Paul tells us that “God loves a cheerful giver.” Are we going to hear those words as a burdensome requirement that adds to our anxieties about giving – or can we find in them freedom from our fears?
Vicar Jessica Christy
The Day of Thanksgiving, year A
Texts: Deuteronomy 8:7-18; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
We have so much guilt about giving. What we do or don’t decide to share with those in need has seemingly endless power to trouble our conscience. In our unjust, broken world, it’s hard to know the best way to use the resources that God has entrusted to us. We worry if we’re sharing enough, when we have been blessed with so much and the world’s need is so great. Or we might worry that we’re giving too much away, when we’re not sure how we’re going to make ends meet for ourselves. We fret about giving to the right people and causes, not wanting to be unwise about how we allocate our money, time, and talents. And we’re anxious if we’re giving for the right reasons, if we’re truly acting out of love or if we’re motivated by social pressure, or self-interest, or remorse. We all want to do the right thing with our resources, but that’s a tall order in our world, so many of us live with the guilty suspicion – or perhaps the guilty certainty – that we’re somehow falling short. That’s why stewardship conversations are always so awkward. It’s hard for us to even talk to each other about our giving habits, and that very discomfort reveals our fear that we’re not getting it right.
And then, just add to that stack of anxieties, Paul says that giving is supposed to be cheerful. He’s trying to collect money for the poor of Jerusalem, and he tells the church in Corinth that God loves a cheerful giver. It’s one of those verses that sometimes sticks in my throat, because it feels like it’s asking so much of us. Not only do we need to be generous, responsible, informed, and altruistic with our resources – on top of everything, we’re supposed to be happy about it all. And as every person knows, being told that we should cheer up does nothing to alleviate our stress; often, it just makes us feel more overwhelmed. The weight of our responsibility to the world is so heavy. And it’s hard to hear that we should be happy to carry that weight. God loves a cheerful giver? Why can’t God just love that we’re trying to figure it out?
But there is grace in these words, once we stop listening to our anxieties and start listening to the Spirit. This verse about cheerful giving can be misread as pure law, but what Paul is giving us is gospel. When he says that God loves a cheerful giver, he’s not talking about requirements, or what we need to do to deserve God’s love. He’s reminding us of our freedom in Christ. He says, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” We might instead translate that word “cheerful” as “joyful” or “free.” Paul tells the people of Corinth: listen, only you know what God is asking of your life. Only you know your full situation. Only you know your heart. And so, he says, be free. Be free to respond as the spirit moves you, and don’t let me, or anyone else, guilt you into pretending to be someone you are not. God isn’t looking for our guilt. God is looking to rejoice with us, and to bless us, and to free us from all that troubles our hearts.
So Paul gives us a vision of how far that freedom can take us. He says that we can use our liberty to find far greater riches and far greater joy than what the systems of our world can offer us. He promises that those who are moved to give will discover far more abundance than they had to begin with: “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, but the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” Once again, this is not an order or a threat, but an invitation to participate in God’s reign. The kingdom of God is already here, transforming our world now, but we can only see that when we choose to be a part of it. When we freely plant whatever gifts God has entrusted to us, we harvest clearer vision about how the Spirit is moving in the world. We harvest deeper relationships with God and with our neighbors. We harvest freedom from our anxieties. We harvest the joy of taking part of part of something eternal, and life-giving, and good. We harvest hope. This is the purpose for which God has made such abundance possible in our lives. We are given our blessings so we might give them away. God has made enough for everyone; no one needs to be hungry, homeless, or lonely. Paul writes, “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.” God’s abundance is for abundant sharing, abundant community, abundant life. God loves our cheerful giving because it means that we have discovered the joy of living in the promises of God’s reign.
That’s all good for Paul to say, but it’s hard for us to believe in the power of this abundance when we are so conditioned to believe in scarcity. We instinctively hold tight to the things that we deem “ours.” Our natural pose is defensiveness. But Moses tells us we can be free of all that fear because nothing that we have is truly ours. In the book of Deuteronomy, the people of Israel are on the eve of crossing over into the Promised Land after a generation of wandering in the wilderness. Moses describes the land that they’re about to enter with that beautiful list of the earth’s bounty: grains and fruits, abundant fresh water, and even the minerals that God placed in the Earth. With all these marvels at their fingertips, life is at last going to be good. They’re going to live in freedom, and eat their fill, and praise God for their many blessings. But then Moses gives them a warning: when they get comfortable, they’re going to be tempted to forget how they got here. So he tells them, Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God. When your have food, and homes, and riches, be careful that you do not forget God and exalt yourself. Do not say, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth,” but remember the Lord your God, for it is God who gives you the power to get wealth.
Those are tough words for us. We live in a culture that teaches us to proudly proclaim, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” Our nation loves to believe that whatever we have is ours, and ours alone, because are the ones who earned it. It is deeply instilled in us from childhood that a fundamental goal of life is to work hard to build up the pile of what is ours. All of us know what it means to work hard for what we have, and there is nothing wrong with being proud of what our labor has accomplished. But we lose sight of God when we think that we are in any way self-sufficient. We did not make our bodies, we did not choose the circumstances of our birth, and we certainly did not create the riches of this planet. It is hard for us to confess our lack of independence, but once we embrace how deeply we rely on God, we realize that we don’t need to cling so tightly to what we have won in this life. We can begin to let God transform our reluctant, fearful hearts into something freer and more loving. We can stop building higher walls to protect what is ours, and start building longer tables to share it with our neighbors. Paul writes that giving our resources away “not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.” Free and joyful giving is an act of thanks-giving, and it opens us to the fullness of God’s sustaining love.
After worship, many of us will go to our homes to share a meal with loved ones. At its best, the joy of the meal is not in the excess of food, but in the chance to gather together, serving one another and being served in our turn. It’s a celebration of our ability to care for each other using the gifts that God has given us. Our vision of God’s reign is like that festive meal, but with a table at which everyone is welcome, and a feast that never ends. It’s a feast where grace triumphs over guilt, love triumphs over need, and abundance triumphs over fear. There is such abundance in this world, and whenever we share it abundantly, we are sharing the loving reign of God.
Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift!