes, these Macedonians, in spite of their troubles, are jostling each other out of the way to get their pledge cards turned in. They are so eager to give that they can hardly wait for the offering plates. They were so anxious to be generous that they BEGGED for the chance to give!

Wow, Paul says to the Corinthians, betcha can’t outdo that!
Then he goes on to say even more:

“Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge,
in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—
so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.
I do not say this as a command,
but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.
For you know the generous act of 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.”

Well now, there’s a competitive edge – an appeal to gratitude: your gratitude to God, for God’s gracious acts in Jesus Christ, who was willing to give everything – everything! – on your behalf. Paul is essentially asking Christians to be imitators of Christ, and thereby be models of Christian stewardship. If we are anywhere near as generous as Christ, we will excel in our zeal, and our generosity.

You don’t see that in your United Way letter. You don’t. And here’s why.
Your giving to the cancer society or the museum or the children’s fund or the United Way are motivated by a decision you make. Perhaps you may be thankful for some care or service those agencies gave you; but more than likely you are simply compassionate toward others. They will send you a thank you letter, and maybe some address labels. They are competing for your donations along with every other non-profit, and they are reaching out with requests to every person they can.

In the case of our church, you, the members, are the only constituents we have. We don’t send out a pledge letter to everyone in the county, nor do we buy mailing lists from marketing companies. We don’t send you premium prizes, greeting cards, or address labels. Your gifts and pledges to the church are, we hope, motivated by your knowledge of the love God has made for you. We’re not trying to calculate what our competitive edge might be. First Presbyterian Church doesn’t have a marketing distinctive as a church. We don’t have any tote bags or coffee mugs or stickers for you. Your gifts won’t get you in the platinum circle. I’m not even going to compare you to the Presbyterians over in Dixon.

Well, I guess we do have one edge over all the other competitors for your gift.
You know what it is, right? It’s grace.

That word grace appears ten times in this chapter of second Corinthians. It gets translated as divine favor, good will, generosity, privilege, gift. The Greek word is “charis.” Grace is undeserved favor. Grace is all gift. Grace is generosity, and gratitude, and thanksgiving.
All that in one word: Charis. Grace

The trouble with grace is, I can’t hold it out to you as a reward.
You don’t get grace for being generous.
You don’t get grace for being good.
You don’t get grace for being active in the church.
You don’t get grace for being in worship.
You just get grace for being.

Just being.

Grace is plentiful, and it is costly, but not to those who receive it. Our pledges to the church’s ministry are a response to that grace. We can’t possibly give in proportion to that which we have received. We can give in proportion to those gifts we each have: the singer can give voice, the cook can bring food, the encourager can give words of hope. And each one of us can give according to our financial means. The Apostle Paul advised those in the church in Corinth if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has- not according to what one does not have. … it is a question of a fair balance:

“The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” The gifts we bring – in any amount, whether the Biblical starting point of ten percent of all we have, or some other amount of offering – the gifts we bring should be given in proportion to our gratitude, and as a joyful thanksgiving offering to God.

Gratitude and generosity are all a response to grace.

Those of you who have traveled in the Southern United States are surely familiar with the restaurant chain called Waffle House. It’s a destination for many travelers, a place to stop on the road. It’s open 24 hours a day and the menu includes all kinds of food, but for most people, breakfast is the meal to eat at Waffle House. There’s an added attraction in that often, the waitresses call you “hon.” The story goes that a traveler from the north, a Yankee, stopped at Waffle House for breakfast. The Yankee ordered a hearty breakfast of eggs, biscuits, gravy and sausage. When the waitress brought the plate, it included an additional item – a white, creamy substance that looked like Cream of Wheat, topped with butter. The Yankee looked over the plate and signaled the waitress to come back.

She came, coffee pot in hand. “Yes, hon?”
The Yankee pointed to the unexpected food on the plate. “What is that?”
In surprise, the waitress said, “Well, honey, that’s grits!”
“I didn’t order grits,” the traveler said.
“Oh, honey,” the waitress answered. “You don’t order grits. They just come.”

Grace, like grits, just comes.
Friends, through God’s grace, we are saints alive.
With each sunrise, we rise, gifted with a new day.
With each breath, and every heartbeat, our bodies signify the gift of our lives.
In every drop of rain or flickering campfire, we can see nature’s beauty.
In every interaction with one another, we have the opportunity to care.
Every prayer can open our hearts to God’s abiding presence; every song of praise can join our voices with the music of the spheres. There will come a day for each one of us when our eyes will not see and our hearts will be stilled, when we join the saints and angels in the church triumphant. But now, today, we are saints alive, blessed beyond measure.

So we give ourselves to God in gratitude, to live as saints in the light of God’s grace.
As we come to this table,
we come from many different places and circumstances.
We come as weary travelers, pausing along the road for meal.
We come as children of the same family, to a meal of celebration.
We come knowing that we are welcome,
that this bread and this cup are for us.
We come in joyful trust to receive all that God offers.
We come to receive the bread of life, the cup of grace.
We do not have to ask, or beg, or wait, or plead.
God’s grace, like grits, just comes.
It just comes.

Thanks be to God!


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