A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho.
June 26, 2016
2 Cor 8:1-15
This part of 2nd Corinthians was an important part to Paul. The offering to the church in Jerusalem was a big deal and is referenced throughout his other letters too. One of the reasons, I think, that it mattered so much to Paul is that it seemed to be a visible sign of what the prophets had foretold—that people from other nations, gentiles, would pour into Jerusalem with offerings.
This passage is about money. I don’t want to pretend it isn’t. How we use our money is one of the ways we show the world what we believe.
This passage is also about grace.
You lose it a bit in translation, but every time you read the phrase “generous undertaking” or “ministry to the saints”, the word in Greek is actually “grace”.
“We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of grace on their part.”
For Paul, if you really know, the deep down in your soul kind of knowing, about God’s grace, then you will become grace sharers. If you understand that all we have—talent and money—is a gift, is grace, then it all gets added to the list of things we can share with abundance.
Paul brings up the Macedonian church, not to make the Corinthians feel inadequate, but to show them it has worked for others. It would be like me saying to you, “I want you to know about the grace that has been granted to First Presbyterian Church on State Street….”
I think people today tend to hear that as competition. “Oh, Marci thinks the other church gives more money than we do”.
Grace isn’t a competition or a comparison.
Grace is gift.
So when Paul shares the good story of the church in Macedonia and how they in their affliction and struggle were able to share generously, or when I share similar stories of our sister congregation and how they are succeeding and doing well, it isn’t to make us feel inadequate in comparison. It’s to encourage us to know about being grace sharers as well.
Grace is also not a commodity for us to hoard. Imagine we were to say, “God has been generous with God’s grace to us and so we have stored it up and not shared it with others. We have so much more grace than those other people do. We win”.
As soon as we say that, we reveal it for the lie it is. You cannot use grace as a weapon against other people. You can’t store it up in vaults or accounts. And the minute you try to do that, it ceases to be grace. It breeds worms and goes foul.
Paul connects grace and generosity to the manna story from Exodus.
For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have.
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.’
That final verse is a quote out of the exodus story.
If you need a quick refresher on the story of Exodus, the Israelites had been delivered out of slavery in Egypt by God and they got to stand on the other side of the Red Sea and watching the destruction of the Egyptian army. The superpower of the day was demolished at the hands of the God of Abraham and Jacob.
And then they realized they were in the wilderness and they were hungry.
“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread. For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
They were hungry. And also maybe a little overdramatic.
I find myself need to cut the whining Israelites some slack. When they wish to return to the fleshpots of Egypt, where life may not have been great but they at least had bread, can I, who has never been hungry, really understand their fear of wondering where the next meal is coming from?
Maybe lifting up the past, even a bad past, with fondness, is a coping mechanism when you fear the future, especially when your basic needs of daily bread are uncertain.
But God is always, ALWAYS, calling us forward, into that scary future and out of the past. Yes, we tell the stories of our past, and we remember from whence we came, but we are always called forward, into the Promised Land.
And I am thankful that we have a God who keeps at us, who hears our whining, lament, complaining, and fear and then gives us another opportunity to live into the deliverance.
Because God hears the Israelites’ complaints of hunger and says that bread from heaven will rain on them each day, but only providing enough for that day.
“And in that way”, God says, “I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.”
Maybe this story is less about the miracle of the manna and more a story about people learning to follow directions.
God is trying, one day at a time, one serving of manna at a time, to pull the Israelites into a future of abundance. And it is hard for them. The first day, they grab extra and try to store it away because what if it doesn’t show up tomorrow???
And it bred worms and became foul.
So, day by day, the Israelites learn to trust in God’s provision. And they learn a system of economics that is far different from that of Pharaoh. They gathered the manna, each as much as they needed, and those who had gathered much had nothing left over and those who gathered little had no shortage.
Day by day, the Israelites learned that true wealth is having what you need. True wealth is having what you can use. This was quite a different message from Pharaoh, who was having his slaves build pyramids so that not only would Pharaoh have more than his share in this life, but he’d also have a place to store it in the next. It is hard to carry your pyramids around with you in the desert. You have to let go of some things to move into the Promised Land. And anxiety about having enough is one of those things that they have to let go to leave Egypt.
Day by day, the Israelites grew into this new model of economics. I’d like to tell us it is just that simple. But if you look ahead in the text a bit, you’ll see that this day after day after day process of living into trust and into God’s abundance took a long time. They ate manna in the wilderness for 40 years.
And, maybe the miracle in this story, after the miracle of learning to follow directions, is the miracle of letting go. The miracle of not trying to control God’s gift of abundance.
That’s what manna was. God’s inexplicable gift of abundance. And the Israelites wanted to turn it into a commodity. Can we hear the wheels turning in their heads?
“We can take this extra manna and we can sell it! Or we can give it to other folks we meet out here in the wilderness. There is a huge untapped market for free food here! We’ll be rich and we can retire when we’re 30!”
We laugh about it, but are we any different?
How often do we live as if what we have is sufficient?
And in this I’m certainly not saying anything to you that I’m not also saying to myself.
I try not to hold on too tightly to things. I recognize that in a fire, the only things I would want to save as I fled the flames would be my family, my cats, and maybe my new red hat.
As I’ve been thinking on these texts all week, while I was at the church’s General Assembly. I’ve mentioned before because of my work on the Mission Agency Board, that we as a national church, do not have the money we used to have. It is partly because national membership has declined. It is also because some churches withhold paying any money to the national church.
And so, at GA, every time the commissioners passed an item that required money to fund it, we had to figure out creative ways to pay for the increases, or else figure out what to cut.
I’m all for responsible budgeting. We should not be spending more money than we have. I worry, though, that too many years of declining everything—numbers, money, prestige, you name it—too many years of declining has moved us from trusting in God’s abundance to living in scarcity.
What I would love to see is Paul’s letter to the Presbyterian Church USA.
We want you to know, dear PCUSA, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of (fill in the blank….) the Lutherans ; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints—…. 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.
What if all of the churches across our denomination gave as they were able, according to their means, to the work of the denomination? What if we trusted that helping the church across town or across the country succeed would not diminish our own chances to succeed but would, in fact, expand our chance to succeed?
It is why we give a tithe of our church budget to support the ministries of the national church. It is why we are giving a percentage of the money we raise in the capital campaign to support a local ministry.
Because we trust that wealth is just another measure of grace that we share with others.
There were plenty of illustrations of abundance at GA too. The commissioners, including our own Evelyn, worked faithfully, creatively, and for very very long hours to discern where God was calling us as we journey into the future. We commissioned mission co-workers to represent us in communities around the world. There were many wonderful young adults there, serving as advisory delegates, whose voice reminded me that our future is in good hands. We heard more about our emphasis on educating children both here and around the world. We approved the Belhar Confession. We elected my friend J Herbert Nelson as our new Stated Clerk and my friends Jan Edmiston and Denise Anderson as our new co-moderators. It was a hopeful week.
The truth in this manna story is God provides what we need each day. And true wealth, or grace, is only what we can use, not what we store up.
Are we willing to live as if that is true? It means we need to live as if what we have is enough right now, leaving us generous and able to share in our abundance. It also means we need to trust tomorrow will bring provision of its own, so we don’t need to grasp too tightly, taking up more than our share.
We live into the promise of manna in the wilderness each time we come to the Table. We take as much as we need, and there is enough for everyone. Our communion meal is God’s provision for us, reminding us of the gift of our daily bread. We pray for it every week. “Give us this day our daily bread”.
At the Table, we remember.
We remember God’s provision in our lives, seen in the manna each day.
We remember God’s provision in our lives, seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We remember God’s provision in our lives, seen in the people God has brought to share in this meal with us.
We remember and are thankful.
As you go through your week, I invite you to do so in gratitude, picking up the manna that God provides for you, leaving enough manna so that your companions on the journey can receive some too, and trusting that there will be more tomorrow. This is the mystery of God’s grace—it is more than we deserve and it is exactly what we need.