(a sermon for October 20, 2019, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost; third in a series, based on 2 Corinthians 9:6-15)
It’s a wonderful scene from one of the great films of the 1980’s: Chariots of Fire, and it still ranks among my all-time favorites. Now, if you’ve seen this movie (and if you haven’t, why not?), you know that this was the true story of two runners competing in the 1924 Olympics in Paris, one of whom was a Scottish missionary by the name of Eric Liddell. And the scene in question depicts Liddell trying in vain to explain to his sister Jennie why he had decided to put off a Missionary call to China so that first he could compete in those Olympic Games. “Jennie,” he says. “You’ve got to understand… I believe that God made me for a purpose… for China. But he also made me fast… and when I run I feel his pleasure.”
It’s just this little moment in the film, but I think the reason I love it so much is that though I’ll never, ever be confused with someone who is any kind of runner, much less one of Olympic-caliber, nonetheless I understand exactly what Liddell was talking about there, and moreover, I know that feeling! I’ve felt it, for instance, in music – many times in singing or playing the guitar – moments when by some miracle of grace everything just goes right; when the melodies and harmonies all come together just as they should and the song, or the hymn or the anthem – whatever the music happens to be at that moment – is, as musicians like to say, “in the pocket.” And let me just say here that there are also times – quite often, in fact – that I feel it in our times of worship together: sometimes, it’ll be there in the music we share; it can also be felt in our laughter, our fellowship and the occasional unpredictability of this time we spend together every Sunday morning; it’s certainly been there in our moments of prayerfulness; and sometimes – not always, mind you, but sometimes – I even feel it when I’m standing at this pulpit preaching the sermon for the day.
And understand, I’m not talking here about everything going perfectly, or even according to plan – trust me here, sometimes the best moments we share as a congregation are the ones that no one saw coming, including your pastor (!) – what I’m referring to here (and I suspect you know what I’m talking about here) are the moments when everything connects; when it’s clear from everything that’s happening that the Holy Spirit is moving in and through this place and its people; when there’s joy that’s palpable or, for that matter, when grief and sorrow is mutually borne. It’s in such moments that yes, we do feel God’s pleasure in it, and in us. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest to you that this is maybe the primary reason we’ve come to worship and ultimately, what we get out of coming here (actually echoing something we talked about here a couple of weeks ago): to faithfully give the best of ourselves unto God so that we might feel God’s pleasure in what we do. And to quote Eric Liddell (or at least, as he’s quoted in the movie), “to give it up would be to hold [God] in contempt,” but “to win is to honor him.”
And who are we, I ask you this morning, to deny God’s pleasure?
All of this brings us to our text for this morning, in which Paul is exhorting the Gentile Christians in Corinth to contribute to an offering to benefit the poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. First off, let’s be honest about this particular passage of Paul’s epistle; there’s no disguising the fact that this is a financial appeal, and a pretty effective one at that! Not only does Paul emphasize the spiritual rewards for an abundant response (“For the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God”), while also reminding them that since they’ve been provided with every blessing in abundance, they might also “share abundantly in every good work,” Paul also manages to, shall we say, “play the guilt card” in mentioning Macedonian Christians (to whom, Paul makes a point of saying, “I’ve been bragging about you.”), suggesting that “if some Macedonians come with me and find that you are not ready” – that is, if you aren’t ready with an offering, “we’d all be pretty red-faced – you and us – for acting so sure of ourselves.” [The Message] See what I mean? It’s a stewardship message, basically with no hold barred; and it’s no wonder that we preachers return to this particular passage on days… well, days just like this one (did I happen to mention that next week is Stewardship Sunday here at East Church?).
But all that said, friends, we need to understand that there’s much more going on in this passage than merely a pitch for the benevolent support of Jerusalem; in fact, in just a few short verses of scripture Paul lays out for us “the way” of faithful giving, and whether it involves our time, talent, treasure or all of life itself, it all really comes down to those very familiar words, “God loves a cheerful giver.” Now, there’s a whole lot that’s interesting about this verse for me, but just about at the top of the list is the fact that the word translated at “cheerful” is from the original Greek word, hilaron, which is also where we get our word “hilarious.” So this verse could well be translated as “God loves a hilarious giver;” which, at least in our 21st century parlance, sort of suggests a lack of seriousness on the part of the giver (sort of creates an image of someone running through the sanctuary throwing money in the air while laughing maniacally, doesn’t it; not exactly the wisest approach to stewardship!). No, in this instance, that word hilaron has to do with delight, as in (and this is how The Message translates it, and very well, I might add), “God loves it when the giver delights in the giving.” And that’s exactly what’s at the heart of the way of faithful giving: delight! When you and I give of ourselves delightfully – that is, when we find our joy in that giving – we will most certainly feel God’s pleasure in it.
I hasten to add, however, that Paul is not suggesting any kind sort of false piety here or fake generosity; and he’s certainly not demanding, as a parent might ask of a reluctant child, that we “do it with a smile on our face.” No; that’s the other message of Paul’s stewardship letter to the Corinthians: that each one “must give as [he or she] has made up [his] mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion.” The act and intent of giving, you see, always has to be from the heart. And that’s also borne out in the original Greek of this text: the word used for “decide” or to “make up one’s mind” is actually karia, which means heart and yes, why it’s referred to in a hospital as a “cardiac” unit. In other words, the true way of giving is not meant to be sorrowful, or forced, or born of necessity, but should be that action of a truly delighted believer; the giving itself ought to be a sustained and joyful response to every blessing that God gives in abundance.
Now, does this mean that if you’re not feeling happy or delighted in giving you ought to give it up? I say this as a preacher of God’s word, but also as a church pastor: Perish the thought! In the words of a church sign I saw some years ago, “God loves a cheerful giver, but God accepts from a grouch!” Make no mistake; as persons and a people of faith, giving, in whatever form it takes, is part of our spiritual DNA. To quote John Calvin here, “For we are not born for ourselves merely, so a Christian… ought neither to live to himself, nor lay out what he has, merely for his own use.” In other words, for the Christian giving is essential, but the motivation for that giving is… everything. The right motivation for giving, you see, is what brings us joy, it is what fulfills purpose, it serves as a catalyst for a true generosity of spirit, it’s what creates community and it is what fuels ministries of love and peace in Jesus’ name. And it’s a blessing… one that when extended ends up blessing you in return.
But, says Paul… and this is a very important point… “the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” And I don’t think one needs to be a farmer to understand what that means.
This morning we have had the distinct honor and great joy to dedicate gifts to this church to the glory of God; gifts that were given by a faithful and devoted long-time member of this very congregation, our friend “Effie” Watts. And let me just say once again that while choir robes, tables and chairs, and a clavinova are wonderful, useful and “spirit filled” tools for the ministries of East Church, the true blessing we received came in how it was given to us, in the faithful heart – Effie’s heart – that motivated the giving. That is a wonderful thing indeed… and I have to say that it’s all served to remind us that in so many ways, who we are as a church – our history, our tradition, our personality (joyous, loving, unique and even at times quirky!), and most especially our shared ministry in the name of Jesus Christ our risen Lord and Savior – all of it has come about as the result of many faithful hearts who have found delight in following Jesus and sowing the seeds of love and faith as they give of themselves to others and to the glory of God, both in this place and out those doors and into the world. You and I, beloved, we are the recipients of the “surpassing grace of God” that has been given to all the saints, past and present, who have walked the way of faithful giving.
And I’ll tell you something else, in case you haven’t noticed… because of them, and by God’s surpassing grace, we thrive as a congregation here on Mountain Road. It doesn’t mean it’s all easy and that we don’t have budgetary concerns, because we do; but nonetheless we thrive in this place. We flourish as God’s people because of YOU, who by that surpassing grace of God give wholly of yourselves with great delight in what God has given you and in joy awaiting what God has yet to do in our midst.
From the bottom of my heart I thank you for that, beloved, and I ask that we all give this matter some thought and prayer as you consider our shared pathway as a church in the coming year.
And as we do, may our “thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.”
Amen and AMEN.
© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry