SAINTS ALIVE! LIVING GENEROUSLY
A sermon preached by
Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, California
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Text: 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
So the question is, how many of you are alive this morning? Silly question huh? What made me think of it was the theme that Laura chose for our stewardship campaign this year – “Saints Alive! Living Generously.” A lot of times when we think about saints, we think about great and good people who lived long ago and are no longer with us. When you think of saints, who do you think of? Saint Francis of Assisi, who loved nature, blessed animals and talked with birds? St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas, who were important shapers of Christian theology? St. Teresa of Avila, who said “Christ has no body but yours,/No hands, no feet on earth but yours,/Yours are the eyes with which he looks/Compassion on this world,/Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,/Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.” Maybe you think of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mother Teresa or Thomas Merton? Maybe you think about your grandmother or your great uncle or someone you knew in the church of your youth. Maybe it’s a favorite teacher or coach or someone who was just plain nice to you.
The dictionary says that a saint is “a person of great holiness, virtue, or benevolence.” I suppose that is so. It is true that one class of saints consists of those who have been officially venerated by the certain parts of the Christian Church, saints like St. Francis and St. Teresa. So what does Paul mean in his letter to the Corinthians when he writes about supplying the “saints.” Paul’s mention of saints seems to include everybody in the church. If that’s true, then that means us – you and me. We’re all saints in the community of God. Try it out. How are you St. Kathy? How was your week, St. Lynn? Thanks for fixing this morning’s refreshments, St. Joanne. What would we do if St. Chip wasn’t our head usher? We’re missing St. Bob who is in the hospital this morning because he broke his hip after choir practice Thursday night. St. Patrice hasn’t been here for a while because she’s in treatment for cancer. St. Daniel and St. Hugh read the scripture this morning. St. Clara and St. Oscar led the call to worship and St. Jan played the organ, piano and led the choir. I guess my question was silly since it’s pretty clear that the saints of First Baptist Palo Alto are alive and doing God’s work.
That’s what Paul was concerned about when he wrote to the church in Corinth. He wanted to make sure the saints there were alive and doing God’s work. Now who knows the particular work Paul was concerned about? That’s right, he was worried about the saints of the church in Jerusalem because they were having a really rough time. They needed help from the saints in the other churches that were in better shape than they were. Paul had already collected a special offering from the saints in the churches in Macedonia. But he was having trouble with the saints at the church in Corinth and that wasn’t good because they were a pretty rich bunch. If they gave generously, they could really help the saints in the church at Jerusalem. There were a couple of problems. Some of the saints in the church at Corinth were mad at Paul, so they weren’t happy about giving to any special offering Paul was collecting. And they thought they were pretty special people. They wanted to know what they were going to get, what would be their return or their reward if they supported this special offering.
It’s sort of like our special offering we’re taking for our friends at Ecumenical Hunger Program. It’s like us saying, “Well, if I give to this offering, what will I get in return? What’s the pay off for me? If I’m not going to get a return on my investment, will I at least get to feel superior? Or maybe I’ll get special blessing or gift from God for being so generous. Aren’t I something?” But I don’t think that’s what Paul means when he writes about generosity. Saints alive know how to live generously and here is what it is like.
First, he shares an old saying. “…the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” Now what does he mean? Do we have any farmers here? I guess not since St. Ernie Parodi left us. But some of you tend your gardens, right? So what is Paul talking about? If you plant one seed in your garden, how big will your crop will be? You have to plant the whole area, scatter the seed, put in extra because all the seeds you plant won’t grow, right? God works like that. Thomas Troeger writes “A spendthrift lover is the Lord who never counts the cost/Or asks if heaven can afford to woo a world that’s lost./Our lover tosses coins of gold across the midnight skies/And stokes the sun against the cold to warm us when we rise.” One who sows bountifully, who gives generously, who shares lavishly will reap a bountiful, generous, lavish harvest as opposed to one who sows sparingly, gives reluctantly and shares little.
But that doesn’t mean Paul is encouraging anyone to give in order to get that return. This not a text for the “prosperity gospel” or earning your salvation through good deeds. The return is a natural side affect but it is never the purpose for giving, never motivation for generosity. “Each of you needs to think long and hard about your giving,” Paul cautions. It’s really no good to give begrudgingly or from sense of compulsion. You know who God is drawn to? That’s right, a cheerful giver, one who gives with no strings attached, one who gives with all her heart, one who gives for the sheer joy of giving because the truth is that that’s the kind of giver God is. That’s why God is able to provide us with “with every blessing in abundance.” There’s an old song we used to sing on Sunday nights that went like this:
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God hath done!
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.”
How about it? Could we count some blessings this morning? What would be on your list?
But Paul continues, there is more to being blessed. He says God provides us “with every blessing in abundance so that by always having enough of everything, [we] may share abundantly in every good work.” You see, in the end it all belongs to God. It all comes from God. Nothing we have is ultimately the result of our strength or virtue. It is God, working with us and through us, who provides all we have. Sharing that with which we have been blessed is fundamental to God’s economy. That’s the way it is in God’s realm. Our lives are enriched by our generosity not in that our bank accounts grow but our hearts do. Remember how the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes when he lets go of his anger and hurt and learns to love and share?
Or recall A Christmas Carol where Charles Dickens gives old Scrooge’s nephew these words in response to his uncle’s tight-lipped “Bah! Humbug!” to Christmas. “There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say…Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas when it comes ‘round, apart from the veneration due its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they were really fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe it has done me good, and will do me good, and I say ‘God bless it!’” Indeed as Paul says, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”
Living saints, like you and me, are called to live our lives immersed in this spirit of generosity that not only enlarges our hearts but helps us to see that we are all fellow travelers with all our neighbors, regardless of our status or income. One of those ancient saints we referred to in the beginning penned this morning’s lovely words of preparation. It was St. John of the Cross, who is most famous for his work on the “dark night of the soul,” who wrote, “The soul of one who loves God always swims in joy, always keeps holiday, and is always in a mood for singing.” God loves a cheerful giver and provides for those saints who ground their being in her every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, we may share abundantly in every good work, we may be saints alive, living generously. Amen.
6The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.7Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.8And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.9As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.”10He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us;12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.13Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others,14while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you.15Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!