My son is magic. Well, not really magic, to be honest. But there is an odd little quirk that seems to happen around his birthday. He gets to be home for his birthday. His birthday is October 25th and so you would think that he would have to be in school, unless it fell on a weekend. But sometimes it is fall break on his birthday, one year it snowed and school was closed, another year there was a fog delay that became a cancellation. It is weird. I’m sure that there were some years when he had to go to school on the actual date, but I don’t remember any at the moment. And there have been a lot of them. Twenty to be exact.
It startled me just writing that. Twenty years! I still remember meeting him at Chicago O’Hare Airport, looking like he just woke up - a look with which we are still familiar - but wide-eyed in wonder at the world which must have been incomprehensibly different from the one he left behind.
In the wash of emotions that gripped me in that moment – from joy to fear, wonder and anxiety, hope and helplessness – the one that overpowered them all was gratitude. I was just so thankful for this life, even though I knew I didn’t have a clue how to care for him. I was giddy with gratefulness, I thanked everyone I passed. The couple who brought him over on that long flight from South Korea, they too looked like they had been up all night, thank you. The members of the crew, of any crew, I didn’t know who flew his plane and who didn’t, so I thanked them all. Workers in the airport, travelers looking for their connections, drivers of taxis and busses, pedestrians and parking attendants, I thanked them all. Above all, I thanked God, the author of this happy ending that is still in process, who deemed us worthy of claiming this gift, one of God’s precious ones given up by a mother who couldn’t keep him and put on a list that made its way around the world so that we could be blessed by his presence in our lives. I am forever grateful to that mother, who we don’t know and never will know, but who also didn’t know how she blessed us and how we took her gift and made it a part of us.
Because in that moment I knew I was in debt, deeper than I could ever repay, even though repaying was something that I had dedicated my life to in those busy corridors of one of the world’s busiest airports. You don’t need a sanctuary colored by the streams of soft light through stained glass to recognize your indebtedness, airports work quite well for me. And I know it sounds odd, but every time I have flown in the past twenty years I walk through those terminals as though in a sanctuary, a holy place of connections and destinations, of tearful farewells and joyous homecomings.
And I’m grateful. In the deepest corners of my being, I am grateful. I know I forget sometimes, or fail to recall. And yet it is there, when I gaze across the table or read the text message that comes or the phone call because he is bored at college, and usually at the most inconvenient of times. But underneath the irritation or the distraction or the repetition of the same banal questions, there swells up in me a thankfulness that longs to burst forth in acts of generosity and sacrifice. I want to give him, give them joy, to give them love, to give them me no matter the cost. I want to give God glory for what I have been blessed to receive, I want to shout from the rooftops until the whole world knows that life is a gift and that we are privileged to not only receive but to give, not only to be blessed but to bless others.
Underneath all the rhetoric of our passage for this week, Paul is wanting the same thing. Wanting his readers to give with that kind of passion, that kind of understanding.
2 Corinthians 8:1-15 We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; 2 for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3 For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, 4 begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints-- 5 and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, 6 so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you.
7 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. 8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 9 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. 10 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-- 11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. 12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has-- not according to what one does not have. 13 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 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15 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."
“For if the eagerness is there ...” What a phrase to use to talk about stewardship. Instead of duty, instead of responsibility, Paul uses eagerness. Eagerness to give. He primes the pump by talking about Macedonia, and how they begged him to let them be a part of the collection. But he doesn’t present it as a competition. Rather it is an opportunity for them to let some of the joy that has been poured into them leak out and bless others.
In Philippians, Paul writes what has come to be called the Christ hymn. (Phil 2:6-11) Here he condenses that great poetic theology into one verse: “ 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.” But in that verse carries the church’s theology of grace and response. And after that he gives some advice. Advice? Paul, giving advice? Yes, what an amazing thing. He makes a suggestion, doesn’t lay a command on us. And what is that advice? Let it out. Let out the joy that is within you, let out the gratitude that is in you. Let it out in generosity. Let it out in giving.
This offering that he is collecting here is for the saints in Jerusalem. The mother church has fallen on difficult times and now it is the privilege of the new, upstart churches in the Gentile world to give back. There is more than just a church mission operation here. Paul is helping the church be one. There is not, for Paul anyway, a Jewish Christian church and a Gentile Christian church and each can take care of itself. No, there is one church and like the beginnings of the church in the book of Acts, his vision is that there are none who have need among them because they each give what they can.
In addition to telling them to be prudent about their giving, but to trust in the providence of God (that was why he tossed in the verses about manna - about trusting that there will be enough, whether a little or a lot), Paul also tells them to finish what they started, or to follow through on their intentions, depending on how you read verses ten and eleven. But even there, it isn’t as an obligation, but an outlet for the joy of responding to the blessings of God that drives the giving. “So that your eagerness may be matched by completion.” Just do it, but do it with joy, do it with gratitude, do it as a way of making real the gratitude that lives within you.
Sunday after worship we will take Rhys back to university. It is a long drive and he’ll probably fall asleep. I’m sure it will be somewhat low key as these things tend to be. But for me it is always a reminder of how some gifts that we are given are not ours to keep, but to give away. The grace remains, however, the grace of receiving and the grace of giving. And maybe that is the magic, such as it is. That we are made complete even in the giving away. Happy Birthday Rhys. I am blessed to be your dad.