2 Corinthians 8:1-15
Today’s passage from Corinthians is profound as it talks about a depth of giving that we can only imagine. “While they were being tested by many problems, (their extra amount of happiness and) their extreme poverty resulted in a surplus of rich generosity…. They gave even more than they could afford and did it voluntarily.” We hear this kind of giving and generosity from Jesus as well. He says that the widow who gave everything that she had out of her poverty gave so much more profoundly than the rich man who had given substantially more, but out of his abundance. And we hear Paul refer to it here in terms of Jesus’ own life as well, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Although he was rich, he became poor for your sakes, so that you could become rich through his poverty.” And I wonder if anyone who is hearing this sermon today can really relate to this level of giving, this kind of giving at all. We here in this place give out of our abundance. I give out of my abundance, and I know this. Do we know what it is like to give out of our need? Have any of you ever given out of a place of great need? Have you ever been deeply generous in times of want, hunger, or true financial struggle? And if you have, how did that feel? What was that like?
I’ve shared before that studies show that people are so much more generous in their poverty than we are in our comfortable lives and much more so than the rich are in their wealth. Truthfully, there is an inverse proportion of giving to how much people have. Greed is a disease that accompanies and intensifies with wealth. This has been found in study after study. The more we have, the more we believe we “need.” We recognize it also in the joke about the poor man who begged God saying that he would happily give 10% of everything he was given if God would just allow him to have a little. He immediately found a $10 and out of joy turned around and gave $1, his 10%. He kept doing this and soon found that he was making more money. When he made $100, he still joyfully gave $10 out of it. When he made $1000, he gave $100 but it stopped feeling as “joyful” and felt instead more like a duty. This was even more the case when he made $10,000. But the time he made $100,000 he started to resent how much money he had to give back. And when he made his first $1,000,000, the idea of giving $100,000 back was just too much. So, he went to the priest and asked if there was any way he could get out of his deal with God. The priest responded, “Well, I don’t think you can get out of your deal. However, if you only want to give $1, I’m sure God would be more than happy to have you back to making only $10.”
But many of us who have worked with the poor have also experienced how true this is. I want to share some stories that came out in my lectionary group meeting this week. One of my group shared about her experience in Nicaragua. She went down with a group and they ended up visiting a village that was not expecting them. They came very late in the evening, but the village none the less came out from their tiny one or two room adobe and grass huts, someone killed the village’s only chicken which they cooked for my friend’s group. The local pastor invited them all to stay in his tiny hut while he stayed on the floor of a neighbor’s home. They all came with an abundance of food, though the group learned that food was scarce here and that people were truly sharing out of their poverty rather than their abundance. Still, they shared with great joy and celebration. I had a similar experience in my time in Central America as well. The giving and the generosity were astonishing.
Even in this country I have seen and experienced that kind of generosity of our most poor. Another pastor in our lectionary group shared that her church has been helping a homeless man – providing food, allowing him to be inside the building on the coldest and hottest days and nights, giving him a place out of the elements for a time. She shared that one day while he was in the building, he found the pew envelopes that all of our churches have. The man asked what they were for. My friend shared that they were there so that people could give to the church: these were envelopes for people to donate money to the church. My friend shared that the man lit up. He said, “I want to give to the church, too!” He dug through his pockets and found six cents. Six cents!! That was all he had in the world. But with pride and joy, and apparently even a few tears, he put the six cents into the pew envelope and handed it to my friend. And she found that his giving of this to the church was worth more than the thousands that the richest member of the church gave because again, the unhoused man had given out of his poverty instead of out of his abundance.
This is not just about giving money, though. It is giving in all of its forms. Our church has supported for several years now the Dougbe River Presbyterian School in Liberia. This school was started by one of my lectionary group friends, Pastor Francis, as well as a member of his congregation, Isaac, who was from that community in Liberia. They chose to build this school in a very remote region where the people are, again, extremely poor, and where education was not easily accessible. But the people who began that school came with a few strong rules. They approached the village and offered to build and support the school, but there were some trade-offs. There were a few practices that would not be acceptable, ever, for Isaac or for the Presbyterian church supporting this school. The practice of female circumcision, and the marrying off of young girls – neither of these practices could continue if they were going to accept the help of the building and supporting of the school. These were long-standing traditions, practices and rituals of importance in that community. But it was made clear to the community that these practices had to stop if they wanted this school. And they chose to do that. Isaac, again, a member of their community, was able to frame and explain the necessity of these choices in such a way that the people understood the choice they were making and saw their decision as both a way for them to give back and to participate in the work of the Spirit.
We experience this here now as well. There are so many people who are choosing to work – especially our health care workers – despite the fact that they know they are putting their own lives at risk in doing so. I saw a comment this last week that said “Another word for ‘essential’ is ‘expendable’” and what the author meant was that we have put some people in the category of “essential workers” and we are willing to risk their lives for the rest of us who are more privileged to be able to work from the comforts of our homes. Sometimes there is no choice for those workers and they must do the work they are given to do. But other times they are choosing to do the work out of love, out of care, and out of a commitment to serve one another. They are giving out of their abundance of time, energy and love in support of the community.
But what I find more interesting in all of this is the joy and the love with which people give. Even more than this, what people discover to be the gift of giving. The deep, spiritually transformational gift of giving out of poverty.
One of our group shared a story of taking a very broken shoe of hers to a poor local cobbler when she lived in a tiny village for a few years. She brought in her shoe and returned in a week to be told that the cobbler had not yet fixed it because he had been tending to a sick relative. She returned in another week and found that it still was not fixed as the cobbler had had to catch up on other work. When she came back the third week, the shoe was beautifully fixed. But when she went to pay for it, the cobbler refused to take payment for it because it had taken him so long. My friend insisted saying that he had done the work, she had not needed the shoe and she wanted to pay for the hard and beautiful work that had gone into fixing the shoe. My friend shared that his response was one she will never forget. He said to her, “Please do not rob me of my opportunity to give to you.”
And this too matches what we heard from Paul today when he talked about the giving of the Macedonians: “They urgently begged us for the privilege of sharing in this service for the saints.” Paul names this giving by people as the action of God’s grace. And people who give out of their need experience it as such. It does not feel like they are giving away something that is theirs, depriving themselves of something that they have earned and worked for. Instead, giving out of need in this way is often experienced as a gift to the giver for two reasons. First, they recognize that everything we have: our money, our talents, our time – is not ours. These are resources entrusted to us for the service of all. We are to be stewards of what is not ours, to share all of it with those who need it most. But secondly, what people find in giving from that place of great need is that they experience that grace of God through the giving. They experience trusting and having faith that their gifts will be used for the good of God’s people. They experience being part of the movement of the Spirit, feeling that Spirit blow around them, through them and within them.
And that brings us to the gospel reading for today. When we hear this story, we generally think of the storm and the waves as the enemy out of which Jesus appears. We usually think of God as being in contrast to the waves, in contrast to the storm. But what I want to point out to you today is that, as I’ve said before, there is one word in Hebrew – Ruach, that means Spirit, breath and wind. In today’s story we are told, “Meanwhile, the boat, fighting a strong wind, was being battered by the waves and was already far away from land”. And so what I want to suggest to you is that perhaps the “kingdom of God” in this case is the storm. C.S. Lewis in his Narnia stories illustrates the God character, Aslan, as a Lion. And we are told throughout the series that Aslan is “not a tame lion”. We want God to be tame, to be easy, to come to us in the stillness (as God does), and ONLY the stillness (which does NOT happen). It is in the storms themselves that we often see God and are invited by God to step into faith, to step into generosity, and into being the people God calls us to be. Jesus tells Peter to step out of the boat. To “Come” onto the water, keeping his eyes on Jesus, despite the strong wind, despite the ways in which the Spirit moves, despite the poverty, or oppression or challenges that each of us must face. Peter became afraid when he stopped keeping his eyes on Jesus, on the deep and true love of Christ. That is when we become afraid as well. Keep your eyes on that love, keep your faith deep and strong, and you will not sink when you step out of the boat, when you take the risk of trusting in the Spirit even when it is not “tame”. As Augustine said it, “Pray as if everything depended on God. Act as if everything depended on you.” Acting is stepping out of the boat. Acting is taking the risk to live the lives God calls you to live in the storm, because of the storm, for the sake of the Spirit that is the storm.
Step out into risking giving out of your poverty rather than out of your abundance. Step out no matter that you have limitations and have areas of poverty and are afraid. Step out of the security of the boat because it is in risking taking that step, giving out of that poverty, and trusting in God’s love for you that you will deepen, grow and become part of being, living, and loving through, within and with the Spirit of God. Amen.