Sunday, July 4, 2021

Sermon: "What's Mine Is Ours Is Plenty", Exodus 16:1-3, 11-18/2 Corinthians 8:7-15 (July 4, 2021)


Most of us recognize the widespread inequality in the world, but we don’t all agree on what to do about it. Some of us are fiercely individualistic, believing that every person is responsible for their own success or failure in life, and that charity of any kind upsets this natural order. Others believe that, as a society, we have a moral obligation to provide for every person’s basic needs without exception, even to the point of government involvement. And there are countless others who fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. There’s certainly no shortage of opinions on the topic.

Much of this variety in perspective stems from the different ways that we each parse the concept of “charity”. We could all look up the word’s definition in the same dictionary and still draw entirely different conclusions about it, depending on the who, what, when, where, and why that we read between the lines. For example, some differentiate between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Others see charity as a matter concerning only the extremely wealthy and the exceptionally impoverished. Some only think about charity around holidays; others consider it a part of their day-to-day life. Some believe charity is a benevolent act of generosity, while others see it more as a personal obligation. With so much unspoken nuance, it’s little wonder that charity is such a divisive topic in our society.

There’s no one “right” answer. But as Christians, we have an obligation to factor scripture’s teachings into whatever conclusions we draw for ourselves. We need to figure out what scripture is trying to say, to compare our own conclusions to those drawn in the Bible. And no one in scripture shares more of their conclusions more boldly than Paul.

Paul’s entire ministry is defined by his uncompromising views about…well, everything. Shortly before writing his second letter to the Corinthians, he attended the Council of Jerusalem—the first major gathering of Christian Leaders—and proceeded to argue publicly with Peter. Because Jesus was Jewish and his movement grew out of Jewish tradition, the assumption up to that point had been that anyone wishing to follow Christ would need to adhere to all Jewish laws and customs. But Paul knew that, for the Gentiles to whom he’d been ministering, this was a major impediment to the gospel. So he demanded that conversion to Judaism (in particular, the associated rituals) no longer be a requirement to join the Church.

Eventually, the rest of the apostles acquiesced, but with a caveat: they did NOT want this development to lead to two separate classes or categories of Christ-followers. If the Gentiles were to join their community as non-Jews, it was imperative that they not consider themselves separate from or (heaven forbid) superior to their Jewish kindred. As a gesture of goodwill and unity, Paul agreed to collect an offering from each of his churches and send it back to help the Jews in Jerusalem—which brings us to today’s scripture reading.

The church in Corinth is initially enthusiastic about this offering—no doubt excited to be an official part of the new movement—but after some time, Paul observes that their enthusiasm seems to have waned. Conflict had arisen within their local community (as conflict tends to do whenever people attempt to live together) and their own concerns were distracting them from their charitable efforts. Paul writes to the Corinthians in response, concerned that they won’t follow through on their commitment to the larger Church.

This development is neither surprising nor, frankly, particularly irrational. It sounds like a perfectly reasonable way for the Corinthians to prioritize their energy. I remember a conversation I once had with someone sharing this same perspective, someone whom I greatly respect. They told me, “Ideally, everyone would share their resources, and everyone would get what they need. But life doesn’t always work that way, and if it comes down to me having enough or someone else having enough, I want to make sure *I’m* taken care of.” Much of life is about making difficult choices, and this is absolutely a valid way of prioritizing one’s resources when resources are hard to come by.

But while Paul doesn’t criticize the Corinthians for their dwindling enthusiasm or compel them to prioritize the offering for Jerusalem, neither does he absolve them of their attention to it. In contrast to his confrontational strategy in Jerusalem with Peter, this time he tries to convince the Corinthians by offering a new perspective. After laying the groundwork with flattery (“You’re so good at everything; I bet you can be the best at collecting this offering, too!”), guilt (“Jesus shared his riches with all of YOU!”), and a call to piety (“This is a great way for you to prove that you really do love God!”), Paul finally makes his point: the offering is in EVERYONE’S best interest. Although the Corinthians have different traditions, lifestyles, and perspectives than those in Jerusalem, he insists that they are, in fact, different members of the same body—and so the concerns of one community are appropriately the concerns of all.

When Paul first wrote in 1 Corinthians about the Church as one body, the community (like us) may have read it as an individualistic metaphor—I am a hand; my neighbor is an eye; each of us individually is vital within the body of our immediate context. According to this understanding, if a body outside of our context is suffering, we can choose either to help or to keep our distance for the sake of self-preservation, with minimal effect on OUR self-contained body either way. But in this passage, Paul makes it clear that he doesn’t consider different communities to be separate bodies. The body of Christ has many more members than just “me” and “you”. It’s made up of ALL of us together—all individuals and all families and all churches and all communities—and every single illness or injury to one member impacts the whole. Therefore, the wellbeing of those outside of our immediate context should naturally be of universal concern.

The Corinthians had been thinking about their charity towards Jerusalem as an afterthought, as something to consider only once their personal concerns were addressed. But Paul urges them to look beyond the impact on their immediate context and see how their voluntary generosity affects the larger system. Paul wants the communities he founded to stop thinking about their actions in terms of how it benefits “MY” community or “YOUR” community, and instead to work towards the good of “THE” community—a community that includes everyone beloved by God.

Once we understand “the body” as including more than just the immediate “us”, the goal of charity inevitably shifts. The goal becomes bigger than simply “the others” having more. Paul insists, “It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties…” It’s not a matter of shifting wealth away from ourselves and towards others. Giving to other members of our own body is a matter of equilibrium: “At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit so that in the future their surplus can fill your deficit.” The true goal of Christ’s body is that ALL have enough: you and me and them and us. Each person should give to the degree that they’re able so that the greater “we” can be whole. When we’re able to make this mental shift, there’s no longer “mine” or “yours”; there’s only “ours”.

Now, if you disagree with Paul’s way of thinking, I’m sure certain buzzwords, like “Socialism” and “Marxism”, are already bouncing around in your head. But here’s the thing: this isn’t something that Paul just made up himself. He diplomatically insists that this is merely his opinion and not an order, but then reminds us that this “mere opinion” is grounded directly in scripture: “As it is written, ‘The one who gathered more didn’t have too much, and the one who gathered less didn’t have too little.’”

He is, of course, referring to God’s provision for the Israelites in the wilderness. God didn’t bestow manna and quail in a “survival of the fittest” free-for-all. No; God provided each person with EXACTLY what they needed: not just the bare minimum to survive, but enough to fill their bellies and leave them satisfied. Humans being humans, some still collected more than their share, and others wound up with less. But when the dust cleared and all was said and done, God made sure that everyone had the exact amount that had been allotted to them—and it was plenty.

Paul clearly thinks that this speaks unambiguously to God’s intentions for humanity. We know, from the stories of creation, the exodus, the feeding of the 5000, and countless more, that our God is a god of abundance. Not just “someday” abundance, but “RIGHT NOW” abundance. We don’t have to wait for there to be enough for everyone…there already is. God has planned it so that none of God’s creation should ever have to go without—as long as we can let go of our compulsion to stockpile our personal resources out of fear.

It’s incongruous to believe in a loving and generous God that would only provide enough for some of us to thrive. The fear of our charity leaving us without enough isn’t founded in scripture. In fact, doubting the sufficiency of God’s provision is, by definition, a distinctly unfaithful position to take. It’s not necessary for us to philanthropize ourselves into poverty, but neither do we need to fear that our generosity will lead to our downfall.

And so, we arrive at Paul’s bottom line for the Corinthians: what’s mine is ours is plenty. God has created and provided for all of humanity as one body, and it’s in our best interest to care for every part of this body so that we might achieve the balance and harmony that characterizes life in Christ (I mean, that’s the whole scriptural idea behind tithing). But while Paul is firm in his belief that this is God’s vision for the world, he’s also clear that no one is compelled to act or even think this way. Faith isn’t about doing or believing the “right” things; it’s about fully aligning our hearts and spirits with God’s. And you get to decide how—and if—to do that.

On this weekend that we in the United States celebrate our freedom, those of us who claim citizenship in God’s kindom need to ask what we do with our freedom. Do we prioritize our individual autonomy, separating ourselves out from others so that our personal concerns take center stage? Or do we celebrate our ability to take part in this divine vision, experiencing multiplied joys and divided burdens through the interconnectedness of Christ’s global body? The latter comes with certain obligations, of course, but it also comes with God’s promise of abundant provisions through our mutual care. The former can’t promise the same. It seems to me that considering Paul’s perspective is worth a shot. If we truly believe in a God of provision, we have very little to lose, and a whole new branch of family to gain. Let’s give it a try. Amen.

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