(2 Corinthians 8: 1-15)
A couple of weeks ago I took some tents that had been given to us by the Quilcene Food Bank to OlyCAP, Olympic Community Action Program, which is one of the non-profits we support. I knew they handed out tents because a young couple who had come to the church a few months ago for help said that OlyCAP had given them a tent and they were living in the woods near Kala Point. When I got there, they were happy to see me because we, CUMC and OlyCAP, have a good working relationship and they know we are a church that is living the message of loving our neighbor. I left them a stack of our green Emergency Resources cards and they said they’d hand them out along with the four new tents.
I then went to the Department of Social and Health Services, DSHS, to drop off some of our cards and initially got the opposite reaction. As soon as I told the receptionist I was from the Methodist Church you could feel a tenseness and apprehensiveness because the word “church” to an unbeliever often carries negative connotations. I even noticed the security guard giving me the eye and was intently listening to what I was trying to say. I explained to the young lady that we had made these cards up to give to people who were looking for much needed services. She immediately said she needed to call her supervisor. I glanced at the security guard who was still watching me just in case I tried to baptize someone on government property. Anyway, the supervisor, a very nice lady, came out and I began my pitch again. And she was just as reluctant when I mentioned the dreaded “C” word. She reluctantly took one of the cards and looked at it as I explained it contained all of the emergency services a person in need might want to access. She immediately observed that DSHS was not on the card and said they should be included because they offer help in the form of Temporary Aid to Needy Families, TANF, among other services. I gave her one of my cards and told her to email me the information she wanted on the card and we’d include DSHS on our revised cards. By the time I got back to the church I had a nice email from her with their contact info for the card and thanking us for doing what we do.
You see, that’s the problem. The secular world no longer trusts Christians who “love Jesus” but do not seem to love anything else. This one simple statement according to Richard Rohr, in his book The Universal Christ, is the crux of the problem faced by true Christians who are earnestly trying to do God’s work and His will in a broken and suffering world. That’s how many people view Christians. They see us making a big deal about how we love Jesus because he first loved us, but they don’t see the love of Christ in what we do. When I say “us” I’m referring to Christians in general and, maybe more specifically, those Evangelicals who make a big deal about their worship which, in reality, is just a show to make themselves feel better about themselves. Rohr said that too often, we have substituted the messenger for the message, and, as a result, we’ve spent a great deal of time worshipping the messenger and trying to get other people to do the same with little or no reference to the message. Rohr points out that Jesus asked us to follow him, and never once to worship him.
And that, I think, is what the churches in Macedonia understood. They got it. They loved Jesus but the also understood the message; love your neighbor as yourself. To fully understand what the Apostle Paul was trying to convey in his letter to the church in Corinth you have to remember the persecution mentioned in the Book of Acts when many believers who could afford it or had family, fled Jerusalem for their own safety because, ironically, Paul when he was Saul was one of the many who relentlessly hunted the new Followers of the Way. This left the church in Jerusalem in a tough spot as many of these people took their money with them and now they had an inordinate number of widows and orphans to house and feed and lacked the resources to meet this mounting crisis.
Paul and some of the other apostles had been sent out in hopes of collecting money for the Jerusalem relief effort. When he got to Macedonia he was overwhelmed with the generosity of the churches. He writes; And now brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. Right there we learn at least two things about the churches in Macedonia. They had been going through a severe trial and were extremely poor. Paul testifies that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. Paul’s next comment is very telling to me, as it indicates that he didn’t expect much out of the churches due to their extreme poverty. He probably expected to be told that they’d like to help but they had more than their fair share of problems to deal with. Paul tells us; And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.
I don’t think Paul was trying to shame the churches in Corinth as he reminds them that the previous year, they were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. He’s telling them that mission work is not one-and-done, or something you do once a year, say at Christmas time. It’s a continual process because the need for help by those who are suffering is never fully satisfied. He says; For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have. He’s pointing out the willingness of the Macedonian churches to give from what little they had and pleading for the privilege of giving more. His not-so-subtle implication is that if you have an abundance, why aren’t you willing to share it where there is a need? He says; Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equity, as it is written: “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.”
Now, I know that in this instance, Paul is talking about churches that have an abundance helping out struggling churches, but I think the same thing applies to our Christian duty to share in our abundance with those in our community and around the world who have not and are suffering. And, this is where I think we draw fire from those who are so critical of our Christian faith. They look around and see extreme suffering and then point at what they perceive to be wealthy churches and pastors who don’t appear to be living the message of loving their neighbors who are living in the shadow of their churches. I don’t know if these wealthy mega-churches are doing their part, but it’s the perception that is our reality. If people don’t think you’re doing anything then you might as well not. I do know that in our 45 years together Teresa and I have belonged to several churches and they really didn’t do much and it wasn’t because they couldn’t afford it. They just weren’t fully living into the message.
So, what is that message? When Christ called himself the “light of the world,” he wasn’t telling us to look just at him, but to look at life with his all-merciful eyes. We see him so we can be like him with the same infinite compassion. The light, the light of Christ is supposed to enlighten us. This light of Jesus Christ helps us see things differently in a way others do not. Our light is the faith we have in Jesus Christ. Richard Rohr says that we need to look at Jesus until we can look out at the world with his kind eyes.
The point of giving, the point of living into the message is not so much the amount we give, but the why and how we give. God doesn’t want our gifts given grudgingly. Instead, he wants us to give as the churches in Macedonia did, out of dedication to Christ, out of the love for fellow believers, with the joy of helping those in need, as well as the fact that it is simply the good and right thing to do.
The love of God, the message of Jesus Christ spreads through believer’s concern and eagerness to help others. This, my brothers and sisters of a church in the true Macedonian spirit is why we love the messenger and live into the message.
Let us pray.
Take our lives Lord and let them be consecrated to thee. Take our moments and our days and let them flow in ceaseless praise. Take our hands and let them move at the impulse of thy love. Take our feet and let them be swift and beautiful for thee. Take our voices and let us sing always, only, for our king. Take our lips and let them be filled with messages of love from thee. Take our silver and our gold; not a mite would we withhold. Take our intellect and use every power as thou shalt choose. Take our will and make it thine, it shall be no longer ours. Take our hearts, they are thine own; they shall be thy royal throne. Take our love, my Lord, we pour out at thy feet its treasures store. Take us and we will be ever, only, all for thee. Amen.