Strength in Weakness, Riches in Poverty: A Sermon on 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

8:7 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.
8:8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness
of your love against the earnestness of others.
8:9 For 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.
8:10 And 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–
8:11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by
completing it according to your means.
8:12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according
to what one has–not according to what one does not have.
8:13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure
on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between
8:14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance
may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.
8:15 As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little.”

The exercise for us here I think would be to hear these words imagining that we are the Corinthians and Paul is writing to us.  I don’t know exactly who the Macedonian churches would be in our case on whose behalf Paul is asking for an offering necessarily, but we can still listen to this letter from Paul as a modern-day encouragement and request to a church like ours to be faithful in the grace of giving, especially since we too have been given so much. Paul’s plea to the church in Corinth in this second letter comes after his summary of the difficulty that the Macedonian churches are in, as well as his description of their attitude toward their situation as one of overflowing joy and rich generosity despite their impoverished condition.  They’ve asked for help so that they might also participate more fully in service and ministry to God and to others as a church. Paul then goes on to affirm the church in Corinth for their own excellence in faith, speech, spiritual knowledge, and their intention to be an earnestly and eagerly giving church.

If he were talking to us, he might mention some of the good things we do.  In addition to sharing and fairly leasing our building to other churches, we open our doors to anywhere from 25-30 different support and recovery groups during the week.  Our apportionment money goes through the United Methodist denomination to disaster relief, theological education or a college scholarship fund for minority students.  We also fulfill a mission to the community through Family Promise, the Santa Clarita Food Pantry, Santa Clarita winter homeless Shelter, COSROW and the work with domestic violence, Monday night Tutoring, Military Boxes, the Million Meals Marathon, the Have a Heart to Help Campaign – this is a lot, and we need to remember what all we do and talk about it often so that people know how we give and serve. Paul is a great example of a pastor, teacher, and church leader who comforts the afflicted and distressed people whom he loves, and yet is also not afraid to challenge, strongly urge or even rebuke those same people and churches that he loves when they get too comfortable.

As a church, I think it’s safe to say we’ve had some true successes in the past year and have done very good things (burned mortgage, growing and improving programs, and as the most recent circuit rider announced, we received a matching fund from the district that will go a long way in helping us to make some much needed safety improvements to our property.) Now, it’s a well-known lesson in coaching in sports that oftentimes teams are most vulnerable and susceptible to stumble just after having great success.  I remember how good the Oklahoma City Thunder looked after their first game in the NBA finals against the Heat, and yet the Heat went on to win the rest of the games.  Or maybe you watched the Stanley Cup when the Kings were up 3-0 against the Devils, and it looked like things were all down hill.  It seems this lesson might also be applied to life in general, and to church life in particular.  Perhaps it would be good for us then, to hear Paul right now saying to us and cheering us on, “well done friends and fellow followers of Jesus, servants of the Gospel, citizens of God’s Kingdom, but don’t forget what you started and to what you were called!”

I want to take a minute to comment just briefly on the Gospel reading for today as well, which we didn’t look at, but I think this is worthwhile because of how it happens to sort of highlight and illustrate exactly what Paul is saying in 2nd Corinthians I think.  In Mark, building on last week’s story about Jesus calming the storm, if you remember, this time he heals a sick woman and raises girl from the dead, two seemingly similar incidents, and they are related, but the woman with the hemorrhage who touches Jesus’s cloak and is healed, is certainly an outcast in society and considered ritually unclean.  She is destitute and severely marginalized, forbidden to participate in routine religious ceremonies or worship in the Synagogue/Temple.  The young girl, however, appears to be the child of a well-to-do and respected man, Jarius, who is probably connected to higher and inner circles in society, and yet both desperately need Jesus – just as both the Corinthian and Macedonian churches do in Paul’s letter — if the Corinthians are like Jarius and the Macedonians are like the sick, outcast woman.  It is as if Mark says, by sandwiching these two stories together, worldly favor does not guarantee true security; nor does a lack of it keep us from God’s mercy and love in the face of suffering and death. God’s favor and healing is with both of them.  Jesus meets both of them right where they are.

Which gets back to Paul and the parallel he draws between what God does in Jesus and what we are called to in return to do as a church. It reads: “8:9 For 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.” I entitled the sermon: “Strength in Weakness,” or “Wealth in Poverty,” which is a lot like Paul’s words in 1st Corinthians, chapter one, when he says in verse 27, “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”  Upon hearing these words, maybe the famous Philippians 2 hymn comes to mind which I think is worth reading: Paul says:

3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in
humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own
interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as
Christ Jesus: For though being in very nature God, he did not
consider equality with God something to be grasped [or used to his own
advantage],

7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

This is a theologically dense hymn, for one thing. It tells us about the incarnation — how God is with us, that is, how Jesus has the authority of God, shares God’s nature, and yet fully embraces the challenges and trials of human existence.  This is Paul’s central thesis: that God in Christ becomes poor for our sake and we are to do the same for the sake of others — individually and collectively!  But several other themes follow, if you notice.  First, Not giving out of coercion but out of joy, willingness, eagerness, and sincerity.  Secondly, Giving what one is able… that’s a bit vague though isn’t it.  It all depends on what is meant by “able”, right? I mean if you don’t have a million dollars, you can’t give a million dollars.  I’m reminded of a quote by C.S. Lewis on this matter.  he says, “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.”

So focusing now on the church specifically since that is what Paul was doing, what does this giving mean for us? Well, remember we’re saying strength in weakness, wealth in poverty, and so forth, but poverty here is also kind of ambiguous.  Does poverty mean, oh there aren’t enough people in attendance on Sunday giving enough money to pay our bills? That might be a bit too shallow of an understanding of poverty.  Instead I suggest we conceive of poverty in terms of a willingness to engage the poor, work with them, not just for them — embracing poverty itself in some sense, whether that’s through giving or better yet just investing in and serving alongside of those who are poor, dignifying them as fellow human beings.

But giving is still good, and the way that Paul is envisioning the Corinthians church is more like that of a living body – a unit – than as a building, and this has powerful implications for how we think of ourselves too.  Instead of thinking about church as something separate from ourselves that we give to, which is kind of the conventional assumption, doesn’t it make more sense, and isn’t it more biblical to imagine that we, together as a church, give to others.  The tithe takes on a whole new meaning in this case.  One United Methodist Church I know of in Austin, TX, embraced this and took it to another level by challenging themselves to strategically work toward being able to give half of what they take in away each year to other ministries and other needs in the community and abroad.

Going beyond mere giving though, here’s another kind of example: The Jewish philosopher Maimonides said that the highest form of giving is to lend someone money with zero interest, to let them learn how to fish, so to speak, to create a job or small business for themselves, perhaps. This past week Whitney and I had the opportunity to attend a KIVA CITY Los Angeles launch party. KIVA is an organization that facilitates the lending of micro-finance loans directly between lenders and borrowers.  You can create your own profile and send capital directly to people all over the world, but now they’re expanding even into U.S. cities like LA.  One way we could participate in this amazing work is to allocate a substantial portion of our savings toward these kind of loans, rather than having it sit in a bank account earning low interest anyway — or in the stock market, where who knows what could happen… This is not to say we shouldn’t have savings or stock, necessarily — I have both.  Rather it is one small way to remind ourselves to try and find our security in God rather than in money — and to invest in the Kingdom of God instead of the Kingdom of the invisible hand, free market, eternal growth and prosperity, etc…

Getting back finally to third point that Paul makes in the letter — and this is especially important if what I’ve said so far is a little bit overwhelming: Paul’s not interested in overly-burdening the Corinthians by asking them to give; rather he’s concerned about what he calls fair balance, or equality.  And he mentions this twice — which is yet another sort of point of tension, because we’ve already been talking about strength in weakness and wealth in poverty, so we have to keep equality in mind as well.  In other words, we’re not trying to just make ourselves totally poor and helpless.  It’s just as much about attitude, which is why Paul says in Philippians 2 Jesus humbled himself and become obedient to God.  Ok.

The goal is not to reluctantly consent or to be coerced but to eagerly and earnestly desire to find the strength in weakness and richness in poverty that comes from emptying ourselves and being filled with the law of the Spirit, which is love.  We live by a different script, if you like, one that subverts the dominant narrative of consumerism and militarism, of fear about insecurity.  We practice this by imitating Christ in our thinking and interacting with others.    This requires giving up our desire for control, for approval and affection, and for security.

It is a life-long practice and spiritual discipline with no easy solutions, in the context of Christian community, in which we are empowered to let go of what some have called our emotional programs for happiness, our mechanical, false-self, and begin to more consistently live out of a place of authentic existence, in which we serve God rather than our own ego.   This enables us to step out into the peace and freedom, giving us the courage to take risks for God.  This peace and freedom also releases us from the urges to over-identify with certain ideas, groups, sports teams, political parties, national pride — and to find instead our deepest and truest sense of identity as children of God.  This is where real power and strength in weaknesses is found.  By impoverishing that which runs contrary to the will of God, we can in turn be enriched by what brings fullness of life — the strength and riches that come from God in our giving, even in weakness and poverty.  Amen.

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