One of the things I’ve discovered recently is how much we depend on the ministry team around here. Our staff is somewhat depleted because of vacations and maternity leave. The hard truth is we’re getting everything done that needs to be done, but there isn’t any flair to it. Flair? No, more like style. Or more like making sure all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed. We’re getting the bare bones done, but there is plenty left undone. And there are certainly things falling through the cracks that others on the team would have caught easily. We missed a surgery call and a visitation opportunity. And just this morning I went to staff prayers at the usual time and it was just me.
The staff gathers every morning at 8:30am, just before things get really started - though stuff starts around here a lot earlier than that, I must say. What with the preschool opening and part of the staff being morning people, we’re interrupting the day to stop at 8:30am. Me, I’m just getting here by then. Call me at midnight or even after and I’ll be ready to go. But morning? ... Anyway, I love that I came into a staff that already functions well, and one sign is that we gather in the morning for prayer together. And we’re never rushed with it, as least most of us. We chat about all kinds of things. It’s really a check in meeting, seeing what’s on the schedule and what’s going on that we’re aware of and a “how you doin’” meeting too. But one of those we check in with is God. We pray for the work of the day, for the state of the world, for the congregation in all it’s various needs and manifestations for the day. I love it, frankly. Love the feeling that we’re a team and God’s an active part of the team, not the silent partner we rarely hear from.
Still it was a bit lonely this morning. I went and sat in the worship center, like we do each day, and I listened. And I thought. And I prayed. And part of what I prayed is how grateful I am that I’m not in this alone. That there are other hearts at work here, that there are other minds making plans and arranging ministry, that there are other souls listening to God and holding up the congregation and the wider community too. It is amazing to me how much better all kinds of things go when we share the load, or share the work and the joys both. We live in an individualized culture, where the focus is way too much on me and my needs and my gifts and my choices. And yet we all know that in community is a much more effective, productive, enjoyable way to live and work. It is certainly the only way to do ministry.
2 Corinthians 9:6-12 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And 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. 9 As it is written, "He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever." 10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.
It’s the “rendering of this ministry” that we’re focusing on this weekend here at Southport. We’re venturing into the murky corners of the discipleship path. Murky? Yeah, you know, that Give word. Ah. We’re good with Connect - it sounds fun and social and uplifting. Serve sounds useful and productive. Grow sounds beneficial and enhancing of mind and spirit. Even Go sounds energizing and enthusiastic. But Give? Give sounds ... necessary, of course. And ... administrative, and ... painful. Give til it hurts. We’ve heard that. We avoid that, but we’ve heard it. Giving is something we avoid. Here’s a little social experiment for you – pay attention to the commercials you see over the course of a week. How many times do you see someone handing over money to pay for the items that they are receiving? Advertisers avoid that part of the transaction. And if they do have talk about cost, they’ll emphasize how little it is, or how much you’ll save, or how it’s less than it used to be. We don’t like to talk about paying, about giving. We’re a receiving oriented culture. Not a giving one.
Oh, I know there is all kinds of evidence to the contrary, that we are willing to give, for a crisis. For a one off. Floods that come, hurricanes that blow, fires that burn, families that grieve, we’ll jump up and be willing to give for that. And we should. And let’s celebrate our generosity in the moment. That hearts can be stirred and hands can reach out and pockets emptied in the moment. Praise God we are still aware enough to do that.
But Give on our discipleship path is not a one off, not a heartfelt response to a obvious need. Instead it is a way of life. A generosity of Spirit that allows us to hold our possessions as though they were in trust from another. To hold even our own lives as though they were the property of a Presence beyond us. Giving includes, of course, more than simply money. There is the giving of time and talent, the giving of labor and companionship. There is the giving of attention. In our attention deficit world, giving attention to someone is a precious gift. Give includes more than just money. Though it also includes money.
Paul was taking a collection. Doing a little fund-raising as he ran around setting up faith communities. The collection was for the “mother church” back in Jerusalem, which had fallen on tough times and was needing support from the younger and stronger communities in the wider world. Paul believed in this cause, and we could psychoanalyze his reasons for it - the Jerusalem council had given him heck for his crazy ideas about spreading the faith and including those formerly thought unworthy of this gift. So maybe he was trying to show the validity of his calling by sending back support to the home church. Maybe he was showing they were wrong and his methods are more productive than theirs. Who knows? But he used all the fund-raising tricks to get the new churches to pay up. Don’t let someone else’s generosity show up yours, he told them. He played on their emotions about the source of their new found faith being birthed in the mother church. In this letter he is telling them that their first efforts at raising the funds in I Corinthians wasn’t enough, thus II Corinthians! Like the pastors that lock the sanctuary doors and take up a second offering. No one is leaving until we get enough!
He tells them that they are already behind in the giving department. No, not the other churches that are doing more, giving more. But the God who calls them to give, has already out-given them. Out-given all of us, we’re behind before we’ve even started. We’re in debt before we get our wallets out. But, and this is the blessing in this, we don’t give out of a sense of duty and obligation. We give willingly, we give cheerfully. Cheerfully? Is such a thing possible?
Well, yes of course, say some. Because in giving we get. You will be enriched in every way, writes Paul, for your great generosity. Enriched in every way. Of all the things that Paul says that potentially and can be often are taken the wrong way, this is one of the worst. If I was Paul’s editor I would have sent this bit back for a rewrite. “You know, Paul” I would say in my best editorial voice, “you say this and folks are going to come up with the most outlandish interpretations of the phrase.” “Outlandish?” Paul would ask scratching his bald head, “what you mean outlandish?” “Well, they’re going to say that you meant if folks send in their hard earned cash, then God would make money miraculously appear! They will say that God wants you to be rich, and that if you’re poor it’s because your life isn’t right with God. They will send junk through the mail to get people to give and they’ll put that junk in their wallets or on their mantles or hold it in their hot little hands and say the Jesus prayer and zip zap money will appear like magic. That’s what they’ll say.” And Paul would stand with his mouth hanging open and say, “no way would any one stoop to that kind of level.” Oh yes they would, I’d reply. And he’d say “give me an eraser.”
We give cheerfully because we are participating in something bigger than ourselves. We are joining in a fellowship that ripples out and changes the world in which we live. We are rendering the ministry that cares for the saints and gives glory to God. We are becoming a part of the team. A world wide team, that understands we need each other in order to do the ministry before us. Giving reminds us that all that we have is a gift from God and life itself is a gift to be given away as a way to lift up others and glorify God.
Give is an essential part of the path of becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. And part of what I intend to give more of is gratitude for those who work alongside me in ministry. Should they ever come back. Please let them come back!