Sunday, October 31, 2010

This Gift of Love – Part III: “Not as an Exaction...”

This Gift of Love – Part III:

“Not as an Exaction...”

copyright © 2010 by Robert J. Elder

October 31, 2010

Psalm 112

II Corinthians 9:1-7

If we were organizing Paul’s appeal, we could have done things a lot differently than he did. The first change we might consider could be an appeal to people’s sense of obligation.1 We could report that everyone else is doing their share. We might encourage Paul to emphasize the institutional view of obligation. After all, your name is on the membership role, so you should do your part. This is like a more or less voluntary taxation or per capita apportionment. Someone said to me a while ago, “Sure my church pledge should go up, but all my other taxes are going up and I have no say over them.” My very thrifty Scottish grandfather, a certified public accountant, was sanguine about this sort of thing. He paid taxes in some depression years when acquaintances found ways to pay little or nothing, and when asked why he didn’t investigate avenues to avoid taxes, he usually responded saying something like, “I never mind paying taxes, it means I’m making money.” Taxation has been called the price of civilization.

This sort of appeal focuses on giving as paying dues, doing one’s bit, being a loyal member of a society or organization. Some people really respond to this. Others do not. Some people will respond when we make them sense an obligation. Others will become irritated and say we are trying to lay a guilt trip on them. Unfortunately, I can’t get very enthusiastic about stewardship efforts that press the issue obligation or duty, so I would have had a hard time trying to convince Paul to use such a method.

So if appeals to obligation fail, we might think to encourage Paul to consider appealing for gifts so that people might find self-satisfaction. Knowing we have done something for someone else can give us a warm inner glow. Never mind that though such gifts are certainly commendable, they are by this method a thinly disguised way of giving ourselves a gift. It is a proven way to raise money. Some people – when made aware that a gift to this cause or that is really a gift to themselves, because of all the self-satisfaction it will bring – will become extra generous, and so the gift might be larger than we even anticipated. Even so, a warm inner glow only goes so far. Some folks might need some satisfactions that are a little more public.

So, if we were running Paul’s first commitment program, we might appeal to people’s sense of prestige. That would be a stewardship program for those who care enough to send the very best. I once visited a church in the Northeast that had a large leather book lying open on the chancel steps. I looked at the page to which it was opened and read, “Members who have pledged $2,000 or more to our Church.” And the page wasn’t blank, either! It can be good to be proud of our giving, but it always can be a danger too: that the purpose of the gift turns into a way to advertise the greater glory of the giver. I haven’t the resources to be the most impressive giver anyway, so this sort of a fund-raising technique wouldn’t get me very excited either.

Apparently Paul had it right all along. He ignored what we might call fund-raising methods. Paul persevered on the high road with a theme that he raised at the beginning. Where the world might make its appeals for funds on the basis of need, obligation, self-satisfaction, prestige, sympathy – in short, on something people have done – Paul focused his energy almost entirely on what God has done.

Paul used an important word in the first verse of today’s reading. Our translators have given us the phrase “offering for the saints”. Paul’s word was diakonía, the root of our word “deacon.” We may hear “offering,” and think of a Sunday collection. But the Corinthians heard diakonía and thought of service or ministry. Paul was literally saying, “I write to you about the service – or ministry – for the saints.” Paul set the service to the poor within the context of service to God. It’s a reality the church must always keep foremost in our prayers and actions, otherwise a congregation could degenerate into little more than another in a long line of fund-raising organizations.

I remember once talking with a young girl in my congregation who was busily engaged in selling some trinkets to raise money for some school organization. I asked her, “What is the purpose of your organization?” She looked blankly at me for a moment. “Purpose?” Then, looking at the bag of goods she had grasped in her hand, she brightened up and said, “We make money – and then we spend it!”

The church could be in danger of becoming just such an organization should the perennial temptations to find better fund-raising techniques ever overtake our calling to be faithful hearers and doers of God’s Word. Fund-raising has its place within our community. Money is needed to do good works all over our world, and it must be raised or good things will not be done. But our purpose is not to raise money and spend it. Our purpose is more foundational.

At the core of things, we are gathered together as a community of God’s people to preach Christ and minister in his name. Paul called the offering he was taking a “ministry,” for that is the only way in which he ever would have involved himself with it.

Our committee looked at the ministries which our church anticipates for the coming year. What will we be doing? Why? What do we need to make these ministries in Jesus’ name a reality? All our budget permutations flow from that single perspective, so forcefully described in the words of the apostle.

Paul said that he hoped the gift the Corinthians had promised would come “not as an exaction but as a willing gift.” On a casual reading we might think that the word “exaction” sounds enough like the dentist’s term “extraction” to go ahead and use it to make the point even clearer. But Paul wanted no part of an offering that was to be coerced out of people, an offering that required a good shot of Novocain so that the folks wouldn’t holler quite as much as it was yanked out of their clenched hands. His interest was in nothing less than a willing, exuberant, thankful gift, one given in response to the gifts of God and to the need of others.

Think of the way Paul went about motivating the Corinthians to respond to God’s gift of grace with their own ministering gifts2:

1. His appeal was tactful. While saying “there is really no need for me to write,” he wrote anyway, just as we preachers often say, “You’ll remember the story about…” and then tell it again anyway since it is good to be reminded even of the things that are familiar. Response to God’s grace is a constant need of God’s people, and we need reminding.

2. His appeal was positive. “I know that you are willing to help…I boast about you to the people of Macedonia.” Paul was confident in the strength that God could give to the Corinthians, just as I am confident of the strength that God is ready to give us. Our church is engaged in countless acts of wonderful ministry, and I was boasting to some of my colleagues in ministry about this church at a conference just this past week. It is a foundation upon which we can build, and God is ready to give the energy supplied in our response.

3. His appeal was honest. What Paul said about the Macedonians and the Corinthians was true. Each – knowing of the strengths of the other – could be stimulated to renewed strength of purpose. The Macedonians were prepared to give in spite of their poverty. The Corinthians expressed their willingness to take part in the offering before anyone else. These were strengths worth building on. This approach was so typical of Paul.3 He would not lift up weakness in order to criticize one church to another; he lifted up strengths in order to praise one church to another. It’s not a bad idea to try as we look around our own church for the many strengths that can serve as an inspiration to others as well as to ourselves.

4. His appeal was direct. And of course, being direct is where pastors are sometimes said to go from preaching to meddling. In so many churches, stewardship programming follows this pattern4: [1] the committee is organized and meets regularly; [2] assignments are made and carried out; [3] budgets are developed; [4] the ministry of the church is interpreted; [5] sermons on stewardship are preached; [6] challenges are extended. This sounds like a complete stewardship program. But one crucial element is missing. In some fashion, members of the congregation must be confronted with an inescapable decision to make regarding our personal commitment. “To inform and nurture the people of God without confronting them with the cost of discipleship is to show ourselves as poor stewards.”5 This is no less the case in stewardship than it is in our decision to follow Jesus. At some point, someone has said to us, “Who is your Lord and Savior?” And we have responded, “Jesus Christ.” Now Paul follows that call for decision with this one. Each year, when we are asked to make pledges of support to the church, we have an opportunity to declare again that we will be faithful, giving members of Christ’s church. I hope all of us are preparing ourselves to respond.

5. His appeal called for heartfelt, not guilt-driven gifts. God accepts our gifts not as an exaction – or an extraction! – on the basis of what we have to give, not on what we don’t have. That is how it must be with our pledge commitment. The only really driving force comes from within, inasmuch as the love of Christ claims and controls us.

This day, and in the days to come, we are a called people, called to respond to the gracious love of Christ with hearts, minds, hands, and, yes, even pocketbooks that are open to the leading of his Lordship. Let us prepare in these days to give mighty thanks and praise to God for his inexpressible gifts to us.


1 See The Letters to the Corinthians, William Barclay, Westminster Press, p. 259.

2 See This Service of Love, by M. Landfried, Pub: Synod of the Trinity, 3040 Market Street, Camp Hill, PA 17011, ©1978, pp. 66-69.

3 Barclay, Ibid., p. 259.

4 Mark Landfried, Ibid., p. 68.

5 Think Piece No. 2, “A Transcendent Task", by Clarence Cave, United Presbyterian Support Agency, © 1975, p. 67.