“7 Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you[a]—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.[b]

I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act[c] 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. 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— 11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. 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 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. 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.””

-2 Corinthians 8: 7-15


2 Corinthians 8: 7-15

The Reverend Tasha Blackburn

June 28, 2015

Hearing this passage you might wonder if you have slept through summer only to awaken on fall’s Stewardship Sunday! And you could be right. We do learn some really helpful steps to giving from this passage. We learn that we figure out how to give by knowing how others give, like the Corinthians learning giving from the Macedonians. We also learn that we should give in proportion to what we have. As Paul writes, I don’t want you to give until they are full and you are pressed, but give out of what you do have. Lastly, we learn that we need to share what we have with those who are needier than we are: Jerusalem Christians are suffering more than you, so step up.

This is all good stuff and I am sensing a stewardship sermon coming on. Probably one the Corinthians had heard before and had been moved by before. For that congregation had been fully supportive of all of this…a year ago. But then things got a little hairy.

Chapter 7 lays out a portion of that difficulty. We don’t know the details but we know that it was bad enough to keep Paul up at night. We know there was some kind of falling out, and the church and Paul sent hurtful letters to each other. There was a great deal of grief and Paul wondered if the relationship was broken. Then he received word from the congregation that they were ready to move forward again, to make amends with him. This letter is his response to their agreement that they are ready. And in much of it, he asks them for money.

It is a bit of a surprise, their renewed relationship is so new. Should he really be asking for money? But this collection is not just about money and his request is not just about passing the plate. Peter, James and John, heads of the Church, had asked Paul to get help for the Christians in Jerusalem. When Paul asks for these offerings, he is trying to uphold a very fragile church unity where Jewish Christians don’t know if they can trust Gentile Christians, or if they can even be a church together. The collection, then, also has racial overtones with non-Jews supporting ethnic Jews that Paul wants the congregation to take a stand on. This collection is not just money. It is Paul’s way of involving them in the work of the church again.

It is about the words we heard in his letter when he began with NOW; now remember that you excel at many things; SO, so I hope you are ready to excel again; FINISH, let’s finish what you began so long ago. NOW, SO, FINISH. That is what this collection is about. It is an invitation for the Corinthians to be the Church again.

A little over three years ago we were researching you. Well, maybe stalking you. Either way, we called lots to people to ask them about who you were. Some of the folks we talked to were outsiders. They had only watched you from a distance. When we asked them about you, they said things like, “That place is about to explode.” They said, “All they want to do is fight. They like it.” I don’t say those words easily to you and I don’t say them to hurt you. I say them to make the point: they didn’t know you at all. That is not who you are. Instead, you are the congregation who together said, “Enough is enough.” We are not going to go down that road of dissention and division. We are not going to let the worst stereotype of us become the final word. You said NO. Enough is enough.

Your “NO” has made me so proud. Made both Phil and I so proud. If that sounds patriarchal, good, because we are a family and I am proud of you like a parent is with her children, and I pray you are proud of us as well, like parents are of their children. I am proud of you not only for the NO you came to, but also for the YES. In the last three years you have looked around at the congregation you no longer are: that place of filled pews and bustling children’s ministries and pastors who represent the pinnacle of their field. You have seen what you are now with more elbow room in the pews and fewer children and pastors who are not even 40 years old who still have lots to learn and you have said YES. Enough IS enough.

You have done that. As a congregation you have said NO to what you did not want to become, and YES  to who you can be now. And as Paul reminds us in his letter, when we are willing, the gift we bring cannot help but be acceptable.

For a couple of days this past week I was at Duke Divinity School for a conference. There we met and heard from the new pastor of Riverside Church in New York City. To say Riverside is a famous church is an incredible understatement. They were formed under one of the most influential preachers and thinkers of the 20th century, Harry Emerson Fosdick. They have been led by remarkable members like John D. Rockefeller. They have been THE place for racial healing in the western Christian world and a beacon of justice for the nation over the last 90 years.

But for the last 9 years they have been imploding. They were without a senior pastor for about 3 or 4 years. Then they called a pastor who flamed out publicly after only 9 months. It was embarrassing; it was hurtful; it was all over the New York Times. Then they slogged on another 4 or 5 years with interims, growing more and more distrusting, divided and hurt.

Their new pastor sat in a circle with us and she said, “We have to rebuild from the center out. We are supposed to be a holding place for people and their faith and, right now, we can’t hold anything yet.”

Today we install a new class of elders. We cannot talk about what this group of leaders means without remembering the class they replace who has just finished their work. That class was the last group of leaders who served under the interim time. They were the last who walked into important but very difficult decisions that were still, even then, boiling over. They worked from the center out so that we could be a holding place again. They stood strong for you and for Christ’s Church THEN. Those men and women were the last class of that season.

Today we are able, together, and in these elected elders, to see the NOW. They will stand here, called by God and by you, and, in doing that, they represent a corner finally turned. Do you hear the grace in those words? They represent a corner finally turned! Today is about Paul’s words to the Corinthians that have become words to us: NOW, now remember that you excel at many things, SO, so I hope you are ready to excel again, FINISH, let’s finish what you began so long ago. NOW, SO, FINISH. That is what is happening today. For today symbolizes our invitation to be the church again. Amen.