October 9, 2011

surprised by joy

Scripture Reference: 2 Cor. 9:1-15

So we head back to 2 Corinthians this morning here...where Pastor Paul is concerned that the church is behind in their giving. The stewardship campaign is faltering... I know this comes as a shock, but not everyone at First Church Corinth has turned in their pledge card...and not everyone who turned in their pledged card has ponied up! Paul is concerned with follow through, that the Corinthians put their money where their mouth is...

Reading: 2 Corinthians 9:1-15

Reluctant giving

So in 2 Corinthians 9 Paul actually compares the Macedonian's giving with the Corinthians giving. He's saying: "Holy cow, those Macedonian Christians sure know how to give! What's your problem?" Nothing like a little friendly competition to urge them on...

But you'll be happy to know, the pastor draws the line at extortion. There will be no blackmail, no coercion. In verse 5 Paul is clear: Their giving must be "voluntary." Apparently it's an important point, because Paul is still at it in verse 7: "Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion..."

No guilt. No pressure. (And no goofy gimmicks, I might add.) Their giving must not be "reluctantly or under compulsion."

My all-time favorite illustration of reluctant giving comes from Garrison Keillor. In one of his Lake Woebegone stories Clarence Bunsen is sitting in church, waiting for Pastor Inqvist to wrap up the sermon.

Of course, Clarence knows that after the sermon is the offering - it's always that way - so, while Pastor Inqvist is winding it up, Clarence starts getting ready to give.

Clarence pulls out his checkbook and scratches out a check for $30 - which, Keillor notes, "more than usual," but Clarence recently "had almost had a heart attack" and so he was feeling particularly grateful that morning...

So Clarence is writing out his check "surreptitiously", trying to trying to hide it, keeping his head up and eyes forward, because, as Keillor explains, "you're not supposed to write checks in church..." I mean, it's not like it's a grocery store!

So finally the ushers come around, and as "Clarence puts his check in the plate and reverently bows his head" when he "suddenly realize[s] he has written the check for $300!", with an extra zero! And he panics. Now what?

Keillor continues: Can "a person sneak downstairs after church and find [the ushers] counting the [offering] and say, ‘Uh guys - there's been a [big] mistake - I gave more than I wanted to...'"? Reluctant giving!

Pastor Paul says, Don't give reluctantly. Don't give grudgingly, under compulsion because - and here's Paul's contrast in verse 7 - "God loves a cheerful giver." Christian giving is motivated not by guilt or obligation but by joy.


Surprised by joy

I've always been drawn to the title C.S. Lewis gave to the book he wrote about his conversion: Surprised By Joy.

How many people think God is out to cramp our style, to wreck our fun? Like God is some kind of cosmic kill-joy or spoil-sport.

On the contrary, as C.S. Lewis discovered, to encounter the Living God is to experience JOY!

Joy happens at the beginning of the journey, and joy marks the ongoing journey, day by day, as we continue to encounter the riches of God's abundant mercy and grace in Jesus Christ. We are continually surprised by joy. NOT straight-jacketed by rules, and duty, and obligation. We are set free, full of joy and gratitude to God, that spills out into cheerful giving, the joyful sharing of ourselves and our resources.

We give not under compulsion, not because we have to , but because we get to - in response to God's grace!

So I wonder: Have you ever gotten to cheerful giving? Have you ever been surprised by joy?

A couple years ago I was speaking at a retreat for Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church in CA, and a young mom was telling me about how their church was helping with refugee resettlement in the area.

At one point a new family was scheduled to arrive at San Francisco airport, from Burundi. So some people from the Sunnyvale church, including this mom and her 3 young kids, went to SFO to welcome this refugee family.

At the airport, as the refugee family came through customs, and was greeted by their sponsor, the Burundian woman was overcome with joy. She fell at the feet of her sponsor, collapsing really, overwhelmed by their sacrifice. She was weeping and wailing with tears of joy.

At which point the young mom's oldest daughter, a 7 or 8 year-old girl, turned to her Mother and said, "Mom...I have a feeling in my heart I have never felt before!"

And then beaming, the girl asked, "Is it okay if I turn a cartwheel?"

Right there at SFO. Just outside the customs gate. Surprised by joy.



God loves a cheerful giver. The word cheerful here is from the Greek word hilarotes. It's linked to our word hilarity, or hilarious. Cheerful giving as hilarious giving is not about superficial laughs, or goofing around. It's not about jokey humor.

Rather, it's a profoundly deep gladness that comes from a sense of being grounded in God's grace, of trusting in the God who is revealed in the life and death and resurrection Jesus Christ.

Of course, this hilarious giving does not come just from a burst of emotional enthusiasm. Cheerful giving is not all emotion or heart, and no brain. It's not like you just have to wait for it to occasionally bubble up on its own. It's more deliberate than that, more intentional. This is what Paul says in the first half of first 7. In the second half he says God loves a cheerful giver. But in the first half he says, "Each of you must give as you have made up your mind" to give.

Eugene Peterson's translation is helpful here: "Take plenty of time to think it over and make up your own mind about what you will give."

Take plenty of time to think it over and make up your mind about what will you will give. Which means, if I may take the liberty to transliterate even more: "When the pledge card comes in the mail this week don't let it get buried on your desk! Tape it to the fridge or the bathroom mirror or the car dashboard. Keep it in front of you. Sit down and think long and hard about your response. If you have a spouse or kids at home talk with them about it. Talk with God about it! "Take plenty of time to think it over and make up your own mind about what you will give."

Because, God loves an intentional and cheerful giver.

Could it be that part of the cheerfulness, part the joy, comes with actually thinking it through, with being intentional, not just flying by the seat of your pants, or making it up as you go, but going after it?

God loves a cheerful giver...although I suspect he puts up with crabby ones, too.

The thing is, and here's Peterson again: "God loves it when the giver delights in giving." When giving is grounded in a deep gladness, in profound gratefulness to God.


When reluctance prevails

And yet, still reluctance prevails, doesn't it? Maybe we should take another moment to explore that reluctance, because it can be hard to shake. We hold back. Sometimes we think, well everybody else will step up, everybody else has got it covered. Like my contribution doesn't really matter...

Maybe you've heard the story about a small French village where a doctor had served the people for many years. Even though the villagers couldn't afford to pay him much, the doctor lived simply and served faithfully.

When the day came for the doctor to retire the people saw it as an opportunity to express their gratitude and affection. But since they couldn't really afford a huge gift of money, it was proposed that each family bring a bit of wine from its own cellar, each according to their ability. Each one poured their contribution into a large barrel, which was presented to the good doctor on the day of celebration.

When the doctor went to the barrel to draw off a bit of wine, and sat down to enjoy it, the first sip was a shock. It tasted like water. He sipped it again. It was water. In that moment it became clear that each of the villagers had reasoned: "My contribution won't be missed. Others will take care of it. The water I substitute will not be noticed."

Such reluctance.

And the pastor comes along and says, Don't hold back! Don't let your giving be forced, pinched, a pale reflection of what God intends. Don't miss out on being enriched in every way, of being spiritually transformed as you give, of increasing your "harvest of righteousness."

And if joyful continues to elude you, may I suggest that you start where this passage ends? Verse 15: "Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift."

For it is a gratefulness for God's abundance that primes the pump of joyful giving. That's really the bottom line here. Not a budget. Paul is not asking them to give to a church budget. He is asking them to give to God.

"Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift," for his inexhaustible generosity. For the gift of Jesus to the world. For the gift of grace upon grace. For the One who is Lord of every inch of creation, of every breath we take.

Think long and hard about it...that oughta get us to joyful...



Holy and gracious God: get ahold of our lives. May your grace permeate every pore of our being. Surprise us with joy. Move us to grateful. Get us to generosity. Make us not afraid even to add one more zero...

Through Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.