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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

The Rev. Sarah Reid Bird

September 8, 2019

Keeping Up with the Macedonians

Exodus 16:2-3, 11-17; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses,” or for you more hip and trendy folks, “Keeping up with the Kardashians.” But who on earth are the Macedonians?!

So here’s the scoop – let me give you a little bit of background. Paul, the apostle, sent to churches near and far to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, has just returned from a conference with elders in Jerusalem.  After what I’m sure seemed like the longest church committee meeting ever, the leaders came to an understanding that the Gentiles were to be considered an equal part of the church with the Jews.  No longer could the Jews look down on the Gentiles or insist they abide by all of their purity laws in order to become Christians; no they were all one in the Body of Christ.

It is one thing to make this pronouncement. It is a completely different thing to live it.

So as a way of living into this unity, Paul is taking up a collection for the Jewish church in Jerusalem. He is traveling to Gentile churches across Macedonia and Achaia (Achaia is where Corinth is located) and he is asking them to give generously to the church in Jerusalem – to their Jewish brothers and sisters.  However this church is made up of people these Corinthians will never even meet.  That would be like me preaching to you today asking that you give money for a church somewhere out in Buford, Wyoming.  You don’t know those folks; the Corinthians didn’t know the church in Jerusalem. And yet, Paul is asking them to give … for Christ’s sake. Literally. 

Look at verse 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.”

Over the course of chapters 8 and 9 in 2nd Corinthians, Paul uses the word for “grace” nearly ten times!  In Greek this word is “charis” and it doesn’t just refer to what God wants to do in and for Christians, but what God wants to do through Christians.  What could God do through us, if we loosened our grip on the things of this world and opened our hands to receive the blessings He longs to give us? 

It’s ultimately a matter of trust. Do we trust God to provide all we need?  Or are we so fearful of scarcity that we seek to hoard and accumulate “just in case.”  God, I believe you are all powerful, that you have control over everything that happens to me, that you love me, and that it was you who raised Christ from the dead. I have nothing to fear in life or in death because of you, BUT I’m going to hold on to these possessions just in case.

This clinging to the material is rooted in fear. And fear of scarcity can be a deadly thing.  Think about an extreme example.  The story is told of a German pastor named Martin who heroically opposed Adolf Hitler as part of a delegation of leaders from the Evangelical Lutheran Church.  These leaders had the opportunity to meet Hitler once in 1933.  Martin did not say anything during this meeting, but just stood in the back of the room listening.  When he returned home, his wife asked him what he had learned that day.  He replied, “I discovered that Herr Hitler is a terribly frightened man.”

Because he was fearful there wasn’t enough to go around, fueled by hate, Hitler was ruthless and we all know the horrendous and tragic outcome of Hitler’s fear.

We in the United States are among the richest of the world, and yet we never feel we have enough. We seek more and more, and this insatiable desire will destroy us.  It boils down to faith versus fear.  Which will win out in our lives?  Where we invest our money is the truest indicator of where we invest our faith.  Christ Himself said this: “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.”

So this job of preaching and proclaiming the Gospel, this calling I’ve been given is difficult for me because, news flash, I’m an imperfect person. Stewardship is one of those areas that I have never much paid attention to.  Honestly, my thinking for the longest time was that my family had given so much to the church already, my dad, who was a pastor, missed so many birthday parties and family dinners, we had sacrificed so much that we couldn’t be expected to give money too.  Our tithe was my parents’ time and commitment to the church.

But there is something different about money…

As a student in college and seminary, I had an excuse (you can always find an excuse not to give).  I was a poor, destitute, young scholar trying to make ends meet, I couldn’t be expected to give 10 percent.  Besides that would only be 5 or 6 dollars anyway.

But there is something different about money…

Even now, as I mark six months here in Nashville as one of your pastors, I must admit I have not yet begun tithing to the church. I figured I needed to get established, there are expenses that must be considered in this new city, I need to work through balancing the cost of rent and utilities and also gas prices are crazy and the cost of living is really high.  And tithing 10 percent, though biblical, also seems a little extreme right?  I gotta get settled first, then I will begin to think about praying about tithing.

There is something different about money…

Why is pledging and tithing so important? Because it is an act of faith.  Sure we can give out of our abundance at the end of the year.  All of the bills have been paid, the Christmas gifts have been bought, the vacations have been enjoyed; now we can see what’s left over for God.

“Left over for God” – that phrase totally misses the point! God deserves our first fruits.

We are called to give even when it is scary and unpredictable. Trusting a good and generous God who over and over again promises to provide for us and be with us.

Now we are the church. We are a ministry not a business.  We have business needs to be sure, but if we ran like a business, our model would be completely skewed.  We’d have all overhead because our expenses are fixed and we charge nothing for our services.  We don’t raise prices to cover expenses.  But we do have bills to pay.  We do have a budget.  We do need money to keep the lights on.

Now we are called to be the church, to meet the needs of everyone who enters that door and beyond. This means that the same family who gives $10 each week to the church receives the exact same pastors, and newsletters, and pew cushions, and hospital visits, and opportunities for connection and outreach as a family who gives $500 each week.  There is no “first class membership package.”  You don’t get a better parking spot if you pledge more.  Sorry…

Now hear me, God’s love for us is not contingent upon our giving. That is crucial for us to remember.  But our ability to embrace, enjoy and fully experience God’s love increases when we let go and give more – when we take a chance and trust the provision of God out of gratitude for all He’s done for us.

Now our Generosity Brochure here at FPC does not read like Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. That’s a good thing.  Paul’s writing is dense and he can be a little abrasive.  He is using unique forms of rhetoric to convince the Corinthians to give.  He begins by comparing the church in Corinth to the churches in Macedonia (namely Philippi and Thessalonica). This method of rhetoric is called exemplification.  Because what he is doing here is setting the Macedonians up as an example of what the Corinthians should strive to do and how they should be giving.

So what if we too were trying to “keep up with the Macedonians”? What if we sought to outdo one another not in what we achieve, not in what we accumulate, but in what we give?

 Our generous God has put it in our hearts to be a generous people.  So when we cling to our resources, we are not fully living into our identity as children of God.  Children who trust their Father to provide for their every need.  Children who seek worth not in what they have but in how they love.  Children who find peace and joy in holding onto the things of this world loosely, and clinging to Christ Himself.

If we wait to share and give until we have a surplus, we will never give. Because we will never have “enough.”  The more we accumulate, the easier it is to lose sight of what is genuinely “enough.” There is a story about J.D. Rockefeller, who in the 1900’s started Standard Oil Company and became America’s first billionaire.  When a reporter once asked him how much money was enough, he responded “just a little bit more.”  We can scoff at this anecdote and the greed it represents, but do we not think the same way?

If we believe we are “self-made” women and men, then we do not have any reason to give to God, except charitably out of the goodness of our hearts. But, as Christians, we believe that all we have and all we are have been given to us by God.  We are not self-made we are God-made and it is back to God that all of our gifts should go in gratitude.

This way of thinking of being self-made was just as prevalent in the ancient societies of the Macedonians and the Corinthians as it is in ours today. They were also taught to strive and struggle for what they wanted.  So in this letter, Paul’s tactic is to once again remind them of who they are and where they came from, to retell the ancient narrative of God’s provision and abundance. 

In the wilderness, after the Israelites had been freed from slavery in Egypt, they became fearful and uncertain where their next meal would come from and began complaining and longing to be back in slavery in Egypt. God answered their fears with manna.  It rained down from heaven and they didn’t have to sow or reap or toil to earn it.  It was a gift.  To prove how strange this grace was to the people they named the substance “manna,” which in Hebrew means “What is it?”  They had never before received bread as a free gift that they couldn’t control, or predict, or plan for, or own.

They could not keep it though; they could not store their extra manna in a Ziploc bag and toss it in the freezer just in case God didn’t come through the next day. They had to trust the Living God. 

The gifts of this life are given by a generous God. It’s a wonder, it’s a miracle, quite frankly, it’s irrational, but God’s abundance transcends the market economy.  God’s economy of grace is different.  It is subversive.  And it all begins with God’s initiative.

We are given the free gift of grace. But it is not a possession, a commodity for us to hoard.  Grace is a gift that can only be enjoyed by giving it to another.  It is this beautiful cycle of grace flowing from one to another and back to God in gratitude and praise.  And around and around it goes.  But that cycle halts if we refuse to give. 

Did you know there are churches that don’t have stewardship campaigns, don’t send pledge cards and letters, don’t dedicate a series of sermons to the topic? Their members tithe, and therefore their focus need not be dedicated to money.

Sounds impossible? Well did you know our God is in the business of the impossible?  Our God freed slaves from the power of the Pharaoh and split the seas apart.  Our God plucked a scrawny shepherd boy from the pastures and put him on the throne of Israel.  Our God called to a young Hebrew teenager and told her she was going to give birth to the Savior of the world.  Our God came to us as a man and died a cruel, brutal death on a cross; He should never have lived again.  But He does and He is living inside of each of us, and He is calling each of us out of our fear, out of our comfort, out of our inward focus and excuse making, and into trust in Him that will truly liberate us.  Trusting Him with all that we are and all that we have.

So this week I went on our church’s website. They’ve actually made it super easy to give here at FPC – if you’re tech-savvy, you can even do it through texting!  I made my pledge.  I looked at my expenses and signed up for automatic withdrawal every month.  And it was scary … and exhilarating because I know the good work God is doing in this church through mission and worship and education.  And this was a tangible way for me to participate and to step out of my fear of scarcity and trust the abundance of God. 

And I pray the same for you. May we stop trying to keep up with the Joneses or keep up with the Kardashians in our striving to accumulate more and more.  May we instead be a church that seeks to keep up with the Macedonians giving more and more of our money and time and gifts to Christ’s mission in grateful response to God’s love.  Amen.

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