Generosity

by David Baer, July 3, 2016

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Text: 2 Corinthians 8:1-15

My family has some incredibly generous neighbors here on East Orchard Street. The family that lives across the street from us came over to say hello when Amy and I were first unpacking all our things ten years ago, and they’ve been a blessing to us over the years, inviting us over to come warm up in the week after Hurricane Sandy, picking up our Christmas tree and its broken ornaments after it toppled when we were away, and answering a late-night call for a place to sleep for our daughter when her brother decided to arrive three weeks early. And there’s another family down the street that has been wonderful as well—they’ve got three girls, and they’ve given us more than our fair share of hand-me-downs, which have been all the more valuable to my daughter because they come from “the big girls” that she admires so much.

Generosity with neighbors comes naturally—though maybe not as often as it should. But when you share things in common with a neighbor—like children, or a similar faith or occupation—it becomes easy to put yourself in their shoes. When you see them in need, you think, “I’ve been there,” or “I could be there.”

As Christians we’re called to generosity by a God whose love is not limited by our human boundaries of family, neighborhood, or nation. God’s love for the world in Jesus is meant to inspire us to a generosity that reaches out to bless those in need wherever they might be.

Paul writes to the church in Corinth about just this kind of generosity. He and they have experienced grace together—first in the sharing of the good news of Jesus that gathered this community, and most recently in the reconciliation they have made with each other after a difficult visit. But now Paul is no longer focused on a painful past, but on how to keep the Corinthian church connected with the larger community of believers and growing spiritually.

Paul is making an appeal for money that will go to the poor Jewish Christians belonging to the mother church in Jerusalem. The church in Corinth, consists of Gentile Christians, and it’s worth remembering that when Peter and then Paul first began sharing the good news of Jesus with people outside the Jewish faith it was controversial. Ugly rumors flew and a meeting was called to discuss the question of whether Gentiles needed to become Jewish first before they could be baptized as followers of Jesus. Would they have to follow all the commandments of the Torah? Would they have to keep kosher and celebrate Jewish festivals, and would the men have to be circumcised? In the end, a gathering of elders, including the apostles, decided that Gentiles could become part of the church as Gentiles, without converting. But one request the council made of Paul was that he “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10), that is, that he should encourage the communities he founded to take part in the sharing of material resources that the Christian community had practiced from the very beginning (Acts 2:44-45,4:32-35). What Paul is doing here is making good on the promise he made to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem.

The folks in Corinth have already contributed a token amount to the fund. And that was an important gesture in the process of restoring their relationship with Paul. It showed that they thought he was trustworthy—in those days, you had to trust somebody who was asking you to give cash to be delivered to people you didn’t know hundreds of miles away. But now Paul wants them to up their commitment. It’s kind of fun to hear him prod the Corinthians by pointing out just how much those other churches in Macedonia have contributed. Paul says, “We know how poor they are, but they were just begging us to let them give more. Now let’s see if your generosity is any match for theirs!” Paul lets his human side show, that’s for sure. But there’s much more than competitive hype in what he says next.

Paul says three things about generosity. He says it’s modeled on Jesus Christ. He says it’s measured in enthusiasm. And he says it’s aimed at equality.

Generosity is modeled on Jesus Christ. Jesus was rich, Paul says. It’s not that he had a lot of money, but that as the Son of God he had everything. He could have remained safe in the invulnerability of his home in heaven, but he didn’t stay there. He came to be with us. He came to experience hunger and thirst and fatigue. He came to touch diseased bodies and heal them, to give time and attention to unacceptable people and accept them, and finally to lay down his life out of love for the world. He gave up all that he had for us. And because he did, we have forgiveness, a place in God’s family, and life with God forever. That’s what Paul means when he says, “[Y]ou 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.” Our generosity with one another is made possible and given its shape by the generosity God has shown us in Jesus. We are meant to give generously because we have received so much ourselves. Generosity is modeled on Jesus Christ.

But Paul also wants these folks to know that generosity is measured in enthusiasm. Jesus came down from heaven and gave his life. There’s nobody who can give a gift like this. But Jesus praised a poor widow for putting her last two pennies into the Temple treasury box. And Mother Teresa, who dedicated her life to serving the poor in Calcutta, was heard to say that we shouldn’t look for big things to do, but to do small things with great love. In the same way, Paul wants his friends in Corinth to use their material wealth to bless the poor, but the raw numerical take isn’t the most important thing to him. What matters, Paul says, is what their gift demonstrates about their enthusiasm for helping their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem for the sake of Jesus: “if the eagerness is there,” Paul writes, “the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have.” An enthusiastic gift is going to involve sacrifice—that’s how you know the enthusiasm is there. But those of modest means shouldn’t feel bad about a gift that expresses their enthusiasm, even if the amount is less than what others are able to give.

Gabby Douglas, the winner of the gold medal in the all-around individual gymnastics competition at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, will be competing in this week’s Olympic team trials in San Jose, California.1 One of the amazing things about Douglas’s story is that her mother, Natalie Hawkins, actually sold some of her jewelry, so that her daughter could continue her training. She allowed her daughter to move from Virginia Beach, where they live, to Iowa, so that she could have access to the coaches and facilities she would need to pursue her dream. Natalie Hawkins, a single mother of four, saw something remarkable in her daughter from the time she was a toddler cartwheeling and tumbling around the house. She didn’t completely understand it. She didn’t know where it would take her family. But she knew it was worth making sacrifices.2 That’s enthusiastic generosity. That’s the kind of generosity we’re called to live out toward those in need.

Lastly, Paul wants them to know that generosity is aimed at equality. Paul says, “[I]t is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.” Paul makes a subtle reference to a story from the Hebrew scriptures: “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” This is from the story of God feeding the Israelites with manna during their forty-year journey through the wilderness (Exodus 16:18). It’s worth thinking about why Paul chooses to bring up this story. He wants the folks in Corinth to see their wealth as a blessing given for all of God’s people. He wants them to know that God intends for them to have their daily bread, to have their basic needs taken care of. But he also wants them to understand they’re called to a generosity that is about ensuring all of God’s people get their daily bread as well.

Generosity is aimed at equality. It’s measured in enthusiasm. And it’s modeled on Jesus Christ. As we gather around the Communion Table this morning, I want to encourage you to think about where God wants to call forth generosity in you. When you consider the your immediate community or the wider world, where is your heart pricked by an imbalance between blessings you enjoy and the needs of others? Is there an inspired passion, like the one Natalie Hawkins felt for her daughter’s gifts, welling up inside you? How is God trying to mold your life in the shape of Jesus? At the Table we’re reminded of just how rich we are, just how much we’ve been given. Jesus’ body broken for us, his blood shed for us—these gifts are meant to bear fruit as God shapes us for lives open to giving just as richly as we have received.

Would you pray with me?

O God, you are rich in mercy and love toward us, your children. You sent us your Son Jesus Christ, who is the true bread from heaven and food of eternal life. Nourish and strengthen us with your grace so that we might overflow with love for you and our neighbors. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.

Footnotes

  1. http://www.sanjose2016.com/athletes/. Accessed 7/3/2016.

  2. Camira Powell, “Gabby Douglas Mother Sold Her Jewelry to Help Her Daughter Win Gold Medal.” PolicyMic, Aug 2, 2012. http://www.policymic.com/articles/12238/gabby-douglas-mother-sold-her-jewelry-to-help-her-daughter-win-gold-medal. Accessed 8/5/2012.

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