Oct 20th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
It is that time in the Tri-State region when the sale of Kleenex and antihistamines sky-rockets each year. The combines are in the fields. The corn is being cut. The beans are being harvested. The dust clouds are rising from the fields. The deer and turkey are gleaning the left-overs and the left-behinds. The hawks are sitting on the fenceposts with a far better view of their prey as the mice and rabbits scurry across the emptied fields. It’s harvest season.
It seems a little odd that our passage from the Second Letter to the Corinthians speaks of sowing a little more than it speaks of harvesting. We can’t blame the Apostle Paul, who didn’t know that we would be reading these words in mid-October instead of May. The chronological confusion is purely my own.
A look at what the Germans called the “Sitz im Leben” - “the place in life” - is helpful. The Apostle Paul is writing to the Corinthian Christians and encouraging them to take part in a collection for the church in Jerusalem. (They were doing stewardship campaigns way back then!) Paul has a clear understanding of the needs of the Jerusalem church and he has an even clearer vision of how the other churches - including the Macedonian church and the Corinthian church - could be of help. Paul is making an appeal for funds.
This collection has been a matter of conversation for some time. Promises have been made. The Macedonian Christians have been generous in their giving and Paul celebrates their efforts in superlative fashion. Earlier in the letter, Paul tells the Corinthians:
We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints… (2 Corinthians 8:1-4)
Oh, those Macedonians! What a generous and giving bunch they are! They gave according to their means and some gave beyond their means! You Corinthians sure wouldn’t want to do less - or to be shown up by - those Macedonians! Guilt has been an invaluable motivational tool in many a stewardship effort.
Still, in spite of that heavy-handed approach, Paul has a couple of very important - even critical - lessons about giving and gratitude and generosity that we need to hear again.
The first lesson of which Paul reminds us is that our giving is to be an extension of our faith. Our giving is “faith in action.” It moves us beyond the “speaking” of faith and takes us into the realm of “doing” our faith.
Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others…
(2 Corinthians 9:13)
In offering these ancient words in a more contemporary way, the late Eugene Peterson paraphrases:
You show your gratitude through your generous offerings to your needy brothers and sisters, and really toward everyone. Meanwhile, moved by the extravagance of God in your lives, they’ll respond by praying for you in passionate intercession for whatever you need. (The Message)
Giving is, quite simply and undeniably, a part of being a follower of Jesus Christ. Open-mindedness, open-heartedness, and open handed-ness are the trinity of discipleship.
The second lesson from Paul is the “why” of giving and Paul’s why is simple and foundational. Why do we give? We give because God has given to us. Paul describes what God has done for us as “the surpassing grace of God.” (2 Corinthians 9:14) How could anyone receive “the surpassing grace of God” and not be moved to respond? It would boggle Paul’s mind!
Gratitude for what God has done for us is the foundation and the motivation for our giving. Our lives - every aspect of our lives - are to be a response of thanksgiving for what God has done for us. Little wonder Paul concludes this portion of the letter with the words, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.” (2 Corinthians 9:15)
The third lesson Paul gives us is this: be generous in giving. It is here that Paul takes us back out to the fields.
The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. (2 Corinthians 9:6)
Again, Peterson give it to us with the gloves off:
Remember: A stingy planter gets a stingy crop; a lavish planter gets a lavish crop. (The Message)
You don’t sow ten kernels of corn and expect to harvest a hundred bushels. It just doesn’t work that way.
If you want to gather in a bountiful harvest, if you want to see the love and justice and peace of God’s Kingdom become a reality, if you want to educate a new generation in the ways of God, if you want to effect change in people’s lives, if you want to do all of that and more - then you have to give generously of yourself and the gifts that God has entrusted to you.
Generosity is the key. Giving “according to our means, and even beyond our means.” Giving in response to what God has generously poured into our lives.
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. (2 Corinthians 9:8)
Now, I would be surprised if you hadn’t heard all of that before. I haven’t said anything new or revolutionary. If you’ve been around the church for any time at all, you’ve heard all of that before.
So, here’s what I want to tell you that you might not have heard before.
The ministry of our 199th year and beyond is going to be a challenge. The world around us is changing. The world within these walls is changing.
For many years, we have been the fortunate recipients of the generosity of a generation of members who gave beyond generously to this congregation. They gave significant gifts, as God had blessed them, and they made it possible for a church of our size to enjoy ministry, programming, and mission support more fitting of a congregation twice our size.
Those dear people have moved on to the Church Triumphant. While many of them left gifts to the Endowment Fund of the church, the interest from those bequests will not match what their annual financial commitment to our church provided. The loss of those gifts totals nearly $50,000. So, in essence, we are starting our efforts for 2020 from a rather large hole.
I have no doubt that we can meet the challenge of our anticipated budget for 2020. We have the ability to do so. We have enough seed to sow into the work God has given us to do. The only question is whether or not we will.
Perhaps even more daunting, as we discover what it means to minister to the world beyond our walls, we will discover that simply doing the same old things will no longer work. We are facing times of colossal change. If we think that we, as the church, are somehow immune from those changes, we are only fooling ourselves.
Some things we have done for years will have to be jettisoned. Some things we’ve never done will have to be given a chance. The boat will rock.
But, God is with us and God will be with us.
Out in Iowa, there are lots of stories about farmers and their harvests. A couple of years ago, Van Brownlee had finished planting his crop and died of a heart attack at the age of 58. When the time for harvesting came, three dozen neighbors showed up with combines, grain carts, and semis to bring in his last crop - about 235 acres of corn and 165 acres of soybeans.
Mary Joe Tungesvik’s husband, Loren, died in June. “He was mowing in a ditch and the mower rolled over and crushed him,” Tungesvik said. Eleven of their neighbors stepped up, lending their combines and a helping hand. “That’s what Iowa farmers do, I guess,” said Kent Handeland, who helped Mary Jo with her harvest. Neighbors said there’s no friend like an Iowa farmer.
With meteorologists predicting a hard freeze in southeast Idaho for Wednesday of last week, farmers rushed to harvest all their potatoes before the surprise cold snap ruined them. Jason Larson, a farmer in Hamer, Idaho, wasn’t able to take in all his crop in time. So other farmers sent their workers and members of the community came along as well. The convoy of trucks included nine harvesters and he estimated that 50 people in total showed up. Many of those who showed up had been up until midnight the night before clearing up their own fields. Starting at 11 a.m., Larson said the emergency harvest was complete by about 8 p.m. that night. He estimated they saved several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of potatoes. “What people do is they help their neighbor,” Larson said. “There really wasn’t a second thought about it.”
They shared in the struggle. They shared generously what they had been given. They saw the need and met it. There was no “I” and “mine.” It was “we” and “ours.” They embodied the lessons Paul was offering the Corinthians and us.
Farmers and stewardship. May we be a friend like an Iowa farmer and may we be faithful in our sowing and in our harvesting. Together.
For now and evermore. Amen.