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 The Joy of Living Generously

Sermon - 11/04/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

2 Corinthians 8:8-15

Those who participated in one of our home study/fellowship groups have already heard a portion of the passage I want to use this morning. A little background on this particular passage from 2nd Corinthians: Paul writes in the second chapter in Galatians, that as part of the deal to include the Gentiles in the churches that he helped to establish in the Gentile world, that they would take an offering to support the "Saints in Jerusalem", meaning those in Jerusalem (the mother church, so to speak) that are struggling due to difficulties of that time and in that place.

And so Paul goes about in those churches and encourages those folks to support that cause. It's basically the first Crop-Walk for the hungry that we had a few weeks ago. Or the first Week of Compassion, or the first Red Cross, whatever you will. It's an effort by the Christian community to assist those living in another place, in another land, in another country. And so just ponder that fact for a second, that here we have within 20 years of the crucifixion, these new, young Christian community churches already taking up offerings to assist those in faraway places. If there's an earlier recorded effort of people in one country voluntary raising money to assist people in another country they do not know, I don't know what it is. So surely one of the earliest efforts of this nature.

So Paul goes about challenging each of those churches that he serves to participate in this special outreach. In the area of Galatia, which is now modern-day Turkey, and then Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth and the like, and Greece. And writes to that church in Corinth of the success of this cause, this special offering, in the churches in Macedonia (which is northern Greece). And he says: "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. So we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking". Ever think of an offering as a privilege?

And then continuing in the passage for this morning, in chapter 8, verses 8 through 15:

I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 9For 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. 10And 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— 11now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. 12For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. 13I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15As it is written,
‘The one who had much did not have too much,
   and the one who had little did not have too little.’

 

So Paul lays out 3 basic principles to explain how even in this situation of extreme poverty in those churches in Macedonia, that there is this abundance of joy that overflows in a wealth of generosity as he describes it.

First and foremost, is the principle or example he gives of Jesus: though he was rich, for our sake he became poor, that by his poverty we might become rich. It's very poetic. But what does it mean? I think the first thing we have to note, to read into this some kind of basis for the notion of what's often called the "prosperity gospel" (the idea that God wants you to be wealthy), that that completely and totally distorts the poetic imagery. I kind of get that notion, there's something about that that appeals to me -- if I'm a preacher, I want to build wealth in the congregation, right? It's basically the free-market brought to the church. But, I have some struggles and problems with that, as you can tell.

So, Paul is not referring to material wealth. We all know, right, the story of Jesus and being born: how Mary and Joseph were of nobility and had a lot of money and. . . . . Yeah, right, that's not the story we know. So obviously it's not the case that he's saying that Jesus is materially rich. But rather it's the idea that Christ was one with God, and as Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, emptied himself, taking human form -- that's how he becomes poor. So that we might become rich in unity with God. And this is what we call the incarnation, this notion of the idea of the divine becoming human, that Paul says enables us to participate in the divine.

As Franciscan spiritual director Richard Rohr notes, this isn't just good news, it's great news! The division between human and divine has dissolved. That difference has been reconciled. We have been united with God through Christ, once and for all. It's not something we have to work at, it's something that is given to us. That already is. What a wonderful gift that we can claim this in Christ.

Keep in mind, Paul here is just making an appeal for and offering. And he uses one of the biggest theological concepts of the incarnation of all time as the basis for this offering. I mean, I think it' laying it on pretty thick. Because this is about the essence of Christian identity -- we give of ourselves not because it is a command, not because we were told to do so, not because we are forced. We do so with eagerness, Paul Says, because it goes much deeper. It's about who we are as Christian people. To be a follower of Jesus and not be generous is like being a pig that does not oink. A cow that does not moo. A Duck that does not . . . . .win! You were onto me there, I could tell :)

So, the second principle that Paul gives for living generously is proportional giving. The gift is acceptable to what one has, not to what one does not have. No one expects you to give like Bill Gates, or Warren Buffet. Unless you are Bill Gates or Warren Buffet! In which case please come talk to me :) As Jesus says: to whom much is given, much will be required.

Did you know that the number one predictor of generosity is the level of income -- in the reverse. The higher the income, the less generous people tend to be. The lower the income, the more generous (as a percentage of giving, not total amounts). It turns out that it's easier for the person who only has $100 to give $10 than it is for the person who has $1,000,000 to give $100,000. That's a lot of money -- but it's still the same percentage.

Now, I know there are a lot of exceptions to that general rule, and especially in this church. We are blessed with many people who share of their wealth very generously, and for that we're all very thankful. I'll never forget the example of Ansel Hyland, bless his soul. Ansel and Francis, we now have two windows named for them out in the entry-way, the two of Jesus in the center there, pillars of the church. They were founders of the Eugene Planing Mill, and now is the home of REI. At any rate, Ansel came into my office one day, and he said that I was being very hard on the wealthy. I think I was being hard on him, right :). I said "Ansel, I'm just preaching the Bible, I'm just a humble follower of Jesus", you know (that's always the Preacher's defense -- I'm just doing what God told be to do" :). Ansel's reply was: "Well, yeah, Jesus didn't pay his bills either. That's why he had Matthew" :).

What's interesting about this offering for the folks in Jerusalem is that Paul didn't just pass the hat and call it good. You know, just take whatever people have to give on that morning. It's an extended effort -- they had begun it the year before, evidently they had set some type of goal that they are working towards.

So, we've set a modest goal for ourselves, of a 3% increase in our giving. That's a goal you can only meet if there are those who have the means and the ability to give more than that, to help offset those who cannot. But that we all do our share, according to this principle, of each according to their means. Now, one of the big challenges that we face, on top of the fact that we are in a beautiful, old, historic building (worshiping in this space for 101 years), that has a lot of needs, and being in a downtown location we see all kinds of people in need who come to us. I learned this morning we had about a dozen people sleeping out in our courtyard last night.

One of the challenges is that, as some people learned in our home groups, 15% of our General Fund budget comes out of a bequest through the generosity of Jesse Bork, that's being used to augment our ministries. Wel, we can't keep doing that indefinitely -- we've got about 3-4 years, at best, for using that. That means we have to increase our giving a little bit every year to make up for that. And if we don't meet that goal this year, then the challenge is only going to be greater next year.

But I'm not worried. . . . . yet :) But I do want to challenge people, as you think about that estimate of giving that you make, of what you can do to help us toward that goal. We have met greater challenges -- replacing the ancient steam heat in this building to the tune of a half-million dollars, and bringing us into the 21st-century with a very modern and very energy-efficient system. I mean, if we can do that, we can do this, with everyone doing their part, according to their means.

The third principle of living generously, Paul says, is a fair balance, using the story of the manna in the wilderness, it may not be obvious as you read this text, where everyone collected just as much as they needed in that story. And so Paul, quoting from Deuteronomy, says "the one who had much did not have too much; the one who had little, did not have too little".

Note he does not say that everyone gets the same. That's different. One of the slogans that has caught-on during this election season, is that America is a land of equal opportunity, but not equal outcomes. The idea is that as long as everyone gets a fair shot, plays by the same rules, then of course it's okay if some do better than others. That's the way the system works, sure. I have no problem with that. So long as we couple it with this idea, that no one shall receive too much, and no one too little. I mean, equal opportunity, equal outcomes, is a campaign slogan, but this is scripture. Which do you want to live by?

So, of course, the hard question is: what is too much, and what is too little? Jesus says if you have two coats, give one to the person who has none. So, the person with two homes should give one to the person who has none? If you want to start a class war, that'd be a good way.

I have a brother in Albany, semi-retired from a life in public service, retired as a City Manager in Albany. His wife was a teacher. They really like the Bend area (Central Oregon), so they've invested into a timeshare condo, one week every five weeks kind of thing. I've gotten to stay there, very nice place. They enjoyed it so much, they decided to buy a 2nd home, a vacation home, in Bend. Am I going to criticize him and say "You should be sharing more with others, rather than . . . "? No! I'm no dummy -- I mean, I plan to mooch off of him :)

So no, I do not believe that owning a vacation home is too much. It's part of our culture today, it's not anything out of the ordinary. But I'll tell you what will be too much: if we raise taxes on those who cannot afford a first home, in order to lower our deficit, while allowing those who own two homes to claim a deduction because of the interest they pay on their mortgages on both of those homes -- that will be too much.

So how much is too little? We see too little, every Sunday morning. Now averaging close to 250 people who come here for breakfast. We see too little in the 700-plus numbers of children (just in the 4J school district) who are classified as homeless. We see too little (I learned this week) in the 19 families on the waiting list to get in the interfaith emergency shelter system to sleep in church basements, let alone on a waiting list to get into an apartment or house.

Meanwhile, another report came out this week about the growing inequality between the rich and poor, documenting a 20-year trend in which the the poor in this country continue to get poorer while the rich continue to get richer, even after the economic collapse of 2008. We are a society awash in too much, and too little. Perhaps symbolized, ironically, by the growth in obesity even as simultaneously there is the growth of poverty and hunger. If we are to discover the joy that comes from living generously, then the challenge for us will be to let go of the too much in our own lives so that no one in our sphere of influence will have too little. Now, that does not mean that we all have the same, that we all get the same piece of pie. But that each will have enough.

Many people probably heard of my involvement in this new nonprofit "Opportunity Village Eugene", which believes if we are ever going to make significant progress in the problem of homelessness, we have to find new models. Because the traditional shelter model just is not working. It's not meeting the need. And it's not that it can't, it's that there are not adequate resources (public or private) to supply the growing need. We just do not have the capacity using that model.

So Opportunity Village proposes a new model, that will be more cost-efficient, using basic concepts such as micro-housing -- using simple, inexpensive, but safe and secure structures like that which we build on our mission to Mexico every year. Building those here, right here. A self-governed village, where residents take responsibility for their own living situation, sharing in common tasks, working together to solve problems, and learning how to live in a community, learning new skills in the process. And third, partnership with the community, bringing in outside resources and expertise to help with everything from meal preparation to how to start a business.

Now, we soon discovered as soon as we started going around looking for a piece of property, of where to site such a village, that not every neighborhood was excited about the idea of having a bunch of homeless folks coming and living in their neighborhood. Big surprise, right? So when the paper came out on Friday announcing a new site that we had not previously considered on North Garfield (just on the west-side of the Fire Station there), I braced myself for the reaction. And sure enough, I got an e-mail from someone who knew my e-mail address. And he writes:

"I am encouraged that North Garfield has been chosen as a potential site and can even envision possibilities for partnerships between camp residents, the city of Eugene and the Trainsong neighborhood [Trainsong is that neighborhood in that area]. For one, the corner of Roosevelt and Garfield is already an effort that involves neighbors and the city in an effort to create as nicer entrance to our neighborhood. Perhaps that could be used as a community garden with the help of some of the gardeners who have made the garden down by the new Federal Courthouse a success [which now needs to find a new home]. Additionally, I would take this opportunity to challenge anyone else to look at what resources they may have in their own neighborhoods that could be brought to bear to reduce the suffering of the homeless and eliminate this abhorrent violation of basic human rights that places individuals and families at grave risk in dangerous situations. More than one site will be required for an effort like this to be successful. It is criminal that they have no place to go. Sincerely, Tom Musselwhite, President of the Trainsong Neighborhood Association".

I know Tom, I didn't know he was the President of that neighborhood association, so I e-mailed him back, thanked him very much for his supportive letter, said that Opportunity Village would very much like to meet with that neighborhood association to describe our vision and see how we could work together. And he then forwarded my E-mail to his Board, and this is what he said in his cover letter:

"Dan Bryant, a Senior Minister of First Christian Church downtown. While it is difficult to single out any one of the churches that have devoted so much time and worked so hard on behalf of those in serious need, First Christian has worked to make the Egan Warming Center possible. First Christian has offered space on their property for homeless campers through the St. Vincent DePaul program. First Christian has providing food and hot meals, operated a warming center on frigid nights, and I'm leaving out more than I'm including. Working together through collaborative partnerships that already exist, I'm hopeful we can support this effort. I'm glad I live in a community where so many volunteers are willing to stand up and combat injustice".

We do not do those things -- the Egan Warming Center, the camping program, the interfaith shelter, Sunday breakfast -- for publicity. We do them to be faithful to the call of God in this time and place. But the publicity doesn't hurt, right? We'll take it when we can get it :)

Opportunity Village has a long way to go. I'm excited by the prospect of success, and I'm frightened by the possibilities of failure (for what that would mean). But I'm hopeful, because in this community, as in this congregation, are many people who understand that joy of living of generously. People who understand that only through the generous sharing of ourselves and our resources can we build that kind of community in which we all desire to live.

We can do it. And it begins here. It begins now.

 


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