Scripture Lesson: 2 Corinthians 9:6-8
Do a search on Google of the word “stewardship” and 24,000,000 sites will show up in .09 seconds. 24 million. The web is full of information about stewardship, from sermons to themes to programs. And, there are a lot of programs. There’s the W-2 program: give the church a copy of your W-2. The church calculates 10% of your income from last year to determine the amount of money you will give as a member this year. There’s “trust God blindly” method: “we aren’t going to tell you any goal or set a budget. We simply want you to give what is on your heart to give.” There’s the personal stewardship program: this is the one where people say, the church can have each week whatever is in my wallet, which somehow always ends up empty. And, the IRS method of stewardship: what is the maximum I have to give to get the greatest tax deduction, but not give any more than that? Some of these might help us reach our goal of $440,000 for next year quicker than others, but they all seem to be lacking something fundamental about who we are as Christians and how we live our faith as the church. So, I went back to scripture to listen to a stewardship program there.
After a meeting with the leadership of the Jerusalem church, the Apostle Paul wanted to do something to help the people there. The Jerusalem church was known for sharing all that it had with anyone who had a need, both within the church and without. In their view, possessions were meant to be shared. That’s the way they created their church and the way they engaged their community, with generous sharing, and that’s the way the community knew them. But, hard economic times and lots of need drained the coffers quickly. So, Paul wrote to churches to ask them to collect an offering for the Christians in Jerusalem. It was the sort of offering that fits well with World Communion Sunday. This offering would recognize that we are the body of Christ in our individual churches, and we are the body of Christ as one universal church. When one part of the body suffers, the Jerusalem church, the whole body suffers. Getting involved with ministry beyond us is a great way to impact the ministry we do as well.
Our scripture lesson today explains why the Corinthian church members should give. But, the Corinthian church had some members who complained that this offering was not a good idea. We know what they say. Can we trust them to use our money well? Will this hurt giving to our ministry if we give to that one? I need to give more than I already giving? Paul doesn’t rely on a method to answer those questions and rally the people. He goes back to the story of his faith, the story of God’s generous love and abundant grace. The questions in that story set the pattern for a Christian’s life: has God ever held back love and grace? Has God ever cut corners on forgiveness? Does God ever reach the allowable limit of love? Was sending Jesus too much of a sacrifice that God called off the mission? Do we ever reach a point when we stop growing in that good news or sharing that good news?
We know the answers to those questions as well as Paul, but it is easy to forget those answers when times are tough or we are called to stretch our generosity to new places or simply forget that we are Christians. The Corinthians needed to be reminded of the story that shapes them. So, he uses words and phrases that we can’t read too quickly or too often. They invite us to slow down, take them in, be shaped by them, and let them shape us. Paul writes,
- “the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly”
- “the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”
- “give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion”
- “God loves a cheerful giver”
- “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance”
- “always have enough of everything”
- “share abundantly in every good work”
Paul didn’t make these phrases up out of thin air to ask people to give more. This is the way God acts. God made up God’s mind to give to us love and hope and life itself, not reluctantly or under compulsion, but cheerfully. God always has enough to give and always shares abundantly in every good work God does. We listen to those words so that we can receive God’s generosity toward us. We also listen to them so that they may form us in people who practice the ways of God in our living and in our ministry. It is God who cheerful gives to us first that we may do the same for others. It is God who shows us abundant love and grace that we may offer the same. It is God who always has enough of everything to share and equips us to do the same. How might we continue to grow if we embrace God’s work in us?
I came across a story that I think speaks to this. It also speaks to the kind of people we are called to be and the sort of growing church I hope for us. Listen to this as a story for the church.
Once there was a man who had a garden. In this garden he had leeks, jonquils, peas, potatoes, kiwi fruit, grapes, fennel, gardenias, and sage. He carefully tended his patch every day making sure there were no weeds that would come and devour his crop.
As the various things in his garden began to ripen and flower the man harvested them. He found that he had more than he needed so he decided he would share them with others.
He gave the leeks to an old lady across the road from him who did not have a family to love her.
He gave some jonquils to the man whose smile of joy was a sight to behold.
He gave the peas to the little girl who had seen a war and was now glad she was far away from it.
He gave the potatoes to a mother with four unruly children praying silently that she might survive them with patience.
He gave some delicious kiwi fruit to a neighbor who had been kind to him many times.
He gave grapes to a good young woman who was studying to be a doctor.
He gave the fennel to the fisher who had been faithful to his partner for over 45 years.
He gave the gardenias to the gentle girl who was looking for a job.
And he gave the sage to an old farmer who had lost everything in the floods but was self-controlled enough not to blame himself or anyone else for his misfortune.
As each of the recipients used the fruit and vegetables the man had given them, something strange and wonderful began to happen in their lives.
The old lady with the leeks began to know love. The old man who had the jonquils was filled with joy. The little girl with the peas knew peace at last. The lady with the potatoes knew about divine patience. The neighbor, with the kiwi fruit, felt kindness swell within him. The young woman with the grapes knew supreme goodness. The fisher with the fennel began to understand true faithfulness. The gentle girl with the gardenias was gentler still. And the old farmer with the sage knew freedom in his self-control.
The man’s bountiful harvests grew bigger each year and more and more people shared in the special gifts the amazing plants brought to them. Some of the people planted seeds from these plants and began to harvest crops of their own which they then shared with those around them.
The garden grew and kept on growing. The man? Well! He received a hundred times more than he gave. Not in fruit or flowers nor in vegetables or herbs but of the spirit in which he had shared his first harvest.
Here’s this point as Paul puts it for us. “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” Whether you are growing fruits, vegetables and flowers or the mission of a church and its people, we cannot expect significant results in our faith or our ministry without making a significant investment. There will be no great harvest unless we sow bountifully. Our goal of $440,000 is not a call to sacrifice. It is a call to sow and invest in the gospel of Jesus Christ with our lives so that we can offer the flowers, the fruit and the vegetables of a healthy church in generous ways to a hungry and searching world.
By the way, do you want to know how the Corinthians did in their collection? Did they reach their goal? Did they give the most of any church? Did they live the generous faith of God? We don’t know. We’re never told how much they gave. The Bible does not tell us the results. And, I like it better that way, an unfinished story. It leaves it us up to us to continue the story of receiving God’s generosity in our lives and living it for the world. I hope and pray that this season of stewardship will grow us in our own faith and in how we can continue to be a generous people and share abundantly in every good work.