In this past month, I have found new appreciation for the Apostle Paul.
You see, on top of being an apostle and a scholar, a writer and mentor; in addition to the work he did as a tanner to pay his own way through ministry; he was also a fundraiser.
I think that tiny detail skipped my attention for so many years, because I didn’t know what it meant to be a fundraiser. I wasn’t aware of the strategies and the prayer and the faith that goes into soliciting money from perfect strangers.
But I do now!
I have spent my entire life hearing that phrase, “God loves a cheerful giver” out of context… and you probably have, too.
While Paul has many other topics to cover in this letter to the people of Corinth, chapters 8 and 9 represent a sort of “stewardship letter” much like many of you received in the mail last week.
Corinth was a rich and powerful city in Greece. The ports had made them wealthy beyond measure. So it is natural that they had resources to spend and to invest and to, yes, even donate to the church.
Paul was encouraged by the apostles in Jerusalem to remember the poor and needy in the city (Galatians 2), and he wanted to honor those who had sent him out in ministry by sending back gifts that could support their work. Much like our apportionments today, the funds he was raising would be used for ministry in the other places the apostles had influence. And Paul knew Corinth would be the place where gifts could be abundant.
In his letter to them, Paul first of all talks about these poor people in Macedonia who have absolutely nothing but the love and grace of God, but somehow managed to pull together an incredible offering to send with Paul. He writes that though they were impoverished and struggling, they heard his plea for money to help the needy in Jerusalem.
From chapter 8: 3-4: “they gave what they could afford and even more than they could afford, and they did it voluntarily. They urgently begged us for the privilege of sharing in this service for the saints.”
And Paul says, all the while, I was telling them about YOUR generosity, you people of Corinth. I was telling them about how much YOU had promised to do. They wanted to be a part of that… part of this incredible opportunity we have to care for the needs of others. They gave out of their poverty, and now it’s your turn.
Paul asks the Corinthians to carefully consider their obligations and to take note of where their resources are needed and then to give cheerfully and jubilantly out of their abundance to the Lord. He wants them to give only what they know they can. Paul didn’t want them to make a commitment they couldn’t fulfill. He wanted them to give freely, and not out of obligation. He wanted them to think long and hard about what they could give and then to do so generously.
I was in Paul’s shoes many times over my work with Imagine No Malaria. And I know what a fine line it was to walk between challenging people to give more than they thought they should and yet not more than they actually could.
On one occasion, a well-intentioned person filled out one of our pledge cards and sent it in with an extraordinary commitment to give over three years $5000. I added the donation to our totals and celebrated reaching a milestone! But then they called me a few weeks later when reality set in and told me, “I want to support this project so very much, I see how much good it is doing and I am so excited about being a part of it, but I simply can’t afford to do so at the level I told you I could.”
And you know what. That’s okay. I told that person we were so thankful for what they could share. We were overjoyed that they felt called to give and worked to make the adjustments they needed.
In chapter 8 of his letter, Paul writes that he wants the Corinthians to give what they can afford. If they can make some adjustments to their life and want to make a sacrifice here and there – great. If they have great resources at their disposal, then by all means, they shouldn’t look upon this call and drop in a few dollars. They need to give what they can actually afford to give. The goal is not to make them suffer or create financial difficulties. The goal is to prayerfully ask what God has blessed them with that they can bless others with.
Not one of us should feel guilty about what we can afford to give. We shouldn’t feel pressured to end our support of other good things in order to give here. Every one of us should hear the call, look at the needs, and then joyfully respond from our resources… whatever they might be.
In the early eighteenth century, a scholar and pastor Matthew Henry wrote: “Money bestowed in charity, may to the carnal mind seem thrown away, but when given from proper principles, it is seed sown, from which a valuable increase may be expected.”
Paul asks the Corinthians to think of their gift as an investment. To sow whatever seeds they can so that the Kingdom of God might bear fruit in the world… and so they might personally experience the joy and grace and abundance that come to us when we freely give.
Our commitment to give financially to this church might not make a lot of sense to the larger world. But we do so because we have seen the good it can do.
In the United Methodist Church, we understand that our gifts not only provide this wonderful space for ministry in this neighborhood, but also help to support Women at the Well and help to build churches other parts of the world. Our gifts help our children to learn more about Jesus, but they also help educate communities about diseases like Ebola and Malaria so that every child has the chance to grow up and live an abundant life. Our gifts raise up leaders among our youth here in Des Moines, but they also are providing scholarships for new pastors in Eastern Europe and the Philippines.
Every dollar given to the church is an investment in the gospel. It is a seed planted. And in time, God will reveal how Faith Hall and our children and the women in Mitchellville and communities like the Bo District in Sierra Leone… how all of these investments and seeds will bear fruit for the Kingdom of God.
That is why we are here, after all.
We are here, in this place, for the Kingdom of God.
We are here to worship and to praise God… the source every breath and snowflake and every good thing.
In our passage from Deuteronomy this morning, Moses encourages the people to remember the long road they have been on… the road that was sustained every step of the way by the grace of God.
God was the one who rescued them from Egypt.
It was the Lord who led them through the desert.
It was God who fed them and gave them drink out of rocks and manna.
And he wants them to remember when they get to the promised land… when their lives settle down and they find good work and have food on the table every night… he wants them to never forget who it was that God them there.
Everything we are and everything we have is a gift. It is grace. It is a blessing.
We are here today because God spoke and light and life came into being.
We are here today because God wanted a relationship with us.
We are here today because God moved in the lives of people like Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the Israelites, James and John and Paul and the Corinthians.
We are here because of the faithful people who were led by God to turn a farmhouse into a church in 1925. We are here because the Holy Spirit moved and breathed life into this congregation.
Today, we are the beneficiaries of God’s grace and love and power that moved through countless generations before us. All the resources and abilities we have are gifts from our Lord and Savior.
And like the Israelites, we should never forget that simple fact.
It is not our own strength that has produced our abundance. No, it is the strength of God that has brought us here.
And God has sown his power and blessing in our lives SO THAT we might bear fruit for the Kingdom.
You see… God made an investment, too. God planted gifts and resources into our lives. God has nurtured this church and helped us to grow so that we might in turn be a blessing. As Paul tells the Corinthians, “God has the power to provide you with more than enough of every kind of grace.”
Grace for living.
Grace for giving.
Grace for working.
Grace for singing God’s praise.
God has made sure that you have what you need in order to serve him.
The Macedonians gave out of their poverty.
The Corinthians gave out of their wealth.
But each gave because they believed they were sowing seeds for the Kingdom of God. And each gave out of joy and thanksgiving for the abundance of what God has planted in their lives.
So today, as we make our commitments to the Lord, may we always remember where our abundance comes from.
May we commit without hesitation.
May we commit without guilt.
May we commit what we have and trust that as God has blessed us, so God will bless others. Amen.