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“Less is More” or “Less is a Bore?”

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Nov 24

Introduction

 My late mentor Peter Gomes had a particular knack for discussing the theme of stewardship.  He knew that questions about money and virtue, money and religion, about faith and wealth were sometimes irksome for preachers and congregations alike.  You tell me but I think he nailed it when he wrote that anyone who ever endured a [stewardship sermon] knows the “clammy feeling” that comes at the prospect of having to face these money questions. He went on to explain that “Our inhibitions stem in part form the fear that we will somehow be manipulated into doing something we would rather not do or cannot afford to do or that we will be made somehow to feel guilty because we are unable or unwilling to respond at the level that we are asked!”[1] Now that we’ve named that elephant, let’s turn to our scripture.  Its Stewardship season and collection time in chapter 9 and at the First Church of Corinth to whom Paul has written a second letter..

 Reading -- 2 Corinthians 9: 6-15

9:6 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 9:7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 9:8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9:9 As it is written, “God scatters abroad, God gives to the poor God;’s righteousness endures forever."

 9:10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.9:11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us;9:12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.

 9:13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others,9:14 while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that God has given you.9:15 Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift! 

 Sermon

 I learned a new word this week.  Pleonexia. It’s a rare english word that means greed or avarice. And it happens to come from a greek word, phonetically spelled and pronounced the same way, for extortion.  Apparently, Paul’s challenge that day was even greater than usual for a few verses before what we learn that some in the community had accused him, however falsely, of extortion.  Right off the bat, Paul sees and speaks into their concerns and to those inevitable fears about faith and money about which Gomes wrote.  He says they (and so we) shouldn’t give reluctantly or out of compulsion, whether from shame or guilt. Clammy feelings or not,  I hope that much is clear to all of us! The fact is Paul isn’t extorting anyone here.  Instead, he is exhorting them!  He is encouraging them to find a way to give and to give bountifully and with freedom and joy in their hearts. For Paul, its all about the spirit in which we give.  He knows if they and we can get that much right, then the bounty and unsparing reaping and sowing will flow!

 Paul bases his request for bountiful giving not only the fact that the church needs funds to support its counter-cultural, anti-imperial community and ministry of healing love.  That’s a given, but that’s not all it’s about. So, he turns to a deeper premise that God’s abundant blessings make us all, first and foremost, great receivers, and when we first learn to receive “generously”, then we can’t help but give generously!  All of us have already received “enough of everything” he says, so we will always have plenty to share. You see, for Paul, there is no such thing as self-sufficiency, of having enough money or stuff because of our works or efforts! That’s a recipe for a vicious cycle of striving for more. When it’s on us, the goal line of what it means to have enough or even to given enough just keeps moving.  No, its only by God’s grace - the sufficiency of grace - that we will ever even know what it means to have enough, and to be enough!  In Paul’s word: And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.

 All this mention of abundance reminds me of an art exhibit Nancy and I saw recently. In early September, we were able to enjoy a day at the Institute of Contemporary Art in South Boston where we happened into an exhibit called “Less Is a Bore: Maximalist Art & Design.”  Have you ever heard of Maximalism? We hadn’t.  Turns out it evolved in reaction to the architectural minimalism, and to the kind of sleek and bare design we still see today in high end furniture stores.  “Less is a bore” is one architect’s witty retort to the minimalist edict “less is more.” The exhibit featured artists from the Pattern & Decoration movement of the 70s.  Check this out, from the sign outside the galleries:  “Encouraged by the pluralism permeating many cultural spheres at the time, these artists accommodated new ideas, modes, and materials, challenging entrenched categories that marginalized non-Western art, fashion, interior design, and applied art.”  Walking through, we encountered ruacus mashups of texture, color or style, and loud, sometimes cacophonous collages of unmatching patterns on a singular canvas or textile.  Maximalists prefer, in the words of Robert Venturi who pioneered the approach, elements that are “hybrid rather than pure”, “compromising rather than clean.” He said “I am for messy vitality over obvious unity.” I confess, I loved it, especially a piece by Kehinde Wiley who painted the wildly colorful official portrait of Obama with the green, flowered background.  The works on display were bold, glaring, often whimsical, ebullient, multiculturally textured and radically inclusive!

 I walked away feeling energized and with new perspective on the some of the challenges we face here.  Let’s face it.  We have some maximalist tendencies here, do we not?  I think there’s a strain of it in our DNA which makes sense given from whence we come,  the way we sometimes embrace yet often resist and wrestle with our Puritanical forebears. More deeply, just consider the maximalist tendencies of God’s love in which we find our true source.  Maximalists eschew limits! There are no limits on God’s love which is why we, who I believe genuinely try to channel God’s love through our ministries, struggle to set limits on what we try to do!  We love say to ‘yes,’ here, ‘yes’ to different ideas, ‘yes’ to different people! Think of our worship in the past few weeks - Samoan hymns and preaching one Sunday, bell choir and Afro-Brazilian hip-hop dance the next, the amazing Peter Sykes and our wonderful choir,  then Issa and Nola singing powerfully moving gospel last week.  Sure, we are still learning how to integrate new elements in way that our authentic to us but based on the positive reviews I heard, these were new opportunities for joy and movement and embodying God’s radically inclusive spirit and welcome!  Outside of worship, walk down the hall right now and see children wondering aloud about spiritual questions!  Or go to a GBIO action with the Senate President and see 40 of us strong, some times double that number, demanding resources for mental health care! Or come into this place almost any day or night and you will find life in this house, a wild, messy and radically inclusive abundance of vitality.  As a church community, we have repeatedly trusted God’s grace, that there is enough for ourselves and plenty to share. We’ve trusted in our ability to provide for our ministry so that we have been able to share abundantly in every good work - be it here through our worship and music, through our amazing care for the spiritual lives of our children, through our homeless ministries, through our transformative Road to Freedom pilgrimages, our interfaith outreach and more. 

 Kate offered a beautiful image earlier this week of how we hold all this together.  She said that she when she talks to people about the good work of the Friday Cafe, she describes the church as the bowl and Cafe as the water that is poured in, week after week! Without the bowl, there would be no cafe!  The same could be said of all of our other ministries, and that’s to say nothing of the incredible container that this building provides for good works of music, art, learning and recovery that overflow this space every day of the week. 

 I imagine this bowl as made of clear glass, an overflowing font of blessing!  Together, as a church body, I believe we know that by God’s grace, we already have enough of everything, and so together,  we are able to share abundantly the really good, really important, life and community shaping work. That’s the good news!  We should celebrate this, and even celebrate our bold faith and trust in God’s provision that has allowed to grow our ministries and our impact for the common good.  But, friends, our precious bowl is being chipped away.  That’s the bad news.  The fact is we are and have been over-spending our budget and over-relying on our endowment to the tune of at least $100,000 year, and for decades, no less!   Yes, you heard that right. Each year another large chunk breaks off the rim.  Come to our meeting after church to learn more about this pattern.  The only way to restore the bowl and to allow the gifts of our ministries to keep on giving is for us all give as much as we can, to pledge as much as we can, to be sure to include First Church in your will and to let us know that you have. To use an oft-heard stewardship joke, the good news is that we do already have more than we need! The bad news is that it’s in your pockets!

 A few week ago, I was sitting with a friend who was trying to talk me out of some momentary anxiety I was feeling about not having enough or being enough.  He looked at me and said earnestly, “Dan, listen to me. You already have more than you need!” And instantly I knew he was right!  And I knew I didn’t want to forget it so I wrote it into our seasonal invitation to confession so I would hear it every week and so you could hear it too.  You heard a version of it this morning from Katherine and last week when Edward read it.  The line was this:  “Forgive us when we forget that we already have more than we need.”  Last Sunday, sitting next to Issa, one of the most gracious and generous spirits I know, I heard him whisper an amen to that line, and it clicked for me all over again!  When I heard Issa’s amen last week, I also remembered that the most generous people I know are the ones whose lives are most grounded in recognition of and gratitude for the gifts and blessings that God has already bestowed on them.  The most generous people I know are the most generous about how they receive God’s love and grace, and also the most inclined to split the sandwich, to take the coat of their back, to put an extra zero on the end of a check and to worry about where its coming from later, because they already know they have enough now! These people are maximalist about their receiving, so there is no limit to their giving thanks, and seemingly no limit to their generosity.  They will joyfully and bountifully give what they can.

Friends, we are an exceedingly generous church! We give with great faith. We minister abundantly, at some level, collectively at least, I believe we understand that by God’s grace we already have enough and so we can share that with others in love and service.  Yes, because of our generous gifts from the past, we can fool ourselves into thinking we will always have enough to cover our deficits, which is not true. What we may not realize is that every time we pass a deficit budget we are taking away security from the people who come after us, namely our children.  We can say the same of overspending on carbon.  It’s just not sustainable.  Which is not to say we should stop being maximalist in our ministries! It’s just that if we want to continue to be maximalist in our ministry, then we we need to be maximalist first in our receiving as individuals and maximalist in our giving as well!

 I wonder...can each of us feel in our hearts, right here, right now, that we already have more than we need? And from that place of recognition can we joyfully and bountifully give of ourselves to restore that precious and beautiful bowl of our shared ministry?  Can we choose, perhaps, to give a little less to other organizations that have huge databases of tens of thousands of people and focus more of our giving here, where we are it, all 200 or so givers and counting?

 In this last year of our three year Way Forward Stewardship campaign, and in this the last year of our capital campaign giving, we are at a special place.  Our theme for this year is Sustaining our Future. A bold leap in your annual giving, now that the capital campaign is behind us, could make a huge difference for our present and future ministry.   Believe it or not, if roughly half of us could find another $10 a week for First Church on top of your usual increase, we could cut our deficit in half!  If some of us could give even more, we could bury the deficit today! Imagine how good that would feel. Imagine the sense of being held by one another, of having together created a sustainable faith community, living out God’s ministries in our wider world and being generous with all that God has given us in ways that serve communities far beyond our own.

 First Church, I believe in our generosity, our generous receiving and our generous giving. I believe the church community we are building together is the kind we want and need to belong to! I have faith that we can open our hearts to understand how the vast majority of us already have more than we need. And from that spiritual awareness, we too can joyfully give more to sustain this place in our generation, and to preserve it for future  generations who we know will need the solace, strength, healing and guidance it provides.  Soon and very soon, and by God’s abundance grace, I believe we can and we will yet make that precious bowl of our shared ministry whole! Amen.

 

[1] Quote from The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, by Peter J. Gomes.

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