2 Corinthians

Begging to Give

2 Corinthians 8:1-15

Yes, this is a giving sermon. In many churches, that often means a moment where the preacher either begs or lectures. But today we celebrate giving, looking at what has been done and what I believe will be done through this church known as Luminary.

In our Bible text, Paul tells the church at Corinth how to understand giving, in the process enlightening us a little about the Christians in Macedonia, a group he holds out as a standard for other churches. The Corinthians would have found Paul’s words difficult to hear. Corinth and Macedonia were political rivals in Paul’s day, and the apostle is trying to inspire a touch of jealousy, shame or some similar emotion in the Corinthians, who need to be doing more for God’s kingdom.

Paul’s writings raise a question for any church: When it comes to giving hearts, are we more like Macedonians or Corinthians?

The church in Corinth was relatively affluent, it would seem. We don’t know a lot about the situation of the churches in Macedonia—Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea—but it is clear from Paul’s letter they had fallen on hard times, despite being in a relatively prosperous region. Some of the Greek words Paul uses to describe their affliction are associated with religious persecution, and it is also clear from his words the Macedonians had descended into poverty because of what they suffered.

And yet, they give to help others, Paul writes, giving “even beyond their means.” The Macedonian churches even beg for the privilege of participating, finding great joy in the midst of their suffering to join in Jesus Christ’s work on earth.

In their giving, the Macedonians were like Christ, reducing themselves so that others might be made rich by the gift of eternal life flowing from the cross.

Nothing about the Macedonians’ attitudes should surprise us. Among people who study Christian giving patterns, it is known to be a basic fact that the best givers are among our poorest people. I have heard needy people say, “If you want help, go to a poor community, not a rich one.”

I’m reminded of the story about a church that announced in 1946 it was going to take up a collection to help a poor family in the community. A widow and her three daughters went to great lengths to participate, finding great joy in the sacrifices they were making. They raised most of the money collected by the church, only to discover they were the intended recipients of the offering. They ultimately gave what the church had handed them to a missionary working in Africa.

There was a family that would have been comfortable in Macedonia.

In terms of resources available to us at Luminary, we are more like Corinth than Macedonia. Most of us are not what anyone would call poor. Certainly, as a church, we are not mired in poverty and persecution. That’s a blessing, of course, but such a blessing comes with great responsibility.

The great preacher and writer Charles Spurgeon told the story of being invited to preach at a rural church so a special offering could be taken to retire the church’s debt. The man making the invitation said Spurgeon had his choice of places to stay during the visit: the man’s country house, his town house, or his seaside home. Spurgeon declined the invitation, suggesting the man sell one of his homes and pay off the debt himself. Abundant resources are an invitation from God to take bold actions.

As a group, bold action is always possible for us. I have mentioned before, and I will mention again, that committed tithing is the great equalizer for all church members, allowing us to commit equally to our community, rich or poor.

And this is where I begin to celebrate. Clearly, some of you are developing a deeper understanding of what it means to give to the kingdom. I don’t know who tithes and who does not tithe, but I can look at the bigger picture and surmise a few things.

♰ A significant number of you are giving in committed ways. I can tell this because our church income remains steady even as our “regulars” travel during the summer. Thank you for treating your church like a community with ongoing ministries, and not like a movie theater.

♰ Some of you also have increased your commitments. We are succeeding financially in ways we have not succeeded in a long time. Halfway through the year, our income is exceeding our expenses by about $6,000.

♰ Our better financial performance has happened while you have been “tithing up” to support the larger church, much like the Macedonians desired to do. Late last year, your leaders decided to begin tithing from our general offerings to the conference after many years of not supporting the larger church in full, and we have stuck to that commitment. (Until 2011, this system was called “paying apportionments.”) In all of 2014, Luminary sent $7,583 in support of the larger church; to date in 2015, we have already sent $12,236, and there’s no reason to believe we cannot continue that commitment. And none of that accounts for the special gifts you have made—for example, the more than $1,900 you sent to the Holston Conference to aid area children in poverty, or the regular gifts we send to Holston Home for Children.

All of this translates into lives being changed, locally and beyond. And there is so much coming in the life and ministry of Luminary:

♰Starting in August, our worship will be made richer and more vibrant with the arrival of Seth O’Kegley, our new music director. I cannot say enough about what this young man brings us in terms of music skills and devotion to worship. Your giving makes his presence possible, and he will bring Christ into people’s lives in ways we are only beginning to imagine.

♰A new vision for how we function as a church is taking shape, thanks to your Church Leadership Council. You will hear more about that soon, and I’m already praying each of you individually will see your lives and the lives of people around you changed for the better. Some of these changes will require new tools; the retirement of current debt, the acquisition of church vans and the completion of the upstairs keep coming up as likely needs.

We may not yet be Macedonians in heart, but we certainly are moving toward Macedonia. Pray that our financial commitment to our church holds and grows; pray that we become a people so enamored with Christ that we beg for the chance to give.

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The Need to Endure

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

When is God done saving you?

Today’s Scripture reading, and a whole lot of other Scripture readings, bring us back to a very Methodist understanding of salvation. Yes, we have a moment, often a very memorable moment, where we consciously step toward God and say, “Lord, I am yours.”

That moment may come before or after baptism in a structured way, for example, during a confirmation class. It also may happen in an unstructured way, perhaps during a contemplative walk or while quietly reading God’s word. It might be a “hot” moment, where the Spirit seizes you and shakes you. It might be a “cool” conversion, something that occurs after years of exposure to the story of Christ.  But there is a moment.

We are to understand, however, that conversion goes beyond a moment. Once God has used his grace to draw us in, gaining our voluntary cooperation, there is additional transformation to come. It is the difference between saying “I was saved” and “I am being saved.” As exciting as the moment can be, the promise of ongoing, life-changing interaction with God should be even more exciting.

What does God move us toward? In short, what we were meant to be—what we would have been without evil in the world, and what we will be when evil is no more.

Here, I think, lies the big struggle for many American Christians. We like having the moment, and we’ll even continue to cling to Christian practice for some time as long as we can feel the glow of the moment. We are a people who love instant gratification. Moving from a moment to a lifetime process is very hard for us, however.

If you struggle with the idea of ongoing sanctification, of salvation being a continuing process, try this analogy. You are drowning. A boat comes along; a hand reaches down and pulls you up. At that moment when your head clears the water and you sputter, spit and begin to breathe, you know you are saved. And yet, the process of salvation has not ended. You still must be pulled into the boat. Someone must dry you off, warm you, and check your lungs. Even the boat ride home is part of being saved. And you certainly don’t want to fall out of the boat!

This idea of ongoing salvation isn’t just some vague theological notion; we need to live it day by day. If you don’t believe me, let me tell you the story of one of the closest friends I ever had.

As you might expect, this close friend was a fellow clergyman. We were about the same age and had a lot in common. He also was a second-career pastor and had entered ministry a few years ahead of me. In many ways, he was my model for the pursuit of holiness, a concept he seemed to take very seriously.

Our church assignments separated us over time, although we tried to stay in touch. A couple of years ago, Connie and I got word from his wife, also a close friend of ours, that something astonishing had happened. He had suddenly left his wife, sons, ongoing advanced education and ministry—pretty much everything that mattered—for another woman, moving far west to help her raise her kids. (The real shocker: The other woman was a pastor, too.)

What caused such a shift in thinking and behavior? One thing seems certain. My friend did not endure, and now he is completely dependent on God’s resurrecting power to undo the damage he has done.

It is a sad story, and I tell it as a reminder that none of us is immune to such error. Satan’s servants are going to aim at all of our weak points in an effort to take as many of us down with them as possible.

I have no formula for how we endure, other than to say any formula is framed by engagement with God through prayer, Scripture, worship and the taking of the sacraments. A lot can vary within that framework, though. Like our saving moment, that ongoing engagement with God will be unique.

I’ve recently been trying to grow by meeting God in formal prayer three times a day, using prayer books to lead me. I know it helps me because prayer now brings me a kind of joy I’ve not had before. The same kind of prayer techniques may not bring you the same joy, but ask yourself, what does?

Connect with God according to your design and you will find continuing joy and spiritual growth, helping you endure any demon you may encounter.

Not Quite Home

2 Corinthians 5:1-10 (The Message)

When it comes to the subject of home, I suppose my family and I have had a different perspective than the traditional one in recent years. As I’ve transitioned careers, going to seminary and then through my first couple of appointments, we’ve moved enough to understand that a house is not a home.

Our middle child, my son, Charlie, has a particularly acute sense of this truth. At 19, he’s just old enough to remember every house we’ve lived in as a family, and just young enough to have experienced all the moves. (Our youngest child, Bonnie Rose, has no memory of Georgia and little memory of our seminary time in Kentucky. Our oldest child, Pollie, was living on her own before this last move.)

I asked Charlie not too long ago what place he thinks of as home. He puzzled over the question for a moment and said, “I guess wherever you all are.” He shares with military kids and gypsies that transitory view of home.

Home really is a state of mind, I suppose. We moved just a couple of times when I was a kid, always in what was basically the same town, and when asked I will tell people that Jonesborough, Tenn., is my hometown. The odd thing is, none of those houses really serves as the location of home in my head.

The place that seems to have wired itself into my brain is my maternal grandparents’ house in Bristol, Va. Until my granny passed when I was 14, I spent a lot of time there—weekends, summers, holidays. My strongest, clearest memories of childhood are of that house, on Bristol View Drive, a high hill overlooking the mall. When I was a child, the families in the houses around us were kin to my grandmother, a Johnston by birth. (My grandfather seemed to be very aware of being surrounded by in-laws.)

Everything about this split-level house was compact: the covered narrow front porch, the entryway running straight to the stairs that went down to a tiny den, the sharp left into the living room, the sharp right up the polished wooden stairs to the bedrooms and bathrooms. My grandparents’ bedroom had a neat little wrought-iron balcony looking into the woods.

I can dream about events that have nothing to do with my grandparents or childhood, but the dream will be set in that house, as if it’s now some sort of empty stage where my mind can process matters large and small.

One vivid dream more than 22 years ago played out in front of the house. Connie (my wife) and I drove up the hill, and as we turned into the driveway, it was all lit up, every room aglow like a house in a Thomas Kinkade painting. I looked at Connie and said, “Well, we’ve come full circle.”

The dream ended suddenly because Connie woke me up. “I’ve got something to tell you,” she said.

“You’re pregnant,” I sleepily responded. She had just taken her home pregnancy test, and wanted to surprise me with the positive result. I guess the dream spoiled the surprise. By the way, that child, my daughter Pollie, is named after my grandmother, an honor we had planned for a daughter before my dream.

That place is burned into my mind not because of the house itself. It’s there, I think, because I learned in that house so much about what it means to be loved. My granny was one of those people especially gifted in showing people love, and needless to say, her grandchildren, of which I was the first, got the full dose. Her house is a symbol for me of what we all crave most, unconditional love.

I bring all this up because today is homecoming at Luminary. For many of Luminary’s members, homecoming evokes all sorts of memories, many of them set in a building we no longer occupy as a church, having built a new building on a new site 11 years ago.

I’m guessing your best church memories, while tied to a place, are actually rooted in an experience of unconditional love. You saw such love in people around you, many of them no longer here. You experienced that love directly from the Holy Spirit, perhaps while singing, or during a baptism, or maybe while hearing the word of God very clearly for the first time. I pray you really sensed it when you first understood the message of the cross, and realized Christ died on the cross because of his love for you.

I do sympathize with what we feel when special places change or go away. I got to go through my granny’s house a few years ago; I was next door visiting my cousin as he dealt with his parents’ failing health, and the current owner asked me to come in and tell her what was original and what was not. Houses change, particularly when people want to tear off little wrought iron balconies and replace them with large wooden decks. Houses of worship change, too, even when you don’t change locations.

But that’s okay, isn’t it? The love that comes straight from God remains despite what changes in this world. It imprints itself on us fully. And not only that, the love we feel now points us toward what we will experience with God for all eternity. And that love will never change. Nothing will ever be taken away.

In fact, what we have lost here we will find there, in our real home.

Farewell

2 Corinthians 13:11-13 (NRSV)

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

————–

This has happened to me before. About the time I think the occasion is special, and that I’ll probably have to deviate from the standard lectionary texts for the week, one of the prescribed readings provides us with exactly what we need.

On my last Sunday in the pulpit at Cassidy UMC, the lectionary practically begs me to use Paul’s benediction in his second recorded letter to the church at Corinth. I’m no Paul, but I’m certainly comfortable using the same words to say goodbye to the people of Cassidy that Paul used to close his letter.

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell.

This actually is the most difficult part to translate. A lot of other translations say “rejoice” rather than “farewell.” I’ll just go ahead and conflate the two possibilities today, even if it’s not good use of the Greek. This is farewell, but we also should rejoice.

Yes, we’re experiencing changes, but we are a people who can go through such transitions without fear. We gather in worship and in service because we know God is with us in all we do. His Holy Spirit is upon us, and that constant knowledge gives us constant joy, even when a less familiar future stands before us.

The Holy Spirit is in the people of Luminary UMC and in me and my family, so I know I can rejoice in where I am going. God’s work will be done. The Holy Spirit is in you and is in Pastor Tom Hancock and his family, and I know God’s work will continue to be done here.

Put things in order.

You have put things in order, and will continue to do so, I am sure. Despite the struggles we’ve had in recent years, struggles tied to personal losses and a decline in giving, we have managed the situation well. The debt is gone. Church revenue and spending are about equal, leaving our reserve intact. You are well-positioned to make sound ministry choices in coming years.

Listen to my appeal.

How do I boil down three years of appeals from the pulpit to a sentence or two? How about this:

Stop inviting people to church. Never do that again; I should have said it this directly earlier. Instead, start inviting people to a relationship with Jesus Christ.

“Church” is perceived by the lost as a place, a building on a piece of ground. The lost also might at first glance judge the people inside the building to be too old or out of touch. But Jesus Christ, known through his radical teachings and his sacrifice, is attractive to all when properly understood.

Every other appeal I might make would be rooted in this change in attitude. Understand the difference in these two invitations, and you’ll understand the need to go off site to reach people. Your soul will work like a lost person detector, and with time and prayer the Holy Spirit will guide you to reach the lost with your actions and words.

Invite people to know Jesus Christ, and the part about people coming to church will take care of itself. Some of your new friends in Christ will naturally want to be with you on Sunday.

Agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.

I don’t know if I have much to add to Paul’s words here. It is the ideal state for any church. It is my prayer you exist always in such a state. Last week, we talked about the power of the Holy Spirit falling on the church at Pentecost. Deep prayer and the study of Scripture tune us into God’s will, and a willingness to obey what we hear brings peace.

As for the holy kiss part—well, that’s an act from a different time and culture. Instead, do those things we do now to show we’re in communion with each other. Look your brothers and sisters in Christ in the eyes, touch hands, touch shoulders, and say, “I love you.” Offer forgiveness when mistakes are made and personal hurts occur. Lord knows, the world needs such love.

All the saints greet you.

Remember, we are one church, regardless of what buildings we may enter on Sunday. We are one in Christ for all eternity. This includes the saints who have passed into the full presence of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you at Cassidy, now and forever. Amen.