By the Rev. Laura Dalton

2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Stewardship Sunday

I want to thank Pastor Sarah, MJ and all of you for welcoming me in this role while Pastor Todd is on sabbatical. My gratitude for this opportunity runs very deep and I am looking forward to what the coming months will bring.  

So, the first thing that Sarah asked me to do was to preach on this day, when our theme is stewardship. At the conclusion of the worship service this morning, while our kind neighbors and friends from St. John’s prepare for coffee hour, members of First Churches will have the opportunity to see our proposed budget for the coming fiscal year. It’s a spreadsheet with breakdowns of categories, projected expenses, and bottom lines. On the surface at least, we’ll be having a meeting and looking at materials that are all about money. Listen, I’m going to be honest: there are few things that most preachers enjoy less than preaching about money, why we need it, and how much of it we need. Many people tend to have a lot of anxiety around money, which in so many instances seems to be in short supply. It can be a challenging topic, so I want to own that and speak to you today from a place of authenticity.

But do you know, the thing is, I don’t believe that this type of anxiety or reticence is anything new! People have struggled with it for centuries, for millennia, even. Today’s scripture text picks up in the midst of an impassioned plea from the Apostle Paul to the young church at Corinth. There is a need among another group of believers in Jerusalem, and he is appealing to these Corinthian Christians to make sure the promised gifts are ready, because he’s sending some of his fellow workers ahead to gather the funds. He understands that although they may want to do the right thing, there might be some concern among them about how they’re going to pull it off, this generous gift that is needed to help others who are struggling. After all, financial hardships among vulnerable populations such as fledgling religious groups in the first century were not uncommon. But Paul challenges them nonetheless, speaking from the promises of scripture regarding generosity, reminding them of God’s faithfulness in providing more than enough for all their needs. There is a sense of urgency in Paul’s communication, but we lose sight of the deeper message if we see this only as an appeal for cash. Yes, doing the work of the church, meeting the needs of the poor, all of this requires some currency, to be sure. But there’s something much more significant going on here, and that is what I’d like for us to pay attention to this morning. Paul is very direct, yes, but he is also very pastoral.

In writing to this band of believers, Paul is not making a demand, he is extending an invitation.

He is not issuing an ultimatum, he is offering a promise.

He is not compelling or coercing, he is looking forward and proclaiming the fruitfulness that will stem from their faithfulness.

Paul encourages giving as an expression of love for God and for others, a faithful, generous response that flows from deep gratitude for what Christ has done for them. This is the same invitation that is being given to us today.

What is our money being used for? Stay for the meeting at the conclusion of this service, and you’ll get all of that information. From a very practical standpoint, we have ministries to support, staff members to pay, an aging building to maintain, educational and missions projects to fund…you know the drill. Why do we do it? Why are we being asked to give, and to give prayerfully and generously? So the lights stay on? So our staff members can pay their bills? So the children can have Sunday school materials and the plumbing can get fixed? Well, the short answer to all of that is YES.

But we’re not meant to focus on the short answer, practical and important though it may be. Just as Paul had a deeper purpose in asking the church in Corinth to offer support for others, so are we, 2000 years later, called to consider the act of giving from a much more holistic point of view.

We give not only because it is good for the community or because it helps our hardworking finance committee to breathe a little bit more easily, but also because it is GOOD FOR US. When we respond to the invitation to give, it’s about more than what’s in our pocketbook or our bank account: It’s about what’s in our hearts. When we give as Paul encouraged the early Corinthians to give, we are giving of ourselves to encourage the body of Christ, and to reach the larger world with God’s love. When we bless others, we ourselves are blessed.

You’ve probably heard the expression, “give until it hurts.” When we look at our church bills and obligations, it might seem at first glance as though giving sacrificially to meet those obligations will, indeed, hurt! I want to upend that notion, to turn it on its head! I want to suggest, instead, that we give until it feels good. This is where Paul’s promise comes into play. He illustrates for us how this can and does happen.

First, as we read in verse 7, he takes the onus off of giving. Sometimes, when it feels like a duty or a responsibility, we get caught in the self-defeating trap of comparing our gifts to others, feeling inadequate or insignificant, or, conversely, perhaps feeling that maybe we are doing a bit better than others who should also be stepping up to the plate! Giving sacrificially should be a challenge; but Paul, in a very pastoral way, helps his friends to understand that God wants them to give freely, willingly, and according to their ability. “You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. ‘For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.’”

To be in community means that part of our responsibility is to give financially to the support of the ministry, and outreach of the local church. But God isn’t interested in a gift begrudgingly given. God wants us to give cheerfully. Paul asserts that when we do this, we will realize that God gives to us abundantly, and that there is always enough for our needs and also to share. A likely result of gifts willingly and freely given? We get to make an impact on our community, and perhaps even on the world that will long outlast us, and give others a reason to give thanks and glorify God. Stepping out in faith and giving generously brings us closer to God and in turn, sets an example of generosity that causes others to give thanks as well. All this because we have allowed God to use us as instruments of blessing.

Pastor and author Brian McLaren has said, “It’s not about the church meeting your needs, it’s about joining the mission of God’s people to meet the world’s needs.” In this coming fiscal year, we are being invited to be a part of something much bigger than ourselves. We are being challenged to look at all aspects of our life and embrace new ways of being Christian. We are being invited to consider the whole picture of what happens within these walls and, as a result, what is able to happen out in the streets of Northampton, and Florence Hadley, and Amherst, and all the other outlying communities where members of this body make their homes. We are being invited to move forward from a place of gratitude for the ways in which God has met so many of our needs, and to join with each other to fulfill our mission to meet the world’s needs. Simply put, we are called to be the church, to engage in loving, liberating and life-giving forms of work and ministry out in the world. And we are equipped to do that because of what we commit to doing right here, through our presence, our prayers, and our acts of generosity. And doing this, giving for this?—it feels good!

It feels good to know that because we are here, following the call of Christ and responding with our time, our talents, AND our treasures, hundreds of people each week have a space where they are encouraged on their road to recovery from substance abuse.

Because we are here, refugees are welcomed and made to feel at home in their new community, supported with practical and emotional resources as they build new lives in a new land.

Because we are here, children and youth are taught the stories of the Christian faith and challenged to grow into lives of discipleship and service.

Because we are here, people are nurtured in their faith journeys through Bible study, centering prayer, opportunities for engagement in social and environmental justice, racial reconciliation, and peacemaking.

Because we are here, Sunday mornings offer all who walk through our doors an opportunity to be inspired through music and the proclaimed word, to share coffee and fellowship, and to find their family of faith.

Because we are here, many people, from college students to retired adults, can participate in a farm-to-table dinner church that meets them on common ground, building community around a meal prepared and shared together, with liturgy that invites, welcomes, and includes them where they are, where they experience thoughtful, interactive messages that are hopeful and affirming of all who come with a spiritual hunger in their hearts or a physical hunger in their bellies.

Because we are here, people in the Pioneer Valley know that our clergy and our laypeople are concerned about the rights of migrant workers and people in sanctuary and that we support them with our presence, our prayers and our resources.

Because we are here, dozens of school children in Haiti have their annual school fees paid through our special offerings and our mission partnership.

Because we are here, many small groups have access to affordable space for gathering to engage in social activism, enrichment, support, and celebration. We can offer a spirit of welcome and hospitality that brings people from all over the Pioneer Valley together for the common good.

Because we are here, open, affirming, and welcoming of our LGBTQ siblings, we could march with pride in yesterday’s parade, and offer hospitality at our tent at the fairgrounds, letting all God’s children know that they are seen, loved, cherished, and invited to be a part of a family of faith.

Because we are here, people whose religious backgrounds range from Muslim and Buddhist to Jewish, Baptist and Congregational, to Lutheran, Catholic, and a whole host of other traditions or no previous religious traditions at all, have encountered the living Christ made real through people who earnestly believe that God is still speaking and that when we are truly listening and responding faithfully, we are emboldened and equipped by God’s Spirit to be the hands and feet of Christ and to share the Good News of God’s love in ways that heal broken hearts and change lives.

Because we are here, doing the good work God has called us to do, we are making an impact even bigger than we realize. I am proud to tell people about my faith community, and whenever I do, I get similar responses—“Oh, yeah, I’ve heard about that church. They’re doing a lot of good things there!”

Several months ago, Pastor Sarah shared an encouraging story with me. With a grateful heart, she told me about an unsolicited check that had come into the church office from a person who lives all the way across the country. Somehow, this person had learned about our church and the ministries and people in which we are invested. Moved by a spirit of generosity, they sent a check somewhere in the neighborhood of $1000, I believe, just to support the work we are doing here. This is how it works in God’s economy, my friends. When we are faithful to give in support of the work of the church, others give thanks, and sometimes, they even give back in ways that also bless and encourage us in the work we are called to do.

This is the invitation that is being given. This is the challenge to which we are being called to respond—to make God’s love real through who we are, through what we do, through how we give. And we can expect to see God do marvelous things. I am excited about this invitation, and I hope you will join me in giving thanks for God’s goodness and God’s faithfulness, and in giving what we have, and who we are to continue the good work which God is doing through us, in this place, because we are here. Thanks be to God. AMEN