Introduction to the Scripture
One time a rich man hunted down Jesus and stopped him as he was heading out of town. Now the rich man never meant to find himself in this position! Sometimes this is what it is to ask for help.
All along, this man had given his life to the work of doing everything right. You know the type. He recycled. He followed the rules. He kept his word… All the right things! And yet. He was losing his life, and noticing that sent a chill of terror through his soul. Please! You’ve got to help me! he said to the Lord. Tell me what I have to do in order to inherit eternal life! So Jesus gave him the right answer: You know the commandments. Follow the commandments.
Right, I’ve always been doing that. It’s not working. There was a catch in his voice, and that’s when the Lord looked at him, and loved him, and said: Oh my brother… If it’s life you’re looking for, you’re missing one thing. Go and sell everything you have, give the money to the poor, then come follow me.
And the man can’t do it!
Usually when Jesus says: Come follow me, people drop what they’re doing and follow him! Not this time. Usually when people come to Jesus seeking help, they go away with new healing and hope. Not this time. This time, the man goes away grieving. I will tell you, I know something of this man’s grief, and maybe you do too.
It’s like there are two opposite demands rising up in my consciousness with a chasm between them. On the one side, the world says: Have as much wealth as you can get your hands on, grow it, invest it, save it, capitalize on it… On the other side, the LORD says: See everything you have? That’s good. Now give it away and follow me, and you’ll come back to life.
I hear both of these demands thundering in my own faith, and I cannot reconcile them. I can’t pretend there’s not a gulf between the values of our world and the values of the kingdom of heaven, and if you’re feeling that too, if you find yourself grieving, yeah. I’m right there with you.
Today we’re continuing the series Why Church? All summer, we’ve been celebrating how the Church is not just any cluster of friends, not just any social service organization, not just any musical ensemble, or advocacy group, or beautiful building. The Church is different from other groups in our lives, and in some striking ways, the Church is different from the world. Nowhere is this as vivid as when it comes to money.
In our world, one of the best things we can do with our money is manage it.
When they’re not launching rockets into space, the wealthiest people manage portfolios and investments or they manage the people who manage their assets on their behalf.
On the other side of the spectrum, people living in poverty do a surprising amount of managing. Of course, there’s a popular myth that goes: If only poor people could manage their resources more effectively, that discipline would lift them out of poverty. That’s not really how it works. But a lot of people love this theory, and if you happen to be one of them, my husband would welcome the chance to take you to lunch and try to change your mind.
Rich or poor, we live in a world that says: When it comes to money, you better manage it. I will confess to you, I have heard the world issue this demand, and I’ve bought into it.
Chris and I have a budget with categories for spending, saving, giving, and debt. We’re not trying to get rich, but I do like to see our ends meet and our bills get paid on time. And I’m framing this like we’re choosing this, and sure we are, but we’re also able to manage our money because of the privilege we enjoy that we’ve done nothing to deserve. That’s what it is.
It’s just… You and I know. The LORD our God looks at the world, and loves this world, and wants to be in right relationship with us. The Holy Spirit keeps reaching out, reminding us who we really are, because none of us were called into being by some calculation on a cosmic spreadsheet. We come from the generosity of God. Giving is already in us. It’s in our bones and in our dreams. Giving is how we are made.
So come on already, says the Spirit. Leave your bills and your bank statements, and follow me. Give up your managing, give away your good gifts, I will give you life, says the LORD.
And I hear the world, and I hear the LORD. And I feel the same grief that filled the rich man’s heart, and maybe you do too. In the scripture Sylvia is about to read, we’ll hear Paul ask a question that might help us. If we’ll let it.
Response to the Scripture
“Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion…” These are the words of Paul.
As we’ve been hearing for the last few weeks, the book of Second Corinthians is a collection of fragments from Paul’s correspondence to the church at Corinth. It’s touched upon a whole range of subjects, but there’s no mistaking what today’s part of the letter is. We get these letters all the time! It’s the kind that goes: Please give us money.
In this case, Paul’s asking the Corinthian church to join other congregations in raising money for the church in Jerusalem. Right off the bat, he tries to shame the Corinthians by carefully mentioning that the Macedonian church, which has been enduring extreme poverty, has been overflowing with a wealth of generosity. So come on, if they can do it… This is part of it.
The other part of Paul’s strategy is what I find fascinating. You’ll notice, he’s not going on and on about why the Jerusalem congregation needs the money. You’re supposed to do that when you ask for money!
Instead, the beating heart of Paul’s argument goes: You Corinthians need to give so that you’ll experience solidarity with Christ who gave everything. You need to give because giving induces life, and your faith is starving for life. In Paul’s words: “Now as you excel in everything— in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, in your love for us— so we want you to excel in this generous undertaking.”
The flow of the universe moves toward giving and more giving. We know that God delights in giving. She stops and sees what she created, and the face of God breaks into smiles, because see, it is very good. Now Paul is saying, when you choose to let the generosity of God flow through you, like it’s trying to do, don’t say I didn’t warn you: This giving is what will bring joy to your hearts. It will bring the life back to your lives.
Paul is asking the Corinthians the question we all need: Look, what is your giving doing to you?
In my life, I hear the demands on both sides. The world says: You’ve got to manage your resources responsibly. The LORD says: Give and you’ll find new life! And I thought, I know! I can do both by managing our giving. So Chris and I have line items in our budget for giving to our churches and our schools, and a line for unexpected giving when a need comes along that we want to support.
This means our regular giving flows out of our checking account like every other bill, and if we didn’t notice it, we wouldn’t… And that’s the problem, isn’t it? That’s how I’ll miss the miracle. If we don’t ask what Paul is asking, we’ll miss it:
Look, what is your giving doing to you?
I can try all I want to manage giving, but it does not want to be managed. Giving dollars do not stay confined to their cells on the spreadsheet. Whenever we give, we are helping to build something bigger than ourselves. And once you do that, once you notice that’s what you’re doing, well the jig is up, because here’s the truth: Managing is not the same as dreaming.
Every month, I want the red number of total expenses to be the same size or smaller than the black number of total income. And if this is all I can imagine…. What happened?
Giving is different. Giving enlarges our capacity for hope.
The money that you spend on giving is not like any other bill you pay. It’s a sign of where you come from and who you really are. And in case nobody has warned you, somebody should. In a world that wants us to have and hoard wealth, giving is an act of revolution.
So maybe it worked out like this… Maybe the rich man went home grieving, but later that week, he was approached by a beggar. Now this happens all the time, and the laws of our faith are clear. So when a tired immigrant asked him for money, the man knew what he had budgeted and what the law required, and he paid the man. But then, he went ahead and did it again! The tired man’s face broke into smiles and you know what, so did the rich man’s, and wouldn’t you know. The grief in his heart just lost its grip.
Maybe it’s not too late for him to give away everything that’s holding him back. Maybe it’s not too late for him to follow Jesus and come back to life…
Maybe we could too. Giving will do that.