An Indescribable Gift

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
November 19, 2023, Gratitude Sunday

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 9:7–15

Since we began discussing the spiritual approach to budgeting and finances and launched our annual giving campaign, I’ve been thinking a lot about the little country church of my youth in Mississippi. The majority of the members lived in poverty, according to the government’s measure of poverty, and most were employed in low-skill, minimum wage, and domestic and agricultural work. In searching my memories of the language used to talk about church finances and offerings, I don’t remember much anxiety about money, even when it was apparent the church needed more. I don’t recall hearing a rigid binary between scarcity and abundance. I don’t remember anyone being made to feel different or less than because of what they gave. I don’t recall an attitude of more is better or a worry about greed impeding the collection. And yet, I do recall not only annual celebrations of meeting giving goals but also cheerfulness exhibited in giving. I remember the friendly competition between various ministries, including men and women, to see who could raise the most money for some program or project. And there was always food and celebration.

Now, I’m not attempting to paint a picture of an ideal, and I am not romanticizing church life, especially not in one of the poorest counties in Mississippi. There were challenges, and even if my child’s eye didn’t always see it, I know there were moments when that church wondered how it would meet its obligations. But I share those images and memories because as I matured in my faith and embraced my ministry, I came to understand the posture of the people of my church regarding money and finances. I saw the posture of gratitude and thanksgiving, and it left a lasting impression on me. What I witnessed was the actions of people who saw God as the source of not only blessings but also gratitude. Even when it looked like there wasn’t enough (and many times, there wasn’t enough), they believed in God’s promise to supply whatever they needed for the work. But more important than even that, this was a people who understood that their call was not to raise money or build a building or anything else. Their call and purpose were to service and ministry. Their collection of offerings was their act of worship.

And that idea, that our collection, our offerings, our dealing with money as a faith community, gathered in the name of Jesus, the Anointed One of God, is our act of worship is anchored in facilitating our service and ministry. God has sown generously into the gathered assembly, liberating, providing, and blessing people to do the work of God’s reign. In response, in a posture of gratitude and thanksgiving, God’s people bring all of who they are and all they have to the work. This is the Apostle Paul’s message to the church in Corinth in our reading today.

The benefit of Paul’s letter to the contemporary church is that it provides insight into something I think the modern church takes for granted—for as long as the followers of the way of Jesus have been gathering, they have been taking up a collection. We must not let modern religious life confuse us about money and the church. We should not let accounting principles overshadow the spiritual experience of giving. We should not allow mega-churches and the prosperity gospel to cause us to mistrust the need to make offerings as part of our spiritual worship and discipline. I hope we can shed some of our often-warranted cynicism about managing church resources to see how essential the church collection has been to facilitating service and ministry.

As Paul tells the story to the Christians in Galatia of what may be the origins of the intentional raising and collecting of money for the church, after fourteen years of preaching the inclusive gospel of Jesus beyond its Jewish constituency and planting churches in Asia Minor and Arabia, Paul travels to the Jerusalem to discuss his ministry with the founding apostles who walked and served alongside Jesus. He recounts their approval of his work and receiving the right hand of fellowship from those pillars of the faith who asked of him only one thing: “Remember the poor” (Gal. 2:10). That is precisely what Paul commits to doing. So, most often, when we read in Paul’s letters an appeal to the churches to participate in the collection, we see him commending the service and ministry of the church, joining in God’s act of scattering abroad and giving to the poor. But this is no act of isolated generosity. Paul uses the image of harvest to describe giving and receiving in God’s economy, specifically, the abundant yield that flows from God and that God makes possible. Notice that Paul’s idea of harvest begins with the material supply of seeds and provision of material abundance for sowing, but it ends with a harvest of many thanksgivings. The word for “harvest” is translated to the literal word “offspring.” When the church sows generously and cheerfully, the yield is praise, gratitude, testimony, unity, service, and ministry, generation after generation, well beyond where the gift originated.

So, in this letter, we see Paul fully inhabiting his stewardship campaign for the collection. He addresses all potential questions about what it means to engage the question about our responsibilities faithfully. Don’t give because Paul is pressuring them to give. And don’t give reluctantly or begrudgingly. He invites them to see the collection as both/and approach to faithful living: to give is a spiritual experience because it demonstrates their posture of thanksgiving for God’s indescribable gift of grace and abundance; to give is also an investment because their gift will prompt and inspire thanksgiving and service and ministry among those who benefit from this generosity.

Participating in the collection is a testimony to the world that God’s indescribable gift, God’s surpassing grace, the source of all that we do and have, elicits praise and thanksgiving first and foremost, which is irresistible and infectious. Because of gratitude, because of the blessing, we are inspired to do more, to serve more broadly, and to minister more faithfully. And those with and to whom we serve and minister, in gratitude, will serve and minister to others. So, this isn’t just an economic enterprise or monetary exercise. This is reign-fulfilling work, live-giving service, and meaning-making through gifting and giftedness.

Yes, the offerings we collect will pay our bills and facilitate our service to our neighbors. But our offerings are also a measure of our gratitude, which inspires even more gratitude. Those with whom we share respond in gratitude. The response is many thanksgivings. Thanksgivings that multiply far beyond where the gift originated. The response is energy and excitement to embrace our work of service and ministry within, among, and beyond. That little church of my youth, with more than its fair share of low-income, low-wealth families, impacted their community far beyond what a surface observation would lead anyone to expect or predict. In their hands, that indescribable gift of grace, sowed generously and cheerfully, reaped a harvest of blessings. And it transformed the people. It transformed me.

We can do all that we do because we possess an indescribable gift—the surpassing grace of God, what the evangelist of John exaggeratedly calls grace upon grace. Unconditional love, boundless mercy, forgiveness, and forbearance without end, bearing the image of the ground of our being—God keeps showering us with a priceless, indescribable gift. In our attempt to understand and explain how we have received such favor and blessings, we most often assume it all came by our own doing, but Paul reminds us of that gift of surpassing grace. How shall we respond?

Today, I invite you to proclaim your commitment to our work, witness, ministry, and service with Plymouth Congregational Church.

9 a.m. service

11 a.m. service