October 24, 2021
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
It is good to be back with you after joining former St. Luke’s pastor and his wife, Carver and Marianne McGriff, for their Normandy tour in France. Carver, who is 97, fought in the Normandy invasion in World War II and has led tours back to the sites of significance in that critical turning point of the war, along with places personally significant in Carver’s journey of fighting there, being wounded and captured and cared for by Germans. It was truly a special and wonderful trip.
But before coming home we had two nights in Paris. One of the impacts of the pandemic I discovered was the prevalence of pick-pocket thieves in the Paris subway called The Metro. Riding back to our hotel some guys got me without my realizing it. Susan looked on the floor and saw my wallet. She picked it up and handed it to me. The cash was taken, but fortunately for me nothing else! So the damage could have been so much worse.
But for the rest of my time, if I got near anyone in Paris I had my hand on my wallet. In the subway, walking the sidewalk, in the elevator. Even in the hotel room, if Susan got too close, I put my hand on my wallet!
I tell you this story because we begin today a stewardship series, and the instinct for some in church is when you hear the word stewardship you put your hand on your wallet. The church is going to try to get my money. This is one of the reasons that nuns don’t go to church. Now I don’t mean nuns, n-u-n-s. I mean nones, n-o-n-e-s. The people who in surveys when asked what is their religious preference put none. “Nones” are now the largest spiritual category of people in America. There’s not just one reason they give for not affiliating with religion, but a reason frequently given is the emphasis on money. They say churches focus too much on the need to give.
Well, for what’s it worth, if you’ve ever felt that way, that you don’t want to hear sermons on money, that times are tight and you are doing all you can just to make it and the last thing you want is a guilt trip on giving, then you’re in good company, not just with “nones” today, but some church members in the New Testament.
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he spends the most amount of all of his letters, two whole chapters(!), to address the offering because many in the church have grown weary with the focus on money in church. They’ve started coming with their hands on the wallets and they’re getting tired of it.
Now we are going to spend these four weeks looking at these two chapters, but to appreciate what Paul writes we need to start with understanding where this whole business of taking an offering in church started. It goes back to Acts chapter 15 when Paul met with the apostles in Jerusalem to settle the issue of whether the Church would be open to Gentiles. In making the landmark decision that the church would be open to all people, Paul would later write in Galatians about the one condition the leaders placed on him. “They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.”(2:10)
The poor were those in Jerusalem, perhaps church members who had been devastated by a famine. The needs were great and the Jerusalem Church was having trouble meeting the rising needs. They asked Paul to encourage people in all of the churches he started to receive an offering to help the poor. So that’s what Paul did.
Now at first the Corinthians were eager to share in these offerings. Probably because of Paul being with them and talking about how important their gifts were. But after Paul left, over the course of time, their enthusiasm waned. We can imagine what went on. Some people probably started asking why they were giving to people in a faraway place, folks they didn’t even know. After all, didn’t they have needs in Corinth?
I remember in a Finance meeting in my first church, we were talking about the increase in conference apportionments. Someone suggested we not pay it. I explained what all the apportionments support in mission work around the world. This person said, “Well, preacher, doesn’t the Bible say ‘charity begins at home.” I gently pointed out that no, the Bible doesn’t say that. He responded, “Well it says it somewhere.” That’s hard to argue isn’t it?
We understand how that can happen. You don’t see the people you’re helping. You lose your desire. You think about all your own needs, and before long you’re putting your hand over your wallet.
So Paul takes two whole chapters to write to the people to inspire them to keep giving. That’s not an easy task.
A number of years ago I heard a pastor speak at a conference. He served a very large church in the country and was consulted by President Clinton to meet with him for spiritual advice. One day sitting in the Oval Office he said to the president, “You know, my job is harder than yours.” The president said, “Oh really?” “Yes,” said the pastor, “When you need money you just raise taxes. If you go to war and don’t have enough soldiers, you just establish a draft. I’m in a church. I depend on volunteers. I can’t make people DO anything. I have to inspire them to want to.”
The president said, “You’ve got a point.”
Paul writes chapters 8 and 9 to inspire people who have lost their desire to give. He doesn’t brow beat. He doesn’t threaten. In fact, he doesn’t say things like, “Now do I need to remind you that you made a pledge? And if you don’t fulfill it, then you’re going back on your word.” No none of that. In fact, Paul doesn’t even talk about them. He talks about the churches in Macedonia and the grace of God that has been shown to them.
“For during a severe ordeal of affliction,” he writes, “their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” Paul brags on the Macedonian churches. Specifically he’s thinking of Philippi and Thessalonica. He says, they weren’t rich. They were poor as church mice, didn’t have two nickels to rub together. But when they heard about the poor in Jerusalem they gave. And their giving help. But it didn’t just help the poor in Jerusalem, Paul says. It helped themselves. It did them good. It lifted them up. Instead of lying around moaning about hard the times are and who’s to blame for it, when they could turn their attention to the needs of others and look for a way to help, they were the beneficiaries. No matter how bad things are, when we can find a way to give, to help someone else, it liberates us from our own poverty.
Now Paul’s tactic here is risky. I don’t know that I’d have the guts to try it. Remember he’s trying to motivate the Corinthians, but he’s bragging on the Macedonians.
How many of you grew up with an older sibling? How many of you had to follow behind that sibling in school, sometimes even having the same teacher? How motivating was it when that teacher said, “Now your brother Johnnie, your sister Sally, they were the best students I ever had. I hope you’ll be just like them.” Is there a more sure-fire way to make sure someone is not going to live up to your expectation than to say something like that? Is there a greater de-motivator than to say, “Be like him! If only you could be more like her!”
But what if that same teacher used the same comparison, but just a bit differently. What if that teacher said, “You know I had your brother or sister in my class a few years ago, and he or she was one of the best students I ever had. But you know, you know, I think you’ve got something special. I think you are going to be an even better student.” If you have an ounce of sibling rivalry in you that’s all it takes.
Paul knew the Corinthians were competitive. He acknowledged that in his first letter in the start of his grand chapter on love: “If I speak in the tongues of angels…but do not have love, I am a noisy gong.” Then he compares love to knowledge and giving. Why? Because the Corinthians were competitive and placed importance on who had the most degrees or wealth, and when it came to church they gave importance to those who appeared to be the most spiritual. So in his second letter Paul returns to this idea and says in the verse at the end of our reading this morning: “Now 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.” (v.7)
Paul didn’t admonish their competitive spirit, he just redirected it. “Go ahead, try to outdo each other, but outdo one another in graciousness.” For Paul it always came back to grace. This is the motivation for giving. This is why we give. Paul’s main concern for the people in church was are you growing in grace?
I want to share a couple scripture verses with you that are key to this series and why we are calling it what we are.
“To be mature is to be basic. Christ! No more, no less. That’s what I’m working so hard at day after day, year after year…” Paul’s eager desire was to help people mature in the faith. He said this again in Ephesians: “We must become like a mature person, growing until we become like Christ and have his perfection.” (Eph. 4:13 NCV)
For Paul spiritual maturity meant becoming like Christ and becoming like Christ is to be people of grace. Paul knew the power of this in his own life. Because of the grace he experienced through Christ, he knew there is nothing that changes a person like grace. And our world needs more people who have been transformed by grace. As my preaching professor in seminary used to say, “The sign of grace in a people’s lives is that they are gracious.”
When you experience genuine grace you never forget it.
I just returned from France on the Normandy tour led by our formed senior pastor and his wife, Dr. Carver and Marianne McGriff. Carver was a part of the Normandy invasion. One of the things that stood out to me from this tour was the impact on German occupation on the French people. Their resources were taken away. Their produce, their livestock. Many lived on the fringe of starvation for the last years of the war.
We went to one small village and got off the bus in front of this farmhouse. Carver told about coming to this house with other soldiers in his unit. It was night time and what made places like this especially dangerous was that Germans would hide in the upstairs looking for a chance to shoot enemy soldiers in the open roads and fields.
Carver said his outfit carefully broke into the house and searched it. Realizing no one was there they looked around for food. Now they weren’t supposed to loot, but when you’re hungry it’s about staying alive. Well, they found some vegetables on a counter and one of the guys said, “I can make this into a soup.” So they went outside and started a fire, but they didn’t have water. Carver remembered seeing a well with a hand pump by the house, so he volunteered to fetch water. As he was doing this he noticed movement inside the house. And then he saw the door handle slowly turning. He grabbed his rifle and when the door started to open he shoved it and pointed his rifle in the belly of a man wearing a long robe and clerical collar. It was a priest.
Well, Carver got frightened and ran back to his unit. He said, “Guys, you won’t believe this but I nearly shot a priest. We took food from him. We have to take this back, ad give him some money to fix the window we broke.
Well, when they went back to the house, the priest came out carrying the remainder of the food he had hidden for himself to give them so they would have something to eat. Probably at the point of starving himself, he wanted to share what he had.
So why do we not need to keep our hand on our wallet? It’s certainly not because all people are good. It’s because we can be by God’s grace.