Generosity of Spirit

+In the Name of God: Who was, and is, and is to come.  Amen.

“Now as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you – so we want you to excel in this generous undertaking.”  2 Corinthians 8:7

Since this is my last Sunday at All Saints’, I was hoping that the weekly cycle of readings might have offered better lessons than the ones appointed for today. Would it have been too much to ask for one of the stories to be about the Jews’ wandering in the wilderness? So I could preach a sermon about how God fed and sustained us during this past year with spiritual manna? Or couldn’t we read that passage about Moses glimpsing the Promised Land from the top of Mt. Nebo? That way my message this morning could have been something like, “You all are headed to the Promised Land, but I won’t be going with you. A new priest will lead you into the land flowing with milk and honey.”

But no. Instead of lessons like that, I’ve got three subpar lessons to choose from instead: David’s lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan; the healing stories about the two women from the Gospel, and, last but not least, a fundraising letter from St. Paul to the Corinthians. That’s right, a fundraising letter! How lucky can an interim get on his last Sunday with a congregation? 

Given the choices, I’ve picked St. Paul’s fundraising letter to preach about! Why not? I like a good challenge, and generosity is always worth talking about.

Let me begin my sermon the way Paul begins his letter –by telling you how wonderful you are. “You excel in everything,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians – “in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you.” A more contemporary translation communicates Paul’s kudos for the Corinthians better than the version we read today. “You do so well in so many things,” Paul says, “ – you trust God, you’re articulate, you’re insightful, you’re passionate, you love us.

So let me borrow a page from St. Paul and tell you how wonderful you are. If you don’t take away anything else from this last sermon, I hope you will hear this message loud and clear: All Saints’ is a great church. You do so well in so many things. You have superb lay leadership; a committed, talented, hilarious staff; and a beautiful building in an ideal location to attract people searching for a spiritual home. 

I am incredibly grateful to have spent the last sixteen and a half months here with you. It hasn’t been what I expected, but then it wasn’t what any of us expected! In spite that – in spite of all that we had to put on hold or that was lost during the pandemic, it has been time of remarkable new beginnings and of vibrant growth at All Saints’ – a time, as someone wrote to me last week, of gifts. For these blessings I thank God. I will never forget our time together. It’s been a joy and a privilege for me to be here during this brief, but significant chapter in your common life. Please know that I will be praying for your new rector and for all of you in your ministry together.

Having told you how wonderful you are – not that you needed to hear it from me – let’s turn to Paul’s letter and see what the Spirit is saying to God’s people this morning.

If you’ve ever received a letter from this church or any other church asking you for money, blame St. Paul. He got the whole thing started back in the first century.  He is the “father” of the church fundraising letter. I doubt you’ll be surprised when I tell you that it was not the last fundraising letter the church ever sent to parishioners.

This morning we only have a few verses of that first letter – only a small excerpt from a much longer letter. So it might be hard to understand what Paul was asking the Corinthians to do and why they should do what he was asking.  However, it’s worth digging into it, because Paul has a lot to say about why we should be generous not just with our money, but with everything we are and we have – why generosity should be a key characteristic of Jesus’ disciples.

Here’s the situation: Paul was raising money from the congregations he had started to send back to the church in Jerusalem.  Jerusalem was where the church began on the Day of Pentecost.  From there, the church had spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire.  Paul did the lion’s share of the work in this.  He planted churches in what is now Turkey, Greece, and Macedonia. 

The church in Jerusalem continued on as the “mother church” of Christianity, but it was weak and fragile. The community was poor and in constant need of help.  A famine in Palestine in 46 AD strained the little church’s resources.  In addition, Jews from the diaspora came and retired in the Holy Land. The result was an influx of widows and elderly people who relied on support from the Jerusalem Church.  Paul was trying to help this church out, knowing that it would never generate the resources it needed by itself.

Paul spent ten years soliciting funds for what is now called “the Jerusalem collection.”  The collection was taken up among the Gentile churches and is mentioned several times in the New Testament.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes that the churches of Macedonia and Achaia “were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem”. In the Acts of the Apostles, there’s a list that includes delegates from Berea, Thessalonica, Derbe and Asia. The church at Philippi pitched in, So did the church at Lystra. We know from the Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that they asked to be included in the collection, too.

Now a fundraising effort of this kind takes a huge investment of time and energy. Paul stuck with it for 10 years – an entire decade.  He stuck with it, asking his churches to help the Jerusalem Church, giving them reasons for Christians to be generous from that time ‘til now.

First, Paul says that we should give whenever the need is genuine. That was certainly the case with the Jerusalem church. Persistent food shortages caused by the famine, taxation from the Roman Empire and the Temple, underwriting the mission trips of its members, hosting pilgrims from churches scattered across the Empire, supporting transplanted retirees.  It all added up. The need was real.

If the need was real in Jerusalem in the first century, the same can be said about Chicago in the 21st century: the pandemic has deepened the divide between rich and poor. Food shortages continue, especially for families with children. Affordable housing is still a huge need on the South and West sides of this city. But you know all this. You have responded generously whenever the need has been real.

Many of you gave special gifts to Ravenswood Community Service last spring to help feed people. You gave to the Greenlining Campaign to address the lack of affordable housing in N. Lawndale. You gave to restore this lovely church so you have a home base for ministry, and you gave to renovate the rectory to make it functional and welcoming. You have given whenever the need has been real. And I know you won’t stop giving when the next real need is identified. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “your hearts been in the right place all along.” The same can be said of you.

Paul says that the second reason to give is to remind ourselves that Christian communities are all connected to each other. Paul frequently wrote that all are members of the Body of Christ.  He believed that when one member of the body suffers, all members suffer, and that when one member of the body rejoices, all members rejoice.  For him the Jerusalem collection was a tangible way to show how congregations are connected – how, as he told the Corinthians, “Your surplus [matches] their deficit, and [the Jerusalem church’s] surplus [matches] your deficit. . . . In the end,” Paul goes on, “it all comes out even.” My hope is this: now that we are coming out of the pandemic, you will connect with other congregations and institutions again – with St. John’s to continue the Anti-Racism work you began together through the Becoming Beloved Community grant, through connections with other churches that might grow out of the Folded Map Project or with our partners at Lawndale Christian Development Corporation. These connections are important because, through them, All Saints’ will be able to both give and receive.

Third and finally, Paul gives his readers the fundamental reason why all Christians should be generous. He writes: “you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”  That’s a little hard to understand, so let me simplify it. Paul says: “You are familiar with the generosity of our Master, Jesus Christ.  Rich as he was, he gave it all away for us – in one stroke he became poor, and we became rich.” 

When Paul calls Jesus rich, he isn’t talking about his bank account. He is talking about how God emptied himself in Jesus and how through him we possess every blessing we have.   Bishop Tom Wright puts it this way, “Jesus, with all the ‘riches’ of his life in the glorious mystery of God’s inner being, became ‘poor,’ [First] becoming human was an astonishingly humbling thing and [second] the human life he took on was not royal, rich, and splendid in the world’s terms, but instead [was] poor, humble and, eventually, shameful.” 

Paul invites the Corinthians – and he invites us – to model our lives on this Jesus.  Paul is basically saying, “Your job as Christians is to be generous like Jesus.” 

Now the generosity Paul is talking about can be about money – and sometimes it should be about money.  But Paul’s idea of generosity goes well beyond what each of us does with our material possessions.  Paul’s idea is about what is often called generosity of spirit. 

Are we generous with our time?  Or with good wishes?  Or with kindness?  Do we give other people the credit they deserve?  Or the benefit of the doubt?  Do we put other people before ourselves?  Can we let other people shine instead of our always having the spotlight?  Can we really listen to what someone else has to say?  Can we embrace someone for who they are rather than who we wish they would be?  Can we – and I know how hard this is – see a person we really don’t like very much in the same way Jesus sees him or her – with the eyes of love?

I doubt if any of you will ever receive a solicitation letter from All Saints’ asking you for greater generosity of spirit.  So, consider this sermon to be the one and only letter asking for it. It’s my final request of you as I head off to where God is calling me next.

Be generous with your new rector as you have been with me. Be generous with your staff. Be generous with one another. Be generous as Jesus was – with the way he saw people, the way he forgave them, the way he encouraged them, the way he loved them. 

So, Dear Friends, let me say to you, “You do so well in so many things – you trust God, you’re articulate, you’re insightful, you’re passionate, you have loved us – now I want you to do your best in this also: continue to excel in generosity of spirit.”  

May God bless All Saints’ Ravenswood in the years to come!         Amen.