Striking a balance 2 Corinthians, 8:6-15
Dear congregation, in today’s readings we have heard three marvelous stories, each one of them worthy of a sermon. Unfortunately I can only ever pick one text. Considering the truly awesome benefit concert and the current financial situation of our congregation, I have chosen the first reading, the text from the 2 Corinthians. „To create a balance“. That seems to be the central message of this text, in this appeal from Paul to the Corinthians. A request, which I hear for myself personally but also for our congregation and our church. This appeal touches a very sensitive subject, the subject of money.
By now I know that, at present, this subject causes people in Austria and Central Europe to turn a deaf ear and elicits the response: „Money? Oh no…, please not again!“ But all of you who are here today are not just any random person in Austria or Central Europe, you are all here by choice. In a Christian church. So I guess I can presume that it is okay if I ask how this biblical word, which we have heard today is relevant, what meaning it has for us today. I promise I will try to stick to the text at hand as much as possible and I suggest that first we look at the basic concept of this appeal. Then I would like to talk about „the work of God’s grace“ and conclude with a more detailed analysis of the balancing act. So at first the basics, then the grace and finally the balance.
The basis for this appeal to the Corinthians – to participate in the money collection for the indigenous community in Jerusalem – is found in Vers 9: „For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.“ I think it is clear what Paul means here: Through the suffering and death of Christ on the cross, humanity has been freed from the power of sin and we can enter into community with God our creator again. Or: Because of Christ we know that we will die but live forever. Or: In Christ God reveals himself to humanity as he really is: a God of love. Those are just a few affirmations, which I can easily connect with this verse. After all, the basis of all our actions is that God loved us first.
The basis is always that Christ did something for me before I even knew him. The basis is always and foremost the mercy of God, which I have experienced. All of my following actions then are a consequence. A consequence of what I experienced as liberating, redemptive, invigorating. This is the basic message Paul conveyed to the Corinthians: „See what you have experienced through Christ“. And the same question or the same hint is valid for us today: „Let’s look at what Christ has done for us.“
I think this is the start. Next of course is the question of how to evaluate everything I have just described about Christ and all of his actions performed on me. And I think this is where it gets very personal: How do I evaluate what God has given to me and is giving to me through Christ? How do I really feel? Do God’s actions make me feel grateful in any way? Is my faith my very own achievement? Have I really experienced grace? In my opinion this deeply felt gratitude can still be found today. Even if the devil and satan have largely lost their freightening effect, which is good of course, because it has never been about a faith out of fear, but about a faith that is built on love.
One last thought about the basics: The old story of the glass being half-full or half-empty. Am I grateful for everything I have experienced and received or can I not also be grateful for all the things that God has protected me from? Is good health just a given or my workplace a result of my own merit? So much for the basics: God acted first.
What does Paul mean when he talks about the money collection as „a work of grace“? Literally he says: „Now see that you also excel in this grace of giving.“ And I find another interesting comparison in verse 8, where Paul says that through this „work of grace“ the Corinthians had the opportunity „to proof the sincerity of their love“. Now of course it is possible to understand this last part as an affront or insult: „Are you trying to say that my love is based on how much I hand out? What do you know about my love?“ Of course. When people react like this and become defensive or strike back right away then you have usually hit a sensitive spot. I admit, I am leaning toward seeing a connection here.
Also because it reminds me of a passage in the gospel of Luke: A woman comes to Jesus and pours expensive anointing oil over him. A woman, known for her „immoral conduct“, as it is nicely translated in the New Geneva Translation. When one of the Pharisees, Simon, complained, Jesus took the woman’s side: Her many sins were forgiven and that’s why she showed Jesus lots of love. And Jesus ends the story with a reversal sentence: „To whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.“
In reality you can at this point also think about theory and praxis. Is your love just a lip-service or genuine? After you have experienced forgivenss, are there any real acts of love that follow? Are you happy to give generously? Even money? I think, Paul was talking about the impact of love when he said you could proof the sincerity of love.
And one image, which came to my mind when I was contemplating the money collection as a work of grace, is the image of full hands: When hands are full, because they hold on to everything and do not let go, then they can also not be filled by God. God can only fill empty hands. Hence the empty hands become a symbol of grace, because in this way I can experience how God helps. How he continues to fill. The event that Paul relates to at the end of today’s reading also fits here: Who has collected a lot, did not have too much and who collected little, did not have too little. Here Paul quotes the story of the Israelites in the desert, who were hungry and were filled by God with Manna, the bread from heaven. Every morning it was there. For more than 40 years. But you couldn’t keep it – it was spoiled the next day. So you had to trust that every day God would give what you needed to live. God fills empty hands.
And when God has filled the hands, he wants a balance to be created. Give according to your means. Again literally it means: „For if the willingness is there, the gift is welcome according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.“ This, dear congragation, was a declaration of protection from Paul for the Corinthians. It should refer from the absolute number, the amount that someone gives, to what someone is able to give. Just like Jesus explicitely praised the poor widow, who put two mites into the offering receptacle. However, today it is like this: What was said for the protection of the Corinthians, that you shouldn’t help others out of misery while putting yourself into hardship, has become a challenge for the rich.
Give according to your means. Now that would be something!
Here I interestingly thought of a szene from the film Troy. Achilles, played by Brad Pitt, is summoned from his tent to confront a giant. And he let himself be persuaded to do it. But facing the king he said this remarkable sentence: „Imagine a king fighting his own battle. Wouldn’t that be a sight.“
Imagine a rich person, who really gives a tithe. Now that would be a sight. It’s all just relative. If you have a 500 euro pension, then give 50 euros, if you earn 3,500 euros, then give 350 euros. Are you crazy, that’s way too much! Imagine… .
In Swabian you say: „Everyone has to carry their own baggage.“ What for some is deprivation, hunger and misery, is the handling of those challenges for the others. Give according to your means.
Give, to create a balance. At the present time, your abundance is relieving their shortage, so that another time their abundance is relieving your shortage. In this way a balance is created. This is how we methodists understand our Connexio, our solidarity with other methodist churches and congregations. And it works!
With the collection at the yearly conference, the memorial church service for Helene and Wilhelm Nausner and our benefit concert there is a total of about 6,000 euros that will be sent to the Miss Stone Center in Macedonia. As support for their work that is so important and alleviates misery. So that a balance is created.