September 27, 2020

Imagined Scarcity, Abundant Reality, IVJubilant Generosity

Passage: II Corinthians 9:6–15

“Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
—II Corinthians 9:7

“The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written,

‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”

Paul’s Second Letter to the Church at Corinth is a lot like the letter you recently received from George Wishart and me, or like the ones you get—all the time—from your alma mater or the Art Museum. It was a fund-raising letter. 

It’s the middle of the first century. The Christian Church in Jerusalem is suffering some hard times, and Paul is raising a collection to help them out. He’s asking the daughter Gentile Churches in Greece and Asia Minor to contribute.

Paul doesn’t tell us why the Christians in Jerusalem were having a rough time. Some scholars have guessed that there may have been a famine in Palestine around the middle of the first century.

Others have suggested that the Church at Jerusalem was poor simply because the Christians there were Jewish and had literally given up everything in order to follow Christ. Jews who insisted that Jesus was the Messiah were excommunicated from their synagogues, disowned by their families, tossed out of their businesses or jobs. So Paul asks the Church at Corinth to make a donation to the Jerusalem Church.

Corinth was rich. It was a sprawling, brawling, booming harbor town, a thriving port city, something like New York or Los Angeles, I suppose, flush with cash because of its prosperous business in foreign trade. The Christians at Corinth were probably among the wealthiest believers in the Church of the first century.

In this letter to the Corinthians, Paul shows himself to be a rather crafty little fund-raiser. Paul is the George Wishart of the first century.

First he appeals to their pride. He tells them that he’s been bragging about them to the churches in Macedonia. He says he’s darn proud of their generosity and of their faith. So let me try that time-tested fund-raising strategy. I can genuinely say that I am proud of this congregation: Contributions: $2.2 million. Average Pledge: $3,368. Not bad. Could be higher from folk such as we, but not bad. Thank you for turning your abstract Christian convictions into cold, hard, dense, concrete cash.

After appealing to their pride, Paul appeals next to their competitiveness. He says, “Now listen, friends, far be it from me to suggest how much you ought to give, but allow me to let you in on a little secret. The churches in Macedonia, who don’t have half as much as you do, have already sent boatloads of cash to Jerusalem. You aren’t going to let those poor people over there outdo you in giving, are you?”

It’s a rather common fund-raising ploy, isn’t it? You set up a friendly little race to see who can give the most. My friend Rich is the most interesting man in my world. Rich has two jobs.

His more interesting job is that he is a football referee and baseball umpire in the NCAA. He does all these Big Ten games all over the country—at the Big House and the Horseshoe—and in fact, Rich is the one who assigns the referee teams to their respective games. He’s a Big Zebra among the zebras.

Rich’s less interesting job is that he raises money for the dental school of a prestigious, anonymous Midwestern university which used to have a good football team.

Rich says that whenever he goes out among the alumni to raise funds for some new program which promises to eradicate tooth decay forever, he calls on successful alumnus Dr. Jones, who agrees to give $50,000,  and Rich says, “Boy that’s just great, Dr. Jones. That’s almost half as much as Dr. Jaspers down the block gave us. That’s really generous.” And Dr. Jones goes, “Jaspers gave six figures? Well, I’m not going to let that old coot outdo me; make it $150,000!”

Paul does the same thing. He says to the Corinthians, “You aren’t going to let that other church give more than you do, are you?” And of course, they’re not, so they up the ante, and the church at Jerusalem benefits richly from a little game of oneupsmanship on the other side of the Roman Empire.  Paul brings even the spirit of competitiveness into the service of Christ.

So I’m not above that either. I’ll repeat what Paul says to the Corinthians: “Each of you must give as you have made up your own mind.” But I’ll share this. Giving per member at Kenilworth Union is almost $900. Not bad. But giving per member in the entire Presbyterian Church (USA) is over $1200. Just sayin’.I’m hoping to generate a little holy competitiveness here.

This fall at Kenilworth Union Church we’ve been talking about the virtue of generosity. How apt for Stewardship Sunday. Someone said that generosity is “the magnitude that gives meaning to existence.”[1] The MAGNITUDE that gives meaning to existence. Generosity is moral and spiritual SIZE. Generosity signifies SPACIOUS-NESS.

Do you know people who confront the world with a pinched and narrow aspect? Don’t mention any names. Someone who is not so much bad as small. Parsimonious with praise, abstemious with affection, illiberal with laughter, intolerant of error, stingy with resources?

The words ‘miser’ and ‘miserable’ come from the same Latin source, miser: wretched, deplorable, unhappy. Remember Ebenezer Scrooge before he meets that quartet of harrowing ghosts? “A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self- contained, and solitary as an oyster.”[2]  Misers are invariably miserable.

‘Generous’ means large. It’s not always a compliment, but sometimes a restaurant review will warn you that an establishment serves ‘generous’ portions. It’s like your friendly neighborhood diner; the food might not be good, but at least there’s a lot of it.

Generous means SIZE, spaciousness of spirit, largeness in living, a plenitude of gratitude for the multiple benedictions with which God has littered the path of your life. It’s why so many Americans are so stricken over the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. RBG was a tiny person who lived life large and encouraged the rest of us to expand our moral universe to include the excluded, to treat all human beings by the same standard. RGB created SPACE for us all. Her large life contrasts so vividly with others who only want to build walls, make quotas, and set limits.

You know who else lived a spacious life? Doug Petrie. Judy too. Doug was smart. He was funny. He was unfailingly positive. He encouraged and supported everyone in his world, especially at the church.

In 1992, Kenilworth Union’s centennial anniversary, Judy and Doug coaxed three other church families to contribute $100,000 each to a fund which would underwrite the theological educations of deserving seminarians.

So 28 years ago, a generous gift of $400,000. That fund has been buying M.Div. degrees for almost three decades, and so last year Doug came to see me to find out if the fund had been zeroed out yet. Not in this economy. All those scholarships distributed and still the fund had grown to $1.4 million in 2019. So Doug and Judy decided to make a distribution from that fund to McCormick Theological Seminary on Chicago’s South Side, which serves a very different constituency from our daughters and sons. It was the largest scholarship gift McCormick had ever received.

I’m not sure I’m supposed to be telling you this. Maybe that original gift was supposed to be anonymous. Oh well, Doug is gone, and Judy will forgive me.

The magnitude which gives meaning to existence. Life in God’s unstinting Spirit is not microbial, it is galactic; it is not infinitesimal, it is infinite; it is not provincial but global.

So we will practice Jubilant Generosity.  Paul tells the Corinthians: “God loves a cheerful giver.” The Greek word for ‘cheerful’ Paul uses is hilaron, from which we get our English word ‘hilarious.’ ‘Cheerful’ just isn’t enough to give the sense of it. God loves a hilarious giver, a boisterously joyful one. Jubilant generosity. God loves a person so caught up in the joy of giving that after a while she doesn’t even realize what she’s doing, throwing money away hither and yon with abandon, and pretty soon she’s the object of hilarity. “You give how much to the United Way, to the Cancer Fund, to Kenilworth Union Church? Why, you could buy a month in Europe for that kind of money!”

Peter Gomes puts it like this—the beloved, eloquent Minister to Harvard’s Memorial Church, may he rest in peace—Peter Gomes says:

Be extravagant in your expectations, lavish in your hopes, ambitious in your aspirations, especially for others...John Harvard was a deservedly obscure English clergyman of no particular claim to fame, and no one knew him then, and no one would know him now except for one fact: he made an extravagant gesture, an act of generosity in the form of giving away all his books and half of his money, and we have been living off him ever since.[3]

Extravagant in your expectations, lavish in your hopes, ambitious in your aspirations, especially for others.

[1]Walter Grundmann, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974), vol. 1, p. 11.

[2]Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (originally published in London by Chapman & Hall,1843).

[3]Peter Gomes, “Think Small, Act Large,” in More Sundays at Harvard (Cambridge, MA, 1996, 200–201.