Sermon 05/28/2017: Remembering the Poor

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Sermon by Pastor Dayna Olson-Getty on II Corinthians 8:1-12 and 9:6-9; Romans 15:25-29.

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I’m going to begin this morning by asking you to join me in a somewhat dystopian thought experiment. And before I begin – let me assure you that this is not prophecy – just an experiment in imagination – and that I won’t ask you to stay in this imaginative world very long.

OK, ready? Imagine for a minute this version of our future life in Harrisonburg. Imagine that our community has suffered some sort of terrible calamity that has brought our economy into a steep decline. Businesses have closed, non-profits have gone under, universities are shuttered. People who have always had more than enough are struggling to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. In this imaginary version of the future, many of us in this congregation have lost our jobs and aren’t able to find new ones. The necessities of life have become scarce and expensive.

I imagine that if we found ourselves in this version of the future, we would help each other. No doubt we would distribute the money that our congregation has already set aside in our Compassion Fund for unexpected needs that arise among us. I imagine that many of us would use our household savings to provide for our families and to care for each other. If the crisis continued, some of us would likely try to sell some property to provide for others. Some of us might invite another family to share our home until the crisis had passed, or host a nightly neighborhood potluck so that we could ensure that everyone had something to eat, or set up a clothing swap in our fellowship hall.

We have a lot of resources among us, and I imagine that, if we shared our resources, we could support each other for quite a while. But eventually, we’d deplete all those resources – and then what? Unless help came from outside of the impoverished region, we would eventually become destitute.

This is not unlike the situation faced by the church in Jerusalem in AD 57.

Several years before, when Paul had traveled to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of the community of believers in that city, there was already a significant financial need. Paul was in Jerusalem to try to work out a deep conflict that had arisen between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus. Some Jewish followers of Jesus were insisting that the Gentiles needed to follow the ritual purity laws of Judaism in order to be a part of the community, while Paul and his ministry partners insisted that that was not necessary. After a heated debate, the two sides came to a compromise. The leaders of the Jerusalem community gave Paul their blessing to continue proclaiming the good news of Jesus among the Gentiles without requiring Gentile believers to follow Jewish ritual purity regulations. The one thing they did require of Paul was that he “remember the poor.”

And Paul took that assignment to heart. For the next five years, throughout his missionary journeys, Paul raised money wherever he went, asking the newly converted believers in the Greek and Roman cities where he ministered to contribute to the gift he was assembling to bring to the poor among the believers in Jerusalem.

In the early days of the Jerusalem congregation, wealthy members sold their property to provide for their brothers and sisters. Luke describes this community in the book of Acts as one where “there was not a needy person among them.” But as the years went on, those resources were depleted.

Because of the Roman occupation, the residents of Jerusalem faced persistent food shortages and extremely high taxes. Many Jews retired in Jerusalem, which led to an increasing number of elderly people who needed financial support. And then, in the 40s, Palestine suffered a severe famine.

By the time that Paul was gathering money for this fund, poverty within the Jerusalem community had become deep and entrenched. The poor among the believers in Jerusalem were destitute.

But even with that level of need, it’s striking that Paul invested such a tremendous amount of time and energy, and took such great risks, to raise and deliver these funds. Anti-Jewish prejudice was strong in the ancient world and the history between these communities – of Jews who were deeply offended by what they saw as the Gentile church’s carelessly violating traditional ethics, and of Gentile believers convinced that the Jerusalem church was being oppressive and domineering in their demands – this history meant that there was deep mutual distrust. And it’s likely that most of the members of the Gentile churches themselves lived only a notch or two above subsistence on the economic ladder.

There were also significant cultural barriers related to giving. In Greek culture, when wealthy people gave to those in need, they expected to receive prestige and honor in return. Becoming a benefactor was a way to gain power and status within one’s community – those who were recipients became clients of the benefactor, with long-term obligations of service and allegiance to the patron. In this patron-client paradigm, giving to strangers who lived hundreds of miles away made no sense at all because the recipients could not return any benefit to the givers.

And Paul’s own challenges and barriers to this work of fund-raising were not insignificant. Even while he was collecting this money, Paul was in conflict with Peter, one of the leaders of the Jerusalem church, because he had reneged on the agreement between the Jewish and Gentile communities. And the travel involved, including the travel to Jerusalem, meant risking arrest or even death for Paul, whose association with Gentiles made him a target.

And there was a significant risk that, after all the hard work of raising these funds, the Jerusalem community might refuse to accept them. To publically accept a gift from Gentiles would risk deepening the rift between the community of Jewish Jesus-followers and the broader Jewish community of Jerusalem, marginalizing these vulnerable people even further.

So why on earth did Paul devote 5 years of his life to raising this money? And why did he risk his life delivering it?

Paul’s arguments to the community of believers at Corinth give us some clues.

The point of this gift, he tells them, is not how much or how little they have to give. Instead, this fund-raising campaign is intended to create what Paul calls “fair balance” – or equality of resources – between those who currently have more than enough and those in need, anticipating that in future circumstances, those who give might themselves become recipients.

Paul is envisioning a global network of faith communities in which economic resources flow across the boundaries of culture, ethnicity, theological conviction and nationality to provide for those in need from the resources of those who have more than enough. Paul wants to forge lasting bonds of solidarity, binding together these distant and mutually distrustful branches of the Jesus-community in mutual interdependence. Paul wants the Gentile believers and the Judean believers to become kin, the kind of kin who send money when someone is in need and who aren’t too proud or fearful to accept it.

Paul’s method of fund-raising is intentionally distinct from the Greek systems of patron-client relationships. Even the poorest members of the Corinthian church are asked to participate. The money will then be pooled, making one larger gift from the Corinthian congregation, and that will be pooled with the gifts from the other Gentile congregations, until it’s no longer possible to identify the gifts of individual givers who might require something of the recipients in return.

This gift, rather than creating security and status for the giver, asks the givers to make themselves vulnerable, putting whatever financial security they have in the hands of brothers and sisters half a world away. The Macedonians, who gave out of their poverty, Paul tells them, are the exemplars of this kind of giving – this is not a mutually beneficial contract or a global mutual insurance pool, but a wildly vulnerable act of faith that is undergirded by trust in God’s abundant provision through the community of God’s people.

So does this story of Paul’s risky cross-cultural, globe-spanning fund-raising have to do with us?

First, it seems abundantly clear that Paul considers both giving and asking for money as highly valuable ministry activities, integral to the lived witness of God’s new community. For those of us who give and those of who raise money on behalf of others, this is a word of blessing and affirmation. The work you do in raising money to care for those in need, to fund the work of the church, and to create communities that give witness to the possibility of God’s beloved community is holy work, just as much as preaching, or praying, or leading Sunday morning worship.

Second, this story points out the importance of relationships across differences of theology, culture and nationality in the community of God’s people. Paul is asking these Gentile believers to take a risk in giving to people who they have never met, and will likely never meet. But it’s not a blind risk. Paul has visited this community multiple times. For all their differences, he knows the Jerusalem community well enough to feel confident that this money is really needed and that it will be used well. And when he delivers the gift, he takes along a representative of each of the congregations who gave, creating an opportunity for direct relationships between these communities.

Third, this story helps us to see that, when we are gathering funds for the work of the church, the method and the message are inseparable. Not unlike the ancient Greeks and Romans, we live in a culture that rewards giving with power and prestige, and often expects some form of subservience from the recipient. We only have to look at the entangled history of western mission and colonialism to see what deep harm is done when we bring this paradigm into our relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ. Like Paul, we need to find ways to shape our giving practices so that we foster mutual vulnerability and interdependence, rather than hierarchy and domination.

Finally, and most of all, this story challenges us to see ourselves as responsible for the economic needs of fellow believers across differences of culture, nationality, economics, and theological conviction. We are called to giving and receiving as kinfolk who are invested in each other’s well-being for the long-term and who risk putting our trust in God’s provision through the extended community of God’s people.

Perhaps one way to measure how we are doing in living out these commitments is to return for a minute to our dystopian imaginings of life in Harrisonburg during a severe economic crisis. What would it be like to be on the receiving end of cross-cultural or transnational relationships with communities of faith who we have funded in our years of prosperity? Have we created relationships of such mutuality and trust that we wouldn’t mind swapping places and becoming the recipient in the relationship in our time of need? Would we be comfortable receiving in the same way and under the same conditions that we have asked others to receive?

Like the community in Corinth, God is calling us to forge bond of kinship across great distances and differences with our brothers and sisters, using our excess, no matter how small, to participate in God’s economy of abundant provision for all.


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