October 20, 2013

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC



Matthew 21:28-32

II Corinthians 9:1-15


There are certain pithy sayings that communicate much in a very few words.  Unfortunately I have never been very good at finding such a saying to fit my sermon themes each week.  If I could, my sermons could be shortened considerably.  In fact, I could just give you that pithy saying, sit down, and we could all go home about 20 minutes early.

There was a woman who was greeting her pastor after a service that included an unusually long sermon.  She noticed there was a band-aid on the pastor’s face.  She asked him about it.  He said, “Oh, that.  Well, when I was shaving this morning, I was thinking about my sermon and I cut my face.”  This woman said, “Next time I would advise you to think about your face and cut your sermon.”

The good news is, I did find a pithy saying that captures the theme of this morning’s sermon.  The bad news is, I’m going to give you both the pithy saying and the sermon.  Here is the saying:  “When all is said and done, more is said than done.”

Isn’t that the truth!  It’s always easier to say you are going to do something than it is to actually do it.  “Words are cheap.”  Another pithy saying.  Now we have the sermon theme down to three words!

Jesus needed a few more, but not many more.

Now, what do you think? There was once a man who had two sons. He went to the older one and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” “I don’t want to,” he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.  Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. “Yes, sir,” he answered, but he did not go. Which one of the two did what his father wanted?

The question is being asked to the chief priests and the elders.  That means Jesus is asking the seriously religious people of his day.  And it’s not an innocent question.  It’s a loaded question.  Jesus in asking this question is implying that these seriously religious people are religious with their words but not with their deeds.  They talk the talk.  They don’t walk the walk.  And, my goodness, there is yet another pithy saying!

Jesus says if you are going to be a Christian, if you are going to follow Jesus, you are going to have to do something.  Christianity is not about talking.  Christianity is about doing.  It’s about living, responding, improving, growing, maturing, giving, forgiving, and loving.

So, what do you think?  There was once a man who had two sons.  One always said yes to his father.  In fact, when the father was around, he was always careful to say what he knew the father wanted to hear.  He was a great son.  Except, he never did anything!  The other son was a little rebellious.  He had a mind of his own.  Sometimes he would talk back.  Sometimes he would ask questions.  Often he would exasperate his poor father.  But he always came around.  He always ended up doing what the father had asked him to do.  Now tell me:  Which of the two did what the father wanted?

Christianity is not a matter of talking, it is a matter of doing.  This is not the only place we get this.  There’s that passage where Jesus invites three people to follow him.  They all have excuses.  One is getting married.  Another just bought some real estate.  Another just had a death in the family.  Jesus decides he doesn’t need any of them after all.  “Anyone who starts to plow and then keeps looking back is of no use for the Kingdom” (Luke 9:62).

The parable of the two sons says Jesus doesn’t like big talkers.  The story of these three potential disciples says Jesus doesn’t like small excuses.  And then there’s the parable of the talents.

A master goes away and leaves his estate into the hands of three stewards.  To one he gave five talents.  To another he gave two.  To a third he gave one talent.  Of course, the talent is a monetary unit we don’t use.  To give you some perspective, a single talent would represent roughly a quarter of a million dollars.  So we are talking about significant money entrusted to these stewards.

The master returns and he wants an accounting of his money.  Two of the three stewards, the one who had five talents and the one who had two talents, had invested the money.  They return what they had been given plus the earnings they had received on their investments.  The master says, “Well done, you good and faithful servant.”

The third steward, the one who had been given one talent, buried it.  When the master returned he dug in up, brushed off the dirt, and said, “Here it is!  You’ll be glad to see, I kept it safe.”  The master said, “Why didn’t you invest it?”  Anyone remember the steward’s answer?  “Because I was afraid” (Matthew 25:25).

The parable ends with the master most unhappy with this fearful steward.  This one who played it safe.  The message couldn’t be more clear.  Jesus expects of his followers a little courage.  He expects them to do something that involves some risk.  Playing it safe does not impress Jesus.  In fact, those who do nothing, because doing nothing is the safer choice, are not even considered his disciples.  To be a Christian is to do something with what you have been given.

Which brings us to our second scripture for today.  Paul is writing the Corinthians.  There are two Corinthian letters in the Bible.  Last week we read from the first one, this week we read from the second.  The Corinthians are great talkers.  Remember Paul’s comment that they speak with “the tongues of men and of angels”?  When they talk, it sounds really good.  But when it comes time to act on what they have been talking about, they are really good at making excuses.

What we heard from II Corinthians is the first stewardship letter ever sent to a Christian congregation.  Paul is appealing to them for money.  Paul is taking up an offering.

It’s a mission offering.  It’s for the Jerusalem church that had fallen on some rough times.  They are suffering from a famine.  They are also just suffering from the hardship of being a Christian in a place where it was difficult to be a Christian.  The Jews in Jerusalem who were still Jews were not too happy with the Jews who had become Christians.  Paul knew all about this.  He had been one of the Jews who gave the Christians such a hard time.  So he especially wanted the Christians who were in Jerusalem to know they weren’t all alone.  There were other Christians who understood and who cared.

So Paul is taking up a special offering.  And here’s the shocker.  The Corinthians weren’t real crazy about it.  Apparently they had written Paul and explained that times were tough for them, too.  They were pretty well tapped out.  They really couldn’t help him this time.  Maybe next year.  We’ll call you.

And so Paul writes them this letter.  Two whole chapters of this letter, chapters 8 and 9, are Paul’s stewardship letter to the Corinthians.  Two chapters are a little more than modern Christians can take, so we only read the ninth chapter.  But you have to know a little about what’s in the eighth chapter.

He begins by saying, “We want you to know what God’s grace has accomplished in the churches of Macedonia.”  What that means is that the churches in Macedonia have already given to this offering and given generously.  Paul just wants the Corinthians to know that.

He understood these Corinthians.  He was the founding pastor of their church.  He knew they were stingy givers.  He knew they would plead hardship.  They were going to tell Paul what a hard year they’ve had.  That’s why he begins by telling them about the Macedonians.  “They have been severely tested by the troubles they went through; but their joy was so great that they were extremely generous in their giving, even though they are very poor.”  So much for the hardship excuse!  The Macedonians are worse off than you and still they gave twice as much as I asked them to give.

Paul continues:  “I can assure you that they gave as much as they could, and even more than they could.  They begged us and pleaded for the privilege of having a part in helping God’s people in Jerusalem.  It was more than we could have hoped for!  But first they gave themselves to the Lord.”

I will admit, that’s a little heavy-handed.  That probably offended a few people.  They didn’t appreciate their poor giving record being compared to those who had so much less and gave so much more.  To those who actually begged Paul for the privilege of giving.  I’m sure the Corinthians didn’t appreciate that comparison.  But there is no indication in scripture that Paul cared.  He laid it on thick.  Way thicker than I ever would!  He said, “I’m not interested in your excuses.  I’m not interested in your words.  I’m interested in your deeds.  I’m interested in your actions.  I’m challenging you to make a sacrifice and take a risk and give as much as you are able.”

That’s chapter 8.  Then we come to chapter 9.  The first verse in chapter 9 is funny.  I don’t think he meant it to be funny, but it is funny.  After turning up the heat and ratcheting up the pressure for an entire chapter, he begins chapter 9 by saying:  “There is really no need for me to write you about the help being sent to God’s people in Jerusalem.”  Huh??  Then he actually says, “Now, I want you to do this, not as if you have to, but because you want to.  I don’t want you to think there is any coercion here.”  You know those little words on top of the page in your Bible?  The words that summarize what that page is about.  Above the page on which is printed II Corinthians chapter 8 there could be a single word.  “Coercion.”  That’s all it’s about!

That’s not the way you’re supposed to raise funds.  It breaks every rule.  You know the way you’re supposed to raise funds.  You draw up a budget first.  You make it as reasonable as you can.  Then you ask the people, “Will you please make a contribution to the budget so we can pay our bills and keep our doors open?”  And you always ask politely, because the last thing you want to do in any stewardship campaign is to offend someone.  You soft sell it.  That’s the way the churches I’ve been around raise funds.

But that’s not at all what Paul is doing.  No budget.  No green eye shades.  No concern about politeness.  No fear of offending.  Basically he’s telling the Corinthians something like this:  “I’ve already told the other churches that you are my most generous church.  You really aren’t, but that’s what I’ve told them.  So don’t embarrass me.  And don’t humiliate yourselves.  No pressure. This is a free-will offering.  You don’t have to give.  Now if the ushers will lock the doors we will pass the collection plates.”

That’s not the way to do it.  That’s certainly not the way our Consecration Sunday team member manual tells us to do it.  That’s not the best way to raise funds.  But then it occurred to me, Paul is not raising funds.  Paul is raising Christians.  Paul is recruiting Christians.  And he’s doing it the same way Jesus did it.  His message to the Corinthians is pretty much the same message Jesus gave to those seriously religious people.  “If you really want to follow me, here are the requirements:  There will be little talking.  There will be much doing.  There will be no excuses.  There will be no timidity.  Everyone will sacrifice.  Everyone will risk.   Everyone will do what they can do.”

So I went back to Second Corinthians.  I read it again.  And I saw it differently.  The key sentence is back at the beginning of chapter 8.  “I assure you that they gave as much as they could, and even more than they could.  They begged us and pleaded for the privilege of having a part in helping God’s people in Jerusalem.  It was more than we could have hoped for.”  All this is very impressive, but this is not the key.  The key to the whole passage is found in the next verse:  “But first they gave themselves to the Lord.”

Because you see Paul is not a fund-raiser.  Paul is a recruiter.  Paul knows there is a war going on.  You won’t understand anything Paul says unless you understand that.  There is a war going on between the forces of good and the forces of evil and Paul is recruiting soldiers who aren’t afraid to fight.

The church has a mission to accomplish in the world.  We’re not a social club.  We’re an army.  We have a mission.  Failure is not an option.  That’s what Paul believed.  He believed it with all his heart.  The world is in desperate need of what the church has to offer.  And so when he writes the Corinthians, he isn’t after money.  He’s after disciples.  The money part will take care of itself.  Money doesn’t come first.  Giving themselves to the Lord — that’s what comes first.

He tells the Corinthians:  “I am not asking you to make a contribution to a charitable organization.  I am asking you to roll up your sleeves and get to work and carry out the mission that Christ has given all of us to carry out in the world.”

That’s the way Paul put it.  And here’s the way Jesus put it:  “What do you think?  A man had two sons.  One talked, the other worked.  Which one of the two did the will of the father?”


Dear God, thank you for loving us so much and believing in us so much that you have called us to be part of your church.  And thank you that the work you call us to in this church is so important.  Thank you that we can be part of your mission.  Each one of us with a key role to play.  And together that we can truly change the world.  So help us to move beyond talking about our faith.  Help us to do something about our faith.  Help us to live our faith, in courageous, risky, loving ways.  In Jesus’ name,  Amen.