With Glad and Generous Hearts (Sermon for August 18, 2019)

A few years ago, when I worked for Back Bay Mission, we got a new executive director. She wasn’t a member of the United Church of Christ, and I needed to introduce her to the denomination and to a whole bunch of people.

So I took her to Cleveland. I took her to the annual meeting of the United Church of Christ’s Council for Health and Human Services Ministries. And I took her to the national offices of the United Church of Christ.

I introduced her to the people who work for the Council and to people who work at nonprofit organizations all over the country. And whenever there was a break in the meeting, we went down the street and I introduced her to the people at the national offices and we talked about the ways that the national offices’ work dovetailed with the Mission’s work.

Back and forth, again and again, over a long weekend in Cleveland in the winter.

And on one of our walks between the national offices and the annual meeting, this new executive director—who was having a heck of a weekend—turned to me and said, “I know that this is easy for you, because you’re an extrovert. But you need to know that this is a lot for me, because I’m an introvert.”

And I replied, “Oh. No. I’m an introvert, too.”

And I am. I like people. But I recharge by being alone, throwing on some music, and reading or writing. I live in my head. If you want a deep conversation, I’m your guy. If you want to argue about the fundamental questions of life, I’m your man. If you want to sit quietly, I am there for you.

And a lot of pastors are that way. But, as a fundraiser and a pastor, I’ve had to learn to be a professional extrovert. I know how to work a room. I can preach a sermon and teach a congregation and entertain a crowd. I can fake being an extrovert—apparently well enough that someone else might think that I am one—and then go be alone for a while.

And I learned how to do that little by little. One terrifying step at a time.

Today is the first Sunday in a short summer sermon series on generosity. Our passage this morning is from Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. And it’s a little weird. But here’s what’s going on:

The church in Corinth has promised some money to the church in Jerusalem. It’s kind of like the money that we send to our various denominational offices. The wider church has work to do beyond Corinth, and the church in Corinth has chosen to support that work by making a pledge. And, apparently, they have made a very generous pledge.

Paul is planning on going to Corinth to pick up the check… personally. But it looks like he’s a little worried. It looks like he thinks that maybe the church in Corinth was a little overconfident.

And it would be embarrassing if one of the believers in Corinth had to say to Paul, “Hey, Paul… um, how’s it going? I know we promised you a big check, and we’d love to give that to you. But, um, you know how it goes. It’s just, uh, that we’re not really, y’know, liquid right now.”

And it would be really embarrassing if one of the believers in Corinth had to go to other Christians in Corinth and say, “Guys, Paul is here. We said we’d give this money. We have to make this work. Check your pockets again. Look between the couch cushions. Find the money!”

That would look like extortion.

Paul doesn’t want anyone to feel like their gift is anything less than voluntary, but he still wants to get the gift. So he’s letting the church in Corinth know that he’s sending some people ahead of him to help the church make arrangements for the gift that they’ve promised. 

And he writes this little passage that gets used a lot when churches talk about generosity. He writes this little passage that gets used a lot especially when churches talk about giving to the church:

“The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

In other words: You get more than you give… so give.

But… don’t give because someone makes you give… or because you’re supposed to give… or even because you’ll get more than you give. Give because it makes you happy. Give because it fills you with joy.

Give, as I say every week right before the plates are passed around, with a glad and generous heart.

And let’s face it: that sounds a little self-contradictory. It can be hard to hold these two ideas in our heads at the same time. It can be hard to know that I will get to more than I give and to give voluntarily, without focusing on the idea that I’m supposed to give.

But…

There’s this theory about learning. Imagine three concentric circles. The innermost circle is the comfort zone. It’s nice there. Things are easy. Things are familiar. We might not be totally joyful in the comfort zone, but we’re happy there.

The outermost circle is the panic zone. Being in the panic zone is like riding a bike. Only the bike is on fire and you’re on fire and everything is on fire because you’re in the panic zone. It is not nice there. Nothing is easy. Nothing is familiar. There is no joy. There is no happiness. There is no comfort. There is only panic.

And it is easy to believe that our only choices are comfort or panic. It is easy to believe that our only choices are the-way-things-are or fire. I’ve been there, in my introversion. I have missed out because I’ve preferred the safety of my introvert time to the risk of extrovert time.

And it isn’t just introversion and extroversion. I have missed out because I’ve preferred the safety of holding on to what I have to the risk of giving what I have away. And I know that there are a lot of people who do the same thing. Better the comfort zone than the panic zone.

But between the comfort zone and the panic zone is the learning zone. In this space, we are not just going through the motions and doing the same-old-same-old. In this space, we are also not just freaking out and trying to hold everything together with duct tape.

In this space, we can stretch out just enough—in comfort and in discomfort—to learn.

And that space—of comfort and discomfort, of familiarity and strangeness—is where we need to be in order to learn how to do algebra, or how to speak French, or how to hit a tennis ball, or how to play the bassoon. That space is where we need to be in order to learn to follow Christ.

We should not be paralyzed with fear about following Christ. But we should not feel entirely comfortable following Christ. The call to follow Christ is the call to stretch beyond who we have been and who we are. The call to follow Christ is the call to stretch towards who God has called us to be. 

To follow Christ is to be a disciple; and ‘disciple’ is just another word for student. We aren’t just following. We are learning.

And the thing about the learning zone is that it’s a place of joy. That feeling we get when we can do something that we couldn’t do before? When we can solve a binomial equation, or use the pluperfect tense, or ace a serve, or do anything at all on a bassoon? That’s wonder. That’s elation. That’s joy.

And that feeling we get when we stretch beyond who we have been and who we are? When we stretch towards being the people who God has called us to be? Who God has always intended us to be? When we step a little further into the Kingdom of God? That’s sanctification. That’s holy exuberance. That’s joy.

Learning involves giving up a little bit of old selves. Stretching involves giving up a little bit of our old selves. Stepping into the Reign of Christ involves giving up a little bit of where we’ve been.

And at our best, we don’t do this work because we’re supposed to, or because we’ll get something tangible for it. We do this work because it is joyful work.

God loved the world this way. She made a world and gave it as a gift to itself. And when we broke it, she looked at the world that she had made and had compassion. So she put aside glory and she put aside honor and she became one of us. And God came into the world as a baby among a dispossessed people in a backwater province of a great empire.

And he taught us how to share as we ought. And he showed us how to love as we ought. And he demonstrated how to be human as we ought.

And when we hang him on a cross and laid him in a tomb—when we killed him—he got up again… and said, “I’m not done with you yet”… and showed us how to forgive as we ought.

No one has been more generous with this world—no one has been more generous with us—than God. And we are his disciples. We have been called to learn from the God who gave us the world, who stepped in when we were broken, who gave us grace, and who does so time and time again. 

So what can we do but strive to imitate that divine generosity?

When I was a fundraiser, I had to learn how to pretend to be an extrovert. It was part of the job. And, I think, that by pretending to be an extrovert—by stepping out of my comfort zone and into my learning zone—I became a little more extroverted.

And, as a Christian, I have had to learn how to pretend to be generous. It is part of the job. But, I think, by pretending to be generous—by stepping out of my comfort zone and into my learning zone—I have become a little more generous.

And I have found joy in that.

We are called to be generous. Yes, with our gifts to our congregation. Yes, with our gifts to our denomination. But also with our time and our friendship and our hospitality and our compassion and our love.

Not because we’re supposed to. And not because we will get back more than we give. But because while this work—this work of becoming the people who God has called us to be; this work of becoming the world that God always intended—might be hard or uncomfortable or whatever, it is also joyful and joy-filled work.

And what a gift that is.

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