Text: 2 Corinthians 8:1-15
This is the last in a series of a series of six sermons from 2 Corinthians, a letter that Paul wrote to a church - well, let’s say it was a church “with issues.” Many of the themes that emerge are very timely for us today. But I don’t actually want to begin this morning with Paul and the Corinthian church. Instead, I want to start with - Muhammad Ali.
I grew up in a time when boxing was big, much more a part of the cultural conversation than it is today. And Muhammad Ali was the biggest part of that. When I was in grade school and into high school, kids would talk about Ali’s fights with Joe Frazier and George Foreman the way we might talk about Peyton Manning and Tom Brady playing in the Super Bowl, or Lebron and Steph Curry in the NBA finals.
A controversial figure in his boxing days, there was no getting around the fact that Ali was a tremendous athlete. But even more than that, he was a cultural icon. He was a brash and cocky boxer who said “I am the Greatest,” but he also said it wasn’t bragging if you could back it up. Unlike many athletes, Ali absolutely stood up for his beliefs and was willing to pay the price. He was completely unconcerned about his “brand,” not that individuals talked about brands in those days. Ali was stripped of his boxing title and sentenced to five years in prison for refusing military service in Viet Nam, a war that he opposed as a matter of conscience.
Despite his reputation as a boxer, at the heart of it all Ali was really a gentle person with a concern for all kinds of people. Stories of his concern for others began to emerge after his death a few weeks ago.
The Chicago Park District started a boxing program in 1972, hoping to especially reach out to kids in neighborhoods where team sports like baseball were not so popular. (And this was before the days that American kids played soccer.) So they started this boxing program but basically had no funds to make it work. Then one day a truck showed up at a park district boxing center with speedbags, heavy bags, headgear, lots and lots of boxing gloves, all kinds of equipment. The same thing happened at numerous locations. Muhammad Ali funded the Chicago Park District boxing program, but it was kept a secret for all these years. Likewise, he funded college scholarships. He quietly provided scholarships in Chicago – the criteria was that the scholarships should go to smart kids in rough neighborhoods.
Ali watched a CNN report about a home for seniors being closed because of money problems. He asked a CNN reporter how much money they needed and he wrote the check. It stayed open. After retiring from boxing he moved to Michigan where he built baseball fields, soccer fields, tracks, youth centers. He had an understanding with area schools that if they needed anything, he would take care of it, and so he provided clothes and school supplies and lunch money and paid for field trips for hundreds of children in need, who never knew the source. He started a scholarship program there as well – it was not known as the Muhammad Ali scholarship but the Brawley scholarship, named for a principal Ali appreciated who had worked with his son.
Ali contributed and raised nearly $150 million to Parkinson’s Disease research as well as giving to causes including literacy, hunger, education, mental illness, and various kinds of medical research. But he was not just generous with money. Harvey Mackay was writing a book and although he was not necessarily a known writer, Ali was gracious enough to grant an interview. The interview took up the morning and then they went to lunch. Mackay introduce Ali to his driver, a guy named Francis. When they got to the restaurant, Ali said, “Invite Francis to have lunch with us.”
This driver went to work that morning at the ride service and was assigned to pick up Harvey Mackay, an envelope salesman from Minnesota. He never would have imagined that he would have lunch that day with Muhammad Ali. The thing was, Ali was like this all the time with all kinds of people, not just generous with his money but generous with his time and with his love.
One more story: many of you know Bill Leonard, my church history professor who preached here several years ago. Leonard recalled that in 1999, he was to preach at an interfaith Thanksgiving service at a Catholic cathedral in Louisville, Muhammad Ali’s hometown. At this service, Muhammad Ali was to receive an interfaith award for his humanitarian and interfaith efforts.
Bill and a friend arrived early and so they went to the sacristy, where the worship leaders would prepare for the service. There was only one person in the room - Muhammad Ali was standing against the wall. Bill said it nearly took his breath away. Without thinking, he extended his hand and said, “Mr. Ali, you have been a hero of mine for a long time.” With speech difficult because of Parkinson’s disease, Ali bent down – and with Leonard, it is a long way down – and kissed him on the cheek. You don’t forget Muhammad Ali kissing you on the cheek. And as it turns out, Ali kissed thousands of cheeks.
Our theme this morning is generosity. Now, we can look at someone like Muhammad Ali – rich, famous, a celebrity, someone with plenty to give – and think, well, it is easy for him. It’s easy to give money away when you have a lot. Or at least, you might think that it would be nice to be rich and find out. But somehow, that is not necessarily the case.
Generosity really has nothing to do with the amount of wealth we have. That is abundantly clear from today’s scripture. What was going on was, the church in Jerusalem was facing severe poverty and persecution. Adding to it all was a famine. These brothers and sisters in Christ were in desperate need. Paul is writing the church at Corinth, a city of great wealth. This was a church that was capable of helping, capable of making a significant contribution. Paul writes the Corinthian church and in his letter, he praises the churches of Macedonia.
The region of Macedonia was itself a poor region. It was so poor that the Romans suspended tax collection there for a time. They had so little that it wasn’t worth the effort. It was like getting blood from a turnip. It was not Paul’s intention to even ask the poor churches in Macedonia to contribute to this special offering for Jerusalem, but they got wind of the collection and insisted on giving. Paul writes that they were “begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints.” And even out of their poverty, they gave an incredibly generous gift.
As he traveled, Paul learned that there was really no connection between wealth and generosity. A poor church like Macedonia gave with gratitude in response to God’s grace. In Corinth, a city of great wealth, where, as Paul Achtemeier says, “money called the shots,” Paul struggled to get the message of generosity across.
You might think that there would be a link between wealth and generosity, but apparently not everybody is Muhammad Ali. Studies have shown that those below poverty level in the U.S. give a greater percentage of their income to charitable causes than any other income bracket. Of course, those in poverty can be generous or tight-fisted, just as those who are very wealthy can be generous or tight-fisted. But the lower the income, they greater percentage people give to charity, on average.
The church in Corinth had apparently started to take an offering for the Jerusalem church, or maybe they had put it on the board agenda and discussed it but never quite got around to doing it. So Paul says, last year you were on track to take this offering, but now you need to go ahead and finish what you began - you need to follow through on your good intentions and help these brothers and sisters in need.
Paul’s concern is twofold – first, there was genuine concern for the church in Jerusalem and for their well-being. It is ironic that the largely Gentile churches are taking this collection at all. There had been a controversy over whether Gentiles could become followers of Jesus without first following Jewish law. A council was called in Jerusalem to answer this question. Paul came down on the side of welcoming Gentile believers and not requiring that they follow Jewish practices, and that opinion carried the day, but you know there had to be some sore feelings. It is hard to imagine that a lot of folks in the churches of Greece and Asia Minor, churches filled with Gentile believers, had warm and fuzzy feelings about the Jerusalem church. Yet whatever differences they had and whatever had happened in the past, these churches were nevertheless taking a collection for their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.
Paul is concerned for the folks in Jerusalem, suffering from poverty, from persecution, from famine. He is concerned about the future of the Jerusalem church. But maybe just as much, Paul is concerned about the spiritual condition of the church in Corinth. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul lists generosity as one of the fruits of the Spirit. Those who are in tune to the spirit of God will have generous hearts. The Corinthian church seemed to be lacking in this area. They were too worried about being right and being in charge and looking good and furthering their own interests to expend very much effort toward others. Reading between the lines, you get the sense that they are too self-absorbed to be truly generous.
And yet, there was so much potential in this church, in these people, in this city. Paul writes, “Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you (Did you catch that? They apparently didn’t excel in love but in being loved) - so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.”
To break through their preoccupation with themselves and with all of their internal conflicts, Paul was not above shaming them a little. He is not above lifting up a poor church, filled with folks who are in need themselves, as an example of generosity.
Look at the Macedonians, he says. It is like telling the sprawling megachurch, “Look at this little storefront church. Be like them.” Look at this little country church. Look at this congregation where most everybody is just barely making it on Social Security. Look at the Macedonians – we weren’t even going to ask them to give and yet out of their poverty, they took a collection and gave a big old offering to help the saints in Jerusalem.
You can be Muhammad Ali, with a ready checkbook and a generous spirit, or you can be a poor church in Macedonia, opening your hearts and your wallets to believers in Jerusalem. Generosity is not about how much you have. It is more about who you are.
Since we are celebrating our nation’s birthday tomorrow, I’ll share a quote from Thomas Jefferson in a letter he wrote to his nephew, Peter Carr. Jefferson wrote, “…above all things lose no occasion of exercising your dispositions to be grateful, to be generous, to be charitable, to be humane…” There were many like Jefferson who risked life and livelihood for the sake of something greater than themselves, and that in a sense is an act of generosity.
In our scripture today, it seems to me that generosity is first of all about trust – about faith. Despite their need, the Macedonians were able to give out of trust in God. They had faith in God’s goodness and grace, and so they did not need to hoard what they had but were able to share it. They had experienced God’s grace poured out on them, and so even in their own need, they were able to respond with grace and generosity toward others.
And then, generosity is about joy. Paul writes, “We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” Their joy has resulted in great generosity.
In their joy, the Macedonians were able to recognize God’s abundance. So often we focus on what we don’t have, on what we lack. But joy enables us to recognize and celebrate what we have. Out of joyful hearts, the Macedonians showed great generosity.
And then, generosity is about connection. I was driving home this week listening to the news on the radio. A reporter had been to one of the first funerals after the terrorist attack in Istanbul, for four young women. Three sisters aged 24, 18, and 14, and their niece, who was 8 years old. The reporter spoke with the father of the 8-year old. This distraught man was standing at the side of the coffin, and as he spoke, he rubbed his fingers over the coffin, the way you might rub your daughter’s shoulder. The reporter said he wasn’t sure the man even knew he was doing that. I felt myself tearing up.
I live halfway around the world, I am from a different country, I speak a different language, I practice a different religion, and yet I felt a connection with this man who has suffered unspeakable loss. Generosity is about the fact that we are all connected. We give to meet the needs of those with whom we share a common humanity.
The Jewish Christians of Jerusalem had been skeptical about Gentile believers. And yet for the churches of Macedonia, God had so transformed their lives that they gave, even out of their need, to Jewish believers. Whatever differences there may have been, they felt a connection, a fellowship, a kinship with these brothers and sisters.
And in fact it was this spirit of generosity that made the church grow throughout the ancient world. Christians were known for caring for the poor, the sick, the needy without regard. They took in people. They fed people. And that spirit of compassion and generosity was stronger than anything the Roman Empire or anyone else could do to stomp out the fledgling church. Because they felt this connection, this shared humanity with people everywhere, and because this connection led to acts of service, the church grew by leaps and bounds.
Generosity is not about wealth. We can be rich and generous, or we can be poor and generous. Generosity is about trust, and about joy, and about connection. And it comes by the grace of God, who has given so much to us. We are able to be generous because God has been so generous towards us. Amen.