Text: 2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Sometimes in life it is really hard to keep the big picture in mind-especially when going through hard and difficult times. This truth applies to all of us regardless of our age. Take for instance Joe Jonas posters. Now, if you don’t know who Joe Jonas is, let me help you here. Joe Jonas is the number one heart throb for young girls in the age range of seven to eleven. So, when you’re seven or eleven or somewhere in between and a hot new poster of Joe Jonas comes out and you don’t have it, it really doesn’t matter if you already have fifty posters of Joe Jonas plastering your bedroom wall; what you focus on is that you don’t have the newest and latest one. And in that moment, when you realize that you’re not going to get the newest and latest poster of your childhood heart throb, no matter how many you already have, the big picture is lost on you. If you’re a bit older, the scenario might go something like this. You just received your report card. Anxiously, you go down the list: A in English, A in History, A in Science, B in Health, B in Spanish, and a D in chemistry. If you are anything like me, it’s really hard to see the three As and two Bs with that D staring you in the face. It’s really hard to see the big picture-that in five out of six areas you excelled. This inability to see the bigger picture at times is true as well for those of us who are older-maybe even more so. We find ourselves going through a hard time-the loss of a job, a downward turn in our finances, a health crisis, relationship struggles, identity crisis-and all we can see is what we don’t have, what’s not there, what we haven’t done, how we have failed, and who we’re not. It’s hard, just plain hard in such times, to see the larger, more complete picture; the one that captures the fuller image of what we do have, where we’ve been, what good we’ve accomplished, how we have survived, that we have survived, the parts of who we are that are good, competent, and worthy of blessing. It’s human nature that in the middle of hard, difficult, and challenging times, it’s not easy to see the big picture. But there is one, and sometimes our faith-or even having faith-is about trusting that we are not any one single part of our story; but that we are all the parts of our story bound together. And sometimes, what we most need in life is to be reminded that there is, indeed, a bigger picture.
Our text that Rob has read this morning reminds us of the importance of keeping the big picture in mind. Writing to his Corinthian friends, Paul walks gingerly as he tries to talk with them about their responsibility to share what they have with others. But before he gets into the matter at hand, offering his advice, he begins with some very important words. He says, “What I say to you, I do not say as a command, but as a test of the genuineness of your love.” With these brief but honest words, Paul reminds us of an important lesson when facing hard times and talking about tough issues: that grace-and how it is responded to-like love, is best not commanded but left to the discretion of the individuals involved. Every preacher would do well to begin their sermon with those words. And so, with those words, I begin.
What we can discern from the text is that the Corinthians are struggling through a hard and difficult time with their collection-the giving and the sharing of their resources. Without berating or belittling them, Paul encourages the Corinthians to look to the Macedonians as an example of how to face their struggle. He recalls how, out of their own free will, the Macedonians in their toughest time gave abundantly and generously out of what they had, thus giving witness to their genuine love for others. But Paul didn’t just say do like the Macedonians, he offered some practical suggestions. He first urges the Corinthians to regain their original enthusiasm for the mission they had begun. And second he encourages them to finish what they had started with desire and eagerness: “not out of what you don’t have” but “out of what you have.” And then he leaves the outcome for the Corinthians to decide what they can and must do. But before he totally leaves the outcome to them, he does one last thing. He reminds them of the “big story” or the “big picture” in its most cursory form, this time told in categories of wealth and poverty. “For you know the generous act of Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Heavy words, but as the Corinthians face the test of their love and generosity toward others, Paul reminds them of the bigger picture and of the very grace in which they stand. If we truly understand the very grace on which we stand, how can we do otherwise but to extend that same grace to others? It is a question worth pondering, for it brings into focus the big picture that we so often forget.
But what does all of this have to do with us here at Pullen? How is our story interacting with that of the Corinthians? And what of Paul’s advice would we do well to listen to? Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about our struggle with how to respond to the needs of those who come to our door weekly: hungry and thirsty, down and out, homeless and alone. You know the reality of the needs. Each week we are handing out nearly 200 bag lunches and bus tickets to our friends who are distressed. Increasingly, more and more of those same people are coming on Wednesday nights to eat dinner with us. On an average each week we receive half a dozen emergency requests from folks needing help paying their phone or electric bill or help with rent. And increasingly, we are being stretched to meet our own financial needs as an institution. At a time when the needs of the poor are at their highest, our financial resources are at their tightest. And we are struggling with the question of finding a balance between what others need from us and what we have to give.
Recently, out of the necessity to balance our need with our resources, we had to terminate our custodian-an individual who came to us fifteen years ago off the street but who through his employment with us was able to provide a stable life for himself for these past fifteen years. Now, without a job, his welfare once again teeters on the edge. At the same time, we have had to say to some of our backdoor friends that we can no longer feed them on Wednesday nights because of limited resources. Weekly, sometimes daily, we are having to tell people that we cannot help them in their time of need. These decisions have been painful and for some have called into question our commitment to the poor. For our church, a church that has for 125 years been grounded in a commitment to serving the poor and welcoming the stranger, what does this mean? At a time when the needs of others are increasingly dependent on the generosity of folks like us, how do we best discern what we can give out of what we do have instead of being stuck in not being able to give because of what we don’t have? Or another way to think about it is to hold before us the vision that Paul quoted to the Corinthians from Exodus: “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”
As I raise these questions and ask us as a church to struggle with our response to them, I want to come back to the big picture of Pullen Church. Throughout our history, we have been a church unequivocally committed to feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, visiting the prisoner, soothing the wounded, welcoming the stranger, and extending God’s grace and compassion as best we can to all who come to us seeking comfort and refuge. Have we always succeeded in our efforts? No. But with eagerness, this church has held in its heart a deep desire to minister, to love, and to show compassion to the distressed, the lonely, the marginalized, and the oppressed believing that when we reach out to “the least of these” we are, in the most tangible form, extending God’s love and compassion into the world. This desire and eagerness remain at the heart and soul of why we exist as a church. And Cathy Tamsberg, along with the Missions and Outreach Council and countless others, works tirelessly to bring to reality our desire and eagerness to care for the poor. 125 years ago this church began a work-to care for the poor among us. Today, we continue that work-every Tuesday and Thursday at our backdoor, through the establishment of the Hope Center, in responding to the calls for emergency assistance each week, through our relationships in Zimbabwe, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Georgia; and through every Pullen member who reaches out their hand to someone in need in their workplace, neighborhood, or on the side of some street.
Finding a balance between our abundance and the needs of those around us is at the heart of our spiritual work as a church. Doing this work will mean that as individuals and as a community we will need to continually assess our priorities and our resources-all of our resources. Our sharing does not have to be solely or even primarily relegated to our goods or possessions. Our time, our space, our willingness to listen-though we may also feel overdrawn there-is often the dearest giving of ourselves. We are not called to give what we don’t have-only what we do have. But we must be honest about what we do have to give. I’ve been thinking, maybe what we have to give on Wednesday nights that others need is not so much food but a safe place where one can feel respected, important, and loved.
Paul reminds us that we don’t have to worry about what we don’t have to give-only what we do have to give. As a community, we will have disagreements about what that is. That’s part of being community. But the beauty of being in a community is the privilege of engaging one another in issues of meaning and significance. If we stay committed to each other as we do this work, and if we stay true to our desire to genuinely and generously love others, we will discover that those who have much will not have too much and those who have little will not have too little. And if we stay committed to the work that we began 125 years ago, we can trust that what we do have-our abundance-will be more than sufficient to meet the needs of those who come to us seeking comfort and refuge.
Although it is hard at times to keep in mind, there is a big picture. And it is this: all that we do, all that we give, and all that we are is held in God’s grace. This is the good news of the gospel.