A Legacy Built on Giving
In 1993 a couple took a walk on the beach and began to share with each other the things that they believed mattered most in the world. This couple was engaged to be married, and even though they had discussed this topic a little during their years of dating, this walk on the beach was transformational for both. In fact, that walk and that discussion on that Zanzibar Beach proved to be transformational for millions of people.
What’s interesting is this is not the first time this couple had discussions like these… discussions about what they felt called to do with the wealth they had accumulated, and for them to have these type conversations before they were even married is rare to say the least. Not only that, the ultimate decisions they reached about what to do with their wealth were simply incredible. Their decisions served as the inspiration others needed to follow in their footsteps. And you want to know something, that seems to be the way generosity goes most of the time. Someone, or a couple who is respected by others, takes a step toward helping out those less fortunate and then others follow.
Well in this case, the couple making the decision to use their wealth for the benefit of others, for the benefit of society at large and the problems and injustices they face around the world just happened to be Bill & Melinda Gates. Now I’m not sure generosity toward others was always the plan for Bill, but he now admits that giving away his wealth for the benefit of those less fortunate in our world is the single greatest thing he has ever done. And it just so happens, a number of people believe there is only one reason Bill and Melinda Gates will be remembered when it is all said and done and it’s not because of Microsoft or Windows: it will be their decision to give away a large portion of their wealth to better the lives of others. It will not be the company he founded. [Let that sink in for a minute…] Their legacy will be built on their decision to give to charity, not on their decision to selfishly keep all they had been blessed with receiving. Their legacy will be:
One of philanthropy;
One of giving away a significant portion of their financial wealth to others less fortunate;
One of giving to those they do not personally know but are dealing with illnesses that are curable in our country but not theirs;
One of giving to aid the pursuit of justice for those dealing with injustices like lack of drinkable water, or lack of food.
These are the reasons some believe the World as a whole will remember Bill & Melinda Gates.
They gave selflessly, and even though they had and continue to have a lot to give, that fact should not cloud our view of how important giving back has been for them, and should be for us.
Apostle Paul & II Corinthians
The apostle Paul, it seems, knew something about the importance of giving a portion of your wealth to help others. Don’t you agree? The Apostle Paul also knew how important it was to allow people the time and space needed for them to voluntarily decide how much they would give to the Church, and how much they would keep for themselves. Just listen to his words, [v. 7] “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion…”
Do you wonder why Paul might encourage such contemplation? I venture to say Paul knew that compelling someone to do something they don’t want to do voluntarily is never the answer. And I suspect Paul knew this was never the approach of Jesus or God for that matter. Their approach to relationship building always centered on selfless giving. Forcing people, compelling people to do something they don’t want to do might bring shortsighted, short-lived success, but the long-term damage is extremely detrimental. Just look at the struggles of modern day Church attendance. We are kidding ourselves if we don’t believe part of the decline is due to the fact that so many people for so long felt forced into participation, or guilted into being present. As New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright says, “You may succeed [at getting people to do what you want even if they don’t]; if you’re a forceful enough character, [they] may eventually do what you want; but they won’t enjoy it, and you may damage some relationships on the way.”
Any and all attempts to forcefully compel anyone to give away their hard earned, or not so hard earned, money are never successful. That approach is never a God centered approach and quite frankly that approach just doesn’t work. What does work, is helping everyone “turn [their] minds and imaginations around so that what had seemed forced, awkward and unnatural now seems the most natural thing of all.”
This, I believe, is the best way to understand what the Apostle Paul is doing in today’s passage. I believe I have shared with you before, that all of Paul’s authentic letters need always to be read as letters of response sent to a certain group of people who were seeking Paul’s advice about specific issues they are facing. So, in this passage today, it is safe for us to say that the people of the early church at Corinth must have needed a little refresher on cheerfully and voluntarily giving a portion of their resources to those less fortunate. Fortunately, Paul, it seems, was always willing to respond to those advice seekers in the early church, and the people living in Corinth were no exception.
So when it comes to taking up the collection, Paul was ready, willing and able to help shed some light on why this was so very important to the Church as a whole, and this is because for Paul, the offering was about much more than money: it was about relationships in the church. Paul understood how important the act of giving was to those wanting to follow Jesus because in this act of giving we can overcome our slavery to possessions. We demonstrate that there are values in the world more important to us than our own selfish glorification. Giving in this way, let’s call it true giving, is an act of self-liberation. What Paul understood and what it appears he wanted to teach in this instance was not about money itself as much as it was about discipleship and grace. Paul doesn’t seem to be concerned about the Corinthians simply raising money, he wants them to change the way they think about money. He wants them to understand that God has graced them with certain things and when they choose to grace others with a portion of them, then they are living out God’s call for all to be Disciples.
More than anything else Paul seems to be reminding these early church members about the importance of building relationships with others and he wants them to know what role money can play in that building. As I am sure we all know, money can ruin relationships, but money can also build relationships. Here’s the thing, just like those early church members in Corinth, if we are going to answer God’s call, if we are going to follow Jesus’ teachings, then we must acknowledge the ways our choices about money play a part. We need to ask ourselves if our approach to money is an approach that embraces discipleship and grace, or is our approach more akin to survival of the fittest? Is our approach to money one that understands that living generously is what happens when your life is overflowing with grace?
You see, the invitation to give is an invitation to share in a cause and to participate in the outpouring of grace in our life and in the life of this church. The invitation to give is an invitation to stand tall and claim that you want to build relationships, not tear them down. The invitation to give is an invitation to acknowledge all the ways God has blessed you in your life and then extend that Grace to others.
Thing is, these are just some of the reasons we have extended such an invitation to the members of this church.
These are just some of the reasons we are so strongly encouraging you to take the time necessary to pray about how you will complete the Pledge Card you received in the mail.
Just like Paul, we are asking you to take the time necessary to reflect on all the ways you have received God’s Grace and once you have taken that time, ask yourself how much you really want to share that Grace with others. You see, that is what it means to give to the church… You are sharing a portion of the Grace God has freely given you with others.
The story of Bill and Melinda Gates on that Zanzibar beach is a story about how much of God’s Grace they decided to share, and while their decision has far reaching potential because of their net worth, your decision does too. Nowhere is it suggested that we must give like the Gates family. To suggest something so ludicrous would be just another attempt to focus only on money, and to focus on that is an incredible disservice. That was not Paul’s focus, that was not Jesus’ focus and I do not believe that has ever been God’s focus. Giving to the Church is about discipleship and grace. Giving to the church is about reaching beyond our physical boundaries to establish and care for relationships with others who find themselves less fortunate. Giving to the church is taking part in the lives of others and extending them a portion of the grace you have received.
Paul’s inclusion of a sower in this passage has me wondering one thing really. It is a question that I ask of myself and now it is one I ask you to do the same with. It is a question that must be honored by taking as much time as needed before answering. It is also a question which we must each answer on our own. The question is how are we sowing… richly or reluctantly? It is my prayer that we find it within ourselves to sow richly when we return our Commitment cards next week.