A sermon delivered by, Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on November 6, 2011.
2 Corinthians 8:1-7
O Lord, we pray today for those who are generous with their livelihoods, both within the church and within the community. We ask that you would bless those who go within the community who would not have an opportunity any other way. May every generous person know the blessings that come from their giving and may they have new opportunities to give. We ask blessings upon those who are generous with their time, those who are generous in ministry and in friendships. May those who make themselves available see the fruit of their labors and know that they have ministered your very presence to those who are worried, to those who are anxious, to those who are grieving, and to those who are lonely. We pray that they would find their lives unencumbered with needless detail so that they may give of themselves again and anew. We thank you for those generous in heart and those whose hearts overflow with grace, those who welcome unconditionally, those who love without reservation, and those whose presence always seems to bring us peace. We pray that you would increase their opportunities and their influence at work, in the community, at home, in schools, in church, and ministry. We pray today that generous hearts would be victorious in every challenge they face. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
Charity – giving to the poor – is an essential part of Christian morality….I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditures on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do but cannot do because our charitable expenditures exclude them.
—C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity
Are you a person with high standards? In what, you might ask. In anything. In your job, in the people you associate with in business, in your profession, in your school, what you expect from your children, the food that you eat, or the car that you drive. Do you have high standards or will you accept less than quality and excellence?
I guess it has been about three years ago since a couple of individuals wrote that famous business book, In Search of Excellence. After that, the idea developed not only of success and winning, but of excellence. What does it mean to be excellent in whatever field we might be in? That became something of a watch word, and all areas of life began to discuss excellence. If you are a part of a larger organization, there is a good chance that if that organization has tried to put together a mission statement, somewhere along the way somebody suggested the word excellence—We are going to have excellence in education or whatever else it may be.
An accompanying word is quality. There was also a movement that came out of this about total quality management. We always want to improve. We always want to be better. We are never satisfied. We are always searching for higher quality.
In general, in whatever area you choose, do you expect excellence and quality or is the average OK? If you are a student, is a C grade OK? Most teachers know it is not. They get phone calls from parents when that happens. Everybody wants to shoot for an A.
Parents, if you have children at home, what about you? What are your expectations for your students? A lot of times the argument in the household over school is whose expectations are the most realistic. Parents are always pushing for a higher understanding.
If you go out to eat, is OK food OK or do you want really good food? Is OK service acceptable to you or do you expect good service? If you participate in a sport or have a hobby (tennis, golf, running, triathlon), are you OK with a time that is worse than the last time? Do most expect to beat their personal time, beat their past score, and beat somebody who has triumphed in the past on the golf course or tennis courts?
In your business and profession, what do you expect of yourself? How many mistakes do you tolerate? In the people you deal with, if you hire an attorney, accountant, or physician, how many times do we accept just marginal average activity? Would you buy a car that J. D. Powers rated middle of the pack on initial quality?
I have lived in a household of women all my married life, and one time, I was asked how one of those women looked, and I said, “Fine.” I discovered that “fine” is not a good answer. Are you OK with fine, or do you expect quality? Do you expect something that borders on excellence?
Hold that thought while we think for just a moment about ancient Corinth. This is a big shift of gears. The passage of scripture from 2 Corinthians 8 is Paul’s Second Letter to the Church at Corinth. Corinth was an important city. At the time of Paul, it was the largest city of Greece. It sat at a crossroads. They would take things across rather than going around the Cape. It was a major trade route and all the riches of the Mediterranean world, at some time, came one way or the other through Corinth. As we all know, if you are that kind of center of commerce, a lot of those things stick. Everybody has the opportunity to buy them, and so it became a very luxurious and wealthy city.
Contrary to the movie Gladiator, actually Corinth was the first city outside of Rome to have gladiatorial games. It also had other sporting events and it was actually a major tourist center. It was so wealthy that there are even archaeological findings where there are many buildings and statutes that have inscriptions to the people who funded them. There are even people who were known to be slaves who were somehow able to fund statutes or buildings that have inscriptions in honor of them. For a slave in their servitude to somehow get enough money to leave something that has lasted more than 2,000 years, that had to be a fairly wealthy place.
It is in this context that Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth. He is reminding them about poor Christians in Palestine near Jerusalem. That area was exceptionally poor. Paul had taken up an offering from all the churches around the Mediterranean world and he was trying to help the poverty stricken Christians in Palestine. Paul says, “You excel in everything. You have such quality about your lives. You expect the best in everything you do and participate in. So why not excel in giving? If everything else about your life is excellent, shouldn’t your giving be excellent as well?” That is a pretty interesting concept. If we think about the quality of life that we aspire to and the quality of life that we expect, and then to expect excellence all around, do we expect excellence in our own generosity?
You have heard the expression a standard of living. We all have a standard of living to which we are accustomed. That includes the brand labels on clothes that we wear, our cars, our children’s school, and our houses. We all have this expectation that this standard of living to which we have grown accustomed is excellent and quality. Where does our generosity fit in comparison to the rest of our standard of living? However you personally evaluate your place in life, what would it mean if your generosity was on a par with all these other areas? I am not saying equal to, but just on a par.
What if your generosity was on the same level with vacations and travel? What if generosity was on the same par with entertainment and electronics? What if generosity was on the same par with our clothing, our homes, or whatever else we would want to put it on a par with? If you were to list all of those things, which one of them says the most about our Christian character? Yet, when we think about our standard our living and all the things that we expect around us to be excellent, is our giving on that list?
Remember, Paul does not ask this in a vacuum. He is not just saying, in general, that everybody ought to be excellent in generosity. The call is to remember the poor. In our world, at least during my lifetime, we have always lived with excuses why we should not help the poor—the welfare Cadillac.
I remember when TV’s were boxier than they are now. There was the joke that the family did not have a crib for the baby so it slept in the box that the color TV came in. Today, we say, That person came into the Soup Kitchen and they had a cell phone. I don’t know if I want to help somebody who has a cell phone.
Let me just say this: If these are the only examples of poor people that you know, you don’t know enough poor people. There are plenty for whom life is exceptionally difficult. Some of them have no family structure whatsoever to support them.
At the Homeless Shelter Board meeting recently, a young man said he used to have a drinking problem. He came back to Georgia to get to know his family. He got to know his family and then he started drinking again. He meant it to be funny and we all laughed, but when you think about it, how tragic it is not to have a place to go to that is better than the life you are leading out on your own. It is worse than where you were. For us, that is very hard to comprehend because if we are in trouble, we can all think of a dozen family members and two dozen friends we can count on to lift us up and encourage us. We need to understand that not everybody has that.
We think if we lost our jobs that we are creative, and we would do X and Y, but there are some people who come in and out of the ministries that we support that, quite honestly, are not capable of working. I can promise you that you would love them, but you would not hire them. They just lack the ability to focus and comprehend certain things. These people will always be poor. If we think the only poor people are the ones that try to hoodwink us, our hearts are too hard and we don’t know enough poor people. We don’t know somebody who had worked all their life, always managed, but lost their health insurance and then got sick. Is it U2 who sings, the rich stay healthy and the sick stay poor? There are people whose lives are absolutely destitute. If we think there was nobody in the poor region of Palestine that Paul wanted to help, that they were all saints, and nobody was trying to take advantage of the system is to really fail to understand human nature. There had to be people like that, but Paul did not care. As Christians with opportunity, the call was our part of Christ’s work on earth to help those who are less fortunate.
In the Judeo-Christian heritage, Old Testament to New Testament, there are two ways to give. One is simply to give to God. Noah, Abraham, and others built altars and put sheep on them. The sheep burned up and the smoke went up into the sky. It was a physical way of saying, It is not in my possession any more. It has gone to God.
As the community became more stable, they went from moving around to being settled in the Palestine area. As they gave to God, what they gave also helped other people. As we move into the New Testament, the two come together and, in fact, through the teachings of Christ and the work of Paul, we find that gifts to God are much more intent. Instead of being lifted up some place, they are a part of caring for the poor.
We expect a certain quality about our lives. Does our generosity match the other areas of life where we expect this quality? Our ability as a congregation to minister in Christ’s name, our ability to help the poor, is dependent upon what we understand as excellence in giving. Does each of us do what we should do so that our giving is on a par with everything else in our lives?
You excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in eagerness, and in our love for you. So we want you to excel also in one more thing: In this generous undertaking. That is God’s desire for us, not because God is poor but because God understands that the blessing that comes from developing a generous heart far exceeds anything we lose when we give.
If you have never experienced the blessing of giving, then give some more.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.