Extragavant Generosity 2: Why Generosity? – audio available
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Extravagant Generosity 2: Why Generosity?
2 Corinthians 9:6-12
March 20, 2011
In a sermon last fall, I told the story of the writer Stephen King being hit by a minivan while walking along a country road. He could have been killed by that accident, as it left him covered with mud and blood by the side of the road, with a badly broken leg.
Now King, as most of you know, is the popular and successful author of a string of horror novels. What is less well known is that many of King’s books contain Christian themes. He used his near-fatal accident as an opportunity to reflect on how fleeting life is, and how important it is to be generous along the way.
After that sermon, a visitor to FPC said to me, “I have never heard a preacher use Stephen King in a sermon before.”
And I thought, “Hey, we’re an uncommon Christian community.”
Lying in that ditch by the road, Stephen King realized that the greatest power we have is the ability to give. Nothing else we do will have a more positive impact on the world around us … or on ourselves. “Giving isn’t about the receiver or the gift, but the giver,” said King. “It’s for the giver. One doesn’t open one’s wallet to improve the world, although it’s nice when that happens; one does it to improve one’s self. … Giving is a way of taking the focus off the money we make and putting it back where it belongs — on the lives we lead, the families we raise, the communities which nurture us.”
King is right: Giving is for the giver. Giving is a form of self-improvement. It takes our focus off of money and puts it back where it belongs — on improving quality of life for ourselves and others.
This sermon is the second in a series on Extravagant Generosity, and our topic today is the question, “Why Generosity?” If Stephen King were asked the question, he would probably answer, “Because it makes us better people, by shifting our focus from money to the things that really matter.”
That is a good start, but we need to go deeper. Yes, it is true that we want to be better people, but in particular we want to be better Christians. And we do want to shift our focus, but for us that means giving more attention to God, to the church, and to our neighbors. The apostle Paul includes all of these focal points in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, when he reflects on the importance of generosity.
Paul is writing to the Christians in Corinth, a city in Greece, inviting them to give money to a collection he is taking up to support the poor Christians of Jerusalem. He encourages the Corinthians by telling them the story of another group of Christians in nearby Macedonia, who have responded with extravagant generosity to his request for funds. In fact, Paul says that “during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Corinthians 8:2).
Notice that the Macedonians were not generous because they had a lot of money, or because their economy was in good shape. No, it was during a severe ordeal of affliction that they gave their gifts, and their generosity came from a combination of abundant joy and extreme poverty.
Those of us who are Midlife Men on a Mission see the power of this combination every year when we travel to Honduras. One of our friends there is a man named Henry, who lives in a cinderblock home with his wife and children, with no indoor plumbing or electricity. By American standards, we would say that he is extremely poor.
But when we visit Henry and his family, we are greeted with a wealth of generosity. One of our projects is to pay tuition for his daughter at the local bilingual school, and Henry thanks us every year by throwing a fiesta at his house. His wife kills a chicken and provides a wonderful meal, and the house is filled with happiness. We see that joy and poverty can overflow in a “wealth of generosity.”
Both the Macedonians and Henry teach us that you don’t have to be rich to practice extravagant generosity.
But that’s not all. Paul tells us that the Macedonians “gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us” (8:5). He is making the point that the Macedonians have given themselves fully to God, the source of every good and perfect gift. They have also given themselves to Paul and his fellow Christians, and are anxious to support the church and their neighbors in need.
The Macedonians are illustrating for us the three reasons that people practice extravagant generosity. They give because they:
First, love God.
Second, love the church.
And third, desire to grow in love of neighbor.
A United Methodist bishop named Robert Schnase has listed these three reasons in a book that our Extravagant Generosity small groups are using during the Season of Lent. If you have not already joined a group, I encourage you to do so today, by signing up in the narthex or simply showing up. Most of the groups are meeting here at FPC on Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. These discussions will help you to get more out of this sermon series, and will develop your ability to be a more generous person.
In today’s passage from Scripture, Paul encourages the Corinthians to follow the example of the Macedonians in providing a “bountiful gift” to the Christians in Jerusalem (9:5). Within these verses, we can find examples of all three of the reasons that people practice extravagant generosity.
Paul begins by using an illustration from farming, reminding the Corinthians that “the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” — clearly, a person has to give in order to receive (v. 6). He encourages them always to give with a positive attitude, because “God loves a cheerful giver” (v. 7).
Then we come to the first reason people practice extravagant generosity — they love God. Generous people love God because, in Paul’s words, “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work” (v. 8).
We give because we love a God who gives. Our God provides us with everything we need for life, and offers us enough to share as well.
Paul goes on to say that “you will be enriched in every way for your great generosity” (v. 11). He realizes, along with author Stephen King, that giving is for the giver. It is a form of self-improvement, enriching us and turning us into better people.
But Paul goes deeper when he says, “you will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God” (v. 12). This brings us to the second reason people practice generosity — they love the church.
Notice that this giving does not only supply the needs of the saints — the Christians in Jerusalem. It also has the spiritual benefit of overflowing “with many thanksgivings to God.” The generosity of the Corinthians increases the joy of the entire church, and it strengthens the bonds of Christian love between Paul, his colleagues, the Corinthians, and the Christians in Jerusalem.
When we give to the church out of love, we are not simply supplying the needs of the institution — paying the light bill, buying supplies for Sunday School, supporting the salaries of the staff. We are also producing thanksgiving to God, and improving the health and vitality of the entire Christian community.
Finally, in the verse which follows today’s passage, Paul writes that the Corinthians glorify God by their “obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ” — they show through their giving that they want to be obedient to the one who gave his life on the cross, Jesus the Christ. Paul also says they glorify God by the generosity of their “sharing with them and with all others” (v. 13). Giving is a part of obedience to Jesus Christ, the one who sacrificed himself to bring us forgiveness and new life. When we follow Jesus, we behave in sacrificial ways that show our love for others.
This is the third and final reason that people practice extravagant generosity: A desire to grow in love of neighbor. Just as we are always growing in our obedience to Christ, we are always growing in our love of neighbor. This is an ongoing process, one that we engage in through repeated acts of generosity, day after day after day.
So what is the answer to the question: Why Generosity? There are many answers, and all of them are correct:
Giving is for the giver.
Giving is an act of self-improvement.
Giving shifts our focus from money to things that really matter.
Giving shows our love for God.
Giving expresses our love for the church.
Giving reveals our desire to grow in love for neighbor.
Pick the answer that is right for you, and then act on it. Our willingness to practice extravagant generosity will prove that we are, together, an “uncommon Christian community, embracing all people with God’s love and grace.” Amen.