Today I would like to focus on the capital campaign letter that went out to everybody awhile ago. Not the capital campaign letter that was prepared by our committee and was sent to all of our members last month. That was a great summary of a long term effort by the congregation. No, I wanted to call our attention today to the stewardship campaign letter that is our second lesson today. For this section of II Corinthians is a classic stewardship appeal letter, the pattern for the letters Christians have been receiving for centuries now.
A bit of background might be useful. The gospel lesson indicates how deeply the first Christians felt about care for the sick and healing ministries. The community of Mark used these remembrances of the life of Jesus to encourage them in their own urban ministry to the ill and the dying. First Century congregations sometimes looked more like shelters or hospitals than churches. According to Mark this healing ministry was based on faith, was offered to the rich and the outcast alike, involved caring for crowds, sometimes brought life in the face of death, and sometimes involved almost secret or deeply intimate rituals of caring.
But the ancient church had other ministries as well. They had what we would call an Emergency Relief Program which is what we are talking about in II Corinthians. The missionary Paul who writes this is of course spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. But there has been a famine in the eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea, probably caused by draught. (We’ve not had rain really in over four weeks.) In his travels, along the way, Paul is gathering funds for those in need. This letter is part of his ancient appeal for famine relief.
Perhaps it would be well for us to remember our own Emergency Relief Fund. Ten years ago we were gathering around $15,000 each year and giving it to those in need every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. In the last few years we have been distributing around $35,000 each year. Funds come from the congregation’s budget, from individual members, from organizations, special friends of the congregation, and even other congregations. Volunteers do a great deal of the work. Hasan Mohr is our outreach worker who focuses on distributing the funds. The rest of the staff is involved in the administration of the program. Because we literally give money away for free, we always are short of funds. Our famine or current financial crisis has made great demands on this kind of ministry.
In the face of famine, the ancient church organized an emergency fund, and Paul is writing this letter on behalf of this effort. Notice how the letter, like all good fund appeal letters, starts out with a complement: You excel in everything – faith, speech, wisdom, love, and enthusiasm. Wow, what a great congregation!
But he reminds them that generosity is a special gift, and he hopes that these people will be generous with their support for the famine relief. Generosity is a special gift, and we are all grateful for the generosity that marks our congregational life.
Notice a few things about generous giving in this Christian appeal. It is not commanded. It cannot be forced. It has been from the very beginning something that touches the heart of the giver.
However, though generosity is a matter of the heart, Paul also lays out a challenge to give. There is a hint of a challenge gift, and a recollection of the earnest need for this fund appeal.
Notice too, how Paul’s ancient stewardship program is based on a sense of balance and fairness. Those who have more should give more. And those who have less should give less. It should be fair and balanced. And people are called to not only be generous but also to be wise about their own resources and needs.
Toward the end of the passage there is the sense that participating in famine relief provided ancient Christian congregations with a mutual aid society or mutual insurance program of sorts. Now the famine is in the east, but if it does come to Greece, then others will be able to help our congregation in its time of want.
But the deepest motivation for giving is not our generosity, nor a pressing need, nor a philosophical balance or even a sense of mutual aid, but the generosity of our Lord Jesus Christ, who sacrificed so much so that we might have so much. Everything in Paul get’s grounded in Jesus, and good stewardship to this day is the same way. Generosity continues to be a wonderful gift. It involves fairness and mutuality. And in the end, we give because we have first received. And we have received so much that goes beyond dollars and cents. Just as Jesus inspired healing ministry in Mark, his care for the poor and those who were suffering inspired the gift of generosity in the ancient church as it organized itself for emergency relief. And Jesus Christ still inspires mission in so many ways.
Please allow me two personal observations about Paul’s ancient stewardship work and our own. As a pastor who has written many stewardship appeals for a whole host of things, I had to chuckle over verses ten and eleven. He talks about the intention and the desire to give and be generous, but now is the time to make the actual gift. Willingness and eagerness are important, he seems to say, but the poor can’t eat our enthusiasm. Write the check.
As one who has raised money for a variety of causes, I would like to lift up one unusual aspect of our own Emergency Relief Program with which many have been generous.
Now we live in an era of many non-profits who all are involved in fundraising for many different causes. It is more likely today than ever that this fund raising is even done professionally. The means by which funds are now gathered are far more sophisticated than Paul’s letter which he quickly put together between other more important duties. But all of that fund raising for good causes is itself costly, and it is extremely rare these days to be able to give a gift that goes completely to the cause for which it is intended. That is an unusual thing. Usually a percentage, and sometimes a high percentage, is directed to the support of the organization.
But for over twenty-five years, St. Johns has been set up so that if you make a donation to emergency relief, all of that money goes to those in need. What makes that possible is congregational structure or one might even say organized religion. Salaries, fund development, appeals, expenses, accounting, and reporting all come from the general congregational budget. Sometimes that general budget needs attention, but St. Johns Emergency Relief Fund remains one of those few places to which you can give a gift that has 100% of the donation going to the intended cause of the donor.
And let us work to keep it that way by supporting both the Emergency Fund and our general causes with generosity not based on obligation but thanksgiving. A generosity that bears not only intentions but fruit, breeds fairness and mutuality, and is grounded in the amazing gifts we have already received from God. As Jeremiah says in the first lesson today: This steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Great is your God’s faithfulness.