Generosity and Grace

Proper 13,  June 28, 2015

2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Today I am going to talk about money.  Specifically about the role of generosity in the Christian life.  Now you know what that usually means.  Money is generally something we don’t talk about in church, something awkward, like sex or politics – except of course for the annual stewardship sermon. Every now and then we pull out all the stops and preach the fund-raiser sermon, all about how we have to dig deeper and give more in order to balance the church books.

Well, I have no intention of preaching that sermon today. It may be that this is something we will need to talk about at some time, as we try to cope with the expenses of the parish. But I’m not going to talk about it today.  Because I think it is a terrible shame that we only seem to get around to talking about money when we are trying to raise more for the church. It could almost make you cynical, couldn’t it?  And yet an important part of thinking about money – indeed, by far the most important part – is how it relates to our spiritual health. And we can’t have an honest conversation about that when the ulterior motive is to drum up more revenue for the church.  So I won’t be preaching a “stewardship” sermon today. Instead, let us look at one of the apostle Paul’s stewardship sermons, and see what we discover.

In our second reading we find St. Paul in the midst of his life’s work founding churches around Greece.  This wasn’t always a smooth process – 2 Corinthians is full of evidence of conflict with the church at Corinth. It seems that he no sooner turned his back on this church to move on when problems started to emerge. In the midst of all the misunderstandings and hurt feelings, however, Paul is anxious to keep working on another project he has: a collection for the poor and persecuted mother church in Jerusalem.  This collection seems to have been a big deal for him: we hear about it in several of his letters.  The whole idea goes back to his last visit to Jerusalem, when he had been summoned before the council of the apostles to answer for his radical approach of preaching to other nations and making them Christians, without insisting that they follow Jewish religious law.  In the end, the apostles approved of Paul’s mission and sent him on his way with their blessing; and he in turn agreed to take up a collection for the mother church.  This collection had the practical purpose of relieving a poor and hard-pressed Jerusalem church, caught between the Roman authorities and the Jewish religious establishment. But it also had an important purpose for Paul’s churches in Greece. It reminded them that they were not alone, but were bound together with the original church in the Holy Land, with Christians of very different background and customs.  They are to remember the “saints”, the holy men and women of the mother church.  And now that Paul is beginning to plan a trip back to the Holy Land, he is anxious to get the collection going, so that he can take back the monies raised with him.

So who might the “saints” of the mother church be for us today? Maybe not necessarily the church in Jerusalem, although indigenous Christians in Israel remain poor and vulnerable, caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and threatened by Islamic extremism. It might be any of the churches of the Middle East, of Egypt or Syria or Iraq, ancient churches that go back to the time of the apostles, which are now, since the Gulf War, threatened with extinction through bloody persecutions.  It might be the poor churches of Africa or Latin America, churches that bear the image of Jesus’s ministry to the poor and dispossessed of Galilee. The point that Paul would make to us, I suspect, is that we are obliged to show solidarity with these churches. Not just for their sake, as relatively wealthy North Americans helping out our poorer cousins; but especially for our own sake. Just as Paul’s churches in Greece were part of the body of Christ only through their connection with the mother church, so we too can only be part of the body of Christ by being in solidarity with the poorer churches of the world, so rich in faith.

Paul begins his appeal by a bit of a manipulative trick, perhaps – Paul never hesitates to use a little manipulation for the sake of the gospel.  He is writing to the Corinthians, citizens of the most prosperous city in Greece; and he begins by talking about the Macedonians, Christians from the rural backwater, who are both extremely poor and suffering persecution to boot.  And yet they have responded with astounding generosity to Paul’s appeal for another poor and persecuted church.   How often that seems to be the case – that the poor respond with generosity to the needs of others.  Is it because they understand what it is to be in need, and the important of solidarity and generosity. Often it seems to me that it is us of the middle-class who have such difficulty opening our hearts and our wallets to others.

At the core of Paul’s appeal is one crucial word.  That word is grace. The Greek word for grace appears not once, not twice, but seven times in this chapter.  The problem is, it has quite literally gotten lost in translation. Our Bible has translated this one word in a number of different ways: as grace, as privilege, as generous undertaking, as generous act.  Our translators, trying to write understandable English, have made several different things out of what was for Paul one thing. It’s all about grace.

Paul begins by talking about the grace of God granted to the Macedonians, that they have managed to be so generous in the midst of poverty and persecution. Now that’s an interesting way of talking about it: generosity is not a matter of heroic virtue, something they should be patting themselves on the back about. It is rather a gift of God, a particular blessing that has been given them. It’s about the privilege of sharing in this “ministry” to the saints – here again, the Greek says grace. It’s not about how great they are to give so much – it is about how blessed they are. Hmm.

Secondly, Paul refers several times to the collection as a generous undertaking – but here again, what he really says is grace: “we want you to excel in this grace”. Hmm.

And finally, all this grace that is happening in the congregation is connected with that one grace that gives us all life: “For you know the generous act (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.” “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” – there’s that familiar phrase. We say it as the first words of our liturgy every Sunday, we say it at the end of every meeting. How often do we say it without thinking about what it means? The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is his self-giving generosity, by which he sacrificed himself and his privilege for our sake. As Christians, we live and move and have our being in this generosity.

And here’s the thing: we tend to think of the grace of God as one thing, and our generosity as something else. Sure, they are connected: we give out of gratitude for what God has done for us, but it is still a separate decision we make. But for Paul it is all one thing, it is all about living out of the generosity of grace. God surrounds us with generosity, and we simply need to learn to live into it.  When we are generous, like the Macedonians, that too is the grace of God: it is God’s generosity setting us free from our acquisitiveness and our fear, in order to be able to live in the generosity of God.

And we need to be set free. Our culture, our economy runs on scarcity of resources, and it teaches us to be afraid of not having enough. I know that fear myself, and how it often unconsciously governs my life – even though I know it is usually nonsense when I think about it rationally. Paul speaks to that irrational fear in the Corinthians:

I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,
‘The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little.’

The quote at the end is significant. It comes from the Old Testament, from the story of manna in the wilderness. You remember the story: God fed the people with manna, which came each morning as a free gift. People could gather up what they needed for the day; but they could not gather more and hoard it for the next day, for it would spoil. They needed to trust each day that God would provide. What the story describes is something we might call the economy of God, an economy based on generosity and trust, rather than on scarcity and fear.  It is this economy that Paul is inviting the Corinthians – and us! – to enter into, by trusting in grace, in the generosity of God.

So I am not making an appeal for donations today. I might remind you, on the basis of this passage, of the importance of looking after not only our own church, but of remembering the saints in poorer parts of this world. I might even suggest that we are fully part of the church only by being in solidarity with them. But I know that many of you do support them generously, through the Primate’s Fund and others. And that is not really the point today. Because more important than what we do is what we trust in.

So take this as an invitation to reflect on the generous grace of God – on all that you have been given, both materially, and also spiritually by experiencing the generous, self-giving love of Jesus. Take this as a challenge to ask yourself how much of your life is free to live out of this generous grace, passing it on to others – and what parts of your life are still subject to other claims, to the fear of not having enough. And take this as a prayer that we may together find the courage and the freedom to live more purely and naturally the gospel we profess: the gospel of Christ’s freely given generosity and love.