A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 8 – Year B – 01 July 2012
Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
As you excel in everything– in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you– so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.
I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you 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. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something– now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has– not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,
“The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little.”
-2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Being the youngest of 4 children certainly had its advantages when I was growing up. But one of the biggest disadvantages of being the youngest was that I was also the “littlest.” I had to have help reaching things, climbing up on things, lifting things and I felt like I was running hard to keep up with everyone else in my family even if we were just walking.
I was also among the littlest in my class in elementary school which really took its toll on me on the playground, particularly when it came to the something I rarely see anymore – the see saw. I used to love the seesaw, though, but to be really fun, the weight had to be somewhat balanced so that the each person sitting on one of the ends could spend just as much time up in the air as back down again. And as little as I was, no one wanted to be on the other end with me because I didn’t have enough weight to keep them up in the air for long!
Balance can be hard to attain and when I think of balance, I can’t help but think of scales – perhaps even the scales of justice. And in that sense, balance becomes a measure of fairness.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul had something to say about balance. “It is a question of fair balance” he wrote, “between your present abundance and (the needs of others), so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.” (2Corinthians 8:13-14).
So, what is Paul saying here and why is he saying it? Actually, I think he’s giving a specific message – a stewardship message; and he’s giving it to the early Christian church in Corinth. He’s trying to raise money for the church inJerusalemwhich he called his “Jerusalem Project”. He’s asking those who are affluent to give to those who aren’t. It’s really a timeless message but as Paul found out even then, and as we know today, it wasn’t a message people want to hear very often.
In Paul’s day, Corinth was a prosperous port city. Its strategic location brought thousands of settlers from all over the Mediterranean and many of them became wealthy. The city was also known for its immorality since traders not only brought their trades with them but also the various gods and beliefs of their cults. (EfM, Year 2, New Testament pg. 317).
One of the earliest Christian churches that Paul founded was in Corinth and most of its members were Gentiles of various social backgrounds and beliefs – although some were well-established Jews. We can only imagine what that church must have gone through to find its place in such a complex community and how hard it must have been for Paul to stay in touch with it when he wasn’t living there.
If nothing else, Paul wanted the members of his early churches to know that a follower of Christ was one who “loves God…one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:3, 6; cf. 1:3). It’s the belief on which Paul based his entire ministry.
The collection for the church in Jerusalem was a major project of Paul’s ministry. For him, it represented a genuine need of the church and he believed it was the responsibility of those followers of Christ to help serve that need. He also saw it as a way to build fellowship among various churches and among their Jewish and Gentile Christian members. Paul asked each of his churches to pledge money to what he called “the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (Romans 15:26).
We get the sense, though, that this project was not going very well in Corinth– that there were people who were resisting making good on pledges they had made over a year ago. Paul was walking a fine line between asking for what was needed and possibly alienating his church in Corinth by his asking. It was definitely a balancing act.
Earlier in Paul’s letter we find out about another balancing act, and that was that Paul had used the Corinthians’ eagerness in pledging to get another church – the church in Macedonia- to do the same thing. As it turned out, the Macedonians not only pledged enthusiastically based on what they heard their Corinthian brothers and sisters were doing, but had actually made good on their pledges. It was the Corinthians who were dragging their feet.
As is usually the case with events that happened a long time ago, they can be eerily similar and relevant to circumstances in our lives today. We can just imagine the reasons that the Corinthians were coming up with for not supporting Paul in his project. Reasons such as: I only give to local causes because I want to see how my money is spent; or I don’t have enough money as it is to support the lifestyle I want, why would I want to give any of it to someone else; or I’m already helping others by all the taxes I have to pay. Or finally, what difference would my little bit of money make to such a big need?
I heard some of these reasons in my own family when I was growing up. My parents were small givers relative to their means. They gave the same amount year after year and they gave out of a sense of responsibility more than gratefulness. And what they did give, they wanted to control by targeting it to the buildings and grounds. For a time in their lives, what they gave to church was proportional to what they got from church – which wasn’t much. It took until late in their lives before their involvement there became meaningful enough for them to want to give back in a meaningful way. It was a balance that they were finally able and thankful to achieve – but it wasn’t easy.
When I returned to church after college, I patterned my giving after what I had seen my parents do. But instead of giving the same amount year after year, I did something different. I gave to the church what was left over after I had paid all of the expenses associated with my lifestyle. It wasn’t until I became involved in the community life, initially through the music program which led to involvement elsewhere in the church that I changed the way and the reason for giving. It was a deliberate response to the way the community of church had immeasurably enriched my life. It was in gratitude for what I had received and still is.
The Macedonians suffered from poverty yet they were eager and thankful for what they referred to as a “privilege” – the privilege of sharing in the Jerusalem collection for the poor. According to Paul, this group of believers had received an abundance of grace from God and were so aware of it that they responded in thankfulness for what they believed God was doing in the world. By contrast, the Corinthians, who were quite well off for the most part, were pledging out of a sense of duty which, I think, might have made it easier for them to renege on their pledge than if they had viewed pledging as a privilege. (Smyth and Helwys Publishing: Macon, Georgia, 2009: Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary 2 Corinthians, pp. 156-158).
Paul called them out on it, though. “And in this matter” he said, “I am giving my advice; it is appropriate for you who began last year… to desire to do something – (to) now finish doing it so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means” (2 Corinthians 8:10). In other words, it’s time to pay up!
Using the rival Macedonians as an example, Paul may well have been trying to teach the Corinthians what happens when we become aware of God working among us. The result is grateful generosity and I think that might be the concept of fair balance to which Paul was referring.
Paul was trying to be persuasive in balancing the abundance of the members of his churches such as in Macedonia and Corinthwith the needs of the poor in Jerusalem. I actually think that’s a harder balance to attain than trying to balance the difference the community of church has made in our lives to what we give back in gratefulness for that gift.
When it comes to abundance in our lives, which can certainly take many forms, maybe we should try visualizing those scales of justice – or maybe even the seesaw that seems to have become extinct. Heap up on one side all the many ways we have been touched by grace in this community we call St. Mary’s. Then visualize on the other side what we have given back in terms of time, talent and treasure. And finally, ask the question Paul was asking his congregations: how balanced is it?