There’s no way meteorologically speaking that you can tell we are in late September. Today is my father’s birthday and he would have been 104 today, had he not died when he was only 70. By the time his birthday rolled around each year, the leaves were falling, we went out with our jackets to gather chestnuts and we began preparing for another long Buffalo winter. But, despite our unseasonably warm Chicago weather, there’s still a way you can tell it’s September: it’s found in today’s epistle reading. September is always stewardship month in the Church, and it always brings with it the pastoral burden of having to remind parishioners that tithing and even super-tithing are concepts pervading the entire Judaeo-Christian faith, no matter how much we might wish to do away with them.
Why do we resist giving our 10%+ to the Church? Our reasons are plentiful. Why am I so well-acquainted with them? Because for decades of my life I used some of the same reasons myself. Here are ten of the most common ones:
1) I don’t have as much money to give as I would like.
2) I’m concerned that what money I have will run out.
3) I want to be sure I leave enough money for my children when I die.
4) I give to lots of other charitable and not-for-profit organizations.
5) I had some unexpected expenses that made it harder for me to give this year.
6) I think tithing is some sort of OT concept that no longer applies to us.
7) I have so many other places to put my money that are more rewarding.
8) I don’t like certain things about the church, so I don’t give much.
9) I think there are others in the church who aren’t really doing their part.
10)I had to help out my kids or grandkids or friends this year.
I may even have left out some of your favorite reasons not to tithe or super-tithe, and I apologize. Please let me know what they are and I will be sure to include them next September. But, just to provide some balance, here are eleven reasons Paul gives in II Corinthians that we should tithe and, whenever possible, super-tithe. You might want to follow along in your copies:
1) Verse 1: Giving is our response to the grace of God freely given to every one of us, just as it was given to the Macedonians. Can you imagine hoarding God’s grace? Every day we’re fed by His grace. Every time we gather together for our corporate worship of God, we’re fed by His grace. Every day that we’re able to crawl out of bed and see the sun, even when it’s too hot or too cold or just right, it’s by the grace of God. If our lives are so superabundantly saturated with the grace of God, how can we not give back in thanks and praise for His unstinting goodness to us? If we define “grace” as “unmerited favor,” then how can we not give freely and generously in return? We tip a good waiter anywhere from 15-22%, and we do the same for a cab driver! Does God really deserve less? Seriously, I’m certain there are persons in the Church of Jesus Christ who spend more per annum in tips than in tithes!
2) Also verse 1: Giving is something we do by example both in Scripture itself and by the generous example of millions who have gone before us and enriched our experience of Christianity. Generous Lake Foresters built this church and other generous Lake Foresters several generations later renovated it and restored these beautiful windows. But the Macedonians in today’s epistle reading were responding to the desperate need of Christians in the church at Jerusalem who were suffering serious deprivation solely because of their Christian faith. Does that have some contemporary parallels? A delegation from the Diocese of Quincy will be going to Myanmar this week to help out and encourage those Karen Christians who have survived severe persecution and are in great need. We know about the desperate plight of Christians in the Middle East and in Africa. Now there are many more in such places as Puerto Rico, Mexico, Texas and Florida.
3) Verse 2: Giving to God may be completely disproportionate to our actual financial means. The Christians in Macedonia were not a wealthy bunch. Paul says that they were suffering from “extreme poverty,” and that their giving was in the context of a “severe test of affliction.” Yet, he writes that they gave out of “their abundance of joy” and from “a wealth of generosity.” Their wealth was not measured by material prosperity, but by abundant joy. What should that say to us in 21st century America? There’s not a single one of us who is suffering from “extreme poverty,” no matter how we measure the present “poverty level.” By the standards of most of the world, we’re living in varying degrees of opulence. But are we living in an “abundance of joy” and in “a wealth of generosity?” It sounds to me as though those things must surely be the antidotes to “affliction” and “extreme poverty.” We need to be working on them. Just imagine the abundant joy of the widow whose two mites, according to Jesus, constituted all that she had!
4) Verse 3: The Macedonians “gave according to their means;” no, writes Paul, “beyond their means,” and that “of their own accord.” This may seem to be a bit more of the same, though I hear it as a serious intensification of what came before. Paul will write several times in the verses that follow that he is not issuing a “command” (8:8), nor is he pressing anyone to give “reluctantly” or “under compulsion” (9:7). Rather he’s specifically commending the Macedonians for giving “of their own accord.” What if we really gave with that level of generosity, of our own accord, out of gratitude to God and awareness of the needs of others!
5) Verse 4: What else? They viewed sacrificial giving as a favor, and they were “earnestly begging” Paul for the “favor,” the privilege, of taking part in the relief of other believers. This decidedly is several steps beyond our expectations and, sadly, beyond our experience. I can say without fear of short-term memory loss that no one has ever come to me “earnestly begging” for the privilege of giving money away. The very image of such a thing is almost beyond comprehension. Maybe Paul was exaggerating, but I doubt it. What comes next?
6) Verse 5: Here we get the key to what this extravagant generosity was all about: “they gave themselves first to the Lord and then, by the will of God, to us.” This is extravagance beyond belief. Some of you remember long ago when evangelists used to speak to young people about giving their hearts and their lives completely to Jesus. Some still may make such an appeal. But the very concept of giving ourselves to the Lord is one that only rarely is seen in action. It’s too costly. It calls for a sort of extravagance in giving that goes far beyond what we consider to be the call of duty. But Paul says it’s actually “square one:” it’s the first step in giving; it’s the doorway to stewardship. First, we must give ourselves to the Lord. And if we do, what will follow?
What follows is discovering the will of God for our lives. This absolutely requires a lot more thought on our part, on the part of every single one of us. How often do we hear Christians moaning and groaning that they’re having trouble determining “the will of God” for their lives? They read books, talk to their pastors, converse with other Christians, even pray and search Scripture for answers. The answer is really simple and it’s right here in this passage about stewardship: if you truly, sincerely, genuinely want to know the will of God for your life, just back up and try step one: give yourself first to the Lord. Then says Paul, the will of God will follow in terms of giving yourself and your substance to others.
Does this sound too radical and extravagant? Is this Pauline hyperbole gone rampant? Or, in actual fact, is this a rather gentler way for Paul to say exactly what Jesus said in our Gospel reading a few weeks ago: "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24, 25). It’s really the very same thing. This is precisely what Paul means by giving ourselves first to the Lord, and then discovering and acting on His perfect will.
7) Verse 7: Here’s a word from Paul about excellence. There’s a contemporary concept to be sure. We Americans are all about excellence: being first because we deserve to be first. And so Paul, were he to wander in here this morning looking for St. Patrick’s Church, would commend us for our excellence in such things as our faith, our speech, our knowledge and our earnestness. But then he might inquire as to whether we’re acting out all of that in what he calls “this act of grace.” I could be wrong, but I think this may be the only time in all of Scripture that something this specific is named an “act of grace.” It’s a really challenging concept. But in the next verse, verse 8, Paul is going to say that it’s by this act of grace that we may prove to others that our “love is genuine.”
There are few things that Christians talk about more frequently than “love.” It’s on our lips all the time. It was an identifying characteristic of the earliest Christians. But perhaps that’s the very problem Paul is addressing here. He applauds the Corinthians for faith, speech, knowledge and earnestness, but he’s asking for a demo, for a sincere act that puts love to work, for an “act of grace” that shows our love to be “genuine.” Talk is cheap. Action can be costly. Paul is asking for costly action. He asks that this be an area where we’re completely committed to excellence. That’s truly demanding. And it’s directly connected to giving!
8) Verse 9: We are to perform this act of grace unreservedly because of the incomparable example that is ours in Jesus Christ: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich.” What more can we say? Jesus gave up everything that was rightly and eternally His in order to make us rich. There’s the greatest “act of grace” in history. Our weak imitation of such an act gives all the perspective we need on what it means to give back sacrificially, to perform our own little acts of grace that, at their very best, pale by comparison to His. What are we giving? What are we sacrificing? What are receiving in return because of His great gift?
9) Chapter 9:7: What sort of face should we put on when we are giving through an act of grace? Remember that Paul said the Macedonians were giving out of an abundance of joy. Now Paul says that “God loves a cheerful giver.”
Why does Paul always seem to add another layer that makes things more difficult for us? Why can’t we at least grimace a bit when we’re giving sacrificially? Because God loves a cheerful giver. Just as Jesus castigated the Pharisees who put on a sad face when they were fasting, Paul is suggesting that when we perform this act of grace that we call stewardship, we should be putting on a happy face because God loves it! In Romans 8:32 Paul asks, “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” We know the answer: He does freely give us all things that we need, and He does so in abundance. And so, when we give back what already is His, we should be able to do it cheerfully, never “reluctantly,” never “under compulsion.”
10) Verse 8: “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” Here’s a verse about abundance, and it doesn’t even specifically mention money! God can make His grace abound to us: how could we compare that to any material prosperity? Material prosperity is abject poverty compared to the abundant grace of God. When we have “all grace,” Paul says that we have “all sufficiency in all things at all times.” That’s a lot of “all.” It’s so much “all” that Paul can label it “all sufficiency.” Do we sometimes want more than “sufficiency?” Surely we do; it’s part of our human nature. Perhaps God understands this. But what did God say to Paul? Just a few chapters later in II Corinthians, in the very context of God’s not giving to Paul something that he earnestly and repeatedly requested in prayer, God told Paul what lesson was to be learned: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9) And there we have those two words juxtaposed again: “grace” and “sufficiency.”
11) Just one more for this morning: verse 11: “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” We’re back to unbridled generosity, and we’re still hearing Paul’s comprehensive uses of “all” and “every.” Paul is a “no holds barred” sort of writer. He also is one who has allowed himself to be so immersed in the all-sufficient grace of God that he can’t stop writing about it. In fact, every single one of his epistles begins with the greeting, “grace and peace.” But look where this verse is going: it’s going straight to thanksgiving, a thanksgiving that’s ours when we participate in God’s grace by our own generosity. And see his final words in this chapter, verse 15: “Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift!” Yes, his word for thanks is indeed our word for what comes next in this worship service: Eucharist.
And so I want to remind you once again that everything we do in worship points to this table, the table of our Lord Himself, where we remember His sacrifice. But what do we do first of all? What’s the VERY first thing we do every single time we approach this table, even before we place the bread and wine on the altar? First, we receive the gifts of the people of God, while I say, “All things come from You, O Lord, and of Your own have we given You” (I Chronicles 29:11, 14).
Then, when we’ve presented all of these gifts to Him, He takes them and, by His incomparable grace, enables us to say, “The gifts of God for the people of God: take them in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on Him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.” Here the gifts of the people of God become the gifts of God, and the bread and the wine, which earth has given and human hands have made, become for us the bread of life and the cup of salvation, the Body of Christ given for us and the Blood of Christ shed for us. Come and see, with thanksgiving!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.