October 31, 2021
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
Well, it’s probably appropriate that today is Halloween and we are talking about stewardship…(sound effect). Because that’s the response some people have when they hear the word… …stewardship! (sound) It’s pretty scary to them.
So let me start with a story from a Halloween when our girls were little. They had been out trick or treating and when they came home, they did what they always did, they dumped their loot on the floor and started going through their candy. Now, one of our girls in particular had a real candy obsession. And when I reached to grab a piece she let out this kind of demonic scream, “Noooo! It’s mine!”
I realized the danger of getting between a five year old and her Halloween candy. I said, “All of this candy was given to you. This was a gift. You didn’t have to buy this candy.” She said, “No, but I had to walk all over the neighborhood to get this.” So I said, “Well, can’t you share?”
So with a frown she started picking through her candy and took out the pieces that—what? Right, she didn’t want! And she handed them to me. I said, “You just gave me the ones you didn’t want.” And with no shame she laughed and said, “That’s right.”
Susan and I look back on pictures of that daughter at that time and we laugh because it was cute. It’s cute mainly because she didn’t stay that way. She has grown to be a compassionate, thoughtful giving woman. But imagine if she hadn’t changed. Imagine her as a high school student protecting her belongings all the time growling if anyone got near her things. Imagine her as a college student screaming at a roommate who used her hairdryer without asking permission. Imagine her in her first job asking people in the cubicle next to her, “Did you take my pen? I had it on my desk. It’s gone. Did you use it?”
That would be way past cute wouldn’t it? It would be concerning.
This is why Paul wrote 2 Corinthians chapters 8 and 9. He heard something that was very concerning, the Corinthians no longer had a desire to give to the poor in Jerusalem. Maybe times were tight and they didn’t feel they could afford to keep giving. Maybe they questioned whether the poor in Jerusalem were really all that poor. Perhaps they could do something to better their situation and weren’t. For whatever reason they stopped giving.
And Paul apparently chastised them for it. He ridiculed them for not giving. So they wrote Paul and asked, “Okay, so about this matter of the collection. What do we have to give in order to please you?”
Oh, that never feels good does it? What do I have to give? If you have to give something, it was never given. But we can understand the question can’t we? The Corinthians didn’t want to be uncharitable. They didn’t want to appear stingy. They just wanted some clarity. How much do we have to give to be generous? Have you ever wondered that? Is it 10%? Is that what it is Paul. It says that in the Old Testament. Give a tithe. Would that be enough? Is it more? Do we have to give more than a tithe? I don’t know how many of our folks can afford to do that, but at least we’ll know. Just tell us Paul. How much?
The trouble is you can’t legislate generosity. It’s like a parent asking, “How much do I have to give my child in order to be a good parent? Or how much do I have to give my spouse to prove my love? When generosity comes to a question like that, there are bigger problems.
It’s like the story of a diamond expert who got on a plane and sat beside a woman wearing a huge diamond on her finger. He introduced himself and said, “I couldn’t help but notice the magnificent diamond you’re wearing. I happen to be an expert in precious stones and I was wondering if you could tell me about that one. The woman said, “This is the famous Klopman diamond. It’s one of the largest and rarest in the world, but it comes with a strange curse.” This really had the man’s curiosity so he had to ask, “What’s the curse?” She said, “Mr Klopman.”
You can’t put a price tag on love. That’s probably why Paul turned the conversation about giving to the Gospel. He said, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (v.9) Paul reminds the Corinthians that they worship a God who spares no expense for us. He loves us that much, and God does this without our having to deserve it.
Ernest Best, in his commentary on this passage, says that what Paul does here is the equivalent of using an electric drill to bore a hole in a piece of paper. His argument seems out of proportion to the problem. The issue isn’t that big of a deal. A congregation has fallen behind in its giving and Paul is bearing down with the weight of the whole Gospel. Is he trying to make people feel guilty to motivate them?
I believe Paul would, “Of course not! But don’t think this isn’t a big deal. This isn’t about whether a church pays its pledge. Its not even about whether widows in Jerusalem can have another dinner on the table, even though that’s important. The real issue is about what can happen in the heart when life becomes about ‘how much?”
There’s this myth that says generosity gets easier with the more you have. But studies have shown otherwise. One in 2015 showed that average Christians today give less per capita than during the Great Depression. Just because you have more doesn’t mean it gets easier. In fact, its not just generosity that can decrease with wealth.
Paul Piff, a professor at the University of California-Irvine has studied how money influences relationships. His team did an experiment using the board game Monopoly. They rigged it so one set of participants had an unfair advantage: more money, the dice would roll in their favor, they faced fewer penalties. In each case they said the longer the game went on the more the bragging increased, the boasting over how much they had and what their opponents were doing wrong.
Along with other studies they have done they said, “What we’ve been finding…is that as a person’s level of wealth increases, their feelings of compassion and empathy go down, and their feelings of entitlement, of deservingness, and their ideology of self-interest increase.”(as quoted in God and Money by Cortines and Baumer, p55)
I witnessed this back in the summer. I was in my car one Saturday afternoon at a busy intersection waiting for the light to change. Like a lot of busy intersections these days there was a woman holding a sign “Need Help.” She was walking beside cars with a little bucket so people could put some money in.
I confess. I sometimes wonder why aren’t these people working? There are jobs to be had right now. Will they really use my money to buy food? Some people have told me how much those folks make doing that and they don’t even have to pay tax. But I have changed my judgments because of what happened that day.
I became aware of a commotion in the vehicle beside me. It was a pick up truck with young guys. One was hanging out of the back window holding a dollar bill yelling, “Hey baby, you need money, come get this.” I realized they were making fun of her. Then the driver looked at me and said, “Like she needs a hand out, right!”
Then the light changed and we drove off. I thought, “Why would a woman stand at a busy intersection like that in the hot sun on a day when the temperature was in the mid-90’s and endure people who treated her that way if she didn’t need to be? Why would anyone endure such things if they didn’t have to?
English novelist John Berger says “the modern poor are not pitied…but written off as trash. The 20th century economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.” (as quoted in God and Money by Cortines and Baumer, p55)
No, I don’t believe Paul is making too big a deal of it. Life gets scary when we forget that the difference between us and a poor beggar is paper thin. Just a few different rolls of the dice and life can look very different for all of us. Paul says we have to stay humble. We have to remember that we are all God’s children on equal footing and God pours God’s generous love into us and simply asks that we let that love get poured through us.
But you know, Paul still didn’t answer the Corinthians’ question: “How much?” How much should we give? So Paul finally gets around to answering the question. He says, “Here’s my advice…Give in proportion to what you have. Whatever you give is acceptable if you give it eagerly. And give according to what you have, not what you don’t have.” (2 Cor. 8:10,12 NLT)
In other words Paul refuses to answer the question. He refuses to be penned down, because you don’t pen down grace. Just give according to what you have, because the significance isn’t what you give. It’s what God can do with your gift that’s significant. Just ask Mary McLeod Bethune.
She was the first of her family not to be born into slavery. She was the fifteenth of seventeen children raised in rural South Carolina. Her mother had a job doing laundry for white families and Mary used to go with her to make deliveries. One day in a white home she became fascinated with children’s books she saw and picked one up. A little girl in the home snatched it out of her hand and said, “You cant read, give me that.”
At a young age Mary learned that reading is the key. If she could read and write she had a chance to be on equal footing. She went to a one-room school-house run by a Christian church. She would come home and teach her family what she learned every day. Later she was able to go to college and eventually moved to Florida. She wanted to start a school for girls but all she had was $1.50. That’s right, a dollar and a half! But she did.
I don’t have time to tell the whole Mary McLeod Bethune story, but listen to what came of a 1.50. Daytona Literary and Industrial Training Institute for Negro Girls. Later, realizing the lack of medical care for black people in Daytona, she started Mary McLeod Hospital and Training School for Nurses. Later the school would merge with Cookman Institute of Jacksonville and became Bethune-Cookman College, one of the United Methodist schools in Florida. She became one of the founders of the United Negro College Fund, was responsible for integrating the Red Cross and was the only woman of color at the founding conference of the United Nations.
She became an advisor to presidents and was a close personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. And it all started with $1.50.
Now, let me qualify this, because I can hear some of you jokesters now. You’ll slap me on the should walking out the door and say, “Now if I heard you right Rob, you said all we have to give is a $1.50. Give me a pledge card now.”
So let me reiterate Paul’s words again, “Give according to what YOU have.”
Honestly, it’s not really about what you have. It’s about how you view what you have. That’s the point Paul was driving home to the Corinthians. Not how much should I give, what should I give, but how do I view it. That’s what defines us. We aren’t defined by either what we have or don’t have. We are defined by what we do with what we have.
Susan is in Kansas this weekend with her family for the celebration of her aunt’s life. Her mother’s sister passed away recently. This is a picture of Susan’s mom on the right sitting beside her sister Liz. My brother-in-law, Paul, said that when he was growing up in Salina, KS nobody really had much back in those days. In fact, because it was so expensive to travel he hardly ever saw his aunt who lived in Connecticut. As well, Liz’s husband had brain cancer and the medical bills took much of their income.
But Paul said, what he remembers about his aunt is a big box arriving every Christmas from their aunt. Inside it would be individual presents for every family member. He had come to know that what was in the presents was never anything all that expensive, but what stood out was the wrapping. Each present was carefully wrapped with origami style creations, hand-made, depicting winter scenes. He said, it was like a beautiful picture you just wanted to stare at and not dare tear open.
Paul said, “He doesn’t remember the items that came inside the packages. But he remembers the wrapping because that he how he knew his aunt loved him. The time and effort she put into each wrapping was what she could do. It was giving him what she could. And he understood he was loved by someone he hardly knew.
How much should we give? The Apostle Paul says, “Just look to Jesus, and think about the gift he represents, and then give according to what you have.”