A Willing Gift

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Father God, we thank you that the Bible is your living word, we pray now that you would soften our proud hearts and make it come alive in us. Amen.

Last week, my 7 year old son dragged me with every ounce of his strength to the cake sale table at school. I'm not sure if you've ever been dragged to the cake sale table. If you have young children you probably have been – I certainly have been many a time! And I'm still not entirely sure what they were raising money for this time, but the compulsion to give was such that I ended up (as usual) buying the most expensive chocolate crispy cake you've ever heard of. And I'm sure we've all experienced the same intense pressure to give. As a friend's daughter sticks her sponsorship form expectantly under your nose. Or carol singers shake their bucket at your aggressively. Or you watch a tear-inducing Children In Need video. We've all experienced that kind of pressure.

But reluctant or pressurised giving is just what the apostle Paul was trying to avoid by writing 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. And it's a great place to end our annual Giving Review that we've been holding for the last two weeks at church – as we need to make sure we avoid giving in response to human pressure, rather than in response to God.

So please grab a Bible and look up that passage. And let me remind you of the background. Paul was organising a collection from the churches he'd planted, for their fellow-Christians in Jerusalem who were in desperate need because of persecution and famine. The Corinthians were bang up for it and had promised to give. And that set the churches in Macedonia off too – as they practically begged Paul to make a contribution. So Paul's planning to pick up the Corinthian gift and take it, along with the others to Jerusalem.

Only there is a problem – the Corinthians may have made big promises, but they haven't really got round to it. So the question for Paul is: How can he encourage them to be generous, without pressurising them into it? Well firstly – he gives them two motivations.

Motivation 1: To Bring Glory to God

Take a look at 2 Corinthians 8.16:

"But thanks be to God, who put into the heart of Titus the same earnest care I have for you. For he not only accepted our appeal, but being himself very earnest he is going to you of his own accord. With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel. And not only that, but he has been appointed by the churches to travel with us as we carry out this act of grace that is being ministered by us, for the glory of the Lord himself and to show our good will."

So, did you see it? The bottom-line motivation for our giving is there at the end of verse 19, isn't it? It is first and foremost for 'the glory of the Lord himself.' Paul knew that if he arrived in Jerusalem with a seriously generous gift, it would glorify God – Because serious giving shows that people take God and his work seriously.

And I have to say that I've loved telling people the story of St Joseph's over the last year, because I think it bears testimony to that fact. I suspect there may still be one or two people here tonight who might not have heard that story – of how we were offered the chance to buy a church in the West End of the city for £1, and though our Senior Minster Jonathan Pryke was able to provide the funds for that initial capital outlay – we've been faced with a pretty hairy ride finding the other £2million that it has taken to make the building fit for purpose. But find it we did. And when people ask me "So where did the money come from, did you get funding from the Church of England, or lottery money, or did you take out a loan?" They are staggered when I say, 'No, our congregation paid for it, because that's what knowing God does to people – it makes them unbelievably generous.' You see, serious giving shows people are taking God seriously.

And if we want to see God glorified more on Tyneside and across the world, then it will mean more serious giving. If under God we're to grow as a church, it'll mean giving for more staff, more buildings, more initiatives to be taken – and more quality in everything we do so that it all says loud and clear: 'These people take God seriously.' Folks… it is God's glory which drives us on!

Motivation 2: To Show Our Care For Others

But the other motivation at the end of v19 is: "to show our good will." Paul knew that if he arrived in Jerusalem with a seriously generous gift, it would show the Christians there that other Christians identified with them as part of God's world-wide family and were committed to them. Which is why the giving literature suggests that we don't just give to meet our needs here, but that half of our giving goes to world mission – because if we're really committed to God's agenda and God's glory then we've got to make sure we aren't being merely self-interested in our giving. Real generosity gives to what may not directly benefit us at all.

And that might be just as easily seen in our giving here to JPC, as through giving to missionaries on the other side of the world. Because you may not have children, or be a student, or an international student, but your giving to JPC partly supports intentional work with each of those groups (amongst others) and it shows your commitment to the whole church family, not just the ministries that you personally benefit from.

So giving shows we care about others. And those others are not just our fellow-Christians. But it also shows goodwill to non-Christian people who need to hear about Jesus. We had an open afternoon last Saturday at St Joseph's for people who might not come to a church service, so that they could come in and get a first taste of being in the building. After a quiet start we had a steady flow of folks throughout the afternoon – not least of which were a couple of handfuls of teenagers, one of whom was a young lass called Sophie who jotted down in the comments section of her welcome card: "I have had a fun afternoon I really like this church thank you for doing the best you can for us." Because that newly refurbished building which we've given towards says loud and clear: 'We love people enough to pay a significant price to help them hear the gospel.'

So that's our motivation – verse 19: "for the glory of the Lord himself and to show our good will." And it's my suspicion that most of us here want to bring glory to God and care about others. But often there are stumbling blocks that get in the way of our best intentions. And I have to say that I find there are more stumbling blocks to giving than there are speed bumps in Jesmond! Loads of things can get in our way when it comes to giving generously. And so as well as giving us two motivations, Paul addresses two of those stumbling blocks here. So, here's:

Stumbling Block 1: Suspicion

Let's face it, there have been so many scandals down through the years involving how charities and churches have used, or more to the point misused money, that it's almost inevitable that we will be a little suspicious of anyone who encourages us to give generously – So we ask: "Will the money be properly looked after and well used?"

And it seems as if Paul himself had his own critics at Corinth who questioned his financial integrity, which is why Paul reassures them that he won't be going to Jerusalem on his own. As verses 16-24 give a little fact file about some of the team who Paul was sending down to help with the collection in Corinth. There are three blokes:

  1. In verse 18: "the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel"
  2. In verse 22: "our brother whom we have often tested and found earnest in many matters."
  3. And then in verse 23: "Titus... my partner and fellow worker for your benefit."

So, why did all three men need to make the long journey from Macedonia to Corinth? Hadn't they heard of bank transfers... or at the very least Securicor? Well of course they hadn't! But Paul understands just how sensitive the whole money giving thing is. If he is going to encourage the Corinthians to be generous in giving to the work, what should they be able to expect from him? Accountability and integrity. You see, Paul is wanting to be seen to be whiter than white – as he says in verse 20:

"We take this course so that no one should blame us about this generous gift that is being administered by us, for we aim at what is honourable not only in the Lord's sight but also in the sight of man."

The world famous evangelist Billy Graham tells a delightful story against himself about when the collection plate was being handed round at the end of a service, and as it came to him he fished around in his pocket and got a note out and as he put it in the plate he realised that he had put in a $20 note, when he'd only meant to put in a $10 note. And so he tried to reach the plate before it moved on so that he could correct his mistake, and his wife beside him said: "Billy, what are you doing?" So he said "I put a $20 note in, when I meant to only put a $10 note in." And his wife said: "Oh don't worry Billy, God knows you only intended to put a $10 note in."

Well Paul knew that the Christian handling of money is seen by God, but it must be transparently honest and above board in the eyes of men also. He needed to be seen to be clean. 

And you should expect the same of us here too. We should not only want to do what is right, but we want to be seen to be doing what is right. If we encourage you to give generously – you should expect us to show good practice in handling your gifts. And like Paul we've got more than one person responsible for this. In our case there is more than one person responsible at every stage from counting the money, to deciding how it gets spent, through to actually signing the cheques. We've got publically audited accounts that Jill Steer and our finance team will be working their socks off over the next month to make available before our Annual General Meeting at the end of March. Expenses claims need to be properly receipted and checked. We have Trustees and the PCC Finance and Fabric Committee checking on expenditure to keep a tight rein on it. And it's not just staff who do all that in a cosy huddle – there are several members of the congregation involved too.

We must be scrupulously honest and above board when dealing with money. And if you are one of the people here responsible for collecting or spending money, can I encourage you to be diligent in using the systems we have in place here to make sure you give proper care to gifts generously and sacrificially given – even if it's just collecting the money for meals or buying resources for the children's work. Resist any temptation to take short cuts. And resist the temptation to see church property and equipment as less valuable or important than your own. Folks have prayerfully given good money to pay for them, so let's look after them and steward them wisely and well so that no one can fall over the stumbling block of suspicion. We must make every effort to be seen to be clean!

Stumbling Block 2: Disorganisation

The Corinthians were enthusiasts, remember? They were the first to start collecting for the poor saints in Jerusalem. And their zeal had got others going. But they were disorganised. I'm sure we all know folks like that, folks who are good at starting things, but not so good at following through with them. Maybe that's you?! Well it was definitely the Corinthians. Which is why he says in chapter 9, verses 1-5:

"Now it is superfluous for me to write to you about the ministry for the saints, for I know your readiness, of which I boast about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia has been ready since last year. And your zeal has stirred up most of them. But I am sending the brothers so that our boasting about you may not prove empty in this matter, so that you may be ready, as I said you would be. Otherwise, if some Macedonians come with me and find that you are not ready, we would be humiliated—to say nothing of you—for being so confident. So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction."

Paul's point is that their collection can't look generous when he and the Macedonians arrive to pick it up and... there's nothing there! Can you imagine what it would look like if they turn up and the Corinthians are having to hastily scrape something together – frantically trying to find the cheque book or turning out their pockets and checking down the back of the sofa for loose change. It would be not only embarrassing, but it would make the whole giving thing highly pressurised. You see, Paul doesn't doubt their generosity, he doubts their organisation. So he says to them: 'Get organised! Be efficient! Finish the job!'

Now that may seem pretty uninspiring to you. It doesn't seem that spiritual, does it? Get organised. But possibly that is a much needed corrective for us as we review our giving – because this is an area where we can have the best of intentions, but on their own good intentions aren't enough. We need to use our heads, as well as our hearts in giving.

Of course God is interested in our hearts, in our motives, in our love for him and for his glory – and whatever response you make to this Giving Review, he wants it to be a response to him and not to the leadership here. But it takes time and effort to work out what the facts are about your finances – it takes time to gather together all the info about your outgoings and incomings so as to make an informed decision about what you're going to give. And if you're married it takes time and effort to carve out an opportunity to chat and pray this through with your spouse. And if you don't take that time and put in that effort then you will always just give what you know you can afford, rather than push yourself to be truly generous.

That is why I'd encourage as many of us as possible to do the Christians Against Poverty money course, as it helps you learn to get organised with not just your giving, but all of your finances. It teaches you to budget, and then value what you spend your money on, rather than have it simply slip unacknowledged through your fingers as it so often does, doesn't it? I thought I was pretty good with money, but then found that doing the CAP money course revolutionised our family finances way more than I thought it would. So check out our church website for details of the next course.

Folks, spontaneity seems full of love for Christ, but in this case it may actually be much less spiritual than thought and prayer and planning. 'Finish the job', says Paul. As Christians we must make sure that we get round to it! So get organised with your giving. Plan it out and then action the plan.

Well, I must finish too! I came across this story while preparing this sermon and I found it really striking, so let me share it with you:

"A certain Christian once said to a friend 'Our church costs too much. They are always asking for money.' The friend replied in this fashion: 'Some time ago a little boy was born in our home. He cost us a lot of money from the very beginning. He had a big appetite. He needed clothes, medicine, toys – even a puppy. Then he went to school and that cost a lot more. Later he went on to university. At which point he began dating and that cost a small fortune! But in his last year at college he died and since the funeral he hasn't cost a penny. Now which situation do you think we'd rather have?' And after a pause she continued: 'As long as this church lives it will cost. When it dies it won't cost us anything. A living church has the most vital message for all the world today, therefore I'm going to give and to pray with everything I have to help to keep our church a living church.'"

Folks, a living church exists for God's glory and others good. So let's treasure the opportunity to give to God's work. And let's not let anything get in our way.

Father God, we thank you that you are such a generous God. You have given us everything we need for life and goodliness. You even gave your own son Jesus who though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that we through his poverty might become rich. We thank you for your abundant grace and pray that you would transform our minds, our hearts, our lives – so that we would be as generous as you. We pray that for your glory and others good. Amen.

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