And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.
When the Apostle Paul was gathering a collection to support the poor Christians of Jerusalem, he must have purposely overlooked asking the churches of Macedonia since they were so poor. These churches actually begged Paul for the privilege to give. And then when they did give, they felt a joy so inspirational that Paul used them as an example to the Christians of Corinth. The church of Corinth had been supportive in the past, and Paul was trying to entice them to start giving again. Paul was building connections between the Gentile and Jewish Christians, but he was doing even more than that. He was teaching the joy that comes from being generous. If these two churches began to cooperate, Paul knew that it would benefit the entire Christian family.
Sometimes churches help each other. There is a story about two churches across the street from one another. By the way, how does that happen anyway, two churches being built across the street from each other? It’s here in Kenilworth, and in my prior call, we had two churches right across the street from each other. Anyway, one was a Presbyterian church and the other was a Baptist church. They were very divided on the way that they viewed baptism. The Presbyterians wanted to sprinkle water, but the Baptists believed in full immersion. The two churches could have accomplished great things in the community if they would have cooperated, but this issue divided them greatly. Once a fire in town burned the Baptist church. The Presbyterians wrote a letter of invitation asking the Baptists to come worship with them until their sanctuary was repaired. The Baptists wrote back, “We’ll come over if you’ll go under.”
Paul was attempting to unite the churches across the empire, and the giving of the Macedonian churches had a certain attitude he wanted to teach. They lived not out of an attitude of lack, but out of an attitude of blessings. Many times we get caught in an attitude of lack and our thoughts are governed by what we think we need because what we might run out of is always on our mind. Are we running out of money? Are we going to run out of health? Are our relationships running dry? We worry about what we might lack, and that holds back a generous heart. Instead of opening up in generosity, we hold back, considering what we might need to keep in order to survive. This can apply to finances, of course, but also to emotions, to loving others. Have you ever considered that you might be holding back love to another because you feel as if you have a short supply of love? In the same way, we may neglect our spiritual lives because we do not feel as if God has blessed us with a reservoir of love. We may feel as if we are not really gifted in that way, when in fact, God invites everyone to share in the grace God offers.
When Paul discussed the giving of the Macedonians, he described them not only as poor, but as afflicted and even persecuted. When we open our generous hearts to others, there is a joy that begins to fill our hearts, especially when we need it the most, when we are suffering. Can you think of people who react to life’s circumstances in different ways? Some of them are suffering and afflicted with a disease, a life event, a loss in life, and yet they continue to serve others and somehow have managed a joyful attitude. How do they do it? When we have an attitude of, “How can I give, what can I do to help?” rather than, “How can I protect myself? How can I keep myself from being depleted?”, life becomes managed in a totally different way. In the midst of suffering, we are able to experience God’s grace, God’s mercy and forgiveness, and that fills our lives and opens us to new possibilities of growth. We must remember that even though many times we refer to giving only in terms of giving money, there are many ways to give.
Sometimes churches misrepresent giving by reducing it to money, even saying that God will bless you in return in a similar way- with money. No, giving to others is not a supernatural investment scheme. Giving money does not mean that God will send money your way. What giving does, any kind of giving, is open your heart to the generosity that God’s grace pours out upon the world. Giving allows an experience of God’s mercy. Giving may lead to much more giving, but the mercy that God offers, the forgiveness, the love for God and others, begins to move in your life in a more powerful way.
You have encountered friends who approach hardship in life either with a generous heart, or a heart that is closed and bitter. On the other hand, some people seem to have everything in life going their way, yet they still live with an attitude that allows no room for generosity. That is how Paul characterized the Corinthians. They were blessed, but did not have generous hearts, and he knew that they could do so much more.
I believe that our church is blessed with many generous hearts. In the Worship in Nature service this morning, I asked the children to name evidence of a generous heart in the church. “The workers of rummage!” one exclaimed. Yes, that is a clear example of someone giving themselves joyfully to the work of God. And there are many others. The Sunday School teachers, the chaperones on youth trips, the people who support the stewardship campaign, the hosts of “Tables for Eight”, the Stephen Ministers, the ushers, the congregational care givers, the agency liaisons, the choir, we could go on with a list like this all day, couldn’t we? Our church is full of generous hearts, joyful giving abounds. Any generosity is a gift from God. It is a gift! As Paul reminded the Corinthians that the Macedonians were gifted by God’s grace, we need reminders of God’s grace in our lives. Many times God works through other people to inspire and remind us of God’s activity in the world.
Governor Mike Huckabee told a story about a teacher who began the first day of school in September 2005 with a room that was completely empty- no desks! The children arrived, eager on their first day of school to put their supplies into their desks, but the room was empty. Perplexed, they asked the teacher why it was so, and the teacher asked the students to consider how they had earned their desks. The students had many answers, behavior, good grades, but none were correct. Then the teacher pointed to the door. In walked a veteran in full uniform carrying a desk. He placed the desk on the floor and then stood at the side of the room. Then another veteran walked in and did the same thing. Over twenty veterans entered, one by one, until the room was filled with rows of desks. The teacher’s point was made. “You didn’t earn the desk, these veterans did, through their sacrifice they earned freedom for each of you to enjoy the privilege of sitting in this classroom.” In this week of celebrating American independence, we are thankful for the gift of our country that was won by the sacrifices of those who fought in so many wars and conflicts. They truly emulated the highest sacrifice of all, the giving of one’s life for others.
Paul urged the Corinthians to consider what the sacrifice of Jesus meant to them. He urged them to look at the example of Jesus, writing that Jesus became poor so that they could become rich. This is a rich theological idea, that Jesus set aside his place in the glories of heaven to experience life on earth in order to teach us the right way to live completely aligned with God’s will. Paul wrote that the Macedonians had incorporated this understanding of the sacrifice of Jesus into their own giving, writing in verse 5 that they gave “first because they gave themselves to the Lord.” This is the foundation of the giving, generous heart. Being devoted to living as Jesus lived is the way to a generous heart. We know that famous Biblical verse, “Your heart is where your treasure is.”
Rev. Lloyd Ogilvie, who ministered in nearby Winnetka before he became chaplain of the Senate, wrote in Let God Love You about a psychiatrist in Princeton, New Jersey, who understood that verse well. “A few years ago he received one of those “strike it rich” sweepstakes letters from Life magazine. It read, “You have been selected as the fortunate participant in a special offer which could make you the richest person in Princeton. Your name will soon be listed among the wealthy and prestigious people of Princeton. All you have to do is take a six-year subscription to Life and your name will be added to the drawing. You may win!” “The psychiatrist wrote a response to this offer which was a gem of rhetoric. “In your letter, you offer to make me the richest man in Princeton. I want you to know that I am the richest man in Princeton. In addition to this, I enjoy a quality of life so exciting, it makes Life magazine read like an Old Mother Goose story. For all these good reasons, I am asking you to remove my name from that silly contest — a contest which cannot possibly do me any good because all it offers is money. Who needs it when one has life — and I don’t mean your magazine.”
Paul wanted the Corinthians to know true treasure-giving generously- helping others- and allowing God’s grace to overflow in life. Whether we are rich or poor is not a financial assessment; it is where our heart is and if we are living for God. In the movie Dead Man Walking, the man on death row was so afraid of his impending death. The nun, Sister Helen Prejean, decided to let her heart overflow with generosity. She told him to look at her when he was dying. As he was given his lethal injection, he was supposed to look at her because she said, “I want the last face you see in the world to be the face of love, so look at me when they do this thing. I’ll be the face of love for you.”
Maybe not on a level that extreme, but God is calling each of us in our daily lives to be the face of love to others. If we choose to have generous hearts of sacrificial giving, we allow God’s love to fill our lives and overflow into the lives of others. We don’t know how that will impact the world, but it will certainly make a huge difference. When everyone drops their attitude of, “What do I lack?” and replaces it with “How can I give?” the real things of the world that matter become clear. Spiritual wealth, not material wealth, becomes the goal of our lives, and we begin to model our lives after Jesus Christ. Then our material wealth begins to be used by God in ways we never may have imagined. Let us follow Paul’s plea to the Corinthians and give generously, sacrificially, and give our lives to live in the example of Jesus.