We’ve never had it better … and we’ve never felt worse about it. Or, to borrow and redact a phrase: “It is the best of times; it is the worst of times.” That’s the surprising state of affairs in our society today, as we discover that cash cannot create contentment and possessions don’t always provide us with a sense of joy.
What our parents and grandparents always said is proven true again and again: Money can’t buy happiness. Still, most of us expect that improvements in quality of life are going to make us feel better—if I just had this … if I just had that… if I could just take this one trip….
In his book The Progress Paradox, Gregg Easterbrook makes a main point by saying, “Life is getting better all the time: Our houses are bigger, our incomes are growing, our health is improving, and more and more conveniences are being created at affordable price points.”
I think most of us would think he’s right, so the question becomes, why aren’t all these improvements making us jump for joy? Why are we more stressed out than ever, and still not as happy as we should be. Easterbrook makes the case that “bad news sells,” the whole “if it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead” theory. It’s always a disaster that draws us to television news reports, and bad news is what keeps us glued to the tube through commercial breaks. There are other factors too.
We don’t sleep enough. Americans sleep an hour less every night than they did a generation ago, and three hours less per night than people did a century ago. With such sleep deprivation, no wonder we feel terrible!
We are full of envy. From celebrities and pro-athletes, to neighbors with new cars and co-workers with promotions, we are constantly bombarded with the feeling that others have it better than us, all of which creates envy— even if our lifestyle is quite comfortable.
Then there is, as Easterbrook hypothesizes, “the unsettled character of progress” where we develop miraculous cures for diseases, and then worry that we will not be able to afford them. We create a nationwide network of cell phones, and then live in terror that some distracted driver is going to run us down in his SUV. We create a mosquito spray that will kill the Zika virus, but it also kills off massive swarms of bees which are crucial for life on earth.
The unsettled character of progress often leaves us feeling very anxious about the future. And it’s for these reasons that we have a “progress paradox.” We’re feeling bad while living well. We are feeling trapped even though our phones have untethered and freed us. We feel oppressed by financial constraints even though we are richer than ever. And if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s also a spiritual component to this paradox, one that’s addressed quite clearly by Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians.
Writing to Christians in the wealthy Greek city of Corinth, Paul reminds them of their promise to give a “bountiful gift” for the poor Christians in Jerusalem. Although he describes this as a completely voluntary gift, it is clear that he expects the Corinthians to be generous in their support, and he promises many rewards for their giving.
So great! We have the “progress paradox” that says enough is never enough, even though more than enough will never be enough. And now the Apostle Paul is laying out for us another paradox— what we might call “The Stewardship Paradox” that says whether you have enough or not, give enough and you’ll have enough.
Paradox—when something is one thing and contradictorily something else. And that is where we are today—we the church have our culture and the Apostle Paul speaking to us on this the final day of our annual Stewardship Campaign, and both are telling us what to do whether we have enough, not enough, or more than enough. And it’s a paradox.
In our text, Paul is ramping up what is clearly the very first church stewardship campaign, saying, “God loves a cheerful giver.” For Paul, true happiness is found in not in what you receive, rather, in what you give. It is as if Paul is saying…
Do you want to be enriched in every way? Then let’s see some “great generosity.”
Are you interested in glorifying God? Then show your brothers and sisters “the generosity of your sharing.”
Are you looking for God to provide you “with every blessing in abundance”? Then don’t hold tight to a miserly attitude — instead, “share abundantly in every good work.”
This is the Stewardship Paradox, and in any true paradox, you are faced with a statement that seems to be inherently contradictory, but turns out to be true. Paul is saying that personal enrichment comes from great generosity, and that blessings in abundance come from sharing abundantly. His point is that you receive the most when you give the most.
So how does this work? Well Paul explains using an agricultural image—something the Bible is full of because agriculture was life in this time, just as it is today, but back then there was even more connection to the earth because in antiquity they didn’t have 24-Hour grocery stores.
Paul says, “The point is this, the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” Whether you are growing mangos or mission projects, watermelons or worship planning, Paul is absolutely right— you cannot expect significant results without making a significant investment. There will be no great harvest of pumpkins in the fields, or people in the pews, unless forward-thinking men and women are willing to sow bountifully by making significant investments of time and talent and treasure.
It is all a paradox because Paul wants progress but believes progress comes, not by having enough, but by giving enough.
As we move forward with our 2017 stewardship campaign, the words of Paul ring as true for us as they did for the people of Corinth—a church that sought to be the best, and most faithful church for Christ that it could be.
We, First Christian Church of Stow, have been successful at managing and making a reality major renovations projects here—from the sanctuary to the parking lot.
We, First Christian Church of Stow, have been successful at having a broader community presence through our weekly worship, outreach endeavors, Boy Scouts, Stow Recreation Basketball, Vacation Bible School (that saw record attendance this year), an Ice Cream Social, Pancake Breakfast, Rummage Sale, Pumpkin Patch, and Trunk of Treat that literally brought hundreds and hundreds of community folks to our church.
And we, First Christian Church of Stow, are so close to fulfilling a 2016 stewardship leap of faith and fund the new Chalice Grant—a ten thousand dollar gift that some organization will hopefully get from us as a game-changing blessing from God. It is all progress because of faithful stewardship that had, not an inward focus, but an outward focus.
But there’s an unanswered question in the middle of this Stewardship Paradox: How does giving generously actually lead to contentment? The connection between sowing and reaping makes good logical sense, but the link between giving and happiness is a bit harder to establish. There are no clearly defined metrics as to how good stewardship can make us happier in our rich but rotten-feeling world today, but there can be a spiritual metric that can give indication.
Patrick Johnson found such an indicator when he wrote a check for an air-conditioner. Johnson, who is an investment banker, discovered that his greatest joy is not found in managing fixed-income portfolios. Instead, his joy comes from giving, and it’s a joy that borders on hilarity.
It needs noted… When Paul writes that “God loves a cheerful giver” what he says in the original Greek is that God loves a giver who is hilaros— the root of our English word “hilarious.” What God loves is a hilarious giver, a person who gives with spontaneous joy and laughter.
As Johnson was writing a check to help purchase a central air-conditioning unit for a local homeless shelter, he started praying about the immense joy that God was feeling as he gave to this worthy cause. He thought about the joy that would be felt by the homeless men as they slept in an air-conditioned room in the sweltering Mississippi heat. He thought about the joy these men would feel when they gave their hearts to Jesus and felt God’s love, maybe for the very first time. And what welled up in Patrick Johnson, as he prayed, was laughter. He was actually so overwhelmed with joy that he laughed. It was spontaneous laughter, born out of the joy that was being experienced due to his generous giving to God, to those in need, and to the ministry of that shelter.
This is the paradox—doing the opposite of what our culture says is the way to live. Our culture says we should spend our money—not give it away. But how’s that working out for us? The paradox is giving it away—and laughing about it as we do.
So, when was the last time that you actually laughed as you sat down to write your check to the church? Maybe you’re not giving at the level that will tip you over into hilarity. Or maybe you’re not focusing enough on the joy that God is feeling, and the joy of those we are blessed by our ministries as a result of your generosity.
Hilarious giving—that’s the solution to the “progress paradox” that we are living with every day.
Hilarious giving—that’s the antidote to the unhappiness we are bound to feel as we spend our days in the middle of our self-obsessed secular society.
In fact, author Gregg Easterbrook believes we would all be better off if we were more grateful, more forgiving, and more spiritual, and he challenges us to move beyond our materialistic obsessions to reclaim “a hopeful view of the human prospect by giving with joy and laughter.”
Through our giving we will discover that God is truly able to provide us with every blessing in abundance.
Through sharing our resources we will find that we will be enriched in every way and that we will always have enough.
Through making sacrifices for others, we will come to know that money cannot buy happiness, but generosity can.
And chances are, through our faithful stewardship, we may even break out in laughter.
So may we, in a paradoxical world that makes us feel rotten, know that hilarious stewardship is the key to contentment, happiness, faithfulness, and joy. And may we seek to give accordingly. Amen.