Monday, October 21, 2013

One Step at a Time

October 20
One Step at a Time
2 Corinthians 8:7-15

2 Corinthians 8:7-15    (NRSV)
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.

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.”

The buzz word for the last couple of weeks has been economics.

The looming question was --- if Congress had not passed a budget bill of some variety would our (and the world's) economy collapse.

But it posses and interesting question that nobody seemed really to answer.

Just what is "economics?"

We love to talk about the economy --- but my hunch is most of us really don't understand it --- other than watching whether or not the price of gas is going up or down.

A few years ago, there was a New York Times best selling book that seemed to challenge our thinking about the whole idea of economics and how financial and social capitol actually move in our culture.

The book, if you are familiar with it is: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Looks at the Hidden Side of Everything.

The rogue economist is Steven Levitt who, along with partner Stephen Dubner, looks at the real nature of economics as a web of interconnected relationships.

Their premise?
“If morality represents how we’d like the world to work, then economics represents how it actually does work.”

I think why I was attracted by the book, was instead of doing what most economist do --- which is look a the numbers and make statements or predictions --- Levitt asks WHY?

He believes that at the center of economics is the concept of incentives.

He writes:
“Economics is, at root, the study of incentives: how people get what they want, or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing . . .  An incentive is a bullet, a lever, a key: an often tiny object with astonishing power to change a situation.”

If the incentive is great enough, with enough of a payoff in the end, people will go to great lengths to achieve it.

In a world where conventional economic wisdom is all about acquiring enough money and things to live comfortably and secure, Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church offers a completely different way of thinking economically and spiritually.

Let's take a quick look at what Corinth was like in the first century.

Corinth was a cosmopolitan culture where the economy, status and religion were all based on competition between individuals and groups (sounds a lot like today).

The basic incentive that drove people was the desire for “excellence,” or one-upping others in any pursuit.

Much of 1 Corinthians is devoted to Paul’s arguments against this kind of thinking in the church.

Paul says that instead of climbing over one another to be the best or most worthy, we should move toward equality and unity in things like worship (1 Corinthians 11) and in the use of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12).

My hunch is the people of Corinth felt pretty beat up by Paul's first letter and it created some hard feelings in the church toward Paul and, in particular, about the collection that Paul was asking for from all the Gentile churches to support the work of the Jerusalem church among the poor and needy (1 Corinthians 16:1-4).

It wasn’t that the Corinthians were unwilling.
          They simply lacked incentive.

Without an incentive to take up the offering, other than a perceived obligation, the Corinthians were falling behind.

A year earlier they had been all for it, but since their relationships with Paul had apparently been strained, they had become less enthusiastic about giving to his cause (2 Corinthians 8:10-12).

Clearly, they needed a different kind of incentive in order to finish what they started.

We run into the same dilemma every year

Every fall there are letters written, newsletter articles posted and sermons from me soliciting your support through estimates of giving for the coming year.

And as we try to plan our annual campaign, one of the things that quickly becomes apparent is that there are hundreds of campaigns out there.

One of the most offensive to me (because it is theologically WRONG) is the one that says:
          Give and you will prosper financially
or       Give $1000 and God will grant you new wealth.

The bible is full of talk about blessings --- even blessings that are in response to faithful giving.
          But the scriptures never promise a shopping spree.

Another approach is to encourage you to support the budget.        
          To give your fair share . . .

As I said a couple weeks ago --- we don't GIVE to raise money for the church or to support the budget.
          That's not why you bring an offering each week

We have even been known to use guilt to try and get you to give.
I bet some of you have heard some of these lines over the years (I hope not here!!!)
          "If you don't raise your giving we may have to close the church doors"

          "We may have to let staff go"

          "We may not have Sunday school material for our children"

Guilt doesn't work too well!

I even read about a church that tried a lottery approach
          Probably appropriate in this day and age with our love of gambling

What the campaign said was: Bring your offering in a sealed envelope.
Once the offering was collected --- all the envelopes were placed in a big drum, like the ones used for bingo
The pastor spins the drum and pulls out an envelope
The name is read and the winning person gets double his or her money back


Or there was the weight loss challenge.

Some members of a congregation challenged the Sr Pastor to lose some weight
          They pledged money for every pound that he lost
It was kind of a win -- win situation
          The Sr Pastor wins by losing some weight
          The congregation wins by getting some money

Silly --- maybe even amusing --- but sad at the same time

Why do we give to the church?
          Why do you give?

If not to raise money for the church ---- WHY?

As I said a few weeks ago
          Giving is essential to Discipleship
                   One cannot be a disciple of Jesus and not be generous

So let's take a quick look at Paul's approach.

What Paul realized was that the church at Corinth needed a crash course in faith-onomics, or better yet, grace-onomics.

Paul starts where they are.

He knows what motivates these Corinthians, ---- what incentive will work.

What he had chided them about in the first letter, he now uses to bolster his argument in the second:
If the Corinthians want to demonstrate “excellence,” here is the perfect chance to do so (8:7).

The Macedonian churches (particularly those at Thessalonica and Philippi) had already given sacrificially and enthusiastically to this offering, even though they were dealing with their own poor economic conditions (8:1-6).

Despite their own poverty, these people gave “beyond their means” and begged for the privilege of doing more.

The poor Macedonians have outdone themselves, writes Paul to the wealthy Corinthians.

          So, it’s your call.
          What are you going to do in response?

Paul not only encourages the Corinthians to follow the example of the Macedonians in their giving, but even more so the example of Christ, who “became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (v. 9).

All that they have, materially and spiritually, is the result of the grace of God and that grace is, in fact, a form of wealth in itself.

God has poured himself out for them in Jesus Christ — how can they not do the same for others?

Understand that Paul is not talking actual drachma amounts here, like a corporation that offers matching gifts to charity.

He’s talking about attitude and motivation, urging the Corinthians to give out of the abundance of what they have, not focusing on what they don’t have (v. 12).

Balance, fairness and reciprocity are the economics of God, where all share together in the model of Christ in whose eyes all of us are equal (v. 13).

It’s not about tossing God our leftovers, but about seeking the higher value of excellence in our stewardship,
living our lives with open hands as well as open hearts, rather than begrudging our giving.

Paul’s basic economic theory, very different from that of Levitt and Dubner, is that everything belongs to God in the first place, but God has seen fit to share it with us — even to the point of sharing God’s own self in Jesus (1 Corinthians 3:21b-23).

Even if we don’t have a penny to our names, we are rich because of God’s grace toward us.
          It’s thinking that runs counter to just about every economic theory.

So why do we give?

Let me offer to us some reasons why we give


We give to express gratitude and joy for the gift of life.


The gift says something of what I am about.

It proclaims that I want to be involved in what my church is doing.

A mature Christian is one who wants to be involved and who wants to make a contribution


We don't give to make the church bigger.

We give in order to facilitate our own steady growth as disciples of Jesus --- and to make sure that others can join us on this Discipleship Path

A good gift is one that has a positive effect on the spiritual life of the giver!

We give not to get, but because we have received.
We love because we have been loved.

Our incentive to give of our time, our talents, and our treasure in God’s service has nothing to do with what we’ll get in return.

Instead it has everything to do with what God has already done for us.

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