Monday, November 15, 2010

Excellent Grace

11/14/2010 Bethany
Psalm 112
Mark 12:41-44 (children)
2 Corinthians 8:1-12, 9:6-15

Visiting a gypsy congregation in Spain, the offering ... separate baskets for men and women, served by male/female usher corps, counted up front, prayer concluded with something like “we thank you for $15 given by the men and $19 given by the women!”

Here at Bethany, we talk about a spirituality that is giving, faithful, and real. Today, we look at one of the most amazing biblical texts specifically related to giving.

Paul’s funding appeal to the Corinthians is described as “the first fund-raising letters in western history to request the voluntary contribution of funds from one community to aid another” (Lodge 1991, 59). It’s a remarkable piece of writing, both for what is included and for what is never mentioned. Nowhere do we see graphic description of the famine in Jerusalem or stories of impoverished and malnourished children. Nowhere do we see Paul appeal to his own personal authority (“because I said so”) or to the biblical tradition of the tithe. (He may have viewed this as extra giving, but we have no clarity on that in the text.) Instead, he tells them, “each one should give as decided in the heart – not begrudgingly or under pressure – for ‘God loves a cheerful giver’” (9.7). In Eugene Peterson’s The Message, the phrase for “begrudgingly or under pressure” is “sob stories and arm twisting”. There is none of that here.

The passage is framed by the “grace of God”, quite literally. The opening verse declares, “We want you to know about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia.” The closing reflects on “the surpassing grace of God that he has given you” (8.1, 9.14). Structurally, it comes in three sections. The first section focuses on giving from the perspective of poverty, the third section focuses on giving in the context of abundance – but neither poverty nor abundance are construed in simple economic terms. Everything is about grace! The first section is full of challenge, the third is full of promise.

And the second section, which was not read for us this morning, is focused on process, with an amazing degree of transparency. Paul wants them to know that the collection and distribution of this gift from Gentile Christians for Jewish Christians is being handled prudently, with multiple layers of oversight. In relation to this second section, I think about the way we are transitioning to a new accounting process that will provide much greater transparency, oversight, and understanding to this important part of our life together. And, I think about how we have already transitioned the contribution records to a much more manageable and nimble system. The Council and I take your trust seriously and echo the words of Paul in 8.20 and 21: “We intend that no one should blame us about this generous gift that we are administering, for we intend to do what is right not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of others.”

Around the process piece, Paul addresses his appeal to the Corinthians, an appeal to “excel in this grace”. He writes, “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 grace” (8.7; NIV has “grace of giving” NRSV has “generous undertaking”; the literal expression is “grace”). When we think of grace, and excelling in grace, we may talk about the grace of an ice skater or dancer – it is beautiful and powerful, it has impact. And, we may speak of a “gracious host”. Giving is a grace and, from Paul’s perspective, it’s time for God’s people to be excellent in this particular grace.

Excelling in this grace means making generosity a priority
“Voluntarily gave” (8.3)
"First to the Lord and then to us” (8.5)
“Match your eagerness to completing it” (8.11)
“Made up your mind” (9.7)

“The one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (9.6). Surely, there is a contrast here between sowing bountifully and sowing sparingly. But, what we miss in English is that the word translated “bountifully” is literally “blessing”, as in “sow blessing” or “sow on the basis of blessing”. The same Greek term shows up in the prior verse, translated there as a “bountiful gift”, but this is NOT the word “gift”. Paul is using word play. The word for blessing is “eulogia”. The typical word (and expected in the context of 9.5) for a contribution is “logeia” (Georgi 1992, 93). Those who “sow blessing” will “reap blessing”.

In the ancient world, there was a well developed folk theology for the agricultural cycle. At harvest time, you left a gift for the god, and the term for that gift was “blessing” (Betz 1985, 98-100). “Blessing” is associated with harvest, with reaping, but NOT with sowing. For a farmer to sow blessing meant that everything he put into the ground (and ancient farmers put everything they had into the ground) was a gift to God. No wonder whatever he reaped was a gift. With this phrase, Paul shares a vision for a generosity that is total, and a generosity that comes first in our lives.

Excelling in this grace means embracing the poverty of Jesus
For you know the generous act 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 (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Now, when Paul refers to this example of Jesus, to this “generous act” – literally the Greek term “grace” once again – he is encouraging us to find practical ways to enrich others by unloading our wealth, by becoming a little poorer than we were before. Practically speaking, giving implies a loss. You’ve got less to spend on yourself or your family.

Paul refers to the Macedonian disciples who gave “according to their means” and even, for some of them, “beyond their means”. Paul nowhere condones debt and nowhere says that we should all give to the same degree. He simply encourages us to excel in grace, and the pattern for grace is found in God and in Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world that he GAVE . . .” (John 3.16).

One of my college summers I spent in Spain, working with a former pastor of mine. It was a wonderful experience and opportunity, but before going I just wasn’t sure how the dollars and cents were going to work out. I was paying my way through college, this was just one more expense and it didn’t pay. Then I was surprised by the gift of a friend, another student, who gave $200 she didn’t really have to enrich me and the kingdom of God.

This week on FB I asked the question: “How have you been unexpectedly blessed?” Folks responded with stories of cards and visits and prayers – a humbling outpouring of love and support, and the gift of children. If we are paying attention, our lives are full of blessing, “enriched,” as Paul says, “in every way” (9.11). That’s because of Jesus’ poverty. Part of receiving these many blessings, part of being enriched in every way, is embracing the poverty of Christ Jesus that underlies all blessing.

Excelling in this grace means living the abundance of the grace cycle
The third section, in chapter 9, deals particularly with abundance. Paul pulls out every word in the dictionary to describe God’s provision and plenty – provide, supply, distribute, give, enrich, increase, overflow, multiply. And, over and over again, the word “every”. A literal reading of verses 8 and 11 (which actually form the backbone of one super-size sentence):

8 And God is mighty to make every grace overflow in you, in order that in everything, at every time, having every necessary thing, you might overflow in every good work, . . .
11 in every way being enriched in every generosity which produces through us thanksgiving to God . . . .

Grace is depicted as a cycle just like the cycle of agriculture. You sow, you reap. And the more you sow, the more you reap . . . the agricultural economy expands. Grace is at the heart of the kingdom economy. The more grace goes into circulation, the more grace there is. This is the number one reason why we give. The stories of God’s grace at work in our lives, the stories of God’s grace in circulation in our world. This is why we do what we do, why we are who we are – giving, faithful, real. Excel in the grace of giving, give out of abundance.

Adam Hamilton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, tells the story of a family vacation. It was over his birthday and everyone asked what he’d like to do: Take a walk around the lake. His daughter just has to stop and shop and try on every hat in the store. This is not what he had in mind for his walk around the lake. She finally chooses a hat and, against his advice, spends her entire vacation spending budget on that hat. “It will still be there at the end of the week if you want it then. Don’t let the money burn a hole in your pocket.” He’s not thinking abundance, but scarcity. (Notice that abundance is not the opposite of poverty in Paul, but the opposite of scarcity and limits.) They get back to the cabin and his daughter sits down next to him on a bench overlooking the lake. “Do you like the hat, Dad? Do you like the hat?” A bit noncommittal, but hiding the frustration: “Yeah, it’s all right.” “Great! Cause it’s yours, dad. Happy birthday!”

He was living in scarcity. She was living in abundance. And, though she spent all she had, she was still “enriched in every way”.

Excelling in this grace means making generosity a priority
Excelling in this grace means embracing the poverty of Jesus
Excelling in this grace means living the abundance of the grace cycle

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