I could see it rising from the Kansas prairie long through the windshield of my rental car long before I got there. It stood as a beacon against a vivid blue sky, surrounded by the shells of new buildings that would soon become posh shops and trendy restaurants. I had come to Kansas on a pilgrimage to talk with others about the future of the church and to learn about this particular congregation located in the suburbs of Kansas City which had risen from a dream in 1990 to the become largest United Methodist congregation in the United States. And as I drove up West 135th St., the building that I had thought was a hospital or a large mall got larger, and larger.
As I walked into the lobby of the main building, I was thoroughly amazed. To my left was the entrance to the children’s area, something that looked like the cross between a state of the art childcare center and Chucky Cheese. To my right was a large information center, staffed with energetic church members ready and willing to answer all questions, and beyond that, the entrance to the sanctuary which rivaled many professional convention centers and would hold several thousand worshippers. And, in what seemed most bewildering of all, straight in front of me was a bookstore that was the equal of any in the mall, and the Spring Café, a gourmet coffee shop that featured latte’s and their signature “Café Resurrection,” a white chocolate and mint mocha that was fantastic.
Later on I would make my way to the youth building, which had been one of the original sanctuaries of the church. Dominating the entrance to the building was a rock climbing wall with three climbing stations, and the youth’s own version of a coffee shop.
It seemed that everywhere I looked, in every direction, there were signs of abundance. This was a church that had grown beyond reason, and maintained an ethic of excellence in everything they did . . . and it showed. People were excited about being there. People were happy to be a part of this church. And it was easy, thinking back on the little old humble church that I served in Antioch to feel inadequate. I found myself saying, “Well of course they could do this . . . look at all the resources they had.” I would drive through the neighborhood, which looked to be similar to Brentwood and Franklin in our area and say, “Of course they could do this . . . look at the community they are located in.” Frankly, I was jealous. “Any church could grow with what this church has,” I thought. “It’s a lot harder for those of us in ‘the real world’ where resources are limited and it feels like we never have enough.”
But then I heard the rest of the story.
You see, Church of the Resurrection didn’t start out as a rich church in a rich community. This wasn’t a church that opened its doors with thousands of people, a million dollar budget, and a gleaming new facility. No, this was a church that began with a young preacher new to the ministry, four persons attending worship (one of whom was the preacher’s wife), and an invitation from a local funeral home to use its chapel for Sunday services. Church of the Resurrection literally started with nothing more than a willingness to serve God, and a commitment from the Kansas Annual Conference to not let this young pastor’s family starve.
No, this church didn’t have great abundance in 1990. What it had was an understanding of giving in the midst of their poverty. And throughout the history of this congregation, they have been a people known for their giving – from their ministries with the poor and needy of their area, to being the one of the largest contributors to the work of the United Methodist Church throughout the world. Yes, they now have an abundance to give, but that giving has always been rooted in an understanding that we give first in the midst of our poverty to the needs of the world.
That is what Paul was trying to tell the church in Corinth so long ago. This passage that we are considering today was perhaps the very first stewardship campaign letter ever written to any church. It was Paul’s attempt to raise funds for the work of the home church in Jerusalem, a church that was under great persecution and struggled mightily to make ends meet. Resources were limited in Jerusalem given the hostile climate toward the church there, and that church was dependent on the gifts of others for survival – just like COR was dependent on the gifts of other United Methodist Church’s in their early days to help pay the pastor. So part of Paul’s task, as he traveled through Macedonia and Greece, was to take and offering among all the churches that he was in contact with to support the impoverished church in Jerusalem.
There are many ways that Paul could have approached the church in Corinth about this need. He could have tried the guilt approach: “Don’t you feel guilty for living so large there in Corinth while the folks in Jerusalem suffer?” After all, this was a church that Paul had struggled with in their exuberance and over the top experiences of worship. His earlier letters had been very critical of this congregation, and a little guilt probably would be in order. And, as churches have shown through the ages, a little guilt can be very effective, but giving becomes a form of penance, a way that we can assuage our guilt through our pocketbooks, but doesn’t do much to deal with the pain in our hearts.
Then there is the gratitude approach, one that is closely linked to guilt. It goes something like this: God has created a wonderful world and loves us so much that we should respond with gratitude and give generously. Very often preachers using this approach throw in the example of Jesus’ crucifixion, both pulling on our guilt strings as well as calling us to give because God gave so much to us. Giving thereby becomes a loan payment on this great outpouring of God’s love as we attempt to “pay back” something that is impossible to restore.
Paul comes very close to the competition approach of stewardship. This draws on our desire to “keep up” with our neighbors, and so some other community is mentioned. “Look at what they are doing,” the preacher will say. “We can do even better if you’ll just dig a little deeper and give a little more.” Our gifts then become part of a battle to try and keep up, a warped form of consumerism that has little connection to God’s call in our lives.
Yet, Paul didn’t really use any of those approaches to stewardship (although he came very close in his description of what happened in Macedonia). He didn’t even take what I call the “fire and brimstone approach”; the “You better give or else you are going to burn in the fires of hell” method of raising the church budget.
Instead, Paul simply reminded the church at Corinth of who they were and who they were trying to follow. “Give,” Paul said, “because you follow Jesus.” “Give,” he said, “because it is what people of faith do.” “Give,” he said, “not because you have a lot, but because you don’t.”
Giving, he told them, isn’t about what we have. It’s about what we don’t have. We say today that it “takes money to make money,” but Paul doesn’t believe in that argument. “Look at Jesus,” he told them. “He could have built on his charisma to gain great wealth for himself. He could have gone on the ancient Palestinian version of TV and told folks to send him twenty dollars for the work of the Lord so that he could drive a Beemer and live in his own mini-mansion. Jesus could have been rolling in the dough,” Paul says.
But that isn’t what Jesus did. As Paul reminds us, Jesus chose to give all of himself from a place of poverty. This was a man who had no home, no resources, and was dependent on the generosity of a few women to carry out his ministry. And Jesus chose this way of being to demonstrate the economics of God’s kingdom, an economy that draws on what we don’t have to create great abundance.
Take the example of the feeding of the 5000. There stand five thousand men before Jesus, all clamoring that they were hungry, and expecting Jesus to do something about it. And Jesus doesn’t go on a big campaign to manipulate folks into giving for this great need, or develop a plan for funding this important ministry. No, Jesus simply says “What DO we have?” and then offers those five loaves and two fishes to God for God to do what God will, giving away that scarce amount so that it can be turned into great abundance, so much in fact that there are enough leftovers for each of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Or take Jesus’ conversation with that young rich man that came to Jesus seeking eternal life. “Follow the commandments,” Jesus told the young man. “Is that all,” the young man said, “I’ve been doing that all my life.” At that point Jesus could have welcomed the man with open arms. After all, here was a benefactor, someone who could support his ministry and keep them all in the gravy train. But God’s economy was different, this economy that says that we give what we have so that God will create great abundance. “Impoverish yourself,” Jesus told the man, “give all you have away to the poor, and then walk in my footsteps.”
Of course the man thought Jesus was crazy. Give out of poverty? Isn’t that a bit extreme? Surely you don’t really mean it Jesus. And for almost two thousand years, the church has sought after ways to reinterpret and ignore this radical economy of God.
Yes, Paul could have chosen a different way to encourage the Corinthians to give. Instead he appealed upon the one that we claim to worship, Jesus Christ, who lived a life of poverty and gave from his scarcity to that God could transform that little pittance into great abundance.
And our call, as followers of Jesus, is to do likewise, to give what we don’t have so that God might create more. Our call is to simply be faithful followers walking in the way of Jesus, a call to bring what we have and give it for the needs of the world. This isn’t about the abundance of resources that we have, which is good for most of us are limited in the resources available to us. It is about taking the little that we have and giving it to God so that God may multiply it into great abundance so that the world will be redeemed.
It is easy to look at those churches around us that are bursting at the seams, carrying out large ministries with thousands of people and think that we don’t have much to give.
But it isn’t about what we have to give.
It’s about faithfully giving what we have.
And when we do, God will do what God will do for the redemption of the world.
So, as Paul told the church at Corinth, do what you will do…
…not because I tell you to do so…
…but simply because you want to walk in the way of Jesus.
Thanks be to God. Amen.