Deuteronomy 15:7-11; Psalm 112; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15; Mark 5:22-24, 35b-43
The guest speaker at our clergy retreat in May said that there are only two authentic indicators of our real values in life: our calendars and our checkbooks. For nearly all Christians, the number of hours spent each week in worship, fellowship, study and prayer is far eclipsed by the number of hours spent doing various other things that we find more appealing. This is radically different from how it was in the Early Church as described in the second chapter of Acts. Our practice is decidedly not in accordance with the NT in our stewardship of time and treasure.
That’s what our calendars reveal. Then there’s our checkbooks. You cannot fail to have noticed that the lectionary readings for today sound as though this were Stewardship Sunday. Of course there’s a real sense in which every Sunday should be viewed as Stewardship Sunday, because our faith is meant to be sacrificial. It’s meant to reflect the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf, the sacrifice of His very life. It’s meant to reflect the ways that many Christians from the Early Church to the present have lived sacrificially in order to proclaim the Gospel message in a fallen world.
This was a message we heard in word and action at the GAFCON gathering in Jerusalem. We found ourselves among persons who knew experientially what sacrificial Christianity was all about. They knew about the needs of the poor because they were the poor. And yet they were radiant in proclaiming and sharing their faith, and they were enthusiastic about the GAFCON pledge to be “proclaiming Christ faithfully to the nations.” Faithfulness and sacrifice seem to go hand-in-hand.
The more we read Scripture, the more we see God’s own heart for the poor. There are well over 200 references to the poor in the Bible, and most of them have to do with our responsibility to care for them. We see that God holds the “haves” responsible for the “have-nots.” We might ask one of those frequently-asked “why” questions that God doesn’t answer: why didn’t God set up the universe so that equal distribution of wealth would be the rule rather than the exception? But the same persons who ask such questions tend also to be among the most ardent believers in free will and human responsibility.
What Scripture tells us is that we are to desist from asking “why” and, instead, to ask what we individually can do about it. In most cases, it’s more than we actually do. And its not for lack of opportunity. Within our small congregation here at Grace Anglican Fellowship, we have outreach opportunities in place for an orphanage in Myanmar and for the impoverished churches in Haiti. I’m hoping in the near future also to share some specific needs in Rwanda that I would like to have us address as a congregation. Paul Boardman has brought our attention to outreach opportunities much closer to home. As residents of the Chicago northern suburbs, we’re among the best-off persons in the US.
In that context, how do we hear the opening verses that Steve read from Deuteronomy 15: 7 “If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; 8 but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.” And the passage ends with these words: 11 “The poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’”
What should be our attitude towards these demands? In moments of complete honesty, most of us have felt that we have a right to the abundance God has given us and, sadly, the right to squander it on our creature comforts. But here’s what Deuteronomy says: “10 You shall generously give to [your poor brother], and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings.” Are you looking for more of God’s blessings in your life? This seems to be a good place to start finding them.
You may be thinking that this was just some set of circumstances in a specific historical and cultural setting that lacks contemporary parallels. But in your heart-of-hearts, you know that such thoughts are self-condemning, because the adage, “the poor are always with us” is objectively verifiable. Do you know Who first said those words? It was Jesus, in Mark 14:7. And He immediately added, “Whenever you wish, you can do them good.” That hurts! That’s saying that the doing is in the wishing. If we truly believe that the Christian life is a sacrificial life, just as our lives of worship are to be sacrificial, then we need to work on the “wishing” before we can translate the volitional into the practical.
What does the psalmist write about the person who “fears the Lord,” who has “wealth and riches in his house” and who is “gracious and compassionate and righteous?” He says that such a person “has given freely to the poor,” with the result that “his righteousness endures forever” and that he “will be exalted in honor” (112:1, 3, 4, 9).
Then we come to the Apostle Paul. Paul started out by praising the believers in Macedonia, from where he was writing this epistle, saying that “in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality” (II Cor. 8:2). Not only that, but Paul adds that they gave “beyond their ability” (v. 3), even going so far as to be “begging (Paul) with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints” (v. 4).
What on earth inspired such magnanimity among the churches of Macedonia? Paul tells us in verse 5: “This (was) not as we had expected, but they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God.” What a challenge! What amazing motivation! They carried out the very will of God Himself by giving themselves to Him and to Paul, with the result that were begging Paul for the privilege of giving to the poor Christians in Jerusalem, who already had given up everything material for the sake of their faith and the Gospel.
So now Paul turns to the Christians at Corinth, a very prosperous city in Achaia, where it seems that the Christians were much better off. Yet when Paul lauds their abundance, it’s not material abundance that he’s praising. It’s their abundance in “faith and utterance and knowledge and in all earnestness and in love,” on the basis of which Paul can express confidence that they will “abound in this gracious work also” (v. 6).
Then he writes one of the most beautiful and compelling verses in the whole of Scripture, one that is meant to provide all the motivation the Corinthians needed to ante up for the poor and needy in Jerusalem: verse 9, “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, through His poverty, might become rich.” This is Paul offering a more practical expression of what he wrote in Philippians 2 when he said that Jesus “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, being made in the likeness of men. (And) being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (vs. 7, 8).
That, of course, is why we describe the Christian faith as a sacrificial faith. It’s also why we describe Christian worship as a sacrifice, one we take on willingly, even eagerly, when we make sure that we do not forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Hebrews 10:25) and that we do not sit passively in our pews watching other people worship rather than entering fully into what worship really means.
But that’s a subject for another sermon. Today our Scriptures focus on charity, on acts of love that move our wishing into doing, and that “doing” is something that involves giving. You may be wondering just how successful Paul’s appeal to the Corinthian Christians turned out to be. After all, literally millions of preachers over the centuries could testify to having given stewardship sermons that seemingly fell on deaf ears. But we actually find the answer in Romans 15, where Paul writes these words: “For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. Yes, they were pleased to do so, and they are indebted to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual things, they are indebted to minister to them also in material things” (vs. 26, 27).
Did you get the flavor of that? Sometimes we’re disinclined to give money to missionary endeavors that serve cultures not the same as our own. But here we have a glowing example of the opposite: comparatively new believers of a predominantly Gentile background were giving generously to Jerusalem Christians, the vast majority of whom were Jewish. We’re reminded of the “Righteous among the Nations,” those Gentiles who willingly risked their lives to feed, cloth, shelter and hide Jewish people during the Holocaust.
What motivated them to do this? We can echo again Paul’s words: “This (was) not as we had expected, but they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God.” And, also, they were willing to emulate the example of Jesus: “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 through His poverty might become rich.” They put the wishing into doing, and it resulted in giving.
What I want you to take away this this morning is not that you should be doing more in your stewardship because I asked you to do it. What we saw in our readings was that the Macedonians and Corinthians did not give sacrificially because Paul asked them to do it. The generosity that cares for the poor, the needy, the widows and the orphans, and results in “proclaiming Christ faithfully to the nations” springs from a heart that has been profoundly touched by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and has responded in kind.
And, again, when we do that, especially when it truly costs us something, then we have the promise of the psalmist that our righteousness will endure forever and we will be exalted in honor, just as Jesus Himself, having made the ultimate sacrifice for us and for our sins, was exalted to the right hand of the Father in heaven, where He advocates and intercedes for us. May we find ourselves both wishing and willing to do the work and will of God, knowing that, as promised in Deuteronomy, “God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.