Generosity: The Gospel of Prosperity - Sermon from October 12, 2014

Listen to the sermon here.

2 Corinthians 8:1-7

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— and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you.

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.

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 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. As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” 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. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 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, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! 

Generosity - The Gospel of Prosperity

There are many things that separate us and remind us of our differences as humans. We come from different places, with different preconceived ideas about how the world in which we live operates and are each experiencing life in a unique manner. However, there are also many shared experiences which bind us together in our journey as human beings.

When we were children, someone important in our lives, a teacher perhaps, a grandparent, aunt, or uncle, or most likely it was a parent said something repeatedly to us seeking a specific response that helped shape the way in which we engage the world around us. It is something so seminal, so important that it has become ingrained in the very essence of our being.

The scene probably went something like this. There you stand, age five, with an important adult near you. You are waiting to receive something for which you have asked. Then, just before the object, for the sake of argument, let's say an ice cream sandwich from the ice cream truck in your neighborhood, before that object hits your hand, this question comes out of the adult's mouth. Because of it your world and experience of that world was forever changed. They said, "Now, what do you say?" as the ice cream sandwich is moving toward your hand. Before they let go, they say it again, "What do you say?" And looked at you with those adult eyes.

Then tumbling from your lips come the two little magic words you had been trained to say in situations just like this one, "Thank you?"
"Yes, thank you," says the adult. "And you are welcome."

Then as soon as we feel as though we have mastered the art of saying the words that people apparently want to hear, the game changes. Now we are told that we must be willing to share. Are you kidding me? I asked for this ice cream sandwich because I wanted it. And I not only have to say thank you to receive it, but now I have to share it? With my sister? Really?

The adults, they tricked us. We were duped. Sharing doesn't come naturally and neither does saying thank you. We are by nature selfish people. We want to protect that which we think of as belonging to us, and why say thank you for something we think we deserve.

And that is exactly why it is important that those who love us guide us into these life shaping disciplines. It is why we do the same for the young people we love with whom we share life.

We now know that this exercise ultimately isn't even really about saying thank you or sharing what we have with others. Becoming skilled in the art of saying thank you is not simply about allowing those two little words to tumble from our lips - it is really about gratitude; and in a similar manner mastering the discipline of sharing is not simply about the action of giving a portion of something that belongs to us to someone else - it is really about generosity.

These disciplined practices are what the Apostle Paul addresses to the beloved community in Corinth. The nature of his arguments resemble those we would make to those whom we love in our attempt to help them understand the importance of gratitude and generosity. In our two epistle lessons this morning we see Paul appealing to the Corinthians to take part in the offering that was being collected for the church in Jerusalem. There were many reasons this offering was being taken. The followers of the way in Jerusalem were under incredible economic stress. Many could not find work in this occupied land. There was also a sense that because the faith began in this land, the believers in other believing communities in other cities should express their devotion to the faith by giving to the church out of which they all grew. Paul reminds the church in Corinth that without the church in Jerusalem, the message of the gospel would not reach them. Such an offering was also agreed upon when Paul and Barnabas were in Jerusalem in order to discuss with the Apostles and church leaders their reasons for bringing the gospel to the Gentile world.

This gift, this offering was seen as a type of generalized reciprocity from the Gentile church to the church in Jerusalem - a thanksgiving of sorts. In the setting of the first century within the Greco Roman world there was a deeply ingrained patron and client, benefactor and recipient social structure. Within this framework family members and friends would "do endless 'favors' within their social groups. And the God of Israel, like a patron, dispenses favors on his people, most notably through the death and resurrection of Israel's Messiah, Jesus. The first witnesses to this divine benefaction were to be found in the Jerusalem Jesus groups, from whom the gospel of God was transmitted." (Mailina 173). Paul's request for the Corinthian group to participate in this offering grows out of this societal structure.

Even though all of this is true, the most compelling reason Paul encourages the members of the church in wealthy Corinth to give was as a response to the over abundance of God's grace. This is where it begins for Paul. And in the end there is no other reason for them to entertain joining their gifts with the gifts of the other churches throughout the region. This is also where Reformed Protestant theology begins. It is God who has acted first. Everything else grows out of this understanding. There is nothing one can do to earn God's activity, grace or blessing.

This grace, this ultimate and unmerited gift of God, should move all toward gratitude. For gratitude is the only appropriate response according to the Apostle. Gratitude should be the first fruit of the grace that we have received. When one considers the magnitude of the gift of grace, how can one's heart not be transformed from thoughtlessness to gratitude? This gratitude is the backdrop of Paul's argument, and this type of gratitude isn't simply a polite verbal response. No, the gratitude of which Paul writes is the transformation of the very heart of the recipient of grace.

However, Paul doesn't stop there. His appeal goes beyond a heart that is grateful for that which the Jesus group in Corinth had received. Indeed, the abundance of God's grace should lead to gratitude in the heart, but that gratitude should lead to generosity. And this is the center of Paul's discussion. Paul calls the church in Corinth, and us by extension, to live responsive lives characterized by generosity. Paul calls us all toward a generosity that is the living out of gratitude for the incalculable gift of God's unwavering grace.

This generosity then becomes a vehicle of grace to others. It is a witness to God's abundance; God's there is enough. One author writes, "God's grace is powerful and moves the recipients to a reflection of God's abundance so that they respond profusely by doing good works toward others…God's grace, once received, generates grace-laden acts to others…Paul's assumption is that good works are not an option for believers, but a necessity. Believers are free to determine what form the good works take, what shape love takes, but they are not free not to love; they are not free not to do good works…The good works are generated by God's grace, bountifully poured out upon believers." (Sampley 119 and 130)

This generosity, the generosity of which Paul writes, is a generosity born of gratitude.
This generosity is a responsive act on the part of the one who has received grace and is not a pretentious attempt to manipulate God to act.
This generosity multiplies itself into the lives of others around us.
The generosity of which the apostle writes is not just monetary. It is a willingness to share grace with all you meet. No matter what.
Grace, the undeserved and audacious grace of God, births gratitude in the heart and life of the believer which in turn brings about generosity in the lives of those transformed by that grace which then becomes grace to others. In God's economy everyone prospers.
This is the gospel of prosperity where all might share in God's economy of abundance. This is not the prosperity gospel where people are only selfishly concerned about receiving and keeping their own personal blessing.

When one considers the magnitude of the gift of grace, how can one's heart not be transformed from a heart of thoughtlessness to a heart of gratitude; how can one's life not be changed from a life of self entitlement to a life of generosity? It all begins with the gracious activity of God. Generosity becomes the expression of our gratitude for that gift; but our generous acts are not bribery for God's favor or blessing for both are already ours. Biblical Commentator Earnest Best writes, "Those who give out of self-interest to receive a reward here or hereafter are reluctant givers, for they act under an inner compulsion to seek their own good. There is no genuine joy, only a cool and calculating self-concern… If giving loses its origin and purpose in God and his grace, both it and our faith will shrivel and die." (Best 86)

Our response is not in hopes of getting God to move. Our response is because God has already moved. A generous life is life lived not as a reservoir but as a conduit for the grace of God into the lives of others.

Anne Lamott wrote in her book Help, Thanks, Wow, "Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides." She writes, "It means you are willing to stop being such a jerk. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and in the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back." (Lamott 34-35)

A beautiful story of generosity and abundance appears in all four of the gospels. It is a story many of us learned on flannel graphs in small church classrooms on Sunday mornings. Today, I invite you to look at the story again through the lens of grace and generosity. Our story begins with a large crowd gathered on a Galilean hillside to hear Jesus speak. As the story goes, the crowd continued to grow throughout the afternoon as Jesus spoke. When the sun passed by the midday sky and the day started to draw to a close, the disciples began to worry about where they were to find food for themselves and for the throngs who had gathered. They wanted Jesus to send the crowd away so they could be relieved of the burden. But in typical fashion, Jesus challenged his disciples to find a way to feed them. In John's Gospel, we are told that in response one of the disciples said to Jesus, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?" After having the people sit down together Jesus took that which the boy offered, gave thanks and distributed it among the people. And suddenly where there appeared to be scarcity there was now an abundance; where there appeared to be not enough there was now more than enough for all to be filled.

We are not told exactly how this young boy's small offering became enough for a multitude, but perhaps the real miracle of the day was the transformation of the hearts of those who had gathered - a transformation from selfishness to a willingness to share; from eyes that were afraid that there wasn't enough to lives that understood if everyone shared there would be more than enough; a transformation from a sense of entitlement to a heart for generosity. And from the grace that was offered from the Christ gratitude spilled out into and then from the crowd and generosity filled the need. Twelve baskets were filled with that which remained.

Every year toward the end of Niners, our confirmation program for high school freshmen and other who have yet to be confirmed, we read this story of Jesus and the young boy who shares what he has and experiences the miracle of abundance. At the conclusion of our time together, each of the Niners receives a simple brown paper sandwich bag. Each Niner then takes a marker and writes one simple phrase on the side of this bag as a reminder of God's grace and God's call toward generosity. And what is the phrase? "Share Your Lunch." We have seen it time and time again when God uses one small gift to inspire and transform, and grace abounds through that gift because of God's grace.

In Never Pray Again, Aric Clark writes, "The anxiety created by scarcity makes us grasp and cling. Living into God's economy, the conviction that there is enough for everyone, means letting go. We have to begin to give freely. The practice of gratitude begins with generosity and grows increasingly reckless and joyful…God's economy is where grace and gratitude dance." (Clark)
The tune to which that dance is set is generosity.

We have all been called to generosity. Generosity as our thankful response to God's lavish abundance. And this generosity is an in spite of and a because of way of life:
in spite of circumstance, we respond;
because of grace, we respond.

May the Holy Spirit overwhelm us with the over abundance of God's grace and may we respond with heartfelt gratitude through our radical generosity that all may experience the more than enough of God's love. May we all have the courage to share our lunch. Amen

Benediction - Paul writes "in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you - so we want to excel also in this generous undertaking." Even in the face of those who say there simply is not enough, may we be people who willingly share our lunch.
"Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift." Amen.

Best, E. (1987). Second Corinthians (Interpretation A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: J. Knox Press.
Clark, A., & Hagler, D. (n.d.). Never pray again: Lift your head, unfold your hands, and get to work.
Lamott, A. (2012). Help, thanks, wow: The three essential prayers. New York: Riverhead Books.
Malina, B., & Pilch, J. (2006). Social-science commentary on the Letters of Paul. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Sampley, J. (2000). The new interpreter's Bible (Vol. 11). Nashville: Abingdon Press.


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